Recently I was browsing through my precious, dog-eared and scribbled-on copy of Soundings and came across the three Austin Clarke poems featured in that anthology. ‘The Lost Heifer’, ‘The Blackbird of Derrycairn’, and ‘The Planter’s Daughter’ brought back fond memories of English classes long ago! The Clarke poems selected in Augustine Martin’s infamous Interim (!) Anthology don’t give a comprehensive view of his range as a poet but they do display his enthusiasm for Gaelic poetry. The three poems selected by Martin are, however, good examples of the way many Irish poets transposed some of the stylistic devices associated with this type of poetry into English verse. It is also interesting to note that ‘The Blackbird of Derrycairn’ has as its main theme the conflict between pagan and Christian values, here represented by an imagined conversation between St. Patrick and the ‘pagan’ blackbird. This theme occupied Clarke for much of his poetic career.
‘The Lost Heifer’
In my experience as a frazzled English teacher ‘The Lost Heifer’ always provoked puzzled reactions from my students. The title of the poem, taken in conjunction with Clarke’s well-known fondness for Gaelic poetry, gives a clue as to what it may be about. The cow or heifer in Gaelic poetry, especially in the Jacobite era, was often used as a secret code name for Ireland, as, for example, in such poems as ‘An Droimeann Donn Dílis’. However, even when we are aware of this background knowledge, useful as it is, it does not get us very far into the heart of the poem. Clarke himself has told us that the poem had its origins in the Irish Civil War of the 1920’s. It was written at a time when, as Clarke saw it, the noble ideals and aspirations of the patriots of the War of Independence were lost or obscured in the intense bitterness and disillusionment of the war of brothers. The heifer of the poem stood for a vision of Ireland, obscured for the moment by mist and rain, which stood for those grim forces already referred to: forces which made it difficult for those who shared the patriotic vision to find it in those grim times.
In defence of my often bemused Leaving Cert students in the 80’s and 90’s, it would be very difficult to arrive at this interpretation without the help of the poet himself! There are certainly no obvious clues, however cryptic or obscure, to anything like a civil war background, or, indeed, to any other political backdrop whatever. Without the poet’s explanation no student of mine, lacking the information given above, could conceivably sub-title the poem, ‘Meditations in Time of Civil War’.
Part of the reason the poem defies logical explanation is that it is a symbolic representation and therefore impossible to render in logical terms. Most attempts to convey the ‘meaning’ of such a poem are doomed to failure. Indeed, no prose analysis could do justice to the impressionistic landscape evoked by Clarke in the poem, or to his tremendous rhythms or delicately suggested sound effects. The notion that the heifer stands for some obscured ideal of Ireland is certainly borne out in the imagery through which the heifer is suggested, rather than presented or realised. There is no direct glimpse of the heifer. He builds up a picture using colour, light and shade and this contributes to the mood. She is brought to mind; she evokes an image of loss and beauty; her presence is inferred by her tracks in the dark grasses, and by her soft voice coming across the meadow. These delightfully delicate symbolic evocations of Ireland and of misty Irish landscapes certainly owe something to the poetry of Yeats:
I went out to the hazel wood
Because a fire was in my head
And cut and pulled a hazel wand…
It had become a glimmering girl
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air….
As in all symbolist or quasi-symbolist poems, the imagery is mysteriously echoic, capable of more than one interpretation. A good example of this is, the implied metaphor in lines 5 and 6, ‘I thought of the last honey by the water / That no hive can find’. At the symbolic level, one assumes that here we have an image of the heifer (and thus the idealised Ireland) as something remote and inaccessible. But what is the precise meaning of the words? The last honey by the water may be wild honey near a stream or river that will never be found by man, or it may be nectar that no hive of bees can reach.
The poem is a fine illustration of Clarke’s ability to manipulate vowels and consonants to provide wholly pleasing sound-effects. Here he is indebted to features of the Gaelic poetic tradition. He strives here to copy the Gaelic poets’ use of internal rhyme, consonance and assonance with great dexterity:
When the black herds of the rain were grazing….
And the watery hazes of the hazel….
That no hive can find…..
Brightness was drenching through the branches….
Indeed, the poem has a very elaborate and ingenious sound pattern. The poet uses rhyme, line-length and sound correspondence in the shaping of this lyric. (You can explore this further by following the ‘ay’ sound through the poem). And by comparing the first and last lines of the poem I feel that there is a progression, a sense of completeness, and a sense of hope for the future, as the ‘black herds’ in line one, lost and obscured by the mountain mist, become clearer as the mist becomes rain.
‘The Blackbird of Derrycairn’
‘The Blackbird of Derrycairn’ is somewhat easier to comprehend than ‘The Lost Heifer’. Clarke based this poem on another famous poem in the Irish language called ‘Lonn Doire an Chairn’, a standard anthology piece taken from the Irish in a sequence known as the ‘Colloquy of the Old Men’. Anyone familiar with Clarke’s source will realize that his poem is not a direct translation, but a very free adaptation. In the Irish poem, Oisin is the speaker, and his main theme is the joyful, carefree life of the Fianna, symbolised by the glorious singing of the blackbird, this life being contrasted with the devout austerities of St. Patrick, who is encouraged to forgo his asceticism for the beauties of the natural life. Clarke’s poem sets the Christian and pagan ways of life in sharp contrast. His speaker is the blackbird, who tries to persuade Patrick to abandon the rigours of his religious practice and participate in the joys of nature. The argument or dialogue, however, is very one-sided and Patrick’s values are given short shrift. Religion is represented by ‘God’s shadow in the cup’, the ‘mournful matins’, and the handbell ‘without a glad sound’. Against this, we have the lively evocation of happy nature: the bright sun, the singing of the birds, Fionn’s keen response to the sights and sounds of the natural world.
The most interesting thing about the poem is the twist Clarke provides us with at the end which is not in the original. The Irish source has no hint of the blackbird’s threat to Patrick and all he represents. The ‘knowledge’ that is found among the branches is presumably, the kind available to those who give themselves up to the spontaneous enjoyment of, and involvement in, nature. At the end, the blackbird is suggesting that this knowledge will ultimately overcome the Christianity which now threatens to overthrow it, and will send Christians and their faith packing for good. The line ‘will thong the leather of your satchels’ seems to mean ‘will cause you to pack your bags and go’.
Here in this poem Clarke again makes use of the main stylistic devices of Gaelic poetry: alliteration, internal rhyme, assonance and consonance: note for instance in the opening stanza the poet uses,
(a) cross-rhyme – ‘bough-top’ / ‘cup now’;
(b) assonance – ‘brighter’ / ‘nightfall’, and the more unexpected internal echoes like, ‘whistling’ / ‘listen’;
(c) alliteration – ‘Mournful matins’ and so on.
You have my permission to explore the other stanzas yourself!
The last two stanzas juxtapose the free and easy life of Fionn and the Fianna and the restrictive and unattractive austerity of the Christian monks in their prayer cells. The final two lines see a return to the beginning. The blackbird has the last word and this suggests that the blackbird’s view holds sway and very soon the monks and their asceticism and prayers will be sent packing. In the light of recent returns from our Central Statistics Office maybe we can say that the poet is being prophetic here!
‘The Planter’s Daughter’
The most interesting feature of ‘The Planter’s Daughter’, a very slight poem, is the indirectness of Clarke’s method of presentation of his subject. She is not named and her family is referred to in a somewhat derogatory manner – they are Planters. The planter’s daughter, like the lost heifer, is suggested rather than described. Again, Clarke shows his command of delicate sound effects, particularly internal rhyme and half-rhyme:
They say that her beauty
Was music in mouth
And few in the candlelight
Thought her too proud….
It is a simple lyric and her beauty is registered indirectly, culminating in the three powerful metaphors in the final lines:
As a bell that is rung
Or a wonder told shyly
And O she was the Sunday
In every week,
The society depicted in the poem is one reminiscent of images of Ireland in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The Big House belongs to the planter, a landowner brought in by the British and settled on the good land which had already been confiscated. We have all read in our history books about these Plantations – the most famous or infamous being the Plantation of Ulster. The planter has so much land he can afford to plant trees around his house for decoration, unlike the peasants who farm the barren hillsides. Clarke himself commented: ‘In barren Donegal, trees around a farmstead still denote an owner of planter stock’.
The planter’s daughter evokes differing responses in those who see her passing on her horse on in her carriage. The men admire her elegance and her beauty and the women are jealous and gossip among themselves. This clever, subtle juxtaposition is very well observed by the poet: the men ‘drank deep and were silent’, suggesting a toxic mix of resentment, envy and awe, while ‘The women were speaking / Wherever she went’.
His indirect treatment of the planter’s daughter creates a mystique around her. The locals don’t really know her so they fantasise and use their imaginations to fill in the blanks of her life. She is placed on a pedestal by them and they admire and envy her in equal proportions. The poet manages to balance this admiration for the planter’s daughter with a sense of a latent resentment among the local population.
So, rummage around in the old familiar places, your bookshelves or even the attic for your own copy of Soundings and take a trip down memory lane…….