Austin Clarke – Three Poems Revisited

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My beloved copy of Soundings

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.

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‘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.

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‘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!

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‘For the house of the Planter / Is known by the trees’

 ‘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…….

About the Poet….

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Austin Clarke (1896 – 1974)
Austin Clarke was born in 1896 in Dublin and educated at Belvedere College and University College Dublin.  He succeeded Thomas McDonagh, who had been executed for his part in the 1916 Rising, as a lecturer in the English Department there in 1917 and continued to work in this position until 1921.  He spent the next 12 years in England working as a critic and book reviewer, until his final return to Ireland in the nineteen thirties.  Clarke was one of the leading Irish poets of the generation after W. B. Yeats.  he also wrote novels, plays and memoirs.  His main contribution to Irish poetry was the rigour with which he used technical means borrowed from classical Irish language poetry when writing in English.
Effectively, this meant writing English verse based not so much on metre as on complex patterns of assonance, consonance, and half rhyme. Describing his technique to Robert Frost, Clarke said: “I load myself down with chains and try to wriggle free.”  His later verse is inclined to be increasingly satirical.  He is regarded by many as one of Ireland’s greatest poet since Yeats.
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Analysis of Seamus Heaney’s poem ‘The Blackbird of Glanmore’.

The Blackbird of Glanmore

 by Seamus Heaney

On the grass when I arrive,
Filling the stillness with life,
But ready to scare off
At the very first wrong move.
In the ivy when I leave.

 It’s you, blackbird, I love.

I park, pause, take heed.
Breathe. Just breathe and sit
And lines I once translated
Come back: “I want away
To the house of death, to my father

Under the low clay roof.”

And I think of one gone to him,
A little stillness dancer –
Haunter-son, lost brother –
Cavorting through the yard,
So glad to see me home,

My homesick first term over.

And think of a neighbour’s words
Long after the accident:
“Yon bird on the shed roof,
Up on the ridge for weeks –
I said nothing at the time

But I never liked yon bird.”

The automatic lock
Clunks shut, the blackbird’s panic
Is shortlived, for a second
I’ve a bird’s eye view of myself,
A shadow on raked gravel

In front of my house of life.

Hedge-hop, I am absolute
For you, your ready talkback,
Your each stand-offish comeback,
Your picky, nervy goldbeak –
On the grass when I arrive,

In the ivy when I leave.

This beautiful, haunting poem is the last poem in Heaney’s celebrated collection District and Circle – and for a very good reason.  The final words of the poem are ‘when I leave’ and thoughts of death and leaving are scattered throughout the poem.  This may be a poem, therefore, where Heaney confronts his own mortality and we also know that he was very ill during the writing of the poems in this collection.  He tells us elsewhere that in order to understand the North he had to leave it  and after his move South, to gain a greater perspective of his home place, Glanmore became his haven, his ‘house of life’; it became, in effect,  a place of inspiration to rival Mossbawn and Anahorish of his youth.  The poem opens as he returns home to Glanmore in his car and as he pulls up on the driveway he sees a blackbird and he recalls lines he has translated,

 I want away

                              To the house of death, to my father,

Under the low clay roof.

He also recalls another earlier poem Mid Term Break which tells of his young brother who died tragically in a road accident.   It is as if the blackbird, presiding spirit in the background, has brought him full circle, to the last word, ‘when I leave’.

Heaney uses an ingenious structure in this poem, alternating between five-line and one-line stanzas. The single lines create a feeling of a set of refrains (repetition), although they are all different. The repeated structures also create a sense of return, so that the poem keeps coming back to the passing moment in which it is set.  The first and last lines of the first stanza, “On the grass when I arrive” and “In the ivy when I leave” are also the first line and last line of the poem itself.   This clever circular composition emphasises the completeness of the moment. It also suggests the cycle of life – and of course there is also an allusion to the title of the collection District and Circle, a reference to the London Underground.   The tight, united form is echoed by the use of half-rhyme throughout the poem, which is particularly noticeable in the second last stanza: “talkback”, “comeback”,  “goldbeak”.

This is a poem about the act of witnessing.   The poet reminds us that our lives are as much about observation as action and in this poem Heaney explores the act of ‘coming home’ through the ironic presence of a blackbird, a creature sometimes associated with being a harbinger of death.

As mentioned earlier, this poem is also an echo and a remembrance of Heaney’s wonderfully poignant earlier poem Mid Term Break which specifically examined the death of the poet’s younger brother Christopher.   This meeting of texts and meeting here  with the blackbird who we are told, had ironically witnessed the earlier death, reveal how we are all mixed up in each other’s exits and entrances into life and death and we always try to make sense of our world less we slip down into the despairing melancholy of utter absence.

Heaney’s evocation of his brother’s absence through death, and yet continued presence through memory,  is a perfectly compressed elegy to tenderness and love:  A little stillness dancer’.  He is always about, haunting the edge of the poet’s consciousness, at the edge of his thoughts and observations, watching him perhaps too, perfectly preserved through time.

There are places in the poem where the sound of the words suggests an influence from Old English poetry, which used alliteration and combined nouns: “Haunter-son” and “Hedge-hop” illustrate this.   “Hedge-hop” is a perfect description of a blackbird, and its two-syllable alliteration mimics the bird’s movement.  In places Heaney uses the sound of words to create specific effects: the car lock “clunks shut”; here assonance of the ‘uh’ sound emphasises the onomatopoeia of  “clunks”.

The paradoxical (seemingly contradictory) image of the “little stillness dancer” is thought provoking, and captures the idea that the blackbird, even though it stays where it is, is filled with energy and the potential for movement.  Coining metaphors like this is one way in which Heaney creates a fresh look at nature.

The imagery of the translated lines about the “house of death” also repeat the idea of a journey between life and death, confirmed in the narrator’s memory “one gone to him [God]”. The “house of death” is then mirrored and reversed by the phrase “my house of life” towards the end of the poem. Whether it’s a metaphorical or real house, this image undoes the narrator’s sadness, and is a reminder of his good fortune at living a long life.   It seems to me that there are echoes here of Emily Dickinson’s poem,  ‘Because I could not stop for Death’

                        We paused before a House that seemed

                        A Swelling of the Ground-

                        The Roof was scarcely visible-

                        The Cornice-in the Ground-

However, despite these associations with death, the poem favours the energy and life of the blackbird. There is the bird’s “ready talkback”, which suggests cheekiness, and although there is “panic” at the sound of the car lock, it is “shortlived”.

The poem seems to be a mixture of sadness and hope or pleasure in the bird, the memories and the moment.  Blackbirds are often used in Irish poetry as mystical, mythical messengers (cf. Austin Clarke’s great poem, The Blackbird of Derrycairn) and this is picked up by the introduction of the superstitious neighbour, but it is not supported by the pleasure of seeing the blackbird in the rest of the poem. In direct address to the bird at the end of the poem, the narrator tells him he is “absolute/for you”, linking back to the love described in the second stanza.  Like the blackbird, the poem is full of suppressed movement, so that although it is only a moment in time and place, it contains much more, allowing Heaney to reflect on the passing of life, and the circularity of life.

The poem contains numerous snapshot moments of the poet’s personal experiences – some remembered moments are up to  fifty years old. He refers to the reported words of a neighbour who once used ‘Yon bird’ to refer to the death (ghost) of this brother. It becomes clearer from this point that the use of the word ‘bird’ suddenly becomes redolent of death. He uses ‘a bird’s eye view of myself’ to say that he reflected on himself and  on his own impending death, ‘A shadow on raked gravel’, with ‘shadow’ being a metaphor for his death or ghost.

So already at the end of District and Circle in the final poem of that collection, The Blackbird of Glanmore, we have the poet doing what poets do best, confronting one of the great elephants in the room, his own mortality.  Like Dickinson, whom we referred to earlier, the poet seems to have had an intimation of sorts, it’s as if this day in Glanmore is the day,

                        I first surmised the Horses Heads

                        Were toward Eternity-

We are also somewhat disconcerted by the realisation that grieving and bereavement is a life-long process and his young brother Christopher’s memory is always but a wingbeat away.  Like the earlier ‘Sunlight’ poems depicting his aunt’s kitchen in Mossbawn this beautiful poem is deceptive at first but like all of Heaney’s work deserving of a second look!