Maurice Harmon on “Ancient lights” by Austin Clarke, in Irish University Review: in Irish University Review: A Journal of Irish Studies [Special Irish Poetry Issue, guest ed. Peter Denman] (Sept. 2009).

[ Source: The Free Library - online; accessed 07.07.2011.]

The publication of Ancient Lights: Poems and Satires, First Series (1955), marked the beginning of a remarkable new period in the poetic career of Austin Clarke. Some people may have seen it corning in the poems he published in The Irish Times: “Mother and Child”, June 1954; “An Early Start”, August 1954, followed by two Poems in Irish Writing, “Fashion” and “The envy of poor lovers”, Autumn 1955. But it is unlikely that anyone could have anticipated the poetic surge that ensued: Too Great a Vine: Poems and Satires, Second Series (1957); The Horse-Eaters: Poems and Satires, Third Series (1960), all clearly connected as work in progress, with the same kind of material and the same subject matter dryly critical observations on Irish society, including defiant comments on the Catholic church - and all structured in the same way - a central, autobiographical poem surrounded by short poems, some satirical in manner. All three collections were characterized by a vigorous intelligence, exceptional linguistic energy, and a style packed with specific detail. That the poet was touching sixty in 1955 may not have been generally known, although many people would have associated him with the Irish Literary Revival and would have seen him as an enthusiastic imitator of its aims and methods: these included the use of Irish myth and legend, and writing in a style that was mystical and musical.

Apart from verse drama there had been little sign of poetic energy at Bridge House, Templeogue, since the distinctive, individualistic poetry of Night and Morning (1938), a collection which was original in subject matter and resolutely dramatic in its depiction of a self torn between opposing attractions: the desperate need for intellectual independence of clerical controls and the equally strong emotional need to remain part of the communion of the faithful. It was as though Clarke wanted to be a heretic within the church. It was an impossible position to maintain for any length of time, but in that compact collection Clarke defined and gave expression to something whose origins, as the poems show, lay deep in the history of the Catholic Church, in intellectual dissent, the Council of Trent, and the rebellion of Martin Luther. In Clarke’s generation the need for intellectual inquiry was still capable of causing anguish to the sensitive individual who had been brought up strictly within the Catholic ethos; it was particularly agonizing for one raised in the Jansenistic Catholicism that prevailed in Ireland in Clarke’s childhood and growing years.

That context of pain and punishment makes the declarative force of “Ancient Lights” all the more understandable. Even today when the battle for independent thinking has been won and the Church has played down its once massive assumption of authority and jurisdiction over the individual, “Ancient Lights” has its abiding power. Not only does it belong to a tradition of control and rebellion but its language and imagery, its portrait of an individual balanced between entrapment and liberation, provide a valuable imaginative account of an experience almost unimaginable in the twenty-first century. We do not suffer these restrictions and are no longer subjected to the indignity and humiliation that we see expressed in Clarke’s poem. Nor do we experience its tumultuous sense of escape from spiritual bondage. Part of its achievement at the time was that Clarke was able to stand aside, to bear witness to a state of affairs that was generally accepted. The poem objectified and helped to clear the air of obfuscation, timidity, and uncertainty.

The 1950s were dispiriting. Not only did the Catholic Church wield excessive control and not only did it expect and receive unquestioning submission, but the State acquiesced in wrong done to the individual in orphanages and reform schools, in harsh corporal punishment in some schools, in the unsympathetic treatment of unmarried mothers, and in the dismissal of Dr Noel Browne, whose plan to provide free medical services for mothers and children was opposed by the Catholic hierarchy. It was a depressed time economically: emigration was at a high level, unemployment on the increase, and the GNP almost stagnant. The introduction of the First Economic Programme in 1958 helped to open doors to international investors and gradually the economic situation improved. But, when Clarke wrote these poems and satires, the situation had not changed very much. His was a courageous voice at a time of general silence. His declaration of personal liberation in “Ancient Lights” was confirmed in his satirical engagement over many years with social injustice and illiberal laws. Alluding to the legal argument that one’s right to light cannot be taken away as, for example, when someone builds or wants to build a structure that would overshadow a neighbour, the rifle affirms that freedom.

The poem itself is a dynamic organization of movements, images, and ideas, a gathering and a countering of time past and time present, of restriction and freedom, darkness and light , dependence and independence, in a structure that compresses these interconnecting emotions into the first four stanzas, then releases them into a personal declaration in which the images of the past are transformed, darkness dispelled, and fear driven away in allegorical lessons. The poem works through a succession of moments of insight and self-illumination. Its visions connect and contrast with one another. It is persuasively presented through the confident, autobiographical voice that controls and channels a vigorous flow of opposing ideas and feelings towards a high point of celebration and transformation. The self that defines itself in the first four stanzas recreates itself in the last four, where it strikes out on an elevated note of self-release, in a no-nonsense adoption of the high ground of mental and emotional freedom. In this declaration Clarke anticipates the movement towards release from clerical domination that Irish people experienced in the 1960s and 1970s, when the struggle with authority was less intense, the mental and emotional strain much easier.

The opening lines describe Dublin streets where Clarke went as a child ‘to see what tuan has made’; and when he later describes moments of revelation, he locates them in Rutland Square, Mountjoy Street, and the Black Church, actual places near his childhood home. That geographical emphasis characterizes virtually all of the work written between 1955 and his death in 1974. “Ancient Lights” defines new horizons in the poetry and is directed at the kind of subject matter Clarke will now engage with and the kind of realistic language he will use. Running counter in subject and language to the Yeatsian preference for heroic elevation and historical celebration, Joyce introduced a down-to-earth acceptance of the city he knew. The choice continues in Austin Clarke’s later poetry. Where once he had been inspired by the master poet, he now follows the prose master.

Within the first stanza Clarke begins to create oppositions between the next world and this world, the secular intent of the child halted by the seizure of nightmare. An enthusiastic hurrying through familiar streets is replaced by irrational distortion. One of the central oppositions in the poem is between darkness and light, the frightening consequences of accounts of hellfire and damnation, ‘darkness / was roomed with fears’. The consequences are nightmarish and surreal, a precipitate descent from innocence into oblivion. His quest is undermined by ‘woes / I had been taught’.

Those fears follow into the next stanza in the reluctant progress of the child who is compelled to go to confession. His anxiety is mirrored in alterations in perception. Images that ought to be reassuring are distorted into intimations of pain, his fears elongated by candle flames in stained glass. The association of fear with darkness in the opening stanza is made more frighteningly real in the dark enclosure of the confession box. In the next stanza, authority in the confessor, the presumed source of comfort, is for the penitent the cause of fear and confusion because of the priest’s insistent, bewildering questioning.

The experience makes the child more frightened and heightens his sense of restriction, of being ‘Closeted’; he is forced to consider sexual experience beyond his years, ‘I put on flesh’, and lies to save his skin. Ironically, confession does not bring absolution but further fear; he ‘shuddered past the crucifix’, and once again in imaginative joining the language of redemption is turned into a scary, distorted perception of the crucifix: ‘The feet so hammered, daubed-on blood-drip, / Black with lip-scrimmage of the dammed.’ In this intense linguistic feat, the Redeemer becomes associated with pain and violence, the devout become ‘the damned’.

So far the poem in its linking of images and contrasting incidents encapsulates a childhood of fear and victimization. The stanza advances in one fluid movement:

Closeted in the confessional,
I put on flesh, so many years
Were added to my own, attempted
In vain to keep Dominican
As much i’ the dark as I was, mixing
Whispered replies with his low words;
Then shuddered past the crucifix,
The feet so hammered, daubed-on blood-drip,
Black with lip-scrimmage of the damned.

Taking up where the previous stanza left off, stanza four begins a counter-movement: at the very moment when he left the church in a state of dislocation, he experiences a release which comes not through the sacrament of confession and not within the church building but from a ‘lesson’ in the natural world, from the allegory of a caged bird being attacked by sparrows. Now the poet is not bowed down, now he looks up; the moral is ‘inescapable’, a creature too long confined is torn to bits when it enters the real world. The musical term, ‘pizzicato’, is a ringing accompaniment to the lesson, the plucking part of the liberation.

Bird associations are present again in stanza five where the language continues to render the idea of freedom and the ‘Goodness of air’. Right there, Clarke insists, right there at Rutland Square something amazing happened: in that ordinary place, on that day ‘A bronze bird fabled out of trees’. The language evokes the knight in armour ‘mailing ... railings ... nails ... hailed’; the assonance that Clarke had employed in Pilgrimage, 1929, is now brought into play. The bronze bird, called a hawk in the manuscript, has a sparrow in its claws. In a confrontation between the individual, the little man and the conquering bird, Clarke challenges the bird which reacts by dropping the sparrow, ‘Appetite gone’. ‘A child of clay / Had blustered it away.’ The pity he felt for the sparrow saved its life. The lesson reinforces itself. As a child he hurried forth to see what man has made, braving the streets, learning independence. Those adventurous steps were thwarted by clerical barriers, but now he has discovered, in an epiphany for which he is fully ready, that the ordinary individual can fight back, can declare himself, can triumph over might and power.

In further expressions of independence, the poet engages in a more resolute intellectual manner with ideas of free will and freedom. Given proof of what the individual can achieve, who is going to regulate him? What religious orders can change him since he is his own master now? The syntax becomes more fragmented, the thinking process more disrupted. Clarke knows the history of the struggle for intellectual freedom and had registered its power in Night and Morning but now associates it dismissively with ‘stinking’, part of the confinement he wants to escape. For a moment he registers the choices in a simplistic reduction. His first thought is to be like St Augustine, whose name he bears, to obey the doctrines of the Church and oppose the ideas and example of Martin Luther, ‘ex-monk’. His second thought, as he holds these in opposition, is to ‘abandon’ closeting and confessional, to get defiantly away from all the associations the poem has projected in images of darkness and the confessional, now adumbrated in the dismissive and belittling phrase ‘night’s jakes’. He will do this in the name and cause of poetry. Recently, in the Second World War, it has, he says, experienced ‘Self-persecution’. But, he declares, ‘Poetry burns at a different stake’, in the tire of the imagination, not the tire that burns the heretic or the conflagration that engulfed continental Europe.

Now quickening, ‘Still, still’, as the poem turns into its final allegorical scenes Clarke recalls that moment when he discovered an inner strength and realized he did not have to conform or acquiesce. Again identifying the exact location, he remembers a natural baptism, an awe-inspiring natural absolution from sins and closeting:

Still, still I remember awful downpour
Cabbing Mountjoy Street, spun loveliness
Veiling almost the Protestant church,
Two backyards from my very home,
I dared to shelter at locked door.
There, walled by heresy, my fears
Were solved. I had absolved myself:
Feast-day effulgence, as though I gained
For life a plenary indulgence.

He sought shelter from the ‘awful downpour’ and its ‘spun loveliness’ (in the manuscript) in the doorway of the Black Church, formerly a place of fear and associated with those who rebelled against the Church of Rome. The moment of recognition is firmly remembered. There beside the Protestant Church, his ‘fears / Were solved’, by himself. The language evokes sunlight, sacrifice and religious ceremonies adapted to the secular: The sun came out, new smoke flew up, The gutters of the Black Church rang With services. Waste water mocked The ballcocks: down-pipes sparrowing, And all around the spires of Dublin Such swallowing in the air, such cowling To keep high offices pure: I heard From shore to shore, the iron gratings Take half our heavens with a roar.

Now in tumbling plenitude[,] water and light flood into the poem. It is a feast-day ‘effulgence’ as though he has gained an absolute, life-long, unqualified indulgence, a joyous self-confidence and independence. In this secular baptism the services are man-made, the sparrowing is joyful, and absolving water pours for him, sluicing away fears and self-doubt. In the past, Clarke says, he knew extremes. Now, he has recovered and deals with the real world as strict recorder, amused observer, or acerbic critic.

At the same time the tone of the poem is light and ironical and the language playful. It is a looking back, ‘When all of us wore smaller shoes’, a reconstruction of past conditions, creating a narrative of entrapment and release as remembered by the adult self. It begins with the portrait of the panicked child forced to go to confession, then trying to bamboozle the priest. The account is both comic and serious; sensitive to the child’s state which it sees from the perspective of a mind no longer In bondage. The child’s distorted perceptions are seen for what they are, distortions. The portrait of child and man has this dual, mock-serious quality. Word play and spinning have comic consequences.

The entire poem is written from the vantage point of one who has reclaimed the right to light. It is a comic morality tale whose visions inflate and deflate at the same time. When Clarke imagined the first in knightly terms, he ensured that the internal rhyme both mimics and mocks. The contest between little man and bronze bird recalls medieval romance but takes places in a local street. Similarly the evaluation of ecclesiastical disputation becomes humorous in its connecting rhymes: ‘Stinking’ linked to ‘think, man, as Augustine / Did, dread the ink-bespattered ex-monk’. Rhymes reduce old conflict to smelly waste. The highly selective use of St Augustine and Martin Luther has its comic side. Amid the withering reduction, poetry is inviolate , the one thing Clarke will hold onto with confidence. The vision of the natural baptism balances between beauty and terror, the fears associated with Protestant dissent are dismissed but his sense of triumph is mocked. In the entire last stanza the verbs mimic and mock what they describe, ‘carne out’, ‘flew up’, ‘rang’, ‘mocked’; the participles hurry the meaning along, ‘sparrowing’, ‘swallowing’, ‘cowling’, and lead to the melodramatic rush of water down the shores and again the rhyme, ‘shore to shore’ and ‘roar,’ undercuts the apparent solemnity of the celebration. Clarke is not prone to hyperbole; while these high-flown words celebrate, they also subvert. In the measured oppositions between the serious and the comic he demonstrates the advantages and consequences of the recovery he describes. The anxieties that had afflicted him in Night and Morning are abandoned and he delights in being his own man. Delight itself is a sign of independence.


“Ancient Lights” is included in Austin Clarke’s Collected Poems (Dublin: Dolmen Press, 1974) and Collected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet , 2008), and in the following anthologies: The Oxford Book of Irish Verse, edited by Donagh MacDonagh and Lennox Robinson (Clarendon: Oxford University Press, 1958); The Faber Book of Irish Verse, edited by John Montague (London: Faber and Faber , 1974); Irish Poetry After Yeats: Seven Poets, edited by Maurice Harmon (Dublin: Wolfhound, 1979); The New Oxford Book of Irish Verse, edited by Thomas Kinsella (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986); Irish Poetry of Faith and Doubt: The Cold Heaven, edited by John F. Deane (Dublin: Wolfhound, 1990); The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, Vol. III, edited by Seamus Deane et al. (Derry: Field Day Publications, 1991).

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