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This article is taken from Poetry Nation 3 Number 3, 1974.Austin Clarke and Padraic Fallon
Two JUSTLY admired poems of our time are by the same hand and have virtually the same title. They are Edwin Muir's 'Horses' of 1925, and 'The Horses' of 1956. The poems are significantly different: Muir was a late starter, and 'Horses' is in many ways a touchingly incompetent poem, helplessly dependent at one point on Yeats ('Perhaps some childish hour has come again') and at another on Keats ('Ah, now it fades! it fades! and I must pine'); whereas 'The Horses' is thoroughly achieved, a sustained and frightening vision provoked by the possibility of an atomic holocaust and the impossibility of imagining its aftermath:
. . . That old bad world that swallowed its children quick
At one great gulp. We would not have it again.
Sometimes we think of the nations lying asleep,
Curled blindly in impenetrable sorrow,
And then the thought confounds us with its strangeness.
The tractors lie about our fields; at evening
They look like dank sea-monsters couched and waiting.
We leave them where they are and let them rust:
'They'll moulder away and be like other loam.'
We make our oxen drag our rusty ploughs,
Long laid aside. We have gone back
Far past our fathers' land.
And then, that evening
Late in the summer the strange horses came.
We heard a distant tapping on the road,
A deepening drumming; it stopped, went on again
And at the corner changed to hollow thunder.
We saw the heads
Like a wild wave charging and were afraid.
We had sold our horses in our fathers' time
To buy new tractors. Now they were strange to us
As fabulous steeds set on an ancient shield
Or illustrations in a book of knights.
We did not dare go near them. Yet they waited,
Stubborn and shy, as if they had been sent
By an old command to find our whereabouts
And that long-lost archaic companionship . . .
Different as this is from the technical gaucheries that Muir had perpetrated thirty years before, at another level altogether one is struck by how alike they are, this late poem by Muir and that earlier one. For plainly in the lines above Muir is not imagining (what is indeed unimaginable), the actual consequences of an atomic war. He is not looking into the future, any more than in the poem of 1925 he was looking into the past of his Orkney Island childhood when he said of the horses there:
Their eyes as brilliant and as wide as night
Gleamed with a cruel apocalyptic light.
Their manes the leaping ire of the wind
Lifted with rage invisible and blind.
Past, present and future are categories that do not apply when we consider what takes place in either of these poems; as in nearly every poem that Muir wrote, the action takes place in a visionary or fabulous time that clocks and calendars do not measure.
In other words Muir is a mythopoeic poet. And I recall him so as to present the bleakest possible contrast with Austin Clarke, who is further from mythopoeia than any poet one might think of. For Clarke too has his poem about horses, 'Forget Me Not' (1961), and Muir's line about 'that long-lost archaic companionship' is glossed in Clarke's poem:
Good company, up and down
The ages, gone: the trick of knife left, horse cut
To serve man. All the gentling, custom of mind
And instinct, close affection, done with. The unemployed
Must go. Dead or ghosted by froths, we ship them
Abroad. Foal, filly, farm pony, bred for slaughter:
What are they now but hundredweights of meat?
But Clarke's poem is as insistently in historical time as Muir's is out of it. For it is provoked by the revelation in the years just before the poem was written that the Irish were indeed raising their horses so as to slaughter them or have them slaughtered, and export them either on the hoof or as carcasses to feed the poor of the Continent. 1 And it is as usual for Clarke's poems to be thus occasional and highly topical as it is for Muir's poems to be nothing of the kind.
The contrast is even more striking and instructive if we look for the lines in 'Forget Me Not' which correspond to Muir's
As fabulous steeds set on an ancient field
Or illustrations in a book of knights.
In order to make the same point about the horse in the Age of Chivalry Clarke treats us to a capsulated history of Western Europe:
Yet all the world
Was hackneyed once - those horses o' the sun,
Apollo's car, centaurs in Thessaly.
Too many staves have splintered the toy
That captured Troy. The Hippocrene is stale.
Dark ages; Latin rotted, came up from night-soil,
New rush of words; thought mounted them. Trappings
Of palfrey, sword-kiss of chivalry, high song
Of grammar. Men pick the ribs of Rosinante
In restaurants now. Horse-shoe weighs in with saddle
Horseman, the pass-word, courage shared
With lace, steel, buff.
Haunches together. Cities move by in motor
Cars, charging the will. I hear in the lateness of Empires,
A neighing, man's cry in engines. No peace, yet,
Poor draggers of artillery.
The comparison could be extended; for instance Muir's 'Horses' corresponds to a passage in his Autobiography (1954), and in the same way passage after passage in 'Forget Me Not' can be matched in Clarke's autobiography, Twice Round the Black Church (1962). But it is better to pause here and to face the awkward fact that, given kinds of poetry as different as Muir's and Clarke's, no one's taste is, or can be expected to be, so catholic and unprejudiced as to respond to both kinds with equal ardour. We may respect both kinds; but we cannot be expected to love them both equally. And it is worth considering what might be said of Clarke's poem by some one who responds very immediately and fervently to Muir's.
In the first place such a reader might very justly point out, as regards what we have looked at so far, that in one case a single line by Muir is matched by seven lines from Clarke, in the other case two lines of Muir correspond to sixteen in Clarke. Muir then is the more economical writer; he says as much in altogether smaller compass, and this is what we expect of poetry as compared with prose. So we might conclude that Clarke is a more 'prosy' writer than Muir, and this damaging imputation will be strengthened if our imagined reader goes on to say, as he well might, that Muir's writing on this showing is more musical than Clarke's, that 'The Horses' has a melody which he can hear, whereas 'Forget Me Not' hasn't. (And to this objection, the only practical answer is to urge the reader to listen to Clarke reading on gramophone record. 2) Then, our reader might point out that he need bring to Muir's poem no more than imagination, sympathy and seriousness, whereas to Clarke's poem he has to bring a modicum of learning - he has to know and remember for instance that Rosinante was the mount of Don Quixote. Finally, a related point - noting in the second passage particularly the high frequency of puns ('hackneyed' and 'staves' and 'stale' are all puns; so are 'weighs in' and even 'saddle'; and so is 'Hippocrene' if we remember that 'hippos' in Greek means 'horse'), our reader may confess that he doubts whether Clarke is serious, whether his overt theme is more than a pretext for him to play word-games and juggle with allusions. It takes courage to raise this last objection nowadays, when we have all been bullied into tolerating the allusiveness of a poem like Eliot's Waste Land, and have been dazzled and bemused by William Empson's demonstration of the puns and near-puns in Shakespeare s sonnets. But it ought to be agreed that, though punning and allusiveness can appear in poetry of the utmost seriousness, there is other poetry in which such features do indeed indicate a fundamental frivolity in the poet. And so there is a case to answer: Clarke's punning must be shown to be however modestly of the Shakespearean sort, not of the sort of 'The Groves of Blarney'.
Counter-attack is the best form of defence, and so an admirer of Clarke may say that Muir's poems, much as he admires its grave music, suffers from the lack of just that verbal energy and continual play of quick intelligence which throws up puns and allusions in 'Forget Me Not'. (He may also remark - though it's beside the point of the present argument - that there is a presumably unintended and unfortunate allusion in Muir's poem: to Wordsworth's 'Resolution and Independence', in the lines where the abandoned tractors are compared, surely implausibly, with 'dank sea-monsters'.) Once one has acquired a taste for the way language is used in 'Too many staves have splintered the toy/That captured Troy', the language of Edwin Muir is bound to seem, however worthy and responsible, undeniably tame. And as for economy of expression, Clarke's word 'staves' means first the staves of the barrel-body of the wooden horse by which Troy was taken; but also as a variant of 'staff', all the sticks that have thwacked horses' hides through the centuries when the horse was man s servant; and finally 'stave' in its technical sense in music delivers the sense, 'Too many songs since Homer's have devoted themselves to the matter of the Trojan war; the theme has been done to death (splintered)'. If this isn't to say much in a little space, it's hard to know what is!
There is in any case a sense in which a mythopoeic poem will always be shorter than a poem which, so far from rising into visionary timelessness, trusts the categories of past, present and future, and ranges to and fro among them. For in order that a myth may be made which will shape and encompass the multitudinous variety of historical experience, that experience must be stripped of what is local and contingent; it is the rendering of the contingencies - of place as well as time - which in a non-mythopoeic poem takes up the space that the mythopoeic poem can do without. And Austin Clarke is an extreme case of the poet who trusts the local and contingent through thick and thin, who refuses to rise above the congested heterogeneity of the world as we experience it through our senses, enmeshed in particular circumstances, of this time in this place. What makes him an extreme case is that he lived his days in a place, the Irish Republic, which has been and is in many ways anomalous, where social and political life has taken on forms hardly to be found in other English-speaking societies of the twentieth century. W. B. Yeats, surviving into this socio-political situation, exerted himself - like the mythopoeic poet he was - to show that underneath the peculiarities of Irish life there could be found the lineaments of myths which encompassed and made sense of the life of the Irishman as of the rest of mankind. That is not Clarke's way; on the contrary he immerses himself in the life of modem Ireland in all the eccentric particularity of that life. And the upshot is that issues which bulk larger in Ireland than in other English-speaking countries - for instance, the breeding of horses for slaughter, or again the non-availability of contraceptive devices inside the Republic - bulk disconcertingly large in Clarke's poems also. This means that for the non-Irish reader, on top of the difficulties that come of Clarke's being unashamedly a poeta doctus, a proudly learned poet, there arises another set of difficulties altogether - the need to know in considerable detail the history of modern Ireland, especially the history of public opinion inside the Republic, as well as the history of Ireland through previous centuries. This makes Clarke sound like a very provincial, even a parochial poet. And in one sense he is so, quite consciously and defiantly. It means in any case that the non-Irish reader, and for that matter many Irish readers also, have to work much harder to get what Clarke has to offer them, than to get at Edwin Muir. And so Clarke will always be caviare to the general, as Muir isn't.
To put it another way, there are good hard-headed reasons for the modern Irish poet to take the mythopoeic path which Clarke set his face against. Moreover that had been by and large (not altogether) the path taken by W. B. Yeats; and the world-wide fame which Yeats achieved, it might seem, must have impelled the Irish poets after him to tread in his mythopoeic footsteps. In fact, however, very few of the first-rate talents have struck out in this direction, though one who did - Padraic Fallon - will engage our attention later in this essay. The reason is not hard to find. When a poet so great as Yeats is born to a country as small as Ireland, this is a wonderful windfall for everyone in that country except the poets. For them it is a disaster. For, if the young Edwin Muir could not prevent his own voice from being at times drowned out by the organ-voice sounding from across the Irish Sea, how much more difficult it must have been for a poet like the young Clarke, moving about the very city where the master-poet was housed, where the ringing and imperious voice sounded in his ears, as it were, every hour of the day. Even today, for Irish poets as for poets as far away as the Antipodes, Yeats must figure as the great ventriloquist; if they relax their concentration for a second, or become any more familiar than they must with the highly distinctive Yeatsian idiom and cadence, they find themselves transformed into puppets sitting on the great ventriloquist's knee, using not their own voice but his. This at any rate I take to be the right context in which to consider Clarke's mostly feline and mischievous comments on Yeats. Dublin gossip will have it that, at the time when Yeats could decide on which younger brow to place the laurel of his approval, he conspicuously favoured F. R. Higgins above Clarke; and that Clarke has never forgiven him. This may well be the case. For that matter there were plenty of other reasons for mutual antipathy between Clarke, urban, petty bourgeois, and Roman Catholic; and Yeats, shabby-genteel, Protestant, admirer of rural peasantry and landowners. But a degree of antipathy to Yeats would have been inevitable for any ambitious and serious Irish poet of Austin Clarke's generation; only by making himself deaf to Yeats's voice could any such poet save himself poetically and forge a style true to the integrity of his own different temperament and concerns.
This necessity for the young Clarke to keep his distance from Yeats must be borne in mind when we see him in the 1920s choosing to exploit just those centuries of Irish history which Yeats had least cultivated - the centuries of Celtic Romanesque, after the heroic age and before the Elizabethan plantations. The great symbol and metropolis of that Ireland is the Rock of Cashel, the hill in Tipperary still crowded with the ruins of Romanesque churches; and if Yeats at times invokes the Rock, Clarke has a better right to do so. He earned that right by many poems in the two collections, Pilgrimage (1929) and Night and Morning (1938). In Pilgrimage occurs 'The Scholar, which is a free paraphrase of an anonymous Gaelic poem, 'An Mac Leighinn':
Summer delights the scholar
With knowledge and reason.
Who is happy in hedgerow
Or meadow as he is?
Paying no dues to the parish,
He argues in logic
And has no care of cattle
But a satchel and stick.
The showery airs grow softer,
He profits from his ploughland
For the share of the schoolmen
Is a pen in hand.
When mid-day hides the reaping,
He sleeps by a river
Or comes to the stone plain
Where the saints live.
But in winter by the big fires,
The ignorant hear his fiddle,
And he battles on the chessboard,
As the land lords bid him.
I cite this in the first place as a clear and winning example of the poems that Clarke could draw from what he has called 'our forgotten mediaeval Ireland when we almost had a religion of our own'. But it serves also to isolate the extraordinary technical innovation, or body of innovations, by which Clarke has made available to other poets writing in English a whole kit or cabinet of erstwhile undiscovered musical resources. For the assonantal pattern of 'The Scholar' approximates very closely to a structural principle informing the Gaelic original. In the first quatrain, the second syllable of 'knowledge' chimes with the first syllable of 'hedgerow', which word chimes with both syllables of 'meadow'; in the second quatrain, there is a chiming link between the first syllables of 'parish', 'cattle', and 'satchel'; in the third quatrain, 'softer' chimes with 'profits' as well as 'schoolmen' with 'pen'; in the fourth, 'reaping' with 'sleeps', and 'plain' with 'saints'; while in the last stanza the word 'ignorant' is at the centre of a web of chimes and echoes which link its first syllable with 'winter' and 'bid', its second with 'lords', and its last with 'battles' and 'land'. And on top of this Clarke end-rhymes, consistently though never straightforwardly. Of these matters he has written:
Assonance, more elaborate in Gaelic than in Spanish poetry, takes the clapper from the bell of rhyme. In simple patterns, the tonic word at the end of the line is supported by a vowel-rhyme in the middle of the next line. . .
The natural lack of double rhymes in English leads to an avoidance of words of more than one syllable at the end of the lyric line, except in blank alternation with rhyme. A movement constant in Continental languages is absent. But by cross-rhymes or vowel-rhyming, separately, one or more of the syllables of longer words, on or off accent, the difficulty may be turned: lovely and neglected words are advanced to the tonic place and divide their echoes.
It is not fanciful, hearing the interlacement of sounds in the poem, to think it an equivalent for the ear of what strikes the eye when we look at the interlaced curves and angles on the geometrically carved shaft of a Celtic cross or at illuminated letters in the Book of Kells. But, faced with the solid symmetries of 'The Scholar', we cannot fall into the error denounced by Hugh MacDiarmid, speaking of the Gaelic music of the pibroch: 'the idea that the Celt has no architectonic power, that his art is confined to niggling involutions and intricacies' 3 Yet 'niggling', I fear, is what some English readers may be saying under their breath; for the characteristically English liking for the insouciant and slapdash amateur, in the arts as in other fields, is affronted by the scrupulous professionalism of Clarke, alike in the poem and in his note just quoted. But this is typical, if not of Ireland (for the Irish produce their own brand of sometimes engaging amateurish harum-scarums), at least of the Gaelic Ireland which produced the bardic schools. And Clarke is unashamedly poeta doctus no less in the fashioning of his poems as artefacts than in the learnedness of his allusions and references. 'Irish poets, learn your trade.' Thus Yeats; and Clarke has obeyed the injunction, having schooled himself indeed in a harder school than Yeats dreamed of.
It would be quite wrong to see Clarke's need to distance himself from Yeats as the sole or even the main reason why he was drawn to the Celtic Romanesque. In the words of Augustine Martin, 'The most obvious reason is that implied in his tendency towards separatism: a deeply religious man, he found himself repelled by the Victorian and Jansenistic version of Catholicism in which he was reared.' Clarke's need for an alternative Roman Catholicism, and his search for it in mediaeval Ireland, were implicit in the wistfulness with which he spoke of 'our forgotten mediaeval Ireland when we almost had a religion of our own' (my italics). And yet one may suspect that Clarke would have been mutinous and irreverent inside any church at all. For the poet who is opposed to mythopoeia is obviously going to have a difficult relationship with the Christian myth along with all the rest. And to say so is not to impugn the sincerity of any profession he may make of belief in the Christian verities. However, the Jansenistic temper of the Roman Church in modem Ireland is what few people will dispute; nor is anticlericalism much less common in the Republic than in other Roman Catholic countries. And anticlericalism, angry, needling and insistent, informs many poems that Clarke has written since the Second World War.
It is not for nothing that Hugh MacDiarmid's name has cropped up. For MacDiarmid's quarrel with the culture of post-Reformation Scotland, and his appeal beyond John Knox to the Scotland of James IV and Dunbar, is in important respects very like Clarke's appeal from the Jansenistic Romanism of modern Ireland to the mediaeval Catholicism of Cashel and Clonmacnoise. To the Scottish poet as to the Irish one, what has been cramped and thwarted by an arrogant and hysterical Church (Protestant in the one case, Roman in the other) is above all the capacity for joyous sexuality. And so they are both insistently erotic poets, defiantly obscene when they judge that is called for.
Clarke's anger at the attitudes of the Irish Church, particularly at the inhumanity (as he sees it) of the Church's attitude to sex, has grown ever harsher and more explicit, not always to the benefit of his art. Two poems which ask to be compared, from this point of view, are 'Martha Blake', which appeared in Night and Morning (1988), and 'Martha Blake at Fifty-one', written in the early sixties. Both poems are very harrowing, and the later one is relentless in the particularity with which Clarke conveys the indignities to which Martha Blake is condemned by her sick body, sufferings which her piety and the ministrations of her Church do nothing to assuage. The earlier poem, much shorter and harder to understand, is a great deal more subtle, as Denis Donoghue intimated very helpfully when he spoke of '"Martha Blake" . . . where the pain is given in the cadence': 4
Before the day is everywhere
And the timid warmth of sleep
Is delicate on limb, she dares
The silence of the street
Until the double bells are thrown back
For Mass and echoes bound
In the chapel yard, 0 then her soul
Makes bold in the arms of sound.
Here the 'pain' - to the reader's inner ear - comes in the fifth line, where the extra syllable at the end, 'back', disturbs cruelly the expectation of easy pleasure built up through the liquid three/four time of the lines that precede it, and unsettles the otherwise very rich pleasure of the lines that follow, bringing the positively plummy bell-note of the perfect rhyme, 'sound'/'bound'. When we notice that 'back' chimes with 'Mass', and that there is vowel-rhyme between 'thrown', 'echoes', and 'soul', we perceive that 'cross-rhymes or vowel-rhyming . . . on or off accent', precisely to the degree that they can please the ear, can also pain it, whenever expected pleasures are harshly denied. And thus the assonantal interlacings that Clarke invented for English verse turn out to be not just structural devices, nor a source of delightful grace-notes, but expressive also.
The remaining seven stanzas take Martha Blake through all the stages of the Eucharist, drawing out how in her experience of the sacrament sensuous delight is necessarily confounded with spiritual exaltation. In the sixth stanza, one of the most difficult, this confounding or compounding of allegedly distinct realms of experience exacts a step even beyond cross-rhyme and produces a 'rhyme' that is an anagram ('silent'/'listen'):
But now she feels within her breast
Such calm that she is silent,
For soul can never be immodest
Where body may not listen.
In the poem as a whole there is nothing to offend the most devout Christian, and indeed it could have been written only by a poet who had experienced the Eucharist very fervently. He feels along with Martha Blake the whole way; and the only sign that he is also detached from her, feeling for her and about her as well as with her (feeling for instance that she does not understand how spiritual experience must be mediated through the senses), is in the calculated harshness with which from time to time the cadence is blocked from providing the reader with the pleasure it has led him to expect. The effect is extraordinarily poignant; and such reticence sustained with such subtlety is something which it is hard to parallel.
A poem that goes along with the two Martha Blake poems is 'Ancient Lights', which deals with another sacrament, Confession, somewhat as 'Martha Blake' had dealt with the Eucharist. 'Ancient Lights', which gave its name to a slim and flimsy booklet of 1955, has a special place in my experience of Clarke's work, for it was this poem, encountered in this unlikely format, which introduced me to his poetry. I well remember, what indeed I recorded in print, the startled incredulity with which I learned that poetry of such avant-garde brilliance and power was the work of a man who had been a figure on the Irish literary scene for forty years, whose earlier writings moreover - prose-romances and verse-plays as well as poems - had displayed similar or equal virtues over many years. Augustine Martin, in a valuable essay, suggests that my experience was not unrepresentative; that the collection called Ancient Lights 'marks the period when readers of poetry in Ireland were beginning to turn again in guilty recognition to the forgotten but relentless genius of Austin Clarke'. Such readers were right to feel guilty, and the shabby story of how the Irish treated their poet must be told again, in Augustine Martin's words. The story does not begin with Yeats, nor can the burden of guilt be shifted on to his shoulders; but it is fair to guess that the cold shoulder which the Irish public turned to Clarke became intolerable for, him when, in 1986, Yeats pointedly excluded him from The Oxford Book of Modern Verse. Mr. Martin reflects:
Writers react differently to neglect; Irish writers in general do not tolerate it. Wilde, Shaw, Yeats, Stephens, O'Casey and Behan were not self-effacing men; it is unthinkable that they would have allowed the world to ignore them, even if the world had been that way inclined. But Austin Clarke reacted differently: if his countrymen did not want his poems he would not tout them; in fact he would make them a little harder to come by; he would bring them out privately, in severely limited editions . . . If the public could not be bothered he would be at pains not to bother them. So, throughout his middle period, from the appearance of Night and Morning (1938) to The Horse-Eaters (1960) he published all his original poetic work under the imprint of his own Bridge Press, Templeogue, Dublin. It is strange to think that some of the finest lyrics and satires, not only of modern Ireland but of modern times, made their appearance in this obscure and unpretentious manner in a city where Patrick Kavanagh dominated the poetic skyline on the strength of two very slender, if very distinguished, volumes of verse. 5
Amends have been made since, but they were sadly belated. Moreover, though of course there were honourable exceptions, Irish readers in general began to esteem Clarke only after non-Irish readers had begun to notice and applaud him.
Ancient Lights ('This edition is limited to two hundred copies') is subtitled, 'Poems and Satires, First Series'. This is not helpful, and indeed it must be said that Clarke is not just proudly reticent but positively perverse in the obstructions which he erects between himself and his readers. This is true not only in how he describes and categorises his poems (in the present case, for instance, are we to conclude that a satire is not a poem?), but also in some aspects of his writing. His obscurity is sometimes irresponsible and inexcusable, and although I would not unsay any of the admiration that I expressed for 'Ancient Lights' in 1956, I have to take account of the fact that, over the years since, neither I nor any one I have consulted has been able to say what it is that happens in the crucial fourth and fifth stanzas. Some sort of natural epiphany, undoubtedly; but just what sort, and just how? For this reason 'Ancient Lights' seems to be ultimately unsuccessful, and inferior to 'Martha Blake', despite the difficulties in that poem also. The coarser, more emphatic and extended writing of 'Martha Blake at Fifty-one' must be thought more effective than either 'Martha Blake' or 'Ancient Lights' if, as we must suppose, Clarke's purpose by 1960 was to reach and unequivocally hurt as many Irish readers as possible.
Augustine Martin says, of 'Ancient Lights', 'This powerful poem with its theme of spiritual release projects Austin Clarke into a new phase of creativity, and this phase is reflected in the poems which accompany it in the volume. These poems, mostly satires on modern Ireland, reveal that the poet has abandoned his objective correlative, and withdrawn from the medieval landscape. Now he confronts his experience in the first person, and grapples fiercely with the living scene around him.' 6 By describing these later poems as 'mostly satires', Martin is taking up Clarke's own hint, as we have seen. Yet in many cases 'satire' is a misnomer, or at least, if it applies at all, it applies too loosely to be useful. Rather often, a more appropriate description might be 'epigram' or 'lampoon'; and the names of Landor on the one hand, of Swift on the other, should remind us that there can be great writing in both these genres. Marmoreal finish and emblematic aptness may well recall Landor in for instance the grave and witty epigram, 'St. Christopher' (from Too Great a Vine, 1957):
Child that his strength upbore,
Knotted as tree-trunks i' the spate,
Became a giant, whose weight
Unearthed the river from shore
Till saint's bones were a-crack.
Fabulist, can an ill state
Like ours, carry so great
A Church upon its back?
And it is the direct savagery of the lampoon that we hear in a poem about sixty orphans burned alive in a dormitory without fire-escape, and about a statement issued by the local bishop:
Martyr and heretic
Have been the shrieking wick!
But smoke of faith on fire
Can hide us from enquiry
And trust in Providence
Rid us of vain expense.
So why should pity uncage
A burning orphanage,
Bar flight to little souls
That set no church bell tolling?
Cast-iron step and rail
Could but prolong the wailing:
Has not a Bishop declared
That flame-wrapped babes are spared
Our life-time of temptation?
Leap, mind, in consolation
For heart can only lodge
Itself, plucked out by logic.
Those children, charred in Cavan,
Passed straight through Hell to Heaven.
This is invective. Its quickly construed sarcasm is the only concession it makes to the indirections by which a Dryden or a Pope constructs elaborate satirical structures so as to baffle and implicate his reader. It is surely open to question whether a true satire can ever be as short as most of the poems by Clarke that we are now considering. I am not sure that we can ask the satirist for a consistent view-point, though Augustine Martin thinks that we can and that Pope and Dryden would pass the test; it seems clear that we cannot ask this of the lampooner. As lyrics by the same hand on facing pages may contradict each other, so I would guess may lampoons or epigrams. And surely Martin himself must be uneasy when, uncovering a particularly flagrant contradiction between two poems of Clarke's, he decides, 'One is therefore inclined to ask Mr. Clarke how he would solve the employment problem . . .' (This is not to say that all Clarke's lampoons are equally justifiable; 'Medical Missionary of Mary' is one that strikes me as cheap.)
When Martin asks of Clarke that he be qualified to act as Minister of Labour, he sounds rather like another critic who decides of 'Forget Me Not': 'I have seen too many people dying of starvation in Shimbashi slums to become greatly exercised over man's inhumanity to horses. If an export horse trade can boost a nation's economy and help eliminate poverty, I find nothing short-sighted or stupid in it, Lemuel Gulliver and Austin Clarke notwithstanding.' 7 I dare say most of us feel that this bluff humanitarian good sense is somehow beside the point, but it's not at first easy to see or to say why. The truth is, I suppose, that 'Forget Me Not' does not declare it to be wrong to raise horses for slaughter, to slaughter them, or to eat their meat; what it does say, I think, is that a decision to set this process in motion cannot be taken on merely quantitative computations ('the greatest good of the greatest number') but should take into account imponderable because qualitative considerations like 'All the gentling, custom of mind/And instinct, close affection, done with'; and the poem surely says or implies with justified indignation that this decision, like all such decisions in modern societies, was taken after merely quantitative computations of short-term profit and loss - precisely such computations as those of the critic quoted above. One of the qualitative costs that must be counted in the disappearance of the horse as man's workmate - not one of the most grievous costs perhaps, but one of the most surprising - is counted sardonically at the end of Clarke's poem:
Tipsters respect our grandsires,
Thorough-breds, jumpers o' the best.
Our grass still makes a noble show, and the roar
Of money cheers us at the winning post.
So pack tradition in the meat-sack, Boys,
Write off the epitaph of Yeats.
To jogtrot, pony bell, say my first lesson:
Up the hill,
Hurry me not;
Down the hill,
Worry me not;
On the level,
Spare me not,
In the stable,
Forget me not.
Forget me not.
The same artless lines, except for the repeated 'Forget me not', had opened the poem, which had then gone on:
Trochaic dimeter, amphimacer
And choriamb, with hyper catalexis,
Grammatical inversion, springing of double
- which is a prosodist's learnedly exact description of just those italicised verses. And these are (so the poem tells us a few lines later) the 'work-a-day, holiday jingle' which the poet as a child learned to say when riding in a neat pony-trap or horse-drawn cab with his Uncle John, who figures largely in Twice Round the Black Church. After the prosodist's analysis, we have:
So we learned to scan all, analyse
Lyric and ode, elegy, anonymous patter,
For what is song itself but substitution?
And what this means to say is that some of the patterns of rhythm which sound, or used to sound, in the head of verse-making man were the several patterns of varied but regular recurrence beaten out by a horse's hooves as the horse trotted or walked, cantered or galloped. In fact Clarke is inverting and yet endorsing the point made by T. S. Eliot in a much-quoted guess that man's sense of rhythm and measure may have been permanently altered by the internal combustion engine. The characteristic pun on 'substitution' makes the point for those who look: it is a technical term of prosody, but 'what is song itself but substitution?' means also that in poetry we substitute a pattern in the reality of language for patterns that we discern and want to express in reality outside of language. Among those linguistic patternings are those, peculiarly important to verse, which reveal themselves to the ear, and can be analysed by counting syllables, counting the beat, counting metrical feet. Yeats's epitaph - 'Horseman, pass by!' - we must indeed 'write off'; and with it we write off all the centuries in which no rhythms were so insistently present to man, from earliest childhood, as the rhythms beaten out by horses' hooves - rhythms so insistent that one may indeed wonder whether they were not imprinted on man's nervous system.
But this consideration, though it brilliantly and intriguingly frames Clarke's poem (and makes it a post-symbolist poem, in as much as we now see it describing itself), is far from accounting for the indignation and outrage which are at its heart, which inform also his 'Knacker Rhymes' in a booklet of 1960 ('Poems and Satires, Third Series') where the title, The Horse-Eaters, forces the theme on our attention. Hasn't Clarke got the whole thing 'out of proportion'? No! For what Clarke sees and protests against is sacrilege. And thus it is just here that we find the grounds for saying, with Augustine Martin, that Clarke is 'a deeply religious man'. 'Forget Me Not' reminds us that in the ancient world the horse was a sacred animal; for Clarke what is sacred is not the horse, but the relationship between horse and man. The sanctity of that tie is the non-quantifiable cost which is left out of account if with W. J. Roscelli we refuse 'to become greatly exercised over man's inhumanity to horses', because of 'too many people dying of starvation in Shimbashi slums'.
And this brings us full circle to where we started, with mythopoeia. Clarke's poetry seems to make no new myths, and to celebrate no old ones; more often it exerts itself sardonically to puncture and explode myths, in the sense of dangerous fictions with which the Irishman deludes himself about his national identity and his supposedly peculiar virtues. And yet the poems about the horse-trade show that at the heart of Clarke's world, as in the strikingly different mythopoeic world of Muir, there is myth since there is a belief in the sacred. To find this belief professed in a tone of voice that is still sardonic is especially arresting; it gives us pause, as Muir's voice cannot. On the other hand the sardonic tone misleads all but the most careful reader; for the tone makes us look anywhere but where, since sacrilege is denounced, sacredness is affirmed. And so there is that much excuse for a misreading like Roscelli's. One can go further indeed, and suggest that Clarke at times deceives himself as he deceives many readers. In 'Medical Missionary of Mary' a nun injures herself by falling from her bicycle, her habit caught up in a pedal; she is taken on a stretcher to Lourdes, despite her devotions there she is not cured, and
worse than ever, came back
By London, lying on her back,
Saw there, thank Heaven, a specialist
And now is on the recovery list.
If we declare this, despite the delightfully raucous interjection of 'thank Heaven', none the less cheap, we mean in the first place to protest that the woman inside the nun's habit is suffering and frightened just as Martha Blake was; but one may object also that to deny a miracle-working sanctity at Lourdes is one thing, to deny that such sanctity exists or may exist elsewhere is something else again. The poem certainly invites us to make this second denial, and to think that the notion of such imponderable and unprovable sanctities is a dangerous fiction which only stops us looking for help, for salvation, to the one quarter where it can be found - in the scientific humanism of the London medical specialist. If so, this poem is at odds with 'Forget Me Not', and invites W. J. Roscelli's impatient misreading of that poem. We may hesitantly conclude that the poet's task is ultimately and essentially, if not mythopoeic, at any rate religious; and that it is dangerous for any poet to think otherwise.
Padraic Fallon, though a younger poet than Clarke, can fittingly be considered along with him for a number of reasons. One is that, although he has been a respected figure on the Irish literary scene through several decades, the literary world of Ireland has not recognised its obligations towards him any more generously than it did its obligations to Austin Clarke. Fallon's poems have to be hunted up for the most part in the files of magazines; and his Collected Poems, long promised from the Dolmen Press, has still not appeared as I write this. However, as I hinted on an earlier page, to set Fallon beside Clarke is to be struck by the contrast between them more than by anything they have in common.
Fallon too has written 'horsey' poems. But in pieces like 'Gowran Park, Autumn Meeting' or 'Curragh November Meeting', we look in vain for the arresting perception common to Clarke and to Muir-that in their lifetime they have seen what looks like a quantum jump in man's development, for good or ill; the ending of man's dependence on the horse as a work-mate or servant, and the disappearance of the horse from the human scene except in contexts of sport or pleasure. Fallon's poems, like Philip Larkin's poem 'At Grass', have to do with race-horses, not work-horses; and this by itself is enough to remove from them the historical resonance of Muir's 'Horses' or Clarke's 'Forget Me Not'. The poet who chose for his epitaph, 'Horseman, pass by!' must have been equally blind to how in his lifetime man's relationship to the horse had changed radically and momentously. And this should make us think again about putting Yeats and Muir together as 'mythopoeic poets'. In particular, it should give us a new respect for Edwin Muir; his myth, it now seems, could take note of and encompass a radical historical change. Indeed, 'The Horses' judges modern times unequivocally: it says that man is rushing to his doom by relying on inert machinery, technological ingenuity, to do for him what can safely be done only by comradely care for other creatures than himself. (It says moreover, very touchingly and sombrely, with no sentimentality at all, that if mankind is ever to have a 'second chance', it can only be on these creaturely terms, and will depend on domesticated creatures like the horse agreeing, as it were, to 'try again'.) Yeats is by all counts an infinitely greater poet than Muir. Yet on this point a comparison between them does not work in Yeats's favour; it is not at all clear that any of Yeats's myths can stoop to notice and make sense of any one distinguishable and observable historical change as surely as Muir's does. This to be sure flies in the face of accepted opinion about Yeats. For the author of 'The Second Coming' is often presented as par excellence the tragic historian of Western man's twentieth-century times. Yet is it not the case that Yeats the philosopher of history works on a time-scale too grandiose ever to be tripped up by particular instances of the changes that history brings about? Does not Yeats's concern for the Dionysian 'great year' release him from the pain of the years that we tick off on the calendar? And does not his cyclical theory of history, like every such theory, say in the end Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, in a tone that is ultimately consoling and anaesthetic? One imagines Clarke answering a venomous 'Yes' to all these questions.
At any rate the same Yeatsian tone, and the same unformulated assumptions, crop up in Padraic Fallon in poems like those cited, or in much better ones like 'Peasantry' and 'Weir Bridge', which seem to say or to imply that there is nothing new under the sun. In a better poem still, such as 'The Dwelling', everything depends on whether what the poem gives us is offered as what is, or as what should be:
At night the house grows
Around the blackshawled woman. Harsh
And sparse the bony room
But with the lamp
All the pieces give their lights:
She shines among her satellites.
Man-chairs of oak, scrubbed; a rack
Of cups and blue plates;
The tabled jug:
The oilcloth spreading from the wick;
The spindled stair without a rug
But scrubbed, scrubbed to the quick.
The tiny window's shut its eye;
Let the strand roar
And the white horses tumble on the shore,
The salt driftwood purrs inside the fire
And the sea ends that pours around the world.
Somewhere an old working clock,
Weights and chains, ticks on and tells
The woman's hours;
The wether's wool in the knitted sock,
The world weather in
Her knotted face, her knotted talk;
How men come home
From the ocean drip, still rocking, ill at ease
Till she gathers them;
Here she sets them down in peace
Inside the lamp, the house, the shawl.
Here is the centre of them all.
And all the pieces hang
In one. The man is on the chair
Who winds the clock
Who'll climb the stairhead after her,
Adjust the wick
Till the great night idles, barely ticking over.
'Barely ticking', but still ticking . . . And does the sea that pours around the world really 'end' in this seemingly primordial scenario, or only seem to? (That's to say, is it primordial, or does it only appear to be?) Has Women's Lib. no hope of unsettling this Tolstoyan vision of 'the woman of the house' as stable centre and unwavering vehicle of man's culture? The poem is too cunning to answer these questions; it is careful to keep its options open. Yet there is not much room for doubt that those who are charmed by the poem are responding to it as a vision of what unalterably is (and will be seen to be so, after temporary aberrations), rather than as a vision of what ought to be, but is no longer, and perhaps never will be again. And this means that the poem stays securely within the Yeatsian universe, not moving outside into the more problematic areas where in their different ways Clarke's poems live, and Muir's.
However, Fallon is not always quite so cagey, nor are his poems always thus furnished with the cottage properties of J. M. Synge. At the end of a long, splendid and ambitious poem, 'Boyne Valley', he writes:
Jaguars roll from the meet, trailing
Horseheads and dogfoxes. History perhaps
Is slowly reaching some conclusion.
And here is the usual tentative dusk
As day runs out of silver
And one flintnebbed swan owns all the Boyne;
No afterglow or
Gold bowl to sail home the antlered one,
Surrogate, heraldic sufferer,
Cerumnos, Arthur, Bran.
Here, though Fallon still keeps his options open, he only just does so. The 'perhaps' with which History is said to be 'slowly reaching some conclusion' is a possibility rather firmly excluded by the 'usual tentative dusk', and the final impression is that, despite the different appurtenances (Jaguar cars hauling horse-boxes) the hunt is still the unchanging and necessary ritual that it always was.
In any case, it will be seen that Fallon stands in a curious relation to Yeats. And his direct and unabashed dialogue with that overbearing predecessor is strikingly at odds with Austin Clarke's evasive obliquities, his talking around the inescapable monument. Fallon, that is to say, has not kept his distance from Yeats, as Clarke and other prudent poets found it necessary to do. And Fallon pays the price; his 'Wexford to Commodore Barry' is a poem in which the heroic cadences of the great ventriloquist overwhelm Fallon and push him into unintended parody. But as I read Fallon, he knows the risks he runs and is prepared to live dangerously. It is thus that he seems to define himself in the poem he calls 'Odysseus' - that legendary voyager who figures in so many poems by Fallon that we may without absurdity think the Odyssean paradigm not much less important for him than for Joyce:
Last year's decencies
Are the rags and reach-me-downs he'll wear forever,
Knowing one day he'll sober up inside them
Safe in wind and wife and limb,
Respected, of unimpeachable behaviour.
Meanwhile he goes forward
Magniloquently to himself; and, the fit on him,
Pushes his painful hobble to a dance,
Exposing in obscene wounds and dilapidation
The naked metre of the man.
If Yeatsian idioms and cadences are 'last year's decencies', Fallon will wear them, at whatever cost in occasional absurdity. And if it comes to a push between the graduate of the Bardic schools and the harum-scarum, Fallon is with the harum-scarums.
Fallon's more or less direct dialogue with the shade of Yeats is in the following poems: 'Fin de Siécle' (where there is a tinge - no more - of the jealous rancour we sometimes find in Clarke); 'Yeats at Athenry Perhaps' (which is charming but slight, and accordingly too long); 'Stop on the Road to Ballylee'; 'On the Tower Stairs' (which is principally about Lady Gregory, and is a dazzling performance, entertaining and audacious); and 'Yeats's Tower at Ballylee' - a list to which I would add 'Johnstown Castle', a poem where Yeats's presence is less overt but not much less insistent.
Written in 1951, 'Yeats's Tower at Ballylee' is very explicit indeed, certainly too much so for its own good as an independent poem. The Yeatsian turns and resonances are snatched up as opportunity offers, by no means 'placed' nor made new. Yet the piece is central to Fallon's work because it reveals, better than any other, and precisely by being so vulnerable, the earnestness with which Fallon meditates on the significance of Yeats's career. The poem has for epigraph Yeats's lines:
Is every modern nation like the Tower
Half-dead at the top?
And Fallon comes to grips with this, two-thirds of the way through his poem:
I climb to the wasting storey at the top.
His symbol's there where water and watery air
Soak through the plaster. The higher we clamber up
Into ourselves the greater seems the danger;
For the wider the vision then
On a desolate and more desolate world
Where the inspirations of men
Are taken by man and hurled
From shape into evil shape;
With the good and the grace gone out of them
Where indeed is there hope for men?
So every civilization tires at the top.
Around me now from this great height
Is a vision I did not seek. I have avoided it
And now I am forty-five
And wars blow up again, the east is lit,
Towns burn, villages are bombed,
With people everywhere in flight,
Their households on a handcart, or entombed
In homes that fell about them in the night,
And dragging children homeless in the air;
A mass migration of the humble
Before some war-mad general.
O the higher we climb up the wider our despair.
The poem ends:
Everywhere is the world. And not less here
Because the stream, dividing, moats the place.
To live a fairy tale he bought this tower
And married a woman with a pleasant face;
And built in bookshelves, cupboards, hung
His pictures up and walked around
His beehive and his acre, wrung
Some civilization from the ground:
And yet instead of rhyming country ease
As in the eighteenth century we find
Him raving like a man gone blind
At the bloody vision that usurped his eyes.
Below me in the road two countrymen
Are talking of cattle and the price of wool,
Glad of the gossip and something held in common.
That scene would have been peaceful
An hour ago, but now I stumble down
In horror, knowing that there is no way
Of protest left to poet or to clown
That will enlarge his future by one day.
I could beat a policeman, bawl in a square, do gaol
For something silly. And what avails it? I
Step into the drizzle of the sky
Despairingly, to talk of the price of wool.
The assertion that 'every civilization tires at the top', with the preceding lines that seek to validate it ('The higher we clamber up/Into ourselves the greater seems the danger;/For the wider the vision then') is so important, both in itself and as a gloss on Yeats's verses, that any middle-aged reader should pause to ask if his own experience bears it out. And by earnest doggedness earlier in the poem Fallon has earned the right to this sort of attention. It's a pity that his language is not crisp nor memorable enough to enforce it, yet his diction, if it's more patchy than Edwin Muir's homespun, is by that token more flexible. Certainly the dull thud that the poem ends on enacts the despair it is talking about. And in any case what we are presented with beyond possibility of quibble is what is poignant at certain comparable moments in Yeats himself: a man who believes in ritual or heraldic patterns subsisting unchanged below the phenomena of history, admitting that the belief does not sustain him or itself in the face of evidence that in history real changes do occur, and for the worse - for instance between the eighteenth century and the twentieth.
Moreover the dogged discursiveness of Fallon's style in this poem is not at all characteristic of him, but rather (we may suppose) something that the pain and gravity of one particular experience impelled him to. What comes to him more naturally is a style altogether more colourful. It may be exemplified from a poem where he is altogether clear of Yeatsian territory, and approaching indeed - in subject but also in style - the territory of Clarke. It is a poem on the Immaculate Conception, entitled 'Magna Mater':
A dove plus an
Assenting virgin is
An odd equation; the bird of Venus,
Shotsilk woodhaunter and
A country shawl
In congress to produce
The least erotic of the gods . . .
'Shotsilk woodhaunter' for 'dove' is all Fallon; a note struck no more by Clarke than by Yeats. Characteristically, the poem (which is thoroughly devout, and strongly and interestingly conceived) falls away from this first stanza through four more which are makeshift. And indeed 'makeshift' is exact for Padraic Fallon; he is a brilliant opportunist, and content to be so. Nor is this necessarily so disparaging as it sounds. For certainly in Fallon's case his trouvailles are as astonishing as his misjudgements, his unfortunate puns for instance, are outrageous; and in almost every poem he veers from blunder to felicity, the one as breath-taking as the other. What happens when Fallon tries to be flawless and relatively sober, can be seen in another poem on the Virgin, 'Mater Dei':
In March the seed
Fell, when the month leaned over, looking
Down into the valley.
And none but the woman knew it where she sat
In the tree of her veins and tended him
The red and ripening Adam of the year.
Her autumn was late and human.
Trees were nude, the lights were on at the pole
All night when he came,
Her own man;
In the cry of a child she sat, not knowing
That this was a stranger.
Milk ran wild
Across the heavens. Imperiously He
Sipped at the delicate beakers she proffered him.
How was she to know
How huge a body she was, how she corrected
The very tilt of the earth on its new course?
By Fallon's standards this is almost classical. And yet oddly enough its marmoreal finish is nearer being vulgar than is the audacity of 'Magna Mater'. It seems that Fallon is true to himself only when he is immoderate; and in very different ways this is true of Yeats also, and of Austin Clarke.
- See Clarke's note to his Knacker Rhymes in Later Poems (1961).
- See Beyond the Pale. Austin Clarke Reads His Own Poetry, Claddagh Records, Dublin, 1964.
- Hugh MacDiarmid, 'Charles Doughty and the Need for Heroic Poetry' (1936).
- Denis Donoghue, The Ordinary Universe (London, 1968), p. 30. In the analysis
which follows I am indebted to members of a graduate seminar at Stanford, particularly Michael Stillman and Gareth Reeves.
- Augustine Martin, The Rediscovery of Austin Clarke', in Studies. An Irish Quarterly Review, LIV, 216 (Winter, 1965).
- Martin, op. cit., p. 424.
- W. J. Roscelli, in The Celtic Cross (Purdue University Studies, 1964), p. 69.
This article is taken from Poetry Nation 3 Number 3, 1974.