Twice Round the Black Church Essay - Critical Context

Austin Clarke

Critical Context

Because of Clarke’s emphasis on personality and the paradoxically formative repressions and permanent transitory moments which governed its formation, the reader may get the impression from Twice Round the Black Church that the Dublin of the poet’s youth was a rather stagnant backwater of the British Empire. Students of literary history will know, however, that Clarke’s formative years coincided not only with a devotional revolution in the Irish Catholic church (in part, the product of a reaction against clerical modernism) but also with the coming into prominence of the foundation of the Abbey Theatre, the attempts to rehabilitate the Irish language, and the general efflorescence in Dublin of imaginative writing prior to World War I. Apart from a few brief, though sincere, tributes to the excitement of discovering the lost world of literature in the Irish language, Twice Round the Black Church conveys little of the public temper of those times. As such, it may be considered very much an expression of Clarke’s career, lacking in opportunism and facile character sketches to a virtually perverse degree.

Yet, it is clear from Clarke’s early works that the Irish Literary Revival was a significant means of self-realization. One implication of Twice Round the Black Church is that the self-realization was inevitable, irrespective of prevailing cultural conditions (his emigration to England and the demoralizing years spent as a book reviewer and minor poet there—touched on in this work—may be cited in evidence of such independence of mind). Part of Clarke’s significance in the history of modern Irish poetry derives from the manner in which he outgrew the mode of his youthful pastiche epics and began the difficult task of making his own witnessing the source and justification of his poetic utterance.

In the context of Clarke’s career as a poet, this autobiography occupies a particularly revealing position. Coming between the somewhat inexpressive bitterness of the 1950’s satires and the attempt at greater spontaneity and freedom of his late verse, Twice Round the Black Church could be viewed as a necessary preamble to the final, freeing phase of one of the century’s more notable poets.