The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Young Woman of Beare” is based on a tenth century Irish poem, “The Old Woman of Beare.” In both poems the woman recollects her love of the world and of men. Though both are presumed to be dramatic monologues, neither poet indicated the identity of the person who does not speak; again, presumably, the other person does not share the speaker’s passions and may even disapprove. In the tenth century original, the speaker is at the end of her life, defiantly rejecting the admonitions she has heard from clerics. In “The Young Woman of Beare,” the speaker is in the fullness of youth, so caught up in her delights that such admonitions as she hears are of no consequence. She is luxuriously describing her life, not justifying it.

“The Young Woman of Beare” is a long poem written in ten-line stanzas that contain a variety of repeated sounds: rhyme, assonance, consonance. The repetitions are irregular, and they give the poem a musical, dreamy air. The young woman is in her room, comfortable and drowsy, reflecting on her lovers and rejecting any moral, religious, or political concerns that might lessen or censure her life of pleasure. She is content to consider herself “the bright temptation” the clergy censures.

As the poem develops her character, she emerges as a woman committed to seizing the day, rather than living for an uncertain future, either in this life or the afterlife. She recalls a lover: “Sin-fast—we can enjoy/ What is allowed in marriage.” She continues with this meditation by describing herself in metaphors usually reserved for the clergy’s use in condemning sinners, calling herself “the dark temptation” and acknowledging the clergy’s view.

As she daydreams into nightfall, she mentions her foreign face, though does not indicate whether she is from another country or simply of another moral view. By taking the terms of admonition as recognition of her power, she establishes a moral order separate and different from that of Ireland in the late sixteenth century, the setting for the poem. Such a rejection of Christian ethical codes appears throughout the poetry and prose of Austin Clarke.

The Young Woman of Beare Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Young Woman of Beare” is a first-person meditation on life, with an assumed listener. The listener is quite likely a society with values that differ from those of the young woman, rather than an actual person. She repeats religious references in the poem, delighting in her lack of concern with their admonitions. “Judgment,” “Sin,” and “shining orders/ Of clergy” appear regularly in the poem, as do references to political events, such as “That Ormond’s men are out/ And the Geraldine is in.” The reference is to forces that contended for dominance in Ireland between 1564 and 1632. Regularly mentioned, as well, are her lovers, among them MacWilliam, a Flemish merchant. Place names give the poem added detail. She left Beare because she got a bad name there, wandered with men to the islands, Limerick, to the Curragh (Ireland’s ancient race course).

Set in place as it is, the poem uses metaphors to contrast the beauty of the young woman with the bleakness of those who condemn her: “as from a lathe/ My polished body turning,” “the silver knots of sleep.” The language used to describe her is luxurious, sensuous. By contrast, those who condemn her are described with words that evoke a lack of beauty and pleasure: clergy with “staven hands upraised,” a “black archway” where “praying people hurry.”

The imaginative reconstruction of an ancient being and experience is representative of Clarke’s writing. Placing the tenth century original of his young woman some centuries later, he was able to make both a political and a moral statement relevant to his own time, though translations from Gaelic of “The Old Woman of Beare” show that a similar social commentary was intended in the earlier work. Clarke’s poem is an ironic equation of the present government and church of Ireland with the earlier ones, which today are regarded as repressive.