As the Crow Flies: A Lyric Play for the Air Analysis

Austin C. Clarke

The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

As the Crow Flies, a radio play, opens on a late summer evening, as two monks, Virgilius and Manus, sit in a boat moored in a creek near the Shannon River. The abbot of Clonmacnoise—the major monastery on the Shannon at the time—has sent them to cut rushes for thatch. Manus, a stolid, dependable, and unimaginative man, is uneasy that the youngest member of their group, Brother Aengus, has not yet returned from a foray into the forest; Virgilius, wiser and more patient, says that Aengus must satisfy his youthful urge to know “the meaning of Creation,” and that God will protect him. There is an aura of the unusual, the miraculous, the ominous about the scene: The reeds are gigantic; storm clouds are gathering on the horizon. Finally Manus calls to Aengus, who returns, breathless, with news of a cave that he feels must once have been occupied by a holy hermit. As they set off homeward up the Shannon in their laden boat, a sudden and furious squall strikes, and as its roar obliterates their voices, the monks are resolving to take shelter in the holy cave Aengus has found.

Scene 2 is set inside the cave, where the clerics discuss the suddenness of the storm. Virgilius remembers the “Night of the Big Wind” fifty years previously, when the Shannon rose and flooded the monastery; his concluding words, “never have I known/ So bad a night as this,” are echoed by spirit voices, and Aengus glimpses “a demon bird with eyes of glassy fire.” To calm the younger men’s terror, Virgilius announces that God’s miracle has let them hear the voices of the fallen. As the storm rises again, the three men pray together.

The third scene takes place in the nest of the Eagle of Knock. Terrified by the presence of something preternaturally cold next to them, the eaglets call on their mother to kill the intruder. The intruder, however, claiming to be a “poor old crow,” weak and frozen, distracts the eagles with stories of her lifetime experiences, stirring them to curiosity about the same question the monks have just raised in the cave: Has there ever been so bad a night as this one? The crow tells of a Shannon River flood that drowned a holy man, and of the Hag of Dingle who changes her skin during a storm every two hundred years; pressed by the eaglets, however, the Crow claims never to have known such a stormy night as the present one and suggests that the Eagle question the Stag of Leiterlone, sheltering nearby. The Stag claims memory back to the time of the Fianna (Finn mac Cumhaill’s band of legendary warriors, said to have lived in Ireland in the third century) but refers the Eagle to the Blackbird of Derrycairn, perched upon its antler. The Blackbird recites a poem which begins:

Stop, stop and listen for...

(The entire section is 1145 words.)

Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

As its subtitle, A Lyric Play for the Air, indicates, As the Crow Flies was written for radio, not stage, performance; thus its major effects are gained through voices, language, and sound effects. The most important sound effects portray the rising and falling of the storm, whose shrieks and howls, drowning out voices and threatening even to smother prayer, form a constant, ominous background to the dialogue and suggest a wild, supernatural presence. The eaglets’ clamor to know whether this storm is unprecedented calls attention to the weather and emphasizes its symbolic significance.

In the absence of visual spectacle, the poetic dialogue creates pictures in the imaginations of the hearers. Mythical characters are easily incorporated into the play and are distinguished from one another and from the human characters not only by voices but also by their own individual metrical patterns. The monks converse in blank verse; the animals’ speeches generally adhere to a basic eight-or nine-syllable line. The song of the Blackbird of Derrycairn comprises four stanzas of five nine-syllable lines each. The aural effect of the poetry gently suggests an artificial world, harmonizing with the mythical and fabulous nature of the plot. The first stanza of the Blackbird’s song, quoted above, illustrates many of Clarke’s typical poetic devices: syllabic meter, alliteration (mournful matins), internal rhyme (listen:whistling), harmonic cross-rhyme (bough top:cup now), assonance (hour-bell:sound), consonance (bough top:brighter).


(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Halpern, Susan. Austin Clarke: His Life and Works. Dublin: Dolmen Press, 1974.

Harmon, Maurice. Austin Clarke: A Critical Introduction. Dublin: Wolfhound Press, 1989.

Irish University Review 4 (Spring, 1974).

Mercier, Vivian. “Austin Clarke: The Poet in the Theatre.” Chimera 5 (Spring, 1947): 25-36.

Mercier, Vivian. “The Verse Plays of Austin Clarke.” Dublin Magazine 19 (April/June, 1944): 39-47.

Ricigliano, Lorraine. Austin Clarke: A Reference Guide. Indianapolis: Macmillan, 1993.

Schirmer, Gregory A. The Poetry of Austin Clarke. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983.

Schirmer, Gregory A. Reviews and Essays of Austin Clarke. Lanham, Md.: Littlefield, 1995.

Tapping, G. Craig. Austin Clarke: A Study of His Writings. Dublin: Academy Press, 1981.