Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 793
The claim that this poet’s volume of autobiography has something in common with one of the definitive poetic autobiographies, The Prelude, is not merely a means of underlining the interest of the material contained in Twice Round the Black Church. The passage with which Clarke opens his autobiography suggests that the poet-in-making is drawing on the example of Wordsworth, with its emphasis on fear and wonder as primary stimulants of the imagination. (Clarke has an unexplained aversion for the term “imagination,” but its implication is clear.) Perhaps Wordsworth is merely a comparatively modern example of how fear and awe may overwhelm a growing mind, fear and awe being the two experiences considered so powerful by Aristotle in the generation of meaningful experience. Quite possibly it is Aristotle whom Clarke invites the reader to call to mind, since mention of this philosopher may perhaps lead to thoughts of Joyce, an author noted for his Aristotelian attachments, as A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man eloquently testifies.
The overtones of Joyce suggested by Twice Round the Black Church are also neither adventitious nor pedantic. From a strictly documentary point of view, Clarke’s recollection of his encounter with Joyce in Paris is no doubt this memoir’s most valuable contribution to literary history. On the other hand, however, the author’s numerous crises of faith—precipitated by emotional hypersensitivity, an excess of moral scruple, and difficulties in contending with a burgeoning sexual nature—are strongly reminiscent of the material presented in Joyce’s celebrated autobiographical work. In Clarke’s case, however, there is no specific denouement: The young man, tormented by the intellectual and emotional demands of his own nature, does not end up transforming himself into an artist. Indeed, the links between Clarke’s inner life and the development of his poetic vocation are tenuous in Twice Round the Black Church. Given Clarke’s renowned anticlericalism, it may be surmised that he declined to give the Church any credit for the coming into being of his poetic personality.
Although, like Joyce, who invented the persona of Stephen Dedalus for himself, Clarke accepts the possibility of “a governing myth,” such a facet of his development receives much less attention than his sensory enjoyment of color and texture, both in the actual world and in the world of words. Perhaps the relish provided by language is at times overstated in Twice Round the Black Church, as in the dazzling but surely strained analysis of the verbal texture of the banal sentence, “I’ve swum the Liverpool Docks.” On the other hand, Clarke also recounts, “My first experience of the evocative power of verbal rhythm . . . brought back my earlier experiences of Nature.” It is as if the mind’s enthrallment with particularity provides the consciousness with a realization of the distinctiveness of the world, of the innate resistance of worldly phenomena to being subsumed into system. The preservation of this particularity—obvious here as elsewhere in Clarke’s work in a love of naming, a casual but piquant enjoyment in using technically precise and sometimes obscure terminology—is a basis for a sense of distinctiveness on the part of the preserver.
The need to undertake acts of preservation is a response to wonder, and wonder, in turn, may be the intimate counterpart of fear. At one point, speculating on his attraction to the “ancient pity and awe” of the traditional Irish sagas (which provided him with the subject matter of his earliest published poems), Clarke attributes it to fear. He remarks, “Such seconds of fear become as valuable to us as years.” “Rich in experiential material” is perhaps one of the meanings of “value” in this context.
Not surprisingly, however, Clarke’s vision also had the effect of inducing derision of, if not downright hostility to, most social institutions and of expressing a strongly satirical attitude to what he—and many other members of his generation of Irish writers—considered the smug repressiveness of the newly established Irish Free State, “our ill-fare state” as it is called here. At the same time, however, as the deliberately unprogrammatic form of Twice Round the Black Church makes clear, Clarke is not interested in creating systems which might replace any given set of social circumstances. On the contrary, this volume of autobiography is a tribute to the author’s impenitent sense of his own distinctive, particular, and to some extent forbidding individuality (in emotional tone and intellectual drive, Clarke is one of the major assassins of the stage Irishman). It is also a tribute to the lifelong struggle to retain a sense of his own particularity—a struggle which was evident in the poetry, plays, novels, and criticism written by this exemplar of Irish independence, Austin Clarke.
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