Twice Round the Black Church Critical Essays

Austin Clarke


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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...

(The entire section is 793 words.)