Twice Round the Black Church

by Austin Clarke

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Form and Content

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 971

Together with A Penny in the Clouds: More Memories of Ireland and England (1968), Twice Round the Black Church constitutes a rare account of growing up, culturally and spiritually, in Dublin at the turn of the century, an account which to some extent parallels and amplifies the classic treatment of the same subject by James Joyce in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916). Such parallels are interesting in their own right, and are made more so by the fact that Austin Clarke is one of the major Irish poets to emerge in the generation of writers who succeeded Joyce and W.B. Yeats.

The focus of A Penny in the Clouds tends to be on the public and cultural events of the author’s boyhood and youth, as though to complement the private and personal orientation of the earlier work. Like the young Joyce, Austin Clarke was born to the newly emerging Irish Catholic middle class, and, though the term “Victorian” is used in a familiarly pejorative manner throughout Twice Round the Black Church, as a child Clarke clearly benefited from some of the term’s positive, materialist connotations. Unlike that of Joyce, his family background remained stable and disciplined, and his physical needs and social aspirations (including an expensive education, received largely, like Joyce’s, from the Jesuit Order) were attended to if not quite automatically at least with comparatively less strain.

As a result, in one sense Twice Round the Black Church is a loving inventory of Dublin in its material aspects at the turn of the century. The author vividly recalls the street scenes, small shops, and back lanes of his boyhood, recollections which are replete with the spontaneous ebb and flow of childish perception. Since many of the places commemorated in Twice Round the Black Church have gone the way of the wrecking ball or have otherwise sustained modern development, there is an antiquarian as well as an aesthetic pleasure to be derived from the book’s faithful transcriptions of childhood’s fugitive, evanescent observations. Moreover, since these observations are not confined to the author’s home territory on the city’s near north side but include all areas of presuburban Dublin, this work is valuable to students of the city in the final stages of its existence as “the second city of the Empire.” In addition, the author’s intermittent animadversions on the growth of Dublin’s suburbs provide an introduction to one of his most characteristic poetic roles, that of social satirist.

The main interest of Clarke’s imaginative recapturing of the city scenes of his childhood, however, is not so much cultural as it is aesthetic. In the fluency of his recollective gestures, the reader is at once impressed by this author’s superb sense of, and appreciation for, detail. This sense is best displayed in the accounts of the author’s excursions on family outings from the city. In these there is a wonderful sensitivity to light and color and a boldly expressive testament to the author’s belief in the delights of knowledge and in experience as a source of wonder and uniqueness. These accounts of the countryside around Dublin, and of the English countryside, also provide important insight into the author’s poetic character.

Such depictions of city and country, however, while not functioning solely as background, are of secondary importance to the main subject of Twice Round the Black Church, which is the author’s psychological and spiritual development. A recurring preoccupation in Clarke’s mature verse addresses the role of the Catholic church as a source of spiritual nourishment and guidance in matters of social and personal behavior. The origins of these interests is detailed in this work of autobiography. Given this focus, it might well be concluded that Twice Round the Black Church is an idiosyncratic distillation of the concerns of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and William Wordsworth’s The Prelude: Or, The Growth of a Poet’s Mind (1850), since it portrays with great candor the impressionable intelligence of a sensitive, sickly child and the forces that contend in the making and marring of that intelligence.

An appreciation for the issues involved may be gained from a study of the work’s title. Local childish superstition considered it foolhardy in the extreme to circle more than twice a notable local ecclesiastical landmark, the “Black Church” (Saint Mary’s Chapel, an idiosyncratic construction, gothic in style and built in black stone, hence its colloquial Dublin name), located close to the Clarke family home, because on a third circuit the devil would pounce. From this point of departure, Twice Round the Black Church deliberates upon the childishness and potency of superstition.

As though in part to show that though superstition may be childish it is not confined to childhood (the author strongly implies that he lost his job as a lecturer in English at University College, Dublin, because he was married in a civil rather than a religious ceremony), this autobiography is not presented chronologically. The author ranges freely and without apparent method over, roughly, the first thirty years of his life. The intention seems to be to dispense with the cause-and-effect implications of a linear approach to his material. Since, in effect, Twice Round the Black Church is the autobiography of a spirit, enacted through the representation of certain recurrent—and perhaps archetypal—moods (though Clarke does not directly expound an archetypal approach), the author has understandably seen fit to depict those moods, together with their effects and consequences, in a manner which reproduces the involuntary, irresistible, and patternless character of their initial occurrence. In addition to its various other attributes, therefore, Twice Round the Black Church succeeds in making an interesting comment on the problem of form and autobiography.


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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 36

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

Harmon, Maurice, ed. Irish University Review. IV (Spring, 1974). Special Clarke issue.

Schirmer, Gregory. The Poetry of Austin Clarke, 1983.

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

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