Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Young Woman of Beare” is a poem praising the unstinted pleasure of the flesh, in a country that has tended to regard the flesh as servant of both church and state. As such, it has much in common with the literature of the Irish Literary Revival, which praised the growth of the spirit and of the body frequently, without the restrictions of religion and politics. Like the poems of the revival, “The Young Woman of Beare” is based on an Irish experience and was produced as a result of the poet’s familiarity with the indigenous literature of Ireland.

As are many of the poems of this period, “The Young Woman of Beare” is consciously antagonistic to the Catholic church. Unlike most of the poems, this one does not strike a political note that is antagonistic to the rule of Ireland by the English and by the Anglo-Irish, the descendants of English landowners who live in Ireland. The young woman has lovers from these ruling groups and cannot even be troubled to know what armies are at war.

The poet here praises life itself above all that would compromise its pleasure, and he gives no indication that the young woman should be other than she is. For the poet, as he explains in a note to the poem in his Collected Poems of Austin Clarke (1936), the woman expresses an understanding of life that was part of Gaelic culture, and was not known to many of Clarke’s contemporaries because they were not acquainted with the literature “first-hand.”

The purpose of the poem, then, is threefold: to praise life, to re-create a character from the Gaelic past, and to make a social comment. Clarke experienced difficulties with official censors, as did other poets at this time. In his note, he states that he is aware that officials will disapprove of his poem and that it might well be condemned from the pulpit on the basis that it is immodest and liable “to incite passions.”

The strength of this poem is its graceful challenge to whatever laws or customs would restrict life. Though committed to the culture of Ireland, past and present, Clarke prized the life that he saw as essential to the culture, a life in direct opposition to compromise and moderation.