A Chastened Communion: Modern Irish Poetry and Catholicism by Andrew J. Auge

By Andrew J. Auge

A Chastened Communion lines a brand new direction during the well-traversed box of contemporary Irish poetry by means of revealing how severe engagement with Catholicism shapes the trajectory of the poetic careers of Austin Clarke, Patrick Kavanagh, John Montague, Seamus Heaney, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Paul Durcan, and Paula Meehan.

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It is that intaglio, however faded, of particular Catholic principles and rituals that distinguishes the strain of Irish poetry examined here from the appropriations of religious faith enacted elsewhere in modern Anglophone poetry. The idea that poetry might constitute a surrogate for religious faith is a familiar tenet of modern secularity, perhaps most famously promulgated by Matthew Arnold in his Study of Poetry (1880): The future of poetry is immense, because in poetry, where it is worthy of its high destinies, our race, as time goes on, will find an ever surer and surer stay.

Far from being an extension of this ritual, the confessional dimension of Clarke’s poetry is predicated upon his critical scrutiny and radical revision of the Catholic sacrament of confession. Indeed, the overall trajectory of Austin Clarke’s poetic career is distinguished by his development of a paradoxical (anti-)confessional poetics in which a therapeutic imperative to confess unfolds in tandem with the exposure of the ecclesiastical deformation of that act. This deconstruction of the Catholic ritual of auricular confession eventuates in a healing gesture that moves far beyond the effort of other confessional poets to annul their worst depredations by transforming them into art.

43 Its efforts paid off to the point that by 1955 Austin Clarke’s lashing poetic satires of the Irish Catholic Church’s hypocritical policies could be published uncensored in his book Ancient Lights. With the threat of external censorship lifted, subsequent Irish poetry embraced the opportunity to openly challenge Catholicism. But even into the late 1980s such critiques brushed against a bulwark of established religious beliefs. The result is that an otherwise private and potentially nebulous vision is scored with the specificity of the culturally reinforced credos that it reformulates.

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