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

By Andrew J. Auge

A Chastened Communion lines a brand new direction in the course of the well-traversed box of recent Irish poetry via revealing how serious 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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Such a maneuver, Clarke suggested, was less a matter of personal than cultural authenticity. In a note appended a few years later to what is perhaps the most noteworthy poem from Pilgrimage, “The Young Woman of Beare,” Clarke indicated that “the drama of racial conscience” evinced in this poem’s overt conflict between sexual desire and ecclesiastical authority is one that “particularizes” or distinguishes Irish poetry and that it was ignored by the “elder poets of the Celtic Twilight” because, he implies, they lacked firsthand experience of that conflict.

The result is that an otherwise private and potentially nebulous vision is scored with the specificity of the culturally reinforced credos that it reformulates. 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.

20 But in the case of Stephen Dedalus (and of his creator as well), this experience in the confessional caps a temporary period of religious renewal that is quickly superseded by a commitment to an aesthetic vocation rooted in the pains and pleasures of temporal life. Tellingly, Joyce’s first published story, “The Sisters” from Dubliners, registers not only his awareness of the insidious power of confession but his ability to master it through his art. Near the end of story, one of the sisters reveals that her brother Fr.

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