Catholicism After Catholicism in Irish Poetry

Author: James Matthew Wilson (Villanova University)

Andrew J. Auge. A Chastened Communion: Modern Irish Poetry and Catholicism. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2013, 283 pp.

A Chastened Communion

When I first took an amateur’s interest in poetry, it arose in response to those poets who combined mastery of the tradition and craft of prosody—poetic form—with an ambition to grapple with those far vaster, more mysterious realities that give form to human experience, whether historically, by way of the nation, or absolutely, by way of the religious. Such grand gestures had come as a matter of course to the modernist poets, who conflated the historical and the divine in the realms of epic, ritual, and myth. But in post-war British and American poetry, it was just those gestures from which most poets fled. They retreated to the supposedly private scale of the personal or confessional lyric, or “advanced” by undermining the integrity of every grand gesture with the camp and incoherence of the postmodern.

Contemporary Irish poets stood apart from this trend. They were, to be sure, influenced by British and American poets in a number of ways, but they also continued to stretch the forms of verse to comprehend the forms of history and the divine. Though he was ridiculed for it (perhaps most infamously by David Lloyd in Anomalous States), Seamus Heaney continued to cultivate the Blakean “religious” imagination that Yeats had expressed before him; so also did Derek Mahon move suavely through the little rooms of his stanzas meditating on the absolutes of beauty and goodness still visible in the wreckage of history, much in the fashion of Eliot. These and other Irish poets, such as Thomas Kinsella, seemed to recognize that the disappointments of the cosmos did not necessitate a retreat from the cosmic scale or a merely ironical relation of poetic form to mythic and ontological forms.

Only when I turned to make a serious study of Irish literature and Catholicism as part of my graduate work, did I realize how limited, how little this persistence in the grand gestures of modernism actually translated into profundity of religious thought. I had presumed, in my naiveté, that Irish literature would make a fruitful subject for the study of theological, metaphysical, and aesthetic form, precisely because of Ireland’s historical Catholicism and its fixation on the meaning of nationhood consequent to its colonial experience. I discovered instead that the thinking about religion evidenced in Irish literature was, at best, theologically impoverished, and at worst altogether incapable of serious engagement with this dimension of reality.

To begin with, those Irish writers who embraced Catholicism could give voice to it only as an adjunct of the national character, and those who did not—the majority—conceived of it no less as a formation, an expression, either of national character or imperial oppression. Despite its routine depictions of the features and elements of Catholic ways and practices, Irish literature was profoundly secular; it alternately absorbed the religious within the cultural-political complex of nationalism or rejected it with the anti-clerical grimace foundational to modern liberalism.

Scholars of Irish literature made no effort to get outside of this polarity.  To the contrary, they reproduced it in various forms. In some cases, the possessive individualism to which anti-clerical Irish writers from Joyce and Gerald O’Donovan onward gave voice was simply ratified, and the history of Irish literature came to be told as a collective Bildungsroman, wherein isolated artists fought for their artistic and sexual (always sexual) freedom from the “oppressive moralism” (219) of a “Jansenist” and “patriarchal” Irish culture and clerisy. More recent scholars have simply transmogrified the liberal individual’s fight for freedom from external moral, religious, and national norms into the battle for “subjects” to fashion themselves in an ethereal freedom that rejects the nasty “essentialism” of the past (including the essentialism of “possessive individualism” itself) outright. In a simulacrum of critical perception, Irish authors are praised or condemned based upon which side they seem to endorse. Daniel Corkery is a bad “essentialist,” while Medbh McGuckian is only to be the more celebrated if one cannot understand her poems. The story’s form remains the same, but the oppressions grow more vast and insidious, the fight more arcane, and the stakes more elusive and atomistic.

From such a narrative, it might seem that a theologically penetrating account of Irish poetry would have little to say and that the critical tools necessary for it would be lacking from current scholarly practice in any case. Andrew J. Auge has striven both mightily and modestly against these limitations. A Chastened Communion: Modern Irish Poetry and Catholicism begins by acknowledging the stunted ways in which Irish poetry reflects on the Catholic and avails itself of the resources of Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age to unfasten some of the dualisms I have described above. It then proceeds to explore the work of seven Irish poets in the decades since the death of Yeats to consider how they engage in an antagonistic dialectic with the sacramental practices, theological vision, and collapsing cultural prestige of the Catholic Church in Ireland.

As is typically the case with a study of this scope, Auge’s introduction offers the most incisive and sophisticated observations of the volume, while the subsequent studies of individual poets synthesize and modestly advance the current scholarship. Each chapter traces one poet’s work as it develops “a demythologizing critique of some elemental feature of Irish Catholicism—the sacraments of confession [Austin Clarke] and the Eucharist [John Montague], the pilgrimages to holy wells and Lough Derg [Patrick Kavanagh], the worshipping of relics and veneration of the Blessed Virgin [Eléan Ní Chuilleanáin and Paula Meehan], the imperative to self-sacrifice [Seamus Heaney], the narrowly patriarchal nature of the institutions [Paul Durcan]” (3). As Auge emphasizes, such critiques are not purely negative, but elicit “in turn, a radical reshaping of these traditional religious phenomena” (3) to give the materials of an inherited Catholic culture a “new more pliable” form (217).

On Auge’s account, these poets cannot be understood as classically anti-clerical figures, but as engaging Catholicism in such a way that it not only generates subject matter for their poetry but also an alternative vision of Catholicism that the author frequently seems to endorse as worthy of our adherence. Indeed, the generative possibilities he finds in the, at best, heterodox Catholicism of these poets leads him to conclude that “we might be inclined to add a note of regret to the general celebratory chorus heralding the passing of Irish Catholicism” (18). As Catholicism completes its marginalization in Irish culture, poetry in Ireland will come to appear as placeless and flat as it often does in Great Britain and the United States (223).

Auge begins his study by acknowledging not only the theological impoverishment of the literature of Irish Catholicism but by noting that criticisms such as those I offer above date back at least to the Celtic Revival and Ernest Boyd’s 1916 lamentation over its “aesthetic sterility” (6). Auge reminds us, however, that the Catholic “element” in Joyce is far from sterile, and then provides a compelling short essay on that pious heir of Joyce, Denis Devlin. Devlin could address “issues of faith with the mandarin subtlety that one would expect from epigones of modernism” (11), and his poems realize a “devotional impetus and theological focus” lacking in the main subjects of this book (13). If Devlin is an unmistakably Catholic Irish modernist, the Catholicism of the poets on whom Auge focuses reveal the inevitable unevenness of secularization. They are poets belonging in Charles Taylor’s secular age—one where religion does not vanish but, in losing univocal authority, diffuses itself through society in forms of “individualized bricolage” (221). This nuanced vision helps frame poets one might otherwise understand as secular, liberal-individualist, and anti-clerical, as post-secular, post-metaphysical, and, again, heterodox. It rightly brings into thematic focus what one might otherwise dismiss as the bric-a-brac of Irish historical experience.

In his study of Austin Clarke, Auge crystallizes the established reading of the first great poet after Yeats as one doubly bound to the sacrament of confession. The supposedly invasive and traumatic effects of a form of sacramental confession that “policed” sexual desire and corporeality in general led to Clarke’s nervous breakdown and institutionalization, but would subsequently inspire him to practice a poetics of “therapeutic imperative” (21). What sacramental confession has done, confessional poetics must reveal, so that Clarke can become the priest and therapist who undoes it all by enacting his own absolution (37). Auge sees this self-absolution as culminating in an emancipation of normative sexuality altogether, and thus Clarke comes to appear as a prophet of a renovated Christian Gnosticism that frees the will from every limit by denying to the body all intelligibility. Auge does not hesitate to celebrate Foucault as the authoritative exegete of such prophecy. His later chapter on Paul Durcan retells this story in cultural-political rather than disciplinary and sacramental terms. The priest as exemplar of manly assertiveness and moral restraint gives way to a feminized sensitivity that is intended, of course, to liberate us from masculine and feminine full stop.

In his account of Patrick Kavanagh, Auge seeks to challenge a critical consensus that sees the poet as operating within the narrow literary antagonisms of romantic pastoral and realist anti-pastoral with one distinctly Catholic in nature. He views Kavanagh as defending a rich parochialism against the ambitions of a centralizing Irish church that came into being with the Devotional Revolution. Kavanagh’s “parochialism” comprises the long tradition of local practices that viewed the land as suffused with sacramental significance.  Its great expressions were the sundry practices of patterns and ritual prayers held at Saints’ Wells. Although an imperfect tradition, in Kavanagh’s account, it remained an authentic spirituality worth preserving from the church’s efforts to circumscribe the sacred within the bounds of priest-controlled church buildings. Auge is surely right to locate parochialism at the heart of Kavanagh’s poetry, and doing so helps explain the sacramental beauty, however mud and clay besmirched, his poems sympathetically depict. He does push his case a bit too far, however. In Kavanagh’s prose and poetry, he explicitly interprets his own work as part of an anti-romantic project—but ultimately in the interest of embracing a genuine, parochial Catholicism.

Auge’s readings of John Montague and Seamus Heaney are similarly compelling and require similar qualifications. He envisions Montague’s poetry as presenting hope for a Eucharistic community that transcends the poet’s broken, displaced, family, and all sectarian division, including the historical use of the Eucharist itself as a weapon of division. Thus, “The Bread God” must be reimagined as an eschatological communion so that it neither feeds Protestant anti-Catholicism that first inspired that slur nor fosters a triumphalist adoration of the “real presence” of Christ as exclusively possessed by the Catholic Church. Auge gives a doubtful reading of Jean-Luc Marion’s theology of presence in order to make this claim plausible. By proposing that the memorial and eschatological functions of the Eucharist cancel out its actual sacramental presence, Auge reverses Marion’s theology, which would remind us that the reality genuinely present in the Eucharist is that of Charity.  Love supersedes being by way of excess, Marion argues, and so he does not “empty” the Eucharist, but gives it still greater present reality.

Heaney’s career unfolds in a similar course, on Auge’s telling. The young Heaney is a victim of the Christian “ressentiment” that found both religious and political expression among northern Irish Catholics in the decades of the Troubles. “Ressentiment,” in Nietzsche’s sense, characterizes “those occupying the lower rungs of the social ladder [who] allow their sense of inequity and deprivation to fester and turn rancorous,” leading to a vision of “victimhood” as a “badge of moral superiority” (111). This is a familiar but risky line of criticism; Max Scheler and T.S. Eliot turned it upon Nietzsche with gusto, suggesting that, at best, Nietzsche was himself resentful, and, at worst, the term is just a type of sophisticated name-calling. Be that as it may, no one can doubt that Heaney’s poetry takes for one major theme a sense of indebtedness that resembles that of a sinner who believes that he must continue the atonement accomplished by Christ on the cross through suffering and sacrificing.

However, Heaney contrasts this with another theme. If poetry may enact a resentful atonement, may pay a debt, it may also serve as a scene of the numinous and marvelous, a place where something is simply given. Auge writes, while Heaney “wants to believe that poetry is a ‘self-validating’ endeavor, that the act of creation justifies itself through its own freedom, he is plagued by a lingering sense that the poetic freedom is not free but must be earned through sacrifice” (113). Auge portrays Heaney as working through a poetics of sacrifice until he escapes to one of gift, of leaving behind the debt of Catholicism for the luminous epiphanies of poetry; Heaney himself retails that narrative. But justice and mercy, sacrifice and gift, cohere within Catholic thought—just ask Dante. Auge seems to indulge a bit of “ressentiment” himself in holding up the “life-affirming” gift as something opposed to the gloom and blood of the atonement, whereas the unspeakable mystery of the cross tells us that they are finally one. Justice is one of love’s hard gifts and only in the therapeutic hedonism of Norman O. Brown can sacrifice be judged a denial, rather than an affirmation, of life’s value. My own sense of why Heaney’s poetry attains such force is that, taken as a whole, it refuses to reduce the dialectic of gift and sacrifice to a Whig chronicle of therapeutic liberation (116). Rather, like Yeats before him, Heaney generated his poems from the hypostatic tension between them.

Auge’s accounts of Eléan Ní Chuilleanáin and Paula Meehan run along lines similar to those established in the chapters on Clarke and Durcan. Auge mounts an impressive effort to have his examinations of most of the male poets in his study break the gravity of the political. The parochial and the sacramental in Kavanagh, Montague, and Heaney, open up a way of being in the world that transcends cultural politics, even as they bear within themselves an unmistakable political weight. This is less decisively the case with these two women poets precisely because, on Auge’s construction, the theological supersession of the political is pulled back to earth and reconfigured as a female alternative to political and religious patriarchy.

Ní Chuilleanáin gives voice and image to the largely invisible lives of nuns in Ireland, recovering the “heightened spiritual significance” (148) their habits adduce and the freedom that religious communities made possible for women in a separate sphere. She does so while also weighing the role Irish nuns played, through the Magdalene laundries, for instance, in enabling a “patriarchal” church to extend its “architecture of containment” beyond public life and private matrimony to the lives of unmarried women at the margins of society (160). The ambiguity Auge cultivates here is intriguing, but, as in the chapter on Clarke, the alternative envisioned seems merely to be one liberated from the supposedly “phallocentric” beauty of rose windows at the front of Catholic churches (161). We could say much the same regarding his discussion of Paula Meehan, where Mariolatry is traced back to mythologies of the “Great Mother,” a matriarchal, or at least female, vision of deity. This familiar modernist geneaology gives Meehan leave to reject Catholicism as complicit in “enlightenment modernity” (205), while freeing her to appropriate its visionary dimensions for purposes “untethered to any external agenda” besides that of feminism (198). The result here, as in Heaney, is a poetry of “ecstasy” that eschews “a totalizing meaning” (216).

As Auge and Taylor have promised, the transmuted Catholicism of these poets is “spiritual, but not religious;” it delivers the subjective experience of the divine without the weight of ontological truth or goodness. Auge reveals their engagement with Catholicism as more intricate and compelling than the acerbic liberal anti-clericalism on which a less perceptive reader might conclude, but he also explains the naiveté of a reader like my younger self who thought to discover in Irish poetic forms ways of seeing the form of the divine love as it reveals itself. Finally, in exemplifying both the potency and the limitations of the theological dimension of Irish poetry, Auge opens us to a promising new critical road for the study of Irish literature. The question Auge leaves for us is whether that road will seem worth taking after the collapse of Catholic belief and practice in a country grown weary of religious and national pieties and perennially indisposed, pace Devlin, to religious thought.