273. (Austin Clarke)


Among the most beautiful and anthologized of Austin Clarke’s poems is “Martha Blake”:


Before the day is everywhere
And the timid warmth of sleep
Is delicate on limb, she dares
The silence of the street
Until the double bells are thrown back
For Mass and echoes bound
In the chapel yard, O then her soul
Makes bold in the arms of sound.

But in the shadow of the nave
Her well-taught knees are humble,
She does not see through any saint
That stands in the sun
With veins of lead, with painful crown:
She waits that dreaded coming,
When all the congregation bows
And none may look up.

The word is said, the Word sent down,
The miracle is done
Beneath those hands that have been rounded
Over the embodied cup,
And with a few, she leaves her place
Kept by an east-filled window
And kneels at the communion rail
Starching beneath her chin.

She trembles for the Son of Man,
While the priest is murmuring
What she can scarcely tell, her heart
Is making such a stir;
But when he picks a particle
And she puts out her tongue,
That joy is the glittering of candles
And benediction sung.

Her soul is lying in the Presence
Until her senses, one
By one, desiring to attend her,
Come as for feast and run
So fast to share the sacrament,
Her mouth must mother them:
“Sweet tooth grow wise, lip, gum be gentle,
I touch a purple hem.”

Afflicted by that love she turns
To multiply her praise,
Goes over all the foolish words
And finds they are the same;
But now she feels within her breast
Such calm that she is silent,
For soul can never be immodest
Where body may not listen.

On a holy day of obligation
I saw her first in prayer,
But mortal eye had been too late
For all that thought could dare.
The flame in heart is never grieved
That pride and intellect
Were cast below, when God revealed
A heaven for this earth.

So to begin the common day
She needs a miracle,
Knowing the safety of angels
That see her home again,
Yet ignorant of all the rest,
The hidden grace that people
Hurrying to business
Look after in the street.


Donald Davie devotes two paragraphs to the poem in a 1974 piece on Clarke and Edwin Muir. One of the paragraphs constitutes essential criticism:

 The remaining seven stanzas take Martha Blake through all the stages of the Eucharist, drawing out how in her experience of the sacrament sensuous delight is necessarily confounded with spiritual exaltation. In the sixth stanza, one of the most difficult, this confounding or compounding of allegedly distinct realms of experience exacts a step even beyond cross-rhyme and produces a ‘rhyme’ that is an anagram (‘silent’/’listen’):

But now she feels within her breast
Such calm that she is silent,
For soul can never be immodest
Where body may not listen.

In the poem as a whole there is nothing to offend the most devout Christian, and indeed it could have been written only by a poet who had experienced the Eucharist very fervently. He feels along with Martha Blake the whole way; and the only sign that he is also detached from her, feeling for her and about her as well as with her (feeling for instance that she does not understand how spiritual experience must be mediated through the senses), is in the calculated harshness with which from time to time the cadence is blocked from providing the reader with the pleasure it has led him to expect. The effect is extraordinarily poignant; and such reticence sustained with such subtlety is something which it is hard to parallel.

 For all that is good in what Davie writes, I was most relieved to find him finding this to be “one of the most difficult” stanzas. In my experience with the poem, it isn’t only the realms of experience that are confounded in the stanza, but the stanza that is itself confounding, and confounding where Davie’s praise falls: the final two lines: “For soul can never be immodest | Where body may not listen.” I suppose I falter most over the last line: “Where body may not listen.” Hence an attempt at riddling it.

What body? Why may it not listen? Listen to what? And where is the body? What “where”  could account for it not listening?

Let’s follow the thread first of the “silence/listen” anagram (the silenced rhyme): the words are the same, and finding them thus, the soul cannot be immodest, cannot experience anything out of itself, potent or arduous; the body is not able to listen because the words are the same and she does not speak them.

But this does not work—the words “but” and “for” ask for greater attention. First she finds the words are the same, but despite that, she feels calm: as if she might be disappointed or rebel or react against their sameness. Instead of that, perhaps even somehow in that recognition of that sameness, she feels instead a calm that transcends it, and so she remains silent; she has moved beyond what the ritual then. And the reason for that calm is that the soul cannot be immodest where body may not listen. That might be taken to mean then that the body is not permitted, and also not able, to listen to the words any longer because they are the same; it might also mean that the body is not able or not permitted to listen because she is silent and does not speak them.

In the first case, the body may not listen, because the words are the same, and that itself generates the calm that silences here and that is at one with the modesty of her soul at that moment. In the second case, the body may not listen because the words are not spoken by her, and the word are not spoken by her because she is calm, and she is calm because the is immodest, and immodest because she does not speak the words. The second, then, is overtly circular. But so is the first, if the body not listening means that it does not listen to her words.

What then? First, a clearer sorting. I’m assuming that the soul’s modesty and her calm are the same, or parts of the same thing. As a consequence, I’m suggesting that the final two lines of the stanza explain the prior lines: why the soul is so calm that she is silent. Second, a clearer examination of the confusion. It lies most of all with “may” and “listen.” “May” is permissive and raises the question of what is denying the body permission to listen? Is it the soul? If it is, then circularity enters again, since it would be circular to explain the soul’s calm by saying that the soul’s immodesty denies the body permission to listen. However, a way out of the circularity opens: the calm she feels might not be the same as the soul’s modesty; the calm would then be said to explain her silence, and her silence would be explained by the soul’s not being able to be immodest, and that modesty of the soul in turn denies the body the permission to listen. Here we come to the word “listen” which we might struggle to reconcile with silence, if we think that the soul denies the body the permission to listen resulting in her not speaking: for why would the body’s not listening result in her not speaking, in her silence?

An answer is liturgical: the body may not listen to the back and forth of the mass, and so the soul cannot be immodest, and so she is silent and calm. This would seem to be a neat solution, but we are thrown back onto a question about “may” and about permissiveness. What denies her permission to listen? Her own familiarity with the words? The temptation would be to convert “may” to “can,” in an inversion of the schoolroom joke (“Can I go to the bathroom?” “Yes, but you may not go right now.”). In that case, the poem would be about incontinence of the will: unable to listen, the soul cannot be immodest, a calm descends, and she does not speak.” But that is not what it says: “not being permitted to listen with the body, the soul is modest, a calm descends and she is silent.”

Now, at least, I’ve come to the root of my confusion: what exercises authority to deny the body permission to listen?

An answer to that lies in the word “where,” chosen instead of “when.” That word suggests that permissibility depends not on time but on location and the location here is clearly established: the church.

At this point, it’s worth noting the wonderful ambivalence of this stanza and the one before it, from “lying” with its pun on mendacity to the possibility that the calm is a disappointment, an emptiness or failure to respond spiritually rather than an appropriate modesty.

It might be that the body is denied permission to listen to the words of the Eucharist, but I suspect something else here that makes greater sense of the words: that the body is denied permission to listen to the soul, and being denied that permission, the soul is modest and she falls silent. A related idea would be that her body is denied permission to listen to the words that she speaks; this would be a milder form of self-denial than if she were not to listen to her soul. In either case, the denial of that permission is, paradoxically, a consequence of the ritual of the sacrament, both in a sense that honors its submission to God, and also so as to make suspect its divorce of act from self. That, to my satisfaction, undoes the knot.

I don’t think it’s a shortcoming of the stanza that I find it so difficult; nor do I think it’s entirely my fault that I find it difficult. The lines are remarkably hard even as they are remarkably limpid. They are genuinely lapidary, in other words. What’s more, they are hard in response to her situation: “may” is as uncertain as the source of Catholic authority is mysterious; “listen” spins on its axis because Martha Blake’s experience of listening turns in so many directions, inwards, outwards, to the words of the congregation, and the words of the priest. The initial puzzle, parsing the line of cause and effect, is difficult because the relationship of body and soul, of speech and listening, is, during the Mass, itself confounded (as Davie notes).