The Lost Heifer

This poem was published in 1936 and is Clarke's own words "In the mode of the Jacobite songs". The lines were written in a period when our national idealism suffered eclipse. The heifer or silk of the kime is a secret name used by the Jacobite poets for Ireland. He also said "This symbol however is undoubtedly older and it may be supposed to bring us back to the original cattle myth, the cloud or rain cows typified by glas gaineach or glas gavlen". Douglas Hyde described the mode of the Jacobite poets as follows "This form introduces the poet as wandering in a wood or by the bank of a river when he is astonished to see a beautiful lady approach him. He addresses her and she answers. The charms of her voice mean and bearing are portrayed by the poet.

In this poem Clarke writes about Ireland at the time of the Civil War. He draws a comparison between the disastrous effects of the Civil War on Nationalism and the English rule under which the Jacobite poets wrote their poems. He uses the format of the aisling or dream poem to create the image of the lost heifer, symbolising an independent Irish state. The imagery and atmosphere of the poem is unmistakably Irish as Clarke paints us a picture of landscape and weather which is typical of Ireland .

In the opening line he refers to "black herds", the blackness symbolises unhappiness but also they typify the native Irish breed of cattle, they are described as herds of the rain in keeping with the ancient symbol of the rain cow. The rain is also important in that it restricts visibility and suggests that the light of freedom is furthest away. The herds "were grazing in the gap of the pure cold wind" a suggesting a change in the weather, an easing in the rain - a possibility of freedom (1916 Rising). The scene here is suggestive of herds of cattle grazing on a mountain side - a typically native image. In line 3 Clarke uses another ancient symbol for Ireland, that of the hazel bush, suggesting that the reflected light from the rain covering boughs of the hazel bush. The image serves as his ideal Ireland. In the final two lines of the stanza, there is yet another Jacobite symbol. He refers to the unattainable honey that cannot be reached by bees. It is a direct reference to the monastic settlement at Clonmacnoise - a symbol of Gaelic culture. Throughout the opening stanza Clarke is pessimistic. The Ireland he seeks is but a dream, a vision, it is unattainable.

There is a momentary note of optimism at the beginning of the second stanza. "Brightness was drenching through the branches" - the opaque film of the watery hazes has lifted to reveal Nationalist Ireland in its reality. However this was but a fleeting image, that short period between the end of British dominance and the beginning of the Civil War - "When she wandered again". In lines 9 and 10, Clarke uses the imagery of Irish bogland to portray his renewed sense of pessimism. He speaks of dark grasses and the uninhabitable nest of the sky lark represents a void which symbolises the effect of the Civil War. He pictures the heifer wandering through the bogland as turning the silver out of the dark grasses. This image involves the reflection created by the sun in the rain covered grasses, as the blades of the grass are moved by the heifer's legs. The suggestion here is that the heifer represents an ideal of Nationalism, that if allowed to flourish would encourage a greater response. The fact that the silver is there shows Nationalism is being down trodden and needs a catalyst to help it escape from the darkness of oppression. The poem concludes on a note of pessimism - "Was the mist becoming rain". The heifer has wandered further into the distance, the Civil War is becoming comparable to English rule and its detrimental effect on Nationalism.

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