Week 278: The Lost Heifer, by Austin Clarke

I find this poem by the Irish poet Austin Clarke (1896-1974) enchantingly obscure, and since I set great store by clarity, ‘enchanting’ and ‘obscure’ are not normally words I would use together. The good news is that the poem does have a key to it: there is apparently a tradition among Irish poets of personifying their country in various ways, and one of those ways is to see it as a cow – Clarke comments that ‘the Heifer’ or ‘Silk of the Kine’ was a secret name for Ireland used by Jacobite poets. So the lost heifer is Ireland itself, and Clarke adds that he wrote the poem at a time when he felt that national identity was undergoing an eclipse. The less good news is that this still does not, at least to me, go very far to explaining what is going on here: what, for example, is ‘the last honey by the water’? And yet the poem still seems to me a beautiful evocation of something, even if I’m not sure exactly what is being evoked. As usual, any further enlightenment will be gratefully received.

The Lost Heifer

When the black herds of the rain were grazing
In the gap of the pure cold wind
And the watery haze of the hazel
Brought her into my mind,
I thought of the last honey by the water
That no hive can find.

Brightness was drenching through the branches
When she wandered again,
Turning the silver out of dark grasses
Where the skylark had lain,
And her voice coming softly over the meadow
Was the mist becoming rain.

Austin Clarke


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