The unusual title of this poem comes from the first line of The Birth of Antichrist by William Dunbar a 15th century Scottish poet. His poem uses the setting of a dream to depict a gruesome battle between good and evil. Ní Chuilleanáin may have recalled the line when she saw the moon shining ‘in the silence of the night’; Lucina comes from the Latin for ‘light’ and is very similar to the Latin term for the moon: ‘luna’.
This poem recounts a night spent sleeping in a ruined old chapel without the comforts of modern civilisation. The poet details her ‘up close’ encounter with nature and the memories and thoughts the experience brings up for her.
Stanza by Stanza
The poem starts with an image of a clear starry sky with the poet underneath reading a book by candlelight. She describes herself as being ‘without roast meat or music/ Strong drink or a shield from the air’, a description which conjures up images of a medieval feasting hall.
Despite having to wash in cold bog water and having bats for company she ‘slept safely’, feeling secure and relaxed in this natural environment.
In the third stanza the mood alters:
Behind me the waves of darkness lay, the plague
Of mice, plague of beetles
Crawling out of the spines of books,
The word ‘plague’, which is repeated three times, hints at times of mass death and destruction. The ‘waves of darkness’ ‘behind’ her seem to refer to terrible events from the past. She mentions Cromwell hinting at the violence and devastation his forces brought to Ireland in the 17th century.
Plague shadowing pale faces with clay
The disease of the moon gone astray.
‘Pale faces’ shadowed ‘with clay’ might refer to mass burials of plague victims and ‘the disease of the moon gone astray’ hints at the old term for mental illness, lunacy, which comes from the Latin for moon.
The atmosphere of gloom does not last long in the poem, however, as she asserts: ‘In the desert I relaxed, amazed’. She is in awe of the beauty of nature which, for her, is a very positive and heartening presence.
Sheepdogs embraced me; the grasshopper
Returned with lark and bee.
There a sense of growth and renewal, of nature overcoming the challenges of the past. She spots a hare ‘absorbed, sitting still/ In the middle of the track’, a line which echoes the opening of On Lacking the Killer Instinct and may show this was from the same period in her life. She concludes the poem with the uplifting line: ‘I heard/ Again the chirp in the stream running’ implying that life is in continuous motion and constantly renews itself despite humanity’s moments of war and destruction.
The poem is full of striking natural imagery including:
- The sky: ‘Moon shining in silence of night/ The heaven being all full of stars.’
- The bog water: ‘it was orange, channelled down bogs/ Dipped between cresses’.
- Dark imagery: ‘beetles/ Crawling out of the spines of books’.
- ‘shining in silence of the night’
- ‘Plague shadowing pale faces with clay’.
- ‘Plague shadowing pale faces’
Stanza 4 consists of an arresting simile comparing her awe to that of the animals in the mosaic when they first saw the sky through a hole in the roof:
amazed / As the mosaic beasts on the chapel floor
When Cromwell had departed, and they saw
The sky growing through a hole in the roof.