‘O Sun, O Christ ... Thou pawnest Heaven as a pledge for Earth’ ... a recent sunset in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
I have chosen as my Poem for Lent this morning, a sonnet, ‘I saw the Sun at Midnight,’ by the 1916 leader, Joseph Mary Plunkett (1879-1916).
Although another poem by Plunkett, ‘I see his blood upon the rose,’ is well-known, Plunkett’s work as poet is often overshadowed by the memory of his role in the Easter Rising in 1916.
But Joseph Mary Plunkett was hardly the typical “green, Gaelic, Catholic working class hero” that those who hijack the memory and names of 1916 today would like us to imagine. Instead, Joseph Mary Plunkett came from an aristocratic and artistic background.
He was the son of Count George Noble Plunkett (1851-1948), curator of the National Museum of Ireland, and Josephine Cranny (1858-1944), Countess Plunkett, and was born at 26 Upper Fitzwilliam Street, Dublin, on 21 November 1887. He was went to school in Dublin at Catholic University School and the Jesuit-run Belvedere College, before going to study philosophy at the Jesuit-run English public school, Stonyhurst.
In England, he studied the mystics John of the Cross, Theresa of Avila, and Francis de Sales, and their influence permeates his poetry, although, in a short article on ‘Obscurity and Poetry,’ he later applied the term “mystic” to but a very small part of his own verse.
Back in Ireland, he became friends with Thomas MacDonagh and Padraic Pearse at Saint Enda’s School, Rathfarnham, and who – like him – would become signatories of the 1916 Proclamation. But ill-health made him inactive for much of his life, and to spend many winters abroad. He and his mother spent a winter travelling in Italy, Sicily and Malta, and he spent another winter in Algiers, where he studied Arabic literature and language.
When he returned from Algiers he lived in Donnybrook, but apart from MacDonagh and Pearse he had few other literary friends in Dublin until he became interested in the Irish Review, whose contributors included James Stephens, Thomas MacDonagh and Padraic Colum, who was editor in 1912-1913. Two poems of his poems were published in the Review, and he became editor in June 1913.
During his time as editor, the contributors included David Houston, Joseph Campbell, Conal O’Riordan, James Cousins, Lord Dunsany, Darrell Figgis, Arthur Griffith, Mary Hayden, Winifred M Letts, Susan Mitchell, Francis Sheehy Skeffington and Sir Roger Casement.
Along with MacDonagh and Edward Martyn, he also co-founded the Irish Theatre in 1914.
During the 1916 Rising, he was one of the signatories of the Proclamation. He was imprisoned in Richmond Barracks. Shortly before his execution in the courtyard of Kilmainham Jail, on the morning of 4 May 1916, he married his fiancé, Grace Gifford (1888-1955), in the jail chapel. His friend, Thomas MacDonagh, who married Grace’s sister, Muriel, was executed the day before. Grace and Joseph had planned to marry in University Church, Saint Stephen’s Green. He was 28 when he died.
Two volumes of Plunkett’s poetry were published: The Circle and the Sword was published in 1911, and Occulta was published posthumously. The Circle and the Sword, which was published in 1911, included many immature poems along with some lasting poems he later counted among his mature work, including ‘White Dove of the Wild Dark Eyes,’ the sonnet ‘I Saw the Sun at Midnight, Rising Red,’ the poems ‘1867,’ ‘I See His Blood Upon the Rose,’ ‘My Soul is Sick with Longing,’ and ‘The Stars Sang in God’s Garden.’
Today’s poem, which is a deep meditation on the love of God, was also included in The Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1917), edited by DHS Nicholson and AHE Lee.
I saw the Sun at Midnight, by Joseph Mary Plunkett
I saw the Sun at midnight, rising red,
Deep-hued yet glowing, heavy with the stain
Of blood-compassion, and I saw It gain
Swiftly in size and growing till It spread
Over the stars; the heavens bowed their head
As from Its heart slow dripped a crimson rain,
Then a great tremor shook It, as of pain –
The night fell, moaning, as It hung there dead.
O Sun, O Christ, O bleeding Heart of flame!
Thou givest Thine agony as our life’s worth,
And makest it infinite, lest we have dearth
Of rights wherewith to call upon Thy Name;
Thou pawnest Heaven as a pledge for Earth
And for our glory sufferest all shame.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.