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Classic and Contemporary Poetry: Explained


David Wheatley, a contemporary Irish poet, and critic was born in Dublin in 1970. He is known for his striking imagery and adept use of language. His works often draw from or comment on the history and culture of Ireland, and "Sonnet #1 to James Clarence Mangan" exemplifies this aspect of his work.

This sonnet is an homage to James Clarence Mangan, a 19th-century Irish poet who had a significant influence on Wheatley and other Irish writers. The poem paints a detailed picture of the cityscape, which serves as a metaphor for the decay and transformation of Dublin's historical and cultural heritage. This landscape is bleak and abandoned, filled with "craters, glass, graffiti, vomit, faeces," reflecting both physical decay and societal problems. Despite this grim description, the sonnet subtly evokes the resilience and survival of Dublin's past through the "last buttressed Georgian house," standing as a symbol of Dublin's architectural and historical legacy.

The sonnet also incorporates musical motifs. The "ghost harmonics of the first Messiah" likely refer to the first performance of Handel's "Messiah," which took place in Fishamble Street, Dublin, in 1742. The "bells long redeveloped out of use" at Saints Michael and John's symbolize a loss of tradition, a theme Wheatley frequently explores in his poetry.

The closing line, "Silence. Of you, Mangan, not a trace," serves as a lament for the absence of Mangan, who, despite his influence, is under-recognized and often forgotten in the literary world. However, this absence also amplifies Mangan's presence in the sonnet, as his spirit pervades the poem.

In sum, Wheatley's "Sonnet #1 to James Clarence Mangan" combines a melancholic reflection on the city's physical and historical changes with an homage to a literary influence. The poem is a potent reminder of how the past continues to echo in the present, and how it informs the work of writers and artists.


In "Sonnet #14 to James Clarence Mangan," David Wheatley continues his tribute to the Irish poet James Clarence Mangan. The sonnet, much like "Sonnet #1 to James Clarence Mangan," portrays the changing face of Dublin, lamenting the erosion of its history and culture. However, this sonnet takes a more defiant and incisive stance.

The poem starts with a resigned acceptance of the city's transformation, where "new hotels and apartment blocks replace / the Dublin that we brick by brick erase." This suggests the unstoppable forces of modernization and gentrification, systematically destroying the city's historical fabric.

The poem then transitions into a critique of the social and economic issues plaguing Dublin. Wheatley uses stark imagery of "vampire crime lords" fattening on the city's flesh and "planners" zoning the corpse for "laundered cash" to decry corruption and greed.

Despite these bleak portrayals, the sonnet also carries an underlying sense of resilience and defiance. Mangan's "heedless cry" is urged to remain the same, hinting at the enduring power of his poetry and its potential to resist the erasure of cultural heritage.

Mangan is depicted as intimately connected with his city's fate. The lines "The only city that I called my own / sank with me into everlasting shade" link the poet's life and death with the city's decline, the references to his birth "the year that Emmet swung" (Robert Emmet was a revolutionary Irish nationalist executed in 1803, the year of Mangan's birth) and his "fever death in '49" (the year Mangan died) ground him firmly in the city's turbulent history.

The concluding lines depict Mangan's poetry as a beacon that illuminates and critiques the present. His words, likened to a "matchstick falling through the void," scorch the succeeding centuries with song. This metaphor suggests that Mangan's work, despite the passing of time and the erasure of his city, continues to burn brightly and defiantly.

Overall, Wheatley's "Sonnet #14 to James Clarence Mangan" is a poignant commentary on the relentless march of progress and the enduring power of poetry. It laments the loss of Dublin's historical and cultural identity but also affirms the ability of literature, especially Mangan's poetry, to resist this erasure and illuminate the future.

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