Montague, John 1929–
Montague is an Irish poet, short story writer, critic, playwright, journalist, editor, and translator. Regarding poetry as "an attempt to chart the secret progress of one's life," he fills his work with a sense of Ireland that is as much public as it is private, as full of the past as of the present. The landscape and legends of the Irish countryside color Montague's verse, and patterns of Gaelic poetry are frequently evident. Thematically, his work portrays death, change, and destruction, often against the backdrop of a rapidly vanishing rural life. Montague has cited William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound as major influences on his style, and critics have praised his clarity of imagery and careful craftsmanship. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
[John Montague's] short, terse lines [in Tides] keep fervent Irish rhetoric at bay, and give the love poems an uncommon precision. The best of these bring something fresh to the worn theme of the transience of love and the nearness of death. In 'Tracks', the act of lovemaking is set against the morning after, in the hotel, where 'giggling maids push / a trolley of fresh / linen down the corridor'. And in 'Premonition', one of the most accomplished of the poems, the poet dreams in nightmare of the torture of his girl, while at the same time in the nearby hospital she survives a difficult birth. He sleeps, and then, 'released from dream, / I lie in a narrow room; / Low-ceilinged as a coffin / The dawn prises open.'
The last two sections are disappointing. When John Montague writes about the sea, he doesn't have anything more to say than most poets writing about the sea. But there is one outstanding ballad poem, taken from the ninth century Irish, called 'The Hag of Beare'. It rings with the implacability of a Norse saga, and is proof enough that John Montague has a wider scope than love poetry in which to write really well. (p. 733)
Christopher Hudson, in The Spectator (© 1970 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), December 5, 1970.
[Although] The Rough Field appears, at first glance, to be a collection of poems of great formal variety, it soon reveals itself as a prolonged meditation on a single theme: the death of a culture. This is one of several themes that have preoccupied Montague in his previous books … and here finds its fullest expression. Now and then one comes across a section that previously appeared in an earlier volume; but where this happens one is conscious of a self-contained poem growing in stature in relation to its new context. One doesn't read at random. The poem must be read consecutively, for it has a cumulative effect, gathering momentum as it proceeds. There are seventy pages of it, a carefully planned structure, and one puts it down with the realization that this is something very unusual, on this (Eastern) side of the Atlantic at least, where the younger poets have for so long eschewed elaborate conceptions and formal complexities. Irish poets have been more adventurous in this respect than English ones; and, as an Irish poem, The Rough Field deserves at least the same status as [Patrick] Kavanagh's The Great Hunger, of which it is in some measure a contemporary updating.
The book is divided into ten sections, covering such areas as family life, religion, the lost language (Gaelic), the local society, and the present state of affairs in Ireland, North and South. These are very approximate, and perhaps rather fatuous headings to impose on a work whose movement is one of symbols, allusions, flashbacks, epiphanies; whose technical sophistication, indeed, makes Kavanagh look like a Victorian writer of sentimental songs. And yet there is, inevitably in a poem of this length, a substantial narrative and discursive content, a prose that is its own kind of poetry and on which the lyric bridge is built. Like [Hugh] MacDiarmid's A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, or the poems of Louis MacNeice, it is about real things, "the ordinary universe."… Montague is not a metaphysician:...
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If I were … beginning a re-reading of John Montague, or if I were advising others where to begin reading him, I would go, and send those others to the heart of his collection, "Tides."… And to two works there, one of them a quite horrifying prose-poem entitled with a cold irony that is typical of Montague: "The Huntsman's Apology." (pp. 1-2)
The second work is brief, called "A Meeting," and is from the ninth-century Irish…. (p. 2)
The startling thing is that both are poems about varieties of love, or about love at different stages, of development or decay. They come at the heart of a book that holds other fine love-poems and in which the blurb, with perhaps an echo of the poet's voice, says with a great deal of justification that the directness and passion of Montague's love-poems have been admired, and his feeling for people and landscape, and claims that in this collection, "Tides," all these are seen as a part of a larger struggle where life and death are interwoven like the rhythms of the sea. (pp. 2-3)
Montague, lean and sharp and soft and sensible, as Berowne uses the word, sees his lovers absurdly balanced on the springs of a bed, shadows swooping, quarreling like winged bats, bodies turning like fish "in obedience to the pull and tug of your great tides." A wind-swept holiday resort on the shore of the North sea becomes a perfect setting for the monster of unhappiness, "an old horror movie come true," to crawl out of the moving deeps and threaten love…. It is a bitter sort of comedy.
It is scarcely then by accident that he places in the middle of all these love-poems the best rendering, from the Irish of the ninth-century, of the love-dirge, or bitter memory of past loves and bitter consciousness of bodily decay, of the Cailleach Beara, the Hag or Old Woman of Beare: which is the southwestern peninsula between Bantry Bay and Kenmare Bay, the land of the O'Sullivans. The Cailleach, a formidable ancient, overburdened with all knowledge and weariness and sometimes, all wickedness, is a recurring figure in Celtic mythologies and shows her face, on occasions and on various bodies, in Montague's poetry.
A one-eyed hag, she—or the poet who interpreted her, as Montague does eleven centuries later—reckons that her right eye has been taken as a down-payment on her claim to heaven; a ray in the left eye has been spared to her that she may grope her way to heaven's gate. Her life has come to be a retreating sea with no tidal return. Gaunt with poverty she, who once wore fine petticoats, now hunts for rags to cover her body. (p. 3)
In this collection, one of the … most striking poems is certainly: "Life Class." It opens calmly, clinically, a cool detailed survey of the body there to be studied, the hinge of the ankle-bone defining the flat space of a foot, the calf's heavy curve sweeping down against the bony shin, the arm cascading from shoulder-knob to knuckle, shapes as natural, as inanimate almost, as sea-worn caves, as pools, boulders, tree-trunks. This is the artist in the neolithic cavern recording in wonderment the skeleton of the life he sees, an art that may have been as utilitarian as modern engineering. (p. 4)
There is much more in the collection, "Tides," than I have here indicated: more than love and lust, and woman, young and old, and ancient mythologies. There are, for instance, wise words to and about Beckett, and about Joyce, and a moving farewell to places and parents, and a seagull's view of his own town which misses only history and religion: which Montague is not to miss when later he takes a more-than-seagull's view of Garvaghey (Garbh Achaidh), "The Rough Field," where he comes from. The collection, too, is rich, as is his earlier poetry, with the preoccupations of a man...
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[The Great Cloak is] a record of a love relationship, shifting from the historical embedding of The Rough Field into a more personal key; but though Montague is a finely accomplished poet, I found this latest collection somewhat disappointing…. [It] fails to achieve an adequate subtlety of response; its language is on the whole … highly inflected, rhetorically resonant …, but there seems some subtle mismatching between that linguistic force and the relative uncomplexity of "content."… Montague's imagery seems too rhetorical, explicit and "head-on" for his emotions; so that when he ends a poem about the breakdown of a relationship with 'We shall never be / what we were, again. / Old love's...
(The entire section is 168 words.)