Austin Clarke

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 737

Augustine Joseph Clarke was born in Dublin, Ireland, on May 9, 1896. His parents, Augustine Clarke and Ellen Patten Browne Clarke, produced twelve children; three daughters and one son, Austin, survived. The young Clarke was educated at Belvedere College (1903-1912) and then at University College of the National University of Ireland on a three-year scholarship of forty pounds a year. At University College, Clarke studied with such prominent figures in Irish literary life as Douglas Hyde and Thomas MacDonagh, and he read Yeats, George Russell (Æ), George Moore, and other English and Anglo-Irish writers. Clarke began to immerse himself in Irish culture and the Celtic Twilight and to explore the literary movements of the time.

Clarke received his bachelor of arts degree with first class honors in English language and literature in 1916, the year of the Easter Rising, and the next year, his master of arts degree, again with first class honors in English. He was then appointed assistant lecturer in English at University College, to replace his teacher, MacDonagh, who had been executed by the British after the Easter Rising.

Clarke published his first significant poem, The Vengeance of Fionn, an epic in the Irish mythic tradition, in 1917. The poem was much praised and Clarke was hailed as a “new Yeats.” For the next several years, Clarke devoted himself to the study of Gaelic prosody and Irish myth and folklore. In 1920, Clarke married for the first time, but the marriage was to last only ten days. He married again in 1930. In 1921, he was appointed assistant examiner in matriculation, National University of Ireland, a post he held until 1970.

By the mid-1920’s, Clarke had shifted his attention away from early Irish themes and had turned instead to the Celtic-Romanesque medieval period as a source of poetic inspiration. The poems in Clarke’s Pilgrimage and Other Poems (1929) deal with themes from this period and illustrate his commitment to Gaelic prosody.

In 1927, Clarke completed his first verse drama, The Son of Learning, and saw it produced at the Cambridge Festival Theatre in October of that year. Between 1922 and 1937, Clarke lived in England. During this period of “exile,” he wrote several more verse plays. In 1932, Clarke’s first novel, The Bright Temptation, was banned by the Irish Free State government. That same year, Clarke was made a member of the Irish Academy of Letters at the invitation of Yeats and George Bernard Shaw.

Between 1933 and 1937, Clarke served as a judge for the annual Oxford Festival of Spoken Poetry. In 1936, when he turned forty, his The Collected Poems of Austin Clarke was published with an introduction by Padraic Colum, and his second novel, The Singing Men at Cashel, was banned in Ireland.

In 1937, Clarke returned to take up permanent residence in Ireland and to become engaged in all aspects of Irish literary life. Clarke’s next book of verse, Night and Morning (1938), marked another turn in his poetic career, from medieval Irish traditions to more complex themes dealing with the struggle between the individual conscience and constituted authority, between personal faith and belief and the Catholic Church in Ireland.

Though he would produce no more poetry for many years, Clarke engaged in a variety of literary activities during the time of his poetic silence. He began to offer literary broadcasts on Radio Éireann and made regular contributions to newspapers and literary magazines. He set up his own private press, the Bridge Press, and held regular literary evenings at home on Sundays. He established the Dublin Verse-Speaking Society and...

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the Lyric Theatre Company in cooperation with Robert Farren and worked with dramatic productions by these groups. During this period, Clarke also continued to write verse plays, and he completed his third novel,The Sun Dances at Easter, in 1952.

In 1955, Clarke published Ancient Lights: Poems and Satires, his first book of verse in nearly two decades. After a period of ill health, Clarke published his Collected Later Poems (1961), a volume that helped establish his reputation as a modern Irish poet. This was followed in 1963 by the publication of his Collected Plays, which contained all the plays he had written up to that time. During the 1960’s, Clarke published two memoirs, Twice ’Round the Black Church and A Penny in the Clouds.

Clarke died in 1974, only a few months after the publication of his Collected Poems. Several of his plays were published posthumously, and a volume of his verse, Selected Poems, edited by Thomas Kinsella, appeared in 1976.


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