Austin Clarke Poetry: British Analysis
The first phase of Austin Clarke’s poetic career, 1917 to 1925, produced four epic poems that are little more than apprentice work. Drawing on Celtic and biblical texts, they betray too easily the influences of Yeats, Sir Samuel Ferguson, and other pioneers of the Revival. Considerably overwritten and psychologically unsure, only in patches do they reveal Clarke’s real talent: his close understanding of the original text and a penchant for erotic humor and evocative lyrical descriptions of nature. The major preoccupations of his permanent work did not appear until he assimilated these earliest influences.
Clarke’s difficulties with religious faith, rejection of Catholic doctrine, and an unfulfilled need for spiritual consolation provide the theme and tension in the poems from Pilgrimage, and Other Poems and Night and Morning. These poems arise from the conflicts between the mores of modern Irish Catholicism and Clarke’s desire for emotional and sexual fulfillment. These poems, therefore, mark a departure from his earlier work in that they are personal and contemporary in theme, yet they are also designedly Irish, in setting and technique.
In searching for a vehicle to express his personal religious conflicts while keeping faith in his commitment to the Irish Literary Revival, Clarke found an alternative to Yeats’s heroic, pre-Christian age: the “Celtic Romanesque,” the medieval period in Irish history when the Christian Church founded by Saint Patrick was renowned for its asceticism, its indigenous monastic tradition, its scholastic discipline, its missionary zeal, and the brilliance of its art (metalwork, illuminated manuscripts, sculpture, and devotional and nature poetry). Although this civilization contained within it many of the same tensions that bedeviled Clarke’s world—those between the Christian ideal and the claims of the flesh, between Christian faith and pagan hedonism—it appealed to his imagination because of his perception of its independence from Roman authority, the separation of ecclesiastical and secular spheres, and its respect for artistic excellence. This view of the period is selective and romanticized but is sufficient in that it serves his artistic purposes.
Clarke’s poetry is Irish also in a particular, technical sense: in its emulation of the complex sound patterns of Gaelic verse, called rime riche. In this endeavor, he was following the example set by Douglas Hyde in his translations of folk songs and by the poems of Thomas MacDonagh. This technique employs a variety of rhyming and assonantal devices so that a pattern of rhymes echoes through the middles and ends of lines, playing off unaccented as well as accented syllables. Relatively easy to manage in Gaelic poetry because of the sound structure of the language, rime riche requires considerable dexterity in English. However, Clarke diligently embraced this challenge, sometimes producing results that were little more than technical exercises or impenetrably obscure, but often producing works of unusual virtuosity and limpid beauty. Clarke summed up his approach in his answer to Robert Frost’s inquiry about the kind of verse he wrote: “I load myself with chains and I try to get out of them.” To which came the shocked reply: “Good Lord! You can’t have many readers.”
Indeed, Clarke is neither a popular nor an easy poet. Despite his considerable output (his Collected Poems runs to some 550 pages), his reputation stands firmly on a select number of these. Of his early narrative poems, adaptations of Celtic epic tales, only a few passages transcend the prevailing verbal clutter.
Pilgrimage, and Other Poems
With the publication of Pilgrimage, and Other Poems, however, the focus narrowed, and the subjects are realized with startling clarity. Perhaps the most representative and accomplished poem in this volume is the lyric “Celibacy.” This treatment of a hermit’s struggle with lust combines Clarke’s personal conflicts with the Catholic Church’s sexual teachings and his sympathy with the hermit’s spiritual calling in a finely controlled, ironic commentary on the contemporary Irish suspicion of sex. Clarke achieves this irony through a series of images that juxtapose the monk’s self-conscious heroism to his unconscious self-indulgence. The rhyming and assonantal patterns in this poem are an early example of the successful use of the sound patterns borrowed from Gaelic models that became one of the distinctive characteristics of his work.
Night and Morning
With the publication of Night and Morning, there is a considerable consolidation of power. In this collection of sterling consistency, Clarke succeeds in harnessing the historical elements to his personal voice and vision. In the exposition of the central theme of the drama of racial conscience, he shows himself to be basically a religious poet. The central problems faced here are the burden to the contemporary generation of a body of truth received from the centuries of suffering and refinement, the limitations of religious faith in an age of sexual and spiritual freedom, and the conflicts arising from a sympathy with and a criticism of the ordinary citizen. Clarke’s own position is always ambivalent. While he seems to...
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