Clarke, Austin 1896–1974
Clarke was an Irish poet, critic, playwright, and novelist. Greatly influenced by Irish myth and legend, Clarke, according to M. L. Rosenthal, had an "identification with Ireland … as complete and unself-conscious as with his own family … the criticisms he directs against her have the domestic authenticity … of a man complaining of wife or mother." Regarded by many to be the greatest Irish poet after Yeats, Clarke wrote poetry and verse dramas with fresh, open rhymes characterized by a linguistic energy and a concern for local and topical matters. (See also CLC, Vol. 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 29-32; obituary, Vols. 49-52; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2.)
Austin Clarke's repute was a local affair until the publication of his Ancient Lights in 1955. The good news was carried beyond the Irish Sea in time for the reception of Later Poems in 1961. It is widely agreed that the early poems are not worth reading and that Clarke moved into his stride only when anger made him a satirist. This was my own impression, too, until I went through the poems again on the occasion of the Collected Poems, but I am now convinced that the paradigm is inaccurate. Many of the early poems are indeed tedious….
But there are a few good poems in Pilgrimage (1929) and the first, premature Collected Poems (1936). The first major achievement is not Ancient Lights but Night and Morning (1938). In fact, Clarke's true work is Night and Morning, Ancient Lights, Too Great a Vine (1957), Flight to Africa (1963) and a few short poems in an otherwise not very good book, The Echo at Coole (1968). The first really memorable poem in the big book is 'Celibacy', from the 1929 volume, and with the 'Six Sentences' from the first Collected Poems Clarke found his voice. He showed himself quite capable of losing it again, there are dozens of later poems both false and falsetto, but 'Celibacy' and the 'Sentences' stand in the Collected Poems of Clarke pretty much as 'Adam's Curse' stands in the complete Yeats, the place where the reader first hears a genuine poetry as distinct from verse merely going through its own motions….
Clarke always cared enough for [Dublin] to be enraged by its folly. His satires are the work of a city poet: his invocations of rural landscape are regularly praised, though not by me. In his apprentice years Clarke went Yeats's way, writing long poems, reciting 'the thousand tales of Ireland', and generally proceeding on the assumption that the best way to become a poet was by writing like an Irish poet, at great length…. An Irish poet who published his first long poem in 1917 would have to sell his soul to Yeats or take care to keep out of his way. Clarke's care took him to the Gaelic metres, a safe place because Yeats had no ear for them.
No Yeats, then, if Clarke could help it; easy enough to understand why he had to guard his inner ear against Yeats's rhetoric. But it is not easy to see why Clarke ran away from Eliot, Pound, the Imagists, the modern French poets, and nearly everything of any importance in the new poetry….
[There] is no evidence of a sustained relation between Clarke's mind and 'the modern movement' in any of its audible forms. He was interested in other poems than his own if they offered him solutions to metrical problems, but normally he taught himself to write by working through the Gaelic poems. He made progress...
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in the art by making mistakes and then correcting them. It took him a long time to discover that he was not created by God to be an epic poet. Belatedly, he divined that God was trying to tell him something, and then he found that he had something to tell God, mainly that he no longer believed in Him.Night and Morning is the magnificent result of those communications, a poetry of faith and its fractures, resentments, misgivings, strivings…. (p. 69)
[He] spent … 15 years working with the Dublin Verse Speaking Society and writing verse plays for the Lyric Theatre Company. Someone ought to have told him that it was a waste of time and spirit. Clarke was not a playwright, he was not even up to Yeats's mark in the theatre. (pp. 69-70)
As a poet, Clarke was fascinated by possibility: it was enough for him that a linguistic act was possible, he did not ask that in addition it be necessary. His mind was full of homonyms, puns, rime riche, assonance. He loved making verbs from adjectives: 'fierced', 'futured', a car 'wealthied by', in Mnemosyne Lay in Dust (1966) Maurice 'feebled against his holders'. Or making verbs from nouns: stags antler the wind, New York dollars the sky, the sky-blaze noons at Padua…. 'Vilified' is nearly always 'villafied', especially when Clarke is sneering at Dublin's suburban pretensions, but also in 'A Centenary Tribute' when he writes of revisiting Yeats's house at Riversdale…. We judge these procedures by their results, the cackling does not matter if it yields an egg. Clarke was not given to ambiguity, certainly he did not seek impressions of indefinitely wide reverberation, he liked his words to have several distinct meanings running happily together at the same time but he wanted each meaning to know its own mind and not to confuse itself with its neighbour. He liked to juggle and to keep the meanings simultaneously aloft. His style was not agglutinative, he kept the lines clean, each pointed toward its destination: if a word served two masters, well and good, but Clarke wanted to know each master's name, keeping the record straight. Homonyms pleased him because their meanings went about their business, they did not confound each other, but he took their existence as a good omen and inferred from their proliferation that a poet could still live free….
I think there is more to Clarke's homonyms than that. There is plenty of evidence for associating them with nimiety, natural excess, freedom, but I think they are more powerfully associated in Clarke's poetry with the freedom of sexual fantasy. The conjunction of sex and poetry is common in Clarke, he is an erotic poet, and I would be ready to argue that his high jinks in language are related to standard speech as freedom to constraint: sexual freedoms mostly. (p. 70)
Homonyms are crucial in Clarke's poetry because he loves to find one sound releasing two words; all the better if one of the words stays at home and obeys the rules while the other one runs wild and makes love upon whim and desire. This points to the dominant motif in Clarke's work, the life of freedom and impulse set against the law of institutions. Since Clarke was an Irish poet, the hated institutions were the Church and the State: or rather, the new Church and the new State. His morality is represented by the epic grandeur of the old Irish sagas….
I have never known a poet to get more mileage than Clarke has got from the vagaries of the Catholic Church in Ireland, or the vagaries (no less) of our political masters. He is not, indeed, a disinterested witness. (p. 71)
Every one who irritated Clarke was treated as the personification of some horrible Law or Principle. If he stumbled off a kerb, it meant that he was pushed, probably by the Clergy. He could never distinguish, on any rational ground, between contingency and law, causalities and symptoms. Reading Clarke, I am reminded of something Richard Blackmur said of William Carlos Williams, that it never occurred to him that reality is other than immediately contingent and equal to the actuality….
I am making a fuss about Clarke's dyspepsia to account for the fact that his true work amounts to quite a small list of poems and that he wrote too many poor poems for his reputation's good. The list, for my money, is as follows: 'Celibacy', 'Six Sentences', 'Night and Morning', 'Mortal Pride', 'Tenebrae', 'Martha Blake', 'Repentance', 'The Lucky Coin', 'The Straying Student', 'Penal Law', 'Her Voice Could Not Be Softer', 'Summer Lightning', 'The Jewels', 'Marriage', 'Ancient Lights', 'The Loss of Strength', 'St. Christopher', 'Martha Blake at Fifty-One', 'Japanese Print', 'New Liberty Hall', 'The New Cathedral in Galway', and 'In Kildare Street'. (pp. 71-2)
Denis Donoghue, in The New Review (© The New Review Ltd., 11 Greek Street, London W1V 5LE), August, 1974.
Clarke … began his literary career as a child of the Revival. His development parallels Yeats's in a number of ways. Both began with the legendary Ireland of the heroic age; both later castigated contemporary Ireland for its failure to live up to the past; both abandoned poetry for verse drama and returned revivified; and both cultivated, in middle age, a picturesque preoccupation with sex—which did Yeats no harm, since he was a Protestant, but involved Clarke in difficulties with the Catholic Church.
The differences between them (aside, of course, from the very much greater scope of Yeats's work) were precisely the differences between the indigenous Gaelic-speaker, sharply observant of the actual physical countryside and concerned to imagine the historical reality of his race, and the idealistic impressionist with his roots in the minor gentry. Clarke was, if you like, the Yeats of Catholic Ireland. When the older man turned to the 18th century, Clarke turned to the Middle Ages, the 'Celtic-Romanesque' monastic culture….
He came into his own with Night and Morning (1938) and Ancient Lights (1955), volumes separated by nearly 20 years (his years in the theatre) but closely related in theme; and the theme, one to which he constantly returned, was the stultifying effect of conventional morality on the Ireland of his time….
His world has more of Joyce about it than Yeats—the Joyce of the Portrait, gaslight and aspidistras, rosary beads and Sacred Hearts. But Clarke was temperamentally averse to Modernism. His technical experiments led back into Gaelic poetry, whose texture he strove to re-create in English; and this, combined with the extraordinary allusiveness of his poems, renders many of them all but inaccessible to the nonspecialist. (p. 518)
Derek Mahon, in New Statesman (© 1975 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), April 18, 1975.
It is not hard to be intelligent in Ireland, but the things which interest or delight intelligent people there can be too much on a par, a texture rather than a network of avenues…. The Clarke pieces [in Selected Poems], silly and less, are all one texture because he starts from one texture and works out, which is how the scholar should work it. The verse is corbeled and ornamented with any thing. The shorts lack Landor's waistcoated violence and are not like Yeats or the British, for which we are equally thankful. The long ones are like Quintilian writing verse in his old age, to be read line by line for the riches he simplemindedly put in. If you've lived a while in Dublin the book is about eight times as good. (p. 87)
Gerald Burns, in Southwest Review (© 1977 by Southern Methodist University Press), Winter, 1977.