Austin Clarke Clarke, Austin (Vol. 6) - Essay

Clarke, Austin (Vol. 6)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Clarke, Austin 1896–1974

Clarke was an Irish poet, verse playwright, novelist, and critic. Although he lived for many years in England, his work was inspired almost exclusively by Irish history and mythology. Thomas Kinsella has written that the principal characteristic of Clarke's work is "the mixed influence of Yeats, a pre-occupation with the Catholic Church in Ireland, and a humanitarian rage." Clarke was regarded by some as Ireland's greatest poet after Yeats. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 29-32; obituary, Vols. 49-52.)

Though Clarke began his career under the influence of the Celtic renaissance, he always combined romanticism with harsh wit and realism. His major books between the Collected Poems of 1935, now long out of print, and Mnemosyne Lay in Dust are, like the latter, the work of his old age. Later Poems (1961) and Flight to Africa (1963) contain a good deal of satire of an unusual sort. It is the self-flagellant satire of a man of strong and compassionate feeling, and this is the root of Clarke's late confessional tendency. His identification with Ireland is as complete and unself-conscious as with his own family, and the criticisms he directs against her have the domestic authenticity, so to speak, of a man complaining of wife or mother. (pp. 270-71)

M. L. Rosenthal, in his The New Poets: American and British Poetry Since World War II (copyright © 1967 by M. L. Rosenthal; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.), Oxford University Press, 1967.

Increasingly,… since Flight to Africa Clarke seems to have lost contact with his most productive theme—his own growth and the analogous ways in which this can be seen in terms of modern and medieval Ireland. Both these Irelands are crossed by sexual fear and repression; both are related to his own growth as a poet in ways which are clarified only occasionally in poetry or prose. His ability to chart this growth defines the boundaries of his career; his tendency to make a crusade out of some of its elements generated in him a versatility which, admirable as it in many ways is, appears to be more the result of restlessness than of discovery. If we compare the early prose romances with the early poetry and plays, they now appear better because they manage to substantiate the world they deal with inside the conventions of the form in which they are written. They have form without being merely formal. The same is true of the Late Poems. But the Collected Poems of 1936 and the poetry since 1963, as well as the plays of both periods, are merely formal. They substantiate no Ireland, only the poet's opinions about its Fianna Fail climate. These one can find more engagingly and completely expressed elsewhere. We are left with fey eccentricity and obsession; the career has become a cult and the cult is engaged on a crusade….

[It] seems inevitable that Clarke should be seen and understood in terms of the Irish Revival. His allegiances are there and even his reactions away from it are aspects of those allegiances. To find a writer of comparable versatility and stature, one whose attitude to Ireland was of a similarly complex nature and was in the end coarsened by disillusion or bitterness into easy satire and sarcasm, one would have to go to George Moore. This does not suggest an influence, although there may have been some of that. Rather, in the hallowed anti-clerical tradition of Irish writing which includes Joyce and Flann O'Brien as well, Clarke and Moore stand together as Joyce and O'Brien do.

They were all writers of an extreme and self-conscious sophistication, but Moore and Clarke appear to have become virtuosos who could play anybody's music but could not write that kind most appropriate to their own personalities. Their work is aggrieved in its display of skills. We think of them not in association with specific works so much as with an astonishing array of different kinds of work. They are men of obsessive imaginations but without that kind of monomaniac intelligence which would have focused all the obsessions in one enduring form. Clarke, the only poet of stature in this tradition, is damaged by the preachiness and the wilful virtuosity so characteristic of it. But the core of his work is untouched by these considerations. He made a career out of poetry in the least favourable circumstances and he dignified the career by the quality of the poems he made. (p. 1460)

"The Irelands of Austin Clarke," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1972; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), December 1, 1972, pp. 1459-60.

[The Impuritans] is a one-act verse play adapted from Hawthorne's short story "Goodman Brown". It seems to have so much to do with sexual orgy—and what the story does not have to do with sex, this play has. Mr Clarke cannot really move through the glooms of Hawthorne's forest with ease; his notion of sexuality is a little too Mediterranean for that locale. But the play has a particular interest in that it attempts to bring sexuality and political violence into some kind of relationship….

A good deal of the play's force obviously draws from Hawthorne; a good deal also from Mr Clarke's previous work, especially that of the past ten years, in which the sexual motif has gained in dominance…. Mr Clarke … wishes us to know that hanging and bombing are the results of Puritan repressions. We could accept this more easily if it were not thrown in at the end of the play in the midst of sexual descriptions which are not so much frank as leery…. Yet lust remains Mr Clarke's special province, politics his country. He still has to melt the border between them.

"To the Impure," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1973; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), September 7, 1973, p. 1020.

Clarke, who like the aging Yeats was spurred into song by 'lust and rage,' matched the younger poets book for book during the 'sixties and voiced the leman's song and the fili's curse with uncompromising integrity. He evolved from a lyric poet to a satirist and then a reflective ironist, but he was never a seer. His major gift to his peers, both young poets and repatriated elders, was to teach them how to live as honest exiles within their own land. As he enters the literary canon, a pattern of poetic independence and integrity can be 'begged from above' by his survivors, who promise to write with more vision than Clarke and to give a validity to the term "Renaissance" which no one poet, even one of Yeats' stature, can sustain by himself. (p. 3)

Dillon Johnston, in Shenandoah (copyright by Shenandoah; reprinted from Shenandoah: The Washington and Lee University Review with the permission of the Editor), Summer, 1974.

Clarke's is one of the notable modern poetic careers; a view of modern poetry which does not take his work seriously into account is not adequate. At his best (and frequently in what might be thought the unpromising medium of simple narrative verse) Clarke produced an intense, particular, responsive poetry of furious linguistic energy; in unique, bivalent, open-ended rhythms; absolutely unfashionable, and his own.

That an achievement of this order could take place in relative obscurity is due to Clarke's circumstances and, to some degree, his own character. He could concentrate only on things that immediately affected him, often local and topical matters, or a few preoccupations in the Irish past. He was an uneven poet, un-self critical and given to wayward mannerisms; an unsatisfactory poem or group of poems can crop up anywhere, early or late. Not the least of the obscuring circumstances was Yeats himself. Though he aroused Clarke's poetic impulse and was a continuing object of inspiration and emulation, he singled Clarke out personally for cold treatment, rejecting his work from the Oxford Book of Modern Verse while crowding the anthology with far lesser local talents.

A methodical reader of the Collected Poems will find the first one hundred and fifty pages or so heavy going on the whole—mainly Gaelic tales retold in lush and cluttered verse, in pursuit of an over-riding plan. It is in Pilgrimage, published in 1929, that the first signs of strength are found….

By 1938, with Night and Morning, the process had advanced: all the easy effects of verbal excess had disappeared. The language was constricted and difficult, and there was a gain in verbal and imaginative strength…. (p. 149)

The 'plan' was abandoned, and a profounder theme dominated: a Joycean struggle with issues of conscience and authority. A tortured darkness of apostasy hangs over the whole book. Intellectual doubt and pride mutilate each other, the poet an agonised Luther….

[For many] years Clarke wrote novels and verse plays but published no poetry. The breakdown appears to have been caused by the failure of a long autobiographical poem. It is Clarke's eventual recovery in the mid-'fifties and the poems resulting from this release of energy that make him a phenomenon.

By 1963, with the publication of Flight to Africa, Clarke had assembled a strong indictment of greed, cruelty and hypocrisy in Church and State. He had also developed a voice in which nothing was unsayable, though this was not done without cost. The dense textures of Night and Morning grew denser still in some of the earlier poems of his poetic recovery, in which details or whole sections remain inscrutable…. The congestion cleared rapidly, however, and yielded to an easier tone—no less complexly responsive and no less idiosyncratic, but no longer struggling with itself in disproportionate fury. This rich and supple medium, once fully achieved, enabled Clarke to complete the extraordinary Mnemosyne Lay in Dust in 1966…. From the very beginning of the recovery there were fine unflawed poems of many kinds in the new manner: 'Martha Blake at Fifty-One,' a sustained and painful masterpiece of biographical narrative; an elaborate period tour de force, 'Song of the Books'; poems of beautiful, detailed sensual response to natural things, like 'A Strong Wind' or 'Japanese Print'; as well as poems of social criticism like 'Usufruct' and 'Miss Marnell.'

And yet even some of these poems, in their narrowness of reference, raise the whole question of legitimate obscurity in poetry. Some of them are virtually private, or so particular in their comments that it would be a help to have the relevant newspaper handy. 'Usufruct' is one of the least difficult in this way, but requires us to extract the essential facts from it with Holmesian care if we are to understand it fully. But the facts can be extracted. And a reading of 'Miss Marnell,' two pages later, acts as a confirming footnote. The later poems accumulate in this way; they establish relationships among themselves and illuminate each other. Raising a fundamental question of obscurity, the poems, by their authority and integrity, lay the question to rest….

Old Fashioned Pilgrimage, published in 1967, is a worrying book, with poem after poem falling victim to a trivial fascination with homonyms and rime riche…. But then in The Echo at Coole and A Sermon on Swift, both published in the following year (the liveliness of these developments—the rapidity and energy involved—is remarkable) Clarke began to get this particular 'tic' under control. It is still there, but on the way to becoming a manageable, even pleasant, idiosyncracy. He also discovered his last and most fertile mode: a knowing and direct sensuality that produced, in the remaining few years of his life, a number of long, cheerful, wickedly glittering narratives—'The Healing of Mis,' 'Tiresias' and others—poetry as pure entertainment, humanely inspired and full of life. (p. 150)

Thomas Kinsella, "Irish Master," in The Spectator (© 1974 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), August 3, 1974, pp. 149-50.

[Clarke] is a poet of very deep passions couched in meditated art so natural, so right, as to seem carven deeply from the ragged strata of human behavior in order to reveal marbled humanity beneath. Clarke snatched such stuff from a battered world as might rival in delicacy the light of the moon. His was a gift too constant and hopeful to be altered by the bitterness that he often felt for the inhumanity of institutions and especially his rejection of the violence of Irish politics and religion. Much of his poetry is heavy-laden with problems, conundrums, self-imposed obstacles, that he attempts to reduce to simplicity and assurance. [His "Collected Poems"] is a noble book for any lover of poetry. (p. lvii)

Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright 1975, by the Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 51, No. 2, Spring, 1975.

Austin Clarke is an extreme case of the poet who trusts the local and contingent through thick and thin, who refuses to rise above the congested heterogeneity of the world as we experience it through our senses, enmeshed in particular circumstances, of this time in this place. What makes him an extreme case is that he lived his days in a place, the Irish Republic, which has been and is in many ways anomalous, where social and political life has taken on forms hardly to be found in other English-speaking societies of the twentieth century. W. B. Yeats, surviving into this sociopolitical situation, exerted himself—like the mythopoeic poet he was—to show that underneath the peculiarities of Irish life there could be found the lineaments of myths which encompassed and made sense of the life of the Irishman as of the rest of mankind. That is not Clarke's way; on the contrary he immerses himself in the life of modern Ireland in all the eccentric particularity of that life. And the upshot is that issues which bulk larger in Ireland than in other English-speaking countries—for instance, the breeding of horses for slaughter, or again the non-availability of contraceptive devices inside the Republic—bulk disconcertingly large in Clarke's poems also. This means that for the non-Irish reader, on top of the difficulties that come of Clarke's being unashamedly a poeta doctus, a proudly learned poet, there arises another set of difficulties altogether—the need to know in considerable detail the history of modern Ireland, especially the history of public opinion inside the Republic, as well as the history of Ireland through previous centuries. This makes Clarke sound like a very provincial, even a parochial poet. And in one sense he is so, quite consciously and defiantly. It means in any case that the non-Irish reader, and for that matter many Irish readers also, have to work … to get what Clarke has to offer them…. (p. 41)

[A] degree of antipathy to Yeats would have been inevitable for any ambitious and serious Irish poet of Austin Clarke's generation; only by making himself deaf to Yeats's voice could any such poet save himself poetically and forge a style true to the integrity of his own different temperament and concerns.

This necessity for the young Clarke to keep his distance from Yeats must be borne in mind when we see him in the 1920s choosing to exploit just those centuries of Irish history which Yeats had least cultivated—the centuries of Celtic Romanesque, after the heroic age and before the Elizabethan plantations…. In Pilgrimage occurs 'The Scholar', which is a free paraphrase of an anonymous Gaelic poem…. [It is] a clear and winning example of the poems that Clarke could draw from what he has called 'our forgotten mediaeval Ireland when we almost had a religion of our own'. But it serves also to isolate the extraordinary technical innovation, or body of innovations, by which Clarke has made available to other poets writing in English a whole kit or cabinet of erstwhile undiscovered musical resources. For the assonantal pattern of 'The Scholar' approximates very closely to a structural principle informing the Gaelic original…. It is not fanciful, hearing the interlacement of sounds in the poem, to think it an equivalent for the ear of what strikes the eye when we look at the interlaced curves and angles on the geometrically curved shaft of a Celtic cross or at illuminated letters in the Book of Kells. (pp. 42-3)

It would be quite wrong to see Clarke's need to distance himself from Yeats as the sole or even the main reason why he was drawn to the Celtic Romanesque…. Clarke's need for an alternative Roman Catholicism, and his search for it in medieval Ireland, were implicit in the wistfulness with which he spoke of 'our forgotten mediaeval Ireland when we almost had a religion of our own' (my italics). And yet one may suspect that Clarke would have been mutinous and irreverent inside any church at all. For the poet who is opposed to mythopoeia is obviously going to have a difficult relationship with the Christian myth along with all the rest. (p. 44)

Ancient Lights … is subtitled, 'Poems and Satires, First Series'. This is not helpful, and indeed it must be said that Clarke is not just proudly reticent but positively perverse in the obstructions which he erects between himself and his readers. This is true not only in how he describes and categorizes his poems (in the present case, for instance, are we to conclude that a satire is not a poem?), but also in some aspects of his writing. His obscurity is sometimes irresponsible and inexcusable, and although I would not unsay any of the admiration that I expressed for 'Ancient Lights' in 1956, I have to take account of the fact that, over the years since, neither I nor any one I have consulted has been able to say what it is that happens in the crucial fourth and fifth stanzas. Some sort of natural epiphany, undoubtedly; but just what sort, and just how? For this reason 'Ancient Lights' seems to be ultimately unsuccessful, and inferior to 'Martha Blake', despite the difficulties in that poem also. The coarser, more emphatic and extended writing of 'Martha Blake at Fifty-one' must be thought more effective than either 'Martha Blake' or 'Ancient Lights' if, as we must suppose, Clarke's purpose by 1960 was to reach and unequivocally hurt as many Irish readers as possible…. [In] many cases 'satire' is a misnomer, or at least, if it applies at all, it applies too loosely to be useful. Rather often, a more appropriate description might be 'epigram' or 'lampoon'; and the names of Landor on the one hand, of Swift on the other, should remind us that there can be great writing in both these genres. (pp. 47-8)

Clarke's poetry seems to make no new myths, and to celebrate no old ones; more often it exerts itself sardonically to puncture and explode myths, in the sense of dangerous fictions with which the Irishman deludes himself about his national identity and his supposedly peculiar virtues. And yet … there is myth since there is a belief in the sacred. To find this belief professed in a tone of voice that is still sardonic is especially arresting; it gives us pause…. On the other hand the sardonic tone misleads all but the most careful reader; for the tone makes us look anywhere but where, since sacrilege is denounced, sacredness is affirmed…. One can go further indeed, and suggest that Clarke at times deceives himself as he deceives many readers. (p. 51)

Donald Davie, "Austin Clarke and Padraic Fallon" (copyright © 1975 by Donald Davie), in Two Decades of Irish Writing: A Critical Survey, edited by Douglas Dunn, Dufour Editions, 1975, pp. 37-58.