Austin Clarke

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Austin Clarke was most prolific as a poet; all his dramatic writings are also in verse form. Between 1917, when his first major poem, the narrative epic The Vengeance of Fionn, was issued by Maunsel in Dublin and London, and 1974, when his Collected Poems appeared just before his death, Clarke published numerous books of nondramatic verse as well as many individual poems. Selected Poems, edited and introduced by Thomas Kinsella, was published posthumously in 1976.

In addition to his dramatic verse, Clarke wrote in a variety of poetic genres—narrative epic poems, satires and epigrams, religious poems, confessional and meditative works, and erotic and love poetry. He also translated poems from the Gaelic. The subjects of his poetry—though diverse in some ways—are all related to aspects of Irish life and Irish culture, past and present.

Clarke wrote three novels, The Bright Temptation (1932), The Singing Men at Cashel (1936), and The Sun Dances at Easter (1952). Although these works are in the form of prose romance, full of adventure and fantasy, they also express Clarke’s preoccupation with the problems of the development of the individual within the limits imposed by society, specifically Irish society. All three novels were banned at publication by the Irish Free State government. The Bright Temptation was reissued in 1973, but copies of Clarke’s other two novels have virtually disappeared.

Besides poetry and novels, Clarke produced three book-length memoirs: First Visit to England and Other Memories (1945), Twice ’Round the Black Church: Early Memories of Ireland and England (1962), and A Penny in the Clouds: More Memories of Ireland and England (1968). These books offer important insight into Clarke’s development as a major writer in twentieth century Ireland.

Finally, Clarke was a prolific journalist, a frequent contributor of essays, reviews, and criticism to several major publications: The Daily News and Leader (London; which later became The News Chronicle), The Spectator, and The Irish Times. Between 1940 and 1973, he contributed more than a thousand articles on both narrowly literary as well as wide-ranging nonliterary topics to The Irish Times. Clarke also wrote longer prose pieces for The Dublin Magazine and The Bell.

Achievements

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In the judgment of many critics of Irish literature, Austin Clarke was the most important of the poets of the generation of Irish writers after William Butler Yeats. As a poet, Clarke’s achievements are impressive. He wrote almost exclusively of Irish themes, myth, tradition, and history, and his own experience of Irish life and culture. Indeed, he has been called the “arch poet of Dublin,” and his commitment to Gaelic poetic forms and prosody—assonantal patterns, vowel rhymes, tonic words—helped revise and preserve that poetic tradition.

Clarke was also a significant force in the revival of verse drama in Ireland. In 1941, partly as a vehicle for performance of his own dramatic writings, Clarke, with Robert Farren, founded the Dublin Verse-Speaking Society , which performed on Radio Éireann and at the Abbey Theatre. In 1944, he and Farren founded the Lyric Theatre Company , which presented plays in verse form at the Abbey until the disastrous fire there in 1951.

Clarke was a prolific man of letters, publishing a large amount of nonfiction and criticism for more than four decades in such respected outlets as The Bell, The Dublin Magazine, and The Irish Times . Clarke’s founding of a private small press, the Bridge Press, inspired other Irish writers to found small presses of their own that were later influential in the resurgence of Irish writing in the 1960’s and 1970’s. For thirteen years, Clarke presented a weekly broadcast on Radio Éireann on Irish poetry. He was president of...

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the Irish branch of the International Association of Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists, and Novelists (PEN) for six years, and in 1952, he became president of the Irish Academy of Letters.

Clarke received many awards and prizes in recognition of his achievements as a writer. For his early lyric poetry, he was honored with the National Award for Poetry at the Tailteann Games in 1928. In 1964, for Flight to Africa and Other Poems (1963), Clarke won the Denis Devlin Memorial Award for Poetry from the Arts Council of Ireland. Like the best of his later poetry, the poems in Flight to Africa and Other Poems depart from the themes in his earlier works, dealing with issues of universal significance and exhibiting a more mature style. The next year, Clarke was awarded a prize by the Arts Council of Britain.

In 1966, on the occasion of his seventieth birthday, Clarke was presented with a festschrift containing poems and tributes by major Irish literary figures. That same year, an honorary degree was conferred on him by Trinity College. In the closing years of his impressive career, Clarke was awarded the Irish Academy of Letters’s highest award for literature, the Gregory Medal. He also received the American Irish Foundation’s Literary Award. In 1972, Irish PEN nominated him for the Nobel Prize. A special issue of the Irish University Review was devoted to Clarke shortly before his death in 1974.

Clarke’s commitment to a literature that spoke most directly to the Irish themselves, within Irish literary and social traditions, about Irish themes, issues, and conflicts, has exerted unfortunate limitations on his general appeal, despite the fact that much of his work ultimately transcends its Irish context to deal with universals in human experience. The increasing critical focus on Clarke’s works may help extend his reputation beyond the confines of Ireland.

Other literary forms

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Besides his epic, narrative, and lyric poetry, Austin Clarke published three novels, two volumes of autobiography, some twenty verse plays, and a large volume of journalistic essays and literary reviews for newspaper and radio. He also delivered a number of radio lectures on literary topics and gave interviews on his own life and work on Irish radio and television.

Achievements

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In a poetic career that spanned more than fifty years, Austin Clarke was a leading figure in the “second generation” of the Irish Literary Revival (also known as the Celtic Revival). Most of his career can be understood as a response to the aims of that movement: to celebrate the heroic legends of ancient Ireland, to bring the compositional technique of the bardic poets into modern English verse, and to bring poetry and humor together in a socially liberating way on the modern stage.

Clarke’s earliest efforts to write epic poems on pre-Christian Ireland were not generally successful, although his first poems do have passages of startling color and lyric beauty that presage his later work. When, in the 1930’s, he turned to early medieval (“Celtic Romanesque”) Ireland, he found his métier, both in poetry and in fiction. To the celebration of the myth of a vigorous indigenous culture in which Christian ascetic and pagan hedonist coexisted, he bent his own disciplined efforts. Unlike William Butler Yeats and most of the leading writers of the Revival, Clarke had direct access to the language of the ancient literature and worked to reproduce its rich sound in modern English. In this effort he was uniquely successful among modern Irish poets.

In his later years, Clarke turned to satirizing the domestic scene, living to see cultural changes remedy many of his complaints about Irish life. Although he wrote in obscurity through most of his career, in his later life, Clarke was belatedly recognized by several institutions: He was awarded an honorary D.Litt. in 1966 from Trinity College, received the Gregory Medal in 1968 from the Irish Academy of Letters, and was the “Writer in Profile” on Radio Telifís Éireann in 1968.

Bibliography

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Algoo-Baksh, Stella. Austin C. Clarke: A Biography. Toronto: ECW Press, 1994. Combines a narrative of Austin Clarke’s life with thoughtful interpretations of some of his major works. Gives a portrait of Clarke’s puplic persona but few details of his personal life. Includes bibliographical references and index.

Corcoran, Neil. Poets of Modern Ireland. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1999. Contains an essay on Clarke, which while focusing on his poetic achievements, provides insight into his verse plays.

Garratt, Robert F. Modern Irish Poetry: Tradition Continuity from Yeats to Heaney. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986. This important book devotes a chapter to Clarke, the main figure of transition for twentieth century Irish poetry. Clarke’s early poetry followed William Butler Yeats in retelling Irish myths, his middle work focused on medievalism, and his later poems echoed James Joyce in their critical analysis of religion. Contains an index and select bibliography that includes material on Clarke.

Halpern, Susan. Austin Clarke: His Life and Work. Dublin: Dolmen Press, 1974. While this survey of Clarke’s prolific output in prose and verse concentrates on the verse, Halpern does devote a chapter to Clarke’s theory and practice of drama. She discusses all Clarke’s plays and places them in the context of Clarke’s work as a whole. Substantial bibliography.

Harmon, Maurice. Austin Clarke, 1896-1974: A Critical Introduction. Dublin: Wolfhound Press, 1989. The introduction covers the life of Clarke, the contexts for his writing, his Catholicism, and his participation in nationalist movements. Two phases are then examined: first, his prose, drama, and poetry from 1916 to 1938; second, his sustained work in poetry, short and long, from 1955 to 1974. Supplemented by a portrait, notes, a bibliography, and an index.

Irish University Review 4 (Spring, 1974). This special issue on Clarke contains a detailed account of his involvement with, and artistic contributions to, the Dublin Verse-Speaking Society and the Lyric Theatre Company, and it provides a complete list of the two organizations’ productions. The issue also includes an overview that appraises the distinctive contribution made to the diversification and development of Irish theater by Clarke’s dramatic works. The general conclusion is that Clarke’s work for the theater is by no means a negligible part of his contribution to Irish literature.

Loftus, Richard J. “Austin Clarke: Ireland of the Black Church.” In Nationalism in Modern Anglo-Irish Poetry. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1964. Focuses on Clarke’s contributions to Irish verse: use of Gaelic prosody, creation of beauty from harsh peasantry, and experimental verse drama. Most of the chapter reviews Clarke’s satirical anger at the Irish Catholic church. Includes notes, a bibliography, and an index.

Murphy, Daniel. “Disarmed, a Malcontent.” In Imagination and Religion in Anglo-Irish Literature, 1930-1980. Blackrock, Ireland: Irish Academic Press, 1987. Analyzes Clarke’s lyrics and satires. Also examines religious tensions in Mnemosyne Lay in Dust, reviews Clarke’s use of history, examines Clarke’s satirical style, and finally sketches Clarke’s use of nature. The chapter is supplemented by notes and a bibliography. The book contains an index.

Ricigliano, Lorraine. Austin Clarke: A Reference Guide. New York: Maxwell Macmillan International, 1993. A chronology of the major works by Clarke; an alphabetical list of all the individual poems and plays in the volumes cited; and a secondary bibliography, also arranged chronologically from 1918 to 1992, with descriptive annotations.

Schirmer, Gregory A. The Poetry of Austin Clarke. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983. This critique of Clarke’s poetry sheds light on his dramatic works, which were verse plays. Bibliography and index.

Tapping, G. Craig. Austin Clarke: A Study of His Writings. Dublin: Academy Press, 1981. After calling Clarke’s tradition “modern classicism,” Craig sketches a background of Romanticism to “Celto-Romanesque.” Five chapters study the poetic drama, the novels, the poetry from 1938 to 1961, the poetry of the 1960’s, and the new poems as treatments of old myths. Augmented by bibliographies, notes, an appendix, and an index.

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