John Montague

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Montague, John 1929–

Montague is an Irish poet, short story writer, critic, playwright, journalist, editor, and translator. Regarding poetry as "an attempt to chart the secret progress of one's life," he fills his work with a sense of Ireland that is as much public as it is private, as full of the past as of the present. The landscape and legends of the Irish countryside color Montague's verse, and patterns of Gaelic poetry are frequently evident. Thematically, his work portrays death, change, and destruction, often against the backdrop of a rapidly vanishing rural life. Montague has cited William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound as major influences on his style, and critics have praised his clarity of imagery and careful craftsmanship. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

Christopher Hudson

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[John Montague's] short, terse lines [in Tides] keep fervent Irish rhetoric at bay, and give the love poems an uncommon precision. The best of these bring something fresh to the worn theme of the transience of love and the nearness of death. In 'Tracks', the act of lovemaking is set against the morning after, in the hotel, where 'giggling maids push / a trolley of fresh / linen down the corridor'. And in 'Premonition', one of the most accomplished of the poems, the poet dreams in nightmare of the torture of his girl, while at the same time in the nearby hospital she survives a difficult birth. He sleeps, and then, 'released from dream, / I lie in a narrow room; / Low-ceilinged as a coffin / The dawn prises open.'

The last two sections are disappointing. When John Montague writes about the sea, he doesn't have anything more to say than most poets writing about the sea. But there is one outstanding ballad poem, taken from the ninth century Irish, called 'The Hag of Beare'. It rings with the implacability of a Norse saga, and is proof enough that John Montague has a wider scope than love poetry in which to write really well. (p. 733)

Christopher Hudson, in The Spectator (© 1970 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), December 5, 1970.

Derek Mahon

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[Although] The Rough Field appears, at first glance, to be a collection of poems of great formal variety, it soon reveals itself as a prolonged meditation on a single theme: the death of a culture. This is one of several themes that have preoccupied Montague in his previous books … and here finds its fullest expression. Now and then one comes across a section that previously appeared in an earlier volume; but where this happens one is conscious of a self-contained poem growing in stature in relation to its new context. One doesn't read at random. The poem must be read consecutively, for it has a cumulative effect, gathering momentum as it proceeds. There are seventy pages of it, a carefully planned structure, and one puts it down with the realization that this is something very unusual, on this (Eastern) side of the Atlantic at least, where the younger poets have for so long eschewed elaborate conceptions and formal complexities. Irish poets have been more adventurous in this respect than English ones; and, as an Irish poem, The Rough Field deserves at least the same status as [Patrick] Kavanagh's The Great Hunger, of which it is in some measure a contemporary updating.

The book is divided into ten sections, covering such areas as family life, religion, the lost language (Gaelic), the local society, and the present state of affairs in Ireland, North and South. These are very approximate, and perhaps rather fatuous headings to impose on a work whose movement is one of symbols, allusions,...

(This entire section contains 831 words.)

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flashbacks, epiphanies; whose technical sophistication, indeed, makes Kavanagh look like a Victorian writer of sentimental songs. And yet there is, inevitably in a poem of this length, a substantial narrative and discursive content, aprose that is its own kind of poetry and on which the lyric bridge is built. Like [Hugh] MacDiarmid's A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, or the poems of Louis MacNeice, it is about real things, "the ordinary universe."… Montague is not a metaphysician: he is a historian and autobiographer, with the result that his finest flights—"Like Dolmens Round My Childhood," "The Wild Dog Rose"—take off from mundane, paraphrasable situations: the eccentricities of neighbours, a conversation with an aged spinster. The formal ingenuity sometimes looks like an attempt to solve the narrative problem, to break up material that would in the past have lent itself most naturally to Wordsworthian blank verse. This works, on the whole, as changes of tone and focus dictate changes of tempo. Where it fails the failure is generally extraneous to the text itself, being largely a matter of the marginal transcription of historical records, some well-chosen and commenting pointedly on the events described, but most, I fear, gratuitous and distracting.

I find four of the ten sections particularly interesting. Not necessarily because they are more successful than the others, but because they illustrate, in their different ways, significant strengths and weaknesses; because they have great character; and because they contain much that is new and unique in Irish poetry…. It is in these sections that Montague is at his liveliest and most inventive, forgoing elegy for satire, narrative for rhetoric, explanation for exclamation. (pp. 133-34)

Montague has been criticized for "using" the present crisis in Ulster as raw material for his poetry. (His critics do not, however, accuse Yeats of doing the same thing at an earlier period.) The criticism seems to me at best an injustice founded in misunderstanding—at worst a cheap jibe. The implication, an essentially philistine one, is that something as frivolous as poetry has no business concerning itself with something as serious as human suffering…. Ireland is central to Montague's myth, and has been since his first booklet, Forms of Exile, was published … in 1960. He would be dishonest if he didn't follow though the inner logic of his commitment. With that said, I must express my doubts about "A New Siege."… [It] seems to me to be marred by a certain stridency, by a willed determination to make cosmic significance out of a street-fight…. At the risk of appearing philistine, even callous, oneself, one is tempted to say, come now, is what happens in Derry really all that important? In this image drawn from physics, and in his invocation of the student uprisings in Paris and Berlin, he risks pretentiousness—because he tries to impose an intellectual order on something that simply will not be ordered in that way. The poetry is deafened by slogans. And then, superbly, he redeems himself in a quiet closing section, "The Wild Dog Rose."… [This is a rich and complex work by] the best Irish poet of his generation. The wealth of re-created history, the vivid flashes of autobiography, the dramatic visual sense, the anger and the wit, together with the subtly orchestrated music of the verse, will be sufficiently evident to the reader. This is John Montague's first peak. Others will follow. (pp. 136-37)

Derek Mahon, in The Malahat Review (© Derek Mahon, 1973), July, 1973.

Benedict Kiely

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If I were … beginning a re-reading of John Montague, or if I were advising others where to begin reading him, I would go, and send those others to the heart of his collection, "Tides."… And to two works there, one of them a quite horrifying prose-poem entitled with a cold irony that is typical of Montague: "The Huntsman's Apology." (pp. 1-2)

The second work is brief, called "A Meeting," and is from the ninth-century Irish…. (p. 2)

The startling thing is that both are poems about varieties of love, or about love at different stages, of development or decay. They come at the heart of a book that holds other fine love-poems and in which the blurb, with perhaps an echo of the poet's voice, says with a great deal of justification that the directness and passion of Montague's love-poems have been admired, and his feeling for people and landscape, and claims that in this collection, "Tides," all these are seen as a part of a larger struggle where life and death are interwoven like the rhythms of the sea. (pp. 2-3)

Montague, lean and sharp and soft and sensible, as Berowne uses the word, sees his lovers absurdly balanced on the springs of a bed, shadows swooping, quarreling like winged bats, bodies turning like fish "in obedience to the pull and tug of your great tides." A wind-swept holiday resort on the shore of the North sea becomes a perfect setting for the monster of unhappiness, "an old horror movie come true," to crawl out of the moving deeps and threaten love…. It is a bitter sort of comedy.

It is scarcely then by accident that he places in the middle of all these love-poems the best rendering, from the Irish of the ninth-century, of the love-dirge, or bitter memory of past loves and bitter consciousness of bodily decay, of the Cailleach Beara, the Hag or Old Woman of Beare: which is the southwestern peninsula between Bantry Bay and Kenmare Bay, the land of the O'Sullivans. The Cailleach, a formidable ancient, overburdened with all knowledge and weariness and sometimes, all wickedness, is a recurring figure in Celtic mythologies and shows her face, on occasions and on various bodies, in Montague's poetry.

A one-eyed hag, she—or the poet who interpreted her, as Montague does eleven centuries later—reckons that her right eye has been taken as a down-payment on her claim to heaven; a ray in the left eye has been spared to her that she may grope her way to heaven's gate. Her life has come to be a retreating sea with no tidal return. Gaunt with poverty she, who once wore fine petticoats, now hunts for rags to cover her body. (p. 3)

In this collection, one of the … most striking poems is certainly: "Life Class." It opens calmly, clinically, a cool detailed survey of the body there to be studied, the hinge of the ankle-bone defining the flat space of a foot, the calf's heavy curve sweeping down against the bony shin, the arm cascading from shoulder-knob to knuckle, shapes as natural, as inanimate almost, as sea-worn caves, as pools, boulders, tree-trunks. This is the artist in the neolithic cavern recording in wonderment the skeleton of the life he sees, an art that may have been as utilitarian as modern engineering. (p. 4)

There is much more in the collection, "Tides," than I have here indicated: more than love and lust, and woman, young and old, and ancient mythologies. There are, for instance, wise words to and about Beckett, and about Joyce, and a moving farewell to places and parents, and a seagull's view of his own town which misses only history and religion: which Montague is not to miss when later he takes a more-than-seagull's view of Garvaghey (Garbh Achaidh), "The Rough Field," where he comes from. The collection, too, is rich, as is his earlier poetry, with the preoccupations of a man who has known, and to the bone, the ways of three countries: Ireland, France and the USA. (p. 5)

[Generally throughout] "Poisoned Lands," and in the following collection, "A Chosen Light," [Montague] has hammered his thoughts, and his places, into unity, and, also, the past and present of his own country. The shape of his mind has been made clear and his style has a sinewy sort of seeming nonchalance on which he is steadily to work and rework giving "slight but memoried life" a deep, universal significance. He casts a careful eye even on an old-style country byre and sees the milking-machine at work, and the old ways changing….

He walks among mythologies on the grassy mounds of the hill of Tara, that was the residence of the High Kings of pre-Christian Ireland, and wonders was it a Gaelic acropolis or a smoky hovel, and sees wolf-hounds "lean as models," follow at the heels of heroes out of the sagas: a sardonic bringing-together of the images of two ages…. The strangest variety of objects and people become symbols before his clear and wondering eye…. [His] is a rich and varied world….

By the end of his second collection, "A Chosen Light," he has gathered together and arranged like ornaments his foreign experiences, he can cast a calm eye even if it is an eye of foreboding, on his own country: and the calmness and foreboding can burst into bawdy laughter…. (p. 9)

Utter assurance comes to Montague with the composition and arrangement of "The Rough Field," his most remarkable book and one of the most interesting statements made in this century about Ireland past and present. (p. 10)

It is a unity, a movement and sequence of poems as strong and steady as the mountain stream descending on the lowlands to define a world, taking with it the past and present of that one small backward place, but a place over-burdened with history: for it is part of the country of the great Hugh O'Neill who warred for nine years against Elizabeth the first of England. Montague glosses his text, indeed, with fragments of ancient history, with a clipping now and then from current news, even with a bigot's letter pushed through a letter-box and ranting against the Romish wafer. (pp. 10-11)

Family history and his own personal agony, and the history of the place over three and a half centuries, onward from the end of the great O'Neill to the calamities of the present, are all twisted together, strands in a strong rope….

Nowhere in the book is the tight razor-edged discipline of his verse and his uncanny knack for gathering the ages together more on display than in the movement that deals with the present problems of Derry City! "A Second Siege."… An extra dimension is introduced from his experiences elsewhere and Irish troubles are seen as part of the world's experiences. He was in Berkeley, California, for the beginning of the campus tumults there, and bombs in the Bogside and napalm in Vietnam are all part of the human condition…. (p. 11)

[He] surveys a world that may, as because of the San Adreas fault, California may, fall apart any of these days. Although he can be agonized and terrified by memory it could still be that he is happiest with those old people who, like dolmens, surrounded his childhood: Jamie MacCrystal who sang to himself a broken song without tune: Maggie Owens who was "a well of gossip defiled."… (p. 12)

Since "The Rough Field" there have been two collections, "A Slow Dance" and "The Great Cloak."… [You] will find that they richly reward reading and re-reading, right through—so to speak, for the pace, arrangement and continuity are insistent, and they amply justify Robin Skelton's strong claim that Montague is: "clearly one of the most skilled and interesting poets alive, and one of the most original and disturbing." The poet … has the confidence and assurance, and for very good reasons, that the young man thirty years ago pretended to have. The pared-down lines are rich in irony, humanity, the sense of transience and mortality in love, in men and women, in nations and civilizations: a keen, exact expression.

That slow dance is a dance of life and death, of calm observation alternating with strange fantasy…. He sees a sawmill on the road to Geneva; sees life emerge, a calf licked clean by a cow, from the cave of an old limekiln in Ireland…. Sees an old French colonel in his final retreat in a Normandy chateau. Writes a lament "so total" that it mourns no one but the great globe itself.

"The Great Cloak" is an intensely personal poem-sequence about the death of love, and abandonment and betrayal, about the birth and growth of a new love…. The only poem I can compare it with, and it is very much a unity and no haphazard collection, is George Meredith's, "Modern Love": yet if it can, at times, be tense with agony and regret, it does not end as Meredith does in a sort of half-resigned despair, but rises to hope and renewal and a new life being born. No mortal who has realized that life is not a straight line can fail to be moved by this poem: happier people should cross themselves and thank whatever gods there be for something like good fortune. (pp. 12-13)

Benedict Kiely, "John Montague: Dancer in a Rough Field," in The Hollins Critic (copyright 1978 by Hollins College), December, 1978, pp. 1-14.

Desmond Graham

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[The Great Cloak is] a record of a love relationship, shifting from the historical embedding of The Rough Field into a more personal key; but though Montague is a finely accomplished poet, I found this latest collection somewhat disappointing…. [It] fails to achieve an adequate subtlety of response; its language is on the whole … highly inflected, rhetorically resonant …, but there seems some subtle mismatching between that linguistic force and the relative uncomplexity of "content."… Montague's imagery seems too rhetorical, explicit and "head-on" for his emotions; so that when he ends a poem about the breakdown of a relationship with 'We shall never be / what we were, again. / Old love's refrain.' one feels like saying well, quite—that's about as far as it goes. In poem after poem, the craft is channelled into a web of imagery which, while officially supporting the dominant feeling, in fact tends to usurp it, leaving the emotional response itself fairly unremarkable…. (pp. 75-6)

Desmond Graham, in Stand (copyright © by Stand), Vol. 20, No. 1 (1978–79).