Authors: Austin Clarke

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Irish poet, journalist, and novelist


Austin Clarke is commonly acknowledged as the best Irish poet writing in English in the years between William Butler Yeats and Seamus Heaney. Although Clarke was born only about thirty years after Yeats, his career was at its strongest in the 1960’s and early 1970’s.{$I[AN]9810001982}{$I[A]Clarke, Austin}{$I[geo]IRELAND;Clarke, Austin}{$I[tim]1896;Clarke, Austin}

Born and raised in Dublin, Clarke attended Belvedere College (1903-1913) and then University College, Dublin, on a scholarship. There he was a student of Thomas MacDonagh, a lecturer in English literature who was executed after the Easter Rebellion in 1916. Clarke’s father Augustine was a local government official; his mother, Ellen Patten Browne, a devout Catholic, was a great influence on her son’s writing. In 1917 Clarke succeeded MacDonagh in the college, but his contract was not renewed when college officials learned that Clarke had married outside the Catholic church. Ironically, the marriage lasted only about a year. The strictness of the rules of the Church was a favorite topic in Clarke’s poetry, as were the lives and habits of the Irish themselves. His earliest books of poetry, published in 1917, 1921, and 1925, show his gift for bringing the rhythms and patterns of the Gaelic language into English poetry, a talent which gave him a lasting influence on later poets.

Clarke moved to London in 1921 to find work. He became a book reviewer for newspapers and magazines and continued to write poetry. He also began writing verse plays, which Yeats had made popular, and novels on Irish themes. Clarke was especially interested in medieval Christian Ireland, as his first play, The Son of Learning, shows. In the play, Clarke introduces the medieval Irishman Anier MacConglinne, a comic-heroic visionary whose story would be picked up again in his second novel, The Singing Men at Cashel. In 1929 Clarke published his fifth book of poetry, which was focused on the theme of the past’s role in the present. The book shows great technical skill and variety in composition. In 1936, the year before he moved back to Dublin, Clarke published his Collected Poems, in which all his earlier poetry volumes except The Fires of Baal were reprinted.

When Clarke returned to Dublin, he remarried and set up residence at Bridge House, Templelogue, County Dublin, where he remained for the rest of his life. In 1938, from his own Bridge Street Press, he issued the last book of poetry he would write until 1955. That same year, Clarke cofounded (with Robert Farren) the Dublin Verse Speaking Society to promote excellence in public speaking among theatrical performers and radio broadcasters.

During the 1940’s Clarke wrote nearly once a month for the newspaper The Irish Times and continued to write verse dramas, of which As the Crow Flies is the best known. Although he was very interested in playwriting, his efforts were not highly regarded. They were, however, occasionally performed.

In 1955 Clarke returned to writing poetry, and between 1964 and 1971 he published ten books of poetry, his collected plays, two memoirs, and literary criticism. As a mature poet, Clarke wrote about events in daily life clearly and realistically, frequently using irony and the cynical voice of the satirist to critique the Catholic church, political policies, external expectations for Irish society, the loss of the past, and human frailties, especially self-deception and its consequences. In the verse of his later years, Clarke deftly employed a variety of technical skills, poetic personae, and images of abstract and concrete topics, especially as they related to technology, nature, and mechanization.

Austin Clarke died in Dublin in 1974. Because of the towering genius of Yeats, Clarke has been underestimated. A prolific poet and accomplished journalist, dramatist, and novelist, Clarke achieved the dream of his teacher, Thomas MacDonagh, in bringing the rhythms and patterns of the Irish language into masterfully written English literature.

BibliographyAlgoo-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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