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.
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.