Authors: John Montague

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American and Irish poet

Author Works


Forms of Exile, 1958

Poisoned Lands, and Other Poems, 1961 (revised as Poisoned Lands, 1977)

A Chosen Light, 1967

Tides, 1970

The Rough Field, 1972, revised 1989

A Slow Dance, 1975

The Great Cloak, 1978

Selected Poems, 1982

The Dead Kingdom, 1984

Mount Eagle, 1988

New Selected Poems, 1989

About Love, 1993

Time in Armagh, 1993

Collected Poems, 1995

Chain Letter, 1997

Smashing the Piano, 1999

Long Fiction:

The Lost Notebook, 1987

Short Fiction:

Death of a Chieftain, and Other Stories, 1964 (revised as An Occasion of Sin: Stories, 1992)

A Love Present, and Other Stories, 1997


A Fair House: Versions of Irish Poetry, 1973 (from Irish)

November: A Choice of Translations from André Frénaud, 1977 (with Evelyn Robson)

Selected Poems, 1994 (of Francis Ponge; with C. K. Williams and Margaret Guiton)

Carnac, 1999 (of Eugène Guillevic)


The Figure in the Cave, and Other Essays, 1989

Myth, History, and Literary Tradition, 1989 (with Thomas Kinsella and Brendan Kennelly)

Company: A Chosen Life, 2001

Edited Texts:

The Dolmen Miscellany of Irish Writing, 1962

The Faber Book of Irish Verse, 1974 (The Book of Irish Verse, 1976)

Bitter Harvest: An Anthology of Contemporary Irish Verse, 1989


Born in Brooklyn: John Montague’s America, 1991 (poetry, short fiction, and nonfiction)


John Patrick Montague (MAHNT-uh-gyew) was born in Brooklyn of Irish parents, but he and his two older brothers were sent to live in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland, when he was four. He was separated from his brothers and raised by two aunts in Garvaghey. His mother returned to Ireland when he was seven, but he seldom saw her or his brothers (he was twenty-three when his father finally returned to Ireland).{$I[AN]9810001755}{$I[A]Montague, John}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Montague, John}{$I[geo]IRELAND;Montague, John}{$I[tim]1929;Montague, John}

John Montague

(© John Vickers)

Montague attended local schools, then St. Patrick’s College, Armagh, as a boarding student (1941-1946). He went to University College, Dublin, receiving a B.A. in English and history in 1949, an M.A. in Anglo-Irish literature in 1952. In the late 1940’s, he began to write and publish poems and to travel in France and other European countries. He returned to the United States in 1953, studied at Yale University, Indiana University, the University of Iowa, and the University of California at Berkeley, earning an M.F.A. at Iowa in 1955. During these years, he met and was influenced by many American writers, from Robert Penn Warren and William Carlos Williams to Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg. He married in 1956 and returned to Ireland, where he worked for three years for the Irish tourist board in Dublin.

The title of his first book of poems, Forms of Exile, announces a major theme and explores variations on it: separation, alienation, dispossession, loss. Montague both affirms his Irishness and distances himself from repressive aspects of Irish Catholicism. His second book, Poisoned Lands, and Other Poems, reprinted poems from the first and added others. Most sift through one or another of several pasts: personal, familial, regional, national, cultural.

Montague spent much of the 1960’s in Paris, where he worked for two years as a journalist. He also taught at universities in the United States, Ireland, and France, took on editorial projects, wrote short stories, and continued to write poems. His marriage broke up, and he met the woman who would become his second wife (a Frenchwoman, like his first wife).

Montague’s next two volumes of poems, A Chosen Light and Tides, introduce an array of love poems as well as poems about his father (who had died in 1959) and other family members and (especially the earlier volume) poems which draw on memories from childhood.

Montague began work in the early 1960’s on The Rough Field, his best-known book. Its title is a translation of Garvaghey, where he grew up, and the local landscape is a continual point of reference. The volume weaves memories and stories from his family and from Irish history into a complex, unified tapestry, many of the darker tones in which derive from–and respond to–the violence which broke out in Northern Ireland during the late 1960’s.

Married again in 1972, Montague settled in Cork, where he would teach at the university until 1988 and where his daughters would be born in 1973 and 1979. A Slow Dance commingles warmth and cold, life and death, celebrating the one, lamenting (without flinching from) the other. The Great Cloak, a rich compendium of love poems, examines the demise of one relationship and the growth of another.

Montague’s mother died in 1973, and The Dead Kingdom is loosely organized on the thread of his trip home to the North of Ireland to bury her. The poems that deal directly with his mother find him working through what he calls the “primal hurt,” feeling himself “an unwanted child.” His next volume, Mount Eagle, more miscellaneous in its contents, achieves a more serene note, especially in a number of nature poems.

The 1980’s and 1990’s produced retrospectives of various kinds, including two general selections of his poems, plus an impressive theme-based selection (About Love) and the magisterial Collected Poems. Smashing the Piano, the follow-up to Collected Poems, contains forty-one poems, several of them sequences of lyrics. Time in Armagh, a gathering of new work, is retrospective in a different sense: It looks back to the poet’s schooldays in Armagh during World War II.

Montague’s best work, often pertaining to Ireland and its history, his family and its history, and his own personal history, and to combinations of these, has established him in the first rank of English-speaking poets of his era.

BibliographyIrish University Review: A Journal of Irish Studies 19 (Spring, 1989). This special issue, edited by Christopher Murray, includes an interview with Montague, seven articles on his work, an autobiographical essay by Montague (“The Figure in the Cave”), and Thomas Dillon Redshaw’s checklist of Montague’s books.Kersnowski, Frank. John Montague. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1975. The first book-length study of Montague’s work (actually a slim monograph), this work surveys his career through The Rough Field. Its chief value may be its readings of individual poems and stories.Kersnowski, Frank. “The Ulster Muse.” Review of Collected Poems, by John Montague. Sewanee Review 106, no. 2 (Spring, 1998): 369-373. Kersnowski provides a critical assessment of the collection.Montague, John. Company: A Chosen Life. London: Duckworth, 2001. The first volume of Montague’s memoirs, focusing mainly on the 1950’s and 1960’s. Provides entertaining and often illuminating accounts of his encounters with Samuel Beckett, Brendan Behan, Theodore Roethke, and many others. The book’s most memorable portrait, however, is that which emerges indirectly of the author himself. The warmth, wit, intelligence, generosity, and humor of his sensibility inform the book.Montague, John. The Figure in the Cave and Other Essays. Edited by Antoinette Quinn. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1989. This is the essential source for information about Montague’s life, especially in the first four (very autobiographical) essays and in the detailed chronology of his life at the end.Redshaw, Thomas Dillon, ed. Hill Field: Poems and Memoirs for John Montague on His Sixtieth Birthday, 28 February 1989. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 1989. Ten brief memoirs offer glimpses into various phases of the first sixty years of Montague’s life.Redshaw, Thomas Dillon, ed. Well Dreams: Essays on John Montague. Omaha, Nebr.: Creighton University Press, 2002. Eighteen essays examine successive aspects of Montague’s career. Redshaw’s “The Books of John Montague, 1958-2000: A Descriptive Checklist” is an authoritative and essential resource. The most substantial work published on Montague.
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