Austin Clarke (1896-1974), along with Louis MacNeice and Patrick Kavanagh, is regarded as one of the leading Irish poets in the generation after Yeats. Born in Dublin he spent most of his life in Ireland, apart from a 16-year spell in London in the 20s and 30s, and Irish themes – the culture, landscape, religion and politics of his native home – dominate his poetry. Even more significant than subject matter, however, was Ireland’s influence on the structure and texture of Clarke’s poetry through his engagement with the Gaelic tradition. His deep knowledge of the folk and bardic strands of Gaelic poetry was first established during his time studying at University College Dublin, and his application of its techniques to verse written in English remains his greatest innovation. His time at University College coincided with the turbulent period following the 1916 Easter Rising. This had a personal resonance for Clarke when he succeeded to the University lectureship made vacant by the execution of his one-time tutor, Thomas MacDonagh, for his part in the rebellion. Clarke’s first book of poetry, The Vengeance of Fionn, a long narrative poem retelling an Ossianic legend, shows the influence of Yeats. It met with critical acclaim but it took Clarke a number of years before he was able to find his own poetic voice and mission and to step out from the shadow of Yeats. This came when a new spare realism and a conviction in the importance of writing about present circumstances began to inform his poetry, as evidenced in his fifth volume of poems, Pilgrimage, published in 1929. After this early flowering, Clarke produced no lyric or narrative poetry between 1938 and 1955. This may have been due to his involvement in the theatre during this period which led him to concentrate on writing verse plays, but it may be that personal crisis was also partly to blame for this poetic silence. Clarke returned to poetry with the 1955 collection Ancient Lights. His later poetry is marked by an increasing focus on the erotic. Unlike Yeats, Clarke was a Catholic, but the themes of guilt and repentance in his earlier work gave way to a celebration of joyous sexuality and a growing and fierce anti-clericalism. This brought him into opposition with the state authorities: his three novels were all banned by the Irish Censorship Board. Clarke also came to admire more avant garde poets like Ezra Pound whose influence can be seen in the looser forms of a number of late, longer poems. In response to censorship and the conservatism of Irish publishers, Clarke set up the Bridge Press to publish his own work. While he wrote in many genres, including two volumes of memoir as well as fiction and drama, his critical reputation rests firmly on his poetry. This is despite the neglect of his early hero, Yeats, who pointedly omitted Clarke when editing the 1936 Oxford Book of Modern Verse. Perhaps the older poet understood that Clarke’s defiant emphasis on the provincial was in deliberate opposition to his own achievement without grasping how necessary this rebellion was.

Clarke’s technical innovation is beautifully demonstrated in his loose translation of an 18th Century Jacobite Lay, ‘The Blackbird of Derrycairn’. The original poem was written in a form called D’in Direach in which each line consists of seven syllables with the final word in each line being of two syllables. While Clarke expands the form slightly, allowing himself nine syllables per line, he retains the “interlacement of sound”(Donald Davie, Poetry National No. 3, 1974) of the original, through the intricate knot-work of assonance and half-rhyme. Though the poem is set in the time of St. Patrick there is, typically for Clarke, a contemporary relevance in its critique of the Catholic Church. The poem is spoken by the blackbird whose free-singing voice celebrates the pagan world at the expense of the church. He asks Patrick to listen to him, not the gloomy handbell of the morning service. Both this poem and ‘Japanese Print’ also show Clarke’s deep feeling for the Irish landscape. In the latter birds once again feature as a symbol of freedom and beauty, though this time in celebration of artistic skill and comradeship. Clarke’s mellow voice brings out the complex music of his poems, emphasising their consummate workmanship.

Books by Austin Clarke