“Before verse can be human again it must learn to be brutal.” — Irish poet Austin Clarke

“He cleared a non-Yeatsian space in which an Irish poet might build a confident poetry in English for which the term ‘Anglo-Irish’ is meaningless.” – Michael Schmidt, Lives of the Poets

Austin Clarke was born in Dublin on this day in 1896. He is the leading Irish poet in the generation after W.B. Yeats. John Montague called Clarke “the first completely Irish poet to write in English.” He had a similar journey to other Irishmen at that time. 1916 radicalized him (he was in college at the time), although the pump was already primed, his parents were nationalists. He went to University College, Dublin – and I think ended up teaching there. He is a very Irish poet, his topics are Irish, his language and phrasing recognizably Irish. The problem was, as it was for so many, is that he sounded nothing like Yeats, and Yeats basically defined Irish poetry. Many Irish writers have made their names in opposition to Yeats. (See: Patrick Kavanagh. See: Austin Clarke.) Yeats had to be dealt with. Yeats is a fearsome influence, to this day. Clarke imitated him a bit in the beginning (unavoidable), before setting himself free. Yeats has a mystical lyricism, which Clarke doesn’t share at all. His attitude – and language – is much more grim.

Penal Law

Burn Ovid with the rest. Lovers will find
A hedge-school for themselves and learn by heart
All that the clergy banish from the mind,
When hands are joined and head bows in the dark.

More after the jump. Clarke is difficult. But worth it! And important!

 
 

Austin Clarke liked limitations. He was eloquent on assonance (see his commentary on this in the bottom section of the post). Clarke wrote a lot. He wrote plays, editorials, extremely caustic book reviews and also novels. He got into trouble repeatedly with the censors in Ireland. He had a nervous breakdown and was institutionalized, a harrowing experience. In the 60s published a book of poems about it.

“Mnemosyne Lay in the Dust” (1966):
Beyond the rack of thought, he passed
From sleep to sleep. He was unbroken
Yet. Religion could not cast
Its multitudinous torn cloak
About him. Somewhere there was peace
That drew him towards the nothingness
Of all. He gave up, tried to cease
Himself, but delicately clinging
To this and that, life drew him back
To drip of water-torment, rack.’

Always in terror of Olympic doom,
He climbed, despite his will, the spiral steps
Outside a building to a cobwebbed upper room.
There bric-a-brac was in a jumble
His forehead was distending, ears were drumming
As in the gastric fevers of his childhood.
Despite his will, he climbed the steps, stumbling Where Mnemosyne lay in dust.

Austin Clarke tried to carve out more space in Irish literature, space already “claimed” by Yeats. It was an uphill battle. He strove to remove himself from politics, damn near impossible to do in Ireland. Here is a letter he wrote in response to the invitation from the Yeats Association:

Here is one of his most famous poems, from 1928. You can feel an oral tradition in it (“They say … Men that had seen her …”) You can feel the gossip of small towns, and also the long memories of people who have lived in the same place for generations. The footnotes are by Austin Clarke himself. The language of the poem is simple, but as with a lot of Irish stuff, or stuff from another time, there are buried meanings that everyone at the time would get, lost to us now.

The Planter’s Daughter1

When night stirred at sea
And the fire brought a crowd in,
They say that her beauty
Was music in mouth
And few in the candlelight
Thought her too proud,
For the house of the planter
Is known by the trees.

Men that had seen her
Drank deep and were silent,
The women were speaking
Wherever she went –
As a bell that is rung
Or a wonder told shyly,
And O she was the Sunday
In every week.

1 “In barren Donegal, trees around a farmstead still denote an owner of Planter stock [that is, a Protestant], for in the past no native could improve his stone’s-throw of land” [Clarke’s note].

Austin Clarke’s anger at the Catholic Church was IMMENSE. It galvanized much of his verse. It is not ingratiating stuff. But it is truthful.

The Blackbird of Derrycairn
Stop, stop and listen for the bough top
Is whistling and the sun is brighter
Than God’s own shadow in the cup now!
Forget the hour-bell. Mournful matins
Will sound, Patric, as well at nightfall.

Faintly through mist of broken water
Fionn heard my melody in Norway.
He found the forest track, he brought back
This beak to gild the branch and tell, there,
Why men must welcome in the daylight.

He loved the breeze that warns the black grouse,
The shouts of gillies in the morning
When packs are counted and the swans cloud
Loch Erne, but more than all those voices
My throat rejoicing from the hawthorn.

In little cells behind a cashel,
Patric, no handbell gives a glad sound.
But knowledge is found among the branches.
Listen! That song that shakes my feathers
Will thong the leather of your satchels.

from A Sermon on Swift
Friday 11:30 a.m. April 28, 1967
Gentle of hand, the Dean of St. Patrick’s guided
My silence up the steps of the pulpit, put around
My neck the lesser microphone.
‘I feel
That you are blessing me, Mr. Dean.’ Murmur
Was smile.

In this first lay sermon, must I
Not speak the truth? Known scholars, specialists,
From far and near, were celebrating the third
Centenary of our great satirist.
They spoke of the churchman who kept his solemn gown,
Full-bottom, for Sunday and the Evening Lesson,
But hid from lectern the chuckling rhymester who went,
Bald-headed, into the night when modesty
Wantoned with beau and belle, his pen in hand.
Dull morning clapped his oldest wig on. He looked from
The Deanery window, spied the washerwoman
Bundling along, the hay carts swaying from
The Coombe, dropping their country smells, the hackney–
Clatter on cobbles–ready to share a quip
Or rebus with Sheridan and Tom Delaney,
Read an unfinished chapter to Vanessa,
Or Stella, then rid his mind of plaguey curling–
Tongs, farthingales and fal-de-lals. A pox on
Night-hours when wainscot, walls, were dizziness,
Tympana, maddened by inner terror, celled
A man who did not know himself from Cain.
A Tale of Tub, Gulliver’s Travels, fables

QUOTES:

Austin Clarke:

Yeats was rather like an enormous oak-tree, which, of course, kept us in the shade and of course we always hoped that in the end we could reach the sun, but the shadow of that great oak-tree is still there.

Thomas Kinsella, one of his great champions:

The diction of his last poems is a vivid, particular voice, rich and supple; nothing is unsayable. But it is no natural voice.

Austin Clarke:

Assonance is more elaborate in Gaelic than in Spanish poetry. In the simplest forms the tonic word at the end of the line is supported by an assonance in the middle of the next line. The use of internal pattern of assonance in English, though more limited in its possible range, changes the pivotal movement of the lyric stanza. In some forms of the early syllabic Gaelic metres only one part of a double syllable is used in assonance … and this can be a guide to experiment in partial rhyming or assonance and muting. For example, rhyme or assonance on or off accent, stopped rhyme (e.g. window: thin: horn: morning), harmonic rhyme (e/g/ hero: window), cross-rhyme, in which the separate syllables are in assonance or rhyme. The use, therefore, of polysyllabic words at the end of the lyric line makes capable a movement common in continental languages such as Italian or Spanish.

Michael Schmidt, Lives of the Poets:

Yeats cast a long shadow. The endless debate about what constitutes Irishness in art and literature, continued, as it had for Joyce in his self-imposed exile and for Samuel Beckett. Readers were reluctant, given the achievement of Yeats and Patrick Kavanagh’s accessibility, to accept Clarke on his own terms. It can’t have been easy, as he emerged, to reconcile personal vocation, deep learning, a time of historic change, and an indifferent or hostile milieu.

Introduction to the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

Irish poets after Yeats were less attracted to the problems raised by symbolism and modernism than were Americans. Yeats, an Anglo-Irish Protestant, cast a long shadow, and Catholic poets Austin Clarke and Patrick Kavanagh sought to distinguish their own efforts. While pursuing an interest in Irish myth and local legend, as Yeats had, Clarke wrote poems more strongly colored by the assonantal effects of Gaelic poetry and less beholden to the Protestant narrative of Irish history.

Michael Schmidt:

He gains much from being rooted in Ireland in ways Yeats was unable to be. Impoverishment comes from having to acknowledge and define that rootedness, to manifest it in prose and verse. History would not allow him to take his country of origin for granted. Tomlinson insists that Clarke’s nationalism is not “the inertia of chauvinism, but a labour of recovery”. Clarke adapted elements from a tradition alien to the English, working toward a separate Irish, not Anglo-Irish, poetry. It was for him a project, a required labor added on to his primary vocation, and it is responsible for peaks and troughs in his work. Yeats assimilates the Irish struggle into a preexistent rhetorical tradition. Clarke introduces the struggle, preserved in a language long suppressed, into the rhetoric itself, to forge a new poetic idiom.

Austin Clarke on Yeats, The Arrow, 1939:

In England the sheer art of [his] poetry has proved a useful influence and has schooled even the best known of the younger modernists. In Ireland, where the artistic tradition of the literary revival has not been broken, it has an imaginative incitement and great example rather than an influence…English critics have tried to claim him for their tradition but, heard closely, his later music has that tremulous lyrical undertone which can be found in the Anglo-Irish eloquence of the eighteenth century.

Padraic Fallon, review of 1974 Collected Poems in The Irish Times:

I don’t know if he ever arrived at any kind of personal Deity but there was in him from the very first an almost frantic worship of landscape. … Once, confessing, he told me of the time in St. Albans, in south England, when he used, under the influence of AE’s Candle of Vision, wander the countryside seeking an actual illumination from things, aurae in trees and hedges, nymphs in the air above the streams. The world was alive to him in those times. And it was a life that never really died. I doubt if he would cut down a tree, even those that grew inward and left his study truly a green thought in a green shade. …so much of his life belongs to this vital activity that it makes me unappreciative of this development as a satirist of modern idosyncrasy. God knows we need one in this sad scene. But the verse is definitely against the obvious witticism. I enumerate this list [of contents and pages] just to show the sudden almost unanticipated flowering of Clarke’s middle and late years. The quality is something which must still be determined, the last verse is delightfully expert, and unashamedly enjoys itself in metrical devices of a kind not usually put into service by any craftsman, even one as jubilant as Clarke.

Kate O’Brien, University Review, 1963:

From Austin Clarke, shy, unhappy, I suspect, in his first job – form that rapidly muttering, fresh-minded and always-in-flight young lectuer, the attentive – of which on my own terms I became one – could get light, and direction. He said striking things, when one could hear them. He was amusing and rude about essays – but once he actually said out loud in class that in one of mine he found “the outward sign of inward grace.” I have not forgotten either my pleasure or astonishment.’

Austin Clarke, footnote to poem “The Young Woman of Beare”:

The episodes of this allegory are fanciful, but the Old Woman of Beare is a well-known figure in country stories. She had seven periods of youth before the climacteric of her grief. She speaks in a famous and classic poem: ‘the lament of an old hetaira who contrasts the privation and suffering of her old age with the pleasure of her youth when she had been the delight of kings’ (Kuno Meyer)…In Glendalough, that holy place, a man told me of a poor crone who had lived in the ruined settlement below the abandoned mines. She refused even the consolations of religion, for she remembered with great anger her own times of merriment and the strong mortals she had held, when silver and lead were brought down the mountainside, more than half a century ago.

Michael Schmidt:

The uncompromising force of his best satires, the vividness of his love lyrics and visions, and the cool candor of his “confessions” set him apart. He cleared a non-Yeatsian space in which an Irish poet might build a confident poetry in English for which the term “Anglo-Irish” is meaningless.

John Montague, 1972:

A climate had been created in which the rediscovery of Austin Clarke had almost become inevitable; in July 1959, I wrote in Poetry that his “general subject, Irish Catholicism and its emotional malformations, is no longer a local phenomenon, as modern American and Australian politics surely indicate. Technical interest is not lacking; Clarke’s adaptation of techniques from Gaelic verse to encompass the Irish Catholic subject parallels modern experiment elsewhere. A collected volume of his later work from Pilgrimage onwards, would, I think, reveal a talent as considerable as that of Tate, Ransom, or Muir.” The rest is literary history, but the comedy of Mr Clarke, the most implacable opponent of modernism. In Ireland, being accepted, like Yeats, as a late recruit to international literature should not escape us. The argument was always a false one, since the terms are not exclusive, and the wider an Irishman’s experience, the more likely he is to understand his native country.

Tom MacIntyre, review of The Bright Temptation, Hibernia (1980)

It’s nothing except Clarke on the subject of love in Ireland. This is a beautiful book. It is tender, witty, savage, sad, technically the author’s control of his material is complete … published in 1932. Read it, brood on it, look down the 1966 road – and tell me, friend, if you heart is not badly shaken.

Austin Clarke, footnote to poem “The Planter’s Daughter”:

In barren Donegal, trees around a farmstead still denote an owner of Planter stock (that is, a Protestant), for in the past no native could improve his stone’s throw of land.

Michael Schmidt:

Irish poetry had already been reinvented by Yeats, and his achievement eclipsed other writers and the Ireland they might write.

John Hobbs, Irish Literary Supplement, 1992:

He had a talent for depicting spiritually desperate characters, yet as with the American poet Edwin Arlington Robinson, his careful art cannot transcend their depressions, so their controlled pathos may not move us as much as we feel it should. Witness even the melancholy tale of Clarke’s own early mental breakdown and hospitalization reflected in the long rambling poem “Mnemosyne Lay in the Dust”, usefully reprinted here in its entirely. Even the fine ironic portrait of “Martha Blake at Fifty-One,” sick until death in soul and body yet ignored by the Catholic Church, somehow lacks the intensity Clarke strives for…Compared to his contemporary Patrick Kavanagh, for example, Clarke is often seen as a paradigm of the self-conscious artist obsessed with intricate patterns of neo-Celtic assonance. Unfortunately, many of his poems have the appearance of formality without its fierce pressure, because he evades rhyme, rhythm and poetic form more than he uses them. In his own words, his method “takes the clapper out of the bell of rhyme”. The contrast with Yeats’s artistry is unfair but inevitable. Who can read Clarke’s “‘The Young Woman of Beare” without recalling Crazy Jane? Yet Jane’s successor defies society in ten-line stanzas with this calm tone: “I am the bright temptation / In talk, in wine, in sleep. / Although the clergy pray, / I triumph in a dream…” Maxton sees Clarke as “a taker of risks,” but those risks were less literary than personal and moral – for example, defending sexuality in a puritanical time – and they are bound to seem less consequential today than they were then.

Austin Clarke’s response to Robert Frost’s question about what kind of poetry he wrote:

I load myself with chains and then try to get out of them.

Michael Schmidt:

The endless debate about what constitutes Irishness in art and literature continued, as it had for Joyce in his self-imposed exile, and for Samuel Beckett. Readers were reluctant, given the achievement of Yeats and Patrick Kavanagh’s accessibility, to accept Clarke on his own terms … His great advocate, Thomas Kinsella, seems to occupy an almost analogous position in Ireland today.

Austin Clarke on Yeats, The Arrow, 1939:

He spoke to me at length of Donne, Vaughan, Herbert, Dryden and then of Landor, his voice rising and falling as he urged me to study their works and follow their austere example. As I was a lecturer in English literature at the time in University College, Dublin, and still immersed in Gaelic mythology and poetry, his severe lecture chilled me and, like Joyce, I felt that I had met him a generation too late.

Austin Clarke:

Assonance takes the clapper from the bell of rhyme. In simple patterns the tonic word at the end of the line is supported by a vowel rhyme in the middle of the next line.

Austin Clarke, Twice Around the Black Church: Early Memories of Ireland and England (1962):

At seven I made my first confession. I cannot remember how and when I was prepared for the sacrament of penance. No doubt I conned the penny catechism in class and learned the sixth commandment, which forbids all looks, words and actions against the virtue of chastity, speech with bad companions, improper dances, immodest company keeping and indecent conversation. In eager anticipation I set forth, proud of having now attained to the theological age of reason and in awe, knowing that the confessor was the visible representative of Christ. I went up Mountjoy Street that morning on our side of the street, past the Protestant orphanage, Wellington Street corner, and glanced up at the big clock over the public house. / In Berkeley Road chapel, I read the name of Father O’Callaghan over a confessional and, kneeling down, waited till the last penitents had left. Then I opened the side door on the left of the confessional and found myself in the narrow dark recess and, in a minute, the panel was drawn back. I told my little tale of fibs, disobedience and loss of temper and then Father O’Callaghan bent towards the grille and asked me a strange question which puzzled me for I could not understand it. He repeated the question and as I was still puzzled he proceeded to explain in detail and I was disturbed by a sense of evil. I denied everything but he did not believe me and, as I glanced up at the grille, his great hooknose and fierce eyes filled me with fear. Suddenly the panel closed and I heard Father O’Callaghan coming out of the confession box. He opened the side door and told me to follow him to the vestry. I did so, bewildered by what was happening. He sat down, told me to kneel and once more repeated over and over his strange question, asking me if I had ever made myself weak. The examination seemed to take hours though it must have been only a few minutes. At last, in fear and desperation, I admitted to the unknown sin. I left the church, feeling that I had told a lie in my first confession and returned home in tears but, with the instinct of childhood, said nothing about it to my mother.

Austin Clarke, footnote in Collected Poems

Assonance is more elaborate in Gaelic than in Spanish poetry. In the simplest forms the tonic word at the end of the line is supported by an assonance in the middle of the next line. The use of internal pattern of assonance is English, though more limited in its possible range, changes the pivotal movement of the lyric stanza. In some forms of the early syllabic Gaelic metres only one part of a double syllable word is used in assonance…and this can be a guide to experiment in partial rhyming or assonance and muting. For example, rhyme or assonance on or off accent, stopped rhyme (e.g. window: thin: horn: morning), harmonic rhyme (e.g. hero: window), cross-rhyme, in which the separate syllables are in assonance or rhyme. The use, therefore, of polysyllabic words at the end of the lyric line makes capable a movement common in continental language such as Italian or Spanish. These experiments were originally suggested by the submerged rhyme of Paul Fort.

Austin Clarke on meeting James Joyce:

Some weeks later as we were sitting in a cheap café in a side street under the shadow of St Sulpice, drinking Pernod Fils, Joyce afer long silence, mentioned Yeats again. His remark was so surprising that I keep it in Italian: “La poesia de Mangan e de Yeats è quella segatora di chi sela da fa solo”.’ He emphasised their obsession with hands, quoting Mangan and pointing to the frequency with which Yeats refers to pearl-pale hands. I realised that he was only acquainted with the early twilight poems. As I glanced at the drooping figure, I wondered if he had been addicted in youth to our national vice.

Edna O’Brien:

Austin Clarke, a Dublin poet, said many years later when they met in Paris, that Joyce was eager to hear the latest smutty stories circulated among Dublin schoolboys. Clarke thought Joyce was afflicted “with a particular kind of Irish pornography”, but that he was also a dreamer.’

W. B. Yeats, letter Olivia Shakespear, asking for a review of Clarke’s The Bright Temptation:

Read it and tell me should I make him an Academician. I find it difficult to see, with impartial eyes, these Irish writers who are as it were part of my propaganda.

Michael Schmidt:

Images of the Church’s power, temporal and psychological, recur. Each Irish coin has at some stage passed through the collection. Orgy, grim antithesis to grim repressiveness, fills dreams with a poisonous, denying dialectic, is whispered in confessional. Natural impulse, guiltless sensuality, have little place. Clarke’s anger intensifies: anger against the Church in particular, its patterns of alienation.

Seán Lucy, The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies, 1983

Clarke’s Collected Poems (1974) takes us from romantic cultural nationalism to the synthesis of Irish Tradition and twentieth century modernism … The influence of Yeats, Herbert Trench [Deirdre Wed], the Gaelic models, James Stephen’s Irish Fairy Tales, the Irish Middle Ages, and the pressures of living in a particular society, are discerned. Clarke showed a new generation of Irish poets how a true modern voice could emerge from their own tradition, a voice cabable of profound ironies and satire, as well as a new relaxation and a gentle pleasure of the sensual. Though his work is uneven, Clarke became a poety of wide emotional and technical range, a key figure in the development of Irish poetry in English.

Austin Clarke on Yeats, The Arrow, 1939:

[Yeats’s] later poetry celebrate[s] mournfully the passing of greatness. In his ranging themes he sums up an era and for us his language seems to bring to a poetic and glorious end to the tradition of Anglo-Irish eloquence, for it has the vibrant timbre which can be heard in Burke’s prose … and in that last speech by Grattan in the Irish House of Commons before the Act of Union.

The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

Clarke’s work has rhetorical force, but rich words appear suddenly, as if from a thin-lipped mouth. A saturnine, brooding figure, he is at his best “where hail and honey meet” (“Pilgrimage”), in poems about love in which passion and its limitations are paralleled by the restrictions and liberties of his verse technique.

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2 Responses to “Before verse can be human again it must learn to be brutal.” — Irish poet Austin Clarke

  1. Mike Molloy says:

    Wow, that Planter’s Daughter

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