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Poetry Week: Nothing to gain but my chains …

Austin Clarke, Collected Poems

Austin Clarke, Collected Poems

Austin Clarke, with Louis MacNeice, was one of the two great figures of twentieth century Irish poetry immediately after Yeats. His life touched, tangentially at times, the development of Ireland and its culture until his death in 1974. He is not as well-known as he should be but can be seen as the first in a line of poets inspired by classical Irish (language) literature in the same way that MacNeice was followed by a number of other classically (Greek and Latin) educated poets from Northern Ireland. This Collected Poems is the first complete collection of his work since just after his death.

Born in Dubin in 1896, Clarke studied at University College Dublin and in 1917 was appointed assistant lecturer. He replaced Thomas MacDonagh, a substantial poet in his own right, and inspiration, after his execution in 1916, for one of the best known laments in Irish poetry, written by Francis Ledwidge, who died on the Somme a few weeks later. In 1921 Clarke was dismissed from UCD and he left the soon-to-be independent Ireland for London, returning permanently to Dublin in 1937.

Early on, Clarke experimented with traditional Irish forms, including syllabic metre and assonance, which he famously described as “taking the clapper out of the bell of rhyme”. An early example is his version of the anonymous seventeenth century poem, The Scholar (1929):

Summer delights the scholar
With knowledge and reason.
Who is happy in hedgerow
Or meadow as he is?

The original of the poem appears in An Duanaire, with a translation by Thomas Kinsella, the great living successor to Clarke. The same verse in the original and rendered by Kinsella:

Aoibhinn beatha an scoláire
bhíos ag déanamh a léighinn;
is follas díbh, a dhaoine,
gurab dó is aoibhne in Éirinn.

Sweet is the scholar’s life,
busy about his studies,
the sweetest lot in Ireland
as all of you know well.

Now, Clarke describes his version as a `free paraphrase’, where Kinsella is producing a literal version for the assistance of non-Irish speakers, but there is more going on here. The rhymes are internal (`scholar/knowledge’, `hedgerow/meadow’) and make what might otherwise sound sing-song mellifluous and Gaelically soft. Clarke was a serious scholar of English and of Irish, and had the confidence and the skill to import such methods into the English tongue and use them to write poetry which feels Irish without a whiff of Paddywhackery or

The same style can carry an edge. As well as writing versions of old Irish lyrics, Clarke engaged with the politics of his day in Ireland and elsewhere. While a poem denouncing the Black and Tans might be expected from any Irish poet of the time, Clarke took a position on the Civil War. During that war, the Irish government had four Republican prisoners, one from each province, shot in retaliation for IRA actions:

I could not praise too hot a heart
Or take a bellows to that blaze,
Yet, knowing I would never see him,
I gave my hand to Liam Mellowes.

They are the spit of virtue now,
Prating of law and honour,
But we remember how they shot
Rory O’Connor.

The metrical rules are respected but the sound is a flat splash of spit on a pavement.

Having taken his chances with politics, Clarke engaged with sex, psychology and religion, sometimes in combination (`Corporal Punishment’ on the abuse dished out by the Christian Brothers). In 1963, when Douglas Hyde, a Protestant Gaelic scholar who had become the first president of Ireland, was buried, the cabinet waited outside Saint Patrick’s (Church of Ireland) cathedral,

Around the corner, ready,
Tall hat in hand, dreading
Our Father in English. Better
Not hear that `which’ for `who’
And risk eternal doom.

Only two Catholics, Clarke and the French ambassador, were at the rail of the cathedral for the funeral of the former head of state. Around the same time, he wrote an exuberant lament `Looking back’:

I turn, forgetting good manners,
Look after them in the street,
Young girls, slim, rounded in slacks,
Leg-showing skirt or jeans,
For desire is polygamous
And what is shame but lust.

While Clarke’s poetry addresses the culture and politics of a newly independent and modernizing Ireland, he is also a deeply personal, and often difficult, poet. Thinking of the strong man he had seen at Saint Martin in the Fields, he described his style, to Robert Frost, as loading himself with chains and trying to get out of them. The chains are obvious enough: the Irish metres, the internal rhymes, the glancing, distorted reference to classical themes. If poetry is words doing double duty, Clarke has language on overtime. In his long poem
about his mental breakdown, `Mnemosyne lay in dust’:

The classical rustle of the harpies,
Hopping in filth among the trees,
The Mansion of Forgetfulness
Swift gave us for a jest.

The harpies in Homer carried people to their death, but we also need to know that the hospital, founded with a bequest of Jonathan Swift’s, is next to the Guinness brewery at St James’s Gate, Dublin, which displays the familiar harp outside. The same harp is also the symbol of Ireland. The `jest’ is Swift’s famous `satiric touch’ in leaving money to found a hospital for `fools and mad’ since nowhere needed it as much as Ireland. Mnemosyne was the muse who gave us mnemonics, the art of memory. One well-known mnemonic technique is the House of Memory, the oppposite of a Mansion of Forgetfulness. George Russell wrote under the pseudonym `AE’, from `aeon’. Declan Kiberd refers to Russell’s paper The Irish Homestead `in which columns listing the weekly manure prices appeared alongside the editor’s mystical poems’.

The same sensibility is at work in his translations. In the final verse of `The Scholar’,

But in winter by the big fires,
The ignorant hear his fiddle,
And he battles on the chessboard,
As the land lords bid him.

`fiddle’ echoes the Irish for `chess’, `ficheall’.

Clarke’s work is full of meaning under meaning, his technical achievement bright but not blinding, allowing the reader to dig out the many things at a time he means, signifies and intends. The result is some of the most incisive, intelligent poetry written in Ireland in the twentieth century.

  • Clarke, Austin, Collected Poems, 978-1-85754-85-9.

4 comments on “Poetry Week: Nothing to gain but my chains …

  1. Jackie
    May 22, 2009

    There is a thorniness to Clarke’s work too, in an almost defiant way. He also has a strong sense of the hypocrisy of situations, which I appreciate. Thanks for explaining a lot of the background & meanings of the words he used. It’s really unfortunate that he isn’t better known.
    I disagree however, that “what is shame but lust”, as shame can be for other things that have nothing to do with sex.
    As always, an interesting post.

  2. Moira
    May 23, 2009

    We were talking on another thread about how important – or otherwise – it is to have a complete understanding of a poem and all its references.

    In the case of some of Austin Clarke, it sounds as if it’s almost essential in order to appreciate them fully.

    I think ‘shame’ in the context it’s being used in that poem probably is synonymous with lust …

  3. Jackie
    May 24, 2009

    Yes, it definitely is in that context. But it seemed a more general statement about shame itself, not just in that instance.

  4. Hilary
    May 24, 2009

    Austin Clarke – another fresh discovery for me – thank you for your eloquent review, Michael. What I am enjoying most about Poetry Week is to be reminded of the ways in which poetry can really deliver so much in such a little span – through the strength of poetic technique, and by allusion and pulling through a shared culture stretching back to antiquity. It has been a delight to be reminded of poetic forms, the impact of metre, and the discipline of encapsulating a thought, idea or feeling within a prescribed poetic form, harnessing its power.

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