Late in his career, the Irish poet Austin Clarke was asked by Robert Frost what kind of poetry he wrote. ‘I load myself with chains,’ Clarke replied, ‘and try to get out of them.’ ‘Good Lord!’ Frost said. ‘You can’t have many readers.’ Despite a distinguished career spanning almost sixty years, Austin Clarke has not had many readers outside Ireland. Inside Ireland, many critics ranked Clarke as the most important Irish poet writing after Yeats, but his work has not received extensive critical attention — partly because it is often difficult and complex, and partly because Clarke was committed to writing not just about the Irish, but also for the Irish.
In The Poetry of Austin Clarke, the first published book-length study of Clarke’s poetry, Gregory Schirmer argues against seeing Clarke as a provincial writer. Rather, he sees Clarke’s large and varied canon as informed by a broad humanistic vision that enables it to transcend Clarke's commitment to the local.
Clarke once said that in reading Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man he had difficulty distinguishing between Stephen Dedalus and himself. Like Joyce, Clarke (1896-1974) came to see Irish Catholicism as a powerful and complex threat to his freedom and artistic vocation. In The Poetry of Austin Clarke, Schirmer asserts that almost all of Clarke’s poetry moves between two poles: his view of Irish Catholicism as a repressive, life-denying force, and his humanistic faith in man’s inherent goodness and right to moral, intellectual, and spiritual freedom.
This argument is advanced through a detailed reading of Clarke’s poetry, beginning with the early narrative poems, which are based on the same pre-Christian Irish legends that inspired Yeats and the Irish Literary Revival, and then turning to Pilgrimage (1929) and Night and Morning (1938), two volumes of lyrics that are central to understanding Clarke’s poetry as a whole. In these books, Clarke sets forth the terms that govern all his art – the struggle between humanism and religion, flesh and spirit, reason and faith. Clarke’s satirical poems and epigrams of the 1950s and 1960s are then examined in terms of this tension. Finally the book discusses Clarke’s later poetry, including the long, semi-autobiographical Mnemosene Lay in Dust (1966), the late erotic poetry, and Clarke’s free translations of Gaelic verse.
Throughout all this varied writing, Schirmer argues, Clarke is celebrating the human in the face of the forces that he sees ranged against it. It is this vision that makes Clarke’s poetry an important part, not just of Irish literature, but of all literature attempting to express man’s condition in the twentieth century.