Clarke is born in 83 Manor Street, Stoneybatter, Dublin, on May 9, 1896. His main contribution to Irish poetry is the rigour with which he uses technical means borrowed from classical Irish language poetry when writing in English. Effectively, this means writing English verse based not so much on metre as on complex patterns of assonance, consonance, and half rhyme. Describing his technique to Robert Frost, he says, “I load myself down with chains and try to wriggle free.”
Clarke’s early poetry clearly shows the influence of Yeats. His first book, The Vengeance of Fionn, is a long narrative poem retelling an Ossianic legend. It meets with critical acclaim and, unusually for a first book of poetry, goes to a second edition. Between this and the 1938 volume Night and Morning, he publishes a number of collections, all of which, to one extent or another, can be seen as being written in the shadow of Yeats. There is, however, one significant difference. Unlike the older poet, Clarke is a Catholic, and themes of guilt and repentance run through this early work.
Between 1938 and 1955, Clarke publishes no new lyric or narrative poetry. He is co-founder of the Lyric Theatre, Dublin and writes a number of verse plays for them. He also works as a journalist and has a weekly poetry programme on RTÉ radio. It seems likely that he also experiences some kind of personal crisis during this time and this has significant consequences for his later poetry.
Clarke returns to publishing poetry with the 1955 collection Ancient Lights, and is to continue writing and publishing prolifically for the remainder of his life. Although he continues to use the same Gaelic-derived techniques, this late poetry is markedly different from his earlier work. Many of the later poems are satires of the Irish church and state, while others are sensual celebrations of human sexuality, free of the guilt of the earlier poems. He also publishes the intensely personal Mnemosyne Lay in Dust, which is a poem sequence detailing the fictional Maurice Devanes’s nervous breakdown and subsequent recovery.
Clarke also comes to admire the work of more avant-garde poets like Ezra Pound and Pablo Neruda, both of whom he writes poems about. A number of the late long poems, such as, for instance, the 1971 Tiresias, show the effects of studying these poets and their looser formal structures. He sets up the Bridge Press to publish his own work, which allows him the freedom to publish work that many mainstream Irish publishers of the time might have been reluctant to handle. His Collected Poems is published in 1974 and a Selected Poems in 1976.
In addition to some twenty volumes of poetry and numerous plays, Clarke publishes three novels: The Bright Temptation (1932), The Singing Men at Cashel (1936), and The Sun Dances at Easter (1952). All of these are banned by the Censorship of Publications Board (Ireland). He also publishes two volumes of memoirs, Twice Round the Black Church (1962) and A Penny in the Clouds (1968), and a number of scattered critical essays and book reviews. While all of these prose writings are of interest, his reputation rests firmly on his poetry.
In 1920 Clarke marries Cornelia (Lia) Cummins. The marriage effectively lasts only a few days, and he spends several months in St. Patrick’s Hospital recovering from it, but they do not divorce before Cummins dies in 1943. He meets, has three sons with, and later marries (1945) Norah Esmerelda Patricia Walker (1900–1985), granddaughter of Matthew Harris, MP for East Galway from 1885 to 1890.
Clarke lives in Bridge House beside Templeogue Bridge which spans the River Dodder in the south Dublin suburb of Templeogue. After his death on March 19, 1974, there is a proposal to preserve the house and his library of 6,500 books as a memorial. This is not possible owing to long-term plans to demolish the house and widen the road. The old Templeogue Bridge, built in 1800, and Bridge House are removed. A new bridge is opened by Councillor Bernie Malone, Chairman Dublin City Council, on December 11, 1984, which is renamed Austin Clarke Bridge in his honour.
(Photo © RTÉ Archives)