Clarke was born in Dublin in 1896. He was one of four children, who's father was a coporation official, and was educated in Belvadere College and UCD. Between 1913 and 1916, he was lectured by Douglas Hyde and Thomas McDonagh. He graduated in 1916, did an M.A. in 1917 and was appointed as a lecturer in UCD in the same year replacing his former teacher, McDonagh, who had been executed for his part in the 1916 Rising. His first work "The Vengence of Fionn" was written and was followed in 1918 by "The Fires of Baal". In 1921, Clarke published "The Sword of The Nest" and these three works were his first attempts to recreate astyle of Gaelic poetry in the English language.
Hyde and McDonagh represented the two different strains of Gaelic tradition. Hyde was a student of Gaelic folk poetry while McDonagh taught Clarke about Bardic poetry, a more intellectual and more stylistic body of work produced by the Jacobite poets of the 17th and 18th Century. Clarke's first three prose romances show both these influences, thematically reflecting folk tradition and stylistically mirroring the Bardic aspect. Clarke said that he wanted to "preserve what he could in a form faithful to the original yet accessible to the modern ear". That involved using the English language rather than the Irish language but applying, were possible, the techniques of Gaelic poetry to the poem written in English. Perhaps Clarke's greatest success is "The Blackbird of Derrycairn" which is a loose translation of an 18th Century Jacobite lay "Lon Doire an Cairn". The original poem was written in the form, Dáin Direach, which meant that each line consisted of seven syllables while the final word in each line must be a two syllable word. Recognising that the English language did not lend itself syllabic structures, Clarke allowed nine syllables per line in "The Blackbird of Derrycairn" and 14 of the 23 lines end in a two syllable word.
Clarke recognised that assonance was the key to rhyme and that Gaelic poetry relied on assonance for much of its aural effect. In his work Clarke used a variety of rhyming techniques borrowed from Gaelic poetry:
1.) Perfect Rhyme: This involves the rhyming technique usually used in English.
2.) Slant Rhyme: This involves the rhyming of a word in the middle of one line with one at the end or beginning of another.
3.) Internal Rhyme: This involves the rhyming of words not at the end of the poetic line. In "The Lost Heifer". Clarke uses alliteration to create internal rhyme involving the words "hazes", "her", "honey" and "hive".
4.) Leonine Rhyme: This involves the rhyming of the word before the caesura with the word at the end of the line. An example of this is found in "The Blackbird of Derrycairn" - "He found the forest track, be brought back".
5.) Criss-Cross Rhyme: This is a technique common to Gaelic poetry where the words at the end of 2 lines, both composed of 2 consonants, rhyme in a criss-cross fashion. The words involved will sound and rhyme:
a , b
b , a
In "The Blackbird of Derrycairn" Clarke achieves this effect in the opening stanza:
Line 1 - "bough top"
Line 3 - "cup now"
6.) Half Rhyme: This involves a rhyme involving one syllable from two or more polysyllabic words. An example of this is the rhyme created between "branches" and "satchels".
7.) Linked Rhyme: Linked rhyme involves a similar sound at the end of one line and at the beginning of the next line. Clarke creates this effect in the opening three lines of The Lost Heifer:
8.) Phonetic Rhyme: This is largely an English technique. Clarke takes poetic licence to create lines involving words which may demand mispronunciation e.g.:
wind -> mind
again -> rain
9.) Apocopated Rhyme: This involves all four lines of a quatrain and is a double rhyming technique involving for example assonantal linking lines 1 - 3, 2 - 4, combining with rhyme linking 1 - 4, 2 - 3, achieved through consonants. Although there is no clear example of this in the poems, the opening four lines of The Lost Heifer is an approximation of this technique.
" ......................... grazing"
" ............................ wind"
" ............................ hazel"
" ............................ mind"
Clarke relies heavily on both assonance (which he considered to be the chief element of rhyme) and consonance to create a series of sound patterns which give an aural quality to his poetry. In most cases he draws on alliterations and sibilance, double consonants or a series of sharp consonants, to create consonance.
The formal elements of Gaelic poetry often demanded that a set number of syllables be included in each line. The Dán Direach format required that each line be composed of seven syllables. Clarke is attempting to preserve the syllabic structure of the Dán Direach by limiting the lies of The Blackbird of Derrycairn to nine syllables. This is somewhat looser than the original yet closer to the Gaelic structure than to the iambic Pentameter which has ten syllables which however are divided into five different feet composed, each with only long and one short syllable.
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