Founders of Our Literature: Marcus Clarke

We remember him only by that one powerful, heart-breaking drama "For the Term of His Natural Life." After that, who in these days knows Marcus Clarke?

The tragedy of Rufus Dawes has given him his place on the shelf of memory, yet he has left behind him much graceful prose. Now and again "The Marcus Clarke Memorial Volume" turns up in a secondhand bookshop, but this book is becoming rare, more's the pity. Some of it is the chaff of a man who wrote hurriedly for a journalistic living, but some is genuine grain, and golden grain at that.

Marcus Clarke died in Melbourne on Tuesday, August 2, 1881, aged only 35. How tragic! Only 35 and his best work still to come! But he was born into Bohemia, and those who dwell there see life at high noon which passes quickly.

His father was an eccentric recluse. His mother he never knew, for she died soon after he was born on April 24, 1846. Of his childhood little is known except that he went to a private school in Highgate, London. He was delicate and eccentric as a lad. At home he mixed freely with his father's Bohemian companions and imitated them and their ways.

When he was 17 his father died. He was supposed to be rich, but he died poor, and Marcus received a few hundred pounds with which he took ship to Australia.

Here he entered a new Bohemia, and it soon became imperative that he should earn his living. Marcus Clarke was a man of extraordinary charm, with the gifts of satire, humor and bonhomie which made him a favorite wherever he went. He quickly found work in the Bank of Australasia under Messers Frank Grey-Smith and Henry Gyles Turner, but as a clerk he was impossible. He would never add up a column of figures. He always guessed the answer and put it down. He put the wrong letters in the wrong envelopes, and one day lost his job.

Through his uncle, Judge Clarke, he found his way to Swinton Station, near Glenorchy, but he was a hopeless case again. His extraordinary capacity for friendship enabled him to stay there for two years, but he did little work.

It was at Glenorchy that he began writing seriously, and came in contact with Dr. Robert Lewins, who had been a surgeon in the New Zealand War. Through Dr. Lewins he joined the literary staff of the Argus. He was an impossible reporter, but his book reviews and humorous contributions under the heading of "The Peripatetic Philosopher" won him recognition immediately, and thereafter he remained a contributor.

He started journals which failed. He founded the Yorick Club. He was the friend of Lindsay Gordon and Henry Kendall. He lived beyond his means, and he married Miss Marian Dunn, the actress daughter of John Dunn, who is described as the prince of burlesque actors.

He wrote voluminously for the newspapers and for the stage, and then he fell ill. A change of air was necessary. He went to Tasmania, and Clarson, Massina and Co., of the Australian Journal, gave him a commission to write a novel of the convict days of Tasmania.

"For the Term of His Natural Life" had a hectic career. The first few chapters came quickly to hand, and the story began to appear. Then the arrival of the manuscript ceased. The journal was often forced to publish without the next instalment. Only by locking the author in a room could the publishers get any copy out of him.

Through the influence of Sir Redmond Barry he was given the post of secretary to the trustees of the Public Library, but he did not discontinue writing. The end came soon after his estate had been sequestrated. He felt that bitterly, and it lost him his position. He was only ill for a week when his eyes closed for ever.

A long list of writing is attached to his name but only one other completed novel, "Long Odds." His third attempt, "Felix and Felicitas," was unfinished.

Some of Clarke's most beautiful prose is found in his famous preface to Gordon's poems. Here are extracts- "Australia has rightly been named the Land of Dawning. Wrapped in the mist of early morning her history looms vague and gigantic. The lonely horseman riding between the moonlight and the day sees vast shadows creeping across the shelterless and silent plains, hears strange noises in the primeval forests, where flourishes a vegetation long dead in other lands and feels despite his fortune, that the trim utilitarian civilisation which bred him shrinks into insignificance beside the contemptuous grandeur of forest and ranges coeval with an age in which the European
scientists have cradled his own race."

And in another place: "In Australia alone is to be found the Grotesque, the Weird, the strange scribbling of Nature learning to write. Some see no beauty in our trees without shade, our flowers w'out perfume, our birds who cannot fly and our beasts who have not yet learned to walk on all fours. But the dweller in the wilderness acknowledges the subtle charm of this fantastic land of monstrosities. He becomes familiar with the beauty of loneliness. Whispered to by the myriad tongues of the wilderness, he learns the language of the barren and the uncouth, and can read the hieroglyphs of haggard gum-trees blown into odd shapes, distorted with fierce, hot winds, or cramped with cold nights when the Southern Cross freezes in a cloudless sky of icy blue. The phantasmagoria of that wild dreamland termed the Bush interprets itself, and the Poet of our desolation begins to comprehend why free Esau loved his heritage of desert sand better than all the beautiful richness of Egypt."

That is great prose and all the greater because of its insight into the beauty of a land which so many of us love.

First published in The Herald, 19 May 1934

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on December 14, 2007 8:50 AM.

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