John Montague: A noble procession of poems has passed out of Irish life
Ulster poet had a ‘dramatic, engaged, fruitful literary life right to the end of his days’
John Montague and his wife Elizabeth Wassell at home in west Cork. Photograph: Alan Betson
We have now forgotten how it was the charisma of France that pulled the Irish establishment into the European Union and Montague belonged to an educated Irish generation of poets and diplomats who embodied this Francophile ideal.
France was what Irishmen and women might aspire to; and Montague’s treatment of love, history and politics in his poetry always had a Parisian edge and flavour.
He was married to two high-born Frenchwomen; and his late third marriage to the American novelist Elizabeth Wassell was spent almost entirely in southern France. Like Samuel Beckett, Montague died in the place that defined his art, his loves and his life:
Rue Dageurre, how we searched
till we found it! Beyond
the blunt-pawed lion of Denfert. . . .
John Montague was born to Ulster Catholic parents in New York in 1929. He was sent back home to the family farm in Co Tyrone at a very young age. This sense of dislocation remained with him for the rest of his life; and the urgent effort to integrate dislocated elements in his own nature would become a key signature in his work.
He was an industrious and ambitious young poet, taking part in the famous Salzburg Seminars and writing criticism and commentary as part of a brilliant UCD generation that included Denis Donoghue, Anthony Cronin and Thomas Kinsella.
Montague’s first collection of poems, Forms of Exile, was published by Dolmen Press in 1958. This book was followed by the masterful Poisoned Lands in 1961 and then by one of his greatest books, A Chosen Light, in 1967. This book contains two of his most popular poems: The Trout and All Legendary Obstacles.
By the time Montague published Tides in 1971 the high aestheticism of France, its humanism and cosmopolitanism, was fully developed in his work. By then in his early 40s, he had achieved the line, the pacing, the grace notes and tonal qualities that would animate his best poetry for the rest of his career.
Crisis and redefinition
In his early 40s he had also reached a point of crisis and redefinition in his personal life. He met and fell in love with a young French scholar, Evelyn Robson. The youthful and attractive couple moved to Cork where John Montague took up a post as lecturer in the English Department at UCC at the invitation of the poet Seán Lucy.
His crucial work, The Rough Field, a poetic analysis of Ulster tensions, was published to great acclaim and argument in 1972, and it has been republished many times since. The image of an Ulster Catholic population left rudderless and unrepresented after Partition haunted him; and he mourned for this community in the way George Seferis mourned for the lost Greeks of Smyrna.
Most UCC English students will remember the poet from this era: tall, charismatic, full of fire and brilliant impatience. His aristocratic manner strenuously keeping a childhood stammer under control, like Elizabeth Bowen. His two daughters, Oonagh and Sibyl, were born at this time and their presences would weave in and out of all future collections: “Daughter, dig in, with fists like ferns/ unfurling, to basic happiness!”
In the late 1980s Montague was invited by novelist Bill Kennedy to work at the New York Writers’ Institute. He spent many years in Albany, teaching and writing, and publishing such influential books as Mount Eagle (1989) and Time in Armagh (1993). By this time also he had found a new publisher, Peter Fallon of Gallery Press, who would completely revitalise his career, and create a much wider audience for his work.
John Montague wrote fiction and memoir as well as poetry. Books such as Death of a Chieftain (1964) and The Pear is Ripe (2007) brim with energy and precision and are still widely read. Living with his wife Elizabeth Wassell in Nice, he had a dramatic, engaged, fruitful literary life right to the end of his days.
John Montague won many awards, from the Martin Toonder Award in 1976 to the Bord Gáis Energy Bob Hughes Lifetime Achievement Award presented just three weeks ago. He was a founding director of Claddagh Records; founding member of Aosdána; founding president and lifelong supporter of the Triskel Arts Centre, Cork; President of Poetry Ireland; and a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur.
A long and wonderful life in literature, a noble procession of poems and stories, has just passed out of Irish life.
Thomas McCarthy is a Co Waterford poet