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Clarke, Marcus Andrew (1846–1881)

by Henry Kendall

from Sydney Mail

Perhaps the most serious loss that Australian literature has yet sustained is the one occasioned by the death of the hardworking young genius over whose grave, back there in Melbourne, the grass has not yet had time to grow. Fighting to the last against the most adverse and trying circumstances — toiling day and night for a wife and a family of helpless children — this man only gave way when the great sickness of death came upon him. Few knew of his heart-wearing labour and sorrow, for his life was a self-withdrawn one, and his sensitive spirit used to shrink from sympathy. At the early age of 34 Marcus Clarke has passed into the long sleep. His career was full of changes and troubles. His father, Hislop Clarke, was a barrister of some note in London, and we may infer that Marcus received a good education. At an early age — a time when he was a mere boy — he emigrated to Melbourne, and shortly afterwards proceeded to a cattle-station, north of the Murray. Here he picked up considerable colonial experience; and here, it is said, he commenced to write for the Press. On his return to Melbourne he obtained, through his uncle, the late District Court Judge Clarke, a situation in one of the banks; but, owing to his want of business faculty, he did not hold it long. About this time he commenced the "Peripatetic Papers" — a series of brilliant articles that at once brought him into notice and established his reputation. He then took charge of a monthly magazine, and published in its pages his now almost-forgotten novel, "Long Odds." This subsequently appeared in book form; and, although it was favourably reviewed in most quarters, it was very roughly handled in certain others. The adverse criticism wounded Clarke deeply; but he had the good sense to profit by it. Being made aware of his literary faults, he shook them off, and commenced a new and more independent style of writing. Considering that it was the work of a mere lad, "Long Odds" is no ordinary tale. It contains many touches of deep pathos, many powerful passages of description, and many exquisite bits of character-painting. Of course it is crude — what boy's work is not? About the time that "Long Odds" was published, Clarke contributed to the Australasian about half-a-dozen papers under the heading "Lower Bohemia."Some of his very best descriptive writing is to be found in these admirable articles. His picture of the awful sorrow associated with sin and destitution in great cities is painfully vivid. The papers on "Lower Bohemia" were succeeded by a series entitled "Old Stories Retold.'" These stories are the results of that industry and care which must always be associated with the name of Marcus Clarke. They were worked up from the early records of this colony; and every one of them is of the highest interest. Early in 1870 Clarke edited a satirical journal called Humbug. Want of funds, however, cut short its career. In the same year Clarke prepared for and commenced his magnum opus, "His Natural Life." At first he intended to christen it "The World's Verdict;" but, adopting the suggestion of a friend, he published it under the present happy title. This is neither the place nor the time to discuss the great merits of "His Natural Life." It may, or may not, take its position amongst the permanent works of fiction; but the unquestionable fact remains that it is a very remarkable book, indicating power of a rare order.

In 1870, I think, my friend obtained a situation in the Public Library at Melbourne, where he remained till a few weeks before his death. The demands made upon his time must have been of a pressing and constant nature, for he did comparatively little in the way of literary work after putting the official harness on. A few waifs, scattered here and there through the colonial newspapers, are all that we have from his later life. Clarke was too good-natured, too careless in money matters, to succeed in this selfish, grasping world. The career that commenced under a morning sun of brilliant promise ended in the deep shadow. I have no desire to lift the veil — no wish to say any more. One by one my friends are all wearing away. Harpur lies over there in Euroma; Stenhouse rests in the shadow of the quiet willow; Gordon sleeps by the sea; and in that green lonely place where Love so often comes to sit and weep by Death is all that is left of the young man, with the kind face and good heart, whom we used to call Marcus. It moves me beyond expression to think of his strong spirit flickering out into the dark, after such a beginning of promise, such a life of effort, and such an exhibition of courage and patience under all sorts of trials.

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Citation details

Henry Kendall, 'Clarke, Marcus Andrew (1846–1881)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 30 October 2020.

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