Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Clarke, McDonald (1798–1842)
Author:
Matteson, John T.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

McDonald Clarke, the so-called Mad Poet of Broadway, was a street drifter and poet who influenced Whitman early in the latter's career. A familiar figure in lower Manhattan from his arrival in 1819 until his death, Clarke suffered intermittent attacks of insanity and spent time in the asylum on Blackwell's Island, now Roosevelt Island. When lucid, he spent much of his time wandering up and down Broadway and scribbling verse. His poems, which filled several published volumes, ranged in mood from social satire to the desolate, brooding romanticism that characterized his best work. On 5 March 1842, while in jail for vagrancy, Clarke was found dead, having drowned in water flowing from an open faucet. The young Whitman was captivated both by Clarke's writings and his eccentric career. In the Aurora, Whitman described Clarke as possessing "all the requisites of a great poet" and hailed him as "a true son of song" (Aurora 106). Whitman imitated Clarke's unconventional dress, as well as his techniques of varying the lengths of lines and mixing slang with high poetic diction. In the 18 March 1842 Aurora, two weeks after Clarke's death, Whitman published his own tribute to Clarke, "The Death and Burial of McDonald Clarke." The poem, which laments the failure of the public to embrace and honor the poet during his lifetime, concludes: "Darkly and sadly his spirit has fled, / But his name will long linger in story; / He needs not a stone to hallow his bed; / He's in Heaven, encircled with glory" (Early 26).

Bibliography

Jillson, Clark. Sketch of M'Donald Clarke. Worcester, Mass.: n.p., 1878.

Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Knopf, 1995.

Whitman, Walt. The Early Poems and the Fiction. Ed. Thomas L. Brasher. New York: New York UP, 1963.

———. Walt Whitman of the New York Aurora. Ed. Joseph Jay Rubin and Charles H. Brown. State College, Pa.: Bald Eagle, 1950.


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