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McDonald Clarke & Walt Whitman

The 'Mad Poet' Mcdonald Clarke. He was an inspiration and a peer to Walt Whitman.

The 'Mad Poet' Mcdonald Clarke. He was an inspiration and a peer to Walt Whitman.

 

McDonald Clarke may not have been the most famous of his poetic peers, but he was most definitely responsible for inspiring some of the best. Born on June 18th 1798 the illegitimate son of a sailor, little is known about Clarke’s his early life. Clarke was poor for most of his life and was known for barely scraping by. He was known for surviving on cheese and crackers and, could often be found sleeping under in the graveyard at Franklin’s monument. It is said that his marriage to aspiring actress Miss Brundage failed because he was unable to earn a living among other things.

 

McDonald began developing his reputation as the “Mad Poet” during the 1830s. He was called so due to his eccentric personality, odd dress and lack of income. Unlike other poets and writers of the time, Clarke’s only income came from selling his poems. He emulated the poet George Gordon Byron in dress and behavior but never copied his style as a poet. He ignored ‘proper’ educated writings in favor of using common slang. His unique style and disregard for social norms is apparent even in the incomplete autobiography he wrote months before his death:

“Begotten among the orange-groves, on the wild mountains of Jamaica, West Indies. Born in Bath, on the Kennebec River, State of Maine, 18th June, 1798. 1st Love, Mary H. of New London : last love, Mary T. of New York ; intermediate sweethearts without number. No great compliment to the greatest Poet in America should like the change tho’ ; had to pawn my Diamond Ring (the gift of a lady), and go tick at Delmonico’s for Dinner. So much for being the greatest Poet in America. The greatest Poet of the Country ought to have the freedom of the City, the girls of the gentry gratis, grab all along shore, the magnificent Mary, and snucks with all the sweet Sisters of Song.”

Where Whitman bragged about bathing at Coney Island, Clarke spoke of pawning jewelry‒something other men of the time would sooner die than admit. It could be argued that Clarke inspired Whitman’s blunt honesty and style. They worked to relate not to the upper class of society, but to the regular working class and the poor.

Clarke was always ‘mad’ in the eyes of society and relished his uniqueness, but his behavior became erratic bordering on dangerous after his marriage broke down. He started following young women around the city and after a cruel trick played upon him by involving his ex-wife, fell deep into depression. He did a short stint at the Tombs prison before being committed to the Blackwell Island insane asylum where he drowned himself in the sink of his room. 

 In honor of Clarke’s life and death, Whitman wrote two articles for the Aurora as well as the following poem:

The Death And Burial Of McDonald Clarke: A Parody

 By Walt Whitman

Not a sigh was heard, not a tear was shed,

    As a way to the ‘tombs’ he was hurried,

No mother or friend held his dying head,

    Or wept when the poet was buried.

 

They buried him lonely; no friend stood near,

    (The scoffs of the multitude spurning,)

To weep o’er the poet’s sacred bier;

    No bosom with anguish was burning.

 

No polish’d coffin enclosed his breast,

    Nor in purple or linen they wound him,

As a stranger he died; he went to rest

    With cold charity’s shroud wrapt ’round him.

 

Few and cold were the prayers they said,

    Cold and dry was the cheek of sadness,

Nor a tear of grief baptised his head,

    Nor of sympathy pardon’d his madness.

 

None thought, as they stood by his lowly bed,

    Of the griefs and pains that craz;d him;

None thought of the sorrow that turn’d his head,

    Of the vileness of those who prais’d him.

 

Lightly they speak of his anguish and woe,

    And o’er his cold ashes upbraid him,

By whatever he was that was evil below,

    Unkindness and cruelty made him.

 

Ye hypocrites! stain not his grave with a tear,

    Nor blast the fresh planted willow

That weeps o’er his grave; for while he was there,

    Ye refused him a crumb and a pillow.

 

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.

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