Book Review: Clay Phoenix


Luke Thompson’s biography of Jack Clemo is the result of an archive-based, three-year PhD completed with the university of Exeter. As expected, the book is magnificently researched, and offers a balanced and in-depth account of the Cornish novelist and poet’s life. The biography of Clemo had previously been unclear due to attempts by his wife to bastardise and sanitise his diaries and manuscript notes, as well as the poet’s own intentional discarding and re-telling of his own life story.

The book’s narrative is driven by Thompson’s methodology; his research has been collected and collated in a way that most clearly represents an honest retelling of Clemo’s life and legacy. The author’s admiration for the poet is evident (although sensibly sparse, the book is scattered with affectionate terms toward Clemo, such as labelling his work and vision ‘extraordinary’, and giving him the charming title of a ‘remarkable bird’) which entrusts the reader with the faith that this book has been written from a place of love; but also, considering this, the biography is primarily based on thorough objectivity, and is always quick to point out discrepancies and contradictions within Clemo’s work, beliefs and correspondence. 

Though structured chronologically, Thompson acknowledges patterns of Clemo’s life and work early on, and uses the events of his life to support these patterns to help provide a rich and deeper understanding of the often-labelled ‘hermit-poet’. This insistence is candid, and is supported by evidence from Clemo’s letters and diaries, as well as his influences. One example of this is Clemo’s elevation of the marriage of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett (a literary and Christian love-story that inspired Clemo’s faith and writing to no end, and which Thompson sees as a template on which Clemo based his romantic and religious ideals, labelling this ‘the Browning-pattern’), and as Thompson chronicles Clemo’s work, letters and personal journals, the Browning-pattern device helps us decipher the divine and transcendental yearnings of the poet, as well as understanding his motivations and decisions.

Although the subject of the biography is compelling in itself, it is the brave and honest analysis of both the story and work of Clemo that makes Clay Phoenix so successful. Clemo’s affliction with syphilis and his hindered eyesight and hearing are often referenced by reviewers when talking of his work, but Thompson rebukes this habit, calling it ‘a way of overlooking the work itself’. The author works hard to evaluate each aspect of Clemo’s life, never relying solely on anecdotes or any single-source alone, but cross-referencing them extensively, so as to not misunderstand Clemo’s life, of which Clemo was sometimes in the habit of doing himself. The true story of Jack meeting his wife Ruth, to use another example, was concealed at great lengths, by both the Clemo’s as well as Jack’s mother, Eveline, but is lifted and given an honest verdict by Thompson, in his consistently non-judgemental and balanced tone.

The book is also an appeal to the scholarship of Jack Clemo, which has been significantly lacking since his death. The Awakening, the first published anthology of Clemo’s previously unpublished work since his death, ‘is typical of the rushed approach to Clemo scholarship in recent years,’ says Thompson, ‘suffering from a lack of definition and including some significant mistakes and questionable decisions.’ The intention of this biography is to serve as a thorough and balanced account of Clemo’s life, against the romanticism of Clemo’s own two autobiographies, the myths shrouded by his reputation, and his wife’s attempts to re-shape and re-tell it. Undoubtedly, it will be the first place future scholars and admirers of Clemo’s work will want to look.

by Dom Smyth