Brian Lynch

eBay is currently offering for sale, at a very fair price of fifty pounds sterling, a ‘clean and bright’ copy of Survival, Augustus Young’s first collection, published by the New Writers’ Press, Dublin, in 1969. The bibliographical information describes it as follows:

Format: Wraps
Subject: Fiction
Fiction Type: Poetry

While the fictionality of the body of AY’s work is discutible – my spellchecker underlines that word with a squiggly red line and offers instead ‘disputable’ – there is no arguing that his literary reputation is still being kept under wraps. Augustus Young, who he?

Some background may be useful. In the ‘About’ section of his website, characteristically referring to himself in the third person, he says, ‘His first collections of poems, Survival (1969) and On Loaning Hill (1972), already manifested a departure from the “reach for the shovel” tendency in Irish writing.’ Generations of schoolchildren, not a few of them now teaching poetry to other children, might recognise the shovel reference as a dig at Seamus Heaney’s canonical poem ‘Digging’; and some of the teachers would, no doubt, note that at the end of the poem its subject, a ‘squat pen’, is equated to a spade, whereas at its beginning the pen rests between finger and thumb ‘snug as a gun’ – when ‘Digging’ was published in 1966 neither Heaney nor anyone else foresaw the Troubles that began in 1969.

What the schoolchildren don’t realise is that some Irish poets starting their careers in that decade – Paul Durcan’s first book, shared with me, was published in 1967 – were opposed to the use of agricultural implements in verse. At the comical extreme of that opposition was antipathy to Paddywhackery: ‘The misht that do be on the bog, the potheen runnin’ in the mountainy shtills, the Peelers getting losht in the fog, and the rain peltin’ down the brown earth.’

At the extreme centre of the argument – where everything happens normally – was a political question posed in 2000 by the then Tánaiste (Deputy Prime Minister) Mary Harney: were the Irish to orientate ourselves towards Boston or Berlin? As with the gun in 1966, neither Ms Harney nor anyone else foresaw that the real and perennial choice would lie between Dublin-and-London or Dublin-and-Brussels, and that the Dubs would bet the tank on the sprouts, or as Boris Johnson put it, on the straight banana.

Poetically speaking, it seems obvious that Augustus plumped for Berlin and Germany, engaging in life-long dialogues with Bertolt Brecht, Walter Benjamin, and Rainer Maria Rilke, as well as a cohort of other Europeans, notably Kierkegaard, Montaigne and Baudelaire. Geographically speaking, however, the young Young didn’t play in the Hanseatic League; he transferred instead from Cork to Hendon and, betimes, to Soho, where he met the apocalyptical poet George Barker – in Young’s verse there is no trace to be found of Barker’s self-confessed ‘statuesque balderdash’.

Nor did AY turn his back on Boston, that is to say on America. There, the literary divisions were analogous to those that in the Sixties split the Berliners from the Bostonians. In 1980 Philip Hobsbaum, a pupil of William Empson and an early promoter of Seamus Heaney, fired a fusillade at what was by then established practice on both sides of the Atlantic: ‘complex and ambiguous poetry recognised by analytical-historicist criticism which works at its best when applied to complex and ambiguous poetry which is seen to be good by analytical-historicist criticism…. And so on.’[1]

Farewell then to William Empson. Actually, Augustus had never said hello to him, or to Heaney. No hard feelings, but no, Mister Otis regrets he’s unable to bunch today. For one thing, it wasn’t the dissection of complex text but of diseased tissue that occupied AY’s microscopic eye as an epidemiologist.

As for the American avant garde, AY did have a kinship with them, but more with demotic individuals, like George Oppen, and less with the increasingly priggish upper case Language school, or with the Ego Street Preachers, noisily represented by Allen Ginsberg. In that performative respect, however, it is curious that AY should feel an elective affinity to the wandering scholar-poet Ed Dorn from Illinois who spent ten years fomenting rebellion in Essex. [2]

Googling Dorn to refresh my memory I see that he is credited with mentoring the rock band Devo. Who they? I google them too, and discover that their music mingles ‘kitsch science fiction themes, deadpan surrealist humour and mordantly satirical social commentary’ – but more to the point, their Wikipedia entry has 107 footnotes.

By contrast, AY’s Wiki entry has one, which says that The Nicotine Cat and Other People, published by New Island Books, can be bought from the – but go there and it is ‘currently unavailable’. Go to New Island’s website and neither the title nor the author is recognised. Go, though, to the co-publisher, the Duras Press (me), and it’s there in remaindered abundance, cheap as chips, and postage free. It is, as the blurb says, ‘a wise book with a low centre of levity’, enhanced by its striking cover, a painting called ‘The Nicotine Cat’ by the late lamented Paula Rego.

To pursue the Boston-Berlin line a little further, it is an irony of AY’s polyculturalism that while he was living in London he made what was to be his closest personal connection to any poet, Brian Coffey. Could it be that he did so because Coffey was Irish? Perhaps blood is thicker than it ought to be, but it is more likely that AY found in him a father-figure: Coffey was a physical chemist, a flyweight boxer, a mathematician, a philosopher, a publisher (the Advent Press), a translator of Éluard and Mallarmé, a buddy of Samuel Beckett…. And so on.

This should not be taken to diminish AY’s actual father, the eponymous James Hogan. One of the more fathomable misfortunes of the UK intelligentsia – they have enough bananas on their plate – is how little they know of Irish intellectual life, of which Hogan senior is a sterling example: a hundred years ago he was a Major-General and Director of Intelligence during the Civil War; and afterwards a professor of history in University College Cork; the editor of the twenty-three volumes of Analecta Hibernica; a Hegel scholar; a Thomist (Aquinas, not Gunn)….. And so on.

The crux of the matter could be said to be found at the crossroads of identity, not in the current sense of self-assertion but in Young Hogan’s refusal of it. In The Credit, a nightmare opera without music set in the Veneto, he quotes Pascal: ‘We do not content ourselves with the life we have in ourselves and in our being, but desire to live an imaginary life in the minds of others, and for this purpose we endeavour to shine.’ But AY is averse to shining up his neck with Brasso; even his nom-de-plume, derived from Dryden, is self-deprecating:

All human things are subject to decay.
And when fate summons, monarchs must obey.
This Flecknoe found, who, like Augustus, young
Was called to empire, and had governed long;
In prose and verse was owned, without dispute,
Through all the realms of Nonsense, absolute.

This ironic absolutism creates certain difficulties, especially for his editors. Augustus, Young will accept correction of the misplaced comma and the misspelled words – only Yeats is a worse speller – but it is futile to dispute the facts of life with him, for the simple reason that they are fictions. Heavy Years, for instance, which focuses on the part he played in the response by the NHS to AIDs, has yet to be reviewed by any of his peers from that period, largely because it is so internalised, so unschematic, so stocked with semi-mythical characters – Mrs Thatcher is Mrs Sybil – as to be barely distinguishable from a comic novel, a kind of medical Tristram Shandy, but less Sterne (because of the unfunny deaths in it). [3]

AY’s description of his prose as auto-fiction sounds vaguely dismissive, as if it were a form of self-protective disguise, rather than a strategy of revelation, which it is. He may have followed the Smokey Robinson who sang, ‘Just like Pagliacci did/ I try to keep my surface hid’, but the AY reader will be hard put to see the tears of the clown. [4] His flinty anti-sentimentality seems to be borne out by the subtitle of his 2022 allegory, The Prodigal’s Progress: ‘The Man Who Doesn’t Want To Be Loved. Therein the prodigal son declares, inter alia, that ‘women are not desirable because they are beautiful, but beautiful because you desire them’. If you believed that you’d believe anything. Besides, at the end of the Progress, he confesses that ‘the face of love is provisional, a mask. I am now wearing one. It smiles at the world. One day I hope against hope to take it off, and my father will be well-pleased.’ But it had already been taken off in the m.emoire, a beautifully judged and emotional tribute to Margaret, his late wife.

AY tends to be off-hand, too, about his poetic output, which he describes as light verse. Light-hearted yes, and witty, but also, particularly in the late work, much of it unpublished, stoical and Horatian, not unlike the coruscating Occasional and Joke Poems of Osip Mandelstam, translated and capaciously annotated by Alastair Noon (Shearsman, 2022).

Young Augustus continues in old age to insist on his anonymity. In medicine did anyone call him Doctor Hogan? I doubt it; he’s too odd to be a type. In epidemiology the category of the one-off and the one-and-only is inadmissible, and yet in poetry it is the ideal. A high idealist of the down to earth, with no spade but his intellect to dig with, is what he set out to become; and became; and on his eightieth birthday remains: a dual in the crown of the (not-Irish-very-Irish) republic of letters, honoris causa.


[1]The quote comes from ‘Twentieth Century Poetry And Its Critics’ in the magazine Salmagundi, (Winter-Spring 1980), online at

[2]  The 18th century critic Donald Davie brought Edward Dorn to Essex University in 1965. According to Jeremy Prynne, a friend to both, Davie eventually said to Dorn, ‘You’re an institutional wrecker, I regret bitterly that I invited you here. You’re attempting to collaborate in the destruction of an institute to which I’ve given my heart and soul.’


[3] The only decent review I can find is by the poet Billy Mills on his website Elliptical Movements at

[4]The quote come from Smokey Robinson’s 1970 song ‘The Tears of a Clown’.

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