Why We Should Drink to John Clare

Statue of John Clare, in his home village of Helpston19th July was the 219th anniversary of the birth of the English Romantic poet, John Clare. Andrew Hodgson, who is writing a thesis on nineteenth- and twentieth-century lyric, considers why this once-neglected poet is increasingly valued in our era of ecological crisis.

It was the poet John Clare’s (1793-1864) 219th birthday last Friday. George Monbiot marked the occasion in a column for The Guardian, drawing attention to Clare’s thrillingly immediate engagement with the natural world and memorably evoking his “ability to pour his mingled thoughts and observations onto the page as they occur, allowing you, as perhaps no other poet has done, to watch the world from inside his head.”

Monbiot also emphasised the continued vitality and pathos of Clare’s angry response to the Enclosure of the land around his village of Helpston in Northamptonshire from 1809-1820. Enclosure involved the privatisation of common lands, felling of trees, and restriction of rights of way; it altered the landscape irrevocably, and alienated Clare from his home: “What Clare suffered was the fate of indigenous peoples torn from their land and belonging everywhere.”

Behind Monbiot’s call for us to celebrate Friday as “Clare Day” was the implication that Clare is a neglected poet, but in recent decades this has become less and less the case. Academic interest in Clare has soared since the 1970s, and Clare is a favourite poet amongst contemporary writers of natural history prose – Ronald Blythe and Richard Mabey, for instance, both value him. As for the general reader, well if Amazon’s list of bestselling nineteenth-century poetry can be taken as a rough guide, then they have also taken Clare to heart: editions of his poems occupy first and second spot in their rankings. For comparison, the nearest edition of Keats is in sixth, Wordsworth eighth, Byron a surprising twenty-third.

“In amongst the lovingly-detailed encounters with badgers, birds and brambles are poems which wonder memorably about love, transience, grief, and the workings of poetry itself”

It would be interesting to learn whether there is any variation in which of Clare’s poems these different groups like to read. For although Monbiot is right to suggest that Clare has special force for the present as a poet of ecological protest, this emphasis, which is the focus of academic writing on Clare, too, slightly obscures the range and versatility of his achievement. As Jonathan Bate’s selection of Clare’s poems (the edition at #1 spot in the Amazon list) shows, in amongst the lovingly-detailed encounters with badgers, birds and brambles are poems which wonder memorably about love, transience, grief, and the workings of poetry itself, all with a directness which might be thought to appeal to anyone reading purely for enjoyment.

But these poems are often striking in ways that provoke unease as to whether, the keen perceptions of his nature poetry aside, Clare is actually any good. He developed, for instance, a distinctive brand of elegiac love poetry, written in forlorn tribute to his childhood sweetheart, Mary Joyce. And yet its power seems inseparable from its willingness to sail troublingly close to cliché:

I’ve wandered many a weary mile
Love in my heart was burning
To seek a home in Mary’s smile
But cold is love’s returning…

It is hard to say what gives this its strange authenticity. If I was pushed I’d hedge my bets across to three things. The first depends upon the knowledge that what the poem says is actually true. Clare had indeed “wandered many a weary mile”: he composed the poem having spent four days on end walking home to Northampton from an asylum in Essex in the belief he was returning to Mary (she was in fact dead, and Clare had a wife, Patty, whose concern for his deteriorating mental health had seen him committed to the asylum in the first place). Clare blends this autobiographical candour with a manner owing to impersonal traditions of ballad and folk song – witness the artless pattern of bold contrast that extends from the imagery (heat vs. cold, wandering vs. home) to the sound (the interlaced ws and ms of the opening line, the alternating one- and two-syllable rhymes). The result is a poetic voice that combines heartbreaking fragility with an oddly archetypal force.

“A poetic voice that combines heartbreaking fragility with an oddly archetypal force”

Secondly, there is the writing’s ability to generate unexpected shifts in feeling through minute deviations from seemingly hackneyed phrasing. A line like “Love in my heart was burning” might appear trite, but that past imperfect tense “was burning” sends ripples through its apparent naivety. Not only does it make the line sound surprisingly calm, but it reminds us that it is enmeshed within a little emotional narrative: love was “burning,” but its returns are now “cold,” and what we initially took to be pain is actually made to seem rather cheering by comparison.

Thirdly, there is the way that, as a result of Clare’s disdain for punctuation, the lines re-arrange themselves in one’s memory as it tries to construe them. Does the sense follow a songlike call-and-response pattern, as we might be lead to expect by the rhymes?

I’ve wandered many a weary mile
(Love in my heart was burning)
To seek a home in Mary’s smile
(But cold is love’s returning)…

Or does it, following the intonations of speech rather than song, cut across these patterns?

I’ve wandered many a weary mile:
Love in my heart was burning
To seek a home in Mary’s smile.
But cold is love’s returning…

The harder one concentrates on Clare’s poetry, the shiftier its simplicity appears.

Still, this is not the sort of poem that Clare’s critics tend to admire, and perhaps I’m just pulling non-existent rabbits out of a shoddily-made hat here. But making claims for Clare’s poetic skill frequently involves such manoeuvres. Clare himself knew that he proved an awkward fit in the tradition of English poetry. He would have raised a smile at seeing himself twenty-three places above Byron in any bestseller list, since he was haunted by Byron’s fame and popularity, even composing two poems, Don Juan and Child Harold, which adopt a Byronic style and persona: “Though laurel wreaths my brows did ne’er environ, / I think myself as great a bard as Byron.”

How witty one judges this couplet to be will depend upon the degree of self-awareness one grants to that “I think” – whether one regards the lines as straightforwardly stating a claim, or as more wryly putting on display their potential delusions of grandeur. Again, there is a question of how far to trust Clare’s control over language, a question which doesn’t seem to raise itself, or at least raises itself at a later point, with other writers. And whilst it wouldn’t be true to say that criticism has shied away completely from the matter of Clare’s artistry (anyone wanting to investigate the matter further could do worse than to make Tom Paulin’s pages on the wonderfully angular “To the Snipe” in his The Secret Life of Poems their starting point) it has certainly been hesitant about placing its faith in it.

But perhaps Clare’s ability to provoke such hesitations is central to his effects. Something I am starting to think about in my own research is the way the question of Clare’s control over language has implications not only to his standing and identity as a poet, but also the way that his poetry itself deals with identity. In 1841 Clare made a notebook entry on the subject:

A very good common place counsel is Self-Identity to bid our own hearts not to forget our own selves and always to keep self in the first place lest all the world who always keeps us behind it should forget us altogether – forget not thyself and the world will not forget thee – forget thyself and the world will willingly forget thee till thou art nothing but a living-dead man dwelling among shadows & falsehood…

What I find so moving here is the speed with which Clare’s prose veers from its note of tender solicitation into harried anxiety. On a technical level this depends upon the way the sentence construction “forget not thyself…forget thyself…” promises a degree of balance, only to freewheel out of control: the words seem to tumble into to the nightmarish realm they describe. Similar instabilities can be thought of as being at work in Clare’s poems:

I feel I am – I only know I am
And plod upon the earth as dull and void:
Earth’s prison chilled my body with its dram
Of dullness and my soaring thoughts destroyed,
I fled to solitudes from passion’s dream
But strife pursued – I only know I am,
I was a being created in the race
Of men disdaining bounds of place and time –
A spirit that could travel o’er the space
Of earth and heaven like a thought sublime,
Tracing creation, like my maker, free –
A soul unshackled – like eternity,
Spurning earth’s vain and soul-debasing thrall.
But now I only know I am – that’s all.

One thing that comes to mind reading this alongside the notebook entry is the difference between prose and verse as media for self-expression. A poem’s form, here that of a sonnet, demands that its words negotiate the pressures of metre and rhyme, and these can seem both to keep a hold on identity and to ‘shackle’ it. What are the implications, for instance, of Clare’s abrupt return half way through the sixth line to not just the sounds, but the actual words, of the poem’s opening? Is the repetition a matter of assertion or submission? Perhaps the best way to catch this poem’s struggles to shape “Self-Identity” is to read it aloud, hearing the constrained ‘plod’ of the monosyllables in the opening two lines evolve into overflowing lines of the central section, which flare into life as if “disdaining bounds of place and time,” before the shrugging return to a more flat-tongued, humdrum manner at the close.

“Matters of self- exploration might seem less urgent than Clare’s ecological message”

If matters of self- exploration seem less urgent than Clare’s ecological message, then it might be observed that the nature of identity is one of the things at the heart of what we have at present to worry about. As Monbiot observes, the loss Clare felt upon the Enclosure of Helpston was internal as well as external, an uprooting of identity that prefigures a peculiarly modern condition: “while economic rationalisation and growth have helped to deliver us from a remarkable range of ills, they have also torn us from our moorings, atomised and alienated us, sent us out, each in his different way, to seek our own identities.”

Many of Clare’s late poems, written when he was an inhabitant of the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum, provide bitter report on a search that has ended unhappily. They articulate a “sad non-identity”:

Say, wilt thou go with me, sweet maid,
Say, maiden, wilt thou go with me
Through the valley-depths of shade,
Of night and dark obscurity,
Where the path hath lost its way,
Where the sun forgets the day,
Where there’s nor light nor life to see,
Sweet maiden, wilt thou go with me?…

It is not the most tempting of invitations, it has to be said, but it makes for the opening of one of the strangest love poems in the language, one that sustains an inscrutable blend of sadness, despair, reproach, fear and tenderness. Its loneliness is all the sadder for Clare’s former conviviality: Jonathan Bate’s engrossing biography spills over with tales of Clare’s love of festivity and weakness for the company of friends “whose sole study was continual contrivances to get beer.” In this spirit it seems only right around Clare’s birthday to keep company with George Monbiot in “drinking a pint or three to celebrate and mourn him.”


One response to “Why We Should Drink to John Clare

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