The curve of John Clare’s life—country-born and country-raised, enjoying literary success in London until the late 1820’s, ending his days in a madhouse—is important to appreciate in any reading of his poetry. Clare’s roots in the language and customs of the English countryside, more specifically of the little village of Helpstone on the borders of the Lincolnshire Fens, are immediately evident in his earlier poems, as are his extremely delicate perceptions, the totalism of a sensibility nearly always hovering on the edge either of ecstasy or of despair.
Less evident are Clare’s strong literary affiliations with the James Thomson of The Seasons (1730, 1744, 1746), the William Wordsworth of the Ode, and the Lord Byron of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812-1818). With Robert Burns, Clare is one of the finest of the “original geniuses” of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and he wrote in a vein more authentic and serious than was then in vogue. His own Northamptonshire version of the conserving myth of the countryside, eloquently expressed in his lament for the loss of Swordy Fell by the enclosures of the 1820’s, is in the line of Thomas Gray and Wordsworth and points directly to the writings of William Barnes and Thomas Hardy later in the nineteenth century.
Clare’s provincialism, his distance from the literary fashions of his early adulthood, permitted him to mine his slender gift deeply. Again and again he returns to the themes, the moral and technical elements that are present in his earliest poems. The same subjects are to him always new and pressing: the importance of place, the loss of childhood innocence, the destruction of the countryside, absence in love, the poet as nature’s spokesperson. There is an uncomplicated resting in nostalgic description rather than a thrusting and exploratory meditation; there is no Wordsworthian straining after the philosophical poem, and Clare’s successes are therefore more limited but purer than those of Wordsworth.
Clare’s ordinary medium is the loosened heroic couplet, the informal ballad stanza, and the simple quatrain of the later Augustans, and he is not above using the “poetic diction” that Wordsworth explicitly rejected. Clare’s originality was not one of perspective or technique so much as it was the focusing of a single-minded intensity upon the problems and perceptions of people living in the country. The “ecstasy” Clare so often alludes to explains much in the tone of his poems on nature and on human love, but it is also directly related to a personal instability, the delicacy or fragility that led to the madness he himself had been anticipating.
Clare begins one of his best poems thus: “Hail, humble Helpstone. . . . Unletter’d spot! unhead in poet’s song.” The peculiarly Romantic celebration of the local and unique is here, but also a sense that the obscure village may be taken as standing for hundreds of others like it, places finally being encroached upon by wealth and civilization. The enclosure of common forage lands and the leveling of woodlands are concerns even as early as this poem of 1809: “How oft I’ve sigh’d at alterations made,/ To see the woodman’s cruel axe employ’d/ A tree beheaded, or bush destroy’d.”
The resulting conviction that nature is itself somehow threatened accounts for some of the loving anxiousness in Clare’s descriptions of both landscape and village life. One may take for an instance the fine stanza from “Summer Images.”
To note on hedgrow baulks, in moisture spent,The jetty snail creep from the mossy thorn,With earnest heed and tremulous intent,Frail brother of the morn,
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