The poetry of John Clare shows throughout its development the influence of three forces: the culture of his village and social class, nature, and the topographical and pastoral poetry of the eighteenth century. Clare’s view of human life as lived in close relationship with nature is presented in his poetry as a series of contrasts between the freer, socially more equal, open-field village of his childhood and the enclosed, agriculturally “improved,” and socially stratified village of his manhood; between the Eden of a wild nature untouched by human beings and the fallen nature of fences, uprooted landmarks, and vanished grazing rights; between the aesthetic response to nature that loves it for what it is and the scientific response that loves it for profit and social status. Further, as a self-educated poet in a land of illiterate laborers, Clare had difficulty resolving the tension between his temptation to idealize village life and his equally strong temptation to expose its squalid ignorance. One evidence of this is the fact that he wrote The Shepherd’s Calendar, a celebration of the beauty and activity of a village, in the same year that he wrote “The Parish,” a brutally frank attack on its ignorance and cultural isolation. In his best poetry, Clare is able to see each reality as only a part of the truth.
A typical Clare poem of his pre-asylum years will seek, above all, concreteness in its imagery and a structure designed to make the images reveal the maximum amount of meaning. Clare is a master at creating multiple levels of significance through what at first seems like an almost random collection of sights and sounds. A poem that well illustrates this technique is his unrhymed sonnet “Gypsies.” It is a poem that deftly combines Clare’s love of rural life with his awareness of its darker side. He begins the poem, as he does so many others, with a sense of the mystery of nature: “The snow falls deep; the forest lies alone.” He immediately introduces the theme of human suffering amid the beauty: “the boy goes hasty for his load of brakes/ Then thinks upon the fire and hurries back.” The cold is beautiful but potentially deadly. Then he transports the reader to the gypsy camp where there are only bushes to break the wind, where “tainted mutton wastes upon the coals,” and the scrawny dog squats nearby “and vainly waits the morsel thrown away.” Clare’s use of internal rhyme is very successful, as “tainted” and “vainly” resonate against each other in interesting ways. In a sense, the gypsies are “tainted” in the settled village society and thus hope in vain for acceptance. Clare has provided hints of an attitude, then, while allowing the details to carry the implications. He seems to reject both the villagers’ ethnic bigotry and the hopelessness of gypsy life: “’Tis thus they live—a picture to the place/ A quiet, pilfering, unprotected race.” The seeming offhandedness of “’Tis thus they live” is acceptance and rejection, simultaneously, as the remaining line and one half so neatly demonstrate by balancing “quiet” against “pilfering” against “unprotected.” The sudden rise from specific images to broad generalization at the end does not surprise the reader because the details have been so carefully chosen throughout. Clare refuses to idealize gypsy life just as he refuses to excuse the villagers for their prejudice The sonnet as he uses it here retains most of the traditional Shakespearean form except for the lack of rhyme. It is all the more impressive because Clare encloses his argument in a description that values the gypsies for the beauty they add to life. This determination to see life for what it is and an equal determination not to allow its bitterness to defeat him or prevent him from seeing its beauty is one of Clare’s most admirable qualities as a poet and as a man.
The themes of Clare’s poetry grow directly out of the ways of seeing human life and nature illustrated in “Gypsies.” Perhaps the most important of his themes is the contrast between the village and landscape of the past and of the present. In making this contrast in his poetry, Clare is not simply engaging in private history making that would leave modern readers uninterested because they occupy a space and a time far removed from Clare’s. Rather, he is comparing two fundamentally different approaches to the relationship between human beings and the natural world. The choice between these two approaches is as crucially important today as it was then, and for this reason alone Clare’s poetry has lost none of its cogency for the modern world.
In Clare’s time, enclosure of the land for purposes of agricultural improvement was the issue that divided people in rural areas. No Clare poem speaks more eloquently to what enclosure did, psychologically as well as physically, to village life and to him as a poet than “The Mores” (that is, moors). It is written in a familiar eighteenth century form and style: the locodescriptive poem in heroic couplets. Nevertheless, Clare handles it in original ways. The heroic couplet in the eighteenth century embodies the polished wit and rational completeness that characterized the view of life held by the Age of Reason. Clare’s couplet has a slow, solemn movement that is equally as impressive, though far different in effect. At the beginning of the poem, for example, the same sense of mystery in primeval nature seen in “Gypsies” is present, although that mystery is more obviously a part of the argument to be made: “Far spread the moorey ground a level scene/ Bespread with rush and one eternal green/ That never felt the rage of blundering plough.” Here again is balance: the quietness of the pre-enclosure view versus a barely suppressed anger; nature’s innocence and eternity against the “blundering” greed of human beings.
Clare’s description is always visually precise and yet capable of entertaining several levels of meaning: “uncheckt shadows of green green brown and grey,” where “uncheckt” means both “without limits” and “not in checkered patterns as enclosed fields are.” A few lines later, “one mighty flat undwarfed by bush or tree/ Spread its faint shadow of immensity.” Here, “flat” functions both as a noun and as a kind of suspended adjective: The reader pauses in suspense at this unusual caesura, so that the line reinforces the idea that the reader cannot see the limits of this “faint shadow of immensity/ In the blue mist the (h)orisons edge surrounds.” Human pride erupts into the poem, for “inclosure came and trampled on the grave/ Of labours rights.” From here to the end of the poem, there is continual tension between longing for the old freedom and the reality of the new concern for boundaries, profits, and class distinctions. When these two value systems begin to clash more directly in the poem, the descriptive style becomes harsher, befitting the new dispensation: “And sky bound mores in mangled garbs are left/ Like mighty giants of their limbs bereft.” Everywhere there is a pettiness, a separation rather than a communion: “Fence now meets fence in owners little bounds . . ./ In little parcels little minds to please/ With men and flocks imprisoned ill at ease.”
As the poem proceeds it becomes clearer that Clare is really talking about a failure of vision: “Each little tyrant with his little sign/ Shows where man claims earth glows no more divine.” The problem with the human desire to dominate nature is finally that it destroys that which makes people most human. In Clare’s view, then, beauty, freedom, open fields, and social harmony have been succeeded by ugliness, fences, and social antagonism. Under these circumstances, poetic creativity becomes as difficult as any other activity requiring vision. The moors “are vanished now with commons wild and gay/ As poets visions of lifes early day.” The cumulative force of the couplets, the measured movement of the lines, the masterful control over the reader’s “eye” as it moves over the landscape, all create an emotional impact that makes “The Mores” typical of Clare at his best in the descriptive-narrative poem.
(The entire section is 3377 words.)