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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...

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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.

“The Mores”

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.

Clare’s poetry grew increasingly lyric and less narrative-descriptive as the years passed. As was John Keats, Clare was particularly interested in taking the sonnet in new directions. They both believed that the sonnet might function as a stanza form for longer poems. In Keats’s case, the result was the great odes of 1819; in Clare’s, the very different but impressive poems on animals of the mid-1830’s. Clare’s poems had always been filled with a variety of animal life, but these poems move to a new attitude toward nature, emphasizing its otherness from human beings. By a seeming paradox, they move also toward an increased empathy with nature. The paradox is resolved by seeing that it is precisely the alienation of wild nature from human society (especially of certain hunted animals) with which Clare could identify because he, too, felt thus cut off from human understanding. The actions of animals in and around nests, caves, and hollow trees fascinated him. These were places where relatively helpless creatures might hope to escape.

“Sand Martin”

In the poem “Sand Martin,” for example, the bird inhabits the “desolate face” of a wasted landscape far away from people where it flits about “an unfrequented sky.” Clare seems to admire most the sand martin’s ability to “accept” the desolation of its habitat because of the protection it affords. The speaker of the poem feels “a hermit joy/ To see thee circle round nor go beyond/ That lone heath and its melancholy pond.” Clare knew that a person’s roots and his resulting sense of place might make him part of a scene that could enervate his spirit; yet, he might be unable to function in any other place. Clare is a pioneer in using the sonnet to center on a single, unified experience by ignoring the traditional octave-sestet break and using instead accumulation of detail to create meaning. Thus, his early reading in the topographical poetry of the eighteenth century, with its emphasis on a collection of images moving toward a visual as well as an emotional climax, served him well when he wished to make his poetry express through details his anguish and sense of isolation. Meaning emerges in a Clare description almost in slow motion, and it is sometimes late in the poem before the reader realizes what power the accumulated detail has acquired.

Lyric poems

Clare is one of the great lyric poets of the English language. His roots were in a culture that valued the ballad and the oral tale as art forms as well as sources of tradition. Clare himself was a lifelong collector of ballads and folk songs (noting down music as well as words), and he played the violin well. Many of his finest lyrics come from the 1830’s and the asylum years, when the bulk of his output became lyric rather than narrative or descriptive. The good lyric can sometimes succeed in reaching the widest audience when it is most personal and “private.” From the mid-1830’s come four of Clare’s best: “Remembrances,” “Song’s Eternity,” “With Garments Flowing,” and “Decay.” A brief comparison of these four will serve to illustrate the command that Clare exercised over a variety of forms, moods, and themes in the lyric.

In “Remembrances,” Clare uses a device so simple and well known—the stages of human life compared to the seasons of the year—that in the hands of a lesser poet it would become trite and shopworn. This ballad-like poem has octameter lines and a typical rhyme scheme of aaabcccddd; it is marvelously adapted to the leisurely Smemories of childhood which the poem treats. From the first line, “Summers pleasures they are gone like to visions every one,” Clare manages to imbue the commonest scenes from the past with a haunting quality that the incantatory rhythm of the verse reinforces perfectly.

“Song’s Eternity” is a very different kind of lyric. Instead of unusually long lines, it has unusually short ones: alternating lines of four beats and two. Rather than the expansiveness of the quasi-narrative ballad, Clare offers the crisp conciseness of

What is song’s eternity?Come and see.Melodies of earth and sky.Here they be.Songs once sung to Adam’s ears.Can it be? . . .Songs awakened with the spheresAlive.

It is Clare’s frequently heard theme of the eternity of nature that will provide the necessary stay against the confusion of modern life.

The third lyric, “With Garments Flowing,” represents still another form and another purpose. It is a love lyric written in a meter often found in Clare’s poetry: stanzas with alternating nine and eight syllables, all tetrameter, rhyming ababcdcd. It is more regular than the forms used in “Remembrances” and “Song’s Eternity” and was probably chosen because he wanted the ballad-like stanza without its looseness and conversational tone together with the conciseness and rhythm of “Song’s Eternity” without the absolute regularity of that poem. The success of “With Garments Flowing” lies also in the metonymy of the garments of the lover’s dress standing for the lover herself. To the speaker in the poem, she is the type of all that is beautiful. However, in describing her, Clare retains homely details of village life while avoiding the sentimentality that can threaten such an attempt.

Finally, “Decay” is another quite different kind of lyric and equally successful. Clare wrote it apparently as a means of understanding what was happening to his poetic voice as a result of the move in 1832 to another village, as a way of regaining his poetic voice or at least of explaining its loss. He skillfully controls the reader’s response through subtle variations in the rhyme scheme in the ten-line stanzas, as well as through modulations in the simple theme: “O poesy is on the wane/ I hardly know her face again,” which acts as a kind of refrain throughout. Personification is also important in this poem: The sun is a “homeless ranger” that “pursues a naked weary way/ Unnoticed like a very stranger.” The blend of the local and the universal, as is so often true in Clare’s poetry, is here perfectly calculated to communicate disorientation in a coherent manner: “I often think that west is gone/ Oh cruel time to undeceive us.” Time has taken away the visionary gleam: “The stream it is a naked stream/ . . . The sky hangs o’er a broken dream/ The bramble’s dwindled to a bramble.” The tone becomes more bitter, and the speaker more puzzled even while attaining a new understanding: “And why should passing shadows grieve us/ . . . And hope is but a fancy play/ And joy the art of true believing.” Here the sarcasm and the grief somehow perfectly complement each other.

Asylum poems

Clare’s creativity followed a different pattern in the asylum years. Long periods of virtual poetic silence were followed by relatively brief times of sustained production. The dominant theme of his asylum poems is the assertion of his identity as a free man and as a poet. Indeed, Clare had always believed that freedom of the eye and of the mind were necessary preconditions of artistic creativity. His determination to be remembered as a poet, decades after his work had been largely forgotten, is probably responsible both for the quality of his asylum work and for the fact that madness did not completely engulf his mind any sooner than it did. Clare’s first sustained asylum production was a continuation of Lord Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812-1818, 1819), written in 1841 under the delusion that he was Byron. While it was left unfinished, the work demonstrates that his descriptive and lyric talents were not only unimpaired but also still developing. It was, however, in the first few years of his confinement at Northampton Asylum (from 1842 to about 1848) that some of Clare’s finest poems were written. Three of these may be examined briefly for the light they cast on the theme of self-identity and on his level of achievement in these years.

In “Peasant Poet,” Clare seems to sum up what his poetic life had been about, emphasizing, of course, simplicity and love of nature. His gift for juxtaposing images of ordinary things to achieve fresh meaning is undiminished: “the daisy-covered ground” immediately next to “the cloud-bedappled sky”; the sound of the brook leading the eye to the swallow “swimming by.” This peasant poet of whom he speaks (clearly himself) was not a great achiever “in life’s affairs.” He was just two things: “A peasant in his daily cares/ The poet in his joy.” It is a descriptive lyric containing the essence of his poetic credo: poetry as joy, transforming the face of daily life.

The second poem, “An Invite to Eternity,” is Clare’s most sustained attempt to define the perception of the insane mind; not to define it as a dictionary would but to re-create for the reader its vision of the world—making the reader participate in it and so identify with it. Like so many of Clare’s poems, whenever written, this one begins with an invitation—in this case to a “sweet maid” who is to travel with him through the landscape of madness. In the same sort of personification seen in “Decay,” both the sun and the path have forgotten where they are to go. In this “strange death of life to be,” what the reader sees is inverted, made into its opposite: “Where stones will turn to flooding streams/ Where plains will rise like ocean waves.” The swaying rhythm of the tetrameter lines creates an almost hypnotic effect. It is an existence without identity: being and nonbeing at the same time. In this twilight existence, they will not know each other’s face, and time itself will cease to exist: “The present mixed with reasons gone/ And past and present all as one.” Knowing all this, he asks the maid, can her life be led “to join the living with the dead?” If so (and he seems to await her answer with the serenity of absolute knowledge), “Then trace thy footsteps on with me/ We’re wed to one eternity.” Logic, time, identity, and ordinary perception of the “real” have all been suspended, to be replaced by their opposites. The perfectly ordered form of the poem, its calm account of the horrors of irrationality, provide remarkable evidence of Clare’s ability at times in the asylum to view his own insanity from outside, as it were. Perhaps more important, the poem demonstrates how much he was still a poet in control of his art.

The third poem is entitled simply “I Am.” If “Peasant Poet” sums up Clare’s view of himself as poet, and “An Invite to Eternity” his view of himself as insane, “I Am” may be said to provide the essence of Clare as child of God. In the poem, he creates a persona supremely tragic: the good man bereft of that which gave his life purpose and left to experience the moment of self-understanding completely alone. The poem turns on the idea of existence without essence, and the first stanza reiterates the “I Am” four times in its six lines: Since no one knows anything of him except that he exists, he becomes “the self-consumer of [his] woes.” They have no outlet, they meet with no understanding. The tremendous psychological pressure that this would ordinarily create is somehow controlled and made to yield calm resignation rather than anger, as the speaker surveys “the vast shipwreck of my lifes esteems.” Instead, in the third and final stanza, he returns to a familiar Clare theme: the Eden of nature. There, where there is neither man nor woman, only God, peace is at last possible: “Untroubling and untroubled where I lie/ The grass below, above, the vaulted sky.” In Clare’s country, the two essential facts had always been the moors and the sky—both flat, immense, bare, unchanging, losing themselves at the edge in mist and shadow.


Clare, John (Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)