Edward Strickland (essay date 1982)

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SOURCE: “Conventions and Their Subversion in John Clare's ‘An Invite to Eternity’,” in Criticism, Vol. XXIV, No. 1, Winter, 1982, pp. 1-15.

[In the following essay, Strickland argues that Clare's “An Invite to Eternity” (probably written in the mid-1840s) is indicative of the power of Clare's “asylum” writings and of the manner in which Clare utilized convention for powerful effect.]

In recent years several critics have re-examined the nature-poetry of John Clare in relation to the eighteenth-century topographical tradition and its Romantic revisions.1 This has helped to clarify the context of the better part of the “peasant poet's” corpus. But if Thomson and Cowper ranked among Clare's favorite poets, his favorite play was Macbeth, which he claims to have read “about 20 times,”2 and this predilection, along with his years of ballad-collecting, perhaps bears more strongly on the preternatural poems of his twenty-three year confinement in St. Andrew's County Lunatic Asylum. Despite the valuable upsurge of critical interest in the descriptive poetry, the later visionary works remain for many of us Clare's most notable achievements. We may be intrigued by the first but haunted by the second, this reflecting our response to the very different poetic personae of the self-tutored “village minstrel” and the obsessed madman. Ultimately both are perhaps as much literary anomalies as major poets, but the earlier Clare is a curiosity of a cultural sort, the later an archetypal.

Of what precisely does Clare become a living emblem in his confinement? First of all, of the poet martyred to his art. As he informed Agnes Strickland in August 1860 with the poignant directness that characterizes so many of his statements, “Literature has destroyed my head and brought me here.”3 In his confinement “in the land of Sodom where all the peoples brains are turned the wrong way”4 the retreat of the post-Romantic artist from a progressively brutalized society is raised to the next power, albeit Clare's retreat was involuntary. The otherworldliness of Rossetti's obsession with the image of Beatrice is mirrored, perhaps in a cracked glass, in Clare's monomaniacal reminiscences of Mary Joyce, the “first wife” of his fantasy. Just as his ploughman's experience, and description, of raw nature reveals much landscape poetry, fashionable and greater, as nature glimpsed from between blinders or through a Claude-glass,5 so his late poems return us to the High Romantics recalling Lamb's admonition “Dream not, Coleridge, of having tasted all the grandeur and wildness of fancy till you have gone mad!”

But there is more to the almost numinous attraction of the later Clare than his incarnation of literary archetypes. In the terrible delusions about his youthful love, the tormented Clare embodies that element of ourselves which, perhaps accommodating itself functionally to reality while remaining imaginatively disengaged from it, displaces the desire for fulfilment from afterlife (or social millenium) to an equally wishfulfilling vision of the past. The shallowest form of this is nostalgia; more powerful is a repetition-compulsion of reminiscence; in Clare's obsession, however, we have nothing less than the transformation, the re-writing as it were, of his own past—a process that simultaneously transforms Clare himself. He becomes, ultimately, not only the archetype of the lover unrequited either by his love or reality itself, but of a romantic Adam banished from the Eden of his erotic fancy.6 Yet if Clare comes to appear a kind of primal victim, a complementary side of his personality, and of human perseverance generally, is displayed in his at once farcical and somehow heroic identification of himself with prizefighters of the day, conflated with one of his...

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literary idols and alter egos in the description of himself as “Boxer Byron” who never backed down from a fight. A complex pathos is evident here, as in Christopher Smart's recounting of his alcohol-inspired public prayer as “I praised the Lord in St. James Park till I routed all the company.” For both proclamations, penned in madhouses of different centuries, boast of victory amid quite catastrophic defeat, and if in that defeat we find an image of our own condemnation to the tragic condition of being human, in the boasting we may recognize written large the various forms of vain self-bolstering, public or internal, to which we resort to survive that condition, relatively speaking, intact.

The figure of the later Clare is more imposing than the sum of those poems, letters and utterances in which he gives voice to the various archetypes he personifies. Among the visionary poems, “I Am” represents Clare the social and erotic exile longing for his paradise lost. In “A Vision” this defeat is qualified—or rather subsumed—by the bizarre and structurally disjointed assertion of apocalyptic triumph in the last six lines. But in “An invite to Eternity,” probably written, like the others, in the mid-1840s, Clare more subtly and cogently unites the sense of utter desolation with the assertion of a singularly desperate will-to-power.

As unique a poem as “An invite to Eternity” is, its generic conventions are venerable. The “invitation” may even be considered a lyric sub-genre, in which the poet traditionally addresses his beloved in an effort of amorous persuasion amid a natural setting. Perhaps the most famous invitations in English are Marvell's “To His Coy Mistress” and Herrick's “Corinna's Going A-Maying,” yet proceeding backwards chronologically we find such celebrated lyrics as Jonson's “Come, my Celia, let us prove,” Marlowe's “The Passionate Shepherd to his Love” and several songs of John Dowland (e.g., in his First Booke of Songs of 1597 numbers XI, “Come away, Come Sweet Love,” and XVII, “Come again, Sweet Love doth now Invite).” Wordsworth adapted the convention to non-amorous ends in the early “To My Sister” and “The Tables Turned.” Clare himself wrote many conventional invitations, from the early ballad “Winter's gone, the summer breezes” to the Northborough poem “With Garments Flowing” to the asylum poems “’Tis April and the morning, love” and that entitled “The Invitation.” probably composed five years after “An invite to Eternity”:

Come hither, my dear one, my choice one, and rare one,
And let us be walking the meadows so fair,
Where pilewort and daisies in light and gold blazes,
And the wind plays so sweet in thy bonny brown hair.(7)

The first two lines of “An invite to Eternity” introduce the poem in a similar vein, and could have served to begin another of the same sort, or a folk-song equivalent like “Wild Mountain Thyme”:

Wilt thou go with me sweet maid
Say maiden wilt thou go with me.(8)

Yet when the itinerary of his voyage is revealed, the convention is transformed.

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 life nor light to see
Sweet maiden wilt thou go with me.

The landscape painted in these lines sends us back to the opening with different ears. The chiastic repetition of the opening, which at first appears delightfully lyrical, now sounds ominous in its insistence, the apostrophe to the “sweet maid” darkly, even diabolically, ironic. Expecting the usual invitation to go a-Maying, we are plunged instead into a bewitched world of darkness visible. In an early poem Clare spoke of his childhood initiation into this realm by the magical folk-tales told him by his mother, and “An invite to Eternity” is on one level a kind of existential version of the “animistic fancy” John and Anne Tibble noted as essential to the “northern fairy-tale” tradition Clare inherited like Burns and others.9

It is perhaps because of his exposure to Faerie at so impressionable an age that Clare felt most at home with Macbeth of Shakespeare's plays. Another tributary to the witchcraft that flows through “An invite to Eternity” is the ballad-tradition, Clare himself having been a post-Percy pre-Child collector of ballads.10 In this first stanza Clare combines the ontological vacancy of his own confinement with the animism of folk-art. The path is not merely lost (cf. Inferno, I, 3) but “hath lost its way”; the sun is not merely eclipsed but “forgets the day.” This is not an indifferent nature drained of vitality but a vaguely inimical one involved in something like unconscious conspiracy against the poet. This element of nature's antagonism to man continues in the next stanza:

Where stones will turn to flooding streams
Where plains will rise like ocean waves
Where life will fade like visioned dreams
And mountains darken into caves
Say maiden wilt thou go with me
Through this sad non-identity
Where parents live and are forgot
And sisters live and know us not.

Analyzing Clare's creative swerve from the panoramic or telescopic technique of the Denham tradition, Timothy Brownlow suggests that Clare's nature poetry adopts a “kinetic and microscopic” viewpoint rather, or “could be called kaleidoscopic (it is not concerned with distancing but with comprehensiveness, a circular all-at-oneness).”11 In this very achievement are the roots of the pathological intensity achieved later in “An invite to Eternity” and to a lesser extent others among the asylum poems. In the hallucinated stanza just quoted kinetic perspective takes on an awesome potency. The volatility of Clare's “all-at-oneness” of viewpoint becomes incorporated by matter itself, the comprehensive effluence of the nature-poet's visionary capability transmutted into, or projected onto, given reality. In Blake's words “the Eye altering alters all.” As in the asylum landscapes of Van Gogh, the terrible energy and instability of the artist's psyche divests external reality of its autonomous objectivity and infuses it with its own sense of vertiginous mutability. In this visionary reversal both Van Gogh and Clare invert an impressionistic aesthetic into something proto-expressionist or surrealist. The same process is at work in ms. 110, stanza “2” of the asylum poems, in which valleys are similarly metamorphosed into waves.12

Whereas the traditional invitation landscape is a kind of erotic benediction of natural flux—the rebirth of vitality in the animal and vegetative celebrations of the vernal scene—here the progression is not from frozen winter to vibrant spring but from the fixedness of external nature to the frenzy of hallucination. Vision is experienced as an assault. In an awful complementarity with the liquefaction of stones and plains, the dark air undergoes a petrifaction—darkness becomes not only visible but tangible. In this Ulro-like state the ego is paralyzed in face of visionary assault by erstwhile-solid objects become emanations of raw energy. Nature literally rises against the poet as his will contracts in the unchosen eremitism of his “non-identity.” The cave is a symbol of Clare's visionary disorientation as much as his physical confinement.

The last quatrain of the stanza modulates into the more personal element of the poet's devastation, the sense of radical solitude of literal unfamiliarity of the inner death he explores in the second half of the poem.

Say maiden wilt thou go with me
In this strange death of life to be
To live in death and be the same
Without this life or home or name
At once to be and not to be
That was and is not—yet to see
Things pass like shadows—and the sky
Above, below, around us lie.
The land of shadows wilt thou trace
And look nor know each others face
The present mixed with reasons gone
And past and present all as one
Say maiden can thy life be led
To join the living with the dead
Then trace thy footsteps on with me
We’re wed to one eternity.

What is striking about the third stanza is the relative abnegation of imagery as the poet attempts to describe rather than depict his desolation. This more discursive than imagistic section of the work is disjointed allusively as much as syntactically. Just as the second quatrain opens with the vaguely referential subordinate clause “That was and is not,” so the echoes of earlier writers approach in their imprecise citation something like a desperate reliance on remembered snatches of poetry to articulate the ineffable. It is perhaps not indefensible to read that stanza as Clare's premonition of the modernist plight of Eliot attempting to structure the desolation of his later age with the poetry of allusion. These fragments I have shored against my ruin: the echoes of Coleridge's Rime and “Epitaph” in “death of life” and “live in death”; of Hamlet in “to be and not to be”; and of the last line of Shelley's Alastor in the disruptively inserted “That was and is not.”

There is another sort of disjunction—i.e., of rhyme scheme—as we enter the third stanza. The first two stanzas follow the model ababccdd; the third and fourth shift to aabbccdd. Apart from this change of course, it seems noteworthy that the first two stanzas are themselves asymmetrical. Rather than octets they are conceived as pairs of quatrains, first abab, second aabb. Clare is writing, essentially, in variant ballad stanzas, yoked in pairs somewhat arbitrarily—a situation which becomes particularly evident when syntax breaks down in (double-) stanza three. The tension between invitation address and ballad supernaturalism noted earlier is further reflected structurally in the use of the former's traditional tetrameter and the covert stanzaic form of the latter.

Clare transforms his poem into a darkly parodic epithalamion at the work's conclusion. “Wed to one eternity” culminates a process of physical and chronological breakdown. Just as the marriage ceremony traditionally symbolizes social cohesion and elemental fecundity, so this insane marriage becomes the crowning symbol of a confounding rather than communion of identities. After the loss of all bearings in the nightmarish vertigo depicted at the conclusion of stanza three, matter itself becomes insubstantial. “The land of shadows wilt thou trace”—the verb suggesting not only to measure but to hunt down.13 In this impossible parody of a quest all distinctions are blurred. The past is as the present. The living are as the dead. Even the loss of the first person in “each others face” suggests the annihilation of identity. It is difficult to share the Tibbles' belief that this eternity is “the eternity of poetry,” which “besides being a compensation for his present neglect and isolation, is yet something other than the orthodox ‘better world’ of happiness beyond the grave.”14 The last clause is self-evident, but is not Clare's eternity in fact the mythic form of his neglect and isolation in the pathological world of his delusions? Alone in his “captivity among the Babylonians,”15 writing letters to his “two wives,” one of whom died even before he entered St. Andrew's, he dwells in the a-temporal world of an eternity in which the past has indeed usurped the present and the dead vampirize the living, most of all himself.


The precise nature of Clare's invitation is as subject to debate as his eternity. From a very different perspective than the Tibbles', Harold Bloom has found at the end of this “so hopeless” vision “a tone of something like triumph,” but is less specific in proposing what that triumph might be. Yet his analysis of the conclusion has the virtue of articulating its central interpretive problems: “What meaning can the poem's last line have if eternity is a state merely of non-identity? Why ‘wed’ rather than ‘bound’? … Last, and most crucial, if this is an invitation, where is the voluntary element in the vision? What lies in the will of the maiden?”16

Perhaps the key to those questions lies in another, namely “Who is the maiden of the invitation?” The biographical answer, identifying her with Mary Joyce, has generally been tacitly assumed,17 and seems to me both correct and in itself insufficient. For Mary Joyce, the daughter of a Glinton farmer, became many distinct and even contradictory beings, endowed by her absence, like many another beloved, with the protean facility of becoming the embodiment of all the poet had lost and lamented. His deprivation of her became a metonym, in Clare's fantasy, for the various losses of his existence, and even of human existence itself. One critic has suggested that “The phantom of his lost love, Mary Joyce, from being part of the loveliness of Nature became its symbol, till at last in hymning the woman of his dream he is hymning his Nature-love.”18 Eric Robinson and Geoffrey Summerfield concentrate on the archetypal nature of Clare's passion, arguing that after their youthful estrangement Mary remained to Clare “for the rest of his days the symbol of innocence, the Eve of his Eden, the First Love which was to be touchstone for all later experience.”19 In their early John Clare: A Life the Tibbles proposed that “An invite to Eternity” became an invitation directed “to Love herself perhaps.”20 Mark Storey reflects some of the complexity of the poet's relationship to his lost lady in his evasion of a simple symbolic equation of Mary with a single concept, commenting that “Mary became synonymous with the muse, and with nature” and “is in some sense Clare's prison; he wrote to shackle himself to his ideal, to find a freedom that entails his becoming part of her, his identity lost in hers.”21

Interpretations of Mary as Eve, Beatrice/Laura, Mary the sister of Lazarus, Nature, Love, the Muse, or the prison house—all find at least sufficient and often explicit support in Clare's writings. One of the most telling lines Clare ever penned comes in a song from the “Child Harold” cycle: “But Marys abscent every where.”22 To a great extent, Clare's identification with Byron's exile-hero is founded on his sense of irreparable divorce from Mary, who in the course of that cycle, the complement to The Village Minstrel in Clare's own version of the growth of a poet's mind, assumes variously all the symbolic forms explicated by the poet's critics. She as much as Helpstone embodies the exile's lost homeland or harbor and is similarly “abscent” as an image of the idyllism of the poet's childhood.

Beyond this, in her paradoxically omnipresent absence, she symbolizes the insufficiency of reality to human desire and the poet's consequent sense of radical estrangement from his environment. His divorce from reality (here a singularly apt metaphor rather than a clinical cliché) was both the product in part of his separation from Mary and the nurturing soil for his pathological reunion with her in progressively obsessive delusions. If “my dear first love & early wife” helped drive him to the madhouse, it was perhaps only there that he could “wed” himself to her, at least relatively undistracted by the presence of his “real” family. Long since vanished, she becomes almost palpable “every where” by occupying the interstices that exist, for all of us, between the given world and the transcendental thrust of human aspiration. Only a very partial creator of that psychological and spiritual abyss, she becomes its guardian spirit, both a genius loci and a censor of the void.23

In a sense the blossoming in the 1830s of Clare's delusions concerning his early life with Mary represent the pathology of a convention. Despite his obsession with Mary as the fulfillment of his dreams, we must keep in mind that Clare not only married and raised seven children with his “second wife Patty” (Martha Turner) but addressed many a tender poem to her over the years. Thus a sentimentally indulgent perspective on the earlier relationship merits some of the scorn heaped by D. H. Lawrence on Dante for never mentioning, amid his mystic devotions to Beatrice, the “family of lusty little Dantions”24 back home with Signiora Alighieri. And it must also turn a blind eye to the Patty poems, not to mention those lines addressed to “Sweet Susan,” “Bessey of the glen,” “My sweet Ann Foot, my bonny Ann,” “Sweet Mary Dove,” “Miss B—,” and numerous others.

However intense Clare's first love may have been, it was in fact succeeded if not superseded by others, the absence in some sense filled. Yet the intensity of his feelings of both love and consequent loss grew rather than diminished with time. Clare's statement “Literature has destroyed my head and brought me here” may be of particular relevance to the Mary Joyce question. For even in the poems of the early 1820s in which Mary appears Clare depicts her as an angelic, elfin, witching form. However sincere his feelings for her, that is to say, her poetic incarnation occurs well within the confines of poetic convention. In the conclusion of “A Daydream in Summer” she is the veiled maiden of Alastor and the Cynthia of Keats's Endymion reincarnate in Northamptonshire: “When her small waist he strove to clasp / She shrunk like water from his grasp.”25 In later poems she assumes a fictive aura that owes as much to Jonson and the Cavaliers as to the trecento poets and their descendants.

Mary, as a poetic figure, was from the start conceived as a poetic convention, her absence a prerequisite to her idealization. In her association with the nurturing landscape and imaginative passion of Clare's youth she presents herself as an avatar of the eponymous Rural Muse of Clare's fourth collection. His progressive obsession with her throughout the 1830s was a form of compensation for Clare's painful lack of sympathetic society, the fading of his notoriety, and perhaps his fear of the loss of poetic vision with youthful hopes. Having nowhere to turn for inspiration, and few to turn to for encouragement, he sought both in the resurrection of an adolescent love, the pristine quality of which embodied all the now-shattered hopes delineated in his apologia The Village Minstrel.

As Clare's muse Mary comes to undergo a fearful transformation. Muselike initially in the conventional sense—i. e., as the object of the poet's amorous effusions—she comes to be identified with his imaginative life and poetic capacity itself. Without her, Clare faced an imaginative vacancy inimical to his art. An inspirer of verse and simultaneously a blocking-agent of that vacancy, her image becomes not only the central figure of his imaginative life but its emblem: “Mary the muse of every song I write,” “Mary thou ace of hearts thou muse of song” … In “Child Harold” Clare indulges the curious proclivity to cosmic exaggeration seen in “A Vision,” affirming “I loved her in all climes beneath the sun.”26 Here the lunatic, the lover and the poet are truly of imagination all compact—and both the peculiar appeal and clear limitations of Clare's love poetry are founded on their fusion, the inability of the poet to keep distinct the delusions of his fantasy and the exercise of his imagination.

There may be, then, a symbolic truth in Clare's delusions of having committed bigamy. In the isolation of his rural life in the 1830s, finding his diurnal affairs progressively disjunct from his imaginative life, he became torn between the facticity of his life with Martha and the children and the demands of his creativity. The latter came to focus in an ever more exclusive and escapist manner on Mary, only in part as the earlier object of his affections. This conflict of allegiances, which brought about his breakdown finally, was a “bigamous” tension between domestic life and marriage to the Muse-figure who emblematized his imaginative life. The essence of his delusion about Mary is the confluence of woman and archetype, the subsumption of a human memory by a literary convention become a pathological reality.

Clare's poetry progressed from descriptive apostrophe to literal invocation of Mary, as in the “Child Harold” song “O Mary sing thy songs to me.” Yet his invocation of her went beyond the traditional soliciting of poetic aid. He seems rather to have conjured her habitually as a kind of charm against his desolation. I think we can take Clare quite literally when he describes this almost mantra-like address: “Mary how oft with fondness I repeat / That name alone to give my troubles rest.”27 His imaginative idolatry takes the form of something like a profane rosary.

It is important nonetheless to note that concurrently with his idealizing of woman, Clare indulges in his verse and prose that cynical distrust of her C. S. Lewis has called a twin fruit from the same branch. The conflict of tones is less a matter of complementarity here than simple contradiction, reflecting the extremes of Clare's mental illness, be it cyclothymic or schizophrenic.28 His Don Juan is full of bitterness, emulating Byron's, and there are hints of it as early as the ballad “The spring returns, the pewit screams,” in which he refers to “woman's [and specifically Mary's] cold perverted will / And soon estranged opinion.” In his letters we find him remarking “a man who possesses a woman possesses losses without gain the worst is the road to ruin & the best is nothing like a good cow—man I never did like & woman has long sickened me.”29 In an asylum letter to the long since dead Mary he turns with pathetically rancorous energy on his “vagrant Muse”: “though I have two wives if I got away I should soon have a third & I think I should serve you both right in the bargain by doing so for I dont care a damn about coming home now—so you need not flatter yourself with many expectations of seeing me.”30

The ambivalence of Clare's feelings of obsessive love and betrayal is articulated in “An invite to Eternity” in the sardonic nature of the no-longer conventional invitation. That convention, as remarked, is subverted by the landscape of the work. The terrain of this “eternity” is the demonic obverse of his earlier “The Eternity of Nature”—a deracinated world of shifting dimensions akin to the preternature of various folk-ballads. It has the crepuscular aura of “Thomas Rhymer,” the protean insubstantiality of “The Young Tamlane.” Yet the poem really perhaps recalls most proximately the ballad tradition of the “demon lover,” more comprehensively than Coleridge's crucial but passing allusion to the motif in “Kubla Khan.”

In the ballad known as “The Carpenter's Wife,” for example, a young woman is visited by her seafaring lover who has returned to find her married to another whose child she has borne. After persistent temptation he succeeds in convincing her to run off with him to sea, where at length his diabolic nature (in some versions a “cloven hoof”) is revealed before the ship sinks and the runaway wife is drowned. Invited to green foreign hills (in some versions “the banks o’ Italie”), she is led to a submarine landscape. Clare's persona in “An invite to Eternity” proves similarly diabolical, and in the relationship between the lovers of the ballad he perhaps found an objective correlative for his own sense of past wrong and ultimate revenge.31

But if the biographical roots of the conflict are thus apparent, the explication of its symbolism is nonetheless inseparable from Mary's emblematic nature as a Muse-figure. The poem may be on one level a sardonic and vengeful invitation to a faithless and free lover to join the poet in his physical confinement and mental anguish; on another it is a cry to her, in her function as inspirer, for help.

In the 1860 interview with Agnes Strickland, when asked what he meant by charging “they pick my brains out,” Clare replied “Why, they have cut off my head, and picked out all the letters of the alphabet—all the vowels and consonants—and brought them out through my ears; and then they want me to write poetry! I can’t do it.”32 Clare's ability to go on creating through two decades of confinement is a singular triumph of the imagination and will over unpropitious conditions, both physical and psychological. “An invite to Eternity,” I believe, is concerned more than anything else with articulating his difficulties and his doubts about his ability to go on as a poet.

On this level the opening repeated question is by no means rhetorical. Rather Clare is searching his soul, questioning his own imagination: Muse, wilt thou go with me? Even here—to the disoriented world of madness which he proceeds to delineate, and in depicting which he answers the question finally in the affirmative.

This may be the real triumph of the poem. The “eternity” to which the poet looks is neither solely literary, as in the Tibbles' interpretation of his concern with poetic immortality, nor-extra-literary in any theological sense. Clare's eternity is not the infinite extension of time but its absence—first in the disorientation of his mental state, and secondly in its self-transcendence in the dialectical progress of the poem, which circles back upon itself. The concluding affirmation is nothing less than a hierogamy of poet and Muse, complete with a grimly courageous procession to a visionary altar: “Then trace thy footsteps on with me / We’re wed to one eternity.” For analogies to this sacred marriage we need not look so far afield as the “chymical wedding” of alchemy or anthropological royal incest, for High Romanticism is full of such unions, from the demonic couplings of Coleridge's mystery triptych to Keats's Endymion, “La Belle Dame sans Merci” and Lamia. The better part of D. G. Rossetti's poetic corpus consists of variations on this theme.

Yet once again Clare's delineation of the relationship is as subversive as it is conventional. In the poems named, for example, it is the Muse-figure, as the symbol of the creative unconscious, that is at home in the preternature into which she draws the poet or his surrogate. The wailing woman summons the poet of “Kubla Khan” from the fashionable Oriental idyll of the first stanza into a magical realm that was thereafter to become his visionary home, and prison. Cynthia leads Endymion from a native land to which, like the Ancient Mariner after his confrontation with Life-in-Death, he never fully returns. Clare inverts the traditional relationship between Muse and poet, guide and guided. In his madness he is already initiated into a realm to which the Muse is a stranger. She is invited to a landscape that is without substance or stability, which the poet succeeds in traversing and infusing with form by forcing his Muse, the emblem of the transformative imagination, to accompany him. The coerced tracing of rhythmic or metrical footsteps is a Los-like assertion of the imagination's supremacy over chaos in a region as amorphous as the phantasmal forest of Entuthon Benython that surrounds Blake's Golgonooza.

It would be comforting to leave Clare in his moment of complex triumph. But the comfort would be specious since, as I suggested earlier, the figure of the poet confined in “the English Bastile a government Prison where harmless people are trapped and tortured till they die”33 is greater than the sum of his creations there. Having now spent some time with what is possibly the finest of those works, I will close with a non-poetic utterance, his last letter, in which the aged poet comes to share the mythic aura in which Wordsworth perceived that blind London beggar with the facts of his life pinned to his chest. This letter, written in response to an unknown inquirer Mr. James Hipkin, seems not only a testament to the provisional nature of the redemptive power of poetic form and the ultimate triumph of the ineffable, but almost, like the beggar's label, a symbol “of the utmost we can know, / Both of ourselves and of the universe.”

March 8 1860

Dear Sir,

I am in a Madhouse & quite forget your Name or who you are You must excuse me for I have nothing to communicate or tell of & why I am shut up I dont know I have nothing to say so I conclude

Yours respectfully John Clare.34


  1. See, for example, John Barrell, The Idea of Landscape and the Sense of Place, 1730-1840: An Approach to the Poetry of John Clare (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1972); Janet M. Todd, In Adam's Garden: A Study of John Clare's Pre-Asylum Poetry (Gainesville: Univ. of Florida Press, 1973); and Timothy Brownlow, “A Molehill for Parnassus: John Clare and Prospect Poetry,” Univ. of Toronto Quarterly, 48 (1978), 23-40. Mark Storey, The Poetry of John Clare (New York: St. Martin's, 1974) finds The Shepherd's Calendar the focal point of Clare's poetic development but is less concerned with the tradition per se.

  2. The Prose of John Clare, ed. J. W. and Anne Tibble (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1951), p. 121. “Journal” entry of “Wed. 10 Nov. 1824.”

  3. J. W. and Anne Tibble, John Clare: His Life and Poetry (London: Heinemann, 1956), p. 199.

  4. Letters of John Clare, ed. J. W. and Anne Tibble (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1951), p. 299.

  5. See Clare's own comments on Keats in Prose, p. 223: “ … his descriptions of scenery are often very fine but as it is the case with other inhabitants of great cities he often described nature as she appeared to his fancies & not as he would have described her had he witnessed the things he describes—.”

  6. See Clare: Selected Poems and Prose, ed. Eric Robinson and Geoffrey Summerfield (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1966), p. 18ff.

  7. I follow the text of Poems of John Clare's Madness, ed. Geoffrey Grigson (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1949). See too a different poem with the same title in The Later Poems of John Clare, ed. Eric Robinson and Geoffrey Summerfield (Manchester: Manchester Univ. Press, 1964), p. 168.

  8. Text of “An invite to Eternity” from Clare: Selected Poems and Prose, pp. 223-24.

  9. John Clare: His Life and Poetry, p. 10. See too his accounts of George Cousins and a youthful apparition in the “Autobiography” (Prose, pp. 29, 40-41).

  10. See Letters, p. 199, and further Margaret Grainger, John Clare: Collector of Ballads, Peterborough Museum Society, Occasional Papers, No. 3 (1964).

  11. “A Molehill for Parnassus,” pp. 38, 25.

  12. See Later Poems, p. 104.

  13. Oxford English Dictionary, “trace v1” II.5.

  14. John Clare: His Life and Poetry, p. 192.

  15. Letters, p. 300.

  16. Harold Bloom, The Visionary Company, rev. ed. (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1971), p. 452.

  17. Or not so tacitly, as in Grigson, p. 31: “ … he asks Mary—it is certainly Mary—to merge with him into the eternal.” John and Anne Tibble suggest, however, that “it no longer matters whom” Clare is addressing in the poem (John Clare: His Life and Poetry, p. 192).

  18. Unsigned review in TLS, 21 February 1935, pp. 97-98, quoted in Clare: the Critical Heritage, ed. Mark Storey (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973), p. 383.

  19. Clare: Selected Poems and Prose, p. 21.

  20. John Clare: A Life (London: Cobdon-Sanderson, 1932), p. 427.

  21. The Poetry of John Clare, pp. 145, 170.

  22. Text of “Child Harold” from Later Poems, pp. 35-80. Quotation from p. 56.

  23. Of particular relevance to this point is his poem “The Lost One,” The Poems of John Clare, ed. J. W. and Anne Tibble (London: Dent, 1935), II, 503.

  24. A Selection from Phoenix, ed. A. A. Inglis (London: Penguin, 1971), p. 168.

  25. Poems, I, 429.

  26. Later Poems, p. 45.

  27. Later Poems, p. 43.

  28. Eleanor L. Nicholes, “The Shadowed Mind” (Ph.D. dissertation, NYU, 1950) argues that Clare was schizophrenic. See too Grigson, p. 23ff. Clare was analyzed as “cyclothymic” (“manic-depressive” in today's terminology) by Thomas Tennant in “Reflections of Genius,” Journal of Medical Science, vol. 99, no. 414.

  29. Letters, p. 295. He continues, however: “—but even there I should wish for one whom I am always thinking of & almost every song I write has some sighs or wishes in Ink about Mary.”

  30. Letters, p. 290.

  31. Peterborough Museum MS. 42 contains Clare's ballad “Whos that knocking on my window,” which is in the tradition of “The Daemon Lover,” “James Herries,” “The Carpenter's Wife,” “Sweet William's Ghost” etc., detailing the betrayed and supernatural lover's return to haunt his beloved.

  32. John Clare: His Life and Poetry, p. 199.

  33. Ibid., p. 177 (quoting MS. 110, pp. 125-27).

  34. Letters, p. 309.


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John Clare 1793-1864

English poet and prose writer. See also John Clare Poetry Criticism.

While there is no consensus among critics as to the relationship between his poetry and that of his predecessors and contemporaries, Clare is regarded by many critics as one of the foremost English nature poets. Inspired by the countryside in which he grew up, Clare wrote poetry filled with vivid and exact descriptions of rural life and scenery. Though he published only four books during his lifetime—Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery (1820); The Village Minstrel, and Other Poems (1821); The Shepherd's Calendar; With Village Stories, and Other Poems (1827); and The Rural Muse (1835)—Clare produced a body of work that has continued to be collected by numerous editors well into the latter half of the twentieth century. Much of the history of Clare criticism has been dominated by two varying approaches: while some commentators define his importance with reference to the tradition of eighteenth-century descriptive verse, others emphasize the Romantic qualities of his poetry. Modern scholars have also focused on the voices and styles of his “pre-asylum” verse as well as his “asylum” writings—which he composed during his more than twenty years of confinement in an insane asylum—and have argued the relative merits of each.

Biographical Information

The son of Parker and Ann Stimson Clare, both impoverished farm laborers, Clare was born on July 13, 1793, in the rural village of Helpston, Northamptonshire, England, approximately eighty miles north of London. Because he had to work on the farm to help support his family, Clare attended school only three months a year, and his formal education ended when he was fourteen. He later studied at a night school and continued his education informally with other young men in the area. Although access to books was not easy, Clare read widely, including Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe and Izaak Walton's The Compleat Angler, both of which he counted among his favorites. As great an influence as these works were on Clare, though, the works of eighteenth-century descriptive poet James Thomson, particularly Thomson's Seasons, were even more so. Seasons, which Clare purchased when he was thirteen, inspired him to write his own poetry and strongly shaped his method of presenting the English countryside in his verses. Soon thereafter, to further support his family, Clare obtained employment at a local inn; there he met and fell in love with Mary Joyce, the daughter of a wealthy farmer. Although Mary's father quickly broke off the relationship because of her suitor's inferior social status, the memory of his first love never left Clare, and she became the subject of many of his love poems.

In 1818, Clare attempted to publish a volume of poems by subscription; though this attempt failed, the effort led him to meet Edward Drury, a local bookseller and cousin of John Taylor, the London publisher of John Keats and William Hazlitt. After reading Clare's poetry, Taylor agreed to publish his work without first soliciting subscriptions—the result was Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery, which was a popular success. Some of the more enthusiastic reviews contained pleas for financial support for Clare, and he found himself the recipient of a small annuity, which allowed him in 1820 to marry Martha Turner, whom he had met sometime earlier. Clare's next two volumes of poetry, however, did not enjoy the same success. By the time The Village Minstrel was published, the demand for rural verse had subsided and the book sold poorly. His third collection, The Shepherd's Calendar, was met with the same cool response as The Village Minstrel.

During this period, Clare was struggling to support his growing family on his annuity and sporadic income from gardening and fieldwork. In 1832, a benevolent patron, Lord Fitzwilliam, provided Clare's family with a larger home in Northborough, but this departure from the countryside of Helpston caused Clare a great deal of grief, which became the subject of two poems, “Decay” and “The Flitting.” Clare's fourth volume of poetry, The Rural Muse, was published in 1835 and, like his previous two books, was a failure. By this time, Clare's mental health had deteriorated; he began to experience delusions that he was the poet Lord Byron or the famous boxer Jack Randall, and that Mary Joyce was his first wife, while Martha Turner was his second. In 1837, he was confined to a private asylum in Essex, from which he escaped after four years. He returned to Northborough for five months, during which time he completed two long poems with titles borrowed from Lord Byron: “Don Juan” and “Child Harold.” Though his physical health improved, his delusions persisted, and in 1841 he was taken to the Northampton General County Lunatic Asylum. While there he wrote incessantly, but only a few of the poems he produced appeared in contemporary journals and newspapers. He died in relative obscurity at the Northampton Asylum in 1864, twenty-three years after his incarceration.

Major Works

Clare's first book, Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery, includes a wide range of poetic themes, forms, and styles. Many of the poems are indicative of the direction his poetry was to take, introducing autobiographical elements and personal concerns such as the preservation of nature and the right of even the “uneducated” to have a poetic sensibility. The book met with a great deal of popular success, going through four editions and selling three thousand copies in its first year. The poems in The Village Minstrel also engage a variety of styles and subjects, but the general theme governing the book is the value of country sports and customs, with changes to the landscape and the economy as a result of the enclosure of previously common lands providing a complementary theme. The plight of the gypsies commands attention too, as it does in much of Clare's work. The sonnets of this volume demonstrate that Clare's experimentation in the form was already leading him toward his own distinctive style. Among the conventional addresses to personified abstractions such as Poverty, Hope, or Life, are scattered more concrete descriptive verses. “Summer Tints,” for example, comprises only one sentence, as do many of Clare's later, more accomplished sonnets. Inspired by Edmund Spenser, Clare's third collection, The Shepherd's Calendar, is a series of poems celebrating the months of the year. This picture of rural life relies on the rhythm of agricultural labor and the progress of the seasons. The reader's interest is sustained by the wealth of detail and by the variety of literary devices used to convey it. Each month displays its own structure: some are more narrative than others, some are apostrophes, others pictures of a typical day's activities in the month. Each has its own form of verse, too. Although many of them employ couplets, several—notably “February,” “April,” “November,” and “December”—have more intricate rhyme schemes and clearly defined stanzas.

The last of his works to be published during his lifetime, The Rural Muse is a collection of songs and what Clare called ballads (though as William Howard, writing in The Dictionary of Literary Biography, has pointed out, these are really narrative songs which did not attempt to imitate the traditional ballad); eighty-five sonnets; and several longer autobiographical poems. While institutionalized, Clare continued to write in a prolific manner, though only a few of his works were published in contemporary journals and newspapers. Most notable among these writings is the Lord Byron-influenced poem “Child Harold,” which consists of seventy-seven nine-line stanzas which are at times descriptive and at other times contemplative, interspersed with twenty-five lyrical outbursts variously labeled as songs or ballads. The subject broached in the opening line—“Real poets must be truly honest men”—is explored in the stanzas.

Critical Reception

Clare's work received, and continues to receive, a wide range of critical responses. The publication of Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery was met with popular success, but mixed reviews. John Taylor, Clare's publisher, wrote the introduction to Poems, emphasizing the poverty-stricken conditions under which most of the poems had been written, and many modern critics argue that this played a large part in determining the immediate critical response to the book. Many contemporary reviewers were patronizing, criticizing Clare's grammatical inaccuracies and provincial expressions. John Gibson Lockhart, writing in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, while not overtly critical of Poems, expressed some doubt as to Clare's poetic “genius,” claiming that the “Northamptonshire peasant” had been the subject of some “enormous puffing” with regard to this reputation. Some reviewers, however, were so enthusiastic regarding Clare's work that they petitioned readers for financial support for him. Released just a year later, The Village Minstrel met with even fewer positive reviews. Ignoring advice from Taylor that he “elevate his views” in order to appeal to a wider audience, Clare continued to write about village and farming life, often utilizing the dialect of the region. Many critics found fault with his stylistic innovations. In the November 1, 1821, issue of The Monthly Magazine (London), a reviewer cited a number of criticisms, including Clare's “perpetually visible” lack of education, that led the reviewer to judge The Village Minstrel as, “at the utmost, a place above mediocrity.”

Contemporary critics have not reached any consensus regarding Clare's place in literary history. Many, while praising Clare's penetrating descriptions of nature, have noted that his poetry is devoid of the intellectual element that characterizes the works of John Keats and William Wordsworth. Others, however, have pointed to the diversity of literary voices in his works as well his deep concern for and love and understanding of the rural environment as evidence of his poetic skill and intellect. James C. McKusick, for example, calling Clare the first ecologically conscious writer in English literary history, has claimed that “[t]aken together, [Clare's] works convey a detailed knowledge of the local flora and fauna, an acute awareness of the interrelatedness of all life-forms, and a sense of outrage at the destruction of the natural environment.” Critics Eric Robinson and David Powell have echoed this emphasis on Clare's acute familiarity with and advocacy of the local environment and those inhabiting it—those whose very livelihoods were inextricably tied to the land: “Since Piers Plowman there has hardly been an authoritative voice in English literature to speak for the ploughmen, the threshers, the hedgers, shepherds, woodmen and horse-keepers until Clare began to write.” Another modern scholar, Lynn Pearce, has studied the many, varied voices of Clare's “Child Harold,” identifying the styles and tones of the contemptuous and defiant “Byronic aristocrat,” the naïve and simple “peasant exile,” and the divinely authoritative “Biblical” voice, among others. Other twentieth-century critics have argued that, despite the suggestion of many earlier reviewers, Clare was more than a simple observer of his surroundings; instead, they have pointed out, he constructed a complex relationship in his poetry between his real-life experience and his perception of these experiences, his recollections of past events, and his use of language and grammar.

Tim Chilcott (essay date 1985)

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SOURCE: “The Shepherd's Calendar” in ‘A Real World and Doubting Mind’: A Critical Study of the Poetry of John Clare, Hull University Press, 1985, pp. 34-68.

[In the following essay, Chilcott presents a close study of the structure of The Shepherd's Calendar.]

In January 1820, less than a week after the appearance of Clare's first volume, Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery, his publisher John Taylor wrote to him greatly approving his idea for a poem to be entitled ‘A Week in a Village’. In order to create an overall structure for the work, Taylor suggested that he might

divide the Week's Employments into the 7 Days, selecting such for each as might particularly apply to that Day, which is the Case with some of the Occupations;—that the remaining which might be pursued in any Day should be allotted so as to fill up the Time;—that the Sports, & Amusements should in like manner be apportioned out into the 7 Days;—and that one little appropriate Story should be involved in each Day's Description.—1

Although this particular plan was never realized, Taylor's proposal for a poem of considerable length was not forgotten, and over three years later, he wrote with a variation upon his earlier suggestion:

Talking the other Day with Hessey, it occurred to me that a good Title for another Work would be The Shepherd's Calendar—a Name which Spenser took for a Poem or rather Collection of Poems of his.—It might be like his divided into Months, & under each might be given a descriptive Poem & a Narrative Poem.2

The twelve narrative pieces proposed as an accompaniment to the descriptive verse were in fact never completed; and when the volume was eventually published in 1827, only four tales, grouped separately under the general heading of ‘Village Stories’, appeared. But in all other respects, the treatment suggested by Taylor remained as the formal design within which Clare was to write his first long poem. Such a structure was not original, as Taylor recognized. Even without the model of Spenser's Shepheardes Calendar, Clare inherited from eighteenth-century literature an extensive tradition of georgic poetry based upon the distinctive characteristics of the four seasons, or of individual months or particular times of day. At the centre of the tradition lay Thomson's The Seasons, the work which, together with songs and ballads, had the greatest influence upon his early poetic development.3 Thomson's vindication of natural description as a legitimate subject-matter for poetry was expressed within an explicit structure of cyclic change, and one of the major impetuses he gave to the organisation of descriptive verse was to relate the realm of space with that of time. The eye's movements over the landscape were recorded within a framework of seasonal variation, and events such as storms, sunrises and sunsets radically transformed as the temporal focus shifted.4 In many cases, the host of lesser imitations that followed Thomson's model subscribed to a similar structure. Hugh Mulligan's ‘The Months, six tinted sketches’ (1788) organised its conventional descriptions within the six months of February, April, June, August, October and December. James Hurdis's The Favourite Village (1800) was divided into the four seasons, as was Robert Bloomfield's immensely successful The Farmer's Boy, which appeared in the same year. James Grahame's The Rural Calendar (1797) portrayed the human and natural landscape in monthly sections, as did William Cole's A Descriptive Review of the year 1799. In these poems, and in the many others that pursued a similar descriptive goal, the processes of time in nature became a conventional principle of organisation.5

In adopting the pattern of month-by-month description for his poem, then, Clare was following established procedures. What is more revolutionary, however, is the break achieved in The Shepherd's Calendar from the traditional pieties that inform many of the earlier attempts in the genre. If there is a common denominator that unites the work of Hurdis and Bloomfield, Cole and Grahame, James Woodhouse and Stephen Duck, it is the impression conveyed of a poetry contriving its responses. It is the verse of men who are either so far from the soil that they can portray it only in terms of a tinsel pastoralism, or so close to it that they feel obliged to wipe the dirt from their hands through periphrasis and literary gesture. The characteristic attitude is one of sentimental apostrophe; the characteristic effect that of potentially accurate description blurred by moralistic appeal. In The Shepherd's Calendar, however, Clare forcefully invigorates a dying tradition, animating it with an underlying pressure of felt reality. The rhetorical stance sometimes found in the pre-1821 poetry (‘Hail, humble Helpstone’) is now much less frequent, as is the ratification of experience by allusion to earlier literary models. That the poem continues to reveal several of the weaknesses apparent in his earliest work is unquestionable; but it is nevertheless the first substantial poem in which a distinctive cogency of voice begins to emerge. The kinds of perception underlying the poetry of his apprenticeship here take on a new clarity and purpose.

In the first chapter [of ‘A Real World and Doubting Mind’], I placed some emphasis upon the importance of an oral rather than written tradition in Clare's early development; and the vocal aspects of The Shepherd's Calendar reveal the continuing influence of the spoken language upon his imagination. The influence is manifest in a number of ways. In contrast to many pre-1821 poems, for instance, there is an increasing use of Northamptonshire and more general dialectical forms that derive much of their strength from the spoken rather than written word:6 drabble, edding, morts, pooty, swaily, swop, younker, and so forth. A number of such terms, moreover, are clearly ideophonic, producing onomatopoeic or other sound-symbolic effects. Words such as ‘croodling’, ‘crizzling’, ‘crumpt’, ‘swee’, ‘scutter’, ‘slive’ convey the muscular enactment of meaning in the mouth, the tactile energy of a heard language. Such speech, too, has resources which allow for considerable discrimination in the recording of natural sounds: an aural precision that is able to establish the nuances between, for example, the ‘wherrying’ of ducks, the ‘whewing’ of starlings, the ‘whirl’ of peewits, and the ‘wizzing’ of stockdoves.

The influence of the spoken language, it is worth noting, extends beyond the incidental use of dialectical or ideophonic terms that generate a more than usual acoustic resonance. Whole passages can be orchestrated into a more extensive sonority. One of the finest examples occurs in the ‘October’ section of the poem, where Clare depicts the rising of a storm:

The flying clouds urged on in swiftest pace
Like living things as if they runned a race
The winds that oer each coming tempest broods
Waking like spirits in their startling moods
Fluttering the sear leaves on the blasting lea
That litters under every fading tree
& pausing oft as falls the pattering rain
Then gathering strength & twirling them again
The startld stockdove hurried wizzing bye
As the still hawk hangs oer him in the sky
Crows from the oak trees qawking as they spring
Dashing the acorns down wi beating wing
Waking the woodlands sleep in noises low
Pattring the crimpt brakes withering brown below
While from their hollow nest the squirrels pop
Adown the tree to pick them as they drop
The starnel crowds that dim the muddy light
The crows & jackdaws flapping home at night
& puddock circling round its lazy flight
Round the wild sweeing wood in motion slow
Before it perches on the oaks below
& hugh black beetles revelling alone
In the dull evening with their heavy drone
Buzzing from barn door straw & hovel sides
Where foddered cattle from the night abides

(SC [The Shepherd's Calendar, ed. Eric Robinson and Geoffrey Summerfield, (London: Oxford University Press, 1967)], 114-5)

It does not need a specialised analysis of the phonetic patterns in this extract to recognise at once its remarkable acoustic vitality. Sound energises the entire passage. Onomatopoeic effects are present in words like ‘wizzing’, ‘qawking’, ‘pattring’ and ‘buzzing’. The frequent alliteration of letters such as ‘s’, ‘l’, and ‘w’ (spirits, startling, sear; leaves, lea, litters, and so on) is further orchestrated as they appear in the middle and at the ends of words (tempest, broods, blasting, clouds). The flow of vowel sounds is often obstructed by consonantal clusters (‘The startld stockdove hurried wizzing bye’). Throughout, vowels and consonants set up intricate effects of vocal relationship and resistance, so much so that the sound pattern of the rhyming couplet seems barely able to contain them. Elsewhere in Clare's poetry, it is worth noting, the frequent use of the couplet form often evokes an auditory world of balance and limits, of channelled energy as it were. The rhymes arouse and then fulfil the expectation of the ear. But here, the prevailing effect is of sounds overlapping and interweaving with each other, scarcely controllable, so it seems, by the formal pattern of the rhyming couplet.

It would be excessive to claim that the auditory richness of this passage is sustained throughout The Shepherd's Calendar, for the very subject matter of the rising storm provides Clare with notable opportunities to exploit the acoustic potential of his material. But the extract shows at least that oral influence in the poem is not confined to the intermittent use of ideophonic or dialect words. Extended passages can be fashioned by an aural impulse, by the kind of language that the Dorset poet William Barnes evocatively described as ‘shapen of the breath-sounds of speakers, for the ear of hearers, and not from speech-tokens in books'.7 In such language, the central impulse of the human voice is manifest.

There is little question that, in a more general sense, the world of sound depicted in The Shepherd's Calendar continues to show the same qualities of stable, coherent awareness as is revealed in the earliest poetry. Despite the chaos of noise in the storm scene, no impression is conveyed that Clare does not understand, as it were, what is happening. Indeed, as a poem written during the same period as the Calendar makes clear, his very ability to reproduce the sounds of the natural world is one means by which the original act of perception is confirmed. In ‘The Progress of Rhyme’, he devotes a number of lines to imitating the noises of bird calls:

—& nightingales O I have stood
Beside the pingle & the wood
& oer the old oak railing hung
To listen every note they sung … 
—“Chew-chew chew-chew”—& higher still
“Cheer-cheer cheer-cheer” more loud & shrill
“Cheer-up cheer-up cheer-up”—& dropt
Low “Tweet tweet jug jug jug” … 
                                        & then a round
Of stranger witching notes was heard
As if it was a stranger bird
“Wew-wew wew-wew chur-chur chur-chur
“Woo-it woo-it”—could this be her
“Tee-rew tee-rew tee-rew tee-rew
“Chew-rit chew-rit”—& ever new
“Will-will will-will grig-grig grig-grig”

(MC [John Clare: The Midsummer Cushion, ed. Anne Tibble and R.K.R. Thornton (Mid-Northumberland Arts Group in association with Carcanet Press, 1979)], 229)

The interest of this passage lies not only in the remarkable acoustic accuracy of the transcription but in the fact that the birds’ sounds, like the noises of animals and insects that appear throughout the poem, are part of a known universe; and in so far as they can be reproduced mimetically in poetry, they endorse the intimate connection between word and thing. There are, however, two aspects of his rendering of sound that are worth noting at this point, since although they appear in the poem only rarely, they begin to suggest a less assured kind of aural awareness. In ‘March’, he describes a shepherd boy beguiling his loneliness with ‘fancy thoughts’:

He hears the wild geese gabble oer his head
& pleased wi fancys in his musings bred
He marks the figurd forms in which they flye
& pausing follows wi a wandering eye
Likening their curious march in curves or rows
To every letter which his memory knows
While far above the solitary crane
Swings lonly to unfrozen dykes again
Cranking a jarring mellancholy cry
Thro the wild journey of the cheerless sky

(SC, 33)

This is one of the rare instances in the poem in which a human figure is shown gazing at objects above the horizontal plane; and it is significant that Clare does not initially stress here the vastness or separateness of the sky. Indeed, the boy is depicted as giving the flight of geese a human pattern, an intelligible order, as their changing formations are likened to the letters of the alphabet. But if the act of seeing in these lines suggests at first a relative coherence of perception, the act of hearing produces more uncertain effects. It is not merely that the sounds isolated (‘gabble’, ‘cranking’, ‘jarring’, ‘mellancholy cry’) are intrinsically dissonant, though this may play a part, nor only that the crane's solitary cry seems to resist the promise of spring implicit in the ‘unfrozen dykes’, but also that such sounds cannot be localised. Unlike the ‘figurd forms’ of the wild geese, which are ‘marked’ in a defined space, the noise of the crane cannot be thus delimited. Its sound comes from some direction that is merely described as ‘far above’. The ‘ing’ morphemes of ‘cranking’ and ‘jarring’, combined with the four syllables of ‘mellancholy’, have the effect of drawing the sounds out and beyond the confines of the single line, until they seem, almost, to echo throughout the vast expanse of the ‘cheerless sky’.

The effect of sound in this passage is to create, momentarily, a dual perspective. What the boy sees are ‘figurd forms’, a visual order in the natural world. What he hears is a nature considerably less patterned and ‘localisable’. An extension upon this contrast is to be found in the concluding stanza of ‘February’:

Nature soon sickens of her joys
& all is sad & dumb again
Save merry shouts of sliding boys
About the frozen furrowd plain
The foddering boy forgets his song
& silent goes wi folded arms
& croodling shepherds bend along
Crouching to the whizzing storms

(SC, 28)

The overt contrast here, now between sound and silence rather than sound and sight, intimates an even deeper antithesis between natural and human planes. In the first four lines, the ‘merry shouts’ of the boys sliding on the ice evoke a human vitality that contrasts strongly with the dumbness and torpor of the natural environment. But between the two quatrains, the community of boys at play is abruptly transformed into the isolated ‘foddering boy’, whose silence is seen as a forgetting of song. Sound is now the property of natural forces which drive human figures into physical subservience. Moreover, the very noise itself (‘whizzing’) reverberates ominously, not dissimilar in its impact from the ‘howling storm’ of Blake's ‘The Sick Rose’—a noise that seems closer to dream or menacing fantasy than to intelligible reality.

In both of these passages, then, sound expresses for a moment a more uncertain perception, as a fugitive realm at the edges of understanding is glimpsed. Mimetic accuracy is temporarily infiltrated by unexplained implication. In the context of the whole of The Shepherd's Calendar, undoubtedly, such moments are infrequent; but they are the signs of a different impulse in Clare's presentation of the phenomenal world. It is in his depiction of things seen that this impulse is to be found again, under a different aspect.

In a foolscap volume belonging to the period 1821-4, which contains Clare's rough drafts for many of the sections of The Shepherd's Calendar, there occurs a sonnet addressed to Peter De Wint, the artist who drew the original etching for the engraving that prefaced the book:

Dewint I would not flatter nor would I
Pretend to critic skill in this thine art
Yet in thy landscapes I can well descry
Thy breathing hues as natures counterpart
No painted freaks—no wild romantic sky
No rocks nor mountains as the rich sublime
Hath made thee famous but the sunny truth
Of nature that doth mark thee for all time
Found on our level pastures spots forsooth
Where common skill sees nothing deemed divine
Yet here a worshipper was found in thee
Where thy young pencil worked such rich surprise
That rushy flats befringed with willow tree
Rival’d the beauties of italian skies

(MC, 404)

It was during his first visit to London in 1820 that Clare became acquainted with De Wint's pictures, and several references in his letters testify to the interest he took in the painter's approach to landscape.8 Of Dutch ancestry, and brought up in East Anglia, De Wint shared with Clare a fascination with the level terrain of the fens; and although the sonnet is clearly laudatory in intent, there is no reason to doubt that the pictorial contrast Clare draws is one genuinely felt.9 Rejecting the extravagant sublimities of the characteristic Romantic landscape, with its rocks, skies and mountains, he emphasises the ‘sunny truth’ to be discerned in ‘level pastures’ and ‘rushy flats’, a perspective which works upon horizontal planes of vision rather than vertical. Indeed, the difference between horizontal and vertical lines provides a significant clue towards understanding his preference for De Wint's approach. The peaks, skies, rocks and mountains of the landscapes he disfavours are, presumably, apprehended chiefly as perpendicular structures; they require that the eye look upwards from the level horizontal plane in order that the relative size and importance of objects may be judged. De Wint's canvasses, however, by concentrating upon the flatness of the East Anglian fen landscape, allow the eye to remain relatively fixed on the same plane of vision. It may advance ‘into’ the picture, and is thus not static, but it is not required to move vertically in order to appreciate the landscape.

Much in this sonnet reiterates Clare's early preference for looking along or below the horizontal line of vision, which was discussed in the first chapter. But the poem also mentions a further aspect of De Wint's pictorial design that is more paradoxical. In the penultimate line, Clare appears to endorse the way in which the ‘rushy flats’ are ‘befringed with willow tree’; and his use of the word ‘befringed’ suggests that he recognises the need to frame or at least contain the fen landscape by the introduction of some other natural object at the edge of the canvas. In his ‘Essay on Landscape’, however, written at roughly the same period as the sonnet, he explicitly praises De Wint for the absence of framing devices in his paintings:

there is no harsh stoppage no bounds to space or any outline further then there is in nature—if we could possibly walk into the picture we fancy we might pursue the landscape beyond those mysterys (not bounds) assigned it so as we can in the fields—

(Prose [The Prose of John Clare, ed. J.W. and Anne Tibble (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1951)], 211)10

What he is evidently endorsing here is a pictorial design that is not self-contained or controlled by artificially imposed boundaries of perspective; and the essay makes it clear that he has two such structures in mind. There is firstly the confining limit of the actual edge of the painting itself; and secondly, the false patterning created by placing objects within the frame so as to contrive a perspective. This latter effect he particularly condemns:

There is no worse trickery of disposal of lights & shadows to catch the eye from object to object with excessive fractions of diminishings untill the eye rest upon the last pinspoint effect that makes a tree appear a mile high & the neighbouring back ground a mile off—

(Prose, 211)

This, it needs to be stressed, is not an attack upon perspective as such, but upon the deliberate positioning of objects so as to create the illusion of perspective; for the work of art is then controlled by the pressures of artistic design rather than by the informal aspects of natural growth it purports to represent.11 Such contrivance, moreover, is closely associated in his mind with the visual artificiality which renders all objects of a certain species the same. He instances trees:

you may know several Artists by the style of their trees some trim them in uniforms & regulars & every tree is the facsimile of its fellow. … Others make gnarled & knotched & broken trunks with a witherd bough & a green one throwing their curdled arms half over the landscape & this serves for every picture in which trees are introduced & become[s] the style of the artist— … the green draperys of a sunny forest astonish the observer with their harmony & diversity of green yet when we look upon a painting we see nothing but a uniformity

(Prose, 212-13)

Despite the reference to ‘befringed with willow tree’ in the sonnet to De Wint, then, Clare appears in this essay to endorse paintings which, while accurately portraying the diversity of the natural landscape, allow the eye at the same time to move beyond the precisely articulated visual frame; and it is this motion between focus and fringe, between definition and what he calls ‘mysterys’, that creates one of the most significant visual tensions in The Shepherd's Calendar. An extract from the first version of ‘July’ demonstrates the nature of this tension. He begins by describing the antics of a dog playing:

& head oer heels he danses in
Nor fears to wet his curly skin
The boys field cudgel to restore
& brings it in his mouth ashore
& eager as for crust or bone
He ll run to catch the pelted stone
Till wearied out he shakes his hide
& drops his tail & sneaks aside
Unheeding whistles shouts & calls
To take a rest where thickly falls
The rush clumps shadows there he lyes
Licking his skin & catching flyes
Or picking tween his stretching feet
The bone he had not time to eat
Before when wi the teazing boy
He was so throngd wi plays employ
Noon gathers wi its blistering breath
Around & days dyes still as death
The breeze is stopt the lazy bough
Hath not a leaf that dances now
The totter grass upon the hill
& spiders threads is hanging still
The feathers dropt from morehens wings
Upon the waters surface clings
As stedfast & as heavy seem
As stones beneath them in the stream
Hawkweed & groundsels fairey downs
Unruffld keep their seeding crowns
& in the oven heated air
Not one light thing is floating there
Save that to the earnest eye
The restless heat swims twittering bye

(SC, 80-1)12

This is a passage which, perhaps more strikingly than any other in the poem, presents two very different kinds of visual perception; and the abrupt transition between the dog's antics and the ‘blistering breath’ of noon serves only to heighten the basic contrast. Before the mid-day heat descends, the details of the dog playing are consistently portrayed within a sharply focussed foreground. Its skin, the cudgel, the stone, the flies, the bone—all details have a similar visual weight, all seem to exist on the same perspectival plane. No impression is created, for example, that he sees the dog's shaking its hide with a greater concentration than its catching the stone; nor is there any indication whether its resting by the ‘rush clumps’ represents a movement towards or away from the eye. There is, likewise, no difference in the degree of brightness reflected by each object. Even when the dog ‘sneaks aside’ to the thick shadows of the rushes, its actions continue to be seen as clearly as when it races in sunlight. Indeed, Clare's desire, it seems, is not so much to depict only what can be seen but to express all that he knows.

The change between this kind of uniform, inclusive perception and the mode of seeing evoked by the noonday heat is both sudden and fundamental; and the final sixteen lines achieve a similar impact to that of the very early poem ‘Noon’, discussed in chapter one. The claustrophobic heat is now allied to a continual shifting of visual emphasis, from focus to blur, from close-up to more distant viewpoints, from the concentration of the ‘earnest eye’ to the more relaxed, unfocused act of seeing implicit in the ‘oven heated air’. The reference to the ‘spiders threads … hanging still’, for example, evokes an image of sharply defined outlines, seen from exceptionally close range, as does the mention of the ‘seeding crowns’ of hawkweed and groundsel. The distinctness of these objects, however, is counterposed against the fluctuating tensions of light, as objects are merged within the shimmering heat-haze and become indeterminate in shape and contour. Nor is it simply the outlines of objects that are diffused. The eye's capacity to judge the solidity and weight of natural objects, even to know its own function, is also affected. The moorhen's feathers, unmoving on the still water, appear as heavy as stones; and the eye, even when seeking concentratedly for a solid object on which to rest, is partially transformed in function, taking on some of the properties of hearing in the synaesthesia of the ‘twittering’ restless heat.

The relationship between this passage and Clare's ‘Essay on Landscape’ may now have begun to emerge, for the different modes of visual awareness present in ‘July’ closely mirror his distinction between the ‘harsh stoppage’ of the framed landscape and the more fluid visual texture suggested by the term ‘mysterys’. Ironically, the description of the dog's antics creates an effect comparable to the self-contained, bounded perspective he decries in painting. Details are regularised and undiscriminated. They stand firmly localised within the confinement of each line: one action or object is mentioned and then set aside as the next action or object is noted, and so forth. In the description of the heat-haze, however, each detail expands beyond its fixed position in the line to create complex patterns of focus and indistinctness, closeness and distance, throughout the passage. He directs his attention towards the peripheries of vision, towards the edges as well as the centre of sight.

The broader implications of this movement away from a visual centre are suggested by a comparable passage from the ‘November’ section of the poem:

The village sleeps in mist from morn till noon
& if the sun wades thro tis wi a face
Beamless & pale & round as if the moon
When done the journey of its nightly race
Had found him sleeping & supplyd his place
For days the shepherds in the fields may be
Nor mark a patch of sky—blindfold they trace
The plains that seem wi out a bush or tree
Wistling aloud by guess to flocks they cannot see

(SC, 116)

Although the light portrayed in this stanza is far less intense than the dazzling heat-haze of ‘July’, both passages depict a similar refraction of sight. The eye here is unable to ‘mark’ objects, to render them as solid phenomena within a known environment. Instead, the verse dramatises the uncertainty of sight and its attendant effects of provisional, hypothetical existence. The repetition of ‘if’ clauses, the emphasis upon negative actions and conditions (‘Nor mark’, ‘The plains that seem wi out’, ‘flocks they cannot see’), the stress upon the impotence of light (‘mist’, ‘beamless’, ‘pale’, ‘blindfold’)—all these features evoke the basic indeterminancy of the visual sense. And indeed, it is precisely because the eye cannot fix upon solid objects, upon a defined space, that both passages begin to intimate a kind of perception beyond the purely declarative and explicit.

The tentativeness with which I express this idea (‘begin to intimate a kind of perception’) is deliberate, for the task of defining this other level of awareness is far from simple. In fact, as is often the case, it is easier to indicate what is not happening in the stanza. It seems clear, for example, that Clare is not seeking here to imitate any system of analogical correspondence, wherein the blindness of the shepherds is explicitly illustrative of some similar darkness in the natural, moral or spiritual worlds. The physical act of seeing in both ‘July’ and ‘November’ is not used as a convenient vehicle for moral application, as can sometimes happen in Thomson:

heavens! what a goodly Prospect
spreads around,
Of Hills, and Dales, and Woods, and Lawns, and Spires,
And glittering Towns, and gilded Streams, till all
The stretching Landskip into Smoke decays!
Happy britannia! where the queen of arts,
Inspiring Vigor, liberty abroad
Walks, unconfin’d, even to thy farthest Cotts,
And scatters Plenty with unsparing Hand.

(‘Summer’, 1746, 1438-45)13

The bifurcation in these lines between the objects of physical sight and the studied reflections they generate may well be an indication, as Earl Wasserman has argued about the eighteenth-century descriptive-moral poem in general,14 that Thomson here is not so much thinking analogically as thinking about analogical relationships. Yet it is evident that Clare's depiction of sight in ‘November’ has none of the deliberateness with which Thomson fashions his analogy. Nor, to state the matter in slightly different terms, does it seem as if Clare is working towards figurative rather than literal statement. To claim, in the words of one critic, that ‘the “beamless” rays of the sun, the great eye of the universe, evoke a terrible natural blindness which finds its human counterparts in the shepherds'15 is to derive too explicit a metaphor from the stanza. Sight in The Shepherd's Calendar does not yield so readily to insight. Rather, the mists of ‘November’ remain firmly located within the phenomenal world. But for a moment, the phenomenal is not automatically equated with the secure. Even within the material realm, natural processes can appear to be weakened or frustrated. In ‘July’, the day ‘dyes still as death’; in ‘November’, the moon seems to have usurped the sun as the creator of daylight. Physical objects, likewise, temporarily move from their definable positions in the landscape. They shift in the shimmering heat-haze or disappear entirely in the November mists. As with the ‘cranking’ crane and ‘whizzing storms’ of ‘February’ and ‘March’, to perceive the material world is, in these brief instants, not to fix it in a steady knowledge. It is to recognise flux as well as coherence, insecurities as well as assurances. In the 1830s and 1840s, as later chapters will show, this kind of impulse is to become increasingly insistent.

In the examination so far of the imaginative structures evident in Clare's early poetry, I have made several incidental references to certain features of his language; and I want now to explore this aspect of his poetry rather more fully, in order to highlight its distinctive qualities. Few features of Clare's early style have been more commonly commented upon than its ‘simplicity’; though few characterisations perhaps have been more often proffered as self-explanatory, the concluding rather than starting point of discussion. In factual terms, one of the clearest correlatives of ‘simplicity’ in language, as Marie Borroff has argued,16 is word length—the frequency with which the monosyllabic word is preferred to the di- or tri-syllabic:

& as they rode she wished him speke
& not a word spoke he
You were not wont loved knight she said
To be this cold to me

(JCFT [John Clare and the Folk Tradition, ed. George Beacon (London: Sinclair Browne, 1983)], 173)

Clearly, one of the major ways in which this stanza from ‘The False Knights Tragedy’ creates its effects is through its monosyllabic spareness; and in the poem as a whole, nine words out of every ten are monosyllables. Nor, it seems, is such a concentration exclusively determined by the exigencies of ballad metre and rhyme scheme, though such demands may play a part. In passages chosen at random from The Shepherd's Calendar, monosyllabic terms make up 74 per cent of the total vocabulary, compared with 69 per cent in passages of comparable length from Thomson's The Seasons.17 In view of the tendency in any writer's language for a large number of monosyllabic ‘function words’ (prepositions, conjunctions, articles and so forth) to produce a regression to the mean, the contrast between Clare and one of his eighteenth-century predecessors may be more significant than these figures might initially suggests.

Monosyllabic directness, nonetheless, is only one index of Clare's ‘simplicity’. A more striking reflection is to be found in the etymological distinctiveness of his diction. Its special qualities can best be suggested by comparing the storm-scene from ‘October’, quoted earlier in this chapter, with an extract from The Seasons that is similarly concerned with the rising and breaking of a storm:

Late, in the louring Sky, red, fiery, Streaks
Begin to flush about; the reeling Clouds
Stagger with dizzy Aim, as doubting yet
Which Master to obey: while rising, slow,
Sad, in the Leaden-colour’d East, the Moon
Wears a bleak Circle round her sully’d Orb.
Then issues forth the Storm, with loud Control,
And the thin Fabrick of the pillar’d Air
O’erturns, at once. Prone, on th’ uncertain Main,
Descends th’ Etherial Force, and plows its Waves,
With dreadful Rift: from the mid-Deep, appears,
Surge after Surge, the rising, wat’ry, War.
Whitening, the angry Billows rowl immense,
And roar their Terrors, through the shuddering Soul
Of feeble Man, amidst their Fury caught,
And, dash’d upon his Fate:

(‘Winter’, March 1726, 155-70)18

Although, thematically, this passage may well have served as a model for the storm in ‘October’, there are major stylistic differences between the two descriptions. The referential vocabulary of Thomson's evocation comprises over 40 per cent of words derived from a Romance and Latinate base. One of the expressive effects of this emphasis is to counterpoint against the uncontrollable physical energy of the storm a sense of formal distancing, an editorial perspective which interprets the scene in terms of concept and general observation as well as sensuous, immediate experience.19 Thus, although the ‘reeling Clouds / Stagger’ dizzily, clauses like ‘Prone, on th’ uncertain Main, / Descends th’ Etherial Force’, with a referential vocabulary of five Romance and Latinate derivatives to one based upon Old English and ultimately Germanic stock, create an effect of rhetorical gravity that temporarily interrupts the sensuous perception of the storm. This, I should perhaps emphasise, is not a criticism of Thomson's language, for it is in its distinctive quality as perfectly adapted to his larger imaginative concerns as Clare's is to his. But when the passage from The Seasons is placed against the storm from ‘October’, there is a clear difference in etymological bias. Only fifteen words in the extract from ‘October’ are based upon Romance and Latinate roots, proportionately about a third of Thomson's usage. The predominance of a diction derived ultimately from a Germanic base mirrors a sustained, sensuous engagement in the natural details of the scene, in details that are both unabstracted and authoritative in their simple physicality.

The implicit connection drawn in the last sentence between, on the one hand, Old English and Germanic derivatives and a concrete, common world and, on the other, Latinate and Romance terms and a more formal or conceptual apprehension, is not an invariable relationship in the English language. Some of the Romance derivatives Clare uses in ‘October’ (for instance, ‘fading’, ‘pausing’, ‘revelling’) have become so thoroughly domesticated through time that any formal or abstract expressiveness they may once have embodied has almost entirely disappeared. Nonetheless, it remains the case that his depiction of nature is often conveyed in a diction which reveals a considerable bias towards Old English and Germanic derivatives. Nor, it should be emphasised, does such a diction seem to be inevitably or exclusively ‘compelled’ by his distinctive subject-matter. If it is true that a landscape filled with trees, horses, sheep, ploughs, dogs, could scarcely be portrayed save by using exactly those Old English derivatives,20 it is noticeable that the bias persists in later poems that treat more internalised experiences. In extracts from The Shepherd's Calendar, Old English and Germanic derivatives comprise 75 per cent of the referential vocabulary. In some major works of 1832, and in the asylum poem ‘Child Harold’, the bias remains remarkably consistent at 73 per cent and 74 per cent respectively. The preference, that is to say, is not only prescribed. It is also elected.

When these figures are placed against the 57 per cent of Old English and Germanic derivatives in the referential vocabulary of a section in Thomson's The Seasons, or the 64 per cent obtained from a section in Wordsworth's The Prelude,21 their more general significance may begin to emerge. Clearly, they in no sense prove a conscious propagandising for a so-called ‘native’ English diction in the manner of, for example, William Barnes or Gerard Manley Hopkins. Indeed, it is possible that Clare would have found Barnes's advocacy of a diction where ‘horizons’ become ‘sky-sills’ or ‘atmosphere’ ‘welkin-air’ as contrived in its own way as the artificial pastoral diction he actually decried:

Putting the Correct Language of the Gentleman into the mouth of a Simple Shepherd or Vulgar Ploughman is far from Natural—

(Letters [The Letters of John Clare, ed. J. W. and Anne Tibble (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1951)], 25)

None the less, his repeated defence of his own ‘provincialisms’ and dialect during the early 1820's suggests the direction in which his diction intuitively moved throughout his career:

“Eggs on” in the “Address to a Lark”—whether provincial or not I cannot tell but it is common with the vulgar (I am of that class) & I heartily desire no word of mine to be altered22

His distinctive justification of Wordsworth's ‘language really used by men’ is realised by instinctively capitalising upon a vocabulary derived from Old English and Germanic roots. Such a diction draws upon a reservoir of concrete objects and common activity—upon the simplicity, in other words, of known things.

If Clare's diction in The Shepherd's Calendar works for a distinctive kind of expressiveness, to an even greater extent does his syntax. In chapter one, I suggested that the distinctive time-scale of the pre-1821 verse—that sense of contemporaneous events crowding together in a single presentness—was in large part the result of a co-ordinative rather than sub-ordinative syntax; and the very first page of The Shepherd's Calendar shows that this kind of syntactic organisation continues to prevail:

Withering & keen the winter comes
While comfort flyes to close shut rooms
& sees the snow in feathers pass
Winnowing by the window glass
& unfelt tempests howl & beat
Above his head in corner seat
& musing oer the changing scene
Farmers behind the tavern screen
Sit—or wi elbow idly prest
On hob reclines the corners guest

(SC, 1)

In these opening lines to the poem, Clare continues to achieve an almost total simultaneity of reference by compounding images one upon the other and by avoiding the ordering characteristics of normal grammar and punctuation. Thus the ‘while’ of line two, which seems about to introduce a subordinate clause of contrast, in fact initiates an amalgam of co-ordinated details that are perceived at the same time as the coming of winter. Similarly, the repetition of the term ‘and’, not only to connect adjectives but more importantly to co-ordinate clauses, and especially the sudden appearance of the word ‘his’ in line six without a preceding referent, generate the impression of multiple perceptions fusing with each other, unshaped by the control of grammatical subordination.

The persistence of this kind of syntax in The Shepherd's Calendar is an indication of the continuing emphasis Clare places upon concurrence rather than relationship. It is unnecessary to show in fact that the sudden mention of ‘his head’ in line six is an anticipation of ‘the corners guest’ in line ten, since everything is perceived as a simultaneous unity. In terms of poetic effectiveness, however, this kind of structure is not without its limitations, for the absence of any syntactic centrality can lead to what has often been recognised as one of the chief deficiencies of the poem: its cataloguing of detail after detail. One of the more notable examples of such inventories occurs in ‘June’, where he describes a village girl looking for flowers:

Fine cabbage roses painted like her face
& shining pansys trimmd in golden lace
& tall tuft larkheels featherd thick wi flowers
& woodbines climbing oer the door in bowers
& London tufts of many a mottld hue
& pale pink pea & monkshood darkly blue
& white & purple jiliflowers that stay
Lingering in blossom summer half away
& single blood walls of a lucious smell
Old fashiond flowers which huswives love so well

(SC, 67)

This, it should be pointed out, is far from the end of the list, for he continues for a further sixteen lines, mentioning columbines, snapdragons, marjoram, lavender and so on, before attempting to impose some notional order with the couplet

These the maid gathers wi a coy delight
& tyes them up in readiness for night

(SC, 68)

That he recognised the dangers of this incremental syntax is evident from a rather ingenuous editorial comment which concludes a similar listing of flowers in ‘May’:

My wild field catalogue of flowers
Grows in my rhymes as thick as showers
Tedious & long as they may be
To some they never weary me

(SC, 53)

The implications of such inventories, however, are considerably more complex than the mere effect of tedium, for ultimately, they suggest a deeper imaginative problem inherited from his eighteenth-century predecessors. I can best introduce the question by placing together three passages which for the moment I will leave unidentified, though their provenance will not be difficult to recognise:

The byldere ok, and ek the hardy asshe;
The piler elm, the cofre unto carayne;
The boxtre pipere, holm to whippes lashe;
The saylynge fyr; the cipresse, deth to playne;
The shetere ew; the asp for shaftes pleyne;
The olyve of pes, and eke the dronke vyne;
The victor palm, the laurer to devyne.
Coole Violets, and Orpine growing still,
Embathed Balme, and chearfull Galingale,
Fresh Costmarie, and breathfull Camomill,
Dull Poppie, and drink-quickning Setuale,
Veyne-healing Veruen, and hed-purging Dill,
Sound Sauorie, and Bazill hartie-hale,
Fat Colworts, and comforting Perseline,
Colde Lettuce, and refreshing Rosmarine.
Bring the rathe Primrose that forsaken dies,
The tufted Crow-toe, and pale Gessamine,
The white Pink, and the Pansie freakt with jet,
The glowing Violet.
The Musk-rose, and the well-attir’d Woodbine,
With Cowslips wan that hang the pensive hed,
And every flower that sad embroidery wears:

Viewed simply in terms of their syntax (which is in fact far more a parataxis), these passages appear to express a common impulse. Although in the third extract, the listing of flowers is at least notionally organised by the main verb ‘bring’, the general effect achieved in each quotation is one of steadily accumulating inventory. Each tree or flower seems to exist in its own separate moment. Each, invariably, is given an epithet that serves to distinguish it from all others of a similar species. The ash is ‘hardy’, the fir ‘saylynge’, the violets ‘cool’, the poppy ‘dull’, the primrose ‘rathe’, and so on. But this distinctiveness, it is noteworthy, in no sense implies a hierarchy. No one species or variety is more significant than another, nor is any one object perceived in a more intense foreground than another. The syntactic impulse is uncentralised, according all phenomena a similar weight and illumination, as they follow each other in the list.

At first, it may seem that there is a close relationship between Clare's inventories of flowers in ‘May’ and ‘June’ and these passages, which are taken from Chaucer's The Parliament of Fowls, Spenser's Muiopotmos: or The Fate of the Butterfly, and Milton's Lycidas respectively.23 Certainly, the syntactic similarity is sufficient to demonstrate that, in his lists, Clare is following a long-established structural convention. At the same time, though, there are major differences between the contexts in which such catalogues appear. The lists of Chaucer and Spenser occur within the evocation of a paradisial realm, a locus amoenus that has allegoric rather than naturalistic significance. For Milton too, a wider frame of reference exists, not only of pastoral elegaic tradition but also of universal design, against which the flowers strewn over Lycidas' ‘laureate hearse’ are to be understood. All three passages, that is to say, depict natural objects, not to locate their essence in any sensory, enclosed particularity, but to point towards a suprasensory reality, an analogic landscape of the spirit that is close at hand. And it is this expansive thrust towards larger meanings that helps to impose a discipline upon the profusion of trees and plants in the extracts. A syntax which threatens to result in mere accumulation for its own sake is controlled by notions of relationship and harmony between human and divine worlds.

The difficulty facing Clare's immediate eighteenth-century predecessors, however, is that such larger meanings no longer appear automatically accessible. Concluding a similar inventory of flowers in The Seasons, Thomson offers a symptomatic response:

 … Nor broad carnations, nor gay-spotted pinks;
Nor, showered from every bush, the damask-rose:
Infinite numbers, delicacies, smells,
With hues on hues expression cannot paint … 

(‘Spring’, 1746, 545-51)24

For Cowper, likewise,

The earth was made so various, that the mind
Of desultory man, studious of change,
And pleas’d with novelty, might be indulged.

(The Task, I, 506-8)25

The key words in these passages, ‘infinite’, ‘various’, ‘change’, ‘novelty’, point towards the broader problem. As Wasserman has argued, once the concept of concordia discors, the belief in an ultimate harmony of contrary or disparate forces, becomes overtaken in the early to mid-eighteenth century by a philosophic system which stresses rather the plenitude and infinite variety of elements in the universe, it becomes increasingly difficult for poetry to embody ‘any relational order beyond the syntactical implications of language’. Lacking a firm belief in any analogical relationship between physical, moral and spiritual realms, poets can only

strive for a cosmos by cataloguing a bewildering number of the universe's numerous elements, hoping that as the catalogue grows it will ultimately imply the wholeness of multiplicity. Lacking a cosmic order by means of which to shape a poem, they can only use words to name things in an endless effort to heap up a cosmos.26

In several ways, it is evident that Clare in The Shepherd's Calendar does not subscribe to any orthodox pattern, at least, of cosmic order. No mythological system, whether pagan, classical or Christian, underpins the poem as a controlling frame of reference. Neither is there any appeal to earlier hierarchical patterns such as the Great Chain of Being or notions of man as microcosm.27 This is not to imply of course that in later poems or even in works of the same period as the Calendar, he does not reveal a belief in the divine or in a presiding deity. Nor, indeed, is it to argue that in The Shepherd's Calendar itself, an ultimate harmony in the scheme of things may not be intimated. But it is to suggest that whatever unity he perceives is the product of the infinite diversity of natural elements, rather than of their fixed position within an analogical structure of understanding.

This change towards a view of the universe as various and plenteous rather than harmonious helps to explain several of the distinctive stylistic features in the poem, particularly the accumulation of detail after detail without any syntactic subordination. Since it is the profusion and diversity of the natural world that he seeks to portray, rather than the distinctive relationships or discriminations between objects, a major expressive impulse is towards quantification rather than qualification. Certainly, in the catalogue of flowers in ‘June’, the different colours of monkshood and gilliflowers, ‘London tufts’ and ‘pale pink pea’ are noted; yet the emphasis falls equally, if not more, upon the sheer abundance of plants available for picking. He seeks, there as elsewhere in the poem, not so much to characterise the part as to encompass the whole. Comparison tends to give way to accumulation.

There is little doubt that this kind of stylistic pressure, and the wider view of the universe it exemplifies, presents Clare with two closely-related problems, neither of which he manages to overcome with entire success. The first difficulty, one inherent in any poetic description of nature, is noted by Johnson in his critiques of Pope's Windsor Forest and Thomson's The Seasons:

There is this want in most descriptive poems because as the scenes, which they must exhibit successively, are all subsisting at the same time, the order in which they must be shown must by necessity be arbitrary, and more is not to be expected from the last part than from the first. The attention, therefore, which cannot be detained by suspense must be excited by diversity. …

The great defect of The Seasons is want of method, but for this I know not that there was any remedy. Of many appearances subsisting all at once, no rule can be given why one should be mentioned before another; yet the memory wants the help of order, and the curiosity is not excited by suspense or expectation.28

In this juxtapositioning here of readers' response with the notion of ‘truth to nature’, Johnson defines a basic problem for the descriptive poet. When the natural objects in a scene exist simultaneously, any selection of those details or any ordering of them within the unilinear structure of the poem is bound to falsify the fact that they are ‘all subsisting at the same time’. Yet to attempt to reproduce (however imperfectly) the simultaneous totality of nature can often produce a poetry of arbitrary order, where ‘the curiosity is not excited by suspense or expectation.’ It will be clear from the discussion so far that the prevailing impulse in The Shepherd's Calendar is towards this latter condition. But the fact that, as a result, ‘more is not to be expected from the last part than from the first’ points to the further difficulty Clare faces. When everything is important, emphasis is unconcentrated. The language of the poem becomes, so to speak, too proportionate. By multiplying details which are all of equal significance, it tends to normalise and neutralise them, with a consequent loss of expressive weight and pressure. In the passage from ‘July’ examined earlier, for instance, each word describing the dog's playing is invested with a comparable, separate importance. Unlike the description of the heat-haze, there is little resonance between the various phrases, no hint that, in conjunction with each other, they might generate a more syntactically centralised layer of meaning, in which patterns of discrimination and subordination, relationship and comparison, might be achieved. Like the catalogues of flowers in ‘May’ and ‘June’, everything crowds into a foreground, not only visually but also stylistically and imaginatively.

The terms in which I have described this impulse may bring to mind the characterisation of Clare's earliest poetry that was offered in chapter one: a verse in which everything is totally known and expressed, where all objects seem to advance into a foreground of the indicative. And it is true that in so far as the language of The Shepherd's Calendar creates a similar effect, it consolidates the emphasis of many pre-1821 poems. At the same time, though, there are discernible changes in stylistic texture. The use of Northamptonshire and more general dialectical forms, as has been noted, is considerably more pronounced than in the earliest verse. He speaks in an idiom that is instinctive rather than imposed. A comparison between his first poems and the Calendar shows, likewise, a change in the nature of the words he most often repeats. The major terms of poems from 1808 to 1811 suggest his debt to certain features of eighteenth-century poetry, by emphasising affective states (‘sweet’, ‘vain’, ‘dear’, ‘little’) and rather more general or abstract conditions (‘be’, ‘view’, ‘scene’, ‘life’), whereas in the later work, a vocabulary expressive of physical reality is more in evidence (‘sun’, ‘tree’, ‘wood’, ‘door’, ‘hedge’, and so forth).29 There is, however, one change which is worth investigating in a little detail, since it constitutes one of the most distinctive stylistic features in The Shepherd's Calendar. It is notably illustrated in a passage cited earlier: the description of the storm from ‘October’:

The flying clouds urged on in swiftest pace
Like living things as if they runned a race
The winds that oer each coming tempest broods
Waking like spirits in their startling moods
Fluttering the sear leaves on the blasting lea
That litters under every fading tree
& pausing oft as falls the pattering rain
Then gathering strength & twirling them again

(SC, 114)

A significant aspect of these lines is the way in which present participial forms, with both adjectival and predicative force, energise the descriptive thrust: flying, living, coming, waking, startling, fluttering, blasting, fading, and so forth. Not every form bears the same imaginative weight; but within eight lines, no fewer than twelve participles occur. And the emphasis is not unique to this passage. In the first part of ‘January’, Clare portrays a thresher walking in the darkness before dawn:

Scaring the owlet from her prey
Long before she dreams of day
That blinks above head on the snow
Watching the mice that squeaks below
& foddering boys sojourn again
By ryhme hung hedge & frozen plain
Shuffling thro the sinking snows
Blowing his fingers as he goes

(SC, 2)

In ‘March’, a shepherd listens to the distant roar of rivers in flood:

Loosd from the rushing mills & river locks
Wi thundering sound & over powering shocks
& headlong hurry thro the meadow brigs
Brushing the leaning sallows fingering twigs
In feathery foam & eddy hissing chase
Rolling a storm oertaken travellers pace
From bank to bank along the meadow leas
Spreading & shining like to little seas

(SC, 29)

In ‘May’, village children, ‘mad for sport’ in their school breaks, play games:

Oft racing round the nookey church
Or calling ecchos in the porch
& jilting oer the weather cock
Viewing wi jealous eyes the clock
Oft leaping grave stones leaning hights
Uncheckt wi mellancholy sights

(SC, 47)

On average, a participial form occurs in every line of these passages;30 and a comparison between The Shepherd's Calendar and the earliest poems shows how distinctive an emphasis this is. In extracts from the Calendar, present participles with a predominantly verbal force comprise almost a quarter of all verbs used, well over a threefold increase upon poems from 1808 to 1811. Used in chiefly an adjectival role also, they occur twice as frequently in the Calendar as in those first verses, and four times more often than in the later asylum poem ‘Child Harold.’31 As much as dialect words or catalogues of details, the use of this part of speech constitutes one of the most notable stylistic features of the poem.

The broader imaginative significance of this emphasis can be suggested by comparing Clare's usage with that of Thomson in The Seasons, where present participles are similarly stressed.32 In his study of the work, Ralph Cohen argues that Thomson's use serves to enhance the ‘active, shifting, transforming emphasis in the language of the poem’;33 and there is no doubt that Clare achieves a comparable kinetic effect. The active voice inevitably embodied in the present participle (racing, calling, viewing, jilting) creates a clear impression of extending energy, the ‘ing’ morpheme drawing out the more contained sound of the main verb form. There is little doubt, either, that participial construction in the Calendar is often closely associated with the evocation of almost simultaneous perceptions that informs much of the poem. Instead of a series of main verbs held, so to speak, within the confines of the line, the participles seem frequently to overlap each other, in a multiplicity of contemporaneous actions. There is, however, one important respect in which Clare and Thomson achieve different imaginative ends by using this part of speech. For Cohen, Thomson's emphasis is often expressive of uncertainty and incompletion. The participial form highlights the fluctuations in physical nature as seen by the troubled onlooker who cannot penetrate the mysteries of divine ordinance. It reflects, that is to say, feelings of confusion rather than fusion. There are isolated occasions, no doubt, when Clare evokes a similar effect in The Shepherd's Calendar:

The foddering boy forgets his song
& silent goes wi folded arms
& croodling shepherds bend along
Crouching to the whizzing storms

These pictures linger thro the shortning day
& cheer the lone bards mellancholy way
& now & then a solitary boy
Journeying & muttering oer his dreams of joy

(SC, 28, 115)

It is significant that these are the concluding stanzas of two of the monthly sections, for in their context the impact they create is far from conclusive. The participles in the final couplets especially, evoke little sense of security or finality, but rather enhance the impression of unsettled, oblique perceptions. It should be stressed, though, that this effect is rare in the poem. More often, Clare's use of participal forms mirrors the larger stylistic impulse which almost always prevails. Just as the present participle is active in voice, so too the general texture of his language is declarative in emphasis. It operates as it were centripetally, specifying meaning within a relatively circumscribed semantic boundary. The distance between word and referent is narrow, syntax is co-ordinative, signification stable and coherent. Although there are several clear developments between the language of his earlier poems and that of The Shepherd's Calendar, the final effect is similar. With only a few exceptions, word and world are perceived as one.

It is now possible to suggest how the specific poetic features examined in this chapter contribute to the more general portrayal of human and natural worlds in the poem as a whole. What is clear at once is that the realms of nature and human life are, for Clare, closely associated. The natural landscapes he describes are frequently peopled, and no month is without some record of human activity, whether of maiden or ploughboy, harvester or old woman, shepherd or hedger.34 But although such figures play a substantial role, it has often been recognised that they are depicted in a curiously anonymous light. Consistently externalised into action or event or occupation, they take on a generic rather than individual function. A stanza from ‘November’ is typical of this kind of perspective:

The shepherd oft foretells by simple ways
The weathers change that will ere long prevail
He marks the dull ass that grows wild & brays
& sees the old cows gad adown the vale
A summer race & snuff the coming gale
The old dame sees her cat wi fears alarm
Play hurly burly races wi its tale
& while she stops her wheel her hands to warm
She rubs her shooting corns & prophecys a storm

(SC, 119-20),

The fact that both shepherd and old dame look outwards beyond themselves to notice objects in the natural world is symptomatic of a general movement in the poem. The internal realm of individual motivation and desire is almost entirely opaque. Character, as Barrell points out,35 is essentially a function of what people do rather than of what they are.

The reasons presented in the past for Clare's dispassionate and even distanced view of human affairs have varied, in both emphasis and cogency. His several remarks about the ignorance and philistinism of his fellow villagers,36 together with his later confession that ‘I always lived to myself’ (Letters, 301), have suggested to some an anti-social attitude bordering on misanthropy:

Nature is all very fine but human nature is finer, as Keats very rightly realised. The more Clare took refuge in the country the more he was forced into a position of isolation from society—the distant disgruntled spectator. When every prospect pleases and only Man is vile, what other home is there for the poet if not in Bedlam?37

There is, though, more of wayward passion than persuasiveness in this kind of argument, not least because it proposes a necessary, if not inevitable link between putative misanthropy and actual madness. Nor, either, is it finally possible to interpret the presentation of human life in the poem as the result of a kind of psychological innocence on Clare's part, an inability to depict the world of motivation and inner impulse. The four village tales in the 1827 volume, like the title poem of the earlier Village Minstrel, contain some elements of psychological understanding, albeit of a fairly rudimentary sort. More convincingly, a poem like ‘The Robber’, composed during the same period as The Shepherd's Calendar, reveals chiefly through a dramatic monologue form an inner world that, in several respects, anticipates Browning or the Tennyson of Maud. A thief, having killed a farmer during a poaching expedition, meditates upon the murder:

The shot was fired—dead silence paused—then groans
That would have fretted human hearts to stones
& that last groan of uttermost despair
I hear it now—or did I stir the chair … 
Look now tis there upon that dismal cloud
A jiant—no a monster sails—look there
He ll swallow up the moon stars all—beware
He hears the muttering guns well never fear
Tis but a Hare the crime is not severe
There now tis changed

(PJC, [The Poems of John Clare, ed. J. W. Tibble, 2 vols. (London: Dent; New York: Dutton, 1935)], I, 409-10)

Although ‘The Robber’ is not especially remarkable verse, lines like these, evoking the urgent shifts of the mind between memory and actuality, realisation of guilt and spurious self-justification, suggest that Clare might with some success have explored the inner life of the villagers in The Shepherd's Calendar. That he did not do so indicates, not misanthropy or inability, but a different imaginative strategy.

In The Idea of Landscape,38 John Barrell advances what is essentially a socio-economic interpretation of Clare's attitude to the village inhabitants in the poem. The very notion of ‘character’ in the historical development of literature, he argues, is basically a postfeudal one, and is closely related to the ascendancy of a bourgeois social philosophy over an aristocratic framework of social organisation. In so far, however, as Clare still accepts the assumptions about character and society implicit in that earlier aristocratic structure, in so far as he rejects the individualistic values of agrarian capitalism, he necessarily sees human personality not in terms of a veiled and complex interior life, but in terms of external actions and deeds. There is, however, a further aspect of this more ‘primitive’ approach to personality that is more specifically literary in impulse. In the previous chapter, it was seen that one of the shaping forces upon his earliest poetry was the ballad form; and the view of human affairs presented in the genre is echoed throughout The Shepherd's Calendar. Just as the ballads he heard during his boyhood do not seek to define human beings in any individuality, so too the poem reflects an impersonalised approach to characterisation. The villagers are seen, not as unique personalities with distinctive inner lives, but as an aggregation of older, collective attitudes, of the shared experience of wooing and harvesting, ploughing and merrymaking, that forms the centre of a traditional knowledge. They are what they participate in; and what they participate in are the embedded patterns of age-old human response.

This sense of an older, more objective view of human personality is mirrored in Clare's presentation of nature; and indeed there could be few better illustrations of how The Shepherd's Calendar sounds with a new authority than the contrast it affords in this respect with the earliest verse. In a number of poems written before 1821, a characteristic strategy is to present the natural world as analogy and exemplification. The lark singing in winter, for instance, is seen as enduring the same wretchedness as himself: ‘Thy case wi mine I sympathize it/With many a sigh’ (PJC, I, 26). The robin's song, similarly, is ‘like my sigh / [which] warbles not on happiness to come’ (PJC, I, 284). Falling leaves suggest, inevitably, man's fate:

the naked woods let me attend
Reflecting their decline
Where pattering leaves confes their fall
Reminding me of mine
for every leaf that meets the breeze
may useful lessons give
The falling leaves & fading trees
will teach us how to live(39)

Just as the snail leaves its shell,

So pass we from the worlds affairs
& careless vanish from its cares
So leave wi silent long farewell
Vain life—as left the snail his shell

(PJC, I, 196)

There is, I imagine, no need to cite further examples of this kind of comparison, for what is at once apparent is the contrivance of the rehearsed gesture. The quotations above imitate a procedure to be found in any number of eighteenth-century meditative-descriptive poems, where a relationship between material world and inner feeling is insisted upon, however tenuous and inorganic that relationship turns out to be.40 In The Shepherd's Calendar, though, Clare's response is far less mechanical; and nature is rarely presented as a convenient source for such analogies. As I proposed at the beginning of this chapter, the poem effects a radical break from the conventional pieties of the paysage moralisé; and although there are instances where he places a moral construction upon the natural scene (in the attacks upon enclosure, for example, or the destruction of old village customs), the lessons drawn are now very much less forced. A body of known and observed experience shapes their articulation. The weakening of the impulse towards analogy is also shown, as was noted earlier, in the absence of any mythological or metaphysical frame of reference to the poem. His often-quoted criticism of Keats's poetry (‘behind every rose bush he looks for a Venus & under every laurel a thrumming Appollo’, Prose, 223) testifies to his distrust of the intrusions of myth into natural description. Similarly, although scenes like the ‘whizzing storms’ of ‘February’ or the mists of ‘November’ intimate a greater uncertainty of perception, they lead to no revelation of parallel planes of existence, either in or beyond the material world.

This disinclination to abstract the details of nature contributes greatly to the cogency of its realisation in the poem. He recognises, with a countryman's unsentimental stoicism, that the natural world is autonomous, finally independent of human concerns. It is seen as an impersonal otherness, disengaged from those mental and emotional constructions through which man tries to understand its purpose. It expresses, moreover, basic paradoxes. It is both active and passive, both creative and destructive. Threatened and despoiled by human greed, it too threatens human survival in the biting cold and storms of the winter months. It operates as a unity, all the elements of animal and plant life obeying the patterns of seasonal change; yet it also contains basic dissonances, in which the fearful shriek of the badger betokens death by ‘the waking fox’, or in which the solitary crane in ‘March’ resists the renewal of spring. These dualities, reiterated throughout the poem, point towards a conception of nature as a pure neutrality, operating not so much randomly as with total dispassionateness. A-social, a-moral, and a-spiritual, its very physicality contains its own complete self-justification.

What is notable about this portrayal of nature as object is that such a mode of awareness is not simply expressed as the poem unfolds, but is frequently enacted in the texture of the verse. The stylistic pressure towards equalisation, where different objects advance with similar weight and significance into an authoritative foreground, often creates the sensation that the natural details themselves shape the act of perceiving. The hypotaxis by which the self might fashion the landscapes it sees, according some objects a lesser function, others a more prominent role, is subordinated to a parataxis which democratically crowds ever more details into the foreground of attention. The perceiver, in other words, stands in a kind of rigorous neutrality, endorsing before all else the inviolable reality of the physical object.

The sustained attention Clare pays to the reality located in external objects, it is worth emphasising, informs even those moments when his perception seems less secure, and when natural details are not so equalised in significance. The uncertainties of sight in ‘July’ and ‘November’, for example, give no impression of his now imposing himself upon the landscape, creating a syntax to mirror his own internal feelings. The ‘croodling shepherd’ and ‘whizzing storms’ of ‘February’, similarly, provide no objective correlative to an inner world.41 Even when natural processes seem to work against each other, the poet's self remains dispassionate, as it watches the objects of nature fulfilling their function in a pure presence. It is in this realisation that the fundamental knowledge of the poem resides.

At the beginning of this chapter, I argued that The Shepherd's Calendar is Clare's first substantial work in which a distinctive cogency of voice is to be heard. It is, in many respects, a transitional poem, marking the passage between his poetic apprenticeship and maturity. In its structural weaknesses, it recalls the uncertainties of design that sometimes characterise his earliest work; and not even the pattern of month-by-month description can allay the repetitiousness and mere listing of details that sometimes occur.42 But its imaginative strength rests in its portrayal of what Clare himself calls ‘a real world’ (SC, 21). That reality, as the burden of this chapter has indicated, is predominantly coherent; but he does not indulge in the painless conclusion that such coherence is axiomatic, or that it is always consonant with human ideals and aspirations. There is no false rhetoric, no easy assumption that natural and human worlds are always one. Underpinning the whole work, indeed, is the force of a centuries-old tradition of rural understanding. It is a knowledge that is both tough and dispassionate, both unsentimental and pervasively sane.


  1. British Library, Egerton MS 2245, fol. 25, 21 January 1820.

  2. Ibid., MS 2246, fol. 228, 1 August 1823.

  3. For Clare's reactions to his first reading of The Seasons, see Sketches, 57-9. He refers to Thomson frequently in his prose writings (see Prose, 19, 39-40, 78, 121-2, 175, 182) and occasionally also in his poems (PJC, I, 366; JCSP [John Clare: Selected Poems, ed. J. W. and Anne Tibble (London: Dent; New York: Dutton, 1965)], 136). [John Barrell, The Idea of Landscape and the Sense of Place, 1730-1840: An Approach to the Poetry of John Clare (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972)], provides the fullest and most illuminating treatment of the poetic relationship between Thomson and Clare.

  4. For an examination of this theme, see Ralph Cohen, ‘Thomson's Poetry of Space and Time’, in Studies in Criticism and Aesthetics, 1660-1800, ed. Howard Anderson and John S. Shea (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1967) pp. 176-92.

  5. For a detailed examination of these and similar poems, see Dwight L. Durling, Georgic Tradition in English Poetry (1935; repr. New York: Kennikat Press, 1964); and [Mark Storey, The Poetry of John Clare (London: Macmillan, 1974)], pp. 70-84.

  6. Clare's dialect has been a source of debate from the first appearance of Poems Descriptive in 1820, though the subject has often generated more critical heat than light. Many contemporary reviewers attacked his use of ‘provincialisms’, but twentieth-century critics have valued them more highly. The most valuable treatment of this aspect of his language is Barbara Strang, ‘John Clare's Language’, in RM [The Rural Muse, Poems by John Clare, ed. R. K. R. Thornton (Mid-Northunberland Arts Group and Carcanet Press, 1982)], pp. 159-73. For other discussions see Eric Robinson and Geoffrey Summerfield, ‘John Taylor's Editing of Clare's The Shepherd's Calendar’, Review of English Studies, n.s. 14 (November 1963) 359-69; G. Thomas Tanselle, ‘Two Words in John Clare's “Winter”’, Word Study, 40 (October 1964) 5-6; my own A Publisher and his Circle [: The Life and Work of John Taylor, Keats's Publisher (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972)], pp. 86-128; Stephen Wade, ‘John Clare's Use of Dialect’, Contemporary Review, 223 (August 1973) 81-4.

  7. Cited in R. A. Forsyth, ‘The Conserving Myth of William Barnes’, in Romantic Mythologies, ed. Ian Fletcher (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1967) p. 147.

  8. See especially Letters, 203-4, 238-40. During his visits to London, Clare met a number of artists, including Hilton, Rippingille, Etty and Lawrence, as well as De Wint; and during one visit he recalled going to the Royal Academy ‘almost every day’ (Prose, 82). For the most extensive treatment of the relationship between painting and his poetry, see [Timothy Brownlow, John Clare and Picturesque Landscape (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983)], pp. 97-115. Affinities between his work and the paintings of Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Vincent Van Gogh are discussed in, respectively, Salman Dawood Al-Wasiti, ‘The Poetry of John Clare: A Critical Study’ (Leicester University Ph.D., 1976) pp. 164-9; and Barbara Lupini, ‘“An Open and Simple Eye”: The Influence of Landscape in the Work of John Clare and Vincent Van Gogh’, English, 23 (Summer 1974) 58-62.

  9. [Greg Crossan, A Relish for Eternity: The Process of Divinization in the Poetry of John Clare (Salzburg: Institut für Englische Sprache und Literatur, Universität Salzburg, 1976)], pp. 114-15, doubts the genuineness of the contrast, citing the possible influence of Bloomfield on Clare's attitude (cf. ‘No Alpine wonders thunder through my verse’, The Farmer's Boy [1800], I, 8), and also Clare's apparently conflicting claim that joy can be found in ‘the thunder melting clouds / The snow capt mountain & the rolling sea’. These lines, however, are not contemporaneous with the sonnet to De Wint, but occur in a much later asylum poem (JCSP, 314), when his response to the sublimity of mountains and heights had indeed changed. The possible source in Bloomfield, moreover, does not necessarily lessen the genuineness of the pictorial contrast.

  10. The parentheses around the words ‘not bounds’ occur thus in the manuscripts, but the second bracket may be misplaced. The sentence reads more plausibly: ‘we fancy we might pursue the landscape beyond those mysterys (not bounds assigned it) so as we can in the fields—’

  11. See Barrell, The Idea of Landscape, p. 145; Brownlow, John Clare and Picturesque Landscape, p. 102.

  12. Part of this description reveals the clear influence of the opening to Keats's Hyperion: ‘No stir of air was there, / Not so much life as on a summer's day / Robs not one light seed from the feather’d grass’ (I, 7-9). In a letter to Hessey of July 1820, Clare quotes these lines, which he describes as ‘striking’ (Letters, 56-7).

  13. The Seasons, ed. Sambrook [(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981)], p. 125.

  14. The Subtler Language (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1959) p. 183.

  15. Joanna Rapf, ‘“The Constellation of the Plough”; the Peasant Poets, John Clare and his “Circle”: A Study of Their Relationship to Some of the Major Romantic Writers’ (Brown University Ph.D., 1973) p. 327.

  16. Language and the Poet: Verbal Artistry in Frost, Stevens, and Moore (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979) p. 23.

  17. The passages from The Shepherd's Calendar comprise 2500 words from ‘October’ (entire section), ‘February’ (entire section) and ‘May’ (11. 1-94). Those from The Seasons (1746 version) comprise 2500 words from ‘Spring’ (11. 524-52, 569-648), ‘Summer’ (11. 432-537), ‘Autumn’ (11. 1080-1100), ‘Winter’ (11. 118-201, 722-46). The distinctiveness of such monosyllabic emphasis, it is worth pointing out, becomes even more apparent when other of Clare's poems are placed beside The Seasons (for abbreviations, see below):

    Percent of monosyllabic words in total vocabulary

    1809                                                                                76
    SC                                                                                74
    1832                                                                                78
    CH                                                                                80
    Seasons                                                  69

    The figures above are derived from a statistical analysis of samples from Clare's poetry, and since several subsequent notes refer to the samples, it is appropriate to give the most important details here. The analysis has been based upon a total sample of 10,000 words, drawn from four different stages of his career:

    1809 = 2500 words from poems which can be ascribed either definitely to that year or at least to the period 1808-13.

    SC = 2500 words drawn from the sections noted above in The Shepherd's Calendar, circa 1832-6.

    1832 = 2500 words drawn from ‘Remembrances’, ‘The Flitting’ and ‘Decay’, 1832.

    CH = 2500 words drawn from ‘Child Harold,’ 1841.

    As subsequent notes show, these samples have been investigated from several perspectives: the recurrence of ‘key words’, the use of parts of speech, the proportioning between Old English/Germanic derivatives and Latinate/Romance derivatives, and so forth. Full details of the procedures adopted, as well as a discussion of the dangers and benefits of the numerical analysis of literary texts, are provided in the earlier version of this study, ‘“A Real World & Doubting Mind”: A Critical Study of the Poetry of John Clare’, University of Sussex, 1979, pp. 314-28. Since that time, I have found the work of Borroff (see n. 16 above) and Strang (see n. 6 above) particularly helpful.

  18. Sambrook (ed.), p. 264. There are substantial differences between the earliest version of ‘Winter’, from which I quote, and the later revisions made by Thomson. The emphasis upon Romance and Latinate derivatives, however, is common to all versions.

  19. See Ralph Cohen, The Unfolding of ‘The Seasons’ (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970) pp. 33, 47, 329.

  20. As Borroff argues, however, the notion that subject matter inevitably compels the use of certain derivatives is treacherous, since etymologically ‘any subject can be treated in English … in more than one kind of language’ (p. 27).

  21. The sections comprise 500 words from ‘Summer’ (1746), 11. 432-557, and 500 words from The Prelude (1850), I, 301-430.

  22. Cited in Life (1972 ed.) p. 112.

  23. Line references are, respectively, 176-82; 193-200; 142-8. For several details in my interpretation of this cataloguing procedure, I am indebted to Karl Kroeber, Romantic Landscape Vision: Constable and Wordsworth (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1975) pp. 80-3. As Kroeber notes, the subject of medieval and Renaissance allegoric landscapes and gardenscapes is an enormously complicated one; and I am well aware that to group the lists of Chaucer, Spenser and Milton together in this way is to ignore numerous differences of form and context in the three poems. However, I seek here simply to establish a basic historical contrast between earlier catalogues of natural details and Clare's own inventories.

  24. Sambrook (ed.) p. 28.

  25. Poetical Works, p. 140.

  26. The Subtler Language, pp. 179-80.

  27. C. V. Fletcher's claim (‘The Poetry of John Clare, with particular reference to poems written between 1837 and 1864’ [Nottingham University M. Phil., 1973]) that Clare's concept of nature is ‘firmly in the tradition of “the great chain” of Pope's (and Shakespeare's) metaphysics’ (p. 177) seems to me misplaced. Nowhere in The Shepherd's Calendar, and rarely elsewhere, are there explicit or implicit references to such a tradition. When they occur, as in ‘On a Lost Greyhound’, they have the clear ring of applied rather than felt knowledge. …

  28. Lives of the Poets: a selection, ed. J. P. Hardy (London: Oxford University Press, 1971) pp. 286, 325.

  29. The major terms or ‘key words’ comprise referential or non-functional words used seven or more times in each 2500-word sample. The exact figures for the words cited are:

    sweet, 9 sun, 14
    vain, 9 tree, 10
    dear, 7 wood, 10
    little, 7 door, 9
    be, 23 hedge, 9
    view, 8
    scene, 8
    life, 7

    See also n. 17 above. …

  30. Another notable example of participial emphasis, too long to be quoted here, occurs in the early part of ‘October’ (SC, 112). Within the 28 lines from ‘The geese flock gabbling’ to ‘Brushing the woods’, 22 present participles occur.

  31. The exact figures are:

    Present participles used adjectivally as ٪ of all adjectives Present participles used as verbs as ٪ of all verbs
    1809 10 7
    SC 19 24
    1832 7 6
    CH 5 2
  32. In ‘Milton's Participial Style’, Publications of the Modern Language Association of America (PMLA), 83 (1968) 1386-99, Seymour Chatman argues that Thomson's frequent use of the present participle constitutes ‘a most pronounced mannerism’. From the figures Chatman provides, however, there is some evidence to suggest that Clare uses the participle more than twice as often as Thomson.

  33. The Unfolding of ‘The Seasons’, p. 199.

  34. Crossan (A Relish for Eternity, pp. 120-1) notes, more generally, that of all Clare's poems ‘that may loosely be called “nature poems” … approximately 260 include human figures, compared with some 180 unpeopled poems’. He has counted over eighty different occupations portrayed in the published works.

  35. The Idea of Landscape, p. 172. This concept of ‘character’ is not unique to The Shepherd's Calendar. It persists in the twenty or so sonnets about village people that Clare wrote between 1835 and 1837 (see PJC, II, 344-55).

  36. See especially Letters, 132; Sketches, 67.

  37. W. K. Richmond, repr. in [Clare: The Critical Heritage, ed. Mark Storey (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973)], p. 403.

  38. Barrell, pp. 172-3.

  39. Quoted in A. J. V. Chapple, ‘Some Unpublished Poetical Manuscripts of John Clare’, Yale University Library Gazette, 31 (July 1956) p. 44.

  40. See Earl Wasserman, ‘The English Romantics: The Grounds of Knowledge’, Studies in Romanticism, 4 (1964) 20. cf. Coleridge's complaint about poetry in which ‘there reigns … such a perpetual trick of moralizing every thing … never to see or describe any interesting appearance in nature, without connecting it by dim analogies with the moral world proves faintness of Impression.’ (Collected Letters, ed. Earl Leslie Griggs, 6 vols. [London: Oxford University Press, 1956-71], II, 864).

  41. For an almost entirely opposite view, see Ronald W. Link, ‘Towards the Abyss: Modern Elements in the Poetry of John Clare’ (Miami University Ph.D., 1976). Link suggests that the ‘strategic placement’ of the shepherd at the end of ‘February’ ‘leads to the conclusion that Clare projected much of himself into his portrait … Identifying the shepherd with Clare explains his growing pessimism and his turn inward’ (p. 168). It seems to me, though, that such a view does less than justice to the rigorous neutrality of Clare's portrayal, for the reasons I give above.

  42. The structure of month-by-month description, indeed, sometimes works to Clare's disadvantage, since there are obvious problems in isolating natural features that are characteristic of one month only. Mark Minor (‘The Poet in his Joy: A Critical Study of John Clare's Development’ [Ohio State University Ph.D., 1970]) comments upon the ‘lack of a clear distinction between [the] summer months’ (p. 156). But for a different view, see Brownlow, John Clare and Picturesque Landscape: ‘Clare knew that the English year has an almost infinite variety of moods, and that every week has a different flavour, let alone every month’ (p. 69). The problem, though, is whether that knowledge is translated into imaginative realisation in the poem, and here I tend to agree more with Minor's argument.

Principal Works

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Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery (poetry) 1820

The Village Minstrel, and Other Poems. 2 vols. (poetry) 1821

The Shepherd's Calendar; With Village Stories, and Other Poems (poetry and short stories) 1827

The Rural Muse (poetry) 1835

Poems (poetry) 1908

John Clare: Poems Chiefly from Manuscript (poetry) 1920

Madrigals and Chronicles: Being Newly Found Poems Written by John Clare (poetry) 1924

*Sketches in the Life of John Clare, Written by Himself (autobiography and sketches) 1931

The Poems of John Clare. 2 vols. (poetry) 1935

Poems of John Clare's Madness (poetry) 1949

The Letters of John Clare (letters) 1951

The Prose of John Clare (autobiography, journal, and essays) 1951

The Later Poems of John Clare (poetry) 1964

Clare: Selected Poems and Prose (poetry and sketches) 1966

The Midsummer Cushion (poetry) 1978

The Midsummer Cushion (poetry) 1979

John Clare's Autobiographical Writings (autobiography) 1983

The Natural History Prose Writings of John Clare (essays) 1983

The Letters of John Clare (letters) 1985

The Early Poems of John Clare, 1804-1822 (poetry) 1989

*Sketches in the Life of John Clare was originally completed in 1821.

†The poems in this volume were originally transcribed in manuscript form in 1831–32 but not published as a collection until 1979.

Edward Strickland (essay date 1987)

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SOURCE: “John Clare and the Sublime,” in Criticism, Vol. XXIX, No. 2, Spring, 1987, pp. 141-61.

[In the following essay, Strickland argues that Clare was “poetically more conservative” than his Romantic peers, noting the “absence of conventional trappings of the naturalistic sublime” in his poetry.]

As pitiful as the representation of John Clare in major anthologies is, the image of the poet has been further distorted by their emphasis on his mad-poems, the most fascinating, but neither the best nor most representative, of his works. Eric Robinson's and David Powell's recent Later Poems of John Clare1 is invaluable not only for its scholarly presentation of previously unpublished poems but for its clarification of the context of the visionary works. The edition established, against the sentimentalism of many critical observations, that Clare suffered a serious decline in poetic power with the onset of madness, particularly after the mid-1840s. It also makes clear the anomalous nature of the famous visionary lyrics, which appear in a radically different light grouped together on a few pages of an anthology rather than surrounded by eleven hundred pages of Clare's late verse, much of which continues in the retrospective vein of his earlier work and much of which is (or, in the case of songs without accompanying melodies, appears to be) doggerel.

Though still most often identified with his mad-poems, Clare is poetically more conservative than any of the more famous Romantic poets. For example, his interest in the ballad tradition goes back to his earliest childhood in Northamptonshire, and in his “Autobiography” he mentions trying to pass off his own early efforts in that form as the compositions of others.2 In the 1830s his interest in ballad-collecting grew more serious, and in the asylum the ballad became his preferred form. Furthermore, the nature poetry that was his chief claim to fame in his own time is closer to the eighteenth-century tradition of the picturesque, as Timothy Brownlow has demonstrated,3 than to the meditative-landscape verse of Wordsworth and Clare's contemporaries in the second generation of Romantics.

Even within those time-honored traditions Clare is something of a psychological conservative, not to say reactionary. With regard to the ballad, although Clare mentions having been raised in their atmosphere of the preternatural,4 his own attempts at ballad-writing characteristically shy away from the uncanny and concentrate on the affecting or pathetic. We have numerous songs of parting/reuniting lovers, sailors off to sea, etc., but none of the demon-lovers, elfin queens and messengers returned from the dead that provide so much of the psychological appeal of the tradition. That Clare was familiar with the preternatural strain in the ballad tradition is clear from George Deacon's John Clare and the Folk Tradition, which even includes variants of the demon-lover and dead-lover-returned motifs collected by Clare, the former revealingly entitled “Taken from my Mothers singing.” The same book also includes a minor narrative poem dealing with spooks, “The Dumb Cake,” based on local legend and more superstitious than horrific.5 In none of Clare's own ballads before his confinement do we find a serious preternatural theme.

In the loco-descriptive tradition, similarly, as original as Clare is in terms of aesthetics (using the word etymologically with reference to his visual perception/perspective or literal “point of view”), he demonstrates a certain timidity in both choice and treatment of subject matter. By comparison with the works of his early idol, Thomson, or almost any of his poetic forebears, in Clare the naturalistic as well as preternatural sublime is conspicuous by its virtual absence—until we confront those few late visionary poems. It is because those poems answer a need that is ignored or repressed elsewhere in Clare that we devote to them an attention that is disproportionate to their importance in the Clare corpus and perhaps their intrinsic poetic merit.


The absence of conventional trappings of the naturalistic sublime in Clare's poetry struck his contemporary reviewers and was attributed by some to the poet's surroundings. Clare, after all, was the most purely empirical of the Romantic poets, perhaps of all poets in the language, censuring Wordsworth for “affected fooleries” and the city-boy Keats for seeking “behind every rose bush … a Venus & under every laurel a thrumming Appollo.”6 Clare's nature—at least when he is at his best—is neither an abstraction nor a pretext for meditation or mythology; it is visible, palpable, and one cannot imagine Clare, a day-laborer in the fields, clutching at walls like the youthful idealist Wordsworth to assure himself of their existence.

The Clare country has neither mountains nor oceans. Thus those two Burkean standbys do not appear in his work—until the asylum, when madness sporadically overwhelms empiricism. As an anonymous reviewer of The Village Minstrel wrote in October 1821, “The rushes, the sedges, the ‘willow groves,’ and the sluggish rivulets of a marshy part of Northamptonshire, are to him what the forest, the mountain, the lake, and the ocean, are to other poets.” He expressed the hope that Clare, leaving his “flat, unpicturesque and swampy fields” for “landscapes of a more sublime and beautiful order … will turn his vivid descriptive talent to paint them.” In an article that appeared six weeks later, possibly as an answer, Clare's publisher John Taylor also confessed that he found the area dull but capable of transformation in Clare's verse: “Imagination has, in my opinion, done wonders here.” He noted that forests did in fact exist in the area, as well as a fragment of a Roman wall, which he describes with almost comical predictability as “leaving the mind in that degree of obscurity, with respect to its age or use, which Burke esteems to be essentially connected with the sublime.”7

The biographical evidence indicates, strange as it may seem to us today, that Clare never saw either a mountain or the sea. But what is equally strange is how little use he made of the alleged sublimity of Northamptonshire ruins and forests. The early sonnet “Crowland Abbey” is a solitary exercise in the morbid antiquarian sublime and from its opening lines has a hand-me-down feel (“In sooth, it seems right awful and sublime / To gaze by moonlight on the shattered pile / Of this old abbey”) that is confirmed by the proto-Pavlovian fear and trembling that ensue.8 Clare's forests, in turn, are more picturesque than sublime and, even in the Northamptonshire Asylum poem “The Wind & Trees” when he compares trees in a storm to turbulent waves, the effect is less of terror than merry vivacity (LP, 364).

It is not merely that Clare did not inherit especially sublime surroundings. It is rather a question of his deliberate evasion of the sublime and its attendant emotions, of which terror is the chief, in landscape as in balladry. The roots of this evasion are psychological rather than geographical. In his autobiographical sketches written for Taylor in 1820-21 Clare refers to his “very timid disposition” as manifest in a fear of the dark and things of darkness during his crepuscular walks “for a bag of flower to Maxey, a village distant about 2 Miles”:

the traditional Registers of the Village was uncommonly superstitious (Gossips and Granneys) and I have had two or three haunted Spots to pass for it was impossible to go half a mile any were about the Lordship were there had nothing been said to be seen by these old women or some one else in their younger days. therefore I must in such extremitys seize the best remedy to keep such things out of my head as well as I coud, so on these journeys I muttered over tales of my own fancy and contriving into rhymes as well as my abilities was able; they was always romantic wanderings of Sailors, Sol[d]iers etc following them step by step from their starting out to their return, for I always lovd to see a tale end happy and as I had only my self to please I always contrived that my taste shoud be suited in such matters Sometimes I was tracking my own adventures as I wished they might be going on from the plough and flail to the easy arm chair of old age reciting armours intrigues of meeting always good fortune and marrying Ladies etc Hope was now budding and its summer skye warmd me with thrilling extacy and tho however romantic my story might be I had always cautions, fearful enough no doubt, to keep ghosts and hobgoblings out of the question what I did was to erase them and not bring them to remembrance, tho twas impossible, for as I passd those awful places, tho I dare not look boldly up, my eye was warily on the watch, glegging under my hat at every stir of a leaf or murmur of the wind and a quaking thistle was able to make me swoon with terror.

(AW, 8)

Clare turned his youthful imagination, all too susceptible as it was to the sublime, against itself, banishing the ghosts it had created with other shadowy creations of soldiers and sailors whose “romantic wanderings” at once mirrored his own struggle against the darkness and helped him escape it. The regularity of his rhymes, like the happy endings of his fantasies, was a reassurance of order in the chaotic gigantism of the night with its epiphanic terrors of leaf and thistle.9 The same pattern is reflected in Clare's odd avoidance of the preternatural in his ballads, even in the asylum for the most part, where the sailor returns as one of Clare's favorite personages or personae.10 One of the several prize-fighters whose identity Clare adopted in his madness (along with those of Shakespeare, Byron, Nelson, Queen Victoria's father et al.) was named, interestingly, Jones the Sailor Boy.

In “The Fate of Genius” the authorial surrogate laughs at local ghost-stories.11 Elsewhere, however, Clare affirms “tho I always felt in company a disbelief in ghost witches etc yet when I was a lone in the night my fancys created thousands and my fears was always on the look out every now and then turning around to see if aught was behind me.” He goes on to relate several more instances of his “night fears.”12 Apart from the atmosphere of peasant superstition in which he was raised, Clare had a more traumatic confrontation with the world of the dead, which left a permanent scar, not to say an open wound:

… my indisposition, (for I cannot call it illness) origionated in fainting fits, the cause of which I always imagined came from seeing when I was younger a man name Thomas Drake after he had fell off a load of hay and broke his neck the gastly palness of death struck such a terror on me that I coud not forget it for years and my dreams was constantly wanderings in church yards, digging graves, seeing spirits in charnel houses etc in my fits I swooned away without a struggle and felt nothing more then if I’d been in a dreamless sleep after I came to my self but I was always warnd of their coming by a chillness and dithering that seemd to creep from ones toe ends till it got up to ones head, when I turnd sensless and fell; sparks as if fire often flashd from my eyes or seemd to do so when I dropt, which I layd to the fall—these fits was stopped by a Mr. Arnold M.D. … tho every spring and autum since the accident happend my fears are agitated to an extreem degree and the dread of death involves me in a stupor of chilling indisposition as usual, tho I have had but one or two swoonings since they first left me.

(AW, 16)

Clare was a victim of a sensitivity that was aggravated by his up-bringing and his witnessing an accident which left him a prey to fears of death and the living dead. That these were not merely childhood fears is clear from AW, 146, where Clare, writing of his third London visit in 1824, confesses

When I used to go any were by my self. … I used to sit at night till very late because I was loath to start … for fear of meeting with supernatural [apparitions] even in the busy paths of London … my head was as full of the terribles as a gossips—thin death like shadows and goblings with sorcer eyes were continually shaping in the darkness from my haunted imagination and when I saw any one of a spare figure in the dark passing or going on by my side my blood has curdled cold at the foolish apprehension of his being a supernatural agent whose errand might be to carry me away at the first dark alley we came too. … I coud not bear to go down the dark narrow street of Chancery lane I[t] was as bad as a haunted spot to pass. … I coud not get it out of my head but that I shoud be sure to meet death or the devil.

Clare attributes this “foolish night feeling to a circumstance in my youth when I was most terribly frightened,” which may or may not refer to the death of Thomas Drake. In any case, rather than exploring this realm, converting (waking) anxiety-dreams into poetry like Coleridge, Clare seems to have tried to avoid it. When death appears in his work it is most often in sentimental guise, as in “Graves of Infants.” His later stubborn denial of his childhood sweetheart Mary Joyce's death is less an isolated eccentricity than an emblem of a larger pattern of psychological resistance and self-defense.

Clare's abnegation of the sublime is clear by comparison with James Thomson, whose Seasons were a revelation to Clare at the age of thirteen, when he went through pains to acquire the volume (AW, 9-10). Inspired by that poet's graphic powers, as later by those of Cowper et al., Clare went on to surpass him, and possibly everyone else, in the extent and precision of his descriptive detail. In his own rewriting of The Seasons,The Shepherd's Calendar, he provided “the truest poem of English country life ever written.”13

Perhaps the best-known sections of Thomson's Seasons, as of Vivaldi's, are his set-piece storms, particularly that in “Winter” with its depiction of humanity thrown at the non-existent mercy of the elements. In his second volume, The Village Minstrel and Other Poems (1821), Clare delineated his own “Snow Storm,” but the poem is striking for its lack of fidelity to the title. As opposed to Thomson's (or Turner's) terrible energy, all here is static: “a white world all calm,” the frost providing “a vast romance displayed / And fairy halls descending from the sky.”14 Instead of an elemental nightmare, we are offered a crystalline idyll, instead of the sublime the picturesque.

Clare's first volume, Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery (1820), contains “To a Winter Scene.” As in “Crowland Abbey,” the sense of uninspired imitation of inherited sensibility is obtrusive from its opening apostrophe, “Hail scenes of Desolation and despair.” For the most part the style is more characteristic of, say, Collins than Clare, and the poet is least cogent when most declamatory (“Your fate is pleasing to this heart of mine / Your wildest horrors I the most esteem”—JC, 11). Clare's “most splendid storm,” as Timothy Brownlow notes,15 is contained in lines 73-135 of “November” in The Shepherd's Calendar, beginning thus:

Dull for a time the slumbering weather flings
Its murky prison round then winds wake loud
Wi sudden start the once still forest sings
Winters returning song cloud races cloud
And the orison throws away its shrowd
And sweeps its stretching circle from the eye
Storm upon storm in quick succession crowd
And oer the sameness of the purple skye
Heaven paints its wild irregularity[.]

(SC, 119)

The opening is as close as the pre-asylum Clare comes to the naturalistic sublime; yet Brownlow is correct in discussing the work under the rubric of the picturesque, into the characteristic “irregularity” of which the stanza modulates by its conclusion. In the ensuing stanzas the poet turns away from the energies of the sublime to the milder captivation of the picturesque—and a picturesque of a peculiarly Clarean homeliness:

The shepherd oft foretells by simple ways
The weathers change that will ere long prevail
He marks the dull ass that grows wild and brays
And sees the old cows gad adown the vale
A summer race and snuff the coming gale
The old dame sees her cat wi fears alarm
Play hurly burly races wi its tale
And while she stops her wheel her hands to warm
She rubs her shooting corns and prophecys a storm[.]

After two more stanzas of turkeys, hogs and horses, the storm finally begins in earnest—and ends as quickly:

And quick it comes among the forest oaks
Wi sobbing ebbs and uproar gathering high
The scard hoarse raven on its cradle croaks
And stock dove flocks in startld terrors flye
While the blue hawk hangs oer them in the skye
The shepherd happy when the day is done
Hastes to his evening fire his cloaths to dry
And forrester crouchd down the storm to shun
Scarce hears amid the strife the poachers muttering gun
The ploughman hears the sudden storm begin
And hies for shelter from his naked toil
Buttoning his doublet closer to his chin
He speeds him hasty oer the elting soil
While clouds above him in wild fury boil
And winds drive heavily the beating rain
He turns his back to catch his breath awhile
Then ekes his speed and faces it again
To seek the shepherds hut beside the rushy plain[.]

Clare's primary interest, unlike Thomson's, is not in the sublime energy of the tempest, which overwhelms hapless humanity as its description is meant to overwhelm the reader's consciousness, but in the familiar animal and human energies it activates. As for the storm itself, its brevity is as intriguing a feature of its description as any of the visual details. Other “storm” poems of Clare's repeat the same pattern of truncated description of the tempest followed immediately by flight for shelter. This is true of the “pale traveller” in “Winter,” “who croodling hastens from the storm behind / Fast gathering deep and black—again to find / His cottage fire and corners sheltering bounds” (JC, 96). And of the shepherd who similarly “hastes to sheltering bowers” at the sound of the “brustling” of an aspen (JC, 128). And of the fisherman in “Storm in the Fens,” who flees home to build a fire “And read a book of songs about the sea” (JC, 265). In a sonnet from The Village Minstrel also entitled “November” Clare describes

… uproarious madness—when the start
Of sudden tempest stirs the forrest leaves
Into hoarse madness till the shower set free
Stills the hugh Wells and ebbs the mighty heaves
That swing the forrest like a troubled sea
I love the wizard noise and rave in turn
Half vacant thought and self imagined rhymes
Then hide me from the shower a short sojourn
Neath ivied oak and mutter to the winds
Wishing their melody belonged to me
That I might breath a living song to thee[.]

This is Clare's version of the just-published “Ode to the West Wind.” Characteristically, however, the peasant Clare is less vulnerable to symbolism than Shelley, only temporarily indulging himself in the poet-as-wind conceit. While Shelley concludes with “Be thou me, impetuous one!” Clare is content to “rave in turn. … Then hide me,” never quite surrendering himself to sublimity (or stridency). The pattern of flight repeats itself, here in the first person as in the later abbreviated storm of “A Rhapsody” (LP, 992). Of course, one might comment simply that Clare knew enough to come in out of the rain. But whether disguised as peasant surrogate or “I,” he is also running for cover less literally.


The sublime is more recognizable than definable, but Martin Price provides the best description in pointing to the polyvalence of the term:

It could be applied to the natural landscape, to a state of mind, to a literary mode; it could evoke orthodox religious experience or pantheistic rapture, Gothic terror or Doric severity, the grandeur of Michelangelo's sculptures or the factitious pleasures of mediaevalized romance. The sublime found a new meaning, one is tempted to say, every time a critic framed a new contrast between the shapely and the tremendous, between the formally satisfying object and the overwhelming impression. … The sublime was an experience of transcendence, a surpassing of convention or reasonable limits, an attempt to come to terms with the unimaginable. … Such moments were fascinating to an age that had lost many of the forms of traditional piety and had diffused the religious experience—the sense of the numinous—over the natural world and over the processes of feeling as well.16

More recently, Thomas McFarland has taken up the latter point in his discussion of the concept of “imagination” as the secular substitute for the vanished “soul.” His thesis is that “imagination became so important because soul had been so important and could no longer carry its burden of significance. That significance was an assurance that there was meaning in life. No soul, no meaning. But even if soul wilted under the onslaught of science and skepticism, so long as there was imagination as secondary validator then at least there remained the possibility of meaning.” On the same point McFarland later suggests that to the largely interchangeable terms imagination, invention or originality, and genius “at least one more can be added: ‘sublimity’ or the sublime,” for “they are all equivalent in import though not in designation. In most instances they are summoned at some emotional apex where the substitution of another would serve to sustain the meaning of the passage.”17

Samuel Holt Monk regards the cult of the sublime “not … as a revolutionary movement outside of and against neo-classical standards of taste … but rather as the other … pole on which the world of eighteenth-century art turned.”18 The sublime coexisted in a complementary, not to say compensatory, relationship to neo-classical ideals, like the emotional self-indulgence of the Sturm und Drang or emfindsamer Stil in music, an eighteenth-century instance of the return of the repressed.

But what precisely was being repressed, apart from the “tremendous” and “overwhelming” of which Price writes? Speaking specifically, or metonymously, of the sublime in verbal art, Neil Hertz seems to suggest that it is the psychological vulnerability of the reader. Framing his argument in Freudian terms, he finds the authority, perhaps the autonomy, of the reader threatened by that of the writer who usurps his consciousness by the superior force of his vision or style.19 Thomas Weiskel argues similarly: “Discourse in the Peri Hypsous … is a power struggle. Visual imagery, for example, is recommended for the ‘enthrallment’ (ekpleksis) of the poor reader … who is scorched, pierced, inundated, blown down, and generally knocked about by the sublime, if Longinus is any guide.” Weiskel distinguishes between the “negative” and “egotistical” sublime, finding Freudian analogues, respectively, in superego anxiety and narcissism. He goes on to relate the terror of the sublime to castration-anxiety—sublime power as power to hurt, a threat evaded by identification with or introjection of its irresistible authority (cf. Freud on the resolution of the Oedipus complex)—and the Burkean sense of catharsis to evacuation and anal-sadistic aggression.20

The recourse to psychoanalysis is required by the diction of the sublime cultists, which is consistently erotic or crypto-erotic: the sublime is time and time again depicted in terms of excitation, penetration/rape and orgasm. Thomson refers to “All that enlarges and transports the soul.” In the Alps John Dennis describes “transporting Pleasures … unusual Transports” and “a delightful Horror, a terrible Joy, and at the same time, that I was infinitely pleas’d, I trembled.” In The Sacred Theory of Earth Thomas Burnet speaks of being “rapt” and “ravished” by the vast, grand and majestic in nature. Continuing the analogy, Edward Young depicts the victim—no other word will do—of the sublime as a sort of Sabine woman in Night Thoughts: “True, all things speak a God; but in the small, / Men trace out him; in great, he seizes Man; / Seizes, and elevates, and raps, and fills.”21

For Thomas Reid the sublime is as “irresistible” as amor al cor gentil, “like fire thrown into the midst of combustible matter.” For John Baillie “The Sublime dilates and elevates the soul, Fear sinks and contracts it,” and for Alexander Gerard it “occupies the whole soul, and suspends its motions.”22 This enforced metaphysical intimacy is described by John Brown as a capacity to “exalt [the soul] to the highest Pitch of Elevation that our mortal Condition will admit.” Jean Le Clerc alludes to the sublime style “that transports, that ravishes, that governs and turns our Souls about as it pleases.” Even for the quietist Fénelon the sublime is said to “move and seize their Passions” and “overwhelms People's Minds with its Vehemence: it renders them speechless: it melts them into Tears.” In The Adventurer the sublime “whirls away the auditor like a mighty torrent, and pierces the inmost recesses of his heart like a flash of lightning.” For Dennis, parodied by Pope as “Sir Tremendous Longinus,” the “noble Vigour” or “invincible Force” of the sublime, again, “commits a pleasing Rape upon the very Soul of the Reader … like the Artillery of Jove, it thunders, blazes, and strikes at once, and shews all the united Force of a Writer.” “The Sublime ravishes” (Anonymous), “elevates the soul” (Dennis), “transports, astonishes” (John Lawson), is seen to “transport and carry away the Reader” (The Plain Dealer). It offers “transport” (Samuel Werenfels), “transport or extasy” (John Ward), “Raptures” (Balthasar Gracian y Morales).23 It “throws the soul into a divine transport of admiration and amazement, which occupies and fills the mind” (William Duff).24 Philosophers from Hobbes to Hume to Kant (“a momentary check to the vital forces, followed at once by a discharge all the more powerful”) contribute to the erotic sub-text of sublime theory.25

The sublime moment is an aesthetic analogue to coitus, and of similar intensity and potential violence, a psycho-sexual assault on subject by object. James Beattie invented the fanciful etymology of the term in super limas, “above the mud or slime of this world.” But opposites meet, as we find in the hilarious, touching or revolting (your choice) image of one cultist of the sublime, a Mrs. Murray, lying in the mud beneath a Scottish waterfall in what Monk refers to as an “emotional orgy.”26 This, as Henry James said of the apparition in The Scarlet Letter of the giant “A” in the sky, “goes too far and is in danger of crossing the line that separates the sublime from its intimate neighbour.”27

But the sublime moment has a paradoxical allure, illuminated more by late than early Freud, specifically his description of Thanatos at instinctual war with Eros, as ancient a conceit in its evocation of Prudentius as the theory is revolutionary. The death-wish is evident on the most superficial level in the sublime cult of graveyards, ruins and all sorts of disasters. “There is no Spectacle we so eagerly pursue,” writes Burke in On the Sublime (I, xiv, 41), “as that of some uncommon and grievous calamity.” This curiously recalls La Rochefoucauld on the misfortunes of others, and one cannot help but regard the at times ghoulish fixations of the Graveyard School as an imperfect foreshadowing of current tabloids. Are the volcanoes, plagues and snow-storms of Thomson the forebears not only of the catastrophes relished by Turner and Martin but the disaster movies that periodically satisfy the contemporary hunger for the sublime? Is Night Thoughts the Creepshow of the 1740s?

It is not only our animal lust for the destruction of others that is seduced by the sublime and its socially legitimizing rhetoric but also, somewhat more subtly, our more specifically human lust for the destruction of oneself. Concurrent with crypto-erotic imagery, much of which smells of death, theories of the sublime abound in descriptions of the “extinction,” “annihilation” and “astonishment” of the soul. The emblem of the sublime as flirtation with death is the English tourist in the Alps (Dennis or Gray or whoever) gazing and gasping over the brink of destruction. The sublime offers sexual excitation concurrently with momentary gratification of the death-wish in the extinction of (normal) consciousness. It is unique in the simultaneity of its vicarious satisfaction of both Eros and Thanatos.28

In 1972 Theodore E. B. Wood offered a lexicon of uses of the term sublime from 1650 to 1760, spanning the heyday of the cult. An interesting follow-up might be a study of the rapid deterioration of the word in the years that followed. While elements of the sublime attained even greater notoriety through the enormous popularity of the Gothic novels, particularly Radcliffe's, and were variously transformed by the great Romantics, as in Blake's apocalyptic rewriting of Ossian, the term itself decayed into meaninglessness. As things developed, “sublime” came to suffer the same fate as “nice,” “terrific,” “tremendous” and other one-time adjectives faded to non-words: from nice distinction to nice guy, the human heart's “gates / Terrific” to terrific shoes. … The quiche was tremendous and the mousse was simply sublime. To what extent the dictional bathos is merely decadent, to what extent apotropaic—a semiconscious domestication of threatening material—is subject to speculation.

Yet it is evident that by the Regency the term sublime had lost most of what little (or excessive) meaning it had. The degree to which it has become a stock phrase if not response is clearly reflected in the letters written to Clare by his patron and later editor, the poetaster Eliza Emmerson. Each time she uses or abuses the word, almost by reflex an exclamation point rears its head: Clare excels “in the simple scenes of pastoral nature, the pathetically descriptive, and the sublime!”; his poems are “at once, simply beautiful—affecting—and occasionally sublime! … in the Devout, and sublime! you create astonishment”; “Your ‘Thunder Storm’ truly natural, and sublime!”; “the terrible and sublime!” (CH, 11, 66, 128, 188). Mrs. Emmerson was not the only soul afflicted by punctuational frenzy, to judge by Parson Adams' reaction to Iliad XIII and XIV in Joseph Andrews (III, 2) or the Morning Chronicle report (9 March 1794) of the debut of Haydn's “Military” Symphony and its “climax of horrid sublimity! which, if others can conceive, he alone can execute.”29

But Clare was himself less susceptible to this sort of cant and kneejerk ecstasy. In his Journal he applies the term sublime only to the imagery of the Scriptures and Paradise Lost, apart from a satiric reference to a young poet's “very pathetic and sublime wish … that the tears he leaves on his [schoolmaster's] grave may grow up a marble monument to his memory.”30 Nonetheless, Clare was not beyond tossing in the cliché to “Crowland Abbey” and rhymae causa to “The Progress of Ryhme”: “All I beheld of grand—with time / Grew up to beautifuls sublime” (JC, 157), a couplet which involves as much confusion of aesthetic categories as absence of meaning. His address to “Autumn” describes the “wile sorceress” as “sublime in grief” at the approach of winter (JC, 163-64). Leaves—not in turbulent array but in their simple being—are described as sublime in “The Eternity of Nature,” and this usage, if more unusual, is more common in Clare. The closest the poet comes to theorizing about the sublime is in a single couplet in “Shadows of Taste” (“Thus truth to nature as the true sublime / Stands a mount atlas overpeering time,” JC, 172) and a stanza in the early Northborough poem “The Flitting”:

Some sing the pomps of chivalry
As legends of the ancient time
Where gold and pearls and my[s]tery
Are shadows painted for sublime
But passions of sublimity
Belong to plain and simpler things
And David underneath a tree
Sought when a shepherd Salems spring.

(JC, 252)

It is in this unique sense that Clare continues to use the word sublime in the asylum years: “Aye nothing seems so happy & sublime / As sabbath bells & their delightful chime”; “that clod brown bird sublime”; “The seasons each as God bestows / Are simple and sublime” (LP, 66, 443, 496). A somewhat more traditional usage is Clare's reference to “The wild sublimity of windy days” (LP, 178), though this scene too proves the antithesis of sublime obscurity. In general, Clare's equation of the simple and normal—the commonplace in fact—with the sublime runs counter to the whole tradition. One would be tempted to call the eccentricity a subversion of that tradition were it not that Clare is by the Nineteenth Century using a non-word of vaguely approbatory tone. Yet if there is a continuity in Clare's poetic use of the term in the asylum years, sublime content appears in his verse in new and unexpected ways.


The sublime is linked, through the desire it answers and the energies it evokes, to the subliminal. Adapting Kant's argument that the sublime is located in the ideas of reason not the things of nature, which have an essentially catalytic rather than creative function, we might argue that the externally vast, obscure and horrific is a revelation, though oblique, of those qualities within us. It was his euhemeristic recognition that all sublimities reside in the human breast that permitted Blake to internalize the sublime not as a spectacle of Ossianic demigods but a psychomachia of visionary forms.

Clare, despite quick comparisons, is eminently non-Blakean. Consecrated to precise recreation of the dust of this world, he seems constitutionally incapable of using nature symbolically; his minimal political awareness is clear in his enlisting twice in the militia for the bounty;31 and while Blake gave full rein to his apocalyptic imagination, Clare tried to stifle his.

Tried. In spite of the otherworldliness of several of his recorded dreams, his usual poetic description of the dream-world, in such poems as “The Enthusiast A Daydream in Summer,” is again more picturesque than sublime. Before the asylum years only one poem approaches the horrific sublime, “The Night Mare or Superstitions Dream,” of which Clare warns Taylor on December 18, 1821 “youl only laugh at its bombast when I send it but my vanity must have its way—The Night Mare is a thing Ive been very much subject too & the thing describ’d is the last judgment nearly as my horrors conscieved it when this witchcraft of the soul was on me.”32 However based on the poet's own nightmares, the poem is inconceivable without the publication five years earlier of Byron's “Darkness,” for both poems share an overriding sense of personal guilt displaced in dies irae. The sources of Clare's guilt included his sloth, alcoholism and womanizing.

He was incapable of holding a job. As early as 1825 he was treated for alcoholic depression, and Frederick Martin—albeit no model of objectivity—attributed his madness to the aggravation of the same condition.33 Clare “loves ale—likes the girls—somewhat idle—hates work,” Taylor's cousin Edward Drury wrote more accurately than charitably to him in April 1819 (CH, 3). During his third visit to London in 1824 Clare haunted the theatrical demi-monde, notorious for its loose sexual morals,34 and in the mid-1820s his correspondence with Mrs. Emmerson indicates a more serious extramarital affair.35 His invitation poems are full of references—most, one assumes, merely flirtatious when not purely fictitious—to countless girls, and the sense of extreme sexual frustration in confinement pervades the later poems. More importantly, from the 1830s on, Clare lived with the obsessive delusion that he had committed bigamy with Mary Joyce and his wife and in both verse and letters writes of his confinement as a punishment for this infidelity.

Clare may have been in part following his poetic talents or material on hand in restricting himself to a more picturesque than sublime art. But beyond that, the relative absence of the sublime in his work may be attributed to the devastating effect on the poet of his subconscious, especially in two areas, sex and death, inextricably bound in the sublime moment. Clare rarely had either the strength of imagination or psychological inclination towards even an oblique poetic self-exploration of sexual and other guilt or of the childhood trauma which literally gave him fits. For the most part he clung defensively to the persona of the innocent poet of the fields—his alter ego Lubin in The Village Minstrel is far more ethereal, unsociable and asexual than his creator—and against the fear of death clung to a dream of an eternal nature and a delusion of an undying love. That Mary Joyce was dead to him since their teens, and literally deceased since 1838, had no effect on his idée fixe of an innocent matrimony on some rarefied plane, nor on his continuing to write letters to her as well as his wife Patty and their children.

Clare's avoidance of the occasions of the sublime is a defensive refusal to succumb to a potentially catastrophic vulnerability. In the asylum years we see the polarization of the poet's creativity: the few brief flashes of vision surrounded by progressively more vapid and innocuous balladry and nature poetry which cannot bear comparison with his earlier work—and which was written, one senses, to “kill time” in both the common and Baudelairean sense, distracting the poet from his bizarre obsessions. Its content is often so bland as to suggest a deliberately restricted imaginative diet. As in the errands of his youth, we once again find the poet versifying to defend himself against things of darkness, to exorcise rather than embody them with rhyme.

Clare's fear of the subconscious is understandable solely in biographical terms. The very extent to which his most sophisticated critics take his honest-ploughboy persona at face value, accepting Clare as a dreamy but essentially healthy peasant who somehow ended up in the madhouse for a quarter-century, is perhaps the best argument for Clare as master of disguise. “Before Clare was a mad poet, he was a sane poet,” note defenders of the early verse against those who argue for the greater interest of the latter.36 But how sane? He was unable to function as a worker due to his lazy dreaminess. His quasi-epileptic attacks, etc. were clearly psychosomatic, and the intensity of his “foolish night feeling” was extreme. The suspiciousness of his nature from an early age foreshadows his later paranoia, and the despair of his confinement is adumbrated well in advance of mid-life in Clare's depression. His passion for alcohol and women, while hardly enough to merit him a padded cell, does little to indicate that psychological equilibrium was his strong suit. Without trying to deny Clare his poetic license, I think it is fair to say that the jolly-ploughboy persona was precisely that—etymologically, a mask—and that in choosing his famous bright green jacket for his first trip to London Clare was not so much demonstrating peasant taste as dressing a part.

If a reflection of class patronage, the critical distortion of Clare into ingenuous bard is at root benevolent. Maybe we do not need another damaged archangel (although I find Clare more psychologically akin to Coleridge—to whom he is almost never compared—than to the other Romantics).37 More annoying are the platitudes and facile paradoxes about his confinement: “The Rural Muse and his long insanity were, in my opinion, about the two best friends under a merciful Heaven by which John Clare was ever visited”; “Real independence of mind soared in the asylum, in the prison where he found freedom, where he was able to leave the concerns of the world behind altogether.”38

Some friend. Some freedom.

Clare's life is a pretty grim prospect, even with critical Claude-glass in hand. But apart from purely biographical concerns, the defensive superficiality of much of Clare's work is motivated by evasion not merely of guilt but of the poet's visionary orientation, which one does not know whether to call apocalyptic or hysterical. It almost seems as if whenever Clare opens himself up to (reveal) the sublime, the end of the world is nigh. At the heart of the few visionary poems of the asylum years there is a sense of absolute frustration and implacable rage that is unique in my experience. Unlike Blake, who envisions mankind united in Jesus in Eternity, Clare wants most of all, I believe, to destroy mankind and world with it so that he may attain his “real independence” and “freedom.” It is the abiding and at times hideous intensity of the erstwhile-jolly ploughboy's wrath that Clare tries to evade in silence or sing-song, and the violent outbursts which were probably the efficient cause of his confinement in “the land of Sodom,” the “Bastile of hell” are echoed with varying degrees of subtlety in the mad-poems.

In the two sublime set-pieces of “Childe Harold” thunderstorms are both prefigurative of the last day and prerequisite to Clare's liberation (“Roll on ye wrath of thunders—peal on peal / Till worlds are ruins and myself alone”; “His thunderbolts leave life but as the clod / Cold & inna[ni]mate—their temples fall / … & here I comfort seek & early joys renew,” LP, 48, 69-70). Even in the relatively mild-mannered “I Am” “I long for scenes, where man hath never trod / A place where women never smiled or wept” (LP, 397). In “A Vision” his declamation of independence is scrawled over a banished earth: “I snatch’d the sun's eternal ray,—/ And wrote ‘till earth was but a name” (LP, 297). More blatantly apocalyptic are “An invite to Eternity” and “Song Last Day.” In the first, the greatest of Clare's visionary lyrics, his invitation to the unnamed maiden is to a wedding that will be celebrated only “When there’s nor life nor light to see / … Where life will fade like visioned dreams” and both space and time have been abolished (“the sky / Above, below, around us … / And past, and present all as one,” LP, 348-49). In the “Song” Clare exults in a cosmic vindictiveness:

When sun & moon are past away
& mingle with the blast … 
When towns & cities temples graves
All vanish like a breeze … 
When stars & skys shall all decay
& earth no more shall be
When heaven itself shall pass away
Then thou’lt remember me

(LP, 175-76)

The sense of Clare as Antichrist is here further evoked by the parody of “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.” It is in this poem and a “Fragment” that the familiar elements of the sublime most abound. In “Song Last Day” “sun and moon,” “roaring waves and wind,” “mountains,” “temples graves,” “thunders sulphurous,” “deadly thunder cloud,” etc. all appear only to be annihilated. Unlike his predecessors in the sublime tradition, Clare is not so much victimized by the destructive elements of the sublime as incarnate within them, not “astonished” or “struck dumb” by the sublime but voicing his Lear-like wrath in it. The condemned man in his “prison” has become the judge of the dies irae. And this temporary escape might be the closest Clare came to “real independence of mind” in the asylum.

Clare rarely found the courage and/or desperation to write in this dark prophetic vein, and even less frequently the strength of imagination to make coherent art of it. Like the nightmare landscapes themselves, the poetry is devoid of light if full of heat. “Fragment” is the last of Clare's visionary poems, but the vision is characteristically obscure and indistinct.

The cataract whirling to the precipiece
Elbows down rocks and shoulders thundering through
Roars, howls and stifled murmurs never cease
Hell and its agonies seems hid below
Thick rolls the mist that smokes and falls in dew
The trees and greensward wear the deepest green
Horrible mysteries in the gulf stares through
Darkness and foam are indistinctly seen
Roars of a million tongues and none knows what they mean

(LP, 766)

Oddly enough, what was to prove Clare's final effort in the sublime vein looks back to the beginnings of the tradition in Thomson's “Winter,”39 but the imagery reflects that peculiarly swift modulation from the sublime to the eschatological that is symptomatic of the imaginative extremism of which Clare himself was normally so wary. We are no sooner shown a precipice than Hell itself, no sooner mist than horrible mysteries, unnamed and indistinct as the darkness or foam. Perhaps necessarily indistinct. Clare, the poet of minutiae, who observed with painstaking and at times almost painful accuracy, is here presenting no observed scene—at least no scene observed “out there.” He never visited such a landscape in his life. But I doubt as well whether literary antecedents explain—though they may provide—these images, for if Clare never saw a precipice outside of galleries or his reading, he more than most of us had his glimpses of the abyss; if he never saw such a cataract and liquid smoke, his madness forced upon him a private viewing of analogous mysteries. Their furious cogency is suggested in the cacophony of the final line, which confesses to both the bewilderment of the poet and his limited success in articulating this aspect of his vision.

The poem is found on page 101 of the second volume of transcripts made in the 1840s and 1850s by W. F. Knight, house steward at Northamptonshire Lunatic Asylum, and judged by Eric Robinson as “probably broadly chronological” in arrangement (LP, xii). Overleaf we are transported from the wild and cryptic “Roars of a million tongues” to

My bonny young Mary the maid o’ the plough I feel such a something I cannot tell how

The flowers i’ the grass and the leafs on the bough And its a for young Mary the maid o’ the plough. …


  1. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984. Cited as LP with page number.

  2. John Clare's Autobiographical Writings, ed. Eric Robinson (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1983), p. 12. Cited as AW with page number.

  3. John Clare and Picturesque Landscape (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983).

  4. See AW, pp. 3, 8, and “January: A Cottage Evening” in The Shepherd's Calendar, ed. Eric Robinson and Geoffrey Summerfield (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1964). Cited as SC with page number.

  5. (London: Sinclair Browne, 1983), pp. 135-36, 142-43 and 70-72. See too Clare's treatment of a local haunted house in “The Lodge house A Gossips Tale,” AW, 87-96.

  6. Yale MS. published in A. J. V. Chapple, “Some Unpublished Poetical Manuscripts of John Clare,” Yale University Library Gazette, 31, No. 1 (July 1956), 48. The Prose of John Clare, ed. J. W. and Anne Tibble (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1951), p. 223.

  7. John Clare: The Critical Heritage, ed. Mark Storey (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973), pp. 143, 158. See also pp. 226-27, 263-64. Cited as CH with page number.

  8. John Clare: Selected Poems, ed. J. W. and Anne Tibble (London: Dent, 1965), pp.138-39. See too “The Churchyard,” LP, 364.

  9. See AW, 60 for a similar account of the trips to Maxey.

  10. See LP, 230, 327, 678, 680, 681, 708, 715, 757, 940, 954, 971, 973, 1001.

  11. Pierpont Morgan Library, MA 1320.

  12. AW, 37-38. See too p. 61 on Clare's “timid disposition” and fear of the dark, and p. 63 on local belief in witches.

  13. SC, xiv. Mark Storey, Ian Jack and Timothy Brownlow consider the poem Clare's finest achievement, and John Barrell calls it “the best expression of his pervasive and remarkably accurate sense of place” in The Idea of Landscape and the Sense of Place 1730-1840: An Approach to the Poetry of John Clare (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1972), p. 169.

  14. The Oxford Authors John Clare, ed. Eric Robinson and David Powell (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1984), pp. 199-200. Cited as JC with page number.

  15. Brownlow, p. 92.

  16. “The Sublime Poem: Pictures and Powers,” Yale Review, 58 (1969), 194-95.

  17. Originality and Imagination (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1985), pp. 151, 18.

  18. The Sublime: A Study of Critical Theories in XVIII-Century England (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor Paperbacks, 1960), p. iii.

  19. “Lecture de Longin,” Poétique: revue de théorie et d’analyse littéraires, 15 (1973), 303.

  20. The Romantic Sublime: Studies in the Structure and Psychology of Transcendence (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1976), pp. 5, 83, 93, 96.

  21. Cited in Marjorie Hope Nicolson, Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory: The Development of the Aesthetics of the Infinite (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1959), pp. 329, 278, 277, 215, 362. On the borderline-erotic “filling” of the soul see the remarks of John Baillie and Joseph Addison in Monk, pp. 54, 57.

  22. Cited in Walter J. Hipple, The Beautiful, the Sublime, and the Picturesque in Eighteenth-Century British Aesthetic Theory (Carbondale: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1957), pp. 153, 74.

  23. Cited in Theodore E.B. Wood, The Word “Sublime” and its Context 1650-1760 (The Hague: Mouton, 1972), pp. 68, 77, 90, 94, 154, 177.

  24. Cited in McFarland, p. 186.

  25. Kant cited in Monk, p.6. On this side of the Atlantic cf. Thoreau: “the infinite, the sublime, seizes upon the soul and disarms it … so sure as we meet them face to face, we yield.” See The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau: Early Essays and Miscellanies, ed. Joseph J. Moldenhauer and Edwin Moser with Alexander C. Kern (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1975), p. 99. The 1837 essay from which the statement is drawn dilutes sublime theory (see below) to “Whatever demands our admiration or respect is, in a degree, sublime.”

  26. See Monk, pp. 129, 220-21. For a different view of Burke's conception of the beautiful, not the sublime, as “closely related to the delights of sexual love,” see Jean H. Hagstrum, “Blake and British Art: The Gifts of Grace and Terror” in Images of Romanticism: Verbal and Visual Affinities, ed. Karl Kroeber and William Walling (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1978), p. 65. I find the traditional delineation of the beautiful in terms of tranquillity, order, delicacy and affection not very amenable to the disequilibrium and energy of Eros, though perhaps reconciliable with the traditional notion of Agape.

  27. The Portable Henry James, rev. ed., ed. Morton Dauwen Zabel (New York: Viking, 1968), p. 446.

  28. In developing a sequential model of the sublime moment Weiskel speaks not of paradox but of a succession of conflicting psychological states. While his delineation is true to sublime theory, it is perhaps a schematic ex post facto distortion of the phenomenon itself. See esp. p. 105 for his “chronological” analysis of the experience.

  29. Quoted by Christopher Hogwood, “Haydn in England,” p. 2 (liner notes accompanying Oiseau-Lyre disc 411 833-1).

  30. The Natural History Prose Writings of John Clare, ed. Margaret Grainger (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983), pp. 200, 182, 231.

  31. See AW, 78-82 and Bob Heyes, “John Clare and the Militia,” John Clare Society Journal, 4 (1985), 48-54.

  32. MS. in Berg Collection, New York Public Library.

  33. See Edward Storey, A Right to Song: the Life of John Clare (London: Methuen, 1982), p. 194 and Frederick Martin, The Life of John Clare (London: Macmillan, 1865) [2nd ed., London: Frank Cass and Co., 1964]. See too Arthur Symons' reference to “ill-health, over-work and drink” as causes of Clare's madness (CH, 301) and Dr. P.R. Nesbitt, superintendent of Northampton General Lunatic Hospital and Asylum after 1845, who “always understood Clare's affliction to have had its origin in dissipation” (cited in J. W. and Anne Tibble, John Clare: His Life and Poetry [London: Macmillan, 1956], p. 197).

  34. As alluded to in Clare's Don Juan A Poem. See C. V. Fletcher, “The poetry of John Clare, with particular reference to poems written between 1837 and 1864” (M. Phil. thesis, University of Nottingham, 1973), pp. 32-39, quoted in LP, 101-02. Edward Storey attributes Clare's “theater-going” to his second London visit of 1822 (p. 180).

  35. See Edward Storey, pp. 195-97.

  36. Quote from Ian Jack, “Poems of John Clare's Sanity” in Some British Romantics, ed. John Jordan, James Logan and Northrop Frye (Dayton: Ohio Univ. Press, 1966). The observation is adopted “as my motto” by Brownlow, p. 1.

  37. Cf. Raimonda Modiano, “Coleridge and the Sublime: A Response to Thomas Weiskel's The Romantic Sublime,” Wordsworth Circle, 9 (1978), 119: “Coleridge's reasons for excluding the negative sublime were largely personal. … For Coleridge, imaginative defeat, danger, fear, or pain were much too real and powerful.” Clare's confusion of aesthetic categories, noted above, is likewise paralleled in Coleridge's defensive transformation of the beautiful into a naturalized version of the sublime. See Elinor Shaffer, “Coleridge's Revolution in the Standard of Taste,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 28 (1969), 213-21.

  38. Spencer T. Hall in March 1866 (CH, 275); Mark Storey, The Poetry of John Clare (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1974), p. 15.

  39. As Robinson and Powell suggest in their footnote, quoting lines 102-05 of the poem: “it bursts a way / Where rocks and woods o’erhang the turbid stream; / There gathering triple force, rapid and deep, / It boils, and wheels, and foams, and thunders through.”

Lynn Pearce (essay date 1989)

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SOURCE: “John Clare's ‘Child Harold’: A Polyphonic Reading,” in Criticism, Vol. XXXI, No. 2, Spring, 1989, pp. 139-57.

[In the following essay, Pearce reads the “many voices” in Clare's “Child Harold” and analyzes the text “as a site of interaction between a number of independent voices and its subsequent resistance to closure.”]

Then he the tennant of the hall & Cot
The princely palace too hath been his home
& Gipsey's camp where friends would know him not
In midst of wealth a beggar still to roam
Parted from one whose heart was once his home

(“Child Harold”, Later Poems, 1, p. 62)

John Clare's “Child Harold” is a poem of many voices. One of the original manuscript versions (Northampton MS 6) is physically divided into a series of discrete stanza-song units by a system of line-divisions, and the above quotation indicates just some of the identities that the personal pronoun assumes in its picaresque wanderings after “the one whose heart was once his home.”1 The present article is an attempt to elucidate this contention by reading the poem against Bakhtin's notion of the polyphonic text as developed in his Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics. This will include reference to the following aspects of the text: (1) as a site of interaction between a number of independent voices and its subsequent resistance to closure; (2) its tendency towards simultaneity and co-existence rather than sequence and development; (3) its use of doubly-voiced speech (in particular, stylisation).2 The reading also depends substantially on the Bakhtinian theories of intonation as interpreted by various commentators, and I shall be especially concerned with the class registers represented by the different voices.

The reader unfamiliar with Clare criticism will doubtless find it hard to believe that such a modest proposal represents a radical challenge to previous “interpretations” of Clare's asylum poem. Largely on account of repeated efforts to establish his status as a respected Romantic poet, few scholars have appeared willing to submit Clare's writings to the same theoretical speculations as his more illustrious contemporaries. To actively “deconstruct” his work, or (as in this case) to question the existence of an authentic authorial voice that can be identified as the “essential” John Clare, would be deemed suicidal. Yet it is almost certainly this anxious inhibition, more than anything else, that has maintained Clare's position as a “minor poet”.

“Child Harold” is, indeed, a text that has suffered badly at the hands of traditional literary criticism. Most existing readings have deemed the poem a failure on account of the fact that it shows neither “development” nor “resolution”: the two major pre-requisites of a long poem.3 The very profundity of its indeterminacy has invited its readers to conclude that, while showing potential, it was nevertheless a victim of its author's mental instability, his inability to finish what he had begun. Admittedly the temptations to read the poem in biographical terms are great: the MS 8 version of the poem, for example, is physically interwoven with Clare's autobiographical account of his “Journey Out of Essex”.4 It seems curious, nevertheless, that bearing in mind the obvious instability of Clare's identity at this time (most commentators remark on the existence of his “delusions”), no-one has thought that the “I” of the poem might be similarly unstable. I would suggest that for the twentieth-century reader there are several reasons why it should seem preferable to read “Child Harold” as a text of not one, but many, voices. First there is the fact that Clare's writing shows a long history of poetic surrogacy; Clare was a prodigious imitator from his earliest years, and a great deal of his work bears very obvious inter-textual traces of other authors.5 Secondly, there is the whole weight of recent critical theory which, since Barthes's “Death of the Author,” has long resisted the easy association of the author and the personal pronoun. Meanwhile, if we turn specifically to Bakhtin, we are reminded that his conception of the polyphonic text depended absolutely on the rejection of any transcendent ego: true dialogue between voices is characterized by the fact that the author's voice is no way superior to that of his or her characters.6 Likewise, the free interplay between the different voices in “Child Harold” depends upon the fact that none may be thought identifiable with the author per se; none represents an “essential” John Clare. This returns us to the final reason for recognizing the existence of a number of different personal pronouns within the poem, and that is its formal organisation into a number of discrete sections (see note 1). The following reading will therefore demonstrate how the more substantial “units” of stanzas and songs correspond, on an intonational level, with a number of different narrative personae or voices. Yet this is not to propose that every stanza-song unit is commensurate with a single voice; on the contrary, a number of units establish an internal dialogue between two or more voices. Indeed, it is the extension of this dialogic activity from the macrocosmic organisation of the text, through to the interaction between voices, and extending even to the level of the sentence and the individual word, that constitutes the text's claim to full polyphonic status. To quote Bakhtin:

Dialogic relationships are possible not only among whole (relatively whole) utterances; a dialogic approach is possible toward any signifying part of an utterance, even toward an individual word, if that word is perceived not as the impersonal word of language but as a sign of someone else's semantic position, as the representative of another person's utterance; that is, if we hear in it someone else's voice. Thus dialogic relationships can permeate inside the utterance, even inside the individual word, as long as two voices collide within it dialogically. (Problems, pp. 184-5)

The following discussion focuses on six of the most readily characterized voices (or narratorial subject-positions) that constitute “Child Harold.” Three of these are analysed with respect to single stanza-song units, but it should be noted that the section on the two voices represented by the text's use of the traditional ballad genre is necessarily wider ranging, as is the section on biblical discourse. The article ends with an assessment of to what extent the interaction of these voices may be seen to profile Bakhtin's characterization of the “polyphonic text” as outlined above.

By far the most readily identifiable of the voices to be found in “Child Harold” is the “Byronic.”7 It is also the most pervasive, recurring in a number of individual songs and stanzas as well as in the longer sequences. There are, in addition, several single lines in the poem which directly, or indirectly, echo Byron's texts.8 Its most sustained presentation, however, is in the stanza-song unit beginning ‘My Life hath been one love—no blot it out’ (Later Poems, 1, p. 45) which consists of a sequence of eight stanzas and one song. Here the narrator presents himself as a bold lover or rake; a man who has had many loves, yet remained faithful to none:

I have had many loves—& seek no more—
These solitudes my last delights shall be
The leaf-hid forest—& the lonely shore
Seem to my mind like beings that are free
Yet would I had some eye to smile on me
Some heart where I could make a happy home in
Sweet Susan that was wont my love to be
& Bessey of the glen—for I’ve been roaming
With both at morn & noon & dusky gloaming

(Later Poems, 1, p. 47)

The key to the tone of this whole sequence is one of contempt and defiance: contempt for life, religion and death; defiance against authority, exile, and pain. In a tirade against “Madhouses Prisons Wh-re shops” and other corrupt institutions, the speaker assumes an arrogant superiority over both his listener and what Don Bialostosky has identified as “the object of the utterance.”9 According to Bakhtinian principles, it is, indeed, the power-relationship between the speaker and his/her interlocutors that essentially establishes the tone of an address, and here he asserts an unqualified domination over them. The authority is, moreover, a register of class. This is not a humble peasant-poet that speaks, but an aristocratic libertine who has the wealth and status that enable him to renounce the world—its deceits and hypocrisies—with contempt. Syntactically, as well as in their intonational stance, these stanzas bear an obvious debt to Byron, reproducing Don Juan's use of half and hanging lines, together with its ironic rhymes. In terms of Bakhtin's categories of doubly-voiced speech, this is very obviously stylisation, with the text retaining “the general intention of the original” while, at the same time, “casting a slight shadow of objectification over it” (see Note 2). And if, syntactically, these stanzas are a stylisation of Don Juan, the intonation itself can be seen to be imported directly from Childe Harold, whose narrator frequently assumes a voice of proud contempt towards a corrupt or fickle world.10 A specific analogy can be drawn between Childe Harold's response to a thunderstorm, and that annexed by Clare's speaker in the song that ends the unit. As will be seen from the following extracts, both protagonists seek divine supremacy over their “object of utterance”, the mortal world, through their communion with it:

Could I embody and embosom now
That which is most within me,—could I wreak
My thoughts upon expression, and thus throw
Soul, heart, mind, passions, feelings, strong or
                                                                                weak … 
And that one word were Lightning … 

(Childe Harold, Canto III, stanza xcvii)

Roll on ye wrath of thunders—peal on peal
Till worlds are ruins & myself alone
Melt heart & soul cased in obdurate steel
Till I can feel that nature is my throne

(“Child Harold”, Later Poems, 1, p. 48)11

The persona of this defiant and ironic lover reappears throughout the poem on occasions too numerous to mention here.12 The ‘Byronic’ voice is always immediately and obviously apparent because it repeats a specific power-relationship vis-à-vis its interlocutors, and because it is a blatant stylisation of many of Byron's own texts. It is important to realise, however, that while the Byronic voices represent a dominant discourse-type (aristocratic, educated, ruling-class), they are not themselves dominant within the text's overall polyphonic structure. For although these particular speakers assert the confidence of power, it is a power that can be swiftly undermined when heard in dialogue with a discourse of powerlessness. The cavalier defiance of a stanza like ‘Cares gather round’ (Later Poems, 1, p. 48) which ends the sequence we have recently been looking at, or a song like ‘The sun has gone down’ (Later Poems, 1, p. 43), is effectively sobered when read in juxtaposition to the pathetic ‘Ive wandered many a weary mile’ (Later Poems, 1, p. 49): and it is to such songs, representing the most powerless of the voices in the poem, that we now turn.

It is, of course, no coincidence the most vulnerable subject-positions are to be found in the songs. The Spenserian stanza is part of an elevated literary tradition, and its mastery indicates access to the education of the ruling classes. The song and ballad, by contrast, were the property of “the People” and their inclusion in Clare's oeuvre has always been regarded as appropriate for a peasant poet. Raymond Williams, for example, laments the fact that Clare, although well-placed to contribute to the oral tradition which he had inherited, was turned away from what should have been his “natural” idiom by a literary market moving in the opposite direction.13 Whatever one feels about this (and it is part of the purpose of this article to challenge the necessity of finding for Clare an authentic voice), “Child Harold” offers plenty of evidence that Clare never did forsake the popular genres. The example I have chosen to illustrate the way in which the stylistic simplicity and naïveté of such songs has been used to reinforce the pathos of the speaker is ‘I think of thee at early day’ (Later Poems, 1, p. 72). Here the vulnerability of the speaker's position may be seen to owe partly to his interrogative stance. Whereas the Byronic hero achieves his authority by stating his feelings and opinions (even if they are, in themselves, negative), here the speaker reveals his uncertainty by phrasing his concerns as questions:

I think of thee at early day
& wonder where my love can be
& when the evening shadows grey
O how I think of thee
I think of thee at dewy morn
& at the sunny noon
& walks with thee—now left forlorn
Beneath the silent moon
I think of thee I think of all
How blest we both have been
The sun looks pale upon the wall
& autumn shuts the scene
I can’t expect to meet thee now
The winter floods begin
The winter sighs through the open bough
Sad as my heart within

(Later Poems, 1, p. 72)

The extreme simplicity of the verse form here (the song is written in regular abab quatrains) combines with the impotence of the statement (he is able to do no more than “think of her”), to conjure up a speaker whose experience and expectations are likewise severely limited. In intonational terms, the speaker debases himself both before his subject of address and his object of utterance (in this case the very question of whether he will ever see her again). For although he addresses himself directly to “Mary,” his veneration is tentative and half-hearted. It is the voice of one who knows his laments will go unheeded and unheard; it begs for sympathy, but at the same time acknowledges that it will receive none. It is an expression of admiration, mixed with an admission of helplessness and shame. It is a voice that, in short, is in “hidden polemic” with a potential rebuff (see Note 2). Meanwhile, as one of the most pathetic voices in “Child Harold,” the wider dialogic effect of “I think of thee at early day” is made specific by its formal combination with another of the “Byronic” stanzas, “Abscence [sic] in love is worse than any fate” (Later Poems, 1, p. 71). Thematically united (both deal with the problem of absence), the pathos of the song is bizarrely juxtaposed to cynical conclusions of the stanza. While the latter views its “object of utterance” with contempt and disgust, the song, as we have seen, admits a helpless despair in the face of something it cannot even name. Whereas the power of the speaker in the stanza allows him to be critical of “Abscence” as an abstract concept, the powerlessness of the speaker in the song makes him a victim of its actuality.

Yet despite the generic suitability of the ballad form to the articulation of a victimized and socially inferior subject-position, it does not follow that it should always be put to this purpose. There are, indeed, in “Child Harold,” a number of other songs and ballads which engage with the oral folk tradition to produce relatively powerful registers of voice: these constitute the third of the voice-types to be discussed here, to which I now proceed.

In Bakhtinian terms, the ballads which come closest to an “unconditional imitation” of the folk genre are those whose speakers and addressees are anonymous and unspecified. One example of this is “Her cheeks are like roses” (Later Poems, 1, p. 68) which is built on clichés (“I will love her as long / As the brooks they shall flow”), giving its vows the authority of an ancient tradition. Whereas the previous song bespoke the fear and insecurity of the alienated ego, this, as a representative of an ‘immortal’ oral tradition is supremely confident:

Ere the flowers of the spring
Deck the meadow & plain
If theres truth in her bosom
I shall see her again
I will love her as long
As the brooks they shall flow
For Mary is mine
Whereso ever I go

(Later Poems, 1, p. 68)

For although the song includes a last verse which identifies the subject of the avowal as “Mary”, she remains, like the speaker, essentially archetypal: a simple vehicle of sentiment on which to hang a conventional declaration of love.

The dialogic significance of these songs in “Child Harold” is considerable, both within their individual units and within the poem as a whole. “Here's a health unto thee,” for example, comes at the end of a six-stanza unit whose internal homogeneity it severely disrupts (see Later Poems, 1, pp. 65-7). This sequence (to be discussed below), which begins with the stanza “Sweet comes the misty mornings in september,” develops a particularly elegant “meditative” tone of address that does not appear elsewhere in the poem, but which is rudely undermined by the song. This generic shift makes it impossible to entertain a common identity for the speaker of both stanzas and song. Instead, the two set up an incongruous dialogue with one another, with the cheerful lightness of the song effectively undermining the bourgeoise obsession of the stanzas. Here, again, we see the popular tradition challenging the seriousness of high literary discourse, proving that in intonational terms, power can never be simplistically reduced to class.

So far we have considered voices whose social dialects and their attendant power-relations represent extremes within the intonational spectrum. Not surprisingly, the poem yields others whose register is far more complex, with the speaker's tone revealing significant contradictions and paradoxes. This is certainly the case with the long stanza sequence beginning “This twilight seems a veil of gause & mist” (Later Poems, 1, pp. 49-52). On account of its Petrarchan imagery and a certain archaism of expression, I have posited the model for this discourse among the sixteenth and seventeenth-century poets that Clare read and imitated throughout his career. One of the most suggestive cross-references would seem to be with Sir Philip Sidney's Astrophil and Stella, which echoes not only the imagery but also many of the sentiments expressed in these sections of “Child Harold.” Stella, like Mary, is addressed as an object of enduring devotion; a love that is literally as immortal as the stars. Comparable, too, is a pervasive use of paradox and oxymoron, tropes endemic to the sixteenth-century court tradition. Finally, as with the Byronic influence, there are lines in “Child Harold” which would seem to directly plagiarize those found in Sidney's poem.14 With such obvious sympathies in sentiment, imagery, and phrasing, further similarity at an intonational level is only to be expected, and the eight stanzas comprising the sequence are all united by the same “courtly” deference to both listener and “object of address” that we find in Sidney. I quote the second and third stanzas:

Remind me not of other years or tell
My broken heart of joys they are to meet
While thy own falsehood rings the loudest knell
To one fond heart that aches too cold to beat
Mary how oft with fondness I repeat
That name alone to give my troubles rest
The very sound though bitter seemeth sweet
In my loves home & thy own faithless breast
Truths bonds are broke & every nerve distrest
Life is to me a dream that never wakes
Night finds me on this lengthening road alone
Love is to me a thought that ever aches
A frost bound thought that freezes life to stone
Mary in truth & nature still my own
That warms the winter of my aching breast
Thy name is joy nor will I life bemoan
Midnight when sleep takes charge of natures rest
Finds me awake and friendless—not distrest

(Later Poems, 1, p. 49)

Placed within the context of the sequence as a whole, moreover, it will be seen that the shifting subjects of address to be found in these two stanzas (from an unspecified interlocutor to Mary, and back again) extend to “Nature” in the first, “Sleep” in the fourth, and “England” in the fifth without any significant change in intonation. The same relationship between speaker, listener, and object of address is sustained throughout. This position of dignified subservience, which is in such stark contrast to the bravura of the Byronic sequence (discussed above), is further evidence of the complex dance of intonation and social register that make up the poem. For although the Petrarchan voice, like the Byronic one, is privileged in class-terms, it affects a position of powerlessness vis-à-vis its various interlocutors. And while, in the final two stanzas of the sequence, the speaker becomes newly assertive, defying both listener and circumstance with an aggressive declamation of his love: “For her for one whose very name is yet / My hell or heaven—& will ever be” (Later Poems, 1, p. 50), he remains, unlike his Byronic counterpart, subservient before his “object of utterance”: “To make my soul new bonds which God made free.” Supported by its distinctive sixteenth-century vocabulary and diction, this unit therefore constitutes another identifiable narratorial persona within the poem. It is also interesting to observe that, in this instance, the particular intonational quality of the stanzas is carried through into the song, “O Mary sing thy songs to me.”15

Yet Bakhtin's polyphonic text is characterised not simply by the articulation of independent voices, but by their relation to one another, and the final significance of the unit we have just considered lies in its positioning immediately after the “Byronic” sequence discussed earlier. This is one of the most distinctive breaks in the poem in intonational terms, comparable, as the critic William Howard has rightly observed, to the transition from a loud, fast, movement in a musical symphony, to a slow, soft, one.16 Between the “Thunderstorm” poem discussed above and “This twilight seems a veil of gause & mist,” there is a significant shift of power. As we have seen, a proud, disdainful lover is replaced by a humble, reverential one, and the inter-textual reference is no longer to Byron but to Sidney. In a sequential reading of the MS 6 version of the poem, this transition will be heard as one of its key junctures: an interface at which not only the voices, but other polarized features in the poem (such as the imagery) are brought together in dialogic confrontation.

The next group of voices to be considered are those associated with biblical rhetoric. The first rather surprising factor to note here is that, despite the fact that “Child Harold” is embedded in biblical material in its original manuscript sources, the incidence of explicitly biblical discourse in the poem itself is relatively small. While it is true that in MS 8 the physical inter-textualization of material makes a reading of “Child Harold” is unavoidably implicated in the biblical quotations and paraphrases which surround it, the MS 6 version bears few direct allegiances. The most significant exception are the two stanzas, “The lightenings vivid flashes” and “A shock, a moment in the wrath of God” (Later Poems, 1 p. 69). Here the rhetoric of prophecy combines with the imagery of apocalypse in an obvious cross-reference to the paraphrase from Revelations 21 and 22 to which the stanzas are juxtaposed in MS 6.17 Their significance in intonational terms lies in the fact that they contribute another “powerful” voice to the repertoire of the poem as whole: a speaker whose relation to both his speakers and his “object of utterance” invokes a divine authority, more uncompromising, even, than that of the Byronic Hero:

A shock, a moment, in the wrath of God
Is long as hell's eternity to all
His thunderbolts leave life but as the clod
Cold & inna[ni]mate—their temples fall
Beneath his frown to ashes—the eternal pall
Of wrath sleeps oer the ruins where they fell
& nought of memory can their creeds recall
The sin of Sodom was a moments yell
Fires death bed theirs their first grave the last

(Later Poems, 1, p. 69)

In Bakhtinian terms, the relation here between the speaker and the discourse is particularly interesting since the former, while anonymous, assumes the diction and intonation of the God he describes. It will be observed that each statement, made in the present tense, is ennunciated as an incontrovertible fact: a simple repetition of His “Truth.” This may thus be seen as a stylisation of biblical rhetoric, comparable to the previous stylisations of Byron, Sidney, and the ballad tradition. A similar transference of biblical authority is to be heard in the voice of the speaker in the stanza “& he who studies nature's volume through” (Later Poems, 1, p. 43). While not prophetic in the manner of the apocalyptic stanzas, this stanza likewise describes God's omnipotence in the voice of biblical sermonizing. “Thus saith the great & high & lofty one” (Later Poems, 1, p. 53), meanwhile, is an actual paraphrase of Isaiah 57. Incorporated into the sequence beginning “Now melancholly autumn comes anew,” the source for this stanza has apparently gone unnoticed by any of Clare's previous editors and critics. Robinson and Powell note an earlier version in MS D20, but fail to cite the paraphrase which occurs on the last page of MS 8 from which it evidently derives: “Thus Saith the High & lofty One that inhabits eternity whose name is holy ‘I dwell in the high & holy place, with him also that is of contrite & humble Spirit that trembles at my word.’” Unlike the other biblical stanzas, this one does not merely stylise the rhetoric of an omnipotent God, but incorporates direct quotation. In intonational terms, it therefore represents an interesting swing between the humility of the speaker (“Thou high & lofty one—O give to me / Truths low estate”) to the absolute authority of the Father himself. Most significant, however, is the way in which this stanza, based as it is on an external source, reads as in no way incongruous to the sequence into which it is inserted. The preceding and succeeding stanzas, addressed respectively to “Nature” and “Mary”, share a comparable intonational humility; clear evidence that homogeneity of tone is frequently more important than content in determining the aesthetic coherence of the written word. In conclusion it may thus be seen that the contribution of the scriptural voice to “Child Harold”'s overall polyphonic structure, while undoubtedly significant, is less wide-ranging than earlier commentators such as Mark Minor have implied.18 The stanzas cited here are the only ones which are specifically identifiable as scriptural in origin, to which may be added the “Thunderstorm” song discussed above. Together they constitute the deep bass of the poem's intonational spectrum: the discourse of absolute (because divine) power and authority; the polarized opposite of the powerless peasant exile.

The final voice I wish to deal with in this reading of “Child Harold”’s polyphonic composition cannot be ascribed to a single literary source. It belongs to the unit beginning “Sweet come the misty morning in september” and ends with the song “Heres a health unto thee bonny lassie O” (Later Poems, 1, pp. 65-7), discussed above. Consisting of six stanzas, this is one of the most unified sequences in the whole poem, both in terms of its intonational continuity and its imagery, which focuses on the cumulative metaphor of the “village bells.” The mood of the passage is reflective, and the nearest it comes to a literary model is probably the eighteenth-century meditation poem and its Romantic variant in texts like Wordsworth's Tintern Abbey:

Sweet comes the misty mornings in september
Among the dewy paths how sweet to stray
Greensward or stubbles as I well remember
I once have done—the mist curls thick & grey
As cottage smoke—like net work on the sprey
Of seeded grass the cobweb draperies run
Beaded with pearls of dew at early day
& oer the pleachy stubbles peeps the sun
the lamp of day when that of night is done
What mellowness these harvest days unfold
In the strong glance of the midday sun
The homesteads very grass seems changed to gold
The light in golden shadows seems to run
& tinges every spray it rests upon
With that rich harvest hue of sunny joy
Natures lifes Sweet companion cheers alone—
The hare starts up before the shepherd boy
& partridge coveys wir on russet wings of joy

(Later Poems, 1, p. 65)

It will be seen from the first two stanzas that the position of the speaker vis-à-vis his interlocutors is one of equanimity. This speaker venerates Nature, not from a position of subservience but as an intimate equal. In terms of a power relationship, this means that the voice in this unit exhibits neither the authority of the Byronic or biblical discourses, nor the (relative) humility of the Petrarchan passages. In its first five stanzas, the sequence registers a dialogue of equality between speaker, listener and “object of utterance.” It is a voice which is in consensus with its “future answer word”; where the speaker is in harmony with the world. Here is the fifth stanza:

Sweet solitude thou partner of my life
Thou balm of hope & every pressing care
Thou soothing silence oer the noise of strife
These meadow flats & trees—the Autumn air
Mellows my heart to harmony—I bear
Lifes burthen happily—these fenny dells
Seem Eden in this sabbath rest from care
My heart with loves first early memory swells
To hear the music of those village bells

(Later Poems, 1, p. 66)

This illusion of a reciprocal relationship based on equality, is, however, temporary. Although the reader may perceive in these first five stanzas a final escape from the power-struggle inherent in the other voices, and although s/he may read the absence of any recognisable stylisation as commensurate with an independent voice (be it Clare's own or that of an implied author), the final stanza delivers a sting that reveals the earlier equanimity to be a foil to a hidden obsession:

For in that hamlet lives my rising sun
Whose beams hath cheered me all my lorn life long
My heart to nature there was early won
For she was natures self—& still my song
Is her through sun & shade through right & wrong
On her my memory forever dwells
The flower of Eden—evergreen of song
Truth in my heart the same love story tells
—I love the music of those village bells

(Later Poems, 1, p. 67)

It will now be seen that the autumn landscape and ‘village bells’ addressed with such apparent innocence in the preceding stanzas are, in fact, metaphors for the beloved: “For she was natures self” [my italics]. This information causes the reader to redouble and re-assess both the semantic and the intonational impact of the sequence. Since we now know that nature and bells are not simply objects to which the speaker relates in democratic dialogue, but, instead, symbols for an object of reverence (Mary), our whole register of the power-relationship necessarily changes. The speaker is no longer equal with his object of utterance, but once again its subject and devotee. Despite the pride and triumph evident in the assertion of the final stanza, this speaker, like that of the Petrarchan sequence, is characterized by his reverential relationship to his interlocutor. What appeared as a passage of intonational harmony in the poem, proves, at last, but another variant in the power struggle between speaker and listener.

The six voices surveyed here are merely a representation of the total which constitute “Child Harold”. They were selected because they represent the most pervasive voices in the poem and, inevitably, the largest of the stanza-song units. Many of the remainder, including those occurring in the 1:1 stanza-song units are admittedly more difficult to characterize in terms of literary models, although all may be analyzed intonationally on the basis of the power-relationship between speaker, listener and “object of utterance” used throughout this reading. For intonation, to quote Clark and Holquist, is “the sound that value makes,” and all the voices which contribute to the polyphony of “Child Harold” can be registered at a particular point upon a scale that mixes literary models with class dialect in a complex dialectic of power.19 Dialogue here, as in the text's ambivalent approach to the Romantic Imagination, is essentially a dialogue between polarized opposites.20 The “powerful” voices of the Byronic aristocrat, the biblical prophet, and the ballad-singer, are continually challenged by that of the “powerless”: the peasant exile, the languishing courtly lover. Yet while these power relations are inscribed in class distinctions, they also cut across them. The ballad-singer uses the authority of the oral tradition to proclaim his love as proudly as the Byronic hero, while the Petrarchan lover, for all his literary sophistication, is representative of a discourse that is humble and ingratiating. Thus although the various voices which comprise the text are far from neutral politically, the power positions they represent intonationally are not necessarily commensurate with class. Neither do the voices which represent a dominant ideology and/or a dominant ideological position dominate the text's overall polyphonic structure. This brings us to the first of Bakhtin's criteria for the polyphonic text: the text as “a plurality of independent and unmerged voices and consciousnesses” (p. 6).

The Bakhtinian definition of the polyphonic text demands absolute equality amongst its voices, even as it necessitates the absence of a transcendent authorial presence:

A character's word about himself and his world is just as fully weighted as the author's word usually is; it is not subordinated to the character's objectified image as merely one of his characteristics, nor does it serve as a mouthpiece for the author's voice. It possesses extraordinary independence in the structure of the work; it sounds, as it were, alongside the author's word and in a special way combines both with it and with the full and equally valid voices of other characters. (p. 7)

“Child Harold” satisfies both of these conditions. Powerful and powerless voices are engaged in a dialogue that is without a final victor. The authority of the Byronic aristocrat always stands to be undermined by the doubt and pathos of the peasant exile. As in a reading of the formal composition of the manuscripts, it is in the juxtaposition of these positions that the text's essential dialogism is to be found. Sometimes the transition is between individual units (such as the juxtaposition of the Byronic and Petrarchan sequences at the beginning of the poem); sometimes it is within them. Everywhere in the text it will be seen that one voice knocks against its neighbour; challenging, supporting or undermining it. Some of these voices recur frequently throughout the text, or may, as in the case of the Byronic and biblical discourses, exist in intimate dialogue with one another.

One of the key features of “Child Harold” as a whole, moreover, is its inter-textual bias which locates many of the voices as imitations or stylisations of other literary genre. None of these voices, as a consequence, can be said to be that of the essential “John Clare”. The personal pronoun of this poem, as was noted at the beginning of the article, is a picaresque adventure, a chameleon who adopts many personae, but who resides permanently in none.

This plurality of voices and the absence of any authorial unifying consciousness is inevitably realised as a structural feature. The polyphonic text is distinguished both by its tendency to simultaneity and its resistance to closure: “The fundamental category of Dostoevsky's mode of artistic visualizing was not evolution, but co-existence and interaction” (Problems, p. 28). Formally divided into a number of discrete stanza-song units, “Child Harold” invites a synchronic rather than a diachronic reading. While there may be consecutive development within the individual groups, in the poem as a whole the voices must be thought of as being simultaneous with one another. The text, as Tim Chilcott has acknowledged with respect to Clare's asylum poetry in general, does not “evolve” as much as “revolve.”21 Meanwhile, because none of these voices is finally dominant and because, semantically, they come to no final “conclusions,” “Child Harold” fulfills the final Bakhtinian criterion of the polyphonic text in being without closure. No synthesizing voice marks the beginning of this text; no voice, the end. The symphonic finalé that William Howard has proposed, presenting the last song of the MS 6 text as the poem's natural and inevitable conclusion, is better replaced by the metaphor of the musical “round,” in which all the voices are located at various points on an ever revolving circle.22 At some points these voices will harmonize; at others, counter-point. At all times, however, they will maintain a polyphony that depends on the essential plurality of “unmerged consciousnesses.”


  1. Throughout his manuscripts Clare uses a system of line-divisions to indicate breaks in the text. A single under-line is used to separate individual stanzas and the verses of songs, while the double under-line always indicates the end of a piece of writing; be it song, stanza sequence, or biblical paraphrase. In Northampton MS 6 these line-divisions are of the utmost consequence since they effectively divide the poem into a series of discrete stanza-song units. The length of these stanza sequences varies considerably—from 1 to 8 stanzas—but all units end with a song. The distribution of the breaks (following the MS 6 order as published in the Robinson and Powell Later Poems (London: Clarendon, 1984), pp. 40-75) is as follows (with the oblique line [/] representing the end of each ruled-off unit): 1 stanza: 1 song / 1 stanza: 1 song / 1 stanza: 1 song / 1 stanza: 1 song / 8 stanzas: 1 song / 8 stanzas: 1 song / song / 4 stanzas: 1 song / 3 stanzas: 1 song / song / song / 2 stanzas: 1 song / song / 4 stanzas: 1 song / 1 stanza: 1 song / 6 stanzas: 1 song / 1 stanza: 1 song / stanza / 4 stanzas: 1 song / 1 stanza: 1 song / 1 stanza: 1 song / song. The reader will note that there are altogether five songs not belonging to a stanza group, but only one “independent stanza”’; the problematic “Honesty & good intentions are” (Later Poems, 1, p. 69). There has been long debate as to whether this stanza is part of the “Child Harold” poem. See Robinson and Summerfield's Later Poems (Manchester: Manchester Univ. Press, 1964), footnote p. 61, and Later Poems (1984), footnote p. 69, for contrasting points of view. No previous editors or commentators have noted the existence of these line-divisions, or their potential consequences for the reading of the poem. It should be noted, finally, that Northampton MS 19 is also divided up into stanza-song units in this way, although the units containing long stanza sequences are relatively few. A full description of the Northampton manuscripts is to be found in Chapter Four of my Ph. D. thesis: “John Clare and Mikhail Bakhtin—The Dialogic Principle: Readings from John Clare's Manuscripts 1832-1845” (University of Birmingham, England: 1987).

  2. References (given after quotations in the text) will be to Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, ed. and trans. Caryl Emerson (Manchester: Manchester Univ. Press, 1984). Since it is not possible to give a full explication of Bakhtin's theses, it is hoped that characteristics (1) and (2) of the polyphonic text cited here will become self-evident in the course of the reading. Bakhtin's four varieties of “doubly-voiced” speech are summarized by David Lodge as follows:

    Stylisation occurs when the writer borrows another's discourse and uses it for his own purposes—with the same general intention as the original, but in the process casting “a slight shadow of objectification over it”. … When such narration has the characteristics of oral discourse it is designated skaz in the Russian critical tradition. … Stylisation is to be distinguished from parody, when another's discourse is borrowed but turned to a purpose opposite to or incongrous with the intention of the original. … But there is another kind of doubly-oriented discourse which refers to, answers, or otherwise takes into account another speech-act never articulated in the text: hidden polemic is Bakhtin's suggestive name for one of the most common forms of discourse.” In “D. H. Lawrence and Dialogic Fiction,” Renaissance and Modern Studies, 29, 1985, 16-32.

  3. The dialectical model of the Imagination as a “journey through evil and suffering … to a greater good” as proposed by M. H. Abrams in Natural Supernaturalism (1971) has been especially influential in determining an appropriate schema for the long poem.

  4. “Child Harold” is to be found in two principal manuscripts: Northampton MS 6 and Northampton MS 8 (related material is also to be found in Northampton MSS 7, 49, 57 and Bodleian MSS Don. a. 8 and Don. c. 64). Of these sources, MS 8 is the earliest, being a small pocket-book Clare used first at the High Beech asylum, and then during his “escape”. As I have shown in my thesis, MS 8 is an extraordinary document in which poems, letters, paraphrases, accounts, and quotations are bizarrely juxtaposed. “Child Harold” and “Don Juan” are the two principal poems contained in the manuscript, while entries to the journal (“Journey Out of Essex”) frequently appear at the foot of the pages containing the poems.

  5. Earlier commentators have shown that Clare effectively learnt to write poetry by imitation, and kept up the practice throughout his career. During one period he also executed a number of successful forgeries, passing off imitations of various sixteenth and seventeenth-century poets as “lost manuscripts.”

  6. “Thus the new artistic position of the author with regard to the hero in Dostoevsky's polyphonic novel is a fully realised and fully consistent dialogic position, one that affirms the independence, internal freedom, unfinalizability, and indeterminacy of the hero. For the author the hero is not ‘he’ and not ‘I’ but a fully valid ‘thou,’ that is, another and autonomous ‘I’ (‘thou art’). (Problems, p. 63).

  7. In an “advertisement” which appears in MS 8 (p. 38) Clare refers to the poem as a ‘new canto’ of “Child Harold”, suggesting that he regarded his poem as an addition to Byron's work.

  8. See Robert Protherough: “A Study of John Clare's Poetry, with particular reference to the influence of books and writers on his development in the years 1820-1825” (unpublished B. Litt., Oxford, 1955). Protherough notes how the first lines of Byron's poems often acted as a stimulus for Clare, and cites several examples of this, including the first line of “Child Harold” (“Many are poets though they use no pen”).

  9. Working with Bakhtin's concept of intonation Don Bialostosky has identified the active agents in any given utterance thus: “Every instance of intonation is oriented in two directions: with respect to the listener as ally or witness and with respect to the object of the utterance as the third, living participant whom the intonation scolds or carresses, denigrates or magnifies. This whole social orientation is what determines all aspects of intonation and makes it intelligible”. Don Bialostosky, Making Tales: The Poetics of Wordsworth's Narrative Experiments (London: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1984).

  10. See Byron's Childe Harold, Canto III, stanza cxiv.

  11. See Byron's Childe Harold, Canto III, stanza cxiv.

  12. See for example: the opening stanza, “Many are poets—though they use no pen” (Later Poems, 1, p. 40); the song, “The sun has gone down” (Later Poems, 1, p. 43); the unit beginning “‘Tis pleasant now days hours begin to pass” (Later Poems, 1, p. 55); the stanza, “This life is made of lying & grimace” (Later Poems; 1, p. 59).

  13. John Clare: Selected Poetry and Prose, ed. Merryn and Raymond Williams (London: Methuen, 1987).

  14. See especially the MS 8 stanzas (presented at the end of the MS 6 text in Later Poems): “O she was more than fair—divinely fair” and “Her looks was like the spring her very voice” (p. 87) which adopt almost identical forms of eulogy to Sonnet 77 of Sidney's Astrophil and Stella.

  15. Note also the thematic continuity provided by the numerous references to “rest” in both stanza and song.

  16. See William Howard, John Clare TEAS (Boston: Twayne, 1981). Howard divides the poem into nine “movements” comparable to those of a musical symphony. The places he chooses for the breaks between movements are, however, very odd. With respect to the section of the poem in question, he proposes that the first movement end after the “Byronic” stanza “I have had many loves & seek no more.” This means that his second movement begins with “Cares gather round I snap their chains in two” and goes on to include the whole of the “Petrarchan” stanza sequence and the songs which follow. How he can have failed to observe a break between the “Thunderstorm” poem and “This twilight seems a veil of gause & mist” is hard to imagine.

  17. In MS 6 these stanzas occur in opening 18 (pp. 34-5) directly opposite the Revelations paraphrase (see Later Poems, 1, p. 150) which includes the lines: “From me into hell everlasting & fire / With the devil's own tortures & never expire.”

  18. See Mark Minor, “Clare, Byron, and the Bible: Additional Evidence from the Asylum Manuscripts”, Bulletin of Research in the Humanities, 85, Spring, 1982, 104-26. In this important article Minor discusses the thematic similarity between the paraphrases and the poems by grouping the former into categories such as “Promises or reminders of divine deliverance for Israel” and “Statements of Personal Affliction.”

  19. Michael Clark and Katerina Holquist, Mikhail Bakhtin London: Harvard Univ. Press, 1984). Clark and Holquist's explication of intonation is much to be recommended.

  20. In a later section of my thesis I use the dialogic model as a means of exploring the ambivalence towards the discourse of the “Romantic Imagination” in Clare's writing, through a close examination of its imagery and syntax. Whereas here I have considered dialogic activity between “relatively whole utterances”, there I use it as a means for “explaining” the oscillations which are present within individual stanzas and songs.

  21. See Tim Chilcott, “A Real World & Doubting Mind”: A Critical Study of the Poetry of John Clare (Hull: Hull Univ. Press, 1985), p. 228.

  22. Howard's reading of “Child Harold” is based on the assumption by no means incontrovertible, that Clare's “Winter Canto” is the “official” ending of the poem (i.e., he ignores the fact that the MS 8 stanzas—printed by Robinson and Powell immediately following the end of the MS 6 text—might have been written later). Even the fact that what he designates the “Winter Canto” consists of just one stanza and one song, does not deter him. He concludes: “Clare could not have added anything to ‘Child Harold’ without running the risk (already apparent in several stanzas and songs of the autumn canto) of being too repetitive. Contrary to the view that ‘Child Harold’ is an incomplete poem, the song ‘In this cold world without a home / Disconsolate I go’ brings the poem to a logical end.”

Further Reading

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Dawson, P. M. S. “John Clare.” Literature of the Romantic Period: A Bibliographical Guide, edited by Michael O’Neill, pp. 167-80. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998.

Extensive listing of the major textual editions, biographies, and critical studies in Clare scholarship.


Lucas, John. John Clare. Plymouth, U.K.: Northcote House Publishers Ltd., 1994, 86 p.

Brief biography detailing Clare's life and works.

Storey, Edward. A Right to Song: The Life of John Clare. London: Methuen, 1982, 330 p.

Intensive study with twenty-three chapters devoted to individual aspects of Clare's life.


Barker, Jonathan. “The Songs of Our Land Are Like Ancient Landmarks.” Agenda 22, Nos. 3 & 4 (Autumn-Winter, 1984-85): 78-89.

Reviews three contemporary collections of Clare's works.

Barrell, John. The Idea of Landscape and the Sense of Place, 1730-1840: An Approach to the Poetry of John Clare. London: Cambridge at the University Press, 1972, 244 p.

An authoritative volume focusing on Clare's pre-asylum poetry within the context of the enclosure of Helpston.

Brownlow, Timothy. John Clare and Picturesque Landscape. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983, 158 p.

Explores various aspects of Clare's work from roughly 1821 to the beginning of his “asylum” period, 1841.

Clare, Johanne. John Clare and the Bounds of Circumstance. Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1987, 217 p.

Concentrates on Clare's early poems—those written between 1809 and 1837—claiming that these “pre-asylum” works most clearly represent the time in the poet's career “when he was still able to face life with courage, curiosity, and hope.”

Haughton, Hugh, Adam Phillips, and Geoffrey Summerfield, editors. John Clare in Context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994, 313 p.

Contains twelve critical essays by such modern scholars as James McKusick and Mark Storey, addressing a variety of aspects of Clare's work.

Storey, Mark. The Poetry of John Clare: A Critical Introduction. London: Macmillan Press, 1974, 228 p.

In-depth study of Clare's poetry with chapters devoted to each creative period in the poet's life.

Additional coverage of Clare's life and works can be found in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 55 and 96; DISCovering Authors: British;DISCovering Authors Modules: Poets; and Poetry Criticism, Vol. 23.

James C. McKusick (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: “‘A language that is ever green’: The Ecological Vision of John Clare,” in University of Toronto Quarterly, Vol. 61, No. 2, Winter, 1991, pp. 226-49.

[In the following essay, McKusick explores Clare's ecological consciousness. singling the poet out for his sensitivity toward nature and his vehement support for environmental preservation, and calling his oeuvre “a powerful and suggestive model for contemporary ecological writing.”]

John Clare described himself on the title page of his first collection of poems as a ‘Northamptonshire Peasant,’ a bold assertion of regional identity that situated his voice in an East Midland county that was becoming increasingly a zone of ecological conflict, marked by unequal struggle between the advocates of parliamentary enclosure and the forlorn adherents of the older, sustainable methods of open-field agriculture. The arguments advanced in favour of parliamentary enclosure during the early nineteenth century will sound familiar to late twentieth-century readers still subjected to the insidious rhetoric of Progress: it was claimed that the enclosure of common fields and ‘waste’ land would rationalize the existing patchwork of land-ownership and enhance the productivity of agriculture by providing an incentive for individual farmers to exploit their newly consolidated plots with maximum efficiency. Swamps and marshes would be drained, streams would be rechannelled, forests and scrublands would be cleared, and subsistence farming in general would give way to capital-intensive agriculture. Overlooked in the arcane legal and political process of enclosure were the traditional grazing and gleaning rights of the poor, as well as the environmental impact of this radical change in agricultural methods. Parliamentary enclosure proceeded by legal consensus among various classes of landholders; only a few voices were raised to question the fate of the poor, and virtually nobody questioned the fate of the earth.1

Clare entered this discursive minefield with the publication of his first collection, Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery (1820), which forth-rightly denounced the ‘improvement’ of his local environment while evoking with elegiac melancholy the gradual disappearance of the common fields, marshes, and ‘waste’ lands, and the extinction of an entire way of life in harmony with the natural cycles of the day, season, and year.2 Clare's poems typically represent the landscape through the point of view of a local resident, often a peasant, shepherd, or woodman, or even within the imagined consciousness of a native animal, plant, or waterway. Clare's environmental advocacy is more fully developed in his later collections of poetry, entitled The Village Minstrel (1821), The Shepherd's Calendar (1827), and The Rural Muse (1835), and in his numerous manuscript poems, letters, and journals. Taken together, his works convey a detailed knowledge of the local flora and fauna, an acute awareness of the interrelatedness of all life-forms, and a sense of outrage at the destruction of the natural environment. Clare's poetry engages ecological issues with an intensity and breadth of vision that is largely unprecedented in the Western tradition of nature-writing; indeed, Clare's unique accomplishment in combining a deep sensitivity for natural phenomena with forceful environmental advocacy clearly entitles him be regarded as the first ecological writer in the English literary tradition.

The social and political contexts of Clare's poetry have been thoroughly scrutinized from a variety of critical perspectives. John Barrell has examined in precise historical detail the impact of the Enclosure Acts on Clare's native village and the reflection of that traumatic process in Clare's early poetry. Johanne Clare, in a wide-ranging and sympathetic study of Clare's response to contemporary social issues, elucidates the connection between Clare's evolving articulation of political beliefs and his depiction of natural landscape. Raymond Williams, in a recent edition of Clare's poetry and prose, has made perhaps the most unequivocal plea for Clare as a spokesman for the English working class.3 However, the truly radical and innovative character of Clare's ecological consciousness still remains obscured by other aspects of his reputation, especially his received image as an uneducated ‘peasant poet’ who perhaps deserves our pity, but who certainly is unworthy of serious intellectual consideration. Yet it is precisely the unconventionality of Clare's poetic vision that prevented his work from being adequately published or recognized in his own lifetime, and that still impedes an adequate critical response to his most unothodox ideas. One of the most perceptive comments on Clare's reputation is made by Geoffrey Summerfield: ‘Academics have tended to … [consign] Clare to the outer ditches and hedgerows. The poets, however, have always known better: Edward Thomas, Robert Graves, [Edmund] Blunden, James Reeves, Dylan Thomas, John Hewitt, Theodore Roethke, Charles Causeley, John Fowles, Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney have all borne witness to his fructifying presence in their lives as readers and writers.'4 Perhaps as a result of Clare's growing reputation as a poets' poet, as well as the ongoing publication of the definitive Oxford edition of his poetry, we are now on the brink of much broader popular and academic awareness of Clare. Yet in order to assess the scope and originality of his poetic achievement, the ecological dimension of his thought needs to be more widely recognized and understood. His poetry provides a powerful and suggestive model for environmental advocacy, while it also carries enormous historical significance as one of the inaugurating moments of ecological consciousness in English literature.


Clare's originality as an ecological writer may best be demonstrated by situating him within the larger context of the Western tradition of nature-writing. Nature-writing has very deep historical roots, harking back to the archetypal image of the Garden, as canonically represented in the Garden of Eden, and often described in the classical mode of pastoral poetry as the locus amoenus or ‘pleasant place,’ a garden of earthly delights. The pastoral eclogues of Theocritus and Virgil, despite their evident artificiality, should not be disregarded in examining the origins of ecological consciousness. The pastoral mode was to provide one of the most enduring and influential modes of expression for environmental awareness throughout the history of literature, representing the life of simple shepherds as a desirable alternative to the stress and frivolous consumption of city-dwellers. Throughout the history of Western technological development, the pastoral mode has provided a vicarious escape to the green world of field and forest, and (with varying levels of seriousness and sincerity) has advocated a return to a sustainable, low-tech agricultural lifestyle. Raymond Williams, in The Country and the City, has exposed the material basis of the pastoral ideal as it developed from these classical precursors into the full-blown pastoral poetry of Sidney, Spenser, Marlowe, Herrick, and Marvell. Williams argues that the pastoral mode, in its presentation of an idealized golden age, tends to efface the harsh working conditions of agricultural labourers; but despite this element of distortion—typically the result of a dominant ideology—there often remains a firm foundation of vividly realized images drawn from country life.5 During the eighteenth century, the pastoral ideal was re-externalized in the construction of ‘English gardens’ that imitated the idyllic disorder of natural landscapes, rather than formal geometric patterns. The English landscape, it was believed, by thoughtful care and nurturing, could return once again to the primal innocence of the garden of Eden.

This archetypal image of the Garden is related (at a deep psychic and historical level) to the feminine principle of fertility and abundance, represented in Paleolithic fertility figures and in the ancient cult of Gaia, the pre-patriarchal earth-goddess.6 Analogues of the Great Goddess occur in many ancient cultures, such as Isis in Egypt, Ishtar in Canaan, the Sumerian goddess Nanshe, and the Celtic goddess Cerridwen. Greek mythology tended to personify diverse attributes of this goddess, regarding Demeter, Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite as discrete embodiments of this generative yet destructive female power, which also manifested its uncanny presence in the Bacchic orgies and the Eleusinian Mysteries. The Christian tradition, despite its alleged patriarchal and logocentric tendencies, has always found a place for the corresponding embodiments of female power in the figures of Eve, who assured Adam of an earthly destiny, and Mary, who nurtured Christ in an earthly body. The Christian doctrine of the human stewardship of nature, often dismissed as environmentally exploitive, nevertheless proved congenial to St Francis of Assisi, whose intensely joyful ‘Canticle to Brother Sun’ (c 1225) should be recognized as an early aspiration towards total harmony with the generative forces of nature. These forces are embodied for St Francis in the figure of ‘Mother Earth, who nourishes and watches us while bringing forth abundance of fruits with colored flowers and herbs.’7 The final strophe of this canticle, addressed to ‘Sister Death,’ invokes the complementary destructive aspect of nature. St Francis's acceptance of poverty, his work among marginal social groups (including lepers, robbers, beggars, and Saracens), his advocacy of peace, and his fondness for animals, make him an attractive role-model for modern environmentalists, suggesting (among other things) that ecological awareness must go hand in hand with individual responsibility and social activism.8

Growing up alongside the literary and religious traditions of nature-writing, but at first largely distinct from them, was the scientific tradition of natural history prose. From Aristotle's various treatises on animals, this tradition developed through Pliny's comprehensive Historia Naturalis (c 77 ad), which inspired numerous medieval herbals and bestiaries. The Renaissance brought a renewed emphasis upon empirical observation; Francis Bacon called upon scientists to investigate nature rather than books, and his appeal eventually bore fruit in the weighty Transactions of the Royal Society (1665-), with its motto, nullius in verba (‘nothing in words’). Meanwhile, John Ray's treatise entitled The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of the Creation (1691) promoted the scientific study of nature from a non-anthropocentric viewpoint, foreshadowing modern ecological thought by emphasizing each creature's participation in a cosmic plan, a clockwork universe cunningly constructed by a watchmaker God. William Derham's Physico-Theology, or, A Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God from His Works of Creation (1713) was a further development of Ray's views, advancing the study of natural history through its perception of total design in nature, and focusing especially on the adaptation of organisms to their habitats.9 But the holistic view of natural phenomena advanced by the physico-theologists was not sustained in the eighteenth century, an era of rational analysis that fostered an essentially taxonomic approach to natural history. The effort to describe and catalogue all known species was launched by Linnaeus in his famous Systema Naturae (1735), which proposed a Latin nomenclature of genus and species for all flora and fauna; henceforth the common vernacular names would be discarded by most scientists in favour of these bloodless but precise Latin terms.10

The rebirth of empirical science in the Renaissance also marked the (re)discovery of the New World and its teeming wilderness, vividly described by European explorers from Christopher Columbus onward. In the English language this exploratory genre of natural history writing takes shape with Thomas Harriot's A Brief and True Report of the new found land of Virginia (1588), which extravagantly praises the fertility of the New World and catalogues several of its species. Harriot's account, along with many others, was published in Richard Hakluyt's Voyages (1589-1600), a vast compendium of Elizabethan travel-writing that contains extensive descriptions of exotic flora and fauna in their remote habitats. During the eighteenth century, the breathless tone of New World exploration was sustained by William Bartram's Travels through North and South Carolina (1791), which describes risky close encounters with Indians and alligators, while a gentler, more domestic landscape prevails in Crevecoeur's Letters from an American Farmer (1782). Meanwhile Captain Cook's scientific expeditions girdled the globe, gathering specimens of unknown flora and fauna from uncharted Pacific islands and the trackless wilderness of Australia. Joseph Banks, the leader of the scientific party on Cook's first voyage and later the President of the Royal Society, became a major figure in the popular dissemination of natural history knowledge, encouraging the scientific expeditions of younger naturalists and establishing Kew Gardens as an open-air laboratory for the propagation of the exotic flora discovered on their voyages. All of these British naturalists applied the prevailing Linnaean nomenclature, describing their taxonomic discoveries in precise but rather colourless prose studded with the Latin names for genus and species.

Closer to home, pastoral poetry was becoming imbued with the empirical spirit of scientific description, augmenting the classical and Renaissance pastoral mode with a more circumstantial depiction of rural landscapes. Ambrose Philips incorporated some realistic details of English country life in his Pastorals (1709), earning him the derisive nickname ‘Namby Pamby’ and the vehement scorn of Alexander Pope, who cultivated a more austere classical correctness in his own Pastorals (also published in 1709). Most notable in this new vein, however, is James Thomson's Seasons (1726-30), which marks a fresh departure in the presentation of natural phenomena in English verse. Unlike most of his precursors in the pastoral tradition, Thomson does not confine himself to the abstract evocation of rural landscapes, but projects an air of facticity through the taxonomic description of actual species, while admitting pests, parasites, predators, hazardous marshes, gloomy mountains, and frightful storms into the world of his poem. Thomson's miscellaneous farrago of pastoral convention, scientific description, and sublime scenery proved to be one of the most popular and enduring poetic modes of the eighteenth century, closely imitated by the later poets of Sensibility such as William Collins, Thomas Gray, and William Cowper, and ardently admired by the first-generation Romantic poets. Thomson's Seasons was the first book of poetry that John Clare ever purchased (at age thirteen), and it exerted a strong formative influence on his poetic style and his way of representing the English landscape.

The tradition of Sensibility, as it developed from Thomson through the poets of the later eighteenth century, falls short of an authentically ecological understanding of the natural world; it reflects an essentially touristic and hierarchical awareness centred on the most spectacular or ‘sublime’ aspects of nature, and it dramatizes the poetic persona in its sensitive, tasteful response to these outlandish phenomena. The poet is just passing through, on his way to ever more astonishing and delightful scenes; he is not a native inhabitant, and he knows little about the local environment or the everyday activities of the local residents. Even Cowper, the most ‘rooted’ of these poets, shares Thomson's tendency to privilege dramatic response over circumstantial description. In Cowper, however, we find the most articulate expression of a concern for the rights of animals, a crucial aspect of ecological awareness that had only gradually gained prominence during the eighteenth century, challenging the Cartesian view of animals as unfeeling automata and the prevailing conception of nature as an inexhaustible stockpile of raw materials to be exploited for human use. In The Task (1784), Cowper argues that all created beings possess intrinsic value, not just utility for human purposes: ‘they are all—the meanest things that are—/ As free to live, and to enjoy that life, / As God was free to form them at the first.’11 Cowper expressed his commitment to animal rights in his tenderness for small, helpless creatures, even worms and snails; among his contemporaries, Samuel Johnson, Lawrence Sterne, Christopher Smart, and William Blake expressed a similar solicitude for animals, along with a growing sense of ‘th’oeconomy of nature's realm’ as possessing value in its own right, distinct from human purposes.12 This increased respect for the autonomy of the natural world, and the corresponding view of human beings as responsible for the integrity of that world, was a vital legacy of the poetry of Sensibility.

George Crabbe injected a further note of realism into his depiction of village life, acknowledging the difficult working conditions of agricultural labourers in The Village (1783). Crabbe expresses deep sympathy for the rural poor, and his evocation of social and environmental devastation due to exploitive farming practices is unprecedented in the pastoral tradition, which had tended to depict a timeless, idealized mode of existence. Crabbe rehistoricizes the landscape by representing it as the product of class conflict and technological innovation, and in this respect he foreshadows the poetry of John Clare, where the impoverishment of the land and people is regarded as the tragic outcome of a concrete historical process. Clare greatly admired Crabbe, and often imitated him (especially in his early poetry), but he nevertheless considered Crabbe to be an outsider, an itinerant ‘parson poet’ lacking the first-hand experience of a native inhabitant or a member of the working class, and thus liable to a patronizing tone that undercuts the validity of his social and environmental critique:

I have seen 1 vol of Crabb (last winter) called ‘Tales’ I lik’d here and there a touch but there is a d—d many affectations among them which seems to be the favourite play of the parson poet— … whats he know of the distress of the poor musing over a snug fire in his parsonage box—if I had an enemey I coud wish to torture I woud not wish him hung nor yet at the devil my worst wish shoud be a weeks confinement in some vicarage to hear an old parson & his wife lecture on the wants & wickedness of the poor13

Despite his genuine sympathy for the poor, Crabbe maintains a detached, moralistic perspective that prevents him (in Clare's opinion) from fathoming the real situation of the land and people or discovering a workable solution to their problems. Just as all politics is local, so too all ecology is local; and a true ecological writer must be rooted in the landscape, instinctively attuned to the changes of the earth and its inhabitants.

William Wordsworth has often been regarded as a climactic figure in the development of ecological consciousness. He was a native inhabitant of the Lake District, and his poetry, beginning with Descriptive Sketches and An Evening Walk (both published in 1793), expresses a deep intuitive knowledge of his native region while adapting the poetic conventions of Sensibility to a more intense imaginative response to natural phenomena. These early poems depict the picturesque landscape of the Lake District and the sublime mountain scenery of the Alps in the approved Thomsonian manner, but they clearly grow out of a detailed knowledge of the local environment. Wordsworth's contributions to Lyrical Ballads (1798) are less concerned with sublime scenery than they are with everyday occurrences among people who live in harmony with their natural surroundings.14 In particular, his poem ‘Michael’ (1800) imparts historical realism to the pastoral mode by describing actual English shepherds attempting to live a simple, independent life in a remote corner of the Lake District. Despite their best efforts, however, these shepherds are ultimately trapped in the tentacles of the mercantile urban culture. In his concern for the economic fate of the local people, and his valiant efforts to mitigate the environmental impact of the proposed Kendal and Windermere Railway, Wordsworth inaugurates a new era of environmental activism.15

In his most characteristic works, however, Wordsworth tends to subordinate the description of nature to the inward exploration of poetic self-consciousness. Even more than Thomson, Wordsworth seeks to dramatize the subjective response of the beholder, so that in ‘Tintern Abbey’ (1798) and The Prelude (1850) the essential narrative development consists of the growth of the poet's mind as it evolves from an unmediated pleasure in natural objects towards a more mediated response that exults in the power of imagination to modify and recombine the objects of perception. This quintessentially Romantic celebration of self-consciousness—what Keats called the ‘wordsworthian or egotistical sublime’—exists in uneasy tension with a more circumstantial depiction of nature, and it often threatens to obliterate the concrete detail that provides its empirical foundation.16 Dorothy Wordsworth, in her Grasmere Journals, describes how she once took a walk with her brother and discovered a group of daffodils, along with a few ‘stragglers,’ by the lakeshore. In William's poetic revision of this account, these ‘stragglers’ are omitted, along with their habitat of ‘mossy stones’ and even his erstwhile companion; only the abstract ‘host of golden daffodils’ remains as an emblem of the imagination's power to recreate experience.17 For Wordsworth, this imaginative power is fundamentally at odds with the detailed perception of flora and fauna, or the discovery of their complex interrelations; and for this reason he falls short of a truly ecological understanding of the natural world.

Gilbert White, another great admirer of Thomson, found it possible to combine the mode of Sensibility with the scientific precision of natural history, enabling him to compose The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne (1789), a landmark in the development of ecological consciousness. This delightfully rambling and anecdotal collection of informal letters seeks to encapsulate a complete ‘parochial history’ of the district of Selborne, providing not merely a dry taxonomic description of its flora and fauna, but a detailed account of each species' habitat, distribution, behaviour, and seasonal variation or migration.18 White falls short of a fully ecological understanding of his native parish, paying little heed to the interaction among species or the pervasive environmental impact of human activity; but his scrupulous attention to the living organism in its local habitat marks a significant step beyond the single-minded specimen-collecting and cataloguing that typifies eighteenth-century natural history.19 White's penchant for anecdotal presentation, and his frequent use of vernacular or dialect words to supplement the ‘official’ Linnaean nomenclature, likewise pioneers a new, more colourful and engaging kind of nature-writing. Moreover, despite his conservative political views, White took a sympathetic interest in the poor people of his parish, seeking on one occasion to defend their common rights against the threat of enclosure.20 White's intense curiosity about the habitat and behaviour of birds and animals, his lively anecdotal mode of presentation, and his use of informal vernacular language would later prove essential to John Clare as he struggled to express his own poetic vision of the natural world. Clare possessed two different editions of White's Natural History, and it is largely from this work that Clare evolved the means of expression and the technique of description that enabled him to become the first true ecological writer in the English-speaking world.21


John Clare's writing is grounded in the bedrock of his lifelong affection for the land and people of his native village, Helpston (or Helpstone, as he spelled it, perhaps with punning reference to its solidity as a point of geographic and psychological reference). One of his earliest poems, ‘Helpstone,’ appears at the beginning of his first published book, Poems Descriptive of Rural Life, thus establishing a frame of reference for the subsequent poems in the collection and bearing witness to the priority that he accorded to his sense of rootedness in the local environment. While deploring the changes that economic ‘progress’ has brought to the village—the wholesale destruction of forests and wetlands, the disappearance of streams, and the enclosure of common fields—Clare still retains his memory of the unspoiled landscape that he knew in his youth, which he evokes in loving detail. He idealizes his own childhood, not in the trite sentimental way that became fashionable in much post-Wordsworthian poetry, but as a means of intensifying the qualities of perception and playful spontaneity that make possible an unselfconscious love for the local environment. Given a choice between the ‘innocence’ of childhood and the painful ‘experience’ of a cold, calculating adulthood, Clare (like Blake) will advocate innocence as a form of protest against organized cruelty and oppression.

In ‘Helpstone,’ Clare evokes the ‘happy Eden of those golden years’ of childhood, affirming his solidarity with the plants, animals, insects, and waterways of his ‘native place.’ In a typical passage, Clare describes a ‘vanish’d green,’

Where flourish’d many a bush & many a tree
Where once the brook (for now the brook is gone)
Oer pebbles dimpling sweet went wimpering on
Oft on whose oaken plank I’ve wondering stood
(That led a pathway o’er its gentle flood)
To see the beetles their wild mazes run
With getty jackets glittering in the sun(22)

Clare's memory of the brook is coloured by his present awareness that ‘now the brook is gone,’ leaving in its place only the silence and desolation that his poem must seek to replenish through the vigour and specificity of its descriptive language. So the gentle motion of the brook is evoked through the vivid dialect term ‘wimpering,’ meaning to ripple or meander, and the submerged metaphor of ‘dimpling sweet,’ likening the brook to a smiling human face. The evident anthropomorphism of this latter expression, along with the ‘getty jackets’ of the beetles, may be justified by the implied perspective of childhood; to a young child, all natural objects seem animated, aware, and responsive to its own consciousness. Like imaginary playmates, the beetles dart and frolic in the sun, while the brook confers a gentle, maternal presence. The scene is observed through the eyes of a wondering child, poised precariously on a narrow plank above the stream.

Clare's experience of the local environment is that of a native inhabitant, one who has experienced the landscape with the freshness and vividness of a child and has managed to convey something of that youthful perspective into the poetry of his adulthood. Throughout his career, he explicitly sought to enhance the ‘locality’ of his writing, expressing the apprehension that even in his most extended work to date, an autobiographical poem entitled ‘The Village Minstrel,’ he had failed to achieve an adequate intensity of description: ‘The reason why I dislike it is that it does not describe the feelings of a rhyming peasant strongly or localy enough.’23 Clare is not primarily concerned here with the level of factual detail that we might call ‘local colour’; rather, he is seeking to evoke a more profoundly affective dimension of his poetry, which might be specified as an authentic sense of rootedness in the local environment. What is essential to Clare's sense of ‘locality’ is not the sheer quantity of factual information on local flora and fauna, but a deeper sense of the relation of all creatures to a habitat in which the human observer is also implicated. The scope and originality of Clare's ecological vision emerges from this commitment to his local environment, a ‘native place’ where the ‘rhyming peasant’ can gain an intimate knowledge of the interrelationship of all life forms. Rather than merely loving ‘Nature’ in the abstract, as Wordsworth is prone to do, Clare eagerly participates in the natural process that unfolds around him in the teeming forests, fields, and fens of Northamptonshire.

Clare brings to his poetry a remarkably detailed and accurate knowledge of local wildlife; indeed, he has been described as ‘the finest naturalist in all of English poetry.’24 Even as a child, he was quite curious about wild birds and animals, and his knowledge greatly increased during his adult life. He was not primarily interested in the taxonomic knowledge provided by the Linnaean tradition of natural history; he knew no Latin and was not especially interested in the ‘official’ Latin terms for genus and species. However, he was able to identify most local flora and fauna by sight, using the vernacular and dialect terms that he had learned from his parents, friends, and fellow labourers, finding these sufficient for his needs and more ‘natural’ than the arcane Latin terms.25 Unlike most contemporary naturalists, Clare detested the practice of specimen-collecting, preferring to observe birds, and even butterflies, on the wing. Like Gilbert White, he made careful observations of each species' habitat, distribution, behaviour, and seasonal variation or migration, recording his extensive observations in a series of journal entries and informal letters to his publisher, James Hessey, for a projected Natural History of Helpstone. These materials remained unpublished until 1951, when they were collected in The Prose of John Clare; they have since been re-edited by Margaret Grainger in The Natural History Prose Writings of John Clare (1983), a volume that has added greatly to our understanding of Clare as a close observer of the natural world.

Clare's view of nature departs definitively from the utilitarian view of the natural world that prevailed among many of his contemporaries. While Clare rejoices in the beauty of the earth, he does not primarily see it as existing for human purposes, and he resists its appropriation for economic use or even aesthetic contemplation. The natural world is not comprised of ‘resources,’ or ‘scenery’; Clare regards himself as a normal participant in the living world around him, just another inquisitive mammal going about its daily activities. As a result, his poems rarely ‘set the scene’ in the approved picturesque manner; he provides an accumulation of close-up details rather than sweeping perspectives.26 Like Gilbert White, Clare tends to present these details in a rambling, anecdotal fashion that undercuts the expectation of narrative development, effacing indications of chronology or causality in favour of a synchronic moment that reflects the daily and seasonal patterns of agricultural activity and biological existence. Clare often situates his poems in morning or evening, summer or winter, but he rarely provides a precise index of clock time or calendar date.27 The events recounted in his poetry are said to occur frequently or customarily, and several of his poems begin with the phrase ‘I love to … ’ which likewise indicates frequently repeated activity. This frequentative mode is at odds with the dominant Western cognitive categories of causality and chronology, placing his poetry outside the technological mainstream and within an alternative cultural tradition that is more in harmony with the biotic rhythms of the natural world.

Clare's intense engagement with the natural world, his respect for the local environment as an autonomous realm, and his projection of his experience in a mode of presentation that elides chronological difference enable his deep insight into the interdependence of all living things, an insight that is virtually unprecedented in the English-speaking world and constitutes the core of his originality as an ecological writer. Clare's vision of the natural world as a diverse array of species living in symbiotic relationship is expressed most clearly in ‘Shadows of Taste,’ a poem that serves as an explicit manifesto for his new way of comprehending the local environment. In this poem, he denounces the ‘man of science’ whose mania for specimen-collecting leads to cruelty rather than knowledge:

While he unconscious gibbets butterflies
And strangles beetles all to make us wise(28)

This ‘man of science,’ with his narrowly taxonomic view of nature, is unconscious of the symbiosis of all species in the local ecosystem, an insight that can only be achieved through the observation of living things in their unspoiled natural environment.

This green world, ‘Natures wild Eden wood and field and heath,’ is truly accessible only to an observer who respects the integrity of living things in their native habitat, or ‘dwelling place.’ Such an observer, says Clare, can attain a holistic perspective:

He loves not flowers because they shed perfumes
Or butterflies alone for painted plumes
Or birds for singing although sweet it be
But he doth love the wild and meadow lea
There hath the flower its dwelling place and there
The butterfly goes dancing through the air

(John Clare, 173)

From this essentially ecological perspective, the individual organism is not regarded as valuable for its economic or aesthetic qualities considered in isolation, but for its participation in a larger community of living things. Such a community is a ‘dwelling place’ for many different species. Clare describes one such biological community, a stunted oak tree that supports a thriving assortment of plants and animals:

He loves each desolate neglected spot
That seems in labours hurry left forgot
The warped and punished trunk of stunted oak
Freed from its bonds but by the thunder stroke
As crampt by straggling ribs of ivy sere
There the glad bird makes home for
half the year
But take these several beings from their homes
Each beautious thing a withered thought becomes
Association fades and like a dream
They are but shadows of the things they seem
Torn from their homes and happiness
they stand
The poor dull captives of a foreign land

(John Clare, 173; emphasis added)

This oak tree is not beautiful in any conventional sense, but its role as a habitat for various species of ivy and birds induces the poet to love and cherish it as a microcosm of the archetypal green world. Clare emphatically regards the stunted oak as a home for its inhabitants, an insight that provides a key to his ecological vision, since the word ‘ecology’ (first recorded in 1873) is derived from the Greek word oikos, meaning ‘house’ or ‘dwelling-place.’29 In Clare's view, an organism has meaning and value only in its proper home, in symbiotic association with all the creatures that surround and nourish it. Torn from this living context, the organism will fade into a ‘withered thought,’ a ‘shadow’ of its former self, devoid of beauty or purpose. The task of the ‘peasant poet,’ in Clare's view, is to bear witness to this fragile community of creatures whose very existence depends on the continued integrity of their ecosystem. Such a deep insight into the symbiotic harmony of all living things is unprecedented in the English-speaking world.

Clare's ecological vision is exemplified in many passages that reveal his extensive knowledge of the interaction and mutual dependence of various species in his local region. In ‘Summer Morning,’ for instance, he rejects the common view of sparrows as ‘pests,’ pointing out that they eat insects and thus provide a long-term benefit to agriculture (Early Poems, 1:10). Wrens are similarly observed to hunt for gnats.30 Here and elsewhere, Clare is intensely aware of predator-prey relationships, describing them with some degree of sympathy for the threatened prey, but without undue sentimentality, clearly aware of the role of predation in maintaining the population balance in natural ecosystems. In a fascinating passage from his natural history letters, he describes how a beetle kills a moth, ‘butchers’ the carcass, then brings several other beetles to feed on the moth, ‘3 on each side.’31 His prevailing tone is dispassionate, describing the scene in precise detail and speculating that ‘Insects have a Language to convey their Ideas to each other,’ but avoiding the sentimental anthropomorphism of many nineteenth-century accounts of predation. A similarly dispassionate tone is apparent in his dramatic description of predators stalking their prey:

In the barn hole sits the cat
Watching within the thirsty rat
Who oft at morn its dwelling leaves
To drink the moisture from the eves
The redbreast with his nimble eye
Dare scarcely stop to catch the flye
That tangled in the spiders snare
Mourns in vain for freedom there

(Shepherd's Calendar, ‘September,’ 107)

This passage describes an intricate food chain, with the robin stalking insects but threatened in turn by the cat. Clare evidently sympathizes with the fly mourning in vain for its freedom, but his main interest remains focused upon the ecological balance revealed in this tense interaction of predators and prey. Another scene of predation is depicted in ‘The Vixen,’ where a family of young foxes emerge from their den to ‘start and snap at blackbirds bouncing bye / To fight and catch the great white butterflye’ (John Clare, 249). Once again, Clare avoids judgment of the foxes' or birds' aggressive behaviour; they are simply fulfilling their instinctive predatory roles in the natural order.

Clare's attitude towards the killing of wildlife by humans, however, is quite different. In ‘Summer Evening,’ he strongly denounces the wanton destruction of sparrows and their nests:

Prone to mischief boys are met
Gen the heaves the ladders set
Sly they climb & softly tread
To catch the sparrow on his bed
& kill em O in cruel pride
Knocking gen the ladderside

(Early Poems, 1:9)

Elsewhere he describes the gratuitous cruelty of boys who throw stones at birds, destroy wasps' nests, and torment squirrels with sticks.32 Not only boys are prone to this kind of violence; he deplores the practice of adult mole-catchers who hang dead moles from tree branches, as if the moles were ‘traitors.’33 Observing that frogs, mice, hares, and yellowhammers flee in terror from any human approach, Clare concludes that ‘Proud man still seems the enemy of all.’34 In a well-known poem, ‘Badger,’ he depicts with keen sympathy the terrible fate of a badger captured and tormented by a crowd of villagers:

He falls as dead and kicked by boys and men
Then starts and grins and drives the crowd agen
Till kicked and torn and beaten out he lies
And leaves his hold and cackles groans and dies

(John Clare, 247)

Clare narrates this episode largely from the point of view of the badger, identifying at a deep emotional level with its role as the helpless victim of human brutality. The poem thus reveals an important strategy in Clare's environmental advocacy: he does not merely pontificate on abstract moral issues, but lends his voice to the powerless victims of human violence and wanton environmental destruction.

Clare's ecological vision is confirmed by his powerful and moving poems in defence of the local environment. He does not base his arguments on economic utility or aesthetic pleasure, but speaks directly for the earth and its creatures, attributing intrinsic value to all the flora and fauna that constitute the local ecosystem. He makes a desperate and compelling plea for sustainable open-field agriculture, old-style communal village life, and the preservation of ‘waste’ lands, forests, fens, and marshes. He defends the right of individual birds, animals, insects, flowers, and trees to exist and propagate. His denunciation of enclosure arises from his anger at ‘accursed wealth’ and its environmental impact: the cutting of ancient trees, the loss of wetlands and wild open spaces, the privatization and ‘emparkment’ of common land, the erection of ‘No Trespassing’ signs, and even the local incursion of railways.35 As an environmental advocate, Clare is virtually unprecedented in the extent of his insight into the complex relation between ecological devastation and social injustice. In our own time, only the most radical views of the ‘deep ecologists’ can rival the scope and intensity of Clare's environmental activism.


Throughout his poetic career, Clare struggled to create a language adequate to convey his ecological vision, drawing upon the stylistic and presentational modes of his precursors in topographic poetry and natural history writing while also remaining attuned to the folk traditions of song and ballad that were among his earliest memories of Helpston village life. As a labourer in the fields, a wanderer in the ‘waste’ lands, and an occasional visitor to London after the first appearance of his poetry in print, Clare sought to synthesize diverse traditions and experiences in a hybrid style, intensely personal and yet deeply rooted in the natural world. As he came to understand the extent of human violation, the ‘war with nature’ waged by ‘interest, industry, or slavish gain’ (an unholy trinity of rural capitalism), Clare experimented with forms that might express the environmental impact of enclosure in a direct, immediate fashion.36 One such experiment is ‘The Lament of Swordy Well,’ a stirring poem of environmental protest written to denounce the conversion of a local wetland that Clare had earlier praised for its botanic variety—including rare species of orchids—into a quarry for sand and gravel.37 His radical innovation in this poem is to allow Swordy Well to speak for itself, thus endowing the silent object of human exploitation with a voice to lament its own destruction, while dwelling elegiacally upon the lost flora and fauna that populated its formerly lush ecosystem. Clare's poem is one of the first and still one of the very few poems to speak for the earth in such a direct and immediate way, adapting the rhetorical figure of prosopopoeia (attributing voice to inanimate objects) to a contemporary crisis of ecological awareness. The reader of this poem does not immediately realize the identity of the speaker; it is only in the third stanza that the voice pauses to identify itself and to specify the economic determinants of its present predicament:

Im swordy well a piece of land
Thats fell upon the town
Who worked me till I couldnt stand
And crush me now Im down

(John Clare, 147)

The destruction of Swordy Well is cannily assimilated to the plight of the labouring class during enclosure; worked harder than ever and unable to sustain itself under the new economic order, Swordy Well (like the indigent labourer) has fallen ‘upon the town,’ becoming dependent for its very being upon the grudging and doubtful charity of the parish overseers. The analogy drawn here between the plight of the farm labourers (mercilessly exploited under the Speenhamland system of parish relief) and the environmental destruction of Swordy Well (quarried into a sad remnant of its former self) suggests that both forms of exploitation are the result of a new, inhumane economic order that overlooks long-term local conditions in favour of crassly selfish economic gain.

The voice of Swordy Well boldly denounces the selfish motives underlying its own destruction while propounding the intellectually advanced notion that natural beings have rights analogous to the civil rights that underlie English common law. Clare is certainly among the first to suggest that the earth itself should have the legal right to redress of environmental grievances:

Though Im no man yet any wrong
Some sort of right may seek
And I am glad if een a song
Gives me the room to speak
Ive got among such grubbing geer
And such a hungry pack
If I brought harvests twice a year
They’d bring me nothing back

(John Clare, 148)

Clare uses the graphic vernacular word ‘grubbing’ to point out a resemblance between the money-grubbing capitalists who finance the destruction of the environment and the grimy diggers who must actually carry out the task. The poem bitterly describes how every bit of sand and gravel was carried away ‘in bags and carts’ until ‘now theyve got the land’ that formerly supported ‘flowers that bloomed no where beside.’ Now Swordy Well is barren, stripped of its lush flora and fauna:

My mossy hills gains greedy hand
And more than greedy mind
Levels into a russet land
Nor leaves a bent behind
In summers gone I bloomed in pride
Folks came for miles to prize
My flowers that bloomed no where beside
And scarce believed their eyes

(John Clare, 150)

Here again the harsh vernacular word ‘russet’ evokes the death of the earth, denuded of its foliage and unable to support even a thin covering of grass. The poem ends on a note of gloomy foreboding:

Yet what with stone pits delving holes
And strife to buy and sell
My name will quickly be the whole
Thats left of swordy well

(John Clare, 152)

This prediction is accurate in the sense that ‘Swordy Well’ no longer survives as an English place-name, only as a poem; and it suggests the larger dimension of Clare's problem in developing a language that might convey the reality of a diverse ecosystem under threat of destruction. Only by constructing a linguistic analogue to the natural world can the poet hope to remedy its loss. Writing for a predominantly urban readership, Clare seeks to evoke the vividness and concreteness of a green world that is fast slipping away.

Clare approaches the problem of creating a linguistic analogue to the natural world by seeking a ‘language that is ever green,’ as he terms it in ‘Pastoral Poesy’:

But poesy is a language meet
& fields are every ones employ
The wild flower neath the shepherds feet
Looks up & gives him joy
A language that is ever green
That feelings unto all impart
As awthorn blossoms soon as seen
Give may to every heart

(Midsummer Cushion, 291)

Clare plays throughout this poem on the double meaning he attributes to the word ‘poesy’: he uses this spelling to signify both ‘poetry’ and ‘posy,’ both a gathering of words and a bunch of flowers.38 Here the green language of poetry inspires the same joy in the reader as the wild hawthorn blossoms that grow unnoticed in the fields. Clare is not merely enacting a witty pun or a vague sentimental allusion to the ‘flowers of rhetoric’; rather, he suggests that poetic language must strive to attain the opacity and concreteness of natural phenomena while also evoking the sincerity of response that can only emerge from a wild, unpolished idiom. This green language cannot be affecting or persuasive if it remains an artificial construct, a hothouse plant; it must be the spontaneous product of natural forces working in tandem with prevailing local conditions.39

Clare's developing conception of ‘a language that is ever green’ enabled him to stubbornly resist all efforts by his friends, patrons, and publishers to ‘clean up’ his poetic language. Although he possessed several English grammars, spelling books, and dictionaries (including a copy of Samuel Johnson's Dictionary donated by a well-meaning patron), Clare did not seem to ‘improve’ in his command of grammar, orthography, punctuation, or diction; indeed, as he developed his poetic technique, he tended to diverge more radically from the prevailing norms of standard English usage. His decision to retain certain features of his own regional dialect was motivated in large part by his need to preserve a language that evoked with concrete immediacy the natural phenomena of his native place. The language of his mature poetry, however, is hardly a ‘pure’ example of Northamptonshire dialect, crossed as it is by various streams of established poetic diction, and marked by personal singularities usually dismissed as ‘idiolect.’ Clare's mature poetic language should not be regarded merely as a personal style, but as an attempt to improvise a dialect that will adequately convey his unique sense of ‘locality’; it may therefore be termed an ecolect, in the literal sense of a language that speaks for the oikos: the earth considered as a home for all living things.40 Unlike earlier writers who were known as ‘peasant poets’ but whose poetic idiom quickly became assimilated to the cultural mainstream, Clare found within himself the stubborn strength needed to retain his grip on the language of his local place, and his development of a uniquely local idiom—an ecolect reflecting not only local dialect but also local environmental conditions—provides a suggestive model for future ecological writers.41 Clare's historical priority in generating a poetic ecolect suggests that modern ecological consciousness did not emerge gradually from an antecedent configuration of ‘scientific’ concepts, but constitutes a radically new conceptual paradigm that demands a distinctive form of expression.

The linguistic basis of Clare's ecological vision is perhaps best exemplified in a collection of poems entitled The Midsummer Cushion, which Clare transcribed into a manuscript volume in 1831-2, but which remained unpublished as an integral collection until 1979.42 The title of this collection alludes to ‘a very old custom among villagers in summer time to stick a piece of greensward full of field flowers & place it as an ornament in their cottages,’ thus suggesting that the volume is conceived as a microcosm or miniature version of the surrounding ecosystem.43 Each poem in the collection, by implication, would constitute a discrete organic unit, a linguistic analogue of the individual plant or flower transplanted from the wild natural environment. Clare elsewhere makes this premise explicit, asserting that ‘I found the poems in the fields, / And only wrote them down.’44 In this way Clare reliteralizes the prevailing Romantic metaphor of organic unity, thereby declaring his intention to gather the wild flowers of ‘poesy’ in a collection that reflects the vital disorder of the natural world, rather than imposing a cold, rational arrangement. The Midsummer Cushion thus elaborates Clare's vision of a wild, unenclosed landscape in which all creatures mingle and enact their own destinies, largely free of human intervention or control. The unbridled luxuriance of Clare's poetry in this volume most fully realizes the implications of his ecological paradigm, defying any rational principle of order (one poem, ‘The Wryneck's Nest,’ actually appears twice), but to some extent embodying a process of symbiotic association, so that the poems are distributed among local thematic and formal networks, each one finding its ‘niche’ within the larger textual environment of the collection.45

Within The Midsummer Cushion, Clare's ecological vision is manifested in a wide variety of poems on particular species of plants and animals, especially in a series of poems on birds' nests. These birds'-nest poems exemplify not only Clare's sense of the bird's adaptation to its particular environmental niche, but also Clare's struggle to create a language adequate to the expression of the bird's distinctive way of life. He often employs onomatopoeia to represent the birds' songs, while he uses regional dialect to designate the features of their habitat that are unique to the local area. One of the most successful of these birds'-nest poems is ‘The Pewits Nest,’ in which the speaker wanders across the seemingly barren landscape of a fallow field, then suddenly notices the bird:

Here did I roam while veering over head
The Pewet whirred in many whewing rings
& ‘chewsit’ screamed & clapped her flapping wings
To hunt her nest my rambling steps was led
Oer the broad baulk beset with little hills
By moles long formed & pismires tennanted
As likely spots—but still I searched in vain
When all at once the noisey birds were still
& on the lands a furrowed ridge between
Chance found four eggs of dingy dirty green
Deep blotched with plashy spots of jockolate stain
Their small ends inward turned as ever found
As though some curious hand had laid them round
Yet lying on the ground with nought at all
Of soft grass withered twitch & bleached weed
To keep them from the rain storms frequent fall(46)

Clare coins the onomatopoetic word ‘chewsit’ to represent the pewit's cry, while he uses the vividly kinesthetic dialect word ‘whewing’ to describe its veering, erratic flight. He situates the bird in its local habitat, a ‘furrowed ridge’ near a ‘broad baulk’ or grass strip at the margin of a fallow field. Despite its barren appearance, this habitat is a rich biological community inhabited by moles, pismires, and ‘noisey birds’; it is ‘waste’ land only by modern economic standards.47 The pewit's ‘nest’—not really a ‘nest’ but only a bare patch of ground—also exemplifies this paradoxical bounty within apparent poverty, since it lacks the soft, warm grasses used by other birds, yet serves as an adequate home for the pewit's ‘dingy dirty green’ eggs. What looks at first like an anthropocentric critique of the bird's improvidence becomes instead a recognition of its ability to thrive in adversity, lashed by frequent storms on the cold, barren earth. Its eggs are blotched with ‘plashy spots of jockolate [chocolate] stain’ that mimic the wet, marshy ground of the Helpston area, thus serving as protective camouflage.48 Neither the bird nor its eggs are ‘beautiful’ in any conventional sense, but they are elegantly adapted to their environment, and the poem's blunt, astringent language seems equally well adapted to the depiction of such creatures, eking out a frugal existence on the margins of agricultural ‘progress.’

The ecological basis of Clare's linguistic practice furnishes a powerful and suggestive model for contemporary ecological writing. Clare's regional dialect is an intentional feature of his poetry that contributes to his sense of rootedness in a particular landscape and his profound alienation from contemporary notions of technological ‘progress’ that tended to destroy the land and its peasant-farming community. Just as he resisted the neatness and artificial ordering of landscape that resulted from the violence of enclosure, so too he increasingly rejected the efforts of his editors to tidy up his manuscripts. By refusing to punctuate his poems or conform to ‘refined’ standards of diction, grammar, and spelling, he created an ‘unenclosed’ verse that provides a linguistic analogue to the free, unenclosed landscape that it seeks to conserve and perpetuate. Clare's poetic language thus serves as the basis for a compositional praxis that emerges from a deep understanding of the harmony of all creatures with their natural environment. Clare's ecolect—his development of an alternative ‘language that is ever green’ to express his ecological vision—offers an increasingly influential model for the current generation of ecological writers.


  1. The social and economic impact of enclosure is examined by E. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (New York: Pantheon Books 1963). Thompson asserts that ‘enclosure (when all the sophistications are allowed for) was a plain enough case of class robbery, played according to fair rules of property and law laid down by a Parliament of property-owners and lawyers’ (218). For a contemporary view, see Arthur Young, General Report on Enclosures (London: Macmillan 1808; reprinted New York: Augustus M. Kelley, 1971). Young, a staunch advocate of parliamentary enclosure, nevertheless recognizes that in many cases the poor lose their customary rights to common pasturage and fuel (12-20), and he deplores the widespread ‘inattention to the property or the customs of the poor’ (154).

  2. Clare's first published volume was entitled Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery (London: John Taylor and James Hessey 1820). Clare's response to enclosure is more fully discussed by John Barrell, The Idea of Landscape and the Sense of Place 1730-1840: An Approach to the Poetry of John Clare (London: Cambridge University Press 1972), 98-120, and Johanne Clare, John Clare and the Bounds of Circumstance (Kingston and Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press 1987), 36-55. See also Robert Waller, ‘Enclosures: The Ecological Significance of a Poem by John Clare,’ Mother Earth, Journal of the Soil Association 13 (1964), 231-7.

  3. John Clare: Selected Poetry and Prose, ed. Merryn and Raymond Williams (London: Methuen 1986), 1-20. Critical studies by John Barrell and Johanne Clare are cited above, n 2.

  4. John Clare: Selected Poetry, ed. Geoffrey Summerfield (London: Penguin 1990), 22.

  5. Raymond Williams rigorously demystifies the pastoral ideal in The Country and the City (London: Chatto and Windus 1973). The ideological determinants of the pastoral mode are further examined by Annabel Patterson, Pastoral and Ideology: Virgil to Valéry (Berkeley: University of California Press 1987).

  6. On the figuration of Nature as female (in Renaissance and post-industrial cultures), see Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution: A Feminist Reappraisal of the Scientific Revolution (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1980), 1-41. See also Robert Graves's classic study, The White Goddess, and Riane Eisler, ‘The Gaia Tradition and the Partnership Future: An Ecofeminist Manifesto,’ in Reweaving the Word: The Emergence of Ecofeminism, ed. Irene Diamond and Gloria Feman Orenstein (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books 1990), 23-34.

  7. ‘Canticle of Brother Sun,’ translated by Lawrence S. Cunningham, St. Francis of Assisi (Boston: Twayne 1976), 59. The Italian original reads: ‘matre terra / la quale ne sustenta et governa / et produce diversi fructi con coloriti fiori et herba.’

  8. St Francis of Assisi was recognized in 1979 by Pope John Paul II as the patron saint of ecology (according to the Encyclopedia of Religion). Nikos Kazantzakis's novel, St. Francis, presents the major events of his life in a lively and provocative form accessible to undergraduates. On St Francis as a progenitor of modern ecological thought, see Lynn White, ‘The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,’ Science 155 (1967), 1203-7.

  9. Richard Mabey, Gilbert White: A Biography of the Author of‘The Natural History of Selborne’ (London: Century Hutchinson 1986), 11-12.

  10. The early development of nature writing out of a more purely ‘scientific’ approach to natural phenomena is discussed by Thomas J. Lyon, This Incomperable Lande: A Book of American Nature Writing (Boston: Houghton Mifflin 1989). Lyon elucidates the convergence in ecological thought of Romantic transcendentalism (with its holism and organicism) and the scientific concepts of taxonomy, evolution, and symbiosis (20).

  11. William Cowper, The Task, book 6, in Cowper: Poetry and Prose, ed. Brian Spiller (London: Rupert Hart-Davis 1968), 530.

  12. Cowper, The Task, book 6 (530). ‘The economy of nature’ was an expression commonly used in the later eighteenth century to denote the interdependence of all living things. On the early development of this concept, see Donald Worster, Nature's Economy: The Roots of Ecology (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books 1977).

  13. The Letters of John Clare, ed. Mark Storey (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1985), 137-8. Hereafter cited as Letters.

  14. Coleridge's main contribution to the Lyrical Ballads, ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,’ may be read as a parable of ecological transgression. The Mariner kills the Albatross (an innocent emblem of all creatures killed in the name of Progress) out of sheer arrogance towards the natural world, which wreaks its terrible vengeance through the agency of the Polar Spirit.

  15. Despite his best efforts to protect the Lake District from the encroachments of modern industrial society, Wordsworth probably did more than anyone to popularize it as a tourist destination through the publication of his poetry and A Description of the Scenery of the Lakes in the North of England (first published anonymously in 1810 and often reprinted).

  16. Keats mentions the ‘wordsworthian or egotistical sublime’ in a letter to Richard Woodhouse, 27 October 1818. Jonathan Bate sympathetically examines Wordsworth's ecological awareness in Romantic Ecology: Wordsworth and the Environmental Tradition (London: Routledge 1991).

  17. Dorothy Wordsworth records this episode in her Grasmere Journal entry of 15 April 1802. Wordsworth's poem, ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ (composed 1804), was based on Dorothy's account.

  18. Gilbert White, The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne (1789), Advertisement, iii. White defines ‘parochial history’ as comprising ‘natural productions and occurrences as well as antiquities.’ Gilbert White's place in the history of ecological thought is discussed by Worster, Nature's Economy, 3-25.

  19. Gilbert White's contribution to the development of natural history writing is examined by W. J. Keith, The Rural Tradition: A Study of the Non-Fiction Prose Writers of the English Countryside (Toronto: University of Toronto Press 1974), 39-59.

  20. Mabey, Gilbert White, 213-14.

  21. Clare possessed two different editions of White's Natural History of Selborne; cited in The Natural History Prose Writings of John Clare, ed Margaret Grainger (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1983), 360, 362, 363. One was a two-volume edition published in 1825 and presented to Clare by his publisher, James Hessey (still part of the Clare Collection in the Northamptonshire Public Library). The other was a ‘One Vol Edition of Whites Selbourn 8vo.’ The date of this latter edition is uncertain, and it is possible that Clare merely borrowed it for a short time, since he evidently did not have it on hand when he wrote to Hessey to inquire what White says of the cuckoo and the nightingale (Natural History Prose Writings, 42).

  22. The Early Poems of John Clare 1804-1822, ed. Eric Robinson and David Powell (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1989), 1:159. Hereafter cited as Early Poems.

  23. John Clare's Autobiographical Writings, ed. Eric Robinson (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1986), 106.

  24. John Clare, The Shepherd's Calendar, ed. Eric Robinson and Geoffrey Summerfield (London: Oxford University Press 1964), viii; cited by Williams, John Clare: Selected Poetry and Prose, 209, 213.

  25. History has vindicated Clare's repudiation of the Linnaean taxonomy, since naturalists of the 1820s and 1830s largely abandoned the Linnaean or Sexual System of classification in favour of the more ‘natural’ system pioneered by John Ray, retaining, however, the established Latin nomenclature. On Clare's preference for Ray over Linnaeus, see his Natural History Prose Writings, xliii; the editor notes that Clare's interest in natural history was encouraged by Joseph Henderson, a local amateur naturalist well versed in the Linnaean nomenclature Clare's rejection of the Linnaean scheme was evidently a matter of choice and not the result of sheer ignorance.

  26. Clare's complex response to the tradition of ‘picturesque’ writing is examined by Timothy Brownlow, John Clare and Picturesque Landscape (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1983). Especially relevant to the present context is his discussion of natural history writing, 41-66.

  27. The rigid monthly framework of A Shepherd's Calendar was suggested to Clare by John Taylor in a letter of 1 August 1823 (Letters, 278n). Elsewhere in his poetry, Clare rarely conforms to such an explicit chronological scheme.

  28. John Clare, ed. Eric Robinson and David Powell (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1984), 173. Hereafter cited as John Clare. This edition will be cited only for those poems which have not yet appeared in the definitive Oxford edition (above, n 22).

  29. The word ecology is attested in OED (second edition, 1989) from 1873, while the word Ökologie first appeared in German circa 1866. The Greek word oikos is defined in Liddell and Scott's Greek-English Lexicon as ‘house … [or] any dwelling-place.’

  30. Shepherd's Calendar, ‘February: A Thaw,’ 26.

  31. Natural History Prose Writings, 70-1.

  32. ‘A Sunday with Shepherds and Herdboys,’ Clare: Selected Poems and Prose, ed Eric Robinson and Geoffrey Summerfield (London: Oxford University Press, 1966).

  33. ‘Remembrances,’ The Midsummer Cushion, ed. Anne Tibble and R. K. R. Thornton (Northumberland: Mid Northumberland Arts Group, 1979), 370.

  34. ‘Summer Evening,’ Midsummer Cushion, 384.

  35. Clare denounces ‘accursed wealth’ in ‘Helpstone’ (Early Poems, 161); ‘No Trespassing’ signs appear in ‘The Mores’ (John Clare, 169); he witnesses the local incursion of railways in Natural History Writings, 245.

  36. ‘The Robin's Nest,’ Midsummer Cushion, 251.

  37. Clare depicts an unspoiled, idyllic landscape in the sonnet ‘Swordy Well’ (Midsummer Cushion, 383).

  38. This pattern of double meanings (encoded in Clare's non-standard spelling of such words as ‘enarmoured,’ ‘swarthy / swathy,’ and ‘main / mane’) is more fully examined by Barbara Strang, ‘John Clare's Language,’ in John Clare, The Rural Muse (London 1835; reprinted Northumberland: Mid Northumberland Arts Group 1982), 162.

  39. On the ideological basis of Clare's ‘green language,’ see Raymond Williams, The Country and the City, 133-41. Williams further examines Clare's use of Northamptonshire dialect in John Clare: Selected Poetry and Prose, 205-13.

  40. The term ‘ecolect’ was invented by Hugh Sykes Davies, Wordsworth and the Worth of Words (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1986), 274-5. Davies derives ‘ecolect, from the word [oikos] (= a household), to describe a variation peculiar to a particular household, or kin group’ (319 n 8). Throughout the present essay, the term ‘ecolect’ is extended to encompass a more global sense of ‘household.’

  41. Cultural assimilation is especially apparent in the case of Robert Bloomfield, a contemporary ‘peasant poet’ whose brief popularity was due in part to his ability to cultivate a standard poetic diction.

  42. A small selection of poems from The Midsummer Cushion, heavily ‘corrected’ and bowdlerized by an anonymous editor, was published as The Rural Muse.

  43. John Clare, [Preface], Midsummer Cushion, n.p.

  44. ‘Sighing for Retirement,’ The Later Poems of John Clare 1837-1864, ed. Eric Robinson and David Powell (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1984), 1:19.

  45. The formal and thematic structure of The Midsummer Cushion is more fully analysed by the volume editors, pp xii-xiv, although without reference to Clare's implicit ecological paradigm.

  46. Midsummer Cushion, 272.

  47. ‘The Pewit's Nest’ describes a habitat threatened by agricultural ‘progress.’ Marginal grass strips were normally eliminated in the process of enclosure, while fallow fields were a feature of medieval crop rotation that gradually became obsolete under modern intensive agriculture.

  48. OED defines ‘plashy’ (a.2, sense 2) as ‘marked as if splashed with colour,’ noting that this sense is ‘rare’ and citing only Keats, Hyperion 2:45. Clare may be creating this usage independently (as a metaphoric extension of the primary adjectival sense, ‘that splashes with water’), or he may be echoing Keats's usage.

Anne D. Wallace (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: “Farming on Foot: Tracking Georgic in Clare and Wordsworth,” in Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Vol. 34, No. 4, Winter, 1992, pp. 509-40.

[In the following essay, Wallace compares Clare and William Wordsworth with regard to their individual renderings of rural/pastoral subjects in their poetry.]

In “The Landscape of Labor: Transformations of the Georgic,” John Murdoch comments on how changes in English landscapes, visual and literary, mark complex, shifting ideological uses of pastoral and georgic. By the mid-eighteenth century, Murdoch argues,

the absorption of the Georgic into the collective cultural consciousness, into a region almost beyond consciousness and therefore beyond question, requires that it should become practically invisible. … Its origins in political revolt require concealment; its dependence on hard, unremitting labor requires it as well. So various things happen: the Georgic is assimilated to the Pastoral, so that in literature and painting they are often almost indistinguishable.1

In painting, this means that “the labor of ploughing, harrowing, seeding, and mowing was entirely transposed into its material effects,” the elements of a cultivated landscape such as fields and herds and woods which “themselves have been subsumed into what we would call abstractions.”2 Murdoch, reading an 1817 Julius Ibbetson print that depicts (among other things) a peasant on the road with a load of firewood gathered from common lands, goes on to discuss the apparent intervention and simultaneous collusion of the picturesque aesthetic in this process. In picturesque scenes like that of Ibbetson, “Labor returns to the landscape” in representations of laborers and the implements of their labor, and in the roughness of sketching itself. But, Murdoch argues, picturesque labor is subsistence labor, a “mindless,” naturalized labor assimilated to an aestheticized landscape and thus lacking any consciousness that might effect change or initiate rebellion. Apparently reinscribing rural labor in the English landscape, the picturesque excludes the revolutionary potential of classical georgic and enforces the conservative message of assimilated English georgic: “the lot of the laborer is nonnegotiable.”3

Murdoch identifies the ascendency of the picturesque as a moment in which the dominant culture, faced with specific economic and political pressures (Murdoch's larger tale, which I shall not reproduce here), alters the aesthetics of landscape viewing in order to counter and control those new pressures. The message is mixed, of course, for the new aesthetic admits evidence of these pressures—admits labor into the landscape—in order to contain them. But whatever the relative weight of these elements, no full assessment of the subversive impact of laborers returned to the landscape or the hidden conservative compulsion toward acceptance of labor's lot is possible without Murdoch's recognition, in an early nineteenth-century image, of the still-functioning political and aesthetic strategies of georgic. “Assimilation to the pastoral” notwithstanding, it is by retracing the georgic obscured by “pastoral” that Murdoch reads Ibbetson's print and reassesses the political functions of the picturesque.

For some time I have been tracking William Wordsworth's extension of Virgilian georgic into what I call “peripatetic,” a mode that represents excursive walking as a cultivating labor capable of renovating both the individual and society by recollecting and expressing past value. This previously unremarked literary mode mediates among ideological needs and the various pressures of material life, using pedestrian perspective simultaneously to subvert and confirm the various transformations of industrialization and capitalization. The full tale of the origins and uses of peripatetic in the nineteenth century is a long one that properly includes accounting for the changes in practices and perceptions of travel in general, and walking in particular, and for the dehistoricization of peripatetic by philosophical essayists.4 In this essay I focus on the pressures exerted by enclosure on practices and representations of landscape viewing, farming and walking, and on how two Romantic poets, Wordsworth and John Clare, turned to a pedestrian aesthetic to manage these pressures.

As we shall see, Clare characterizes his walks as pastoral and leisured, while Wordsworth, in a number of poems that culminate in The Excursion (1814), represents his as a variety of georgic labor.5 If we measure the success of these different mediations in terms of cultural usefulness, Wordsworth wins hands down. It is his account that essayists appropriate when they begin to philosophize about the salutary cultural effects of walking; it is Wordsworthian peripatetic that Victorian and twentieth-century writers use to investigate the possibility of directing or escaping the process of mechanization and capitalization; it is from Wordsworth's walking poetry, in fact, that we now derive our common (and generally unexamined) ideas about how walking, by connecting us to nature or to our companions or to our memories or to our innermost selves, might help us survive and circumvent our technologically stressed lives. Yet the rhetorical appropriation of “georgic” by “pastoral” (assisted by Wordsworth, among others) ensures that Wordsworthian peripatetic remains as invisible as Virgilian georgic had become: highly functional, but eluding critical attention.

Traditional literary historical accounts of pastoral and georgic at the end of the eighteenth century argue that “georgic” ceases to be a functional critical term on two grounds: the disappearance of the recently popular classical georgic (a point upon which I think Murdoch, following Anthony Low, sheds considerable light), and the results of a debate between neoclassical and rationalistic conceptions of pastoral.6 This debate ended in apparent victory for the rationalists, who wanted a realistic pastoral that showed actual rural conditions, including the hardships and labors of real shepherds—an odd thing to want in a pastoral, but there it was. Wordsworth's “Michael,” subtitled “A Pastoral,” places him in this camp: the poem attempts a rationalistic pastoral in that it purports to show “real” rural life, including Michael's and Isabel's and Luke's laborious maintenance. Now obviously a “pastoral” that valorizes labor is also, or is instead, a georgic. But Wordsworth's rhetorical move, and that of those who shared his views, makes “georgic” vanish into “pastoral.”

For roughly the last decade, scholars have been discussing whether the term “georgic” ought to be revived, especially in application to Romantic literature. Anthony Low's The Georgic Revolution (1985) presents an extended argument for retaining “georgic” to describe “a mode that stresses the value of intensive and persistent labor against hardships and difficulties,” varying from pastoral (which he also names as a mode, rather than as a genre) in its emphasis on “work rather than ease” and from epic in its emphasis on “planting and building instead of killing and destruction.”7 Since 1980, however, Kurt Heinzelman has consistently distinguished georgic from pastoral, suggesting that the post-eighteenth-century term “pastoral,” with its broad inclusion of all sorts of rural images and values, deceptively cloaks the Romantics' ongoing use of georgic. In “‘Crossing the Wye’—Or, Why Value Landscape?” he seems to advocate, in passing, the reverse of this modal subordination, arguing that “‘Tintern Abbey’ is not a pastoral but a georgic: that is, it mixes the two modes.”8

Marjorie Levinson and Annabel Patterson have rejected Heinzelman's position, especially as applied to “Michael,” on the grounds that his proposed “economics of the imagination,” in which the poetic labors of reading and writing operate as mechanisms of production and exchange, ignores fundamental differences in the kinds of labor involved in poetic and agricultural production. Levinson objects that “the labor that the poet expends is not of the same kind as that which characterizes Michael,” specifically in that it lacks purposefulness, the deliberate looking forward to and acting toward a given aim: “The poetic locus classicus for Wordsworth's advocacy of ‘wise passiveness’ in reading and writing is ‘The Solitary Reaper’; here, the poet effortlessly reaps his mind of a harvest grown from the seeds of random, unlooked-for associations.”9 Patterson invokes Fredric Jameson's The Political Unconscious to make much the same point, quoting his commentary on the “intellectual dishonesty” of intellectuals who “seek to glamorize their tasks … by assimilating them to real work on the assembly line and to the experience of the resistance of matter in genuine manual labor,” a move that, Jameson believes, ignores the fact that “writing and thinking are not alienated labor in that sense.”10

These objections seem at first to turn on this question: What separates “real” or “genuine” labor from spurious labor? Levinson states that real labor, or rather, that labor which Michael does and with which the Wordsworthian poet wishes to associate his work, is distinguished by purposefulness; she also implies that labor is distinguished by effort, presumably deliberate rather than accidental. Patterson, via Jameson, defines it as “genuine manual labor,” which Jameson has already described (in words which Patterson omits in her quotation) as “real work on the assembly line” and “the experience of the resistance of matter.”11

In considering certain dimensions of this latter definition (naturally enough, given its source), we become aware that we live in a time in which it is scarcely possible to utter “labor” without its Marxist inflection. I do not wish, even were it possible, to erase that inflection. But I think we must distinguish among our usage in describing the theory and practice of our own writing, Wordsworth's usage in a similar situation, and our usage in evaluations of Wordsworth's representations of labor. Wordsworth may have thought of labor as purposeful and as involving effort and even, although not in Jameson's eloquent words, as “the experience of the resistance of matter.” But it would have been impossible for him to think of “real” or “genuine” labor as being “alienated labor in that sense”—to quote Patterson, who voices Jameson's implication, “in Marx's sense.”12 Murdoch points out, for instance, that eighteenth-century conceptions of georgic labor (with which Wordsworth would have been thoroughly familiar) included genteel “‘head-work,’ the labor of thought and invention, directing the toil of others,” so that when one looks at eighteenth-century landscape paintings and sees

the figures of the gentry in the landscape, apparently watching the reapers at work, you may take it that the gentry too are working. And the meaning of the landscape thus constructed is that prosperity, the wealth of nations, and happiness are the result, dearly bought, of gentry and laborers working together on the land for the common good.13

Murdoch comments on the obvious advantages that such a conception offered “the ruling classes” but nonetheless distinguishes the resulting representations from pastoral, the mode that would “necessitate the maintenance … of an Arcadian space, the possibility of Pastoral, as a special privilege for the gentry”: “within the terms of [the gentry's] Georgic ideology, within the terms of their self-identification as members of an Augustan ruling elite, work was part of the common lot of mankind.”14

In this analysis Murdoch clearly identifies both his own concept of “labor,” one obviously although quietly inflected with Marxist knowledge, and an eighteenth-century writer/reader of georgic's concept of “labor.” The former may, and I believe should, be used to criticize the latter, to uncover the conscious and unconscious mechanisms of oppression to which we must responsibly attend. But to refuse to identify Arthur Young's writings as georgic because they valorize head-work, or to say that George Lambert's paintings cannot function as examples of eighteenth-century georgic (as Murdoch contends they do) because they imply that supervision is labor, is absurd. Virgil's prosperous farmer in Book 2 of The Georgics, although shown in the act of plowing, hires and supervises laborers too; Book 4's retelling of the story of Aristaeus, whose success in beekeeping can be restored only by supplications to Orpheus, interlaces agriculture and poetry making and civilization building (the bees' hive functioning as the model of a civil state) as metaphorically inseparable varieties of one work, cultivation. Should we then disqualify Virgil's Georgics from the genre named for it, because supervision and poetic composition (and much of everyday civil life) are not “genuine manual labor”?

Whether we should use “georgic” to describe, say, “Michael,” depends not on our definition of “real” labor but on our definition of georgic labor. Levinson's and Patterson's instincts, if not their formulations, are correct: georgic insistently links moral and political labor with common physical labor. Classically, and through the eighteenth century, the primary material term of the georgic metaphor was farming, but there have always been variants—the haluetic, for instance, in which fishing accomplishes the cultivation.15 If we want to read a text as georgic, we must identify the natural, common act of physical economy that the text defines as a cultivating labor and allies with poetry or nation building or whatever. Patterson, for instance, attempts such an identification in her own early discussion of The Excursion when she proposes “a new sub-genre, the georgic of the grave,” founded upon the physical labor of grave-digging and extended into epitaph-making.16 Neither Heinzelman's earliest formulation nor Alan Liu's elegantly worked-out discussion of Wordsworth's “economy of lyric,” on the other hand, names a specific physical avatar of poetic labor. The crucial character of this omission may be seen in Liu's third “law” of Wordsworth's lyric economy, in which Liu finally drops his otherwise consistently economic/material language: “Less is more” and “To share is to own” resolve toward “To imagine is to labor.”17 My own premise is, “To walk is to labor.”

The ideal poetic perspective in eighteenth-century England is the “flight of fancy,” an effortless, bodiless, wholly imaginative flight, derived in part from the Claudian aesthetic of landscape viewing and painting, that permits broad, unimpeded views and rapid shifts from one “destination” to another without attention to the process of movement.18 As John Barrell observes in his essential study The Idea of Landscape and the Sense of Place, the movement of the eye through a Claude Lorrain landscape does not mimic the movement of a traveler through actual terrain.19 Rather, Claudian landscapes install their viewers at a selected optimum viewpoint that provides immediate access to any one of a series of contained perspectives, bypassing the sense of physical process and continuous succession that any land traveler, but a walker in particular (with his limited views and slow pace), would necessarily feel.20

Eighteenth-century topographical poetry works to produce the same effect, often by implicitly contrasting the desired flight of fancy from point to elucidating point with the limitations of walking. Consider, for instance, one of the poems frequently cited as a precursor of Wordsworth's Excursion, David Mallet's 1728 The Excursion. The plan of this poem explores vast extents of terrestrial space and time, devoting its final canto to “a survey of the solar system, and of the fixed stars.”21 How we shall cover so much territory soon becomes clear:

                                        O’er [nature's] ample breast,
O’er sea and shore, light Fancy speeds along,
Quick as the darted beam, from pole to pole,
Excursive traveller.


Note the swift, effortless passage of Fancy, and its multilayered characterization as “light”—“light” in the sense of that of weight that permits it to move at the speed of light, “quick as the darted beam,” and “light” in the sense of illuminating as the “darted beam” itself. In the terms of this poem, to be an “excursive traveller” is precisely to be light, weightless, airborne, instantaneously swift, illuminating—not at all pedestrian. The last lines of the poem make the contrast between the flight of fancy and the walk of the body deliberate: as we contemplate angels and the mind of God in the void of deep space, we find “no paths to guide imagination's flight,” a final line that marks the limits of the foot and the excursive power of the wing quite plainly (110).22

Such characterizations of fancy's flight emphasize extensive views and ungrounded, apparently free movements. But these advantages depend on the framing of a picture, on the containment and stasis of the whole view and of each of its constituent parts.23 No matter how broad the panorama, all that is visible is held for the eye to view in whatever order and time it may choose. In James Thomson's “Spring,” for instance, the eye “snatched through the verdent maze” of a garden that first appears as an entirety, “its vistas open[] and its alleys green,” then moves in quick succession to a shady covert, the sky, the river, the lake, the surrounding forest, a spire, mountains and ocean far in the distance. Each is named as a separate item, that characteristically Claudian movement permitting instant access to each part of the view. “But why so far excursive?” asks the narrator, drawing the eye back to look at length (for thirty lines, in fact) at the flowers nearby.24 Nothing moves away; there is time to explore everything, for all is held still in the hemispherical “view” of panorama. The picturesque aesthetic developed from Claudian conventions takes this a step further, advocating the complete detachment of each part of a view from its context. Thus William Gilpin urges the landscape sketcher to repair artistic deficiency where “the lines of the country … run false” with the addition of woods or bushes or whatever might be needed to fit the actual terrain to picturesque principles.25

As both Murdoch and Liu conclude, picturesque representation of landscape as discrete elements composed into stable views quickly loses its aesthetic and political usefulness.26 Liu's energetic reweaving of a variety of instabilities and strategies against them discourages any reductive explanation of this perceptual failure. With that backstop, however, I would like to point toward the enclosures of the mid-eighteenth to mid-nineteenth centuries, during which accelerating changes in actual terrain and agricultural practice undermined Virgilian georgic's representational tactics.

G. W. Hoskins tells us that in parishes affected by parliamentary enclosures, it generally took less than a year or two for the countryside to undergo

a complete transformation, from the immemorial landscape of the open fields, with their complex pattern of narrow strips, their winding green balks or cart-roads, their headlands and grassy footpaths, into the modern chequer-board pattern of small, squarish fields, enclosed by hedgerows of hawthorn, with new roads running more or less straight and wide across the parish in all directions. … A villager who had played in the open fields as a boy, or watched the sheep in the common pastures, would have lived to see the modern landscape of his parish completed and matured, the roads all made, the hedgerow trees full grown, and new farmhouses built out in the fields where none had ever been before. Everything was different: hardly a landmark of the old parish would have remained.27

Although I understand Hoskin's general meaning, in fact the open-field landscape was not immemorial but, as the terms of his description suggest, the very stuff of memory, both personal and collective, in a now unimaginably insular and stable world. Their own locality, the circle of a day's walk, was all most people knew: very few traveled farther, even fewer often, from their homes, and few travelers made the effort to pass through circle after circle of unmarked local ground, “mysterious and hostile” to outsiders who did not know the ways of that place.28 As Clare's poetry testifies, this newly enclosed landscape might as well have been a trackless wilderness to its inhabitants, for whom crucial interpretative signs that guided movement and evoked emotion had vanished forever. Nor would this landscape remain stable: the new roads that opened the countryside, the new economic patterns marked by such roads and by enclosure itself were the harbingers not of one new pattern but of a pattern of continuous and accelerating change. Now the individual or culture framing its future must comprehend motion in its vision of continuity and stability.

The material terms of Virgilian georgic, on the other hand, demand physical stability, placement and settlement, to accomplish cultural stability. Virgil's ideal cultivator, whether he is the prosperous farmer of Book 2 with many laborers in his employ or the Corycian man whose own working of a small plot produces happy self-sufficiency, directs his labor into his land, and it is this placement of his care that preserves the wellbeing of both his family and his nation: “The farmer cleaves the earth with his curved plough / This is his yearlong work, thus he sustains / His homeland, thus his little grandchildren.”29

Not only was such an unmoving perspective unsuited to the solution of the perceptual problems discussed above, but the actual practice of self-sustaining freehold agriculture in England was undermined by enclosure's appropriation of small farms and common lands. Enclosure was an ongoing process from the sixteenth century, as Raymond Williams reminds us in his discussion of John Clare's savage reaction to such changes.30 But after 1750, enclosure proceeded with astonishing rapidity and became, for all practical purposes, comprehensive. As these appropriations created larger farms (or private parks) and improved agricultural production, they simultaneously displaced small freeholding farmers and reduced laborers' chances of both living wages and supplementary income based on commons rights. Thus increasing agricultural wealth paradoxically impoverished the countryman.31

The growing scarcity of ideal Virgilian cultivators in late eighteenth-and nineteenth-century literature parallels the economic displacement associated with enclosure. Representatives of a stable, successful yeomanry like Jane Austen's gentleman-farmer, Robert Martin, become as rare as actual English freeholders who can maintain an independent subsistence. Wordsworth's freeholders—the Wanderer's parents, Michael and his wife, the unfortunate sheepherder in “The Last of the Flock”—suffer straitened circumstances despite their industry and virtue; R. D. Blackmore places John Ridd's heroic mixture of independence, prosperity, and rough rural virtue in the seventeenth century, where it can command a certain nostalgic credulity; even Hardy's Gabriel Oak appears an anomaly in a world of poor husbandmen, of Sargent Troys and Farmer Boldwoods. This literary depopulation of the countryside represents an England where cultivation can no longer be imagined to secure either the prosperity of the individual or the stability of the nation. Enclosed farmlands, indeed, are insistently represented as deserts emptied of value by agriculture itself, from the “endless wastes of corn” on “Salisbury Plain” to Clare's lovingly remembered commons, “all leveled like a desert by the never weary plough.”32

John Clare's “The Mores” is much concerned with the rapidly altering landscape and with the economic changes wrought by enclosure, which, he writes, has “trampled on the grave / Of labours rights and left the poor a slave” (lines 19-20). As we shall see, however, the fulcrum of the poem is an argument against enclosure's restraint of walking and the consequent loss of important physical and poetic perspectives, depredations that Clare represents as equivalent in importance to the changes in the position of the agricultural laborer.

In fact the old forms of local walking were intimately associated with rural labor. The open-field landscape, with its small, scattered, oddly shaped fields and broad commons, shaped the deliberate daily movements of laborers and farmers walking between fields, commons, villages, and homes. Years of local use traced definite footpaths, unmarked and unnamed save by custom, and quite often centuries old. At the same time, the principle of common access to certain lands, plus the relatively small extent of cultivation, allowed free wandering and open vistas: “although there were well-beaten tracks linking regular destinations, one might still wander at will through common or uncultivated land and by a variety of ways along the balks dividing the narrow strips where crops were grown.”33

Enclosure changed these choices in a variety of ways. Some of the foot-paths that followed the old field boundaries, the traces of open-field agricultural practice, simply vanished under the new cultivation, obliterated by the plow. Other paths, curiously enough, achieved their first legal status as public ways across private lands because they appeared on the maps that accompanied awards of enclosure. For the most part, however, the award maps were “intent on becoming authorities for the future rather than sources of information about the past.”34 As enclosure proceeded, then, many paths and rights of way fell into the twilight zone between physical landscape and legal map, and walking became an uncertain guerrilla tactic that, as the experience of the walker in “The Mores” demonstrates, might or might not become trespass. Even legally established footpaths could be closed for a variety of reasons and under a variety of authorities. Until 1815, in fact, private landowners simply put up barriers or “no trespassing” signs, sometimes with spurious attributions to official decisions, to discourage the use of paths across their lands, and the 1815 act of Parliment that required two justices of the peace to close a public right of way quickly became a joke: “It was currently reported that one magistrate would jovially ask another to dinner, giving as a reason that he wanted his concurrence in stopping up a footpath.”35

Clare opens “The Mores” with an evocation of old local forms of walking as they were when the commons formed “one eternal green / That never felt the rage of blundering plough”:

Unbounded freedom ruled the wandering scene
Nor fence of ownership crept in between
To hide the prospect of the following eye
Its only bondage was the circling sky

(lines 7-10)

The terms of Clare's desire seem at first to point toward the unbounded prospect of an eighteenth-century vantage point. Eventually, however, the characterization of this scene as “wandering” resonates with this long passage in which Clare shows walking as the proper mode in which to view the countryside:

Each little path that led its pleasant way
As sweet as morning leading night astray
Where little flowers bloomed round a varied host
That travel felt delighted to be lost
Nor grudged the steps that he had taen as vain
When right roads traced his journeys end again
Nay on a broken tree hed sit awhile
To see the mores and fields and meadows smile
Sometimes with cowslaps smothered—then all white
With daiseys—then the summers splendid sight
Of corn fields crimson oer the “headach” bloomd
Like splendid armys for the battle plumed
He gazed upon them with wild fancys eye
As fallen landscapes from an evening sky
These paths are stopt—the rude philistines thrall
Is laid upon them and destroyed them all
Each little tyrant with his little sign
Shows where man claims earth glows no more divine
On paths to freedom and to childhood dear
A board sticks up to notice “no road here”

(lines 50-70)

In this passage, “wandering” plainly means walking the country paths, both becoming “lost” and finding one's way again by means of those paths in an excursive movement that breaks bounds but always returns.36 Moreover, having an unbounded perspective does not mean being able to see everything at once, or to see from on high—even the landscapes in “wild fancys eye” are “fallen … from an evening sky”—but being able to walk where one has always walked, seeing the fields successively in flower and in grain, returning to places beloved in childhood and enjoyed at leisure.

Clare sees the loss of this pedestrian freedom as no small part of enclosure's slavery. Indeed, the full shape of “The Mores” suggests that these twenty line on walking—precisely one-quarter of its length—form the core of the poem. The opening picture of the unenclosed moor and the following descriptions of prosperous country life before enclosure, of free-ranging herds and herdsmen, and of roaming gatherers of uncultivated fruits and flowers, all underscore the necessity of freedom to wander in old paths. Each reminiscence closes with a direct accusation against enclosure's economic tyrannies and aesthetic depredations, setting up a rhetorical equation among the countryman's freedom to wander, his economic prosperity, and his aesthetic enjoyment of natural scenes, especially those remembered and loved from his earliest days. Thus “The Mores” represents path-closing not only as an effect of enclosure and an emblem of its depredations but as one of its most powerful agents of change which, by changing people's physical paths, changes what they see and how they see it, cutting them off from crucial areas of their cultural and personal histories.

It is in this context that Clare turns from extensive, elevated views toward a foot-traveler's perspective. In these three stanzas from “The Flitting,” the first of the poems associated with Clare's removal from Helpston to Northborough, he deliberately announces the change:

Give me no high flown fangled things
No haughty pomp in marching chime
Where muses play on golden strings
And splendour passes for sublime
Where citys stretch as far as fame
And fancys straining eye can go
And piled untill the sky for shame
Is stooping far away below
I love the verse that mild and bland
Breaths of green fields and open sky
I love the muse that in her hand
Bears wreaths of native poesy
Who walks nor skips the pasture brook
In scorn—but by the drinking horse
Leans oer its little brig to look
How far the sallows lean accross
And feels a rapture in her breast
Upon their root-fringed grains to mark
A hermit morehens sedgy nest
Just like a naiads summer bark
She counts the eggs she cannot reach
Admires the spot and loves it well
And yearns so natures lessons teach
Amid such neighbourhoods to dwell

(“Flitting,” lines 153-77)

The subjects and images of “native poesy” are natural, rural, and common rather than “fangled,” urban, and rare; the ideal methods and forms of poetry, now represented by wreaths made of flowers and grasses rather than by music drawn from golden-stringed lyres, reflect these choices. The fundamental change that produces these distinctions, however, is a change in the poet's chosen mode of perception. Clare rejects not just “fangled things,” but “high flown” art whose favorite views are of immense height and breadth. “Fancys straining eye” suggests, of course, fancy's flight—the high viewpoint required to see this mythical city of art, which itself leaves the sky “stooping far away below,” and the sheer insistence on the visual that transforms perception into picture—but it also suggests a breakdown in the system. No longer is such flight effortless, for writer or reader; the eye strains to see into the farthest distance but cannot quite find the limiting frame, and the resulting poetry is itself strained.

Clare's muse, meanwhile, “walks nor skips the pasture brook / in scorn” but pauses on its bridge to look at how the willows hang across the stream, and then sees a morehen's nest among the willow roots, and then counts the eggs in the nest. She does not fly to some high vantage point to gain a broader view, or strain her eyes toward the horizon, but instead chooses greater and greater “limitation,” seeing first a whole scene with horse and brook and bridge and trees, then willows only, then the nest at their roots, and finally the tiny eggs within the nest. The succession of progressively limited scenes paradoxically removes other barriers and limitations, producing emotional intimacy that connects the person with the place and vivid memory that makes the past present. Clare, indeed, does not separate these two effects: “a love and joy / For every weed and everything,” for the details that only close and deliberately limited views of a place can reveal, is “A feeling kindred from a boy / A feeling brought with every spring” (“Flitting,” lines 189-92).

These last lines' sound particularly Wordsworthian, but Clare's pedestrian/poet differs from Wordsworth's in at least two important respects. First, Clare's pedestrians tend to tighten their perceptual focus, looking more and more narrowly into a single scene, as in “The Flitting,” or, as in “The Morehens Nest,” “catching little pictures passing bye”: a gate, a bridge, a stile, a brook, perceptually intact images strung on the implied connection of the walker's path.37 Such a perspective depends even more emphatically on limitation than on succession. Wordsworth's mimicry of pedestrian perspective, on the other hand, emphasizes the opening out of vision and the need for continued movement. In this passage from The Excursion, for instance, the narrator and the Wanderer approach the Solitary's retreat, where they discover a child's playhouse:

                                        we wound from crag to crag,
Where passage could be won; and, as the last
Of the mute [funeral] train, behind the heathy top
Of that off-sloping outlet, disappeared,
I, more impatient in my downward course,
Had landed upon easy ground; and there
Stood waiting for my Comrade. When behold
An object that enticed my steps aside!
A narrow, winding entry opened out
Into a platform. …. 
                                        For where the rock and wall
Met in an angle, hung a penthouse, framed
By thrusting two rude staves into the wall
And overlaying them with mountain sods;
To weather-fend a little turf-built seat …. 
the whole plainly wrought by children's hands!
Whose skill had thronged the floor with a proud show
Of baby houses, curiously arranged;
Nor wanting ornament of walks between,
With mimic trees inserted in the turf,
And gardens interposed.

(Book 2, lines 404-13, 416-20, 423-28)

Wordsworth immediately foregrounds the limitation of the narrator's view by the slopes that “rise” around him as he descends, shutting out his view of the funeral procession. The narrator stops for a moment but then walks on into that “narrow, winding entry,” seeing first the platform, and then (drawing closer) how it is made, and then (near enough for comparisons now) how large it is (big enough for him to sit on), and finally the details of the children's play village, right down to miniature walks that rather charmingly suggest that he might continue his exploration into this tiny village, were he only small enough. These successive revelations imitate the continuous unfolding of a locality to the pedestrian traveler who follows its paths to an intimate knowledge of its topography. The walker's perceptions are limited, to be sure, by his passage inside—as he descends the sloping path he loses sight of the other side of the hill—but that limitation invites further movement and observation by its very incompleteness and by the satisfying progress of the explorations of the narrow passage's interior. The Muse of “The Flitting,” on the other hand, stops to look into a nest of eggs where she sees, finally, eggs—still, secure, and, for all their implicit capacity, a period to her vision.

Clare's representation of pedestrian perspective as successively limited resonates with his characterization of walking as leisure, a decision that identifies his walking poetry with pastoral rather than (as in Wordsworth's case) with georgic. “The Flitting” gives some hint of this in the criticism of the old aesthetic as “straining” and in the relaxed and prolonged halting of its pedestrian muse upon the bridge. “Stray Walks” and “Careless Rambles” both revel in wandering “sweet leisures aimless road,” and “Sunday Walks” develops these associations at some length, directly contrasting the walker's everyday work with his leisurely, musing strolls (“Stray Walks,” line 26). The title immediately suggests that walking is part of the traditional Sabbath rest. Clare, in fact, makes walking prime among the Sabbath's blessings, first by showing us a rural laborer whose “ear at leisure dwells / On the soft soundings of his village bells,” as “He takes his rambles just as fancys please” (“Sunday Walks,” lines 1-2, 4). Walking, unlike flight, does not strain fancy but relaxes into the pleasure of following one's own inclination. This license matches nicely with the auditory image of the bells, which in England often follow no melody or rule, but peal up and down and across the scale with pleasant abandon, so that we can think of the nonmusical rambling as a parallel case of sanctified chaos.

As Clare's pedestrian wanders down the grassy strips that separate fields and into sunken lanes bowered with hedges, he hears the “hum of bees were labours doomed to stray / In ceaseless bustle on his weary way” and the calls of various animals “From rustics whips and plough and waggon free / Biting in carless freedom oer the leas” (lines 29-30, 34). The contrast between the laboring bees and the unyoked animals emphatically disrupts any connection to the georgic mode that the agricultural vistas of the poem may have tempted us to make, clearly preferring the Edenic freedom and leisure of pastoral. Although Clare's pedestrian “muses with a smile / On thriving produce of his earlier toil,” enjoying the sight of “browning wheat ears and oat bunches grown / and pea pods swelld by blossoms long forsook / And nearly ready for the scythe and hook,” the experience that helps “His musing marvel[s] home to natures cause” is not his prior labor but his present leisure:

A six days prisoner lifes support to earn
From dusty cobwebs and the murky barn
The weary thresher meets the rest thats given
And thankfull sooths him in the boon of heaven
And sabbath walks enjoys along the fields

(lines 41-42, 44-46, 50, 59-63)

The images are agricultural; the pedestrian/poet is a laborer; yet Clare distinguishes sharply between labor and both walking and poetry-making. Labor dooms and imprisons, providing merely “lifes support.” But leisure, embodied in walking and “musing,” gathers a rich imaginative harvest that includes the recognition of a creative power “Who rules the year and shoots the spindling grain” (line 54). As the poem shifts into first-person meditation, and then into hymn or prayer, this distinction does not fade: the poetic narrator asks, “free from labour let my musings stray / Were foot paths ramble from the public way,” and closes with thanks to “the lord of sabbaths” who has granted this day for walking “As leisure dropt in labours rugged way / To claim a passport wi the rest to heaven” (lines 99-100, 141-42).

Wordsworth, on the other hand, regularly characterizes walking as laborious, both in the sense of being physically difficult and in the sense of being associated with economic and poetic labors. The male traveler in “Salisbury Plain,” “by thirst and hunger pressed,” “measure[s] each painful step” along his path, finally gaining food and shelter by means of his wandering; the Old Cumberland Beggar struggles along his road, gathering his living as he goes and providing the narrator, a fellow pedestrian, with poetic material and motive; the narrators of both The Excursion and The Prelude “toil” at their walking, the physical effort appearing as analogue and vehicle of their poetic labors, while the Excursion's Wanderer (to whom I shall give more attention later on) is represented as a natural poet whose pedestrian wanderings maintain him both morally and economically.38

Wordsworth develops a direct comparison between leisurely and laborious walking in “When first I journeyed hither.”39 Here the poet recalls a time early in his residence at Grasmere when bad weather prevents his customary long walks. He seeks, in the shelter of a nearby fir grove, “A length of open space where I might walk / Backwards and forwards long as I had liking / In easy and mechanic thoughtlessness” (lines 37-39). We know that Wordsworth habitually paced up and down a garden path if he were composing at home, but “easy” and “thoughtlessness” suggest that at this point in the poem the speaker regards walking as leisurely, as a rest from both physical and intellectual work.40 The grove attracts him, in fact, by its character of still seclusion. He describes it as a “commodious harbour, a sequestered nook,” a “safe covert,” and reads a bird's nest built near the ground as “sure sign … that they who in that house / Of nature and of love had made their home / Among the fir trees” had found security and quiet there (lines 9, 11, 21-23). But the firs are so thick that Wordsworth cannot establish his walkway, “and, for this cause … loved the shady grove / Less than [he] wished to love a place so sweet” (lines 39-40).

The passionate terms of these lines, together with the characterization of the fir grove as a potential home, suggest that Wordsworth's inability to walk in the grove also frustrates his settlement in Grasmere, a project whose importance is signaled by the first lines of the poem: “When first I journeyed hither, to a home / And dwelling of my own” (lines 1-2). When he cannot walk in the grove, he feels that he cannot love it, cannot enter and possess it. During a visit from his brother John, however, William discovers that John has found a way to walk in the grove:

A hoary pathway traced around the trees
And winding on with such an easy line
Along a natural opening that I stood
Much wondering at my own simplicity
That I myself had ever failed in search
Of what was now so obvious …
                                                            at once I knew
That by my Brother's steps it had been traced.
                                                            that more loth to part
From place so lovely he had worn the track,
One of his own deep paths! by pacing here
With that habitual restlessness of foot
Wherewith the Sailor measures o’er and o’er
His short domain upon the Vessel's deck
While she is travelling through the dreary seas.

(lines 57-62, 64-65, 68-73)

Several things about the speaker's account of John's path are worthy of note. First, the path was plainly “there” before John walked it: its “easy line / Along a natural opening” (note the suggestions of narrative in the terms “line” and “opening”) should have been “obvious” to William. Second, this path bears legible traces of John's “habitual” pacing of the deck when he is at sea, which in turn resembles that very “easy and mechanic” pacing William sought to perform in the grove. The poem rhetorically associates this kind of “ease,” however, with “naturalness” rather than with mechanism, and with public action rather than with private contemplation.41 Thus, the poem asserts, John's walking reads the path out of the grove, tracing its contours in such a way that not only the natural line of the path but the idiosyncratic lines of John's own style of walking, a style integral with his labors for the East India Company, are legible to William. Further, these lines are legible specifically as poetry, for William attributes John's pedestrian success to “undying recollections” of nature that have made John “a silent poet” (line 85).

The crucial turn here is John's performance of walking as labor, as habitual, repetitive, restless—literally “without rest”—movement, and as thoughtful, recollective, poetic work. This performance, the sequencing of the narrative insists, brings about William's rhetorical, emotional, and physical possession of the grove: he names the path for his brother and, “love[ing] the fir-grove with a perfect love,” walks there often (line 94). In this narrative, in fact, leisurely walking simply does not exist. William can walk in the grove only by walking as his brother walks, literally retracing John's footsteps, doing this regularly and with sustained attention, thinking as he goes:

                                                                                when Thou,
Muttering the verses which I muttered first
Among the mountains, through the midnight watch
Art pacing to and fro the Vessel's deck
In some far region, here, while o’er my head
At every impulse of the moving breeze
The fir-grove murmurs with a sea-like sound,
Alone I tread this path, for aught I know
Timing my steps to thine, and with a store
Of indistinguishable sympathies
Mingling most earnest wishes for the day
When We, and others whom we love shall meet
A second time in Grasmere's happy Vale.

(lines 105-17)

Walking performed laboriously, and performed while laboring, opens a path closed to the leisurely walker; it places John in the landscape, in name, in material trace and in his own memory, and enables William's physical and metaphorical home-making. Moreover, the conclusion of the poem both demands and promises the maintainance of these acts of relocation and settlement by the continued movement of the two men's mutual pedestrian practice. As they walk, retracing each others' (and their own) physical and poetic paths, they synchronize mountain and ocean, poetic and economic labors. The imagery—muttering, walking, “impluse[s]” of a “moving breeze,” the ocean itself—emphasizes flux and change, yet the rhetorical juxtapositions make continuous movement the foundation of hopes for the brothers' reunion in Grasmere, now a “happy Vale” functioning as the stable receptacle of their future.

As John and William seem to contain the dislocations of time, Wordsworth's excursive walkers regularly stabilize change by means of laborious movement. When the narrator of “Michael” revisits the sheepfold, or the Wanderer in the Excursion returns to Margaret's cottage, they both perceive and accept change. In fact, their primary business is to account for and interpret the changes they perceive in people and places in such a way that those changes somehow resolve into a moral lesson, specifically a lesson that helps others (including the reader) understand and accept change in their own lives. The Wanderer, for instance, faced with the narrator's “impotence of grief” at Margaret's story, adds a final recollection that asserts the transformation of change and loss into stability and peace:

I well remember that those very plumes,
Those weeds, and the high spear-grass on that wall,
By mist and silent rain-drops silvered o’er,
As once I passed, into my heart conveyed
So still an image of tranquillity,
So calm and still, and looked so beautiful
Amid the uneasy thoughts which filled my mind
That what we feel of sorrow and despair
From ruin and from change, and all the grief
That passing shows of Being leave behind,
Appeared an idle dream, that could maintain
Nowhere, dominion o’er the enlightened spirit
Whose meditative sympathies repose
Upon the breast of Faith. I turned away,
And walked along my road in happiness.

(lines 924, 942-56)

The final line marks excursive walking as an agent of emotional and moral serenity, a serenity that, like the telling of Margaret's tale, derives from the Wanderer's repetitive pedestrian travels to and from the ruined cottage. Moreover, like the end of “When first I journeyed hither,” this passage juxtaposes the comprehension of flux with movement and points, in its conclusive “walked my road in happiness,” toward continued motion as the “end” and anchor of such comprehension.

Thus, although Wordsworth's pedestrians do stop and reflect in the way that Hartman labels the “halted traveler” motif, we understand walking as the crucial instrument of their perception and useful interpretation of change because excursive walking itself moves and changes and passes on, always returning to an always different place. Clare's pedestrians, on the other hand, seek continually to refind a known place that remains familiar and essentially unchanged, a place of rest where the terrible struggle against time, “the experience of the resistance against matter,” may be briefly laid aside.

This particular difference between Clare's and Wordsworth's walkers strikes me as moving evidence of the gap between the class standing and literary acceptance of the two poets. Wordsworthian peripatetic asserts the extension not just of a traditional literary mode but of a working concept of “the good life” by placing the walker where the farmer stood as cultivator, preserver, reformer, and (of course) poet. All of this depends upon initially accepting farming, walking, and poetry-making as interchangeable labors, in practice as in representation. This from Wordsworth, whose labors were walking and poetry. But Clare, who labored at ploughing, reaping, threshing, herding cattle, and gardening tells us plainly that next to his work amid dusty cobwebs and murky barns, walking and poetry-making appear as the sweet pursuits of paradise (briefly) regained, a true Sabbath rest. From Clare's point of view, a decision to use the georgic as the parent stock of peripatetic would surely involve an unconscionable equivocation on “labor.”

In Clare's poems on birds' nests, however, the conflicts inherent to a pedestrian pastoral emerge. Birds naturally suggest the winged muse, and birds nesting, especially when they include the nightingale and the skylark, suggest the muse grounded and at home, a vivid image of Clare's “native poesy.” Clare often characterizes birds as recluses and their nests as being “for secresy and shelter rightly made,” suggesting the necessity once again for a contained resting place, secure from change, in which to accomplish poetry (“Birds Nests,” line 12). In this scenario, the pedestrian-poet sees and represents nests and eggs, the home of poesy and its fruits, preserving them both metaphorically through his representation and actually through his restraint in leaving the nest as he finds it. “We’ll let them be,” says the finder of “The Pettichaps Nest,” and the speaker of “The Nightingales Nest” concludes, “We will not plunder the music of its dower / … We’ll leave [its eggs] still unknown to wrong / As the old woodlands legacy of song” (“Pettichaps,” line 27; “Nightingales,” lines 69, 91-92).

Yet these nests are not as secure as the one in Wordsworth's fir grove seems. Dangers remain, and Clare's language and imagery rather surprisingly cast those dangers in the forms of walking. In “The Fern Owls Nest,” the woodsman may trample the nest with his careless and “heavy tread”; “Where fear encamps” around the snipe's nest, “The trembling grass / Quakes from the human foot,” and the birds “dread / The very breath of man / Hiding in spots that never knew his tread” (“Fern Owls,” line 7; “To the Snipe,” lines 3-6, 37-39). That same pettichap's nest the poet finds by chance and carefully preserves astonishes him by its proximity to a road: “For fears rude paths around are thickly spread / And they are left to many dangers ways” (“Pettichaps,” 28-29). Still another nest is guarded from a road by a brook:

Right pleasant brook Im glad ye lie
Between them and the road
They’re not all friends that wander bye
And faith is ill bestowed
Hid from the world their green retreat
The worlds ways never knew
But much I fear they’d quickly meet
Its cares if in its view

(“In the hedge I pass a little nest,” lines 25-32)

In this stanza Clare's difficulties show crystal clear. The speaker's “wandering bye” shapes both his initial experience, permitting him to see and appreciate the nest, and his representation of that experience, and so acts to preserve both nest and memory of nest. But because Clare “stops” walking metaphorically, by naming it “leisure” (“rest” or “pause”) and by representing his perceptions while walking as simultaneous or as “caught” in time, the very movement of walking itself—stepping down the road, changing perspectives, passing through time space—threatens the nest and his representation of it. His wording makes it very clear that this is a problem of pedestrian perception: if the nest were “in view” of the road it would be more easily threatened by faithless strangers—by inconstancy, in fact, and by change.

When Clare consciously chooses a pedestrian perspective in “The Flitting,” he not only rejects the eighteenth-century aesthetic of “flitting” as a mode of poetic perception, but also his own flitting to Northborough, and the flitting of time and love and hope. The pedestrian pastoral is conceived as a remedy for the change and motion he fears, and yet to stop walking, or even to “stop” walking, is to lose the very perspectives that, in Clare's scheme of things, properly shape poetry and preserve the walker's perceptions. In striving to exclude motion, Clare's walking poetry threatens its own mode.

Clare represents walking's material force as purely negative: a walker may refrain from destruction, may make metaphor, but his passage through it has no power to preserve or change the material world. Under these conditions, enclosure's appropriations and the destruction of old forms of life seem incontrovertible; the walker in “The Mores” may hate the sign that closes his path, but he has no way to change it. In fact, however, enclosure's disruption of old forms of walking also foregrounds the elements of British law that permit those same old forms to disrupt, both physically and aesthetically, the process of enclosure:

not only was there general access to commons, prior to enclosure, but there were actual paths which were regarded by ancient custom as rights of way even where no written by-laws existed in relation to them; and the law even today [1979] says that a path which it can be proved has been used “as of right” for a period of twenty years or more shall be deemed to be public.42

Usage, in other words, determines access—which means that walking is actually a way of materially preserving the unenclosed character of the countryside, of appropriating or reappropriating land for common use.

Wordsworth himself makes deliberate use of this principle on at least one occasion. David McCracken, noting that Wordsworth “championed public footpaths,” draws our attention to John Taylor Coleridge's reminiscence of an 1836 walk with Wordsworth “through the Glenridding Walks”:

I remember well, asking him if we were not trespassing on private pleasure-grounds here. He said, no; the walks had, indeed, been inclosed, but he remembered them open to the public, and he always went through them when he chose. At Lowther, we found among the visitors, the late Lord W———; and describing our walk, he made the same observation, that we had been trespassing; but Wordsworth maintained his point with somewhat more warmth than I either liked, or could well account for. But afterwards, when we were alone, he told me he had purposely answered Lord W———stoutly and warmly, because he had done a similar thing with regard to some grounds in the neighbourhood of Penrith, and excluded the people of Penrith from walking where they had always enjoyed the right before. He had evidently a pleasure in vindicating these rights, and seemed to think it a duty.43

Justice Coleridge's confusion over this incident, his inability to “well account” for Wordsworth's vigorous defense of public access, and his equivocal response to Wordsworth's sense of duty, reflects the simultaneously conservative and subversive quality walking acquires during this period of enclosure. On one hand, what Wordsworth does in the Glenridding Walks is not only perfectly legal but actively supportive of the new forms of enclosed England, legitimating public rights of way and so opening the once insular countryside to travelers. On the other hand (as his companion plainly senses), because such a walk appeals to older legal and topographical forms, maintaining local idiosyncrasies that enclosure tends to destroy, it subverts private claims to enclosed lands, insisting on some degree of common access. The walker appropriates his path, and yet his appropriation undoes the appropriations of enclosure in both method and result: his possession is the direct result of his own physical effort, and, although he is privately enriched, whether in poetic association or in easy access to village and field, his gain impoverishes no one and actually opens similar opportunities for anyone who wishes to follow in his footsteps. Thus Wordsworth claims in “Home at Grasmere” that he and Dorothy possess “unappropriated bliss” by “[finding] means / To walk abreast, though in a narrow path, / With undivided steps”; the walkers' possession of their path is real, physical, enriching, and yet leaves the path, the bliss of life at Grasmere, still unappropriated, available to all, even offered to all by means of poetry (lines 85, 177-79).

Walking's material capacity to appropriate paths for common use means that when it is also imagined as georgic labor, it replaces cultivation, regrounding civilizing labor in efficacious material action and relocating the rural countryside in both its own local character and in its significance to the life of England as a nation. At the same time, walking represented as georgic labor retains claims to continuously moving perception and to mediation of change in ways that walking as pastoral leisure cannot: the working walker, acting and not at rest, experiences change as a process that he is able to retrace, both physically and memorially. But the writer who wishes to make such a move must convince us to read walking as cultivating labor. Wordsworth does this in two ways. First, he redefines walking and wandering, actions long interpreted as meaning “aimlessness” and “homelessness” (for walkers on the road were always the poorest of the poor), as purposeful agents of home-building. This he essentially does by using the words “walking” and “wandering” to mean what I call “excursive walking,” walking that breaks bounds but inevitably returns along its own path, so that the threat of straying and houselessness is countered by the performance of return. Second, he makes use of walking's historical material association with agriculture and rural labor of all kinds to link walking with Virgilian cultivation, and then contrasts his walkers' success in the material and metaphorical dimensions of cultivation with the failure of traditional georgic cultivators.

The first fifty lines of The Prelude represent a crucial instance of Wordsworth's ongoing redefinition of “walking” and “wandering.” As the narrator walks out of the city, he speaks of that departure as a release from imprisonment into free wandering and yet as an instrument of locating himself in a chosen home:

Now I am free, enfranchised and at large,
May fix my habitation where I will.
What dwelling shall receive me? in what vale
Shall be my harbour?
The earth is all before me. With a heart
Joyous, nor scared at its own liberty,
I look about; and should the guide I choose
Be nothing better than a wandering cloud,
I cannot miss my way.

(1.9-12, 15-19)

The cadence of these lines so smooths the narrator's transitions between placement and wandering that we are scarcely aware of any difference. From “a house / Of bondage” he walks out to freedom not only to wander, to go where he chooses, but also to freedom to “fix [his] habitation,” to place himself where he chooses. He recognizes the possible dangers of liberty but asserts that he cannot stray from the right path, which clearly also means that he cannot fail to place his new abode correctly. Indeed, his assertion appears to be that because his wandering is free he will not stray: “The earth is all before me” leads directly, without guidance, to “I cannot miss my way.”

Again, although he asks, “whither shall I turn / By road or pathway, or through open field” and imagine as a guide “any floating thing / Upon the river,” the narrator resolves this brief worry about undirectedness into the pleasure of determining his own living place:

Enough that I am free; for months to come
May dedicate myself to chosen tasks;
May quit the tiresome sea and dwell on shore.
If not a settler on the soil, at least
To drink wild water, and to pluck green herbs,
And gather fruits fresh from their native tree.

(1.29-30, 33-38)

With lack of direction, then, comes self-direction and with wandering—now clearly deliberate wandering—placement: he will not travel (the verb suggests itself) but dwell on shore. Yet he will create that dwelling in movement, living not as a settled cultivator but as a gatherer of wild nourishment. As such a gatherer he must move to live, and yet claims in that movement to make himself a home.

The sense of such lines, that the stable placement of a human life is enabled by movement, appeals so strongly to those who live in the constant movement of technological cultures that we must exert a certain effort to remain aware that Wordsworth constructs this sense by means of smooth rhetorical transitions between the terms of wandering and settlement. In the process of these transitions he invests “wandering” with positive value once foreign to that term: wandering becomes not a relaxation of body and mind, a withdrawal from community—although he continues to play upon those ideas—but a deliberate, directed labor undertaken to make self and home. He repeats the construction so frequently, both in the Prelude and elsewhere, that the idea becomes “natural,” its working nearly invisible. The famous passage beginning “Fair seed-time had my soul,” for instance, opens its crucial remembrances with the “transplanted” boy walking rather than rooted, “wander[ing] half the night among the Cliffs / And the smooth Hollows” (1.305, 309, 314-15). The image of the seed alone contains both placement and growth, and when the seedtime is revealed as a time of wandering, the wandering takes on the character of deliberation despite its rambling quality and becomes a cultivation of the seed, a placing of the child in land and love, a venturing out and a returning to home.

The seed-time passage also gives us a glimpse of the way Wordsworth shifts through the metaphorical terms of georgic into those of his own representation of walking as cultivation. In that move from seeding through transplanting into wandering, Wordsworth not only suggests that walking is cultivation but leaves the impression that walking supersedes Virgilian cultivation, taking on its functions and altering its original terms. As this passage continues, in fact, the agricultural metaphor gives way to descriptions of the narrator's night walks. The closing images embody the moral pressure of the natural world, felt by the narrator as he hurries along after stealing birds from others' traps, as “Low breathings coming after me, and sounds / Of undistinguishable motion, steps / Almost as silent as the turf they trod” (1.330-32). Even where the narrator's walking wanders in the bad sense, straying toward criminality, Wordsworth reasserts the function of walking as cultivation, rendering the narrator's moral correction in pedestrian terms as well. Agricultural images, meanwhile, have disappeared.

The most extended instance of this rhetorical maneuver, the conflation and then replacement of Virgilian cultivation with walking, occurs in Book 1 of The Excursion, in which the narrator draws a character of the Wanderer and records the Wanderer's telling of Margaret's story. As the poem opens, the narrator “toil[s] / With languid steps” toward the ruined cottage, where he finds the Wanderer asleep on a bench (1.20-21). The narrator then recalls the long-past time when the two would take long walks in the woods, the Wanderer telling of all he had seen, philosophizing, and singing old songs with such skill that his now grown companion remembers them as

Feeding the soul, and eagerly imbibed
As cool refreshing water, by the care
Of the industrious husbandman, diffused
Through a parched meadow-ground, in time of drought.

(lines 61-72)

The narrator's metaphor likens the Wanderer's walking and singing to the work of a good farmer; the Wanderer's native songs, relocated in the boy's memory during their rambles in the woods, effect a cultivation of the soul.

In fact, the narrator tells us, the Wanderer's own boyhood walks were taken while he worked as a herdsman or traveled to his village school. During solitary evening walks home, the young Wanderer “saw the hills / Grow larger in the darkness,” watched the stars come out, passed through the woods alone, and, like the narrator of the Prelude, found that such experiences “impressed / So vividly great objects that they lay / Upon his mind like substances” (lines 126-27, 136-38). From these impressions, gathered while walking, the Wanderer gradually gains what the narrator describes as a capacity to read through nature into the divine: “Even in [the rocks'] fixed and steady lineaments / He traced an ebbing and a flowing mind, / Expression ever varying” (lines 141-42, 160-63). “What wonder,” asks the narrator, “if his being thus became / Sublime and comprehensive!” (lines 233-34).

Actually, of course, there is much to wonder at in this account, in which certain physical perspectives are translated into enviable moral security. Like Wordsworth's redefinition of wandering, his translation of continuous, intimate physical perception into ready apprehension of a divinity contiguous with human being involves both sleight of hand and, at some point, a leap of faith. Wordsworth further enforces our impression that pedestrian perception effects the Wanderer's moral cultivation by discounting the value of formal education and emphasizing the need for pedestrian movement. Given his solitary walks, the narrator tells us, the Wanderer “had small need of books” (line 163). Although he becomes master of the village school, in fact, the Wanderer is tormented by “wandering thoughts,” which, in full context, appears to mean “thoughts of wandering”: he gives up his post and becomes a peddler.

By this narrative move, Wordsworth fully detaches the cultivating effects of walking from the rural labors that created the need to walk in the first place. The narrator tells us that peddlers' “hard service, deemed debasing now, / [Gain] merited respect in simpler times” by connecting the isolated inmates of the countryside, and that “still no few / Of [the Wanderer's] adventurous countrymen were led / By perseverence in this track of life / To competence and ease” (lines 327-28, 333-36). Like the story of the Wanderer's education, this account obscures a good deal. Although no doubt a settled populace hungry for news did enjoy and anticipate some peddlers' appearances, the idea that in some earlier time their work was more valued, either culturally or economically, does not accord well with what we know of ongoing legal restraint and general suspicion of all travelers and especially of wandering laborers, most of whom could be assumed to be poor and quite probably criminal.44 Moreover (partly because of such restraints and suspicions), almost no one who could afford to do otherwise walked. A successful peddler would have bought a donkey or a horse or a cart. Yet the Wanderer, working on foot, gains sufficient wealth “To pass the remnant of his days, untasked / With needless service, from hardship free” (lines 384-85). This carefree retirement contrasts sharply with the poverty-stricken conditions of the Wanderer's childhood and youth “on a small hereditary farm, / An unproductive slip of rugged ground” (lines 109-10). In Wordsworth's rewrite of a normal peddler's life, economic labors performed while traveling on foot appear a fruitful, secure alternative to failing agricultural labors, while walking itself retains the capacity for moral and cultural cultivation originally derived from its association with Virgilian cultivation.

The Wanderer's telling of Margaret's tale reiterates this argument. He describes Margaret and Robert when he first knows them as exemplars of georgic industry and fruitfulness. Margaret's “virtues bloomed beneath this lowly roof”; her husband, “frugal, affectionate, sober and withal / Keenly industrious,” labored diligently at his weaving “ere the mower was abroad” and in the evenings cultivated their small garden:

                                                                                They who passed
At evening, from behind the garden fence
Might hear his busy spade, which he would ply,
After his daily work, until the light
Had failed and every leaf and flower were lost
In the dark hedges.

(lines 512, 522-23, 525-26, 527-32)

The georgic virtue of industry and Virgilian georgic labor have been moved out of the field into a pastoral locus, the garden, with its suggestions of ease and security. But we already know that the garden has “run wild” and the cottage been ruined, and the Wanderer's description casts the shadow ahead: already agriculture and its fruits are vanishing, invisible at first to the passers-by and finally becoming so to Robert himself, recoverable only in part by walkers outside the fence who hear and interpret the sounds of cultivation.

As the Wanderer continues, he maps the decline of Margaret's family by the decay of this garden. Immediately after Robert's departure, Margaret keeps the garden herself, and the Wanderer's first return discovers no outward changes. On subsequent visits, however, the garden passes from a still lush dishevelment to full-scale neglect. The Wanderer interprets this as a sign

                                                            that poverty and grief
Were now come nearer to her: weeds defaced
The hardened soil, and knots of withered grass:
No ridges there appeared of clear black mold,
No winter greenness; of her herbs and flowers,
It seemed the better part were gnawed away
Or trampled into earth; a chain of straw,
Which had been twined about the slender stem
Of a young apple-tree, lay at its root;
The bark was nibbled round by truant sheep.

(lines 833-42)

In this last vision, neither pastoral ease nor georgic labor remains; the very grazing of the sheep suggests not paradise but its loss, as they too eat of the forbidden tree. What remains of Margaret's story, and of her hope, is rendered in paths and steps rather than in fruits and flowers. After her infant's death she earns her livelihood by spinning hemp, walking back and forth spinning the thread from a hemp belt round her waist.45 By these tiny excursions that mimic the Wanderer's larger travels, she gains some small sustenance and leaves a path that the narrator can still read, though faintly, beneath the encroaching grasses. Her spiritual and emotional livelihood, likewise, is gained from “that length of road” that she watches in constant hope, questioning wayfarers for news of her husband and waiting for the Wanderer to return (line 912). But it is too little, too late: Margaret dies in poverty, without word of her husband's fate.

As we have seen, the Wanderer closes his recollection of Margaret's life with the assertion that her struggle and loss, when seen from the correct perspective, become an “idle dream.” His own pedestrian wandering, on the other hand, appears as a cultivating labor that stabilizes the flux of idleness into tranquillity and faith by creating that proper perspective and then redrawing the world by discourse. The narrator's actions underscore the lesson: arriving at these first epitaphs on foot, he will continue to gather the Wanderer's wisdom as they walk on together.

The elegance of Wordsworth's design, the way in which it utters walking's materialities so that they rhetorically subdue aesthetic and economic/political dissonances, is both compelling and disturbing. Certainly the reconstruction of walking as georgic labor depends on rewriting the economic and social history of walking and on accepting the eighteenth century's inclusion of supervision and “head-work”—in the terms of peripatetic, the physical and moral guidance offered by the Wanderer to the narrator and by John to William—in its definition of “labor.” For us, as for Clare (but for very different reasons), there is something slippery and unsavory about this last claim. And what precisely, we may ask, does Wordsworth suggest the dispossessed rural laborer do by way of physical resistance—keep a footpath open? We wish to see clearly, to measure these assertions against our own sense of what may properly be called “labor” and “revolt,” to have them out in the open. In order to do that, it seems to me, we must accurately and fully recognize the claims—that is, we must be able to talk about Wordsworth's representation of walking as georgic labor purporting to perform all those cultivations Virgil once associated with agricultural labor.


  1. John Murdoch, “The Landscape of Labor: Transformations of the Georgic,” in Romantic Revolutions: Criticism and Theory, ed. Kenneth R. Johnston and others (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), 190.

  2. Ibid., 190-91.

  3. Ibid., 191, 192, 191.

  4. See Anne D. Wallace, Walking, Literature, and English Culture: The Origins and Uses of Peripatetic in the Nineteenth Century (Oxford: Clarendon Press, forthcoming).

  5. The most important of these poems are the first full version of “Salisbury Plain” (1793-94), “The Old Cumberland Beggar” (1798, pub. 1800), “Home at Grasmere” (1800), “Michael” (1800), “When First I Journeyed Hither” (1800-04), and the 1805 Prelude.

  6. See especially John Chalker, The English Georgic (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1969); Dwight L. Durling, Georgic Tradition in English Poetry (New York: Columbia University Press, 1935); and J. E. Congleton, Theories of Pastoral Poetry in England, 1684-1798 (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1952), 75-114.

  7. Anthony Low, The Georgic Revolution (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), 12.

  8. Kurt Heinzelman, “‘Crossing the Wye’—Or, Why Value Landscape?” Maine Scholar 1 (1988): 12. See also Heinzelman's The Economics of Imagination (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1980) and “Self-Interest and the Politics of Composition in Keats's Isabella,ELH 55 (1988): 159-93.

  9. Marjorie Levinson, “Spiritual Economics: A Reading of ‘Michael,’” in Wordsworth's Great Period Poems: Four Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 149.

  10. Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981), 45.

  11. See Patterson's quotation of Jameson on page 278 of her Pastoral and Ideology: Virgil to Valery (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1987). Her omissions, while perhaps sensible in her context, are somewhat reductive, making “genuine manual labor,” rather than assembly-line work and “experience of the resistance of matter in genuine manual labor,” the thing to which these intellectuals assimilate their labors.

  12. Patterson, Pastoral, 278.

  13. Murdoch, 189.

  14. Ibid., 190.

  15. See Dwight L. Durling, Georgic Tradition in English Poetry (New York: Columbia University Press, 1935), on varients of georgic.

  16. Patterson, “Wordsworth's Georgic: Genre and Structure in The Excursion,Wordsworth Circle 9 (1978): 150. For a discussion of the reasons to reject grave-digging as the material basis of a variant of georgic, see chapter 3 of my forthcoming book (note 4 above).

  17. Alan Liu, Wordsworth: The Sense of History (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1989), 347-53.

  18. See W. B. Carnochan's Confinement and Flight: An Essay on English Literature of the Eighteenth Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977) for a discussion of imaginative flight as an (ultimately excursive) escape from (sometimes salutary) imprisonment.

  19. John Barrell, The Idea of Landscape and the Sense of Place, 1730-1840 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972), 10-11.

  20. In this regard the preferred aesthetics of landscape painting parallel the current and long-standing aesthetics of travel. Pre-nineteenth-century representations of both imagined and actual travel attended almost solely to destinations, to what might be seen at each point along the way, and not to the way itself. For a critical discussion of this representational strategy in literature, see Richard Sommer in Georg Roppen and Richard Sommer, Strangers and Pilgrims: An Essay on the Metaphor of Journey (New York: Humanities Press, 1964), 19. Among the many accounts of actual travel in which this aesthetic is clearly evident are William Bromley's Remarks made in Travels through France and Italy (1693); Thomas Nugent's The Grand Tour; or, A Journey through the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, and France (1778); and Samuel Johnson's Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775).

  21. David Mallet, The Excursion, in The Works of David Mallet Esq. in Three Volumes: A New Edition Corrected (London: A. Millar and P. Vaillant, 1759), 66; hereafter cited in the text.

  22. Other examples of the relationship between pedestrian and Claudian perspectives can be found in James Thomson's The Seasons (1726-28), which experiments more freely with pedestrian viewpoints but arrives at the same implicit conclusion. See “Summer,” lines 192-98, and “Winter,” lines 22-27, in The Seasons and the Castle of Indolence, ed. James Sambrook (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972). See also Richard Savage's The Wanderer (1729) and William Cowper's The Task (1789).

  23. See Liu on “arrested” motives and motifs and on repose in “The Politics of Picturesque,” in Wordsworth, 61-137.

  24. Thomson, “Spring,” lines 516-55, in Seasons.

  25. William Gilpin, “On the Art of Sketching Landscape,” in Three Essays: On Picturesque Beauty, on Picturesque Travel, and on Sketching Landscape: To which is added a poem. On Landscape Painting (London: R. Blamire, 1792), 70.

  26. Murdoch, 192; Liu, 61-137.

  27. W. G. Hoskins, The Making of the English Landscape (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1955), 179.

  28. Barrell, Idea of Landscape, 87. I am deeply indebted to Barrell's account of the material and aesthetic effects of enclosure, not only in the immediately following discussion but throughout this essay.

  29. Virgil, Georgics, trans. L. P. Wilkinson (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982), II.504-06, 510-12.

  30. Raymond Williams, Introduction to John Clare: Selected Poetry and Prose, ed. Merryn and Raymond Williams (London: Methuen, 1986), 14.

  31. For assessments of the progress of nineteenth-century enclosures, see Carl J. Dahlman, The Open Field System and Beyond (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), 168; and Howard Gray, English Field Systems (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1915), 10, 110. Partly because of the speed and extent of these changes, I am convinced by those who, in the ongoing debate on the economic effects of enclosure, take the view that, although the “complex economic changes” associated with enclosure were “technically progressive,” they also included, “by inexorable economic logic, an initial and appreciable decline in the standard of living of peasants and so of the working population as a whole” (Jon S. Cohen and Martin L. Weitzman, “Enclosures and Depopulation: A Marxian Analysis,” in European Peasants and Their Markets: Essays in Agrarian Economic History, ed. William N. Parker and Eric L. Jones [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975], 176).

  32. William Wordsworth, “Salisbury Plain,” in William Wordsworth, ed. Stephen Gill (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), line 44; John Clare, “Remembrances,” in John Clare, ed. Eric Robinson and David Powell (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), line 48. All further quotations from Wordsworth, except for those from the Prelude and the Excursion, and all quotations from Clare will be from these editions of their work and will be cited in the text. Quotations from the Prelude and the Excursion will be cited by book and line number and will be drawn from these editions: “The Prelude of 1805 in Thirteen Books,” in The Prelude: 1799, 1805, 1850, ed. Jonathan Wordsworth, M. H. Abrams, and Stephen Gill (New York: Norton, 1979); The Excursion, in The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, ed. Ernest de Selincourt and Helen Darbishire, vol. 5 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1949).

  33. Kim Taplin, The English Path (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 1979), 5. Taplin's brief but suggestive literary and historical study has been indispensable to my work.

  34. Gray, 14. See also Barrell, Idea, 94-96.

  35. Sidney Webb and Beatrice Webb, The Story of the King's Highway (1913; rpt. London: Frank Cass, 1963), 203.

  36. See the OED entries for “excur,” “excursion,” and “excursus.”

  37. Barrell describes Clare's creation of a “circular sense of place,” which Barrell identifies with an unenclosed landscape, by means of continuous syntax and multiple, discrete images, “like beads on a necklace: [the images] cannot change places with each other but can be told in a circle in such a way that we lose the sense of a beginning and end, and so of one sort of order” (Idea, 162-63).

  38. “Salisbury Plain,” 42, 39; Excursion, 1.21 (and on through line 25); and, in the Prelude, see especially the account of the ascent of Snowdon, in which the walkers silently and breathlessly lean into their climb (XIII.10-32).

  39. Gill's early text was composed 1800-04. The final version of this poem, “When to the attractions of the busy world,” was published in 1815 and differs from Gill's text most in its first few lines, which recess the home-making/journeying nexus into the body of the poem. Aside from this the differences are slight.

  40. For a contemporary report of Wordsworth's habitual compositional pacing, see Ralph Waldo Emerson's account of their 1833 interview (Selected Writings of Emerson, ed. Donald McQuade [New York: Modern Library, 1981], 511). See also Wordsworth's bit of doggerel, which echos interestingly with the story of the ruined cottage: “Orchard Pathway, to and fro, / Ever with thee, did I go, / Weaving verses, a huge store!” (Poetical Works, ed. de Selincourt, II.488).

  41. My thinking here, although bent toward a different end, owes something to Barrell's account of transference of crucial adjectives (“deep” or “lofty”) from concrete to abstract nouns (from “lofty cliffs” to “lofty thoughts”) and how Wordsworth manages this transference so as to produce “fiduciary symbols” that we “trust” as carriers of meaning (John Barrell, “The Uses of Dorothy: ‘The Language of Sense’ in ‘Tintern Abbey,’” in Poetry, Language, and Politics [Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988], 137-67).

  42. Taplin, 28.

  43. David McCracken, Wordsworth and the Lake District (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), 3; Alexander B. Grosart, The Prose Works of William Wordsworth, (London: Edward Moxon, 1876), III:425, 425n.

  44. See J. J. Jusserand, English Wayfaring Life in the Middle Ages (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1888). Carl Philip Moritz's letters describing his 1782 pedestrian tour of England offer a particularly clear picture of the socioeconomic implications of foot travel and of the suspicions that resulted (Journeys of a German in England, trans. Reginald Nettel [London: Eland, 1983]). Finally, see Liu on perceptions of peddlers in particular and on Wordsworth's manipulations of these perceptions (341-47).

  45. See Liu on weaving in “The Ruined Cottage” (326-31).

James C. McKusick (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: “John Clare's London Journal: A Peasant Poet Encounters the Metropolis,” in The Wordsworth Circle, Vol. XXIII, No. 3, Summer, 1992, pp. 172-5.

[In the following essay, McKusick discusses Clare's reaction as a rural poet to London and its populace. (The critic's mentions of Clare's “London Journal” simply refer to the poet's own prose writings on his time in London.)]

Ever since Elizabethan times, when London became a center of commercial activity, the hectic pace of city life has been contrasted with the pastoral seclusion of the countryside. With the industrial revolution in the eighteenth century, London became the hub of a mercantile empire and the largest city in Europe, a population well over one million by 1800. No longer exempt from the pressures of urban life, the surrounding countryside was radically transformed by the inexhaustible demand for food and other resources, leading to capital-intensive agriculture, deep-pit coal mining, and the turnpikes, canals, and railways built to haul goods to market. Even the most remote English villages were affected: prices for agricultural commodities sharply increased during the Napoleonic wars, while the traditional methods of subsistence agriculture were disrupted by Parliamentary enclosure. John Clare, an agricultural laborer in the village of Helpston, eighty miles north of London, witnessing the adverse social and environmental effects of this economic transformation, described in his “enclosure” poems the plight of the dispossessed peasant class and the ruthless destruction of the few remaining tracts of marsh, “waste” land, and forest. Yet despite his bitterness and alienation from the new rural landscape, Clare remained attached to his native village and to his identity as a “Northamptonshire Peasant Poet.”

The obvious alternative for a displaced agricultural laborer would have been to migrate to London and seek a new career. Thousands did precisely that, streaming into the city and swelling the ranks of its impoverished population. Only a few discovered fame and success, while many became beggars, thieves, and prostitutes. Among these rural immigrants to London was Robert Bloomfield, an important precursor of Clare whose first collection of poems, The Farmer's Boy (1800), sold 26,000 copies in its first three years, far outpacing the Lyrical Ballads in its popular appeal. Apprenticed to a shoemaker upon his first arrival in London, Bloomfield returned to this trade when his literary success faded. He continued to publish occasional volumes of poetry until 1822, but he never again recaptured the popular success of his first volume. To his contemporary readers, Bloomfield must have seemed boldly original in his depiction of the humble details of country life, although in retrospect his poetry seems stilted and conventional in its diction, imagery, and versification, a competent but uninspired imitation of Thomson's Seasons from a workingclass perspective. Trapped in nostalgia for the countryside he had abandoned forever, Bloomfield never wrote poems about urban life or the craft of shoemaking; he seemed content to work within the formal and thematic constraints of the pastoral mode.

Unlike Bloomfield, Clare never considered a permanent move to London, choosing instead to live in Helpston; but he did visit London four times during the 1820s. His first visit, in 1820, enabled him to meet his publisher, John Taylor, to oversee the publication of his first book, Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery (1820). The popularity of this volume, which went through three editions in two years, encouraged Clare to believe he could become a successful poet, and his growing reputation provided an entrée into the exclusive gatherings of London's literary élite. Clare's London Journal records his encounters with writers he met at dinner parties hosted by John Taylor—including Coleridge, Lamb, Hazlitt, and De Quincey, of whom he records brief sketches. His vivid account of the London literary scene from the perspective of a “peasant poet” provides unique insights into the social and political relation of urban and rural culture at this transitional moment in the formation of industrial capitalism. Clare's London Journal also bears witness to the ultimately untenable situation of a rural poet writing for a largely urban audience, and reveals his ability to participate in the popular culture of London while mingling with the literary élite.

For descriptions of his encounters with the landscape and people of London, Clare had a variety of models. In the works of James Thomson, his favorite poet, he found scattered descriptions of London life; The Seasons sometimes condemns “the loose stream of false enchanted joy” that runs riot among the “seditious herd” of the lower classes, but characteristically, as in the following passage from “Autumn,” celebrates the industry and commerce that made London the greatest city on earth:

Then commerce brought into the public walk
The busy merchant; the big warehouse built;
Raised the strong crane; choked up the loaded street
With foreign plenty … 

As a corrective to such propaganda for British mercantilism, Clare could turn to the work of William Cobbett, who called London “The Wen,” the ultimate source of the insidious economic forces that were destroying the traditional values and means of production throughout rural England. Although Clare did not overtly endorse Cobbett's radical politics, he identified with the agricultural laborers who were impoverished and displaced by the new market forces emanating from London. Clare would also have found himself in sympathy with the critique of urban culture expressed in Wordsworth's Preface to Lyrical Ballads and in such narrative poems as Michael, where the moral and economic self-sufficiency of the hardworking rural protagonists is destroyed by the corrupting influence of city life. Clare's expectations of London culture, and his literary means of representing it, were deeply structured by such cautionary tales.

Psychologically, however, Clare was almost completely unprepared for the cultural disparity between Helpston, a sleepy village of perhaps two hundred inhabitants, and London, a thriving metropolis of one and a half million people when he first arrived there in 1820. In making such a radical transition between rural and urban culture, Clare was traveling “out of [his] knowledge,” a colloquial expression that he uses elsewhere (in perhaps the most often-quoted passage of his autobiography) to describe his state of mind during an early childhood experience when he wandered off in search of the “worlds end”: “I had imagined that the worlds end was at the edge of the [h]orison and that a days journey was able to find it … so I eagerly wandered on and rambled among the furze the whole day until I got out of my knowledge when the very wild flowers and birds seemd to forget me and I imagind they were the inhabitants of new countrys the very sun seemd to be a new one and shining in different quarter of the sky” (AW, 34; emphasis added). Clare experienced a similar sense of disorientation and loss of identity during his first trip to London, another realm very much out of his knowledge. He describes the circumstances of his first trip as follows:

[Octavius] Gilchrist often asked me if I should like to see London and as I felt an anxiety he said I should go up with him the next time he went which was early in March [1820] and I started with him in the old Stamford Coach my mind was full of expectations all the way about the wonders of the town which I had often heard my parents tell storys about by the winter fire and when I turned to the reccolections of the past by seeing people at my old occupations of ploughing and ditching in the fields by the road side while I was lolling in a coach the novelty created such strange feelings that I coud almost fancy that my identity as well as my occupations had changd that I was not the same John Clare but that some stranger soul had jumpd into my skin (AW, 129)

This marks the first of Clare's four trips to London between 1820 and 1828. He never overcame the sense of displacement and loss of identity that characterized his first visit to London, and he always observed the city from the point of view of a dislocated outsider, often painfully aware of his own inexperience and lack of sophistication.

Throughout his London Journal, Clare's perception of the urban landscape retains a fragmentary quality that he compares to “the mosaic squares on a roman pavement,” a simile that evokes a broken and scattered set of fragments that cannot be reassembled into a coherent picture: “when we got in [to London] it was night and the next morning everything was so uncommon to what I had been usd to [142] that the excess of novelty confounded my instinct every thing hung round my confused imajination like riddles unresolvd while I was there I scarcly knew what I was seeing and when I got home my remembrance of objects seemd in a mass one mingld in another like the mosaic squares on a roman pavement” (AW, 141-142; emphasis added). In this image, Clare does not envisage a reconstructed Roman pavement, such as in a museum, but rather a disordered assemblage of odd bits and pieces, such as he might have discovered on one of his amateur archaeological digs (AW, xiv). His sense of irresolution and fragmentation is reflected even in the fragmentary form of the Journal. Although he managed to compose a coherent narrative account of his early years Sketches in the Life of John Clare (AW, 1-28), he was apparently unable to continue this narrative through the description of his visits to London; for this period there are odd scraps and fragments of manuscript which Eric Robinson, the editor of his Autobiographical Writings, arranged in roughly chronological order. Although the fragmentation of his Journal may imply that he was failing to comprehend the larger dimensions of his London experience, it might also be an appropriate formal representation of the intrinsically disordered, helter-skelter aspect of city life. Despite his initial fear and bewilderment, Clare gradually came to appreciate the wonderful variety offered by urban life and its vast difference from the village he had always known.

Clare's anxieties about London are focused on a fear of criminal activity derived from such sources as the chapbook Sweeney Todd and a lurid account entitled The New Cheats of London Exposed; or, the Frauds and Tricks of the Town Laid Open to Both Sexes (Manchester, 1795), which Clare read before his journey to London (AW, 48 n. 21). Clare's expectations of London life were also structured by the urban folklore recounted by such streetwise companions as Edward Villiers Ripingille, a promising young painter who often accompanied Clare on his rambles about the city. According to Clare, “he used to caution me if ever I happened to go to be on my guard as if I once lost my way I should [be] sure to loose my life as the street Ladys would inveigle me into a fine house w[h]ere I should never be seen agen and he described the pathways on the street as full of trap door[s] which dropd down as soon as pressed with the feet and sprung in their places after the unfortunate countryman had fallen into the deep hole as if nothing had been w[h]ere he would be robd and murderd and thrown into boiling cauldrons kept continually boiling for that purpose and his bones sold to the doctors” (AW, 132). As an example of urban folklore, this frightful tale reveals a great deal about the fantasy life or dreamwork of those who tell and repeat it. Clare's interest in such bizarre stories suggests an ambivalent fascination with the hidden mysteries of urban life. Such narratives represent the delusive appearances of city life as subtended by a dark underworld that combines the sexual allure of “street Ladies” with the terrors of violent death and dismemberment. The “deep hole,” evidently a folkloric version of the vagina dentata, threatens the “unfortunate countryman” with imminent destruction unless he adopts the sophisticated precautions used by urban-dwellers to protect themselves from all kinds of thieves, hustlers, charlatans, and quacks. Indeed, Clare reports that he soon became suspicious of all gestures of apparent civility: “with these terrible jealousys in my apprehensions I kept a continual look out and fanci[e]d every lady I met a decoyer and every gentleman a pickpocket and if the[y] did but offer any civility my suspicions were confirmed at once and I felt often when walking behind Gilchrist almost fit to take hold of his coat laps” (AW, 132). Clinging to his mentor, Clare displays a pathetic anxiety toward the unknown terrors of urban life.

Clare gradually overcame his fear of the bustling streets and learned to enjoy the enormous variety of amusements available to anyone with a few pennies in his pocket. Unlike Wordsworth, who evinces a somewhat condescending attitude toward the popular entertainments that he describes in Book 7 of The Prelude, Clare derived unmitigated pleasure from even the most vulgar public spectacles—such as Richard Altick described in The Shows of London (1978). He enthusiastically attended the “French Playhouse” in Tottenham Court Road (145), where he found “a very beautiful actress that took our fancies,” and Astley's Theatre, a cheap vaudeville show “where we saw morts of tumbling” (145). Together with his friend “Rip” (i.e. Rippingille) he explored the exotic pleasure gardens of Vauxhall (132), the Beggars Bush (a public house and vaudeville in Holborn, 132), and Bullock's Mexico (an exhibition of Mexican curiosities at the Egyptian hall, 140 n. 79). Of all the shows of London, undoubtedly his favorite was the boxing ring (144), a shockingly brutal spectacle during this period, since the contestants often fought without gloves or time-limits. Clare writes: “I caught the mania so much from Rip for such things that I soon became far more eager for the fancy then himself and I watch’d the appearance of every new Hero on the stage with as eager curiosity to see what sort of fellow he was as I had before done with the Poets” (AW, 144). Clare's rather odd comparison of prizefighters with poets may indicate the principal source of his “mania” for boxing matches: the prizefighters appeared in his eyes as working class heroes, seeking to achieve fame and fortune through their unaided personal strength and audacity. He particularly admired “Jones the Sailor Boy,” a famous boxer whose name flaunted his plebeian origins. For Clare, who shared the agonistic conception of poetic originality ubiquitous in the work of his contemporaries, the prizefighters provided attractive role models for his own plucky effort to slug his way into poetic immortality.

Alongside these distinctly low brow activities, Clare experienced a great deal of the high culture that London had to offer. On his second visit he obtained unlimited free admission to the Royal Academy (thanks to his well-connected friend Rippingille) and went there on a daily basis (AW, 140). He attended several legitimate theatrical performances with his intellectual friends and commented perceptively on their merits. Most important, he attended dinner parties where the best and brightest of London's authors gathered, recording his perceptions of these luminaries in a detached, pithy manner that best exemplifies his observational abilities and his paradoxical position of an outsider to these gala affairs. Emblematically, he had a green coat cut to his measure and was known as “the Green Man,” an appropriate title in light of his newly adopted role as an itinerant “peasant poet.”

Clare's description of Lamb exemplifies some characteristic features of his prose style in the London Journal: “then there is Charles Lamb … he is very fond of snuff which seems to sharpen up his wit every time he dips his finger into his large bronze colord box and then he sharpens up his head thro[w]s himself backward in his chair and stammers at a joke or pun with an inward sort of utterance ere he can give it speech till his tongue becomes a sort of Packmans shop turning it over and over till at last it comes out whetted keen as a razor and expectation when she knows him wakens into a sort of danger as bad as cutting your throat but he is a good sort of fellow and if he offends it is innosently done” (AW, 135). Clare's portrait is sympathetic, depicting Lamb's stutter, which many of his acquaintances found tedious or annoying, as a delaying tactic essential to Lamb's personal manner of wordplay. Comparing his tongue to a “Packman's shop,” Clare introduces a working class image that assimilates Lamb's banter with the known and familiar world of Clare's native village. The lack of syntactic signposts (or, indeed, of any punctuation whatsoever) lends Clare's prose style a polyvalent, associative quality that reflects his strenuous effort to assimilate the fragmented, phantasmagoric world of the city. The odd grammatical twists and turns of his prose enable Clare to incorporate whatever bizarre thing may turn up at the next moment, around the next corner.

Clare never wrote much poetry about his London experiences, but he did refer briefly and incisively to the alienation of city life in a haunting stanza from “Child Harold,” a poem of his asylum period (1841):

Absence in love is worse then any fate
Summer is winters desert and the spring
Is like a ruined city desolate
Joy dies and hope retires on feeble wing
Nature sinks heedless—birds unheeded sing
Tis solitude in citys—crowds all move
Like living death—though all to life still cling—


The anonymity of urban life—“solitude in citys”—is connected here with the deathly aspect of nature through the eyes of a poet incarcerated in an asylum and deprived of freedom, hope, and love. (Similar imagery of “oblivion's host” occurs in Clare's well-known poem “I Am.”) In a broader sense, the dead landscape of the city and its mass of alienated humanity is connected in Clare's mind with the death of nature, a scene that he elsewhere depicts with apocalyptic intensity (e.g. “Song Last Day”), revealing an uncanny insight into the ultimate ecological consequences of urbanization.

Clare's prose account of his first three visits to London, contained in his Autobiographical Writings, was unpublished until Blunden's Sketches in the Life of John Clare, by Himself, 1931. A rare representation of London life unparalleled elsewhere in vividness, pathos, and insight, the London Journal should be better known. Written from the point of view of a social and cultural outsider, briefly celebrated by the London intelligentsia, Clare is deeply aware of his precarious access to these exclusive circles, and bitterly discovers—when the brief flame of his literary reputation had burned itself out—the fleeting and contingent nature of London's literary alliances.

James C. McKusick (essay date 1994)

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SOURCE: “John Clare and the Tyranny of Grammar,” in Studies in Romanticism, Vol. 33, No. 2, Summer, 1994, pp. 255-77.

[In the following essay, McKusick explores what John Taylor referred to as Clare's “evident ignorance of grammar” and its effect on his poetry and its critical reception.]

John Clare has traditionally been regarded, rather patronizingly, as an uneducated Peasant Poet, exhibiting remarkable talent in minor poetic genres, but remaining something of a naif in matters of linguistic scholarship. Certainly it is true that Clare had little formal schooling and was almost completely without knowledge of Latin or Greek, the “learned languages” that still constituted the distinctive badge of an educated gentleman in his day. Even his command of English was distinctly provincial and marked by frequent departures from the normative standard of educated Londoners. Clare's first biographer, Frederick Martin, alleged that “he entirely failed in learning grammar and spelling, remaining ignorant of the sister arts to the end of his days.”1 This traditional view of Clare was first promulgated by John Taylor, the editor and publisher of his first volume of poetry, Poems Descriptive of Rural Life (London 1820) “by John Clare, a Northamptonshire Peasant.” In his Introduction to this volume, Taylor describes Clare as “a day-labourer in husbandry, who has had no advantages of education beyond others of his class” and draws a somber portrait of Clare's humble living conditions and acute poverty.2 Although Clare's circumstances were indeed desperate, Taylor's depiction is partly a marketing strategy intended to attract the interest of a sentimental reading public. Primarily, however, Taylor's Introduction serves to justify Clare's abilities as a poet, to account for “his evident ignorance of grammar” and to celebrate his use of dialect, what Taylor calls “the unwritten language of England” (Critical Heritage 47-48). Taylor concludes that Clare “is most throughly the Poet as well as the Child of Nature”; and this view of Clare as an ignorant Peasant Poet, thoughtlessly warbling his woodnotes wild, has conditioned many subsequent critical responses.

Taylor edited Clare's first volume with a heavy hand, correcting grammar and spelling, supplying punctuation, and removing most of Clare's dialect words; the few nonstandard words that remained were defined in a glossary at the end of the book. Taylor's editing of Clare's two subsequent volumes of poetry, The Village Minstrel (1821) and The Shepherd's Calendar (1827), was even more intrusive, entailing not only the rigorous standardization of Clare's language, but also the ruthless cutting of passages or entire poems deemed tiresome, repetitious, hopelessly ungrammatical, or offensive to good taste. (All modern editions of Clare's poems, until 1964, continued Taylor's policy of normalization, with even less excuse.) Taylor's editorial interventions may perhaps be justified in historical retrospect, since the largely urban readership of Clare's poetry was unacquainted with his regional dialect and often quite scathing in its criticism of any nonstandard English words or phrases that slipped through the net of Taylor's editing. A contemporary review of Poems Descriptive in the New Monthly Magazine (March 1820) scornfully describes several of Clare's dialect words, such as bangs, chaps, eggs on, fex, flops, snifting and snufting, as “mere vulgarisms, and may as well be excluded from the poetical lexicon, as they have long since been banished from the dictionary of polite conversation” (Critical Heritage 71). An even harsher review of The Village Minstrel appeared in the Monthly Magazine (November 1821), sneering at

something more than homeliness, approximating to vulgarity, in many of his themes. … We must likewise mark our strong disapprobation of the innovating style introduced in many parts of these volumes, by the employment of unauthorised contractions, and the use of words that have hitherto been strangers alike to our prose and poetry. (Critical Heritage 152-54)

This review is unusually explicit in stating the rationale for its objection to Clare's dialect; after citing several “specimens” of nonstandard English, including the contractions of's, and's, well's, and the dialect words soodling, tootling, and shool’d, the review concludes:

We leave it to the sober judgment of our readers, to decide, whether these, though indisputable, are desirable additions to our language. We may perhaps be told, that a Glossary is annexed to the book; but this does not alter our view of the subject. If the example of Burns, Ramsay, Ferguson, or other Scottish poets be pleaded, we answer, that they employed a dialect in general use through an entire country, and not the mere patois of a small district. If the peculiar phraseology of the Northamptonshire rustics is to be licensed in poetry, we see no reason why that of Lancashire, Somersetshire, and other counties should not be allowed an equal currency; and thus our language would be surprisingly enriched, by the legitimization of all the varieties of speech in use among the canaille throughout the kingdom. (154)

Faced with such stern criticism of Clare's language, it is hardly surprising, though perhaps regrettable, that Taylor became even more rigorous in his editing of The Shepherd's Calendar, excluding dialect words wherever possible and omitting a glossary even for the few dialect words that remained. Evidently the glossaries that were included in Poems Descriptive and The Village Minstrel, intended to make the volumes more accessible to urban readers, had only attracted hostile criticism by highlighting Clare's nonstandard vocabulary.

These reviews, though unusually explicit in their objections to Clare's language, seem fairly typical of the unfavorable responses occasioned by the prevailing attitudes toward provincial dialect. Clearly there was a distinction, at least in the minds of the London reviewers, between the dialect of Scotland, supposedly characteristic of the entire country, and the dialect of Northamptonshire, local to “a small district.” The threat of “legitimization” posed by the publication of Clare's local dialect is stated in overtly political terms: it is threat of the canaille (or “rabble”) entering the discursive arena hitherto restricted to those who have mastered the standard language of educated gentlemen, the social class that comprises the literary elite of London. By using the French terms patois and canaille, the reviewer seeks to awaken memories of the French Revolution, when the canaille demolished the Bastille, marched on Versailles, and ultimately legitimized a new political patois that replaced all honorific forms of address with the simple appellative citoyen. Although modern readers may find it ludicrous to suppose that Clare's use of such words as soodling and tootling could pose any kind of political threat, it is nevertheless apparent that his more conservative contemporaries responded to his poetry in precisely these terms, perceiving a dire threat to the established order in Clare's use of dialect, regardless of Taylor's increasingly cautious editing. It is the locality of Clare's dialect that irritates his critics; the Scottish dialect, having a distinct national character, poses no threat to England's national identity. but if the “rustics” of Northamptonshire, Lancashire, and Somersetshire are allowed to publish their local dialects, the cultural and linguistic hegemony of London will be exposed and eventually destabilized.3 These are some of the latent political issues at stake in Taylor's editing of Clare's poetry.

The politics of publishing were rendered even more exasperating, in Clare's case, by the politics of patronage. Clare received financial support from such wealthy patrons as Lord Milton and Lord Radstock, and he was expected to show due humility and correct political opinions in return. Lord Radstock was appalled to find a denunciation of “accursed Wealth” in the poem “Helpstone,” in Poems Descriptive. “This is radical slang,” retorted Lord Radstock in the margin of this passage, revealing the conflation of political and linguistic criteria in his judgment of Clare's poetry.4 Incensed by Clare's poignant account of the devastation and misery caused by wealthy landowners through the process of parliamentary enclosure, Radstock issued an ominous warning to Eliza Emmerson, another of Clare's patrons:

You must tell him—to expunge certain highly objectionable passages in his 1st Volume—before the 3rd Edition appears—passages, wherein, his then depressed state hurried him not only into error, but into the most flagrant acts of injustice; by accusing those of pride, cruelty, vices, and ill-directed passions—who, are the very persons, by whose truly generous and noble exertions he has been raised from misery and despondency. … Tell Clare if he has still a recollection of what I have done, and am still doing for him, he must give me unquestionable proofs of being that man I would have him to be—he must expunge! (Critical Heritage 61)

In a letter of May 1820 to John Taylor, Clare responded to this demand by Radstock, as well as to various other complaints by his patrons:

Being much botherd latley I must trouble you to leave out the 8 lines in ‘helpstone’ beginning ‘Accursed wealth’ … leave it out & put ***** to fill up the blank this will let em see I do it as negligent as possible d—n that canting way of being forcd to please I say—I cant abide it & one day I will show my Independance more stron[g]ly than ever (Letters 69)

Being an editor of staunch liberal principles, Taylor initially resisted any political censorship of Clare's poetry; but eventually the required cuts were made in the fourth edition of Poems Descriptive. This episode illustrates the pervasiveness of the political constraints exercised by Clare's patrons, and the severe limitations that they imposed upon his expression of controversial opinions, even when these were shared by his publisher. Although Clare never again faced such direct censorship by his patrons, the reason may be that he and Taylor had both learned the harsh necessity of self-censorship, or, more insidiously, had unconsciously internalized the very repression they sought to oppose.5 Never again would Clare's published poetry express radical political views, and in his manuscript autobiography, “Sketches in the Life of John Clare” (circa 1821), intended for the eyes of his patrons, he voices reassuringly submissive sentiments:

I believe the reading a small pamphlet on the Murder of the french King many years ago with other inhuman butcheries cured me very early of thinking favourably of radicalism the words ‘revolution and reform’ so much in fashion with sneering arch infidels thrills me with terror when ever I see them … may the foes of my country ever find their hopes blasted by disappointments and the silent prayers of the honest man to a power that governs with justice for their destruction meet always with success6

Since Clare elsewhere consistently advocates the necessity of reform (although he often criticizes the reckless violence of reformers), it seems likely that his revulsion against radicalism is exaggerated here in order to present himself as a meek, inoffensive candidate for patronage.

While Clare seemed willing, on occasion, to compromise the expression of his political principles, he was always reluctant to compromise the integrity of his local dialect. In a manuscript note of circa 1819 he boldly defended his use of “vulgar” expressions, seeking at the same time to reappropriate the term “vulgar” to a positive, democratic connotation:

Bad spelling may be altered by the Amanuensis but no word is to be altered

“Eggs on” in the “Address to a Lark”—whether provincial or not I cannot tell but it is common with the vulgar (I am of that class) & I heartily desire no word of mine to be altered

The word “twit-a-twit” (if a word it can be called) you will undoubtedly smile at but I wish you to print it as it is for it is the Language of Nature & that can never be disgusting7

Clare's fidelity to what he calls the “Language of Nature” and his resistance to substantive editorial alterations frequently recur throughout his editorial correspondence, indicating his enduring allegiance to a defiantly “vulgar” conception of language. In a letter of July 1820 to Taylor's partner, James Hessey, Clare expresses his outrage at deletions made in the third edition of Poems Descriptive for the sake of “delicacy”:

I have seen the third Edition & am cursed mad about it the judgment of T[aylor] is a button hole lower in my opinion—it is good—but too subject to be tainted by medlars false delicasy damn it I hate it beyond every thing those primpt up misses brought up in those seminaries of mysterious wickedness (Boarding Schools) what will please em? why we well know—but while their heart & soul loves to extravagance (what we dare not mention) false delicasy's seriousness muscles [i.e. muzzles] up the mouth & condemns it. … I think to please all & offend all we shoud put out 215 pages of blank leaves & call it ‘Clare in fashion’ (Letters 83-84)8

Seeking to justify the earthy expression of sexual matters in such poems as “Dolly's Mistake,” Clare denounces the hypocrisy of those squeamish “bluestockings” who attempt to bowdlerize his poems while secretly relishing their salacious language. His most outspoken resistance to grammatical correction occurs in a letter of February 1822, resisting some editorial changes by Taylor:

I may alter but I cannot mend grammer in learning is like Tyranny in government—confound the bitch Ill never be her slave & have a vast good mind not to alter the verse in question—by g-d Ive tryd an hour & cannot do a syllable so do your best or let it pass (Letters 231)

This stubborn attitude became quite emphatic during the composition of The Shepherd's Calendar, when Clare took up a directly adversarial stance toward Taylor.9 It continued even after Clare's confinement in the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum (in 1841); his keeper, W. F. Knight, testified that Clare “in no instance has ever rewritten a single line—whenever I have wished him to correct a single line he has ever shown the greatest disinclination to take in hand what to him seems a great task” (Tibble 379).

Despite his overt resistance to Taylor's alterations, Clare recognized their shared responsibility to produce a marketable volume, and in most cases he grudgingly accepted Taylor's revisions, especially in the early part of his career when he was still struggling to master the literary language of his poetic precursors. On several occasions during the composition of his first volume, he instructed Taylor to do whatever he liked with the manuscripts; and he actually invited editorial correction in a letter of 1823: “If there is any bad grammar in the rhymes tell me. … I shall give my reasons as a critical Bard (not as a critical wolf who mangles to murder) to attempt correction” (Letters 267). The extent of Taylor's revisions to Clare's poetry can be determined by comparing the published versions with Clare's original manuscript versions, which have a much higher incidence of dialect words, nonstandard grammar, and idiosyncratic spelling, as well as an almost total absence of punctuation.10 The necessity of a completely literal transcription of Clare's manuscripts was first recognized by Eric Robinson and Geoffrey Summerfield, and their pioneering editions of Clare's poetry in 1964, 1966, and 1967 still serve as models for the more complete Oxford edition now in progress. Unlike all previous editors of Clare, who found it expedient to tidy up his text, Robinson and Summerfield insisted on an absolute fidelity to Clare's original manuscripts, arguing that “once the business of correction is begun there is no end.”11 It is largely thanks to Robinson and Summerfield that modern readers have gained access to Clare's poems in the full panoply of their jubilantly transgressive individuality.

In these manuscript versions, Clare's unstopped lines provide multiple branching pathways of possible meaning, thereby challenging the tyranny of grammar and its prescriptive requirement of unambiguous expression. Throughout his poetic career, Clare likewise resisted the political process of “inclosure” (as he normally spelled the word, thereby literalizing its etymology), especially its tendency to obliterate the complex network of grassy footpaths that formerly meandered across the landscape, often replacing these with stark, rectilinear turnpikes. As several recent critics have pointed out, Clare's conception of language and his conception of landscape seem closely related; he regards both as ideally constituting an unrestricted communal zone, open to local browsing and free from the linearity, exclusivity, and standardization imposed by outside authorities.12 Clare's distinct preference for his own regional vernacular, with all of its homely quirks and idiosyncrasies, over the homogenized national standard of discourse, clearly goes beyond a mere inability or refusal to master the conventions of correct expression. If this were the case, all of Clare's poetry would be composed in roughly the same kind of language, with dialect words and grammatical irregularities scattered randomly throughout. But in fact Clare's poetic language falls into several discrete discursive modes, varying from such comic vernacular poems as “Dolly's Mistake” to more serious reflective poems, such as “What is Life?” or “The Setting Sun,” that conform fairly closely to the prevailing standards of lexical and grammatical correctness.13 Like Burns, a poet whom he admired and occasionally imitated, Clare is not simply a dialect poet, but a poet who employs dialect for deliberate effect. Clare adopts a nonstandard lexicon only when it suits his poetic purpose, and he is fully capable of producing an “educated” sociolect when treating abstract or elevated topics.

Quite early in his career, Clare states a principle of linguistic decorum that reflects his intense awareness of stylistic and lexical norms. In a letter of 1819, discussing William Shenstone's Pastorals, Clare complains that “Putting the Correct Language of the Gentleman into the mouth of a Simple Shepherd or Vulgar Ploughman is far from Natural” (Letters 12). Rustic speakers must speak like rustics. Yet the following sentence praises Alexander Pope for his “Harmony of Numbers,” suggesting that Clare does not object to “the Correct Language of the Gentleman” per se, but only when such an idiom is thrust into incongruous contexts. Clare's poetic development consists largely of his learning to manipulate a variety of discursive modes and stylistic models while remaining true to his vernacular roots. Far from being ignorant of grammar and spelling, Clare possessed a fairly good knowledge of the standard authorities and could conform to their prescribed usage when it suited him. Despite his knowledge of these authorities, however, his poetic language actually became less conventional over the course of his career, while he became more stubbornly resistant to the attempts of Taylor and others to correct his poems. Far from being a naif in matters of grammatical theory, Clare was surprisingly well read in contemporary linguistics, possessing several standard works on the subject. Ultimately, however, he rejected the prevailing linguistic norm, with its emphasis upon the standards of written language, in favor of a more radical tradition of linguistic theory that advocated the expressive potential of local vernacular speech.

Clare evidently encountered the forces of linguistic standardization at an early stage in his career. It is not known precisely how he acquired the rudiments of reading and writing during his elementary education; he had no access to a grammar-book, “nor do I believe my [school]master knew any more about the matter” (Autobiographical Writings 28). Presumably he was subjected to a crudely prescriptive approach to grammar, and while he quickly mastered the basic skills involved, he also acquired an enduring hostility to cultural authority figures. The remainder of his education was obtained through desultory reading of whatever books happened to be available, and like many self-educated people, Clare exhibited astonishing gaps in his knowledge, coupled with an equally astonishing wealth of information on particular subjects. In his autobiography, Clare recounts how, at age 13, he purchased his first book of poetry, an edition of James Thomson's Seasons (1730), and eagerly devoured its contents (Autobiographical Writings 9). He eventually acquired quite a substantial collection of eighteenth-century poets, and he undoubtedly derived a great deal of his literary skill from attentive reading and precise imitation of these favored models. Along with various books and anthologies of poetry, Clare acquired several books on linguistic topics; one of the earliest of these was an elementary spelling-book that gave Clare great annoyance:

I had hardly hard the name of grammer while at school—but as I had an itch for trying at every thing I got hold of I determined to try grammer, and for that purpose, by the advice of a friend, bought the ‘Universal Spelling Book’ as the most easy assistant for my starting out, but finding a jumble of words classd under this name and that name and this such a figure of speech and that another hard worded figure I turned from further notice of it in instant disgust (Autobiographical Writings 15)14

Far from undermining his self-confidence, however, Clare's “disgust” with this relentlessly taxonomic spelling-book actually renewed his intuitive sense of literary vocation:

for as I knew I could talk to be understood I thought by the same method my writing might be made out as easy and proper, so in the teeth of grammer I pursued my literary journey warm as usual, working hard all day and scribbling at night or any leisure hour in any hole or corner I could shove in unseen (Autobiographical Writings 15)

This episode indicates the origin of Clare's skeptical attitude toward prescriptive linguistics and provides a clue to the rationale behind it. Clare's self-confidence derives from a rather sophisticated insight into the nature of language: like the modern generative grammarians, he realizes that the ability to construct well-formed sentences has very little to do with the traditional rules of grammar, and depends much more on early childhood development of linguistic competence through normal conversation. Speech, not writing, provides Clare with a fundamental paradigm of linguistic performance, and despite the exhortations of his genteel friends and patrons he will continue to articulate his local vernacular “in the teeth of grammer.”

In April 1820, shortly after the publication of Poems Descriptive, Lord Milton presented Clare with a copy of Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language. … Abstracted from the Folio Edition.15 This was not the massive folio edition of 1755, but the abridged octavo edition first published in 1756 and frequently reprinted thereafter. This abridged edition omits all of the quotations that lend Johnson's Dictionary its unique character; moreover, many of the definitions are shortened, and Johnson states that “many barbarous terms and phrases by which other dictionaries may vitiate the style are rejected from this.”16 This edition includes Johnson's “Grammar of the English Tongue” but omits his history of the English language. Also omitted is Johnson's famous Preface, with its melancholy reflections on the mutability of language; in its place is a shorter and more cheerful preface, also by Johnson, reassuring readers that this abridgement will satisfy their basic reference needs. This brief preface is quite condescending in tone, assuming that readers of “lower characters” are incapable of sustained intellectual engagement with literature:

Works of that kind [i.e. the folio Dictionary] are by no means necessary to the greater number of readers, who, seldom intending to write or presuming to judge, turn over books only to amuse their leisure, and to gain degrees of knowledge suitable to lower characters, or necessary to the common business of life: these know not any other use of a dictionary than that of adjusting orthography, and explaining terms of science or words of infrequent occurrence, or remote derivation. (Johnson, preface to Dictionary [1756])

In thus describing the intended readership for his abridgement, Johnson's preface provides a clue to Lord Milton's intentions in presenting it to Clare: he may have wished that Clare would use it to improve his poetic language by conforming to established standards of spelling and usage. While Johnson certainly was the leading authority in these areas, his abridged dictionary, with its condescending preface and starkly prescriptive definitions, was unlikely to appeal to Clare, and there is no evidence that he ever consulted it. Clare might have enjoyed browsing through the rich trove of quotations in the folio Dictionary, but he could hardly be expected to relish the dry bones of the abridgement. Ironically, however, Johnson's Dictionary provided the standard by which Taylor measured Clare's departures from normal poetic diction; in his preface to Poems Descriptive Taylor states that the glossary includes “all such [words] as are not to be found in Johnson's Dictionary” (Critical Heritage 48). As we have seen, this glossary provided lethal ammunition to Clare's critics, who used it as a ready-made list of deviations from lexical propriety. Taylor himself sometimes used Johnson's Dictionary as a stick to beat Clare; in a pencilled note on the manuscript of “The Village Minstrel” next to the word swail, Taylor wrote: “I can find no such word in Dicy / why not Vale?” This evocative dialect word was accordingly deleted from the published version of that poem.17

Despite their evident lack of success in reforming Clare's poetic style, his patrons and admirers continued to inundate him with books by the leading linguistic authorities. In about 1820 he received a copy of Hugh Blair's Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (1783), a compendium of information on stylistic refinement and other aspects of polite literature.18 In June 1824 he received a copy of William Allen's Elements of English Grammar (1813), presented by the author.19 This was followed in November 1825 by Robert Lowth's Short Introduction to English Grammar (1762), presented by Eliza Emmerson.20 Clare was also familiar with Lindley Murray's English Grammar (1795), since he expressed his opinion of it to Charles Lamb during an 1824 visit to London. None of these books would have altered Clare's dim view of prescriptive grammarians. Lowth's work, the first comprehensive English grammar, uses Latin as a model for correct English usage, often at the expense of normal speech. One can imagine Clare's bemusement at such rules as: “Hypothetical, Conditional, Concessive, and Exceptive Conjunctions seem to require properly the Subjunctive Mode after them.”21 Lindley Murray, whose Grammar sold millions of copies during Clare's lifetime, was even more rigidly prescriptive and moralistic than Lowth; his grammatical exercises include such obsequious apothegms as: “Patriotism, morality, every public and private consideration, demand our submission to lawful government.”22 While Clare may have browsed through these grammar books, there is no evidence that he sought to apply their principles to his own writing. His sardonic response to traditional grammar is reported by Thomas Hood: “[Clare] vehemently denounces all Philology as nothing but a sort of man-trap for authors, and heartily ‘dals’ [i.e. damns] Lindley Murray for ‘inventing it.’”23

It would be misleading, however, to suggest that Clare used nothing but his intuitive knowledge of Northamptonshire dialect to withstand the formidable apparatus of the traditional grammarians. In his lifelong resistance to the tyranny of grammar, he possessed the aid and comfort of an alternative tradition of linguistic scholarship, one that emphasized the validity of vernacular speech and sought to uphold local idioms against the encroachment of standardization. Clare became aware of this alternative tradition quite early in his career, and he continued to explore its ramifications throughout the course of his poetic development. In 1813 he acquired a copy of Nathan Bailey's Universal Etymological English Dictionary (thirteenth edition, 1749), a work whose formative influence on Clare's conception of language has not previously been recognized.24 First published in 1721, this was the most popular eighteenth-century dictionary before Johnson, and it continued to flourish even after the publication of Johnson's Dictionary, going through thirty editions by 1802. Johnson consulted Bailey in constructing the wordlist for his own dictionary, but the two works are nevertheless quite dissimilar in their fundamental structure and purpose.25 Johnson's avowed intention is to establish an enduring standard of English usage, and to that end he excludes most archaic, dialect, and slang expressions from his dictionary. Johnson's classicism is apparent in his etymologies, which systematically ignore native, barbaric, and “vulgar” English and Germanic roots in favor of more remote, yet more refined Latin or Greek analogues. Johnson often imposes class distinctions upon acceptable usage, dismissing the vocabulary of the “laborious and mercantile parts of the people” as mere “fugitive cant” (Preface to folio ed. [1755]). His dictionary enshrines a conservative ideology in its definitions of such words as “equal,” “rights,” and “liberty.” Johnson's political ideology is intimately bound up with his concept of refined usage; both seek to exclude the uneducated masses from participation in the political process.

Bailey's Universal Etymological English Dictionary, by contrast, incorporates a great variety of nonstandard words and seems little concerned with the determination of “correct” usage. Bailey's definitions are less precise than those of Johnson, but his etymologies are far more attentive to the native roots of English words, and despite his faulty knowledge of Anglo-Saxon, Bailey seeks to authenticate the legitimacy of local origins. Moreover, Bailey's dictionary is especially rich in English dialect words, proclaiming on its title page that it includes “the Dialects of our different Counties,” a feature that doubtless appealed to Clare.26 De Witt Starnes and Gertrude Noyes have shown that Bailey derived most of his dialect words from previous lexicographers, such as John Kersey (1708), Elisha Coles (1676), and John Ray (1674); his great merit lies not in his originality but in his catholic inclusiveness, drawing upon all available sources to compile the eighteenth century's most comprehensive treatment of English dialect. In addition, Bailey included a large vocabulary of obsolete words, mostly complied from published glossaries to the works of Chaucer, Spenser, and Shakespeare. Bailey's hoard of archaic and provincial words was a potential goldmine for poets in quest of an alternative to the established Neoclassical poetic diction; Starnes and Noyes point out that “it was mainly from this rich collection of obsolete words that Chatterton constructed his poetic language for the Rowley poems.”27 As we shall see, Bailey's dictionary assumed a similar importance for Clare, not so much as a source of obsolete words (though he may have derived some poetic archaisms from it), but primarily as a means of defending the legitimacy of his “provincialisms” against critical disparagement.28

Nathan Bailey was a schoolmaster, lexicographer, and compiler of classical textbooks. He belonged to a marginal sect of Seventh Day Baptists who observed Saturday as the Sabbath, and his own sectarian views are reflected in his dictionary definitions of “Sabbath” and “Sabbatarian.”29 As a Dissenter he was excluded from the elite circles of English society; and his bitter experience of exclusion may have motivated his lexicographic principle of inclusion. The Introduction to his Universal Etymological English Dictionary reveals a distinct political agenda: it traces the history of the English language in a way that stresses the survival of local vernaculars despite the repeated invasion of foreign conquerors. Neither the Romans, nor the Danes, nor the Normans were able to suppress the elegance and descriptive intensity of the ancient British tongue. Bailey describes the failed linguistic imperialism of the Romans:

The Roman Legions residing in Britain for the Space of above 200 Years, undoubtedly disseminated the Latin tongue; and the People being also governed by Laws written in the Latin, must necessarily make a Mixture of Languages. This seems to have been the first Mutation the Language of Britain suffered: however so tenacious were our Forefathers of their Native Language, that it overgrew the Roman.30

After recounting the incursions of the Saxons and the Danes, Bailey describes the Norman Conquest:

Then about the Year 1067 William Duke of Normandy, commonly call’d William the Conqueror, came over to Britain; and having vanquish’d Canutus the Danish King, made an intire Conquest of Britain: and as a Monument of their Conquest, the Normans endeavoured to yoak the English under their Tongue, as they had under their Command, by compelling them to teach their Children in their Schools nothing but the French, by publishing their Laws in French, and by enforcing them most rigorously to plead and be impleaded in that Tongue, for the Space of about 350 Years; by which means the Language of Britain became a Dialect of the English Saxon, and Norman French, which now are the Groundwork or Fundamentals of the Present Language of Great Britain.

Bailey laments the linguistic tyranny of the Normans and their wholesale destruction of the Old English language:

Before I proceed to account for the Alteration of the English Saxon, by the two other Causes, I shall mention something relating to the Saxon Tongue, of a great Part of which the Normans despoil’d us, giving a worse for a better. “Great verily (says Camden) was the Glory of our Tongue, before the Norman Conquest, in this, that the Old English could express most aptly all the Conceptions of the Mind in their own Tongue, without borrowing from any.”31

Bailey provides several examples of the concision and vividness of the Anglo-Saxon, such as Inwit for conscience and Eordses-Wele for fertility. He concludes:

By these Instances it does appear that the English Saxon Language of which the Normans despoiled us in great Part, had its Beauties, was Significant and Emphatical, and preferable to what they imposed upon us.

Bailey's predilection for Old English is apparent in his etymologies, which trace Anglo-Saxon roots wherever possible. For Clare, the political implications of Bailey's Introduction would have been quite apparent. If local vernaculars represent the survival of the ancient English language, then any attempt to impose standardization merely reflects the dominance of foreign paradigms. The old words must be cultivated and preserved in order to assure the cultural survival and the political autonomy of England's indigenous people.32

Throughout his life, Clare devoted himself wholeheartedly to the preservation of his native language and culture. The Village Minstrel is virtually an archive of village customs, games, and stories; he later submitted a prose account of local traditions to William Hone's Every-Day Book (1826-1827); and during his asylum period he contributed numerous dialect words to Anne Elizabeth Baker's Glossary of Northamptonshire Words and Phrases (1854). Clare's most enduring legacy, however, is the rough-hewn linguistic texture of his poetry; and his resistance to the standardization of his local voice received significant encouragement at a crucial moment from Bailey's dictionary. Taylor, as we have seen, compiled the glossary to Poems Descriptive, and also presumably to The Village Minstrel, as a list of words not authorized by Johnson's dictionary.33 In some cases the meaning of a dialect word was obvious to Taylor from its context; in other cases he sent queries to Clare, or simply guessed at the meaning. (Sometimes he guessed wrong, as in the definitions for shool and soodles.34 But in several cases Taylor consulted dictionaries other than Johnson's; in the glossary to Poems Descriptive he cites Bailey's dictionary for the word swaliest, and he cites the 1775 dictionary of John Ash (another reliable authority on regional dialect) for the words dithering, slive, spinney, and witchen. Taylor possibly derived some other definitions from Bailey; the words clammed, goss, hob, nappy, and siled do not occur in Johnson, and Taylor's definitions closely resemble those in Bailey.35 Taylor's public recognition of the authority of Ash and Bailey for Clare's dialect must have bolstered Clare's confidence in the legitimacy of such words and confirmed his allegiance to the vernacular tradition of linguistic scholarship.

Several years later, Clare finally discovered a grammar-book that he could admire; it was by William Cobbett, a self-educated radical pamphleteer whose lower-class origins conditioned his sense of linguistic identity. In a letter of circa 1831-32, Clare asks his friend Marianne Marsh for her opinion of “the best part of Cobbets Gramer,” and in a letter of January 1832 to the same correspondent he praises Cobbett as “one of the most powerful prose writers of the age” (Letters 556, 560). Clare refers here to Cobbett's Grammar of the English Language, in a Series of Letters: Intended for the Use of Schools and of Young Persons in general; but more especially for the Use of Soldiers, Sailors, Apprentices, and Plough-boys (1818). Cobbett regards genteel language as an instrument of fraud and political oppression; he writes with particular vehemence against classical learning, since “a knowledge of the Latin and Greek Languages does not prevent men from writing bad English.”36 Clare shares Cobbett's contempt for classical learning and his linguistic ideology, based on the norms of spoken vernacular and attentive to regional varieties of usage. In a prose fragment of circa 1832, Clare attacks the “pedantic garrison” of the established grammarians while praising Cobbett's theory of grammar:

Those who have made grammar up into a system and cut it into classes and orders as the student does the animal or vegetable creation may be a recreation for schools but it becomes of no use towards making any one so far acquainted with it as to find it useful—it will only serve to puzzle and mislead to awe and intimidate instead of aiding and encouraging him therefore it pays nothing for the study. …

And such a one as Cobbet who has come boldly forward and not only assailed the outworks of such a pedantic garrison but like a skilful general laid open its weakness to all deserves more praise for the use of his labour than all the rest of the castle building grammarians put together for he plainly comes to this conclusion—that what ever is intellig[i]b[l]e to others is grammer and whatever is commonsense is not far from correctness37

This is a fairly accurate description of Cobbett's Grammar, which seeks to demolish the pretensions of the traditional grammarians, especially Lowth and Murray, by pointing out instances where they break their own rules. Cobbett is delightfully iconoclastic in his choice of quotations to illustrate bad grammar, citing the works of such classically educated authors as Milton, Addison, and Johnson, along with excerpts from parliamentary debates and a speech by the Prince Regent. Grammar for Cobbett is the ultimate leveller, allowing ordinary citizens to penetrate the obscurity and deception of political discourse. Although Cobbett himself does not always avoid the pitfalls of prescriptivism, his advocacy of plain vernacular speech and his satirical exposure of established linguistic authorities evidently appealed to Clare. Indeed, Clare goes much farther than Cobbett in challenging the norms of “educated” language and cultivating his own peculiar modes of expression.

Clare's discovery of his mature poetic voice occurred through a long struggle against the pressures exerted by editors, patrons, and reviewers; he found himself poised unevenly between the fashionable models of his poetic apprenticeship and the rude authenticity of his own native dialect.38 His earliest poems employ a poetic style that seems at times slavishly derivative of eighteenth-century models, notably the loco-descriptive poetry of Thomson, Cowper, and Gray. This uneasy tension between imitation and originality is especially apparent in his first volume, Poems Descriptive, and continues to impede the full range of his poetic voice in his second volume, The Village Minstrel. The uneven quality of Clare's early poetry is especially apparent in his sonnets, which present the challenge of innovation within a form constrained by an overbearing weight of historical tradition. His most derivative sonnets are written in fairly standard “educated” language on abstract meditative themes, such as “On Death,” “Peace,” “Hope,” “Expression,” and “To Time”; he is much more successful when using the sonnet to encapsulate vignettes of life in the Northamptonshire countryside, although even here the temptation to imitation and abstraction tends to vitiate the specificity of his description. Clare's early sonnet “Winter” exemplifies this unfortunate tendency to undercut his vivid, earthy dialect by introducing awkward personifications of abstract entities:

The small wind wispers thro the leafless hedge
Most sharp & chill while the light snowey flakes
Rests on each twig & spike of witherd sedge
Resembling scatterd feathers—vainly breaks
The pale split sunbeams thro the frowning cloud
On winters frowns below—from day to day
Unmelted still he spreads his hoary shroud
In dithering pride on the pale travellers way
Who croodling hastens from the storm behind
Fast gathering deep & black—again to find
His cottage fire & corners sheltering bounds
Where haply such uncomfortable days
Makes muscial the woodsaps fizzling sounds
& hoarse loud bellows puffing up the blaze

(Early Poems of John Clare 2: 492)

The personification of Winter as a “frowning” old man spreading his “hoary shroud” across the landscape is certainly a derivative feature of this poem, along with its conventional poetic diction (“haply”) and the generic, unspecified loco-descriptive “traveller.” But this poem shows considerable promise in its robust regional vocabulary (“dithering,” “croodling,” “fizzling”) and its refusal—typical of Clare—to abide by a standard rhyme-scheme or to follow strict rules of grammar. Thus for no apparent reason except individual eccentricity, Clare introduces a rhyming couplet (behind/find) in the middle of the sonnet, and he follows his own “vulgar” usage in matters of verb agreement, spelling, and punctuation. When this poem was published in The Village Minstrel, however, John Taylor normalized its grammar, punctuation, and spelling, reducing its quirky freshness to the prevailing norms of “correct” English.

Taylor's self-appointed role as “Corrector” of Clare's verse was undertaken with Clare's full knowledge and tacit consent,39 but despite Taylor's good intentions and reasonably competent editing, Clare became increasingly restive under the enforced normalization of his poetic language. As Clare developed a distinctive poetic voice, he became less willing to conform to “correct” linguistic usage and more boldly deviant from lexical and prosodic norms. The poetry of his middle period—including The Shepherd's Calendar (1827) and The Rural Muse (1835)—explores the rich expressive possibilities of his own regional dialect, using a wide range of dialect terms while returning to the prosodic and rhetorical models of his local culture, especially the folk ballads and lively doggered verses derived from the oral tradition of his family and neighbors in Helpston.40 His poetry thus evolves away from what Bakhtin terms a “prim but moribund aristocratic language”41 toward a vernacular discourse of stubborn locality, synthesizing a variety of repressed or marginalized elements of Northamptonshire dialect.

A characteristic example of Clare's linguistic practice in this middle period may be found in his sonnet, “Winter Fields,” which forms part of the manuscript collection assembled by Clare about 1832 under the title The Midsummer Cushion. This poem begins with what appears to be another old-fashioned personification of an abstract entity, “rich mirth,” but it soon becomes apparent that this abstraction is itself the target of ideological critique. Mirth is the possession of the idle rich who have money and leisure to spend on books,42 at the expense of the starving underclass described with telling concreteness in the rest of the poem:

O for a pleasant book to cheat the sway
Of winter—where rich mirth with hearty laugh
Listens & rubs his legs on corner seat
For fields are mire & sludge—& badly off
Are those who on their pudgy paths delay
There striding shepherd seeking driest way
Fearing nights wetshod feet & hacking cough
That keeps him waken till the peep of day
Goes shouldering onward & with ready hook
Progs off to ford the sloughs that nearly meet
Accross the lands—croodling & thin to view
His loath dog follows—stops & quakes & looks
For better roads—till whistled to pursue
Then on with frequent jumps he hirkles through(43)

The highly conventional, almost parodic opening scene of this poem gives way to a vividly realized description of the shepherd and his dog striding through muddy fields, seeking a home that is never found and maintaining an affectionate loyalty to each other even in the midst of their suffering. Clare implicitly contrasts the narcissistic individualism of the literate class with the communal solidarity of the laboring class, here again expressed in robust dialect words such as “hirkles,” which in this context refers to the jerky, uneven motion of the dog as it jumps from side to side. “Hirkles” would also be a good word to describe the rhyme scheme of this sonnet, which follows no traditional pattern but jumps randomly from one rhyme to the next until it reaches the high ground of the final couplet. This innovative use of the sonnet form is triumphant in its very amateurishness, as Clare swerves against the burden of literary tradition to discover an appropriate form to express his stubborn resistance to the ideology of linguistic propriety. Paradoxically, however, this sonnet bears witness to Clare's increasing sense of alienation from his own social class, since the very act of acquiring literacy and publishing books of poetry aligns him with the idle rich, most notably his wealthy patrons, and against the very class whose interests he seeks to advocate.44

Clare's struggle to maintain a sense of personal and class identity through a gradually disintegrating literary career, economic hardship, dislocation from his birthplace, and a sense of betrayal and abandonment by friends, patrons, and even his family, cast him into deep depression and eventually resulted in his incarceration in the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum (1841). Despite his imprisonment in what he called the “English Bastille” and his isolation from his former literary mentors, Clare carried on his poetic vocation with enormous strength, dignity, and sense of purpose. His late poems, written in the asylum, go far beyond his published work in their deviation from established norms of linguistic and prosodic form. Critics of Clare's asylum poetry have tended either to patronize “poor Clare” in their sympathy for his sufferings, or to celebrate his visionary power while failing to recognize the latent ideological basis of his formal innovations. The stubbornly unconventional quality of Clare's asylum poetry is apparent in the poem “Winter,” written sometime after 1842 and existing only in a transcript prepared by his keeper, W. F. Knight. This poem might be described as the dried, withered husk of a sonnet; it begins with a full-fledged iambic pentameter line, but it dwindles down to shorter and shorter lines, rhyming erratically, and it reaches a final couplet after only eleven lines.45 In this pared-down, minimal prosodic form, the poem describes a desolate winter scene that suggests an existential analogue to Clare's own sense of isolation and despair:

How blasted nature is, the scene is winter
The Autumn withered every branch
Leaves drop, and turn to colourless soil
Ice shoots i’ splinters at the river Bridge
And by and bye all stop—
White shines the snow upon the far hill top
Nature's all withered to the root, her printer
To decay that neer comes back
Winds burst, then drop
Flowers, leaves and colours, nothing's left to hint her
Spring, Summer, Autumn's, withered into winter(46)

There is a provisional, makeshift quality to the texture of this verse, gesturing in the direction of the sonnet form but reducing it to just a ghost of its former self. The incongruously rich rhymes of “winter/printer/hint her” are counterpointed by the haphazard or nonexistent rhymes of the other lines. This formal innovation hints at the poem's meditation of scarcity, the poverty of language in the presence of a “withered” landscape. The syntactic structure of the poem is remarkably impoverished, lacking essential verbs and conjunctions, so that crucial lines and images remain enigmatic, disconnected. For instance, in the penultimate line, it is unclear whether “Flowers, leaves and colours” are the object of the verb “drop,” or an appositive construction to “nothing”—or perhaps both. And in line 7 the phrase “her printer” dangles mysteriously.

As in the earlier sonnets on winter, this poem contains an abstract personification, Nature, who is almost entirely shorn of her traditional attributes. Nature is “blasted” by the unseen force of winter, a force that is emphatically not personified, since in this poem “winter” occurs consistently in lowercase while the other seasons are capitalized. Winter is not so much a season as the absence of all season, the passing of all colors into colorlessness, the passing of being itself into sheer nothingness. Like Shelley's West Wind, or Demogorgon in Prometheus Unbound, winter is an apocalyptic force that threatens the annihilation of all things, yet it also hints at the possibility that within this desolation are hidden the seeds of future growth. Even though Nature is “withered to the root,” this root still abides in the earth, linked practicality to “her printer.” But who is nature's printer? Who can this “printer” be but the poet himself, John Clare, who has striven to publish his poems even beyond the “decay” of his public career?47 By humbly inscribing himself as Nature's printer, Clare acknowledges that his incarceration has robbed him of a public voice. He can no longer carry on his chosen career as a singer of songs and a teller of tales, but he can still pursue his poetic vocation in the silent medium of print. “Poets love nature,” says Clare in another asylum poem, “They are her very scriptures upon earth” (Later Poems 1: 313). Clare accentuates the written medium of poetry during his asylum period, and his belated acknowledgment of textuality tends to displace his previous emphasis upon spoken language as a paradigm for poetic discourse.

This conception of Clare's late poetry as essentially written, rather than spoken or sung, is likely to raise doubts among those who regard Clare as primarily an oral poet. Certainly it is true that Clare is the beneficiary of a rich folk tradition of oral poetry, and I would not seek to minimize the importance of that tradition to him. Throughout his career, Clare was capable of composing verses modeled upon traditional folksongs and popular ballads with a seemingly effortless grace. But with the gradual loss of his readership, his growing sense of alienation, and his involuntary confinement, Clare seems to have lost the sense of immediacy that is essential to all oral forms of literature. Lacking listeners, his poems must perforce be written, either as letters to loved ones or as memoranda to himself. His longest asylum poem, “Child Harold,” is subtitled “Prison Amusements,” indicating his sense of its self-directedness.48 Within this sense of language as a textual medium, however, lie the seeds of Clare's astonishing poetic development during the asylum period. Free from constraints imposed by outsiders, he was able to explore the most radical possibilities of poetic language. Clare's linguistic and prosodic experiments during his asylum period represent the final stage of his quest for a mode of poetic discourse free from the tyranny of grammar and adequate to the expression of his tragic struggle for personal and regional identity.


  1. Frederick Martin, The Life of John Clare (London: Macmillan, 1865; reprinted with an introduction and notes by Eric Robinson and Geoffrey Summerfield, London: Frank Cass & Co., 1964) 40.

  2. Clare: The Critical Heritage, ed. Mark Storey (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973) 43.

  3. Political hegemony, in Antonio Gramsci's sense of the term, is normally accompanied by cultural hegemony, which typically includes the imposition of a standard language and the eradication of local customs and dialects. On this topic, see Walter L. Adamson, Hegemony and Revolution: A Study of Antonio Gramsci's Political and Cultural Theory (Berkeley: U of California P, 1980).

  4. The Letters of John Clare, ed. Mark Storey (Oxford: Clarendon, 1985) 69.

  5. Johanne Clare makes a similar point in John Clare and the Bounds of Circumstance (Kingston and Montreal: McGill-Queen's UP, 1987) 76: “Perhaps the greatest difficulty he had to surmount in his early years was that he had himself internalized some of the values of cultural hegemony.”

  6. John Clare's Autobiographical Writings, ed. Eric Robinson (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1986) 26; see also vii, on dating the “Sketches,” and xiii, on Clare's intended audience.

  7. J. W. & Anne Tibble, John Clare: A Life (Totowa, New Jersey: Rowman & Littlefield, 1972) 112; partially reprinted in The Early Poems of John Clare 1804-1822, ed. Eric Robinson & David Powell (Oxford: Clarendon, 1989) 1: 100, citing Pforzheimer MS A3.

  8. Letters 83-84. Deleted from the third edition of Poems Descriptive were “Dolly's Mistake” and “My Mary,” evidently because Lord Radstock objected to their violations of linguistic and erotic decorum (Critical Heritage 60). “The Country Girl,” another bawdy vernacular poem, had already been omitted from the second edition.

  9. Clare's increasingly adversarial response to Taylor's editing is more fully discussed by Eric Robinson and Geoffrey Summerfield, “John Taylor's Editing of Clare's The Shepherd's Calendar,Review of English Studies 56 (1963): 359-69.

  10. A facsimile reprint of the four volumes published during Clare's lifetime would be very desirable, since the original editions are now rare and often inaccessible. Despite Taylor's heavy-handed editing of Clare's verse, these published volumes are of great historical interest: they show how Clare's contemporaries knew him, and, in a sense, how he came to know himself.

  11. Selected Poems and Prose of John Clare, ed. Eric Robinson and Geoffrey Summerfield (London: Oxford UP, 1967) xxi. Robinson and Summerfield first established their editorial policy in The Shepherd's Calendar (London: Oxford UP, 1964).

  12. On the relation between Clare's conception of landscape and his resistance to linguistic conformity, see John Barrell, The Idea of Landscape and the Sense of Place 1730-1840: An Approach to the Poetry of John Clare (London: Cambridge UP, 1972) 158-73, and Timothy Brownlow, John Clare and Picturesque Landscape (Oxford: Clarendon, 1983) 2, 92-93. For a contrary view, see Johanne Clare, John Clare and the Bounds of Circumstance 119-31.

  13. All three of these poems appeared in Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery (1820). “Dolly's Mistake” was deleted from the third edition (see above, note 8). “The Setting Sun” was previously published in Clare's Prospectus of 1818 (see Critical Heritage 30).

  14. The exact title of the spelling-book consulted by Clare is uncertain; it might be Daniel Fenning's Universal Spelling-Book (London 1756) as Eric Robinson suggests (Autobiographical Writings 167 n. 23); or it might be Solomon Lowe's Critical Spelling-Book (London 1755) as Frederick Martin claims (38-40). Both of these books are rigidly prescriptive in tone, and both include a standard grammar. Lowe's book also includes a list of figures of speech (147-49); Fenning's does not. Lowe's titlepage declares that his book is “designed for a standard of the language,” and he further states that he has modeled his rules upon the usage of “the better sort of people at London” (12). Fenning's book matches Clare's title, but Lowe's book more fully exemplifies his description of jawbreaker terminology; Martin gives an amusing but probably embellished account of Clare's bewildered response to Lowe's lists of “oxytones,” “penacutes,” “ternacutes,” “quartacutes,” and “quintacutes.” Since Martin implies that he has actually seen Clare's copy of Lowe's book, I am inclined to accept his identification. Clare might have misremembered the title, or perhaps he consulted both of these spelling-books.

  15. Letters 53. Clare's 1815 edition of Johnson's Dictionary is listed in the Catalogue of the John Clare Collection in the Northampton Public Library with Indexes to the Poems in Manuscript, ed. David Powell (Northampton 1964) 29, item #263.

  16. Samuel Johnson, Preface to Dictionary (octavo edition, 1756) n.p. For further discussion of Johnson's abridgement, see Allen H. Reddick, The Making of Johnson's Dictionary, 1746-1773 (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990) 86-88. Reddick points out that “most users of Johnson's Dictionary through the years would encounter one form or other of the abridged work, rather than the original folio” (87).

  17. Early Poems of John Clare 2: 123n. Oddly enough, the word swail was allowed to remain in two other poems published in The Village Minstrel, “The Snowdrop” (line 7) and “Recollections after a Ramble” (line 254), and it was defined as “shade” in the glossary to that volume. (Line numbers refer to Early Poems 2: 317 and 2: 196.)

  18. Clare's copy of Blair's Lectures (1819 edition) was possibly presented by Lord Radstock in February 1820 along with a copy of Blair's Sermons (1819 edition); see Northampton Catalogue 24, items #116-17.

  19. This item is now in the Northampton Collection; cited in The Natural History Prose Writings of John Clare, ed. Margaret Grainger (Oxford: Clarendon, 1983) 187 n. 8.

  20. Northampton Catalogue 30, item #288.

  21. Lowth, English Grammar (London 1762; reprinted Menston, England: Scolar Press, 1967) 140-41. For further discussion of Lowth and Murray, see Olivia Smith, The Politics of Language 1791-1819 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1984) 3-10.

  22. Lindley Murray, English Grammar, Adapted to the Different Classes of Learners (York, 1795; rpt. Menston, England: Scolar Press, 1968) 93.

  23. Thomas Hood, Hood's Own (London 1839), cited in Tibble, John Clare: A Life 180; on Murray see also 187.

  24. Nathan Bailey, Universal Etymological English Dictionary (thirteenth edition, 1749), inscribed “John Clare / 1813,” is item H18 in the Peterborough Collection. This copy is well-worn but not otherwise marked up.

  25. Johnson's indebtedness to Bailey is described by Reddick, Making of Johnson's Dictionary 28, 201 n. 8. Reddick effectively refutes the assertion of Sir John Hawkins that Johnson used an interleaved copy of Bailey's dictionary.

  26. Approximately 5300 (or 12٪) of the 42,500 lexical entries in the thirteenth edition of Bailey's dictionary are dialect words; these were later published separately as English Dialect Words of the Eighteenth Century as shown in the Universal Etymological Dictionary of Nathaniel [sic] Bailey, ed. William E. A. Axon (London: English Dialect Society, 1883). Axon cites the thirteenth edition as his primary source (xvi). Johnson's Dictionary, by contrast, intentionally excludes most dialect words; the few that remain are tagged with such notations as “a low word” or “not in elegant use.”

  27. De Witt T. Starnes and Gertrude E. Noyes, The English Dictionary from Cawdrey to Johnson 1604-1755 (Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1946) 103-4; on Chatterton see 252 n. 4, 255 n. 14. See also Axon, English Dialect Words x-xi, citing Walter Skeat's edition of Chatterton.

  28. Barbara Strang examines Clare's use of poetic archaisms in “John Clare's Language,” in The Rural Muse (Northumberland: Mid Northumberland Arts Group, 1982) 163-64. Many of these archaic words occur in Bailey's Dictionary.

  29. Axon, English Dialect Words xiv-xv. This is my main source of biographical information on Bailey.

  30. Nathan Bailey, Universal Etymological English Dictionary, “Introduction” (n.p.). Subsequent Bailey citations are from this source.

  31. Bailey refers here to William Camden, Remaines Concerning Britaine (London 1605; sixth edition, 1657) 25. On this theme compare other Anglo-Saxon revivalists: R. Verstegan [Richard Rowlands], The Restitution of Decayed Intelligence (1605), and John Davies, Antiquae Linguae Britannicae Dictionarium Duplex (1632).

  32. Thomas Paine likewise laments the linguistic tyranny of the Norman invaders in The Rights of Man, part 1 (1791): “Submission is wholly a vassalage term, repugnant to the idea of freedom, and an echo of the language used at the Conquest.” For further discussion see Smith, Politics of Language 51. Clare may have derived some of his understanding of radical politics from this enormously popular book; Eric Robinson states that Clare read Paine, on the basis of manuscript evidence (Autobiographical Writings xiv). In a journal entry for 17 March 1825, Clare denies that he ever read Paine (Grainger, Natural History Writings 230). If Clare did read Paine, he certainly did not advertise the fact.

  33. Critical Heritage 48. Taylor wanted Clare to correct proofs of the glossary to Poems Descriptive, but it is doubtful he actually did so, since the published glossary includes errors that Clare would certainly have corrected if he had seen them (see following note). Margaret Grainger, Natural History Writings (366) cites Taylor's letter to Edward Drury, 28 December 1819: “Let Clare look over the Glossary and correct the Explanations. … Pray let Clare give his own meanings to all doubtful words.” See also Taylor to Clare in Letters 150 (10 February 1821): “Your Explanation of the Provincialisms suits me Capitally for the glossary. I have a general but not a true Sense of their Meaning—so I think I shall get you to interpret a few more—‘Grains’ for instance I had quite mistaken.”

  34. Shool is defined in the glossary to Poems Descriptive as “to carry for a pretence,” apparently Taylor's guess based on the context of “Summer Evening,” line 168; but the word actually means “to shuffle or saunter.” Soodles is defined as “goes unwillingly,” based on line 175 of “Summer Evening”; but the word actually means “to saunter.” Both of these words were correctly defined in the glossary to The Village Minstrel, suggesting either that Clare provided corrections or that Taylor's familiarity with Clare's dialect was improving. (Line numbers refer to Early Poems of John Clare 1: 11.)

  35. Ash's dictionary cites Bailey's definition of sile, “to sink or fall to the bottom.” Neither Johnson nor Ash could have provided Taylor with the relevant definitions of clammed (“starved with Hunger”—Bailey), goss (“Gors or Goss … a shrub, called Furz”—Bailey), or hob (“the Back of a Chimney”—Bailey). The relevant definition of nappy, “pleasant and strong ale,” occurs only in Bailey; Johnson and Ash list it as an adjective meaning “frothy.”

  36. William Cobbett, A Grammar of the English Language (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1984) 117. The ideological implications of this work are more fully examined by Smith, Politics of Language 239-48.

  37. John Clare, Oxford Authors, ed. Eric Robinson & David Powell (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1984) 481; variatim in Grainger, Natural History Writings liv, citing Pforzheimer Misc. MS 197. For “Lectures” Grainger reads “treatises.” My conjectural dating of this prose fragment is based on the inference that Clare had recently discovered Cobbett's Grammar when he wrote the letters mentioning the book.

  38. Even Charles Lamb, in a letter to Clare, criticized his use of “provincial phrases,” his “rustic Cockneyism” (cited in John Clare: A Life 181).

  39. John Taylor calls himself the “Corrector” of Clare's “bad Grammar” in a letter of February 1822; see Letters 224n.

  40. On this topic see George Deacon, John Clare and the Folk Tradition (London: Sinclair Browne, 1983).

  41. Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, ed. Michael Holquist (Austin: U of Texas P, 1981) 357.

  42. Clare criticizes Crabbe for his pampered and sentimental detachment from the real life of the peasant class: “Whats he know of the distresses of the poor … musing over a snug coal fire in his parsonage box” (Letters 137-38).

  43. The Midsummer Cushion, ed. Anne Tibble & R. K. R. Thornton (Northumberland: Mid Northumberland Arts Group, 1979) 485.

  44. In December 1820, Clare complains that “the society of farmers respecting books &c is little preferable to Goths & vandals” (Letters 113).

  45. Clare never regarded the sonnet as having an absolutely fixed number of lines. In his exuberant early period, he sometimes wrote “sonnets” of 16 or 18 lines, such as “Morning a Sonnet.” Of this poem, Clare comments that “Tis not a 14 line Son[net]: I cannot be confined wi’in its narrow bounds Especially when the Gingling fit attacks me most warmly” (Letters 22).

  46. The Later Poems of John Clare 1837-1864, ed. Eric Robinson & David Powell (Oxford: Clarendon, 1984) 2: 813.

  47. On the topos of “decay” see especially “Decay A Ballad,” published by Clare in The Rural Muse (1835); manuscript version in Midsummer Cushion 359.

  48. The subtitle “Prison Amusements” is noted by Geoffrey Summerfield, John Clare: Selected Poems 209.

Paul Chirico (essay date 1994)

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SOURCE: “Writing Misreadings: Clare and the Real World,” in The Independent Spirit: John Clare and the Self-Taught Tradition, edited by John Goodridge, The John Clare Society and The Margaret Grainger Memorial Trust, 1994, pp. 125-38.

[In the following essay, Chirico argues that Clare's poetry is “informed by a complex and continuing theme: that of the troubled and unresolved relationship between precise, yet diverse and constantly changing, natural observations and their fixed and limited representation in poetry and memory.”]


In a thoughtful and perhaps long overdue article, ‘The Complexity of John Clare’—recently published in John Clare: A Bicentenary Celebration—Kelsey Thornton, while still (rightly) referring to John Barrell's The Idea of Landscape and the Sense of Place as ‘the best piece of writing about Clare’, takes issue with some major points in Barrell's argument, principally his reluctance to acknowledge Clare's use of symbolism. My own position certainly owes a lot to Barrell, and I think therefore that I am approaching my subject from a different starting point—but Kelsey Thornton does deal with the two main strands of my argument: firstly, that ‘for Clare a landscape is not fully realised until it finds expression in or some association with poetry’. Secondly, that ‘Clare's consistency is built on a thoroughgoing notion of the place of a different truth from the reality of tangible existence in front of him.’ My conclusion is that, while this distinction between local truth and eternal truth is essential to much of Clare's poetry, he consistently identifies the eternal or general or imaginative reading with a loss of integrity.

My paper is a condensed version of a dissertation on Clare's uses and abuses of perception and representation; I hope that in cutting out some of the footwork I have left a coherent tour. The quotation which I placed as an ironic epigraph to that dissertation—Clare's disingenuous self-identification with a conventionally naive literary model ‘I found the poems in the fields / And only wrote them down’—doesn’t fool us for long, despite a century or more of acquiescence from the literary establishment. I will avoid a long discussion of the opposing views and instead propose that while his prose writings confirm his intimate knowledge of nature and his belief that literary affectations undermine the power of poetry to transmit the vibrancy of life, they equally reveal his critical interest in the structure of landscape painting and in its linguistic parallels of grammar, syntax and punctuation. These structural concerns reflect the realisation that no artistic work can involve a single, defined relationship between artist and subject matter—Clare and Nature, for instance—but rather a scries of relations of perception and description or depiction of objects whose positioning in the work (through techniques such as perspective and syntax) places them in a further complex of inter-relations.

I will argue that his poetry of all periods is informed by a complex and continuing theme: that of the troubled and unresolved relationship between precise, yet diverse and constantly changing, natural observations and their fixed and limited representation in poetry and memory. This conflict will be seen to focus most sharply in Clare's repeated attempts to describe a landscape which is, for various reasons, deprived of its familiar features.


These questions of transience, perception and representation seem particularly relevant to a passage from ‘March’ of The Shepherds Calendar:

The shepherd boy that hastens now and then
From hail and snow beneath his sheltering den
Of flags or file leavd sedges tyd in sheaves
Or stubble shocks oft as his eye percieves
Sun threads struck out wi momentery smiles
Wi fancy thoughts his lonliness beguiles
Thinking the struggling winter hourly bye
As down the edges of the distant sky
The hailstorm sweeps—and while he stops to strip
The stooping hedgbriar of its lingring hip
He hears the wild geese gabble oer his head
And pleasd wi fancys in his musings bred
He marks the figurd forms in which they flye
And pausing follows wi a wandering eye
Likening their curious march in curves or rows
To every letter which his memory knows
While far above the solitary crane
Swings lonly to unfrozen dykes again
Cranking a jarring mellancholy cry
Thro the wild journey of the cheerless sky

(The Shepherd's Calendar [John Clare, The Shepherd's Calendar, ed. Erie Robinson and Geoffrey Summerfield (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964; rev. edn., ed. Robinson, Summerfield, and David Powell, 1993)], 1964, pp. 32-3)

To those who argue that Clare's reliance on particular acts of perception has been exaggerated we can immediately concede at least that many of the nature poems from his middle period (and especially his bird poems) are informed by knowledge from outside the experience of the characters or situation in the poem itself—the result of the poet's own encyclopedic interest in natural history. But in the extract we have just read, this distinction between the poet's knowledge and the poetic subject's perception is extended into an unequivocal distancing of the poet from the shepherd. As narrator of a series of monthly poems in which individual locals appear only fleetingly, Clare is secure in his controlling knowledge; this shepherd boy's ‘fancy thoughts’ of the end of winter at the very sight of a sunbeam, for instance, simply recall similar false expectations in ‘February’. Nonetheless Clare is at pains to present sufficient visual information—the hailstorm on the horizon—to alert the shepherd to his mistake, if he would only exercise his powers of perception in a comprehensive way. This he fails to do, instead privileging one sight over another; thus, similarly, as his ‘wandering eye’ follows the flight of the geese the implication is surely that the crane's progress across the sky goes unseen. Through the mediation of the shepherd, then, Clare paradoxically disqualifies Arthur Symons' assessment that ‘His danger is to be too deliberate, unconscious that there can be choice in descriptive poetry’—paradoxically, because the crane finds its way into the poem, if not into the awareness of the shepherd.

The first half of the extract conveys a series of experiences, some habitual and in the shepherd's past (sheltering, seeing the sunbeam), some in the present of the poet's perception (the den, the approaching hailstorm) or the shepherd's action (stripping the ‘hedgbriar’) or his imagination (the end of winter). In the second half this temporal complexity unwinds somewhat as the shepherd's single-minded attention to the geese necessitates a pause, which implicitly undermines the possibility even of a continuum of perception. It seems that in order to come to terms with what he sees—the geese—he must relate it to what he already knows—the letters of the alphabet—at the same time highlighting one perception by isolating it from all the others which compete for his attention. He is responding to a dilemma which John Ashbery recognises in his prose poem ‘For John Clare’:

There is so much to be seen everywhere that it’s like not
getting used to it, only there is so much it never feels new,
never any different.(1)

Unless it can be categorised or placed into a recognisable cognitive relationship with some remembered natural (or linguistic) phenomenon, a newly perceived object is destined to float free in the mind of the perceiver, carrying no meaning and making no difference. In this poem Clare is able to enjoy both sides of the paradox by using the shepherd as his foil. While ostensibly undermining his character's fanciful schemes of figuration he introduces the ‘solitary crane’ which, like the sand martin in the poem of the same name (Midsummer Cushion [John Clare, The Midsummer Cushion, ed. Kelsey Thornton and Anne Tibble (Ashington/Manchester: MidNAG/Carcanet, 1979, 1990)], p. 460), unmistakably figures the alienated and melancholy poet.


Let us turn now to a quite different poem, a ‘Fragment’ from Knight's second volume of asylum transcripts:

The cataract whirling to the precipiece
Elbows down rocks and shoulders thundering through
Roars, howls and stifled murmers never cease
Hell and its agonies seem hid below […]
Horrible mysteries in the gulf stares through
Darkness and foam are indistinctly seen
Roars of a million tongues and none knows what they mean

(Later Poems, II, 766)

The syntactical practice could hardly be further removed from that in ‘March’; here every line except the first is effectively endstopped. This imposing sense of an invisible punctuation recalls Edward Strickland's observation of the ‘punctuational frenzy’ which came to accompany every emission of the word ‘sublime!’ from the pen of Clare's mentor and patroness, Mrs Emmerson.2 The implication, then, is of a regularised setpiece, consisting of separate observations and conjectures which nevertheless all contribute to the conceptual unification of darkness, high wind and hell.

The apprehension of the union underlying this eschatological translation is abstract in the sense that meaning can nowhere be fixed by perception. Vision is characterised by a near-apocalyptic uncertainty—even darkness itself is ‘indistinctly seen’—and the unsemantic ‘roars’ and ‘howls’ crowd out the ‘stifled murmurs’, which at least hint at comprehensible communication. Such total absence of rational and communicable meaning is radically internalised in an untitled stanza written early in 1845:

There is a chasm in the heart of man
That nothing fathoms like a gulph at sea
A depth of darkness lines may never span
A shade unsunned in dark eternity
Thoughts without shadows—that eye can see
Or thought imagine tis unknown to fame
Like day at midnight such its youth to me
At ten years old it boyhoods secret came
Now manhoods forty past tis just the same

(Later Poems [The Later Poems of John Clare, 1837-1864, ed. Eric Robinson and David Powell (two volumes, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989)], I, 165)

Here the ‘heart of man’ is figured in the terms of sublime nature—a ‘gulph’ or ‘chasm’. Notably these emblems are based on absences—like the absence of the sun and of light in line four—creating a gap which, we are told, can be neither bridged nor adequately represented by poetry. Thus we are faced yet again with the paradox of a poem about the impossibility of linguistic or literary representation. This poem itself becomes obscure towards the end, and while this is not helped by Clare's virtually undecipherable pencil scrawl (‘secret’ in the penultimate line is an uncertain reading), the semantic uncertainty surely reflects the poet's professed inability to ‘imagine’ his own thoughts. This mental alienation is described in the visual terms of light and darkness. The ‘depth of darkness’ at the heart of the mature poet provides no light for a translation of his thoughts into shadows; without such illumination those thoughts evade perception.

The extent of the alienation which can be caused by disturbed perceptions and a failure of communication is described in ‘Perplexities’ (Later Poems, II, 974-5) where the poet, although quite happy to talk to the birds, flowers, wind and rain, finds himself unable to speak when he meets his ‘dear one’:

I scarcely presume to cast on her my eye
And then for a week I do nothing but sigh

This response of excessive communicative isolation brings to mind the self-contained chamber of the medieval lover or the drawing room of the sentimental hero rather than the often claustrophobic reality of life in a poor cottage in a rural village. The idea is entirely uncharacteristic of Clare and the relative lightness of the verse does not prevent a genuine sense of perplexity; the resonances of ‘I feel myself lost’ in the final line transcend the tone we generally find even in his ballads of loss or betrayal. This sense of disturbed sadness can be traced to a realisation that the ‘dear one’ is less visually appreciable than her emblem:

If I look on a wild flower I see her face there
There it is in its beauty all radient and fair

In the actual presence of the beloved it is not only speech and vision that are disrupted, but also sound: ‘the noise o’ my footsteps may scarcely be heard’.

It is becoming clear that for Clare the concept of ‘universal meaning’ is largely anomalous. A great number of his poems are explicitly concerned with the way that knowledge is established through an endless series of acute observations which can themselves only gain meaning when related to the perceiver's pool of knowledge, or memory. The communication of this meaning, of which poetry is one form, requires a verbal figuration which can only be a comparison and modification of past linguistic experience. When that past experience has become alienated to the extent that the present memory of the past is ‘Like day at midnight’, as in ‘There is a chasm … ’, there can be no communication and no meaning. The description of this breakdown as a failure of vision (‘Thoughts without shadows—that eye can see’) demonstrates the way in which all these issues of memory, meaning and representation depend for Clare on the accuracy of perception. Even the attempt to image Hell through a sublime description of nature's power in the ‘Fragment’ discussed above can be seen in this light: heightened perceptions which defy and exceed the comparisons offered by memory, modulating to a failure of communication which is essentially an exponentially intensified version of that related in ‘Perplexities’.

The idea that acts of perception form a constant theme throughout Clare's work hardly sounds radical and yet the majority of his critics have favoured exclusively either his ‘early’ poems of specifically local description, or an extremely small selection of ‘visionary’ lyrics written in Northampton General Lunatic Asylum. Both are clearly concerned with the success or failure, the precision or abstraction of perception. It will be illuminating to examine instances where the precision of his perception is radically undermined by a defamiliarised landscape.


Winter is come in earnest & the snow
In dazzling splendour—crumping underfoot
Spreads a white world all calm & where we go
By hedge or wood trees shine from top to root
In feathered foliage flashing light & shade
Of strangest contrast—fancys pliant eye
Delighted sees a vast romance displayed
& fairy halls descended from the sky

(‘Snow Storm’, Midsummer Cushion, p. 487)

The declared ‘calm’ of this scene is challenged by a visual intensity, attached not only to the ‘dazzling’ snow but to the trees which ‘shine’ from their new covering. The contrasting tones which they project imply intense shadows, which here suggest a transformation of sorts—the trees have, after all, been endowed with the slightly destabilising ‘feathered foliage’. It is this initial peculiarity of vision which inspires an abstracted reverie, strongly recalling the indulgence of the shepherd boy in ‘March’. Once again ‘fancys pliant eye’ is distracted from its usual mode of perception (which is ordered primarily in spatial terms—‘where we go / By hedge or wood’) to wander freely, gazing upwards. The observer proceeds to recognise in nature the pattern of a familiar image—this time from his reading of romance rather than from the alphabet. This recognition brings a change from precise observation of, for example, ‘the smallest twig’ to a focus on ‘its snowy burthen’ and thence to a uniting of all those individual burdens into an imaginative transformation of the whole scene. The suggestion that this ‘vast romance’ is ‘displayed’ rather than imaginatively created is a significant reversion to the conventional eighteenth century language of a nature which readily ‘yields’ scenes and interpretations to the detached onlooker. In other words, we are pointed towards the possibility of a ‘moralized’ landscape conveying a ‘universal meaning’. I will argue that this particular imaginative-visual construction is clearly signalled as a misreading of nature; it extends, nevertheless, to the perception of ‘arch & pillar’, then of a hermitage and its occupant:

One shapes his books his quiet & his joys
& in romances world forgetting mood
The scene so strange so fancys mind employs
It seems heart aching for his solitude
Domestic spots near home & trod so oft
Seen daily—known for years—by the strange wand
Of winters humour changed—the little croft
Left green at night when morns loth look obtrudes
Trees bushes grass to one wild garb subdued
Are gone & left us in another land

The world is forgotten, both in terms of consciousness (the fantastic reverie) and of locality (the snow leaving us ‘in another land’). Both these forms of subversion rely on an alteration to the normal modes of perception resulting, we are told, from the magic power of winter. While the fanciful conjecturing of fairy halls and so on seems to spring from an unnaturally intense (‘dazzling’) visual singularity caused by exaggerated tonal contrasts in specific natural objects, the later defamiliarisation of identity-fixing terrain results from a quite opposite process: an imposed uniformity which expressly undermines the individuality of any natural feature. These two poles of transformation of the landscape—into an aggregation of alluringly expressive and visually captivating, yet almost unconnected features on the one hand, or into an undiversified plain on the other—will be seen to recur in various forms throughout Clare's work.

In this particular poem, it should finally be noticed, the subversive nature of these transformations is undermined by their explicit connection with winter (in the first and twenty-fifth lines). The unquestioned acceptance of the eternal seasonal cycle provides a basis of secure knowledge, the certainty of an eventual return to a ‘green’ world. Such confidence in the circular nature of time is of course fundamental to agricultural life, and while it informs much of Clare's poetry it is most clearly enshrined in The Shepherds Calendar. However, despite this faith in annual renewal, the changing seasons profoundly affect modes of perception. ‘October’ (Shepherds Calendar, pp. 111-15), which consists of an astonishing catalogue (over a hundred lines) of natural detail observed by the wandering poet and expressed mainly in Clare's characteristically vital adjectival participles—from ‘The free horse rustling through the stubble land’ to ‘a solitary boy / Journeying and muttering oer his dreams of joy’—opens with a warning that autumn will bring an end to this sort of particularity:

Nature now spreads around in dreary hue
A pall to cover all that summer knew

‘November’ (Shepherds Calendar, pp. 116-23) does indeed bring a landscape more radically defamiliarised even than that of ‘Snow Storm’, as ‘The village sleeps in mist from morn till noon’. The ‘shepherds in the fields’ are ‘blindfold’, deprived of their anchoring points of bush, tree and sky; even their secure knowledge of the sun is challenged by its resemblance to the pale moon.

This sense of dislocation is repeatedly related to the disruption of agricultural work, which is dependent on vision. The shepherds are reduced at once to ‘Whistling aloud by guess to flocks they cannot see’, while eventually

winter comes in earnest to fulfill
Her yearly task at bleak novembers close
And stops the plough and hides the field in snows
When frost locks up the streams in chill delay

Only the threshers can continue work, and the implication that the fields themselves—like the streams—no longer function recalls the earlier move away from their ‘dreary nakedness’ to the farmyards ‘Where toils rude uproar hums from morn till night’. We are here promised ‘many rural sounds and rural sights’ but this is modified to ‘Noises’ and, later, ‘rural sounds’; and the principal form of perception in these two stanzas is indeed auditory (the only strikingly visual description is that of ‘The pigeon wi its breast of many hues / That spangles to the sun’—less than convincing in view of the prevailing weather). This move away from sight reinforces the distancing from the fields, as does the emphasis on confinement—we hear the ‘field-free’ bull, but the ‘barking mastiff’ is presumably chained to his kennel, while the turkey and geese's bid for ‘freedom’ through the ‘opening gate’ is halted by the ‘clowns whip’. Farming practice is threatened more violently in the following stanza, intensifying the claustrophobia of confinement and leading in turn to a negation of vision: when the ‘puddock’ (buzzard or kite) swoops overhead, the penned chicks, who have strayed from their mother,

                    skulk and scatter neath her wings agen
Nor peeps no more till they have saild away


Ideas of long-term decay in The Shepherds Calendar tend to be located in the passing of family rituals (the telling of winter tales) and of village customs (May celebrations). In ‘Remembrances’ (Midsummer Cushion, pp. 369-71) it is not only the habits of childhood (or their memory) which are threatened but also their very location. The customs of the past are immediately labelled ‘summer pleasures’, assailed now by autumn and winter. In the sixth stanza we read of ‘boyhoods pleasing haunts like a blossom’ which has shrivelled to a weed; the ‘winter’ metaphor achieves a literal reality in the appearance of the fields as ‘sudden bare’ and the onset of cloudy winter weather. The hanging moles are again literal and observable, yet emblematic of the betrayal of nature and innocence. Like Round-Oak Waters, Langley Bush was a real place on the edge of Helpston parish. ‘Little field’ and ‘sneap green’ were presumably familiar names used by Clare and his contemporaries to refer to specific places, as were ‘crossberry way’ and ‘old round oaks narrow lane’. As in much of Clare's work, notably The Shepherds Calendar, place and custom prove inseparable, and the naming of his childhood games—‘“clink & bandy” “chock” & “taw” & “ducking stone”’—and even his remembered calls to his imaginary team of horses—‘“Gee hep” & “hoit” & “woi”’—are personal particulars which enliven (or resurrect) the scene. Despite his efforts, however, the poet feels the unsustainable pressure which the sadness of his loss puts on his powers of linguistic re-creation:

O words are poor receipts for what time hath stole away
The ancient pulpit trees & the play

Later the metaphor collapses to simile as the impossibility of recovery is accepted: ‘hollow trees like pulpits I shall never see again’. Even Clare's fiercely local dialect here implies defeat and destruction as ‘the little mouldywharps hang sweeing to the wind’.

In the fifth stanza Clare attempts to describe the spatial dislocation caused by a literal levelling of the terrain which had been frequented in childhood:

All leveled like a desert by the never weary plough
All vanished like the sun where that cloud is passing now

It is uncertain whether the cloud is simply passing in front of the sun, or whether its shadow, moving along the ground as in several other poems of Clare, is at the very moment of description marking the precise former location of the flattened ‘hills’. What is clear, though, is that the sun has disappeared, and in the further context of the ‘desert’ we see here some of the first stirrings of Clare's apocalyptic vision. It is towards this bleak and oppressive sense of an imposed wasteland, stripped of local detail and customs, that the poem's ‘decay’ seems to lead.

‘Remembrances’ ends with a common device in Clare's writing: an extension of love verse to incorporate a sense of temporal as well as romantic loss. Had he realised that joy would escape him in his adult life, claims the poet, he would have ‘wooed her like a lover by my lonely side to stay’. The emphasis is on the proposed ability of poetry to delay the passing of happiness by providing a direct representation of nature. We are clearly pointed to the etymological connection between ‘poesy’ and ‘posey’:

& gave her heart my poesys all cropt in a sunny hour
As keepsakes & pledges all to never fade away
But love never heeded to treasure up the may

This is a generic transformation of the specific memories encountered earlier in the poem into the conjectural relations of allegorical figures of love, beauty, joy and the lonely poet.

This device is repeated in ‘Decay A Ballad’ (Midsummer Cushion, pp. 359-60), written, like ‘Remembrances’, around the time of Clare's move from Helpston to the neighbouring village of Northborough. What is regretted, as elsewhere, is the loss of intense emotion (‘Loves sun went down without a frown / For very joy it used to grieve us’). Each stanza ends with a refrain, emphasizing the failure of representation as a means of preservation, and formed by variations on the first and third lines of the poem:

O poesy is on the wane
For fancys visions all unfitting
I hardly know her face again
Nature herself seems on the flitting

The poem is peculiar in its complex interweaving of representation and reality. The demise of poetry here seems to relate more to the fading of ‘fancys visions’ than of nature itself, but the later references to the poet's belief that the flowers of his youth were ‘from Adams open gardens’ suggests a Fall from ideal beauty. Decay is indeed universal, destroying flowers, vision, day and friendship as well as poetry and love. The effect is more of confusion than of controlled ambiguity.

In response to his (unexplained) ‘fading vision’ Clare expresses nostalgia for the sort of constructions of fancy which have themselves elsewhere had a delocalising effect:

Gone gone is raptures flooding gushes
When mushrooms they were fairy bowers
Their marble pillars overswelling

The vocabulary oozes that imaginative fecundity which ‘Snow Storm’ worked to discount, and from which, in the extracts from ‘March’ and ‘December’ of The Shepherd's Calendar discussed above, the poet distances himself by means of intermediary characters. The fourth stanza crystallises the ambiguity caused by this sudden retrospective acceptance of practices of false figuration. The transposition of foreign landscapes onto that of familiar, local observation necessarily creates a sense of homelessness:

The sun those mornings used to find
When clouds were other-country-mountains
& heaven looked upon the mind
With groves & rocks & mottled fountains
These heavens are gone—the mountains gray
Turned mist—the sun a homeless ranger
Pursuing on a naked way
Unnoticed like a very stranger

This obscure reference to ‘the mind’ points towards the wild and unknowable inner landscape described in ‘There is a chasm … ’. Here, though, the poet is concerned explicitly with the outer scenery of his youth as contrasted with its appearance in his manhood. The change from ‘mountains’ to ‘mist’ and nakedness is in fact a reprise of the two forms of defamiliarisation evident in ‘Snow Storm’: imaginary constructions, and blanket uniformity. Clare thus conjectures a process of decay in the sequence of two forms of false perception which have both in reality consistently challenged his preference for specific observation.

The image of the sun as a stranger relates more directly to the move to Northborough. In Clare's childhood and youth, his common desire to wander was tempered by an extreme sense of spatial dislocation when only a small way from home. This theme is repeated in ‘The Flitting’ (Midsummer Cushion, pp. 216-21)—‘The sun een seems to loose its way / Nor knows the quarter it is in’. Here the poet's expression of spatial dislocation gives way to a disparagement of literature concerned with ‘pomps of chivalry’ rather than the genuine nature which (Clare claims) was recognised by David, and which coexisted with Adam, Eve and Abel. These biblical references seek to express the eternal and unchanging presence of nature, which is surely less than the truth for a poet who has lived through the transformations of enclosure. When the references move on to Naiads and muses we have to recall Clare's own criticism of Keats:

when he speaks of woods Dryads & Fawns are sure to follow & the brook looks alone without her naiads yet the frequency of such classical accompaniment makes it wearisome to the reader where behind every rose bush he looks for a Venus & under every laurel a thrumming Appollo

Clare's new appreciation of nature as the same everywhere clearly entails the loss of his celebrated local intensity. In a passage which serves as a heavy modification of his reference to words as ‘poor receipts’ (in ‘Remembrances’), he implies that he can conquer the diffraction of memory embodied in the quotation marks which have appeared round the name of a flower:

this “shepherds purse” that grows
In this strange spot—In days gone bye
Grew in the little garden rows
Of my old home now left

Adopting the weed as an ‘ancient neighbour’ he claims that it is still formed uniquely by its particular features—‘Its every trifle makes it dear’—but we see instead an increasingly generalised nature, whose personal significance relies principally on past associations.

The conflict between the widespread critical reception of Clare as unselfconscious and his evident late concern with questions of identity has drawn attention from the thematic continuities of his work. His self-awareness is fixed consistently in his relationship with the natural world; and challenges to the familiarity of that world serve at the same time to undermine the possibility of its accurate poetic representation. The permanent and systematic changes brought to Clare's terrain by enclosure—akin in his perceptual terms to a perpetual winter—increased his reliance on memory and poetry as means of preserving the past. In his work after leaving Helpston his sense of confusion and slippage between different notions of time and representation becomes entangled in enormous religious and social insecurity. In ‘I Am’ (Later Poems, I, 396-7) the poet's desire for familiar anchoring points—‘The grass below—above the vaulted sky’—is linked to his wish to escape society itself and the destabilising emotions with which he has come to asssociate women, and to return instead to an unimpeded relationship with God, and a state of childlike innocence. The unattainable simplicity of this fixed positioning is in fact dwarfed by the metaphorical landscape of personal failure—‘the vast shipwreck of my lifes esteems’. The destruction of identity and of landscape in these poems is mutually assured.


  1. John Ashbery, Selected Poems (London: Penguin, 1994), p. 103.

  2. Edward Strickland, ‘John Clare and the Sublime’, Criticism, 29, no. 2 (1987), 141-61.

Eric Robinson and David Powell (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: An introduction to John Clare by Himself, edited by Eric Robinson and David Powell, The Mid Northumberland Arts Group and Carcanet Press, 1996, pp. vii-xxiv.

[In the following excerpt, Robinson and Powell present an overview of Clare's life and works.]


From his birth in Helpston in 1793 to his death in Northampton in 1864, except for four visits to London, some months in Epping Forest and his years in the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum, John Clare never travelled more than a few miles from his native village. He lived at first under the same roof as his parents in Helpston, moved to another cottage in Northborough only a few miles away in 1832, and then from 1841 spent the remainder of his life in Northampton.

Clare's life-story is told against the background of a particular landscape with its fens, its heaths, its sheep-pastures and its villages and market-towns. (It is significant that Clare uses the word ‘town’ to denote any settlement, however small.) He talks of Will-o’-the-wisps (or Jenny burnt-arses), of ghosts and poachers, of spires peeping over stiles, of bird-haunted thickets, of lonely farms, and of the threshers, gleaners and weeders in his native fields. The skies of the Fens always overshadowed him, and there is no writer from whom one gets a better sense of an unbroken horizon or of the scarlet flames of sunset and sunrise. In this landscape he breathed freely: once he left it, he felt suffocated and began to lose touch with reality. He speaks constantly of the ‘lordship’, the area under the control of the lord of the manor, or of his ‘world’, the locality with which he was familiar. It is not uncommon to this day to find on the edge of English towns a pub called ‘The World's End’, as though when one reached the boundary of a familiar settlement one dropped over the edge of the horizon. Clare's sense of identity is intimately involved with his awareness of his birthplace and of all the living things that he remarked within his locality:

I lovd the meadow lake with its fl[a]gs and long purples crowding the waters edge I listend with delights to hear the wind whisper among the feather topt reeds and to see the taper bulrush nodding in gentle curves to the rippling water and I watchd with delight on haymaking evenings the setting sun drop behind the brigs and peep again thro the half circle of the arches as if he longs to stay1

The Tibbles, in their edition of Clare's prose, speak of the ‘Sketches’ as

the enchanting account of a vanished English childhood and youth, far away from, while yet contemporary with, the French terror and the Napoleonic Wars … an account of a country childhood during one of the hardest periods of Enclosure, when rustic activities and customs, now swept away for ever, were still in full swing.2

In fact the Terror, the Napoleonic Wars, and even Enclosure are so far removed from Clare's preoccupations that they only appear on the scene as part of a local experience—in the POW camp at Norman Cross, in the strange antics of the militia, and in the inconvenience of fences. This is the world seen through the wrong end of the telescope but filled with its own strange intensity. In the London episodes, the great wander across the scene—Lamb, Coleridge, Hazlitt, Raynolds, Sir Thomas Lawrence and others—or Byron, Clare's hero, is seen through the eyes of a poor sailor, but most of the characters are purely local. Granny Bains, John Cue of Ufford, old Shepherd Newman, John Billings, George Cousins: these are people who but for Clare would have been entirely forgotten. They and their countryside become the setting for Clare's Paradise.

He tells us much about the people—of the hardships suffered by poor men, their humiliations and their sense of oppression, but also of their joys, their festivities and their songs. Sometimes, as in his ‘Apology for the Poor’, one hears his honest anger:

now if the poor mans chance at these meetings is any thing better then being a sort of foot cushion for the benefit of others I shall be exceedingly happy to hear but as it is I much fear it as the poor mans lot seems to have been so long remembered as to be entirely forgotten

or when he speaks of one rude visitor:

he then asked me some insulting libertys respecting my first acquaintance with Patty and said he understood that in this country the lower orders made their courtship in barns and pig styes and asked wether I did I felt very vext and said that it might be the custom of high orders for aught I knew as experience made fools wise in most matters but I assured him he was very wrong respecting that custom among the lower orders here3

Since Piers Plowman there has hardly been an authoritative voice in English literature to speak for the ploughmen, the threshers, the hedgers, shepherds, woodmen and horse-keepers, until Clare began to write. Robert Bloomfield is perhaps the nearest. The farmer-journalist William Cobbett is heard loud and clear, and so, at a later date, is the gamekeeper Richard Jefferies. Joseph Ashby of Tysoe is nearer to Clare in social status, but none of these is his equal. As Edmund Blunden said, Clare's autobiographical writings contain

fresh information on the early life and thoughts of a poet of the purest kind: originality of judgment, bold honesty; illuminating and otherwise unobtainable observations on intimate village life in England between 1793 and 1821; a good narrative—nearly as good as Bunyan—and plenty of picturesque expression. It will be a long time before a voice again speaks from a cottage window with this power over ideas and over language.4

The people of Clare's autobiography—Will Farrow, the cobbler; Hopkinson, one of that increasing number of clerical magistrates who posed a special problem on the bench by their mixing of law and morality; Henson the bookseller and Ranter-preacher; the servants at Milton; the head-gardener at Burghley; the boy, John Turnill—are as lively and individualized as characters from The Canterbury Tales, of which Clare was a great admirer. And when we move from individuals to meetings, ceremonies and occasions such as religious holidays, singing and dancing with the gypsies, drilling with the militia or walking Vauxhall Gardens in London, there too all is light and colour, and we may well agree that ‘the year was crowned with holidays’.

Clare transformed the people and the fields they roamed by suffusing them with the glow of childhood—for Clare's autobiography is as remarkable a vision of childhood as the poems of Blake and Traherne. It is a deliberate vision of Eden before the Fall and a realistic appraisal of Eden after it. The ‘Sketches’ are mostly representative of the former vision and the ‘Autobiographical fragments’ increasingly reflect the latter as Clare's disenchantment grew over the years. The ‘Autobiographical fragments’ are much more openly critical of the middle classes, revealing Clare's aversion to simpering misses and pompous magistrates, to pretentious militia officers and grasping farmers, to overbearing surveyors and interfering ministers.

Like other authors in the same vein, Clare's language often has a strong proverbial quality: ‘I was quite in the suds’; ‘Send him to Norberrey hedge corner to hear the wooden cuckoo sing’; ‘I was in that mixd multitude calld the batallion which they nick namd “bum tools” for what reason I cannot tell the light Company was calld “light bobs” and the granadeirs “bacon bolters” ’; ‘I was now wearing into the sunshine’; ‘Another impertinent fellow of the Name of Ryde who occupys a situation which proves the old Farmers assertion that the vilest weeds are always found in the richest soil’. Indeed the same forcefulness of language runs throughout Clare's prose as one finds in the newspapers and almanacs of the day.

We ought to recognize, moreover, that Clare's autobiography belongs to that tradition of those sixpenny chapbooks hawked from door to door which shaped his childhood imagination. Clare is the hero of his own chapbook: he is his own Tom Hickathrift, Jack and the Beanstalk, or Dick Whittington making his way to London, that sink of iniquity or crucible of success. He was quite aware of the strangeness of his own rise to fame. Other tales of men and women rising from obscurity were part of folk-tradition. Even when totally fictional, they were presented as true-life stories: Swift's Gulliver's Travels, Defoe's Robinson Crusoe and Gay's Beggar's Opera all belong to the tradition of marvellous lives and adventures, along with the memoirs of James Lackington, the Methodist bookseller. The newspapers were full of extracts from works such as these and they provided vigorous models for young working-men. Clare's autobiographical writings are at least partly in the tradition of the poor boy's rise from obscurity to fame, or at least to notoriety: the boy practising his writing on a slate, or having his poems—written on grocer's paper—used by his mother to light the stove. Clare was even more deeply entrenched in the idiom than Defoe, Gay and Swift because for many years the chapbooks were almost his sole literary diet. His imagination was nourished by the popular songs and stories that have always fed the minds of the poor and compensated them for their deprivations with a rich world of fantasy. Clare's dreams were made from tales of knight-errantry, the adventures of Robin Hood, the story of Joseph and even the true stories of Chatterton, Kirke White and Bloomfield.

At all times of his life, sane or insane, Clare identified himself with some hero. In his insane years he seems to have been unable to keep fact and fiction apart: was he Clare or was he Byron, or Burns, or Shakespeare? Was he Nelson or was he Ben Caunt, the prize-fighter? His life always had its elements of fantasy: did he really drub a bullying corporal in the army, or was it merely that he would have liked to do so? Is he not a bit like the farm-boy in his verse-tale, ‘The Lodge House’? Were the amorous advances he thought were made to him by the governess at Birch Reynardson's house any more real than the mind-games he played with Eliza Emmerson or Mary Howitt? What conflicts arose within him when he saw that his fantasies of fame and fortune were never to be realized? If our disappointments as editors in our struggles to obtain full recognition for him are bitter, how much greater his own must have been!

Clare wanted to believe in his own special destiny, to feel that he had been marked out by fate. Was not his providential birth and survival to be contrasted with the death of his twin sister, who had seemed to be more robust? Was it not for some great reason that he was twice saved from drowning and preserved from a dangerous fall when he was birds-nesting? Why was it that he was not buried in the collapse of a barn in which he and his fellows, only a few hours before, had been carousing? The resemblances to other providential escapes related in religious biographies are very clear.

During his visits to London, Clare is fascinated by kidnappers, cheats and ladies of the town. He enjoys the frisson of the tale of Sweeney Todd. Later, as he sets out on his walk from Essex, he presents himself as a general marshalling his forces. At Northampton he sees himself as Burns or as Byron. Fantasy was a deeply imbedded aspect of his nature. It is not that he tells lies, but that he views the truth in a peculiar light. He chops and changes throughout his life in his attitude to public affairs and it is often impossible to nail him down.

In the ‘Sketches’, Clare is presenting his life-story to his publisher, John Taylor, and to his patrons, all of whom were imbued to a greater or lesser degree with the evangelicalism of the time. They wanted to assist a talented member of the deserving poor, someone honest, sober and hardworking; Christian—preferably Anglican—and critical of popular superstition; patriotic and lawabiding; a decent family man with acceptable sexual habits; respectful and grateful. Clare therefore presents himself as a model for Hogarth's industrious Apprentice:

I resigned myself willingly to the hardest toils and the one of the weakest was stubbor[n] and stomachful and never flinched from the roughest labour by that means I always secured the favour of my masters and escaped the ignominy that brands the name of idleness …5

He spends all his free time improving his handwriting and working out problems in ‘Pounds, Shillings and Pence’. All his efforts are directed towards the repayment of his parents. He says little about his unreadiness for starting work. (More of that story is to be found in the ‘Autobiographical fragments’.) He admits to escaping from church on Sundays but has suggestions to make about the way in which the Scriptures should be taught to children. In general, he is a much more conforming character in the ‘Sketches’ than he was in real life. In the ‘Sketches’ he defends himself from the suggestion that the Billings brothers were poachers, whereas in the ‘Autobiographical fragments’ he tells a story of a miraculous escape from the explosion of a flintlock on a poaching expedition.

There is no question that Clare is trying to present himself in a good light while revealing as much about himself as he safely can. He does confess to drinking too much and having too many flirtations, however he ends by saying that ‘mercey spared me to be schoold by experience who learnd me better’.6 It is doubtful whether Clare often spoke that way to his cronies. In his letters, even those to Taylor, he is often more open. All this adds to, rather than detracts from, the interest of his memoirs. We see that we are dealing with a complex character.


There have been several biographies of John Clare, but none that is entirely satisfactory. The problem with most is that their writers were not deeply enough read in Clare's own manuscripts. The Oxford English Text edition of his collected poetry is nearing completion, in nine volumes. There is no collected edition of Clare's prose, and the Tibble selections are unreliable, but Margaret Grainger's The Natural History Prose Writings of John Clare (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983) is a first-rate edition of those pieces she has included. Mark Storey's The Letters of John Clare (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985) is the standard edition of Clare's outgoing letters. No one has tackled the mass of incoming correspondence. It is not surprising, therefore, that biographers have been handicapped by the lack of printed sources.

The first biography of Clare was Frederick Martin's The Life of John Clare (London and Cambridge, 1865; second edition, eds E. Robinson and G. Summerfield, 1964), a lively, emotional but unreliable account, which nevertheless used original sources. There is evidence in J. L. Cherry's Life and Remains of John Clare the ‘Northamptonshire Peasant Poet’ (London and Northampton, 1873) that the author had access to original Clare manuscripts. He refers on page 9 to ‘a few undecipherable lines commencing “Good morning to ye, ballad-singing thrush” ’ written in an arithmetical and geometrical exercise-book which is now Northampton MS 11. Cherry also quotes extensively from Clare's ‘Journal’ and letters to and from him. But the best biography is still J. W. and Anne Tibble's John Clare: A Life (1932), which deserves to be reissued. A subsequent volume by the same authors, John Clare: His Life and Poetry (1956), adds new information but is less successful as a whole and is, in general, a rather strange mixture of biography and criticism.7 What always brings these biographies to life is the quotations from Clare's own autobiographical statements, reflective or satirical, nostalgic or ironic, contemplative or indignant.


Clare had the idea of collecting facts for his life-story very early on. He wrote to J. A. Hessey (John Taylor's publishing partner) on 29 June 1820:

—I mean to leave Taylor the trouble of writing my Life merely to stop the mouths of others—& for that purpose shall collect a great many facts which I shall send when death brings in his bill—8

At the time, he was composing his will. Keats, as Clare learned from Taylor, was seriously ill. Some of Clare's Helpston friends were dying off. He never thought that he himself would make old bones. Yet at the same time he was getting his first experience of fame—his first volume, Poems Descriptive of Rural life and Scenery, had been published in January 1820. Lord Radstock had become his patron, the local gentry were making him ‘the stranger's poppet Show’, and he was enquiring from Captain Sherwill whether he knew Wordsworth and Coleridge personally,9 asking Taylor to give his regards to Keats,10 and reporting to Taylor that his fellow regional poets, Robert Bloomfield and James Montgomery, were recognizing him, and had ‘written me & praisd me sky high & added not a little to my vanity I assure ye’.11 Local rivals such as Ann Adcock, S. Messing and Edward Preston were springing up.12 How long would he stay ahead of them? The newspapers were stuffed with the poems of unknown writers, some of them awful, others not half-bad. Meanwhile his publishers, Edward Drury of Stamford and John Taylor, were bickering about their rights in him; Lord Radstock and Mrs Emmerson, his evangelical patrons, were trying to censor him; and his village friends were beginning to regard him with suspicion. He was anxious to have his true story set down on paper, even if he intended to leave it to Taylor to write the finished biography after his death. Several of his patrons seemed anxious to build their own fame on his pitiful scaffolding.

Clare was not the shrinking violet he has sometimes been thought to be. As many of his early poems reveal, he was preoccupied with fame in general and his own in particular. It may be local fame—that of the young soldier who goes off to the wars, or of the boxer or wrestler who wins a bout at the local fair, or of a village schoolmaster or schoolmistress—or the fame of Shakespeare, Byron or Keats. It may be the fame of a place or monument—the River Welland, Burthorp Oak or St Guthlac's Stone; even the false fame of the Revd Mr Twopenny or of a quack doctor.13 Clare's greatest fear was obscurity, and it was to ‘Obscurity’ that, ‘in a fit of Despondency’, he wrote one of his earliest sonnets.14 He did not wish to vanish from the records like old Shepherd Newman or the Ruins of Pickworth. His own aspirations are wittily expressed in ‘The Authors Address to his Book’, in which he sees himself and his book, like fellow vagrants and beggars, tramping towards their destiny:

No never be asham’d to own it
For better folks than I have known it
But tell em how thou left him moping
Thro oblivions darkness grouping
Still in its dark corner rhymeing
& as usual ballad chyming
Wi’ few ha’pence left to speed wi’
Poor & rag’d as beggars need be
—Money would be useful stuff
To the wise a hints enough
Then might we face every weather
Gogging hand in hand together
Tow’rds our Journeys end & aim
That fine place ycleped fame … (15)

Is there a reference here to Chaucer's House of Fame? The poem is typical of Clare: though he apologizes for his rough upbringing and lack of education, he has confidence in his own genius and in the fame it will eventually bring him. Whether his fame is in the local pub or on the national scene, he always has his eyes on greater things. In poems such as ‘Dawning of Genius’, ‘Some Account of my Kin, my Tallents and Myself’, ‘In shades obscure & gloomy warmd to sing’16 and many more, Clare returns to the theme of the rise from obscurity to fame. Much of his autobiographical writing in prose is occupied with the same matters.


By January 1821, Clare was trying his hand at prose. ‘Charicteristic Descriptive Pastorals in prose on rural life & manners’, in the hope of eventually publishing a volume entitled ‘Pastorals in Prose’.17 He was also assembling facts for Taylor to go into the introduction to The Village Minstrel:

I will fill your last ruled Quarto with as much of my little life as I can & get it done doubtless to bring up with me in summer as I then intend to storm the hospitality of Fleet St—18

It is not the hospitality of Fleet Street that he intends to storm but the bastions of literary fame. On 8 February 1821 he told Taylor, ‘—I have been getting on with my “Memoirs” & shall have it for your inspection by summer’.19 By 7 March he could promise ‘the “Sketches of my Life” ready for sending you in a fortnight at most’,20 and they were actually sent off on 3 April 1821.21 He promised Taylor sole ownership of the manuscript and that no copies would be provided to anyone else.22

It seems probable, however, that Edward Drury had already seen part of it. Mark Storey has brought to our attention a ‘Memoir’ of Clare in the Bodleian Library (MS Don. d.36), attributed to Hessey but actually by Drury. It is dated ‘May 6. 1819’ and is based on information that clearly formed part of the ‘Sketches’: Clare's early admiration for Pomfret's poems, especially the woodcuts; the borrowing of Robinson Crusoe; and the purchase of Thomson's Seasons.23 The poet's name is even misspelt ‘Thompson’, as in the ‘Sketches’, suggesting that the information was transmitted in a document rather than orally.

When Taylor received the ‘Sketches’, he thought them the best things he had ever seen from Clare in the prose line,24 and he did use parts of them for his introduction to The Village Minstrel (published in September 1821). The subsequent history of the ‘Sketches’ is a little obscure until they become MS 14 in the Clare collection at the Northampton Central Public Library. Frederick Martin, in the preface to his Life of John Clare, refers to ‘some very curious autobiographical sketches’,25 and it was from his daughter, Miss Louisa Martin, that Edmund Blunden received permission to publish his edition of the ‘Sketches’ in 1931.26 Did Martin also have access to the ‘Autobiographical fragments’? Very probably so, since he speaks of Granny Bains, the ‘old Mary Bains the cow keeper famous for the memory of old customs’, whose existence was later wrongly questioned by the Tibbles.27

It is clear that Clare did not abandon his autobiography after sending off the ‘Sketches’, because he wrote to Taylor on 11 August 1821, ‘I have ideas of writing my Literary Life & continuing it on till I live’.28 In several Clare manuscripts there appear ‘Autobiographical fragments’ that supplement the ‘Sketches’ in important ways. First of all they continue Clare's story fragmentarily down to the year 1828. Secondly, they provide pen-portraits of his literary acquaintances in London and describe his visits to the metropolis. They also include much additional material.

Clare wrote to H. F. Cary, the translator of Dante and biographer of Chatterton (one of Clare's heroes), on 30 December 1824 asking him to read his memoirs and to give his opinion of them.29 Cary replied on 19 February 1825, saying that he would ‘read the memoirs of yourself which you propose sending me; & not fail to tell you, if I think you have spoken of others with more acrimony than you ought.’30 Clare, who was becoming increasingly disenchanted with John Taylor at this time, may have written some critical comments about him, but as The Shepherd's Calendar was in progress, Clare would not have wanted to imperil its publication. What were these memoirs: a more or less finished version drawn from the ‘Autobiographic fragments’, or the fragments themselves? If Clare were going to submit them to Cary, they would have had to be in a more finished form than they are in now, in the surviving manuscripts. The Tibbles suggest that Clare never sent anything to Cary,31 and certainly we hear no more about them in Cary's surviving correspondence. Yet even if they were never sent, the fact that many of them are crossed through or marked ‘done for’ suggests that Clare was following his usual practice of writing up a fair copy from his scattered notes.

When Clare wrote to Cary, he spoke of having ‘gotten 8 chapters done’ and having ‘carried it [the Memoirs] up to the publication of the “Poems on rural life &c.”’32 This is clearly a reference to Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery. Northampton MS 14, on which Blunden's edition of the ‘Sketches’ is based, shows no chapter divisions. Is Clare therefore referring to an expanded memoir—already planned when he wrote to Taylor back in 1821—divided by December 1824 into eight chapters? Clare's Journal shows him at work on the life on 12 and 28 September 1824, and 20 November has the entry: ‘finishd the 8th Chapter of my life’.33 He was finding the task more difficult than he had expected, and he adds:

in the last sketch which I wrote for Taylor I had little vanitys about me to gloss over failing[s] which I shall now take care to lay bare & readers if they ever are published [may] comment upon [them] as they please in my last 4 years I shall give my likes and dis likes of friends & acquaintance as free as I do of my self.

Clare told E. V. Rippingille on 14 May 1826, ‘I have nearly finished my life having brought it down as far as our last visit to London & as soon as its done I think of offering it for sale.’34 We find it difficult to believe that Clare could have contemplated offering for sale anything so fragmentary as the paragraphs we have printed here as ‘Autobiographical fragments’, and it also seems clear that he had improved on the material he had earlier sent to Taylor. It should be noticed, too, that he is proposing to sell this material while he had promised the ‘Sketches’ exclusively to Taylor.

By 1825, as is revealed by partially deleted passages in the Journal, Clare had grown disillusioned with Taylor.35 In the entry for 17 April 1825 he has heavily deleted a reference to ‘the pretending and hypocritical friendship of booksellers’, and there are other entries to similar effect. By the time The Shepherd's Calendar was published, perhaps he felt that he could not afford to reveal his true feelings about Taylor, and suppressed the new version of his life. We cannot agree with the Tibbles' suggestion that the ‘Autobiographical fragments’ represent the totality of his autobiographical writings in these years, though they may well be correct in suggesting that he changed his mind about submitting anything to Cary. We therefore agree with Blunden in thinking that Clare probably wrote an extended version of his life, for which the ‘Autobiographical fragments’ are first drafts, but we consider it a possibility that Clare deliberately destroyed the new version.


We welcome the opportunity to bring together in one volume some of Clare's most important autobiographical records, chiefly the Journal, his ‘Sketches’ and the ‘Autobiographical fragments’. …

We have been able to include Clare's Journal in this volume, very occasionally improving on Margaret Grainger's readings, although we do not have the space to match her wonderful annotations on natural history. Unlike Dr Grainger, however, we have not regularized Clare's dating. The Journal is an essential part of Clare's general autobiographical record, providing evidence of his correspondence, his reading, his relationship with his publishers, and his family affairs. It reveals how much almanacs and newspapers formed part of his daily reading and how he became increasingly interested in archaeology. Natural history was of course a critical part of his life—the Journal shows how deeply he was interested in the history of old trees, for instance—but so also was a serious study of religious writings. The Journal is a true record of Clare's intellectual diversity.

The autobiographical writings so far mentioned only take us up to 1828, thirty-six years before Clare's death. We have therefore thought it desirable to add one or two pieces dealing with Clare's later years. We print here his ‘Journey out of Essex’, describing his journey on foot from Dr Allen's asylum in Epping Forest to Northborough. We also include a few of Clare's asylum letters from Northampton because they show how closely he retained in memory his friends and neighbours in Helpston. Many more are to be found, of course, in Storey's edition of Clare's letters. Our readings of all documents have been made independently, though we have benefited from the opportunity of making comparisons with other editors' readings.

All Clare's work needs, ideally, to be read aloud, for the sound of the local Helpston voice vibrates throughout it. Clare grew to be critical of punctuation and increasingly dispensed with it. This means that the reader has to allow the meanings of the prose to dictate the rhythm and movement: one has to feel one's way carefully as if looking for a nest in a thicket. We have tried to help by leaving spaces between sentences, for sentences and natural breaks there are, if seldom pointed. But in the ‘Sketches’ Clare sprinkled commas and semi-colons all over the place. We have chosen to remove much of that punctuation to bring the work into closer alignment with his maturer method of composition. As he himself wrote: ‘do I write intelligible I am gennerally understood tho I do not use that awkard squad of pointings called commas colons semicolons etc. …’36


  1. See above, p. 39.

  2. J. W. and A. Tibble, The Prose of John Clare (London, 1951; repr. 1970), p.3. Hereafter referred to as Prose.

  3. Oddly enough, Clare did write one poem where the courtship takes place in a pig-sty—see The Rivals, 1.372; note in E. Robinson and D. Powell (eds), John Clare: Poems of the Middle Period (Oxford, 1996), i. p. 229. His story of the magistrate Hopkinson and his wife is a brilliant satire upon condescension gone wrong (see above, pp. 125-7). The satirical tone of these passages conforms with The Parish, never published in Clare's day. See E. Robinson (ed.), John Clare: The Parish (Penguin, 1986).

  4. Edmund Blunden (ed.), Sketches in the Life of John Clare written by himself (London, 1931), p. 12. Hereafter referred to as ‘Blunden’.

  5. See above, pp. 3-4.

  6. See above, p. 29.

  7. See also Anne Tibble, John Clare: A Life (1972) and E. Storey, A Right to Song: the Life of John Clare (1982).

  8. Mark Storey (ed.), The Letters of John Clare (Oxford, 1985), pp. 78-9. Hereafter referred to as Letters.

  9. Ibid., p. 86.

  10. Ibid. p. 90.

  11. Ibid. p. 94.

  12. Ibid., pp. 333-4 and notes, p. 398; and see above, pp. 120-4.

  13. See ‘The Disabled Soldier’ in E. Robinson and D. Powell (eds), The Early Poems of John Clare (Oxford, 1989, 2 vols—hereafter Early Poems), i, pp. 125-7; ‘Death of the Brave’, i, pp. 248-50; ‘To the Welland’, i, pp. 102-3; ‘Burthorp Oak’ in A. Tibble and R. K. R. Thornton (eds), John Clare: The Midsummer Cushion (Manchester, 1978—hereafter M.C.), p. 429; ‘On Dr. Twopenny’, Early Poems, i, p. 234; ‘The Quack and the Cobler’, i, pp. 164-70; ‘On the Death of a Quack’, i, pp. 330-32; ‘Shakspear the Glory of the English stage’, i, pp. 336-7; ‘Lord Byron’, M.C. p. 389; ‘To the Memory of Keats’, Early Poems, ii, pp. 476-7; ‘To the Memory of James Merrishaw a Village School-master’, Early Poems, i, pp. 456-7; ‘Lines on the Death of Mrs Bullimore’, i, pp. 197-9.

  14. ‘To Obscurity Written in a fit of despondency’, Early Poems, i, p. 386.

  15. Early Poems, i, p. 424-31.

  16. ‘Dawning of Genius’, Early Poems, i, pp. 451-2; ‘Some Account of My Kin … ’ ibid., ii, pp. 607-8; ‘In shades obscure … ’, ibid., ii, p. 382.

  17. Letters, p. 133.

  18. Ibid., p. 138; Clare to Taylor, 7 January 1821.

  19. Ibid., p. 147.

  20. Ibid., p. 161.

  21. Ibid., p. 161 note 4.

  22. Ibid., p. 173; Clare to Taylor, 3 April 1821.

  23. M. Storey, ‘Edward Drury's “Memoir” of Clare’, The John Clare Society Journal, no.11, July, 1992, pp. 14-16.

  24. Letters, p. 172 note 2; Taylor to Clare, 7 April 1821.

  25. F. Martin, The Life of John Clare (1865), p.vi.

  26. Blunden, pp. 11-12.

  27. J. and A. Tibble, John Clare: His Life and Poetry (1956), p. 10 note 1.

  28. Letters, p. 208. In note 9 on this page, Storey identifies this Literary Life with the ‘Autobiographical Fragments’ as printed in E. Robinson (ed.), The Autobiographical Writings of John Clare (Oxford, 1983), but see above, p. xviii.

  29. Ibid., p. 311.

  30. Ibid., p. 311 note 2.

  31. Prose, p. 2.

  32. Letters, p. 311.

  33. See above, pp. 173, 178 and 197.

  34. Letters, p. 380.

  35. He seems to have obliterated remarks critical of Taylor in his Journal for 30 March 1825, 15 April 1825 and 17 April 1825, but it should be pointed out that the Journal does not actually begin until September 1824.

  36. Letters, p. 491.

Theresa M. Kelley (essay date 1998)

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SOURCE: “Postmodernism, Romanticism, and John Clare” in Lessons of Romanticism: A Critical Companion, edited by Thomas Pfau and Robert F. Gleckner, Duke University Press, 1998, pp. 157-70.

[In the following essay, Kelley uses Clare's work to argue that postmodernism “foregrounds the sense of extremity and strangeness that haunts Romanticism.”]

My remarks in this essay shuttle between two recent works of fiction and the writing of John Clare to suggest how postmodernism—as theory as well as fictional practice—reiterates and thereby foregrounds the sense of extremity and strangeness that haunts Romanticism. Put more contentiously, this essay considers how postmodernism—when it is not a late-blooming species of modernism—revisits Romanticism with something like the ferocious yet dry intensity of John Clare, both sane and mad. What I mean by such claims follows from my understanding of modernism as alienated consciousness, eager to break with its antecedents in order to rid itself of the mess of history and culture.1 If this account of modernism sounds a little like Walter Benjamin's reading of Klee's “Angel” as an apocalyptic observer who looks backward on the ruins of civilization and calls what he sees history,2 it is because Benjamin's theory of history is the critical angel who guards and joins both isms.

As recent theorists have noted, this theory entails a view of allegory that is particularly sympathetic to postmodernism. Consider, for example, how the alienated figure of Benjamin's angel directs Fredric Jameson's analysis of allegory in the present time:

If allegory has once again become somehow congenial for us today, as over against the massive and monumental unifications of an older modernist symbolism or even realism itself, it is because the allegorical spirit is profoundly discontinuous, a matter of breaks and heterogeneities, of the multiple polysemia of the dream rather than the homogeneous representation of the symbol. Our traditional conception of allegory—based, for instance, on stereotypes of Bunyan—is that of an elaborate set of figures and personifications to be read against some one-to-one table of equivalence: [yet] … such equivalences are themselves in constant change and transformation at each perpetual present of the text. (“Third-World Literature” 73)

Elsewhere Jameson reads Los Angeles's Bonaventure Hotel as the monumental sign of postmodernism's devilish compact with late capitalist culture (Postmodernism 55-66). Here he offers allegory's “breaks and discontinuities” as evidence of something quite different and almost certainly better—the “polysemia” found in dreams and, to extend the cultural logic of this declaration, the welter of differences and voices found in postcolonial literature and criticism. This praise owes a good deal to Craig Owens's influential essay on the terrain shared by allegory and postmodernism:

Decentred, allegorical, schizophrenic …—however we choose to diagnose its symptoms, post-modernism is usually treated, by its protagonists and antagonists alike, as a crisis of cultural authority, specifically of the authority vested in Western European culture and its institutions. (“Discourse of Others” 57)

These definitions of allegory under the sign of the postmodern are, however, more univocal than allegory itself, which remains quite capable of mobilizing stereotypical figures whose one-to-one equivalences we might prefer to relegate to an older, now discarded allegorical tradition. I offer two brief but instructive examples—one Romantic, the other postmodern. The eponymous protagonist of Shelley's Mask of Anarchy deliberately advertises the diffused presence of allegory's will-to-power across the political landscape of England in 1819. For if that power is brutally manifest in Shelley's rigidly allegorical names for government leaders such as “Murder” who has a “mask like Castlereagh,” it is as much to be feared on the “liberal side of the question” in the figure of Anarchy itself (Shelley 301-10). The aging dictator in Gabriel García Márquez's Autumn of the Patriarch conveys a similar point, with at least as much figural irony. Even after he grows old and goes mad (or madder), his power is emblematically dispersed among his parts—an elephantine foot, a once-legendary phallic member, and so on. Belonging as it does to the body of postcolonial literature and theory to which Jameson's reading of allegory refers, The Autumn of the Patriarch is a cautionary tale. It shows us that even the allegorical vision of postcolonial literature can be more troublesome than salvific.

With this reservation in mind, we can better assess the explanatory and theoretical power of the allegory that Jameson and Owens admire for its eccentricities, its “breaks and discontinuities” from expectations developed by canons and critics. As I understand the instructive core of this power, it concerns the temporality and historicity of figures made in time and narrative and, as such, subject to the vicissitudes of their making.3 In the theory of modern allegory Benjamin introduces and Paul de Man extends, decay and ruin are the controlling figures of those vicissitudes.4 I argue here that what makes the intersection between history or historicity and allegory compelling has more to do with the eccentric and difficult positions allegorical figures take up.

So construed, allegory's modern career is well marked in Romanticism but especially visible and admonitory in Clare's writing, where his stubborn sense of being at the edge of the culture puts the alien, fractured sensibility of allegory into high relief. Precisely because Clare was always marginal and oppositional, his writing and life (that old Romantic song and slippery divide) offer an instructive point of entry into the larger domain of allegory's survival into modernity and postmodernity, where allegory is similarly thrown into relief by its difference from mimetic or realist norms.

Working within and against this realist, experiential disposition, allegory spectacularly performs the enabling paradox of figuration in general. As Gary Stonum puts that paradox, “Even the most valiant attempt at lively figuration, one that might dazzle the rhetorically untutored, can thus be expected to reveal the deathly cogs of a tropological automaton” (“Surviving Figures” 207). For the rhetorically tutored as well, allegory's modern career toward and away from automation warrants notice. Precisely because it acts as a foil to its other self—the cultural authority of figures that move in lockstep to perform fixed meanings—allegory is a capable figure in and for Romanticism and postmodernism.

My analysis begins with two recent novels—David Malouf's Remembering Babylon (1993) and Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker (1980)—in which Clare is a ghostly textual figure, at once marked and tacitly assumed, who hovers like a proleptic and hobbled Romantic angel of the future and the past. At the beginning of Remembering Babylon, Malouf uses verse by Clare and Blake to fix his reader's apocalyptic backward look at the story he tells of Gemmy Fairley, whose early life includes a hand-to-mouth, abused existence as a London street boy, involuntary slavery as a cabin boy on a slave ship, being tossed overboard near the coast of Australia's outback, and living with aborigines for sixteen years until he perches on a fence around a colonial settlement at the edge of the wilderness. To the astonished children of Scottish settlers, he announces with a stutter, “I am a British object.”

The epigraph Malouf selects from Clare's poetry imagines a time when “strange shapes and void afflict the soul,” when “the moon shall be as blood the sun … the stars shall turn to blue and dun,” and “heaven and earth shall pass away.” At that time, Clare's speaker asks, “wilt thou / Remember me.” In Malouf's novel the question belongs to Gemmy, though he never has the words to ask it. After he is beaten by a member of the colony that has sheltered him for over a year and is placed with an eccentric beekeeping lady who can ensure his safety, he eventually takes some exercises written in a school notebook because he believes them to be the written story of his life, then disappears back into the wilderness. One of them and not one of them, Gemmy is a deep source of trouble because he brings the colonists sharply up against their own isolation at the bare scraped edge of a terrifying unknown world peopled by aborigines.

Clare's presence in Hoban's novel is less overtly marked but in the end more pervasive. Riddley Walker is a postnuclear fiction set in southeast England on a ring of terrain whose eccentric hub is, or was, Canterbury. The characters speak a language of their own that looks something like a phonetic transcription of a lower-class south London dialect in which compressed, altered forms of late-twentieth-century English barely survive.5 In this fractured, mysterious speech environment, the protagonist Riddley Walker does what his name implies: he tries to riddle out the mysteries and history of the nuclear blast and the present era, and he keeps on walking around the ring of changes and episodes that is, for better or worse, energized by what’s left of Canterbury, called Cambry in the novel.

The “eusa” story Riddley and other characters tell is the story of the thermonuclear power plant that the U.S.A. created or detonated, or both, near Cambry. How to figure out what to do about the power that remains in the superstitious, burned-out, and, again, aboriginal civilization that the novel presents is the problem before all the characters. Riddley confronts it in the last pages of the novel by “roadying” on, with others now following him, having learned what he could from a strange dog and even stranger human characters like his “Ardship.” What Riddley Walker does as he walks is try to map a terrain, its inhabitants, and events as though all were or might be signifiers of a coherent system or world that he knows in the sense of inhabiting it, but can’t quite grasp.

The postmodern dilemmas these novels imagine for the past and for the future usefully foreground several Romantic features of John Clare's writing. The first is rhetorical pathos. In 1841, after nearly six years of incarceration in an asylum at High Beach in Epping Forest, Clare managed to escape. In a brief manuscript now called Journey out of Essex, Clare described his eighty-mile walk from Epping Forest back to Northborough. Although he had initially worked out an escape plan that would have involved hiding in a Gypsy camp where he was well known and would have been safe among companions, the Gypsies left before he could get to them. When he makes his break on his own, he jauntily provides himself with an allegorical companion. “Having only honest courage and myself in my army,” he writes, “I led the way and my troops soon followed” (Clare, Autobiographical Writings 153).

This pilgrim's progress, like that of many a Romantic traveler, requires losing his way until he meets an acquaintance coming out of The Labour in vain Public house. From him, Clare finds “the way.” Supplemented by the names of other inns along the way, including “The Ram” and “The Plough,” Clare's allegorical touch is light and slyly ironic about his own laboring past (154, 156-57). Nonetheless, this is no easy journey without food or money except what little he can beg. At one moment he rests on a flint heap, at another a Gypsy woman warns him to stay off the main road or he will be “noticed” (158). Clare nonetheless keeps to the main road, because, sensibly enough, he fears losing his way again, which he later does. He continues, hoping to find, as he puts it, his “two” wives, Mary Joyce and Patty Turner, unwilling to believe that Mary Joyce had died almost six years earlier. The journal closes with a letter to this Mary, written from Northborough. There, he says, he is “homeless at home” with Patty. He closes, “My dearest Mary, Your affectionate Husband, John Clare” (160-61). It is not accidental that critics of Clare so frequently quote his haunting phrase for how he feels when he finally gets home—“homeless at home.”

Riddley Walker is the repeated verbal figure of the pathos that hovers everywhere in the record of Clare's life and writing, but especially in the 1841 Journey. From the moment early in the novel when his father is crushed to death, Riddley is on his “oansome,” befriended from time to time by characters who seem prophetic or admonitory but never stay long. A “connexion” man like his father, he is invited to offer his own “tells”—half-inscrutable, allegorical interpretations of events and old stories. Like Riddley Walker, Clare manages to keep going against all odds, nearly always semidetached from the subcultures in which he moves. His Journey is an extended figure for his life as a writer who keeps going, whether sane and poor or delusory and incarcerated, in a voice and diction that are local, phonetically spelled, barely punctuated, down-to-earth (as they say), even coarse—like Riddley Walker's.

From Helpston, from Northborough, and from the two asylums where he spent the rest of his span of life, Clare asks “wilt thou Remember me” in ways that bind memory and history to those local details that are the fraught, inadequate particularity of Romanticism. As Malouf's double epigraph helps us recognize, Clare is Romanticism's Gemmy, a figure and speaker so outside and so marginal that he is in, and one whose career was, mostly for the worse, the objective correlative of the English Romantic marketing strategy (and publishing house), which gave posterity the mature work of the cockney John Keats and the early poetry of the “peasant poet” John Clare. Clare might well have growled “I’m a British object” after his publishers rewrote, repackaged his writing so that it would conform to their understanding of what it ought to be.6

A second, implicit resemblance between Clare and the fictional worlds of Hoban and Malouf concerns their figural management of the material world. Whether that world is presented as geography, landscape, or particular things, it is persistently emblematic. Malouf trenchantly suggests the strong Romantic pathos that colors this assumption in Remembering Babylon, where Gemmy's capacity to recognize the secrets of the natural world reminds the white settlers of their lack of connection to the world they now inhabit:

When Mr. Frazer and Gemmy go out botanizing, Gemmy deliberately illuminates some parts of that landscape and out of a kind of religious sense of what is proper keeps other parts of it dark. When Gemmy moves through the landscape, something happens; Mr. Frazer moves through it and nothing happens. … This book is not about a purely Australian experience. It is about an experience of landscape or a relationship to the world that is cleared in a place like Australia, or in these people's situations, because all the other kinds of explanations and comforts are taken away from them. This absence makes them ask the question: what is man's place in the world. (Papastergiadis 87).

Malouf goes on to argue that back in a small village in Scotland or England where someone like Frazer was born, he would have been and remained completely at home, sure of his place and its significance.

Clare's botanical knowledge of local names and ecological systems makes him a prescient Romantic forecast of principles now identified with deep ecology—the organicist and philosophical counter-argument to post-modern fragmentation (McKusick, “‘A language … ever green’”). But because of who he was and when he lived, he learned, then had to forgo the rooted sense of place Malouf imagines for men like Clare who did not emigrate. His predicament as a laborer who knew his locality intimately, even as it became an alien place, specifies the tragic but enabling sense of alienation and other speech that complicates his Romantic sense of place. Even here Clare's situation is not as exceptional as we might imagine. Consider, for example, Wordsworth's “Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey,” where the poetic syntax hovers between a forged link between landscape, recollection, and mind and repeated doubts about being able to sustain such links (Poetical Works 2).

Clare, in his plangent efforts to identify what a piece of common land like Helpstone green meant before it was “inclosed,” insists on the cultural need for such places, even as he acknowledges just how absolutely that need cannot be satisfied. Clare, who frequently used the spelling “inclosure,” thereby marks etymologically the literal outcome of British parliamentary acts of enclosure (McKusick, “John Clare and the Tyranny of Grammar” 261). For “inclosure” was, as Clare was no doubt aware, the legal and statutory form throughout this period of English history (OED). This preference for the Anglo-Saxon “in-” over the “en-” form derived from Norman French also makes the linguistic return to ancient English custom and law that Clare cannot make for the land.7 When Clare speaks as “Swordy Well,” a natural wetland whose botanic variety he prized before it was made a sand and gravel quarry, the lamination of speech and loss is more openly rhetorical. Speaking for what no longer exists, “Swordy Well” insists on its cultural and ethical value:

The gipseys camp was not affraid
I made his dwelling free
Till vile enclosure came and made
A parish slave of me … 
Of all the fields I am the last
That my own face can tell
Yet what with stone pits delving holes
And strife to buy and sell
My name will quickly be the whole
Thats left of swordy well

(John Clare 152)

Like Clare's other jeremiads against enclosure and the landed aristocracy, this one bitterly recognizes the irony of speechifying loss. Names without places and faces will not suffice.

When Hoban uses place names that echo Clare's 1841 Journey and other autobiographical writings, he punningly redistributes the Romantic value of naming places such that their emblematic function becomes more overt. Echoing Clare's remark about an inn named The Ram, Hoban reassigns the name to an island separated from the mainland by a bay named Ram Gut (Ramsgate). The demotic language he invents to specify the geography of southeast England is a wildly allegorical elaboration of Clare's coarse dialect speech: “Do It Over” (for Dover), “Sel Out,” “Moal Arse,” the island “Dunk Your Arse,” and “Bernt Arse.” This trio of place names, particularly the last, echoes one of several local names Clare records for a will-o’-the-wisp, “Jenny Burnt Arse” (Clare, Autobiographical Writings 8). “Pooties,” Clare's name for snail shells, reappears in Hoban's novel as the female puppet figure Pooty (Judy), whose staged altercations with Punch get more violent and more evidently allegorical as the novel proceeds (John Clare 477-79; Riddley 205). Hoban's novel transforms the flint heap that Clare rests on one night into multiple postnuclear, iron-age work sites, a bitterly ironic rendition of Romanticism's desire to go back to the future.

Hoban's Riddley Walker is a larger-than-life version of Clare himself, the inveterate walker who is by his own account fascinated with riddles and riddling. On one occasion Clare comments that he “never unriddeld the mystery” of old superstitions about an ivied tree that was eventually cut down; on another he recalls a farmer who liked to “unriddle the puzzles for prizes” or “rhyme new charad[e]s reddle rebuses on a slate”—like the poet Clare (Autobiographical Writings 35, 40).

The equally strange dialect speech of Riddley Walker dramatizes the demotic, excessive, figural, and, in a word, allegorical tendencies of Clare's writing. Whether in or out of asylums, he kept writing and railing in poems that are, as Riddley would call them, “tells”—tales that carry his history and that of his terrain forward as if to admonish us from another world. For Clare, the gradual disappearance of that world demands not the backward glance of a fleeing Benjaminian angel but an intensive rearguard campaign that takes the form of a verbal history whose local or idiosyncratic grammar, diction, spelling, and punctuation matter as much as the stories they tell.8

What these postmodern fictions and we learn from Romanticism is the power and estrangement of foreign or dialect speech. In Malouf's Remembering Babylon, Gemmy can barely recall a few words of his native English after years of living with Australian aborigines. When he steps into the Scottish colonist settlement and stutters, “I am a British object,” he gets a word wrong but tells the truth about the colonists (whose rough Scottish dialect Malouf also reproduces) and himself. Earlier in England and now among colonial settlers, he is at once alien and uncannily familiar. On both grounds, he must be abjected as the unwanted mirror image of who and where they are. Although he speaks several aboriginal dialects, he is virtually inarticulate in English, the language others use to describe him to still others. Gemmy's identity is the linguistic property of others, even sympathetic others, because they construct his identity as they speak for as well as against him. The narrative reversal at the crux of this novel—the moment when several aborigines meet Gemmy on the edge of the English settlement to warn him about the barbarity of the whites (118)—echoes Clare's pervasive sense that he is the “odd man out” whether sane or not: “homeless at home” and homeless among the English poets.

Throwing his voice into Crabbe, Byron, and abandoned wetlands, then taking up points of view more sympathetic to hunted animals than their human hunters, Clare is a more self-consciously ironic ventriloquist than Edward Bostetter's analysis of this Romantic activity would suggest.9 Taking up where Clare left off, Riddley becomes one of the puppeteer voices in Goodparley's traveling minstrel show. Riddley Walker's reiterated uncertainty about whether he plays Punch, or Punch or someone else “plays” him, gives way in Malouf's novel to the haunting figure of Gemmy. Puppet or ventriloquist, Clare points up the weird mix of automatism and pathos in that figure, whether we find it in Kleist's Puppentheater or in Benjamin's use of the figure of a chess-playing automaton to explain his theory of history.

Insofar as it is a delusory narrative written by someone who is no longer sane, Clare's 1841 Journey registers a Romantic consciousness not unlike the disjointed worlds and narrative frames of postmodern fiction. From this perspective, the figure of John Clare gone mad might seem little more than a fractured representation of Romanticism—a mirror whose distortions suggest a postmodernist vision otherwise alien in spirit and method to Romantic writing. Or, we might argue, Hoban and Malouf's novels project a refracted image of Clare's madness by turning it inside out. In the charred, survivalist world of postnuclear “civilization,” characters will and do kill to find out the secrets of atomic energy, apparently willing and eager to “do it over.” On the edge of the Australian outback, Scottish colonists imagine Gemmy as a demonic, violent alien, even as his aboriginal companions hover in a clearing at the edge of the wilderness to console and protect him from the strange, spiritless company he must now keep.

The local details of Clare's poetic choices persistently call readers back to linguistic difficulties and resources I take to be fundamental to Romanticism. Consider, for example, his objection to the Linnaean system for generating names for birds and plants, compared with the local names he preserves by recording them in a “natural history” that he began after reading Gilbert White's 1789 Natural History of Selborne. The faults Clare and other early-nineteenth-century critics found with Linnaean classification were its narrow basis (only the reproductive features of plants were discussed) and limited usefulness, since plants with similar reproductive features might have nothing else in common. Clare's natural history was never completed or published, in part because his publishers were eager to maintain his public persona as an uneducated peasant poet, but also because he resisted their efforts to substitute Latin classificatory distinctions for local names.10

On occasion Clare's botanical ideology looks more playful, more radically figural, than programmatic. In the late sonnet “The Maple Tree,” for example, he uses the hemlock's Latin identification as a member of the family Umbrelliferae to describe how the hemlock's “white umbel flowers” look against the higher branches of the maple.11 This reversion to Linnaean terminology would be hard to miss in a poem that otherwise favors local diction. The opening five lines read:

The Maple with its tassel flowers of green
That turn to red a stag horn shaped seed
Just spreading out its scalloped leaves is seen
Of yellowish hue yet beautifully green
Bark ribb’d like corderoy in seamy screed.

(Later Poems 2:1025)

In Clare's time and place “screed” could refer to a strip of rough material like corduroy, a strip of land, or even a lengthy piece of writing (Chambers 253). Used in the nineteenth century to make clothes for laborers, “screed” insures a local economy of sympathies between laborers and the laboring poet who hasn’t got a strip of land or a lengthy piece of writing—just a sonnet whose figure of “bark ribbed like corderoy” stands up and stands for this poet and this place. So do those “umbel” flowers. Not humble at all, they show how Linnaean terms can be put to descriptive and local English use.

Clare's diction, like his grammar, phonetic spelling, and punctuation, polemicizes the Romantic poetic sensibility that intends to trespass on conventional forms and language.12 Like the Gypsies he visited often and wrote about, Clare poaches on the linguistic property of others in ways that figure anew Romanticism's borders not as term limits but as the places where raids occur, where excess yields its double effect of transgression and demotic vitality, an instructive because exaggerated version of Shelley's argument in the Defense of Poetry that only vitally metaphorical language can be creative.

As refigured by Malouf's Gemmy and Hoban's Riddley Walker, Clare's writing witnesses elements of postmodernism that have attracted little notice in postmodern theory. Against the claim that postmodernism is an anti-aesthetic whose fragmented and de-centered sensibility is unanswerable to history, let alone critique,13 Clare, Riddley Walker, and Gemmy understand surmise and construal as the work at hand. Despite the difficulty and inscrutability of the worlds each inhabits, all persist against well-defined odds in their efforts to piece or hold together the meaning of those worlds, attentive to particulars as though they were emblematic details within an allegorical image or narrative frame. In an irony that is fully sanctioned by the nature of allegory, what keeps this enterprise from being symbolic even in the case of Clare, whose ecological organicism would seem to favor the Romantic symbol, is the problematic nature of the task as well as the materials at hand. It just isn’t possible to sustain or even arrive at the sense or conviction of the whole that Coleridge assigns to the symbol.

If this is allegory by default, it is so because the world is difficult to piece together, conflicted and conflictual by turn, and because human observers are just that—sublunary, eccentric, and limited. They riddle on and muddle through, keeping as much of the spirit and matter of what they learn as they can. The figure whose history and place in history darkens this view is Malouf's Gemmy, not because he has no interest in botanical and lexical bits of a larger system—since he is patently interested in just these things—but because his story and his place in history argue so ferociously against the survival of all this evidence and, above all, Gemmy himself.

By reading Clare in and through the postmodern worlds of Hoban and Malouf, we learn that Romanticism at its extremities is the heart of the matter. More precisely put, we learn that as a poet and writer on natural history Clare figures Romantic excess—the radical, loosened speech at once engaged and put off in Wordsworth's Preface to the Lyrical Ballads. For what we discover in Clare's natural history writing against the Linnaean taxonomy but in favor of local names; his stubborn and frustrated campaign against conventional grammar, spelling, and idiom; and his class-driven and class-scarred railing against those socially and economically “above” or “beside” his own class and station (such as it was or could be)—is someone who had to speak in opposition, at extremities, to speak as and for common land and animals, for whom no one else speaks.

Postmodern fiction conveys much in a little of Romanticism's prospective education of a postmodern sensibility that has too frequently been called anti-Romantic. Alan Liu has identified one way to calculate such contacts: Romantic localism, detailism, and particularity14—terms as descriptive of Clare's aesthetics as they are new historicist and postmodernist watchwords. One apparent sign of this impulse within Romanticism is its claim to use the language, as Wordsworth puts it, “of men speaking to men.”15 Clare evidently takes this linguistic principle to an extreme that Wordsworth's strictures about adopting a “selection” of ordinary speech try to foreclose. The trajectory that takes us from Clare's radical particularity to a postmodern random array of individual subjectivities and objects is not hard to follow.

Yet because the figures used to map it appeal to the impersonal screen of cyberspace, with webs, links, internet sites, and interfaces, this postmodern vision of Romanticism tends to efface pathos. I grant the informality and friendliness that this format may sponsor. My point is instead that its brilliant intricacy of electronic pathways and nodes prompts a figural and theoretical discourse that is often seduced by cognitive systems that can be mapped, diagrammed, and thereby made into thin if dense lines—not faces.16

Against this reading of Romantic and post-Romantic culture, we can array John Clare. For his position at the extremity of Romantic speech and figure suggests how pathos, the extremity of feeling that legitimates strong, even exaggerated and excessive figures, invests Romantic speech and Romantic faces with a surprising resilience—not unlike his ability to keep going for eighty miles from Epping Forest to Northborough, without some of his wits and without food. The pathos of the postmodern worlds and journeys of Malouf's Gemmy and Hoban's Riddley Walker is close kin to the highly rhetorical, highly speechified pathos of Romantic figures, including the figure of Clare “roadying on.” Because pathos marks the extremities of figures and narratives invented in its wake, it is crucial to the signifying practices of Romantic and postmodern writing. Without it, both are at their extremities, awash in disoriented, isolated particularity. With it, both are plangent evidence of the desire to figure and refigure those extremities in order to think about where, how, and whether individual subjects figure in their worlds.

Educated by the version of Romanticism Clare's writing objectifies, novelists like Hoban and Malouf give that education back to us as we look through their postmodern subjectivities to Clare and then through his late, alienated Romantic subjectivity to its radical poetic project. If this looking within and through different historical lenses is in one sense to submit to massive distortions as one or several subjectivities bend around and back to meet as tangents on their own extremities, this refraction is also the signifying mark of literary history as stories made by bending matter and figure toward different trajectories.


  1. The term “modernism” here refers to twentieth-century literature and culture up to about 1960. Whether or not the era thereafter is most usefully called contemporary or postmodern is one prong of my argument. By contrast, “modernity” refers to the long arc of Western culture that begins in the seventeenth century and continues into the present. See Habermas, Philosophical Discourse of Modernity 1-22; Johnson, Birth of the Modern; and Reiss, Discourse of Modernism.

  2. Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History” 257-58.

  3. For a Derridean analysis of how figural traces inflect the sense of history available to culture, see Marian Hobson's “History Traces.”

  4. See de Man, “Rhetoric of Temporality,” in Blindness and Insight 187-228; “Autobiography as De-facement” and “Shelley Disfigured” in Rhetoric of Romanticism 67-82 and 93-124. The view of temporality de Man develops in these and other essays is the basis for the relation I offer between a sense of history that is deeply opposed to the global assurance of Romantic historiography and allegory. My differences with de Man's theory of allegory concern his, and Benjamin's, elevation of disfiguration and decay. I contend that these are neo-Hegelian symptoms, not the instructive core of allegory's survival in modernity.

  5. Porter reads the language of Hoban's novel as a deconstructive universe in which puns register the decaying shelf life of language and postnuclear culture.

  6. For a summary of Clare's disagreements with his publishers, see Lucas, John Clare 12-24.

  7. McKusick argues further (“Grammar” 268-70) that Clare's polemical view of grammar and spelling made him sympathetic to the kind of lexical choices Nathaniel Bailey makes and discusses in his English Dialect Words of the Eighteenth Century as shown in the Universal Etymological Dictionary of Nathaniel Bailey, edited by William E. A. Axon.

  8. Clare's views on this point are well known. See John Clare, editors' introduction xix-xxi.

  9. See, for example, Clare's parody of Crabbe's “My Mary” (John Clare 59-62), his long asylum poem “Child Harold” in Later Poems, and Swordy Well (John Clare 147-52). McKusick discusses Clare's poetic defense of hunted animals (“‘Language … ever green’” 238-39).

  10. White, The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne. Grainger discusses Clare's reading of Gilbert White in her introduction to The Natural History Prose Writings of John Clare xli-l.

  11. Chambers notes this Latinate designation (253).

  12. See Heaney, “John Clare,” and Lucas, “Clare's Politics.”

  13. See, for example, essays in Foster, Anti-Aesthetic; Owens, “Allegorical Impulse”; and Jameson, “Third-World Literature” and Postmodernism 55-66.

  14. Liu, “Local Transcendence.”

  15. Wordsworth added the term “selection” to the Preface after 1800 (Preface to Lyrical Ballads, Prose Works 1:123).

  16. The current project supervised by Robert Essick, Morris Eaves, and Joseph Viscomi to put all of Blake's graphic images on the Internet will bring some Romantic faces to the computer screen. My point, though, concerns the way the discourse of cyberspace may elide pathos.

Works Cited

Bailey, Nathaniel. “English Dialect Words of the Eighteenth Century.” Universal Etymological Dictionary of Nathaniel Bailey. Ed. William E. A. Axon. London: English Dialect Society, 1883.

Benjamin, Walter. “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books, 1978. 253-64.

Bostetter, Edward. The Romantic Ventriloquists. Seattle: U of Washington P, 1963.

Chambers, Douglas. “‘A love for every simple weed.’” Haughton, Phillips, and Summerfield 238-58.

Clare, John. Autobiographical Writings. Ed. Eric Robinson. New York: Oxford UP, 1983.

———. The Natural History Prose Writings of John Clare. Ed. Margaret Grainger. Oxford: Clarendon, 1983.

———. John Clare. Ed. Eric Robinson and David Powell. New York: Oxford UP, 1984.

———. The Later Poems of John Clare. Ed. Eric Robinson and David Powell. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon, 1984.

de Man, Paul. “The Rhetoric of Temporality.” Blindness and Insight. 2nd, rev. ed. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1983. 187-228.

———. “Autobiography as De-facement.” The Rhetoric of Romanticism. New York: Columbia UP, 1984. 67-82.

———. “Shelley Disfigured.” Rhetoric of Romanticism. 93-124.

Foster, Hal, ed. The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture. Port Townsend: Bay Press, 1983.

García Márquez, Gabriel. The Autumn of the Patriarch. Trans. Gregory Rabassa. New York: Harper, 1976.

Habermas, Jürgen. The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity. Trans. Frederick Lawrence. Cambridge: MIT P, 1987.

Haughton, Hugh, Adam Phillips, and Geoffrey Summerfield, eds. Clare in Context. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994.

Heaney, Seamus. “John Clare: A Bicentenary Lecture.” Haughton, Phillips, and Summerfield 130-47.

Hoban, Russell. Riddley Walker. New York: Simon, 1980.

Habson, Marian. “History Traces.” Post-Structuralism and the Question of History. Ed. Derek Attridge, Geoff Bennington, and Robert Young. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987. 101-16.

Jameson, Fredric. “Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism.” Text 15 (1986): 65-88.

———. Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke UP, 1991.

Johnson, Paul. The Birth of the Modern. New York: Harper, 1991.

Liu, Alan. “Local Transcendence: Cultural Criticism, Postmodernism, and the Romanticism of Detail.” Representations 32 (Fall 1990): 75-113.

Lucas, John. “Clare's Politics.” Haughton, Phillips, and Summerfield 148-77.

———. John Clare. Plymouth, UK: Northcote, 1994.

Malouf, David. Remembering Babylon. New York: Pantheon, 1993.

McKusick, James. “‘A language that is ever green’: The Ecological Vision of John Clare.” University of Toronto Quarterly 61 (Winter 1991/2): 226-49.

———. “John Clare and the Tyranny of Grammar.” Studies in Romanticism 33 (Summer 1994): 255-77.

Owens, Craig. “The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism, pt. 2.” October 13 (Summer 1980): 59-80.

———. “The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernism.” The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture. Ed. Hal Foster. Port Townsend: Bay Press, 1983. 57-82.

Papastergiadis, Nikos. “David Malouf and Languages for Landscape: An Interview.” Ariel 25 (July 1994): 83-94.

Porter, Jeffrey. “‘Three Quarks for Mister Mark’: Quantum Wordplay and Nuclear Discourse in Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker.Contemporary Literature 31 (1990): 448-69.

Reiss, Timothy J. Discourse of Modernism. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1982.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. Shelley's Poetry and Prose. Ed. Donald H. Reiman and Sharon B. Powers. New York: Norton, 1977.

Stonum, Gary. “Surviving Figures.” Hermeneutics: Questions and Prospects. Ed. Gary Shapiro and Alan Sica. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1984. 199-211.

White, Gilbert. The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne. Ed. Paul Foster. New York: Oxford UP, 1993.

Wordsworth, William. Poetical Works. Ed. Ernest de Selincourt and Helen Darbishire. Vol. 2. Oxford: Clarendon, 1949.

———. Prose Works. Ed. W. J. B. Owen and Jane W. Smyser. Vol. 1. Oxford: Clarendon, 1974.




Clare, John (Poetry Criticism)