Janet M. Todd (essay date 1974)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5699

SOURCE: '"Very copys of nature': John Clare's Descriptive Poetry", in Philological Quarterly, Vol. 53, No. 1, January, 1974, pp. 84-99.

[In the following excerpt, Todd argues that unlike the Romantic poets, who focused on humanity's spiritual response to nature, Clare described the pure or Edenic qualities of nature and the manner in which it falls victim to humanity's cruelty.]

In the early nineteenth century, there were two main poetic modes of presenting nature. The first was developed from the Georgic poetry of the eighteenth century and provided close, usually visual descriptions of natural things, without any explicit judgment or emotional response by the poet; this type of poetry can be called descriptive. The second mode is a combination of idealized presentations of natural objects and the poet's response to them. His own judgment and emotion not only affect the natural presentation, but also become the partial or main subject of the poem. This sort of poetry, practised often by Wordsworth, Shelley, and Keats, for example, may be called Romantic.

John Clare's most distinctive pre-asylum verse evidences most of the characteristics associated with the descriptive mode. Although inevitably colored to some extent by the poet's emotions, his descriptions clearly exist for their own sake and not for any insight they might provide into the mental states of the poet. If Clare appears at all in the poem, it is as a perceiver and physical guide rather than as a feeling and imaginative creator.

By the time of Clare's second book of poems in 1821, however, and more obviously by his third in 1827, the descriptive poem was past its heyday, and the Romantic mode of presenting nature was clearly dominant. The descriptive poem thus came to seem anachronistic to the reading public; yet Clare, in spite of the growing evidence of its critical defeat, continued in this mode, which helps to explain the sudden loss of public acclaim he experienced between 1820 and 1827.

The change in taste can be clearly seen in the different poetic fates of Keats and Clare, both published by John Taylor at about the same time. Where Keats, after an initial failure, grew tremendously in popularity, Clare's poetic fate was the reverse. In spite of high regard for each other, Keats and Clare seem to have been aware they were writing in essentially different modes. Of Keats, Clare wrote: "He often described Nature as she appeared to his fancies, and not as he would have described her had he witnessed the things he describes." Clare is, furthermore, clearly doubtful about the "mystical" part of Romantic poetry—by which he would seem to mean the intrusion of the poet's subjective states into his verse—elements of which he found in Keats's work and later in Wordsworth's.

Keats, on the other hand, was criticizing Clare from the Romantic standpoint when he told Taylor that, in Clare's poetry, the "Description too much prevailed over the Sentiment." This criticism is based on an essential tenet of Romantic poetry, but would hardly have been a fault in descriptive verse. A passage from Coleridge will serve to illustrate the Romantic belief, although one could just as easily be found in Wordsworth, Hazlitt, or De Quincey:

Images, however beautiful, though faithfully copied from nature, and as accurately represented in words, do not of themselves characterize the poet. They become proofs of original genius only as far as they are modified by a predominant passion … or lastly, when a human and intellectual life is transferred to them from the poet's own spirit….

In this passage, Coleridge ignores the essential strength of the other type of poetry, the descriptive, which makes the reader see, almost by the naming of what is indeed there but was until then unnoticed. In his pre-asylum poetry it is in this ability that Clare is preeminent, as H. F. Cary noted in his letter to the poet: "What you most excel in is the description of such natural objects as you have yourself had the opportunity of observing, and which none before you have noticed, though every one instantly recognises their truth." In addition to enlarging the reader's visual perception, however, Clare manages in the best of his descriptions without losing any of the appearance of factual truthfulness to convey to the attentive reader a unique view of nature and to suggest the human drama that is related to it. It is this capacity to expand descriptive poetry, without losing the close, truthful copying of nature, that I wish to examine in this essay.

For Clare, nature was primarily an aggregate of plants and small animals. This vital nature became, within a dramatic scheme of innocence and the fall, the unequal antagonist of man. Where man was fallen, nature was innocent; it was in addition eternal through its selflessness and regenerative power, beautiful and sensitive to beauty. Having experienced no fall, it was on earth still Edenic. Man on the other hand was mortal and, through materialism and cruelty, frequently insensitive to beauty and thus to Edenic nature. The human fall Clare regarded more as a process than as a single event; starting from the Biblical expulsion from Eden when death entered the world and man first tilled the soil to live, it was in Clare's youth still incomplete because selected men, including the poet himself, could to some extent experience Eden through reverent communion with Edenic nature. In Clare's later maturity, however, the human degenerative process quickened and man lost his ability to perceive the Eden of nature; thus he was deprived of any possibility of regeneration through communion with prelapsarian nature. Driven from Eden, he eventually lost sight of it completely, and it is this loss that Clare regards as the ultimate fall.

Although, then, the depravity of man seems the background of Clare's early Edenic nature poems where man's potential destructiveness and his contrast with nature's innocence both indicate he has fallen and been separated from nature, the depravity is not complete, for in the poems the poet at least can perceive the harmony and beauty of nature, even if he cannot see the qualities reflected in himself. In the later pre-asylum poems, it is the loss of this Edenic perception by all men, himself included, that Clare most bitterly laments.

The cause of symptom of this perceptual fall in Clare's view was the enclosure movement, which, through the extension of cultivated land, expanded man's dominion over nature. It expressed and developed the cruelty, selfishness, and materialism of man, and it destroyed the beauty and freedom of nature and thus any possibility of man's appreciation of it. Instead of a state of deferential respect between man and nature, the new relationship consisted of prideful human mastery over the enslaved natural world; man thus lost his vision of Edenic nature and firmly shut the gate against his own return to Eden.

The philosophy of nature and man outlined above is explicitly stated in a few assertive poems of the 1820's and 1830's. [There is as yet no complete text of Clare's poetry. I have in this article used two selections: Selected Poems and Prose of John Clare, ed. Eric Robinson and Geoffrey Summerfield (Oxford U. Press, 1967), hereafter cited as SP; and The Poems of John Clare, ed. J. W. Tibble, 2 vols. (London: Dent, 1933), hereafter cited by volume and page. The former text prints Clare's poems without emendation and additional punctuation.] "The Eternity of Nature" (SP, p. 109), for example, ascribes to small natural things, here represented by the daisy, Edenic innocence, eternity, and beauty:

Formerly, the daisy's beauty might have won

In a later poem, however, the human perception of this natural Eden is fast disappearing:

The fields grow old and common things
The grass the sky the winds a blowing
And spots where still a beauty clings
Are sighing 'going all a going' …
The sky hangs oer a broken dream
The brambles dwindled to a bramble
(SP, pp. 182-83)

This same philosophy of nature and man is revealed in two groups of descriptive poems concerning birds and small animals. The two groups are separated by a decade, and the reflection of this separation in the changed perception of the speaker-poet expresses powerfully but implicitly the drama of man's perceptual loss.

In the first group Clare deals with birds in great detail; that is, with the sort of observational exactness he had called for in an essay on the painter De Wint. Here he praised those who allow nature to give them her "own imaging" and so make the "very copys of nature," showing the land as "a Paradise." These are in contradistinction to artists who "imagine" and thus exaggerate aspects of nature, and those who "fancy" and thereby change the whole appearance of their subject according to their own manneristic taste. For the most part, the bird poems are single images, realized by mainly visual description. They work much as Clare had described poetry's functioning in an assertive poem, "Pastoral Poesy" (II, 49), by causing the reader to respond with joy as he discovers for himself the joy in the visual image presented; poetry works through "images," not words, and gives to man "the dower / Of self-creating joy." In spite of a general impassiveness before nature, however, the speaker in the poems of bird life and lore does suggest a judgment concerning nature's innocence and immortal beauty. A walk through the woods in "The Nightingales Nest" (SP, p. 73), detailed as it is, becomes an entrance into the Eden of nature from which men have ejected themselves. It is treated descriptively, but the Edenic associations elaborated in the assertive poems adhere to the details. A specific example from "The Nightingales Nest" is the description of the bird's nest:

In this passage, the security, yet vulnerability, of nature is revealed in the adverbs "deep" and "snug," and in the need for a guard. An allusion to nature's immortality is made in the mention of the number five, God's mark on nature according to "The Eternity of Nature," and the thorn bush and the woodlands are "old." Furthermore, the natural things are described as innocent, "unknown to wrong," and, since the human beings are retreating, nature has still experienced no evil. The effect gained here by the philosophical associations can be seen particularly well when the poem is placed beside Clare's prose description of the same subject:

it is a very deep nest and is generaly placed on the root or stulp of a black or white thorn somtimes a little height up the bush and often on the ground they lay 5 eggs about the size of the woodlarks or larger and of a deep olive brown (SP, p. 76)

In neither passage is there any explicit judgment concerning the significance of the details. In the poetry, however, the adjectives in particular make a pattern that suggests judgment; in the prose no such pattern is revealed.

As well as illustrating the Edenic qualities of nature, the bird poems develop the idea of nature's difference from man and of potential human destructiveness. In "The Nightingales Nest," the poet, through his memory of childhood rapture and his lack of cruelty, can penetrate some way into nature's Eden; he may fancy himself sharing her joy, but the least reminder of his intrusive humanity cuts off the bird's joy and his own:

Total participation in nature is then impossible even for the poet, and is but one of his "happy fancys."

In the bird poems, Clare has exploited a poem's need for a reader. Usually the speaker is the perceiver in the poem, and, as in a dramatic monologue, he describes his own actions as they are occurring. His thoughts arise from these actions and are communicated to the reader as if the latter were physically present, not as a reader but as a participant in the poet's activity. That is, Clare imagines an implied reader, who actually accompanies him on his rambles. An actor with a prescribed part, he is led along the paths taken by the poet and is taught to appreciate the scenes chosen for him:

—Hark there she is as usual lets be hush
For in this black thorn clump if rightly guest
Her curious house is hidden—part aside
These hazel branches in a gentle way
And stoop right cautious neath the rustling boughs
For we will have another search to-day
And hunt this fern strown thora clump round and round
And where this seeded wood grass idly bows


Well wade right through—it is a likely nook
In such like spots and often on the ground
Theyll build where rude boys never think to look
Aye as I live her secret nest is here
Upon this white thorn stulp—Ive searched about
For hours in vain—there put that bramble bye
Nay trample on its branches and get near
(SP, p. 74)

This passage from "The Nightingales Nest" illustrates the relationship between the poet and the reader. The latter is included in the joint "we," while the poet uses the singular for his own reminiscences and speculations. The reader is told to listen, to move, and to look as the speaker directs. Together with this physical direction, the poet also provides mental guidance. In the dramatic monologue, most obviously in Browning's, the recipient of the speech is often characterized by the speaker; in Clare's poems, the implied reader is developed into the character the poet would wish. He is acquiescent to the speaker and learns to see the birds through his eyes; thus he comes to appreciate the otherness of nature and the secrecy of her ways. In addition, he learns from the speaker's caution that man is potentially destructive, but he learns also to perceive this potential in himself and to restrain it. Ultimately, then, he is persuaded to the poet's pacific actions, as well as to his view of nature, for the poet speaks for both in his joint "we." In "The Nightingales Nest," for example, the reader is led by the speaker as his walking companion to the secret nest of the nightingale, which, unaided, he could not find. In the sequestered spot he must submit to the poet's awe toward nature's sanctity and learn his attitude, in the same way as he learned the path. So he must agree with his guide who says: "We will not plunder music of its dower / Nor turn this spot of happiness to thrall." Again, in "The Pettichap's Nest" (II, 219), the reader accompanies the poet on his walk and, with the help of his perceptions, sees the secrecy and security of nature he could not have noticed alone. Here too he must submit to the reverent attitude of his mentor: "We'll let them be, and safety guard them well." The same caution is addressed to the reader in "The Yellow Hammer's Nest" (II, 220), where he is warned not to intrude on nature's Eden and so destroy its beauty and happiness: "Let's leave it still / A happy home of sunshine, flowers, and streams."

The relationship of the speaker and reader in the bird poems is unusual in Clare. In the majority of his nature poems, the speaker either relates his observations and actions directly or allows the reader to overhear his ruminations; the imagined involvement and persuasion of the implied reader in the bird poems allow Clare to gain some of the persuasiveness of the assertive poems, while retaining the essentially descriptive nature of his verse. They are, then, like the assertive poems, ultimately didactic in intention, for, while the reader contemplates the described image, he must learn its correct appreciation.

In all these poems, although there are few incidents given of man's cruelty to nature and no explicit statements of his radical difference from it, it is clear that natural things fear man. The existence of that fear is implied in the actions of the birds, as well as in the caution of the speaker. In "The Yellow Hammer's Nest" and "The Pettichap's Nest," the birds' fear of man is revealed in the initial circumstances of each poem. In the former, the bird is first seen when it is frightened by a cowboy; in the latter, the fear is of the poet and his companion, whose footsteps alert the bird to the alien presence of man. To enter nature at all, even the reverent poet of "The Nightingales Nest" must trample the leaves and branches of trees, and his action indicates his distinction from the creatures he would approach. In "The Yellow-Hammer's Nest," too, the cruelty of man is further hinted at in the similar cruelty of snakes, another kind of creature who is not a part of the Eden of small animals because of his destructiveness, and possibly because of his part in the traditional expulsion of man from Eden.

The potential cruelty of man is a mark of the difference between man and nature, a difference that often prevents man from perceiving nature correctly. Two poems in particular portray the human misunderstanding of nature, and hint at the dangerous result of it. The first is "Sand Martin" (SP, p. 69), an address to the bird rather than to the reader, which results not in the usual poetic analogy between the poet and the bird but in a partial sharing by the poet of the ineffable feeling of nature, its "lone seclusion and a hermit joy." The innovation in this poem is the speaker's apparent distance from Clare, for, where the speaker of most of the bird poems reveals his assent to Clare's stated philosophy, the speaker here perceives nature correctly at one stage, but apparently not throughout the poem. A measure of this vacillation is the repeated word "lone":

Ive seen thee far away from all thy tribe
Flirting about the unfrequented sky
And felt a feeling that I cant describe
Of lone seclusion and a hermit joy
To see thee circle round nor go beyond
That lone heath and its melancholly pond
(SP, p. 69)

The first time "lone" is used it helps to describe the empathetic feeling the poet has with nature; it is thus an appreciative adjective. The second time it occurs, it aids the process of distancing the speaker, and therefore the reader, from the natural object, so that, as a description of merely human perception at this stage, it has a pejorative association. "Lone" also echoes the opening of the poem, which presents the human view of the sand martin's home;

Thou hermit haunter of the lonely glen
And common wild and heath—the desolate face
Of rude waste landscapes far away from men
(SP, p. 69)

This view is only transformed as the poet comes to feel "the desolate face" of nature as "a hermit joy." At the end, the desolate place is once again "that lone heath and its melancholly pond." Earlier coupled with joy, "lone" is now linked with melancholy; so there seems to be a movement within the speaker of the poem from the solely human regard of nature to the joy-producing human contact with nature and then back to the merely human perception of the wasteland. Nature's reality and man's response to it are therefore contrasted within the changing attitude of the speaker as he moves near to nature and then away from it. The bird's joy in the wasteland is felt for a moment by the poet, and his perception is doubled, but the melancholy loneliness intrudes, and he returns to his single human perception.

In the second poem, "The Sky Lark" (SP, p. 77), it is not the speaker who is deficient in perception but the school boys. The reader is exhorted to watch as if he were a bystander as the skylark flies up from the nest. The scene of this poem is set not through a broad description of the countryside and sky, but through a selection of small details that suggest the overall scene, almost as if Clare were immediately reminding the reader that nature is a collection of the small details of the earth:

The rolls and harrows lies at rest beside
The battered road and spreading far and wide
Above the russet clods the corn is seen
Sprouting its spirey points of tender green
Where squats the hare to terrors wide awake
Like some brown clod the harrows failed to break
(SP, p. 77)

The focus moves here through the cornfield to the hare, who has the terror of all small things of nature, as well as their kinship with the earth, the clods of the field. The hare becomes an epitome of all frightened animals, then, and when the skylark is introduced one can assume her characteristics from this description of her fellow creature. After this setting of the scene, the schoolboys enter, the human element coming to raid nature. They surprise the skylark, whose subsequent flight and joy in the sky they see, but not her fall:

The rest of the poem concentrates on the typical reaction of the boys to the bird. Not understanding her harelike characteristics, they cannot believe in her earthliness, but consider her "free from danger as the heavens are free / From pain and toil." They imagine her going "about the world to scenes unheard / Of and unseen":

Through his speaker who has seen the hare and the bird and the clods of earth, Clare seems to be contrasting two ways of perceiving nature. With the first, the poet realizes its otherness, its fear of man; and in the "low" nest of the skylark he understands the earthliness and vulnerability of the bird and of all natural things. The second is a purely human, man-centered notion of the animal world, and this the boys show when they unsubstantialize the bird because they do not really see her. In fact they have "unheeding past" the skylark on her nest, and they are thus only seeing the bird partially when they see her in flight. Even then, she becomes not a bird above her nest, but their own aspirations materialized; their "fancy" ignores the real terror and vulnerability of the bird, as well as the careful joy in her nest. This sort of joy, it is implied, they could not understand, for, although they have come merely to pluck the buttercups, it is the same urge that motivates boys in other poems to plunder birds' eggs, and, finally, men to destroy trees and hedges for enclosure.

"The Sky Lark" is very close in its description of the boys' response to Shelley's "To a Skylark," in which the bird becomes an insubstantial symbol of the poet's emotions, and, like the schoolboys' bird in Clare's poem, a creature divorced from earthly fear and pain. By the side of Shelley's poem, then, and many similar examples of Wordsworth's poetry, such as "To the Cuckoo," it is hard to avoid seeing "The Sky Lark" as in some way answering the Romantic tendency to regard the human response to, and not the reality of, an object, and, at the same time, to avoid acknowledging in this response man's insensitivity to real nature and his cruelty to it.

In Clare's bird poems it is not our understanding of nature's Eden that is most extended but our realization of man's proper relationship to it. The poems present his correct attitude of joyful contemplation and reverence, and at the same time show his man-centered view and his destructiveness, which are threats to Eden. The potential loss of both nature and man is then one meaning of the bird poems, for not all human intruders into nature will be as cautious and as reverent as Clare's speakers.

During the next decade, Clare's hatred of man's destructiveness became even deeper than it appeared in the bird poems. His sorrow at the uprooting of plants and animals for the enclosure of fields was augmented by his own uprooting from his native village partly owing to the poverty that the enclosure movement brought to many peasants. In addition, as he became convinced of the absolute separation of man and nature, and of the universal human fall from Edenic vision, Clare became most keenly aware of his own loss, and in the 1830's it is this personal loss of Edenic perception that he most frequently laments; the resultant un-Edenic vision, recorded in the descriptive sonnets of 1835 to 1837, implies this perceptual loss.

In the poems concerning the destruction of Eden written before 1835, Clare had conveyed the prelapsarian world through memories and contrasts, for his subject had been mainly the dramatic process of the fall. In the animal sonnets of 1835 to 1837, however, Clare describes only the wintry scene after the fall. Nature's otherness, always stressed as its characteristic, is now its dominant quality for man, and, as a result, the world becomes the scene of the civil war Clare had feared as early as 1821 and had implicitly warned against in the bird poems. The wintry world is conveyed through the speaker who looks at the natural things minutely, neither identifying with them nor personifying them. Here, then, the descriptive method of plain statement without intrusive emotional bias is used to convey a vision that is shocking, but the economy, abruptness, and detail of the poems make it somehow impossible that this vision should be doubted.

"The Badger," "The Marten," "The Hedgehog," and "The Fox" are all similar in form, being groups of sonnets that make up single poems. Throughout the pre-asylum years, the sonnet is one of Clare's most popular forms. A typical sonnet of the 1820's is descriptive, presenting precisely and particularly one or more visual images, rarely with any overt human significance or symbolic connotation. Early in his poetic career, however, Clare seems to have found the form restrictive, and, in a letter of 1820, he scoffs at those who would make "readers believe a Sonnet cannot be a Sonnet unless it be precisly 14 lines." To avoid the brevity of the descriptive sonnet, while keeping its particularity and conciseness, Clare evolved the sonnet group. Each sonnet can to some extent stand alone, but the connection between them remains closer than is usual in a sonnet sequence. In the animal sonnets of the 1830's there is sometimes an incipient narrative line that seems to require their continuous reading, but there is no conclusion in the final sonnet beyond the particulars presented, and each sonnet can be regarded as a whole descriptive incident.

The animals described in the sonnet groups are comparable in their lack of most of the usual Edenic qualities, although a certain bravery and secrecy remain to them. The poems show the invasion of this secrecy by man. "The Badger" (SP, p. 84) is a description of badger-baiting, in which the animal is treated with extended human cruelty; the people "bait him all the day with many dogs." He fights fiercely and well, escaping from the crowd of his persecutors. But man's cruelty is persistent; the badger is chased with dogs and men until finally he is overcome:

He turns agen and drives the noisey crowd
And beats the many dogs in noises loud
He drives away and beats them every one
And then they loose them all and set them on
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
(SP, p. 86)

There is no explicit moral judgment in "The Badger," although it is implied in the description of the badger as "dimute and small," and in the presentation of man's savage joy in cruelty. In addition, no clear emotional bias emerges; even during the badger's persecution and death there is no intrusive pity, for the verbs are unadorned, and his death is robbed of our immediate sympathy by the unattractive word "cackles." Again, the energetic bravery of the badger is undercut by the last sonnet which describes a tamed badger who "licks the patting hand and trys to play / And never trys to bite or run away": nature is not only beaten, but humiliated.

In the endless civil war of the fallen world, man, the overall winner, is not always the conqueror in incidental battles. In "The Marten" (SP, p, 86), the hunters invade the animal's secrecy in a way Clare had warned against in his bird poems. But here the owl wins the contest, and so leaves the marten free for the time being:

When the grey owl her young ones cloathed in down
Seizes the boldest boy and drives him down
They try agen and pelt to start the fray
The grey owl comes and drives them all away
And leaves the martin twisting round his den
Left free from boys and dogs and noise and men
(SP, p. 87)

So too the fox (SP, p. 87), in spite of persistent persecution, "lived to chase the hounds another day." Yet man's defeat never mitigates his cruelty. The fox may win, but the human attitude toward him has already been fully expressed. The ploughman

If the cruelty of man is pervasive in the poems, so too is nature's strangeness for man, almost its repulsiveness. These qualities are best conveyed in two poems, "Mouse's Nest" (II, 370) and "The Hedgehog" (SP, p. 88). In the former, a single sonnet, we see through the speaker, who makes no judgments on the natural image he presents and expresses no disgust at it beyond his statement of its grotesqueness. Yet he allows our contemplation of the image through his initial act of petty destruction, when, prodding a ball of grass, he invades the security and privacy of the mouse. In addition, his description allows the mouse to share the alien glitter of her surroundings, and there is none of the joyful lingering over the visual image revealed in the bird poems. The speaker, then, manages to convey the strangeness of his subject; the reader alone, with his memory of the earlier skylark and frightened hare, must see, together with the strangeness, the tenderness and careful secrecy of the mouse:

In the second poem, the hedgehog is initially unpleasant, although by the end of the poem he wins a kind of grudging sympathy from the reader. During the first description the hedgehog is referred to as "he," a designation that remains until Clare portrays man's hunting of him. Then "he" becomes "it," a referential method that reflects the human attitude toward the hedgehog, who changes from a little animal filling a nest and hunting for crabs and sloes to "black and bitter and unsavoury meat." The gipsies are the only people who eat the hedgehog meat, and they have something of the animal's strangeness, living on the periphery of humanity. But their position there allows them a better understanding of the hedgehog than the hunters have. They have seen his vulnerability and gentleness, while those who find the meat distasteful and despise the gipsies see the hedgehog only as a victim for their cruelty:

But they who hunt the field for rotten meat
And wash in muddy dyke and call it sweat [sic]
And eat what dogs refuse where ere they dwell
Care little either for the taste or smell
They say they milk the cows and when they lye
Nibble their fleshly teats and make them dry
But they whove seen the small head like a hog
Rolled up to meet the savage of a dog
With mouth scarce big enough to hold a straw
Will neer believe what no one ever saw
But still they hunt the hedges all about
And shepherd dogs are trained to hunt them out
They hurl with savage force the stick and stone
And no one cares and still the strife goes on
(SP, pp. 88-89)

The image of vulnerability and gentleness seen only by the gipsies is a typical example of the effect of Clare's animal poems of this time. The image is unpleasant and alien at first; yet by the side of man's familiar ferocity, it becomes, while remaining strange, a positive expression of the hedgehog's tender quality. This strange tenderness and vulnerability of natural things that are grotesque and unpleasant to human sight exactly express the new situation for Clare. Nature might retain some of its Edenic qualities, but for man they are now veiled.

In the animal sonnets, the materialism and cruelty of man that had been a threatening potential in the bird poems becomes a described reality. Man's resulting imperception is implied by the grotesque and alien appearance of nature to him. To this general imperception there are now no exceptions, and the poet's un-Edenic vision is frightening in its stark truthfulness and, compared with the earlier vision, in the extent of the loss it implies.

Clare's bird poems and animal sonnets suggest that inevitably the "very copys of nature" must be the very copies of the poet's perception of his world; when this perception is dramatically changed, the descriptive images themselves will reflect this drama. Yet Clare's descriptive poetry never suggests that man's perception creates its objects or that he transfers "a human and intellectual life" to them. Edenic nature for him is not an adjunct of man and its beauty is not the human mind's creation. Eden is an objective reality, which the poet sees in his early innocence, but which he loses sight of in his shared degeneration. The loss of vision is a loss not only of his own faculty, then, but of reality.

The descriptive method is appropriate for a poet who, like Clare, distinguishes so absolutely between the human mind and nature. The human emotional response and judgment of the poet are secondary to the described external world. The reader, on the other hand, is disturbed by the very precision of Clare's descriptive images into his own emotion and thought. Through the details he learns not only to see nature more exactly, but also to understand Clare's Edenic philosophy and to respond to the strangeness and beauty of nature and its verse. Yet his response must be his own creation, for it is suggested, not dictated as in Romantic poetry. Like nature, descriptive poetry gives to the reader "her own imagings," and he in turn must bring to both his own sentiment and judgment.

Introduction

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 933

John Clare 1793–1864

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

For his vivid and exact descriptions of rural life and scenery, Clare is ranked with the foremost English nature poets. Attempts, however, to place him stylistically within the context of the first half of the nineteenth century have led to critical debate. While some commentators define Clare's importance with reference to the tradition of eighteenth-century descriptive verse, others emphasize the Romantic qualities of his poetry. Most recently, attention has been paid to the works of John Clare as unique poetic expressions in their own right.

Biographical Information

Clare grew up in the Northamptonshire village of Helpston, England, where the rustic countryside was to provide him with inspiration for most of his poetry. As the only son of impoverished field laborers, Clare spent his childhood on the farm working to help support his family. Consequently, his formal education was limited to three months a year, first at a small school in his native village and later at a school in nearby Glinton. Clare's poetic talent was nourished by his parents' knowledge of folk ballads as well as by his own reading of the works of the eighteenth-century poet James Thomson, whose long poem, The Seasons, inspired Clare to write verse. At age fourteen, Clare's formal education ended when financial hardship obliged him to obtain permanent employment outside his family. In 1809, while working at the Blue Bell Inn in Helpston, Clare fell in love with Mary Joyce, the daughter of a wealthy farmer. Mary's father quickly broke off the relationship because of Clare's inferior social status. Clare rebounded from this disappointment, eventually meeting, marrying, and having children with Martha ("Patty") Turner. However, the memory of his first love never left him, and Mary Joyce became the subject of many of Clare's poems.

In 1818 Clare tried to publish a volume of poems by subscription. Although the scheme proved unsuccessful, it attracted the attention of the influential London publisher John Taylor, who ultimately published Clare's first volume, Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery (1820). Despite this work's enormous popular success, the contemporary literary reaction to Poems was largely patronizing. While Clare's peasant background and minute descriptions of nature were favorably compared with those of Robert Burns and Robert Bloomfield, commentators criticized his grammatical inaccuracies and

provincial expressions. By the time Clare published his second volume of poetry, The Village Minstrel, and Other Poems (1821), the vogue for rural verse which had been responsible for the great success of Poems had diminished, and The Village Minstrel, and Other Poems, sold poorly, as did Clare's third work, The Shepherd's Calendar; with Village Stories, and Other Poems (1827).

During these years, Clare struggled to support his growing family on a small annuity from his earlier poems, augmented by seasonal gardening and field work. In 1832 under the auspices of a benevolent patron, Clare and his family moved from their small, crowded home in Helpston to a larger cottage in nearby Northborough. Although grateful to his patron for this new home, Clare profoundly missed the village of his childhood. With the failure in 1835 of his fourth volume, The Rural Muse, Clare's mental health collapsed. He began to believe that he was the poet Lord Byron or the famous boxer Jack Randall. He also grew convinced that his first love, Mary Joyce, was in fact his wife and that he lived in bigamy with his real wife, Martha Turner. In 1837 he was confined to a private asylum in High Beech. He escaped four years later and returned to Northborough. His physical health improved but his delusions persisted, and in 1841 he was taken to Northampton General County Lunatic Asylum, where he spent the remaining twenty-three years of his life.

Major Works

Clare's popular first publication, Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery, is a nostalgic lament for the open fields and common meadowlands of his boyhood: This common land, which had been used for centuries by peasants and farmers, was "enclosed," or fenced off, by an 1809 Act of Parliament and subsequently available only to those who owned it. His second volume, The Village Minstrel, and Other Poems, was similarly inspired by the countryside where he was born and raised. Clare's most famous work is The Shepherd's Calendar—a poem which vividly unfolds the months as they are lived and worked in the villages and farms of rural England. "Don Juan" and "Child Harold" were written after his mental collapse in 1835 and are derivative of Lord Byron's poems of the same names. In fact Clare wrote numerous poems during his asylum years, but only after his death did they receive close attention and serious critical scrutiny.

Critical Reception

The history of Clare criticism is marked by controversy and contention. Several key issues dominate the commentary, including: whether Clare's early or late work is his most distinguished; the influence of the Romantic poetic tradition on his work; and whether he was merely a descriptive poet or was also interested in conveying ideas. To add to the confusion, most of the work published in Clare's lifetime was heavily edited to reflect standard grammar and dialect. What is more, Clare's asylum poems—some of which are deemed his most powerful work—elicited little or no attention during his lifetime. Not until the twentieth century, for example, did poems such as "A Vision" and "Invite to Eternity" receive close study. While scholars continue to disagree over the merits of his early and late poetry and the relationship between his works and those of his predecessors and contemporaries, Clare's reputation as a leading nature poet has been firmly established.

Timothy Brownlow (essay date 1978)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6239

SOURCE: "A Molehill for Parnassus: John Clare and Prospect Poetry," in University of Toronto Quarterly, Vol. XLVIII, No. 1, Fall, 1978, pp. 23-40.

[In the following excerpt, Brownlow contends that Clare and his detailed view of nature were unique in that he refused to view the landscape with condescension as the "topographical poets" did, nor did he attach human spirituality to nature as did the Romantic poets.]

I

Topographical poetry in the wide sense is as old as poetry itself, for poets have always felt the need to celebrate their environment, thereby giving their emotions 'a local habitation and a name.' Drayton's Poly-Olbion and Jonson's To Penshurst are important poems in this tradition. But the publication in 1642 of Sir John Denham's Cooper's Hill inaugurated a special type of topographical poem, the hill- or prospect-poem, which had its full flowering in the eighteenth century and which was, in its decline, part of the Romantic poets' inheritance. In this tradition, analogous to the pictorial tradition of the bird's-eye view, the poet climbs a hill, sweeps his eye round the panorama, focuses his attention on the most interesting prospect, and paints a careful word-picture. It did not need much of an effort for eighteenth-century minds to associate the hill in question with Parnassus, but it was also Denham who had domesticated Parnassus for them, as he makes clear in the first eight lines of Cooper's Hill:

Sure there are Poets which did never dream
Upon Parnassus, nor did tast the stream
Of Helicon, we therefore may suppose


Those made not Poets, but the Poets those.
And as Courts make not Kings, but Kings the Court,
So where the Muses & their train resort,
Parnassus stands; if I can be to thee
A Poet, thou Parnassus art to me.

The purpose of this article is to show how John Clare (1793-1864) inherits this tradition, struggles to find his own voice within it, and eventually creates a unique vision.

Topographical poetry is a branch of landscape poetry and sets out, in R.A. Aubin's words, to describe 'specifically named actual localities.' Prospect poetry is a specialized type of topographical poetry in which an extensive view is described from one or more points (or 'stations') and in which the poet draws moral or patriotic lessons from the scenery. The ambiguity in the word 'prospect' is always present—a 'prospect' is a long view both in space and in time. While Aubin sees the essential characteristics of the topographical genre as those which name and describe specific places, John Wilson Foster has attempted to define the genre more precisely. According to Foster, topographical poetry is that in which certain structural devices are employed to describe the landscape; the genre can be recognized not only by its naming and description of specific places, but by the way in which description is controlled by spatial, temporal, and moralistic designs: 'We can say broadly that topographical poetry ceases to warrant the title when the poet no longer sets up certain kinds of descriptive patterns to convey corresponding patterns of moralistic meditation.'

Foster elsewhere stresses the connection between topographical poetry and the sciences of surveying and topography. In discussing Cooper's Hill, he writes: 'The eye-shifts in "Cooper's Hill" bear a close resemblance to the way sightings were taken with these [surveyors'] instruments.' He explains in another article how enclosure became a socio-economic spur to the development of surveying. It follows that for Clare the word 'survey' carries a double threat. On the one hand, scientific surveyors were enclosing the landscape of his boyhood; on the other, topographical artists and poets 'overlooked' what made his life and landscape meaningful. The enclosure of the land around his Northamptonshire village, Helpston, began in 1809; later he recorded his reaction to surveyors at work:

Saw 3 fellows at the end of Royce Wood who I found were laying out the plan for an 'Iron railway' from Manchester to London it is to cross over Round Oak Spring by Royce Wood corner for Woodcroft Castle I little thought that fresh intrusions would interrupt & spoil my solitudes after the Enclosure they will despoil a boggy place that is famous for Orchises at Royce Wood end. [J.W. Tibble and Anne Tibble, eds, The Prose of John Clare, London, 1951, p. 151. Hereafter referred to in the text as Prose]

Enclosure, landscape-gardening on a huge scale, and the railways swept away much of that open nature whose loss Clare continually laments. The changes were carried out by a horde of surveyors, representatives of what John Barrell calls the 'rural professional class,' with little sympathy for or knowledge of Clare's way of life.

Foster's analysis of structural devices is especially applicable to the sub-genre of prospect poetry. If one rests content with Aubin's definition, the nature of Clare's resistance to the tradition is unclear; but once the connection with scientific surveying is made explicit, Clare's predicament is highlighted. It is perhaps a sense of threat, as much as genuine literary influence, which attracted Clare to landscape poetry before Denham (or outside the Denham tradition). Clare's affinities with the seventeenth century are evident from his skilful exercises, 'fathered' upon Sir Henry Wotton, Sir John Harington, Andrew Marvell, and others, grouped together by J.W. Tibble under the heading 'Poems Written in the Manner of the Older Poets,' and dated between 1824 and 1832. [J.W. Tibble, ed. The Poems of John Clare (London 1935), II, pp. 181-212. Hereafter referred to in the text as [Poems.]

Clare's approach to eighteenth-century poetry, however, was necessarily more complex. He would have noticed how optical and landscape terms had become assimilated by political and social metaphors—'viewpoint' or 'point of view' is an intellectual term; one has 'elevated' thoughts as the result of being in an 'elevated' position; one's life gains 'perspective' as well as the landscape (painted or real); one should accept one's 'walk' of life; one ought not to have ideas above one's 'station'; one's life has 'landmarks' if one 'surveys' it properly; and to 'command' bright 'prospects' is more than just having mental snapshots of the view, or 'panorama,' from an 'eminence,' preferably from a 'seat' (garden seat or family seat). Clare's problem as an artist is how to write descriptive poetry about his own landscape without recourse to this alien vocabulary.

II

If Denham's view from Cooper's Hill could be called telescopic (it is far-ranging but limited to one direction at a time), Clare's vision could be called kaleidoscopic (it is not concerned with distancing but with comprehensiveness, a circular all-at-onceness). Apart from juvenilia and occasional pieces for the Annuals, his vision is never framed and rarely static, he has no conventional point of view in either sense, his thoughts are hardly ever elevated, and he eschews perspective. He comes to maturity by discovering that all things, even the snails which he had timed with his watch, are in motion, and that objects are often best seen in close-up, thereby achieving a kind of fluid crystallization of images.

Clare had read enough as a literary man and suffered enough as a day-labourer to suspect that the idealization and the exploitation of a landscape often go together, and optical instruments are involved in both processes. Something of his vulnerability is revealed in the following passage from 'The Autobiography,' in which he testily dismisses the artificiality of 'an instrument from a shilling art of painting' (obviously a primitive camera obscura) in favour of the 'instantaneous sketches' of living nature. It is a dismissal as conscious, radical, and intelligent as Constable's rejection of the academic 'brown tree':

Sometimes he would be after drawing by perspective & he made an instrument from a shilling art of painting which he had fashiond that was to take landscapes almost by itself it was of a long square shape with a hole at one end to look through & a number of different colourd threads crossd into little squares at the other from each of these squares different portions of the landscape was to be taken one after the other & put down in a facsimile of the square done with a pencil on the paper but his attempts made but poor reflections of the objects & when they were finishd in his best colours they were but poor shadows of the original & the sun with its instantaneous sketches made better figures of the objects in their shadows

(Prose, p. 43)

No wonder Clare was nervous when his critics used topographical language. For him it was the language of disintegration, dislocation, disorientation. His publishers, Taylor and Hessey, who vigorously corrected his manuscripts against his will, wrote to him with advice such as: 'if you would raise your views generally & Speak of the Appearances of Nature each Month more philosophically'; and 'What you ought to do is to elevate your Views, and write with the Power that belongs to you under the Influence of true Poetic Excitement—never in a low or familiar Manner'; and 'let [your descriptions] come in incidentally—let them occupy their places in the picture, but they must be subordinate to higher objects.' It is a great honour to Clare as an artist that he ultimately refused to listen to this sort of advice; his refusal made him a poet, but it destroyed his material prospects. His finest book, The Shepherd's Calendar, which appeared in 1827 after years of tampering by John Taylor, fell on deaf ears, and an accurate edition did not appear until 1964.

The prospect formula is part of the neo-classical belief in the truth of the generalized, the idealized, the elevated. Dr Johnson, discussing the pastoral genre, writes:

though nature itself, philosophically considered, be inexhaustible, yet its general effects on the eye and on the ear are uniform, and incapable of much variety of description.

Clare's poetry is a direct challenge to that statement, as it is to Sir Joshua Reynolds' dictum, 'All smaller things, however perfect in their way, are to be sacrificed without mercy to the greater.' Clare's response is in the spirit of his age—botanists, following the pioneering work of Linnaeus, were at this time making a vast number of discoveries, which were then codified and illustrated. Clare himself was a skilful and knowledgeable botanist as well as ornithologist, and his library of about 440 volumes, still in existence at Northampton, contains many books on natural history. Inside the front cover of his copy of Isaac Emmerton's The Culture & Management of the Auricula, Polyanthus, Carnation, Pink, and the Ranunculus (1819), Clare has written a list of 22 Orchis's counted from Privet hedge.' Through his friend Henderson, the butler of his patron Earl Fitzwilliam at Milton House, Clare occasionally got glimpses of finer things. In the following extract from the 'Journal' of 15 December 1824, Clare's instincts run directly counter to Reynolds's generalization, as he carefully checks a personal discovery against the latest scientific codification:

Went to Milton saw a fine edition of Linnaeus's Botany with beautiful plates & find that my fern which I found in Harrisons close dyke by the wood lane is the thronpointed fern saw also a beautiful book on insects with the plants they feed on by Curtis

(Prose, p. 127).

The higher the viewpoint, the more generalized and idealized the view; the lower the viewpoint, the more particular details will crowd out or even obscure the general and ideal and assert their own disturbing independence. It is no accident that Dutch landscape painting, given low priority by Reynolds in his Discourses, was admired by English Romantic painters; Clare's favourite painter was De Wint, whereas the favourite landscape painter of the eighteenth century had been Claude Lorraine, whose tradition Clare detests. Nor is it accidental that the first indigenous school of English watercolours emerged in Norwich, in the midst of the great East Anglian plain, where the painter, having few conventional prospects, is forced into a direct contact with the atmospherics of the scene under a huge sky. Gainsborough in his early work such as 'Cornard Wood' and Constable in his most typical work were both inspired by the Suffolk landscape. The link between the Claudean bird's-eye view (used by Dyer and Thomson) and an increasingly lowered viewpoint which demands attention to detail is to be found in the development of the picturesque. At the beginning of the century poets learned to orientate themselves in landscapes by adapting the Claudean view to verse; by 1800 the cult of the visual had led to a complex awareness of stimuli, so that lichens or moss on old stonework could provide not only synaesthetic emotion ('the sight takes so many lessons from the touch' wrote Uvedale Price to Sir George Beaumont) but also could lead the observer into a magically microscopic world, where pictorial rules became irrelevant. Wordsworth writes of the Alps that they abound in 'images which disdain the pencil' and he transcends the picturesque by experiencing the sublime; Clare, as visually acute as Wordsworth, transcends the picturesque by discovering an equally awe-inspiring microcosmos.

The neo-classical theorist maintains that the poet does not number the streaks of the tulip, but Clare's eye-level is often no higher than a tulip, and he numbers meticulously:

With the odd number five strange natures laws
Plays many freaks nor once mistakes the cause
And in the cowslap peeps this very day
Five spots appear which time neer wears away
Nor once mistakes the counting—look within
Each peep and five nor more nor less is seen
And trailing bindweed with its pinky cup
Five lines of paler hue goes streaking up


And birds a many keep the rule alive
And lay five eggs nor more nor less than five
[Eric Robinson and Geoffrey Summerfield, eds, Selected Poems and Prose of John Clare, London, 1967, p. 111. Hereafter referred to in the text as SPP. This edition is cited as much as possible, as the editors do not tinker with the manuscripts or attempt to tidy up Clare's punctuation (or lack of it), which all other editors of Clare have done.]

Pope's well-known passage from An Essay on Man reads like an accusation of Clare's passionate botanising:

Why has not Man a microscopic eye?
For this plain reason, Man is not a Fly.
Say what the use, were finer optics giv'n,
T' inspect a mite, not comprehend the heav'n?

But Clare saw no reason why man should not have such a vision. His curiosity is scientific as much as poetic; indeed the modern separation of these two faculties would have been meaningless to him. He meticulously records what he calls 'snatches of sunshine and scraps of spring that I have gathered like an insect while wandering in the fields.' He would have understood Thoreau's journal entry for 27 July 1840: 'Nature will bear the closest inspection. She invites us to lay our eye level with her smallest leaf and take an insect view of its plain.' Such a view is instinctive to a naturalist, but when the father of English naturalists, Gilbert White, turns to verse, his viewpoint remains conventional, elevated:

Romantic spot! from whence in prospect lies
Whate'er of landscape charms our feasting eyes …
Now climb the steep, drop now your eye below,
Where round the blooming village orchards grow;
There, like a picture, lies my lowly seat,
A rural, shelter'd, unobserv'd retreat.

The 'insect view,' as White the naturalist is aware, is closely allied to that scientific hunger for empirical data which was to have such momentous results in the nineteenth century. Gray's annotated copy of Linnaeus, Crabbe's botanical studies, Gilbert White's Journals and Garden Kalendar, Coleridge's Notebooks, Clare's Natural History Letters, are pioneering works in the closer study of nature which preceded Darwin. But as Swift knew when he wrote Gulliver's Travels, human beings look a lot less beautiful and important, although vastly more dangerous, when seen from an 'insect view.' The literary and social establishment ignored Clare's essential achievement for over a hundred years, and the annuals preferred to publish the conventional sonnets and ballads which he could churn out on demand.

The literary expression of the 'insect view' is much rarer than one might suppose. This is clarified when one thinks of Clare's lowly predecessors, who without exception were culturally assimilated, and who adopted linguistic and spiritual elevation in an attempt to raise themselves above their station. Perhaps the saddest example is Stephen Duck (1705-56), whose early poem 'The Thresher's Labour' contains many realistic descriptions of rustic labouring conditions. After he had been 'discovered' by Queen Caroline, presented with a benefice and the custodianship of her strange folly in Richmond Park, Merlin's Cave, Duck's talent dwindled to a coy mediocrity, as when he revisits the scenes of his past labours:

Straight Emulation glows in ev'ry Vein;
I long to try the curvous Blade again …
Behind 'em close, I rush the sweeping steel;
The vanquish'd Mowers soon confess my Skill.

Robert Dodsley, the Muse in Livery, wrote in 1731 'An Epistle from a Footman in London To the Celebrated Stephen Duck.' He prophesies smiling prospects for them both:

So you and I, just naked from the Shell,
In chirping Notes our Future singing tell;
Unfeather'd yet, in Judgment, Thought, or Skill,
Hop round the Basis of Parnassus' Hill.

The gods upon Parnassus eventually encouraged the fledgling to higher things, and Dodsley became a successful publisher. Other poets of lowly birth who wrote topo-graphicald verse in the conventional mould were James Woodhouse, Robert Tatersal, Ann Yearsley, Henry Jones, and Robert Bloomfield.

In his early years as a writer Clare talks of his own life and hopes, using the conventional and out-worn metaphors, a terminology derived from his wide reading in eighteenth-century poetry. (Among poets in the landscape tradition, Clare was deeply read in Milton, Gray, Collins, Thomson, Goldsmith, Cowper, and Wordsworth.) The acquisition of his mature style, which largely dispenses with trite metaphor, is a hard-earned process. In 'Help-stone,' written in 1809 when he was sixteen, Clare uses the analogy of birds which, like Robert Dodsley's, 'Hop round the Basis of Parnassus' Hill':

So little birds, in winter's frost and snow,
Doom'd, like to me, want's keener frost to know,
Searching for food and 'better life,' in vain
(Each hopeful track the yielding snows retain),
First on the ground each fairy dream pursue,
Though sought in vain; yet bent on higher view,
Still chirp, and hope, and wipe each glossy bill.
(Poems, I, 3)

Towards the end of another early poem, which describes a walk around Burghley Park (landscaped extensively by Capability Brown, 1754-83), Clare climbs Barnack Hill and gives a prospect, followed, as in Dyer and Bowles, by an association with time and hope:

Directly in the topographical tradition is 'Elegy on the Ruins of Pickworth, Rutlandshire. Hastily composed, and written with a Pencil on the Spot.' Clare must have been aware of how he was almost literally making a sketch, in the manner of hundreds of amateur tourists and artists, but his reading to this date (1818) had probably not included William Combe's Dr. Syntax series (1812) with its endless ridicule of such random sketching. The 'Elegy on the Ruins of Pickworth' is unusual in that Clare very rarely strays outside his own county; his mature verse is marked by its dogged rootedness, or later, a lament over forcible uprootedness. This poem seems all the more in the topographical mode by implying that the author is in transit, that this ruin is just another sought out for comparison by a picturesque tourist, another Dyer with his sketch-book, another Gray with his Claude glass, another Gilpin with his camera obscura, or another Bloomfield with his undiscriminating eye. The Pickworth Elegy rings false because Clare is consciously taking up a station, whereas his mature poetry is written by what Gilbert White called a 'stationary' man. In fact, Clare had the opportunity to describe the more varied Rutlandshire landscape intimately, for he obtained a job as a lime-burner for several months near the site of the deserted village of Pick-worth. But at this stage his style is heavily imbued with influences, notably of Goldsmith and Gray; indeed, his pen more than once returns an echo of the other more famous elegy:

A time was once, though now the nettle grows
In triumph o'er each heap that swells the ground,
When they, in buildings pil'd, a village rose,
With here a cot, and there a garden crown'd….

The ale-house here might stand, each hamlet's boast;
And here, where elder rich from ruin grows,
The tempting sign—but what was once is lost;
Who would be proud of what this world bestows? …

Since first these ruins fell, how chang'd the scene!
What busy, bustling mortals, now unknown,
Have come and gone, as tho' there naught had been,
Since first oblivion call'd the spot her own.
(Poems, I, 53-4)

Clare is never at home with this verse form; if the quatrain suits Gray's 'divine truisms,' it is quite inappropriate to the mature Clare's purpose, which is to catch the animation and detail of nature without imprisoning it in the frame of conventional form or manner, including punctuation. Clare is also uneasy with the visual demands of the perspective, with space used pictorially (the assumption of foreground, middle distance, and background), with time-projections (the retrospective use of a prospect), and with the moral vision controlled by the optical vision. Here he repeats in a laboured way the eighteenth-century device of pointing out landmarks within an ordered design, 'With here a cot, and there a garden crown'd … / The ale-house here might stand, each hamlet's boast; / And here … ' (my italics). This device presupposes that the landscape is seen as a framed picture, and is analogous to the device in painting by means of which a pointing figure draws attention to the focus of the eye.

III

'The Village Minstrel,' the title poem of the 1821 volume, uses 'prospect' in both of its principal senses:

Thus Lubin's early days did rugged roll,
And mixt in timely toil—but e'en as now,
Ambitious prospects fired his little soul,
And fancy soared and sung, 'bove poverty's control.
(Poems, I, 133)

So run the plough-boy's fanciful dreams. Something more imaginative begins to happen later in the poem. Clare has by no means found a voice of his own, but he is beginning to adapt the genre to the harsh facts and often joyous emotions of his life. As time goes on, he realizes that to talk of 'ambitious prospects' is not only trite poetically, but hopelessly unrealistic in terms of his own career. As a poet and as a man, he is more at home on a molehill than on a hill:

This verse can be taken as typical of Clare's early work: within it one can see the pull between convention and his own voice taking place. Although he is only on a molehill, he starts out 'to take a prospect'; his problem begins in the very next phrase, 'the circling scene.' His instinctive kaleidoscopic vision runs counter to the demands of the prospect; in order to take a prospect, the viewer must be static and he must look in one direction at a time (he may, of course, like the surveyor, make several sightings from the same spot, but in succession). Clare's enormous ambition seems to be to catch nature's events, pictures, and sequences simultaneously (one remembers the sun making its 'instantaneous sketches'). Furthermore, Clare does not just use the word 'circular'; he uses the active word 'circling.' Nature seems to be in constant motion, flitting past the poet's eye in such kinetic profusion that it threatens to break up the comfortable pictorial framework and the correspondingly strict verse-forms. Clare makes this clearer by repeating the word 'circling' in conjunction with the noun 'round' and hinting at frustration in the verb 'crowds': 'And every form that crowds the circling round.' It is all too much for the eye to take in, and rather than solve it in the easy way by succumbing to the convention (as W.L. Bowles was still doing as late as 1828), Clare senses that a new form of perception will have to be invented.

Clare is consciously committed to the low viewpoint, the 'insect view,' which is part of his problem:

His scientific and his poetic instincts ('Unnam'd, unnotic'd') commit him to 'creeping in the grass.' This position reduces the importance of the purely visual and increases the power of the other senses. The visual, nonetheless, may attain a sort of hallucinatory quality, especially in Clare's later poems, where the 'insect view' in the grasses resembles the disturbing vision of 'The Fairy Feller's Master Stroke' by Richard Dadd.

In "A Sunday with Shepherds and Herdboys" Clare begins to describe a prospect which would fit almost unnoticed into dozens of eighteenth-century poems, in the tradition of 'L'Allegro,' or Dyer's 'Grongar Hill,' or Thomas Warton's 'The First of April':

And oft they sit on rising ground
To view the landscap spreading round
Swimming from the following eye
In greens and stems of every dye
Oer wood and vale and fens smooth lap
Like a richly colourd map

But the multiplicity of things, that aspect of life which Louis MacNeice calls 'incorrigibly plural,' crowds in on all Clare's senses, and he becomes sensuously involved with his surroundings, rather than seeing nature at a distance:

Square platts of clover red and white
Scented wi summers warm delight
And sinkfoil of a fresher stain
And different greens of varied grain
Wheat spindles bursted into ear
And browning faintly—grasses sere
In swathy seed pods dryd by heat
Rustling when brushd by passing feet
(SPP, p. 94)

'Holywell,' a poem in the topographical tradition, contains another conventional prospect, but Clare then tacks about and rejects the prospect as 'fiction' in favour of the immediacy of 'nearest objects':

But as we turn to look again
On nearest objects, wood and plain,
(So truths than fiction lovelier seem),
One warms as wak'ning from a dream.
From covert hedge, on either side,
The blackbirds flutter'd terrified,
Mistaking me for pilfering boy
That doth too oft their nests destroy;
And 'prink, prink, prink,' they took to wing,
In snugger shades to build and sing …
I oped each gate with idle swing,
And stood to listen ploughmen sing;
While cracking whip and jingling gears
Recall'd the toils of boyish years,
When, like to them, I took my rounds
O'er elting moulds of fallow grounds—
With feet nigh shoeless, paddling through
The bitterest blasts that ever blew.
(Poems, I, 164-5)

Clare here brings present and past simultaneously alive with 'cracking whip and jingling gears.' Duck would rather not remember his 'shoeless' feet, and would have thought the following lines, so typical of Clare's later work, beneath his dignity:

And 'neath the hanging bushes creep
For violet-bud and primrose-peep,
And sigh with anxious, eager dream,
For water-blobs amid the stream;
And up the hill-side turn anon,
To pick the daisies one by one
(Poems, I, 166)

'The Woodman' contains another rejection of the conventional view:

The woodman turns from a prospect which is 'pleasing' in terms of fancy, but 'chill' in terms of his own life. There is a gruff, countryman's realism about the line, 'Though 'tis not his such beauties to admire,' and he seeks out the small but vivid comforts of his own experience. If the aristocrat tends to live in the past, and the bourgeois in the future, the countryman lives in the present. The pint of ale in his hand, or his 'snug cottage fire,' is of more interest to him than his ancestors or his prospects.

This uncalculating involvement with the present is well described bv W.K. Richmond in his discussion of the poem 'Pleasures of Spring': 'It is written as a labourer might hoe a field of turnips, with no eye on the ending, no thought of what is to come next, but with a massive, unquestioning patience which sustains the work and makes it not ignoble.' Clare's prose also has 'no eye on the ending, no thought of what is to come next.' In the following passage from 'The Autobiography,' in spite of the word 'survey' and Clare's position on a 'mossy eminence,' his eye does not pan the view as on a tripod; it zigzags from object to object like a gadfly, it has no resting-place or focal point around which to frame a design, and the writing catches the feeling of breathless excitement:

I dropt down on the thymy molehill or mossy eminence to survey the summer landscape as full of rapture as now I markd the varied colors in flat spreading fields checkerd with closes of different tinted grain like the colors in a map the copper tinted colors of clover in blossom the sun-tannd green of the ripening hay the lighter hues of wheat & barley intermixd with the sunny glare of the yellow carlock & the sunset imitation of the scarlet headaches with the blue cornbottles crowding their splendid colors in large sheets over the land & troubling the cornfields with destroying beauty the different greens of the woodland trees the dark oak the paler ash the mellow lime the white poplar peeping above the rest like leafy steeples the grey willow shining chilly in the sun as if the morning mist still lingered on its cool green

(Prose, p. 25)

That 'survey' would not be of much use to a cartographer. The absence of spacing, design, or perspective is paralleled by the absence of punctuation; one is not given a single comma to draw one's breath, or to feel that this is here, and that is there, or that this impression comes after the previous one. Instead, one is given a kaleidoscopic vision which shares the virtues of Clare's mature poetry—freshness, rhythmical subtlety, euphony, and the crystallization of emotion into haunting images.

IV

The same qualities can be found in the sonnets of Clare's maturity (from about 1821 onwards). If the sonnet is a 'moment's monument,' it is not difficult to understand Clare's success with this form, given his fascination with the ephemeral, the local, and the microscopic. In his use of this form Clare is often at the furthest remove from neo-classical tenets, unconcerned as he is with punctuation and perspective (in the topographical poem the two are connected), and the use of space and time as moral emblems. He extended the range of the sonnet, often in highly irregular ways—seven couplets strung together, for example. But Clare's mature sonnets are never stilted, and they impose upon him the pressure of selection from the endless detail at his disposal. They share Thomas Bewick's intense perception of the minutiae of nature and have Bewick's moral fervour without his moralizing—full of detail and texture, their wholeness is never distorted. They are tail-pieces (or tale-pieces) which catch the multiplicity of the world without imprisoning its bright details:

Now sallow catkins once all downy white
Turn like the sunshine into golden light
The rocking clown leans oer the spinny rail
In admiration at the sunny sight
The while the blackcap doth his ears assail
With a rich and such an early song
He stops his own and thinks the nightingale
Hath of her monthly reckoning counted wrong
'Sweet jug jug jug' comes loud upon his ear
Those sounds that unto may by right belong
Yet on the awthorn scarce a leaf appears
How can it be—spell struck the wandering boy
Listens again—again the sound he hears
And mocks it in his song for very joy
(SPP, p. 72)

There is no projection into past and future, no use of space in three dimensions, and no moralizing. Instead, it is the sound of the blackcap which spaces the poem in an arbitrary way, which the eighteenth-century eye might have found disorientating; to the 'rocking clown' it is freedom.

In order to experience the 'instantaneous sketches' of landscape rather than a static view in the single frame, Clare lowers his eye-level until he substitutes a molehill for Parnassus. The observation of the naturalist blends, as always in Clare, with the emotion of the poet:

Five eggs, pen-scribbled o'er with ink their shells,
Resembling writing-scrawls, which fancy reads
As nature's poesy, and pastoral spells—
They are the yellow-hammer's; and she dwells,
Most poet-like, where brooks and flowery weeds
As sweet as Castaly her fancy deems;
And that old mole-hill is Parnassus Hill,
On which her partner haply sits and dreams
O'er all his joys of song. Let's leave it still
A happy home of sunshine, flowers, and streams.
(Poems, II, 221)

The yellow-hammer is 'poet-like,' and 'her partner' is not only the male bird but Clare himself, versed in 'nature's poesy. ' This poem is an echo of the earlier, more complex 'Shadows of Taste,' in which the yellow-hammer is also praised as a poetic model worthy of imitation:

Taste with as many hues doth hearts engage
As leaves and flowers do upon natures page
Not mind alone the instinctive mood declares
But birds and flowers and insects are its heirs
Taste is their joyous heritage and they
All choose for joy in a peculiar way
Birds own it in the various spots they chuse
Some live content in low grass gemmed with dews
The yellow hammer like a tasteful guest
Neath picturesque green molehills makes a nest
Where oft the shepherd with unlearned ken
Finds strange eggs scribbled as with ink and pen
He looks with wonder on the learned marks
And calls them in his memory writing larks
(SPP, p. 112)

The molehills have not only become Parnassus, they are described as 'picturesque' as well. This adjective crops up frequently in Clare's poetry in the 1820s, but it is rarely used in a derivative way; it is used to create what an art historian has called a 'micro-panorama':

Rude architect rich instincts natural taste
Is thine by heritage—thy little mounds
Bedecking furze clad health & rushy waste
Betraced with sheeptracks shine like pleasure grounds
No rude inellegance thy work confounds
But scenes of picturesque & beautiful
Lye mid thy little hills of cushioned thyme
On which the cowboy when his hands are full
Of wild flowers learns upon his arm at rest
As though his seat were feathers—when I climb
Thy little fragrant mounds I feel thy guest
& hail neglect thy patron who contrives
Waste spots for thee on natures quiet breast
& taste loves best where thy still labour thrives

This sonnet, dated by Tibble in the period 1824-1832, is a deliberate inversion of the assumptions and devices of the prospect tradition. The wayward sheeptracks on the heath 'shine like pleasure grounds'; the poet mimics the tradition by pretending to 'climb' the hillocks, and he describes himself as the mole's 'guest,' an admission the topographical poet could not have made, dedicated as he was to creating the illusion that he was monarch of all he surveyed. Both mole and poet now create their own space, and are not passively contained, as objects, by an intellectually and aesthetically imposed order; they both 'choose for joy in a peculiar way.'

The ripening of Clare's vision evidenced by these quotations should be sufficient to refute John Middleton Murry's claim that Clare 'had nothing of the principle of inward growth which gives to Wordsworth's most careless work a place within the unity of a great scheme.' In spite of Eric Robinson's and Geoffrey Summerfield's refutation of this same passage (SPP, p xvii), the conscious artifice of Clare's best work is still undervalued. This is the price Clare paid for wanting to be too like nature—a very Romantic dilemma.

Just as Denham had assumed that, given the presence of a poet, Cooper's Hill could be made Parnassus, so Clare assumes that the meanest details of nature are poetic material. The molehills need no reference beyond themselves; they simply have to be loved, and the poet's 'natural taste,' in tune with 'nature's poesy,' will do the rest:

So where the Muses & their train resort,
Parnassus stands; if I can be to thee
A Poet, thou Parnassus art to me.

If Denham uses his eye like a telescope, Clare, having emancipated himself from the Denham tradition, turns out to be quite unlike those Romantics whose approach to nature might at first seem similar; he feels almost as uneasy with the constant need for elevation of sentiment in Wordsworth and Keats as he does with the ambiguities of the topographical tradition. Clare's reaction to Keats is that 'behind every rose bush he looks for a Venus & under every laurel a thrumming Appollo' (Prose, p. 223). The flowers at Clare's feet took all his love, and not those things that they symbolized; he happily ignored Lamb's advice to 'transplant Arcadia to Helpstone. ' He also chose to ignore Keats's comment, relayed to him in a letter of 1820 by John Taylor, 'that the Description too much prevailed over the Sentiment. ' Sentiment was over-employed by the Victorians until it became sentimentality. Clare's kinetic and microscopic descriptions, devoid of ethical, patriotic, or religious comment, link him rather to twentieth-century sensibilities than to nineteenth. Yet he is rooted in his landscape in a way no modern man can ever be again, which is why his vision is unique, and one for which lovers of poetry should become increasingly grateful.

Principal Works

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Poetry

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

The Rural Muse 1835

Poems by John Clare 1908

John Clare: Poems Chiefly from Manuscript 1920

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

The Poems of John Clare 1935

Poems of John Clare's Madness 1949

The Midsummer Cushion 1979

The Later Poems of John Clare, 1837-1864 1984

The Parish 1985

The Early Poems of John Clare, 1804-1822 1989

Other Major Works

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

The Letters of John Clare (letters) 1951

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

Anne Williams (essay date 1981)

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SOURCE: "Clare's 'Gypsies,'" in The Explicator, Vol. 39, No. 3, Spring, 1981, pp. 9-11.

[In the following essay, Williams demonstrates how Clare uses poetic form, diction, and subject matter to overturn his readers' expectations of the picturesque in his poem "The Gypsies."]

The snow falls deep; the forest lies alone;
The boy goes hasty for his load of brakes,
Then thinks upon the fire and hurries back;
The gypsy knocks his hands and tucks them up,
And seeks his squalid camp, half hid in snow,
Beneath the oak which breaks away the wind,
And bushes close in snow like hovel warm;
There tainted mutton wastes upon the coals,
And the half-wasted dog squats close and rubs,
Then feels the heat too strong, and goes aloof;
He watches well but none a bit can spare,
And vainly waits the morsel thrown away.
'Tis thus they live—a picture to the place,
A quiet, pilfering, unprotected race.

The subtlety of John Clare's lyric, "Gypsies," may cause the reader to question the critical judgment of him as a poetic primitive, the douanier Rousseau of English Romanticism. The poem's grouping of gypsies huddled under winter trees might have won William Gilpin's enthusiasm and approval; but the lyric sets out to deny before it confirms its apparent esthetic context: the picturesque. In all but rhyme it is a sonnet, also, though one almost devoid of the resources common to the lyric—metaphor, symbol, overtly expressive language. And yet, through the poet's apparent esthetic of denial, this anti-lyric, anti-pastoral, anti-sonnet achieves in its spare lines the characteristic aim of most lyrics—the expression of powerful feelings, of empathy, of passion.

By the late eighteenth century, gypsies were a cliché of the picturesque, and of newly popular ballads. The eighteenth-century picturesque was a solidly middle-class, comfortable esthetic, an art of vistas rather than of interiors. The crumbling cottage with ragged children around the door is ideally picturesque from a distance; the filth inside is concealed. One first assumes that Clare's primary impulse is anti-picturesque, for descriptive details are surprisingly frank (the "squalid camp," "tainted mutton," and "half-wasted dog.") And so the conclusion is another jolt: "Tis thus they live—a picture to the place." This statement is at least partly ironic, but "Gypsies" is antipicturesque as Shakespeare's "When icicles hang by the wall" is anti-pastoral. Shivering chickens and chillblains are unexpected in city poetry about country life; yet the touches seem accurate because so keenly observed. Similarly, Clare flouts readers' expectations; these gypsies have no glamor or mystery, and their misery evokes pity rather than fascination.

Clare also teases expectations concerning genre. This poem is a modified sonnet. Its fourteen lines of extremely regular iambic pentameter are divided into a pattern of twelve lines of description closed and judged by a couplet. But Clare depends on substance, not rhyme, to create this shape, for there is only one rhyme in the entire poem. Thus the poem is recognized as a sonnet only in retrospect.

In the first twelve lines, the absence of strong formal outlines permits Clare to create a description that is "picturesque" in the original sense: "suitable for a picture." Compare the reading of this poem to the experience of looking at a painting. The present-tense description creates a sense of suspension and denies the pre-eminence of temporal process. These actors eternally inhabit one time and space. The imagery is almost entirely visual; the poet directs the eye from boy the man to dog, as the eye moves around a painting. Each remains a type, recognized but unknown in a more intimate sense. The characters remain merely figures in a landscape, and the speaker's objectivity suggests a detachment more readily associated with the plastic arts, which are denied the kinds of psychological insights central to literature. The painter can present emotions only through action or concrete symbols. So it is here: we enter a mind only once—the boy "thinks upon the fire and hurries back." Clare illustrates pervasive, unsatisfied hunger not in human thought or action, but by means of the waiting dog; an effective displacement, yet utterly impersonal and objective.

All the speaker's feelings and judgment, suppressed throughout the description, emerge in the final couplet, and with them comes a different kind of poetry: the lines rhyme, the syntax is inverted, the poet allows himself polysyllabic words and tightly organized alliterative patterns. This sudden, extravagant return to poetic resources suggests at first that the speaker has deserted or betrayed his gypsies. It is as if he had stepped back from the picture and flippantly dismissed the world he has created. (Given what is known of Clare, one might identify the motive for this movement as a fear of pain; empathy with outcasts is terrible, and must be avoided. The control and objectivity of the description, it seems, were a sort of repression which he now feels may fail, and so steps back even farther.)

Yet closer examination shows that pity and detachment are equally mixed in the couplet. The last line exemplifies the speaker's balance between sympathy and detachment (characterized in the poem by his tendency to place the gypsies in a "picture.") This final line also removes the poem from any sentimentality or romantic cliché; it is Clare's final surprise for the reader. The alliteration paradoxically emphasizes the understatement. "Pilfering" is petty thievery, and it suggests silent and trivial action (the "tainted mutton" may have a dubious provenance as well as a dubious smell). But the suspicion evoked by thievery is immediately countered by "unprotected." These gypsies are "vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods." Pro tection—a house—brings legal and social rights and responsibilities. But these gypsies have no shelter; thus their disregard for social conventions is not only understandable but inevitable.

The concluding rhyme gives a strong sense of closure and limitation; it defines the edges of the picture. The figures are set apart, subtly imprisoned. One may see the figures in the landscape painting as immortalized or as frozen, doomed to do the same thing forever; like the "men or gods" on the Grecian urn, Clare's gypsies are cold.

Further Reading

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Criticism

Blackmore, Evan. "John Clare's Psychiatric Disorder and Its Influence on His Poetry." Victorian Poetry 24, No. 3 (Autumn 1986): 209-28.

Diagnoses Clare's psychiatric malady and examines the ways in which it influenced the style and subjects of his poems.

Constantine, David. "Outside Eden: John Clare's Descriptive Poetry." In An Infinite Complexity: Essays in Romanticism, edited by J. R. Watson, pp. 181-201. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1983.

Explores Clare's relationship to his publishers and public, as well as to nature, his poverty, and his own poetry.

Gregory, Horace. "On John Clare, and the Sight of Nature in His Poetry." In his The Shield of Achilles: Essays on Beliefs in Poetry, pp. 21-32. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1944.

Provides a brief biographical sketch and compares Clare's poetry to that of William Blake and William Cowper.

Groves, David. "John Clare and James Hogg: Two Peasant Poets in the Athenaeum." Bulletin of Research in the Humanities 87, Nos. 2-3 (1986-87): 225-29.

Discusses how the nineteenth-century literary journal Athenaeum made a point of publishing new, workingclass poets of its day, including John Clare.

Howard, William James. John Clare. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1981, 205 p.

A chronology, a brief biography, and an overview of John Clare's writings, including a selected bibliography.

Jack, Ian. "Poems of John Clare's Sanity." In Some British Romantics: A Collection of Essays, edited by James V. Logan, John E. Jordan, and Northrop Frye, pp. 191-232. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1966.

Asserts that "it was Clare's misfortune to publish his finest volume [The Shepherd's Calendar] at a point when his countrymen were too deeply concerned with political and social reform to have any time to spare for poetry."

Lucas, John. "Prologue: Poetry and Possession." In his Modern English Poetry from Hardy to Hughes: A Critical Survey, pp. 9-21. London: Β. Τ. Batsford Ltd., 1986.

Analyzes Clare's poetry with regard to its essential "Englishness," i.e. its similarity to that of other writers of Clare's era.

——. "Revising Clare." In Romantic Revisions, edited by Robert Brinkley and Keith Hanley, pp. 339-53. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Examines the conflict that Clare experienced between his role as peasant and as poet and its effect today upon assessing the totality of his poetic works.

MacLennan, George. "John Clare: 'Literature Has Destroyed My Head and Brought Me Here.'" In his Lucid Interval: Subjective Writing and Madness in History, pp. 120-52. Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1992.

Looks at Clare's beginnings as a "peasant poet" but focuses in particular on the poems of his insanity and on his obsession with Mary Joyce.

Minor, Mark. "Clare, Byron, and the Bible: Additional Evidence from the Asylum Manuscripts." Bulletin of Research in the Humanities 85, No. 1 (Spring 1982): 104-26.

Studies the "Hebrew Melodies" of Clare's asylum years—lesser known poems that are both "scriptural paraphrases and Byronic imitations."

Murry, John Middleton. "The Poetry of John Clare." In his Countries of the Mind: Essays in Literary Criticism, pp. 103-19. New York: E. P. Dutton & Company, 1922.

Argues that Clare's poetic gifts are inferior to those of one of his contemporaries, John Keats.

Pearce, Lynn. "John Clare's 'Child Harold': A Polyphonic Reading." Criticism XXXI, No. 2 (Spring 1989): 139-57.

Applies formal, deconstructive literary theory to Clare's "Child Harold," a poem which has conventionally been examined primarily for its interest as an asylum poem.

Robinson, Eric. '"To an Oaken Stem': John Clare's Poem Recovered and Reconsidered." The Review of English Studies XXXVIII n. s., No. 152 (November 1987): 483-91.

Assesses the poem "To an Oaken Stem" as indicative of "Clare's ability to unite man and nature without the flagrant moralizing of much eighteenth-century poetry."

Storey, Mark, ed. Clare: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973, 453 p.

An anthology of remarks made by Clare as well as criticism and reviews from others, dating from 1818 to 1964.

Strickland, Edward. "John Clare and the Sublime." Criticism XXIX, No. 2 (Spring 1987): 141-61.

Maintains that "Clare is poetically more conservative than any of the more famous Romantic poets" and does not often venture beyond descriptive nature poetry and the ballad form into the realm of the sublime.

——. "Boxer Byron: A Clare Obsession." The Byron Journal, No. 17 (1989): 57-76.

Investigates Clare's deep admiration for and imitation of the poet George Gordon, Lord Byron.

Swingle, L. J. "Stalking the Essential John Clare: Clare in Relation to His Romantic Contemporaries." Studies in Romanticism 14, No. 3 (Summer 1975): 273-84.

Contrasts Clare's early, descriptive poetry with the works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and John Keats in order to demonstrate Clare's own poetic characteristics.

Wallace, Anne D. "Farming on Foot: Tracking Georgic in Clare and Wordsworth." Texas Studies in Literature and Language 34, No. 4 (Winter 1992): 509-40.

Discusses how Wordsworth and Clare each dealt with the limitations on nature and excursions that the enclosure acts presented to the English countryside and the English poet.


Additional coverage of Clare's life and career is contained in the following sources published by The Gale Group: Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 55, 96; Discovering Authors: British, Discovering Authors: Poets, Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, Vol. 9.

Richard Lessa (essay date 1982)

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SOURCE: "Time and John Clare's Calendar," in Critical Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 1, Spring, 1982, pp. 59-71.

[In the following excerpt, Lessa distinguishes between The Shepherd's Calendar and other pastoral poems of the era, observing that Clare's Calendar relies on precise realism in addition to an understanding of time as cyclical.]

John Clare's The Shepherd's Calendar is more descriptively calendar-like than any other pastoral poem that derives its essential structure from the differentiation of days, months or the seasons. The care and precision with which Clare characterises each month according to its weather, customary rural tasks and the typical activities of all living things creates a series of poems unique within the pastoral tradition. Description inevitably had a part in any pastoral, but usually only to provide an appropriate setting for the shepherd-poet whose lyric of love or lament for a lost companion was the poem's real reason for being. And equally remarkable within the pastoral tradition is the fact that never before had the country man been treated quite as he is in Clare's poem. It is true that there are long passages and even whole months where human concerns are the sole subject ('January, a cottage evening', for example, or 'June' or 'December'), but there are many more long passages and whole months where man is seen as nothing more than one kind of living creature doing whatever it is he does to sustain life. Clare has taken his own measure of man. If Wordsworth's Michael is remarkable for having given the pastoral genre a shepherd of larger-than-life heroic stature, then The Shepherd's Calendar is equally remarkable for bringing the country man back into perspective in a world full of life that often has little to do with man. At the same time, rural labour which also achieved a kind of heroic status through the figure of Michael, in Clare's poem becomes once again an endless, often wearisome concomitant of country life. Perhaps more than any other pastoral, The Shepherd's Calendar depicts the totality of life in a rural English village as it really did exist.

By refusing to paint a stylised and falsely idealistic picture of rural life, Clare is right on course with the tendency the English pastoral poem had been following since the middle of the eighteenth century. His poem is a calm and reasonable one, free of the strident tones and near hysteria of Crabbe's The Village and of a lesser rural poet like Stephen Duck. Clare's controlled and realistic handling of his subject is all the more remarkable when we consider that the plan which finally became The Shepherd's Calendar involved for him the facing of more than one dilemma. First, he had to reconcile his inclination, wherein lay his greatest strength as a poet, toward direct, objective representation of a rural world he knew and loved, with the need, encouraged by his publisher, John Taylor, and others, to 'elevate' and thus improve his descriptive poetry with appropriate sentiments. What these no doubt well meaning advisers called for was a kind of poetry more in line with the tradition of Thomson and Cowper, the tradition of nature moralised. It was a type of poetry Clare rarely wrote successfully. And then there was the problem all poets of the countryside faced—the need somehow to come to terms with the notion that the present time seems never to be as satisfactory as past times. A realistic treatment of rural life inevitably must come up against the changing values and the drive for progress that have made the present unlike the past. In Clare's case the fundamental problem was enclosure. It was a problem he had to face both as a poet of real rural life and as a native of the recently enclosed village of Helpston. The effects of enclosure could not be as easily ignored as could the uncongenial advice of publishers and friends.

The pastoral tradition historically offered two basic answers to the questions raised by an unsatisfactory present state of affairs. A poet could paint an idealized picture of life in the countryside and show it to be free of the corruption, exploitation and moral decay that resided of course in the city or court. If the countryside should fall upon hard times, as it does in The Deserted Village, one can show that the causes were the city-bred vices of luxury and mercantile greed. The other traditional answer was to devise a means of avoiding bad times by an escape to a safe haven. The barely accessible valley in which Michael lives is just such a means of avoidance, although it is one that does not endure beyond the lifetime of Wordsworth's shepherd-hero. And of course the temptation that besets and overcomes Luke, as well as all Michael's troubles, come from outside Grasmere Vale.

Neither of these alternatives figures significantly in The Shepherd's Calendar. There is nothing of the city-country motif in the poem, and its setting is certainly no happy valley, located beyond time and the problems of enclosure. Clare was too honest, perhaps even too limited in his vision, and too much a product of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century realistic treatment of the pastoral world to create a false ideal of rural life. But he was also too much distressed by the state of post-enclosure Helpston not to seek relief from his disappointment. The one escape that Clare allows his speaker—and that infrequently—is an escape into childhood and the past of custom and tradition.

The relief that The Shepherd's Calendar offers, from a difficult life and ultimately from reality, is an escape not from a place but from time. Clare had no real desire to leave his native village and, in fact, drew upon its sights and sounds as the raw material at least of most of his preasylum poetry. So he turned to a time that he could look back on as better than the present. But even to speak of time in regard to a poem that claims an affinity with the pastoral tradition is to suggest that the genre's notion of timelessness had become more complex than early English pastoralism had allowed it to be. And so it had. We normally think of time as a thing of inexorable motion, a thing which, along with the tide, waits for no one. But pastoral time conventionally embodied an eternal present—no time and all time. It assured that the season was always spring and that shepherds and shepherdesses were perpetually young and had fallen in love only a few moments ago. Pastoral time could not be represented as a river or a line, but as a point, a unity, and if divisions were allowed to exist, they were like degrees on the circumference of a circle. Applied to the rural world, the notion of timelessness also had reference to certain values of life, like a simplicity of existence, innocence and a feeling of community, and to the idea that rural but not urban life had retained these values, changing little since the memory of man.

Of course, realistically, rural life was fundamentally concerned with time, much more so than urban life. The merchant, clerk or artisan could ply his trade in the city almost regardless of the time of day or the season of the year. But this was not true of the farmer, the herdsman, or even the farm labourer. What he did and when he did it depended on the time the sun rose and set, on the day of the week ('market day,' for example), but especially on the season. Each of these occurs cyclically—the days, weeks, months and seasons—and represents time as a selfrenewing phenomenon, moving through the degrees of a circle and always coming to a new beginning. The Shepherd's Calendar, almost by its title alone, suggests such a notion of time. As a pastoral, it evokes a sense of the eternal present that is pastoral time, and as a 'calendar', it represents one round of the cycle that is a year. It is ironic, then, and at the same time a great part of the interest and importance of Clare's poem that both its language and its forays into the remembered past work against the ideas of suspended and cyclical time. My aim is to explore this irony further.

As if to establish early the importance to the country man of the circumstances of each month of the year, and to introduce the whole notion of time which will play so great a role, Clare tells us, thirteen lines into the poem, how a farmer might read bankrupt lists, grain prices,

Or old moores anual prophecys
That many a theme for talk supplys
Whose almanacks thumbd pages swarm
Wi frost and snow and many a storm
And wisdom gossipd from the stars
Of politics and bloody wars
(P. 2)


[All quotations are from Clare's, The Shepherd's Calendar, ed. Eric Robinson and Geoffrey Summerfield, London, 1964. In the absence of numbered lines, page numbers follow each quotation.]

In fact, opening in January as it must, the poem plunges immediately into that season of the year when time weighs most heavily on the hands of the country man and makes its presence most keenly felt. Only then can the farmer afford to be idle. Only then can he 'behind the tavern screen / Sit—or wi elbow idly prest / On hob' (p. 1). Nearly all productive labour comes to a halt during this winter season when man and beast alike endure time's slow passage:

While in the fields the lonly plough
Enjoys its frozen sabbath now
And horses too pass time away
In leisures hungry holiday
Rubbing and lunging round the yard
Dreaming no doubt of summers sward
As near wi idle pace they draw
To brouze the upheapd cribs of straw
(p. 3)

Except for the necessary feeding of livestock and some indoor tasks like milking and threshing, little rural labour seems to be going forward in 'A Winters Day'. And yet, this first poem shares with The Shepherd's Calendar as a whole that quality which immediately strikes readers of Clare's poetry—a sense of perpetual motion. Not only is our attention directed rapidly from object to object and from scene to scene, but also each object, defined briefly and with precision in a line or two, is captured as if it too were in motion. Each living thing that momentarily attracts the speaker's attention is apprehended in the process of doing something:

The thresher first thro darkness deep
Awakes the mornings winter sleep
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
And foddering boys sojourn again
By rhyme hung hedge and frozen plain
Shuffling thro the sinking snows
Blowing his fingers as he goes
To where the stock in bellowings hoarse
Call for their meal in dreary close
And print full many a hungry track
Round circling hedge that guards the stack
(pp. 2-3)

The absence of punctuation heightens our sense of rapid motion, but this is only a minor part of the effect of these lines. The key here is the relatively small number of copulative verbs in this verse, and the great number of verbs of action or process. At times the effect is a little like that in the children's verse about the house that Jack built—the thresher awakes the morning and scares the owl, that blinks above and watches the mice, that squeak below, and so on. Even the hedge, whose function would seem to depend on its remaining stationary, is described as an active doer, when it encircles and guards the hay stack. We leave this first part of 'January' with a sense that even in the frozen dead of winter there is a myriad of live and moving things to be seen and wondered at all around.

'A Winters Day' moves, after a brief look into the village tavern, from the view of a labourer in the pre-dawn darkness to the hurrying home at evening of all who have been abroad. In this chronological movement from morning to evening, the poem is typical of Clare's handling of the days, months and ultimately the whole year that make up The Shepherd's Calendar. On the one hand, we have a sense that the spatial pattern of each month's poem is, if not a circle, then at least a multitude of points falling within a circle. The speaker seems to be standing at some point in the centre of a rural village from which he can know what goes on around him. But he never moves out of this village circle to describe any other village or the world at large. And even within his circle, he does not lead us in a linear pattern, down a country road, for example, pointing out objects of interest as he moves along. On the other hand, there is a definite sense of time as a linear phenomenon in The Shepherd's Calendar. The poem as a whole moves from January to December, the fanner's labour moves from planting to harvest, and the days move, logically enough, from morning to night. This sense of time's movement is augmented by the overwhelming number of verbs of action which give the verse its sense of perpetual motion. The fact that no object or living thing is viewed as completely static gives each the quality of existing as 'in process'—that is, as something moving or being moved or used through a period of time, however brief. Take, for example, the owlet in the lines quoted earlier. Had Clare spoken of a bird 'That is above head on the snow', we would have been justified in imagining a stop-action photograph, a picture in one frame. But the fact that this is an owlet 'That blinks above head' imparts a sense of process to the line. The blinking of eyes, as instantaneous as the action might be, requires a series of frames, a motion picture, and ultimately the owlet is above and before us for a duration of time.

This quality of Clare's language, creative of a sense of movement through space and through time, and often both, is characteristic of The Shepherd's Calendar as a whole, but it is not, alone, what sets this poem apart from others in the pastoral tradition. After all, the characters of any pastoral have always been alive and moving, even if they only move their lips in song. What is unique about Clare's poem is the sense he conveys of life and motion in all things, including the inexorable forward motion of time. The Shepherd's Calendar in one respect is closer in character to a poem like Michael than to the conventionally timeless pastoral. Like Wordsworth's poem, it deals with the reality of the present time, and also looks back to a better time. The changes that have taken place in the interval between the present time of the speaker standing beside the unfinished sheepfold and the time when that sheep-fold represented a future hope are the essence of Michael's story and the whole poem. This could not be said of The Shepherd's Calendar. Change is hardly the poem's primary subject matter, and yet the speaker's glances backward—there are only a few—do point to a better time and in the process drive home the point that the past is indeed the past.

As early as Ά Cottage Evening', the second part of 'January', the poem leaves the present and the forward motion of time. Snug in the cottage before a crackling blaze, the evening meal finished and cleared away, the 'huswife' sits down to tell to her children once again her stock of amazing tales. Yet, as if to say that she is unwill ing to lose touch with the present reality, 'Not willing to loose time or toil / She knits or sues and talks the while' (p. 12). Her tales are of mysterious disappearances, 'witches dread powers and fairey feats'—just the sort of things to capture the innocent imaginations of children and childlike adults. With the stories 'half told', the remainder left for 'tomorrows eve', the children creep off to bed while 'faireys like to rising sparks / Swarm twittering round them in the dark' (p. 18). We have been told all of this from the vantage point of an adult, although perhaps one who enjoyed the telling as much as a child might enjoy the listening. But then Clare does something that is unusual in The Shepherd's Calendar—he becomes 'philosophical'. Perhaps he acted in response to the urging of his publishers that he should be more 'entertaining'. At any rate, the poem suddenly begins to take on the character of the self-conscious philosophising of a professional versifier, with this apostrophe to the past:

O spirit of the days gone bye
Sweet childhoods fearful extacy
The witching spells of winter nights
Where are they fled wi their delights
When listening on the corner seat
The winter evenings length to cheat
I heard my mothers memory tell
Tales superstition loves so well
Things said or sung a thousand times
In simple prose or simpler ryhmes
(p. 18)

All of a sudden we are reading a poem in the ubi sunt tradition—'Where are they fled … Ah where is page of poesy … Where are they now … To what wild dwelling … Where are they gone the joys and fears … ' The 'one withering flower' that is left to the adult, for whom reason has taken away 'childhoods visions', is that 'Memory may yet the themes repeat'. Memory is a poor substitute for the 'magic wonders' of childhood, but it is one that seems to be at least temporarily effective for the speaker. For, his poem seems to come to life again as soon as he begins to recall the tales that had once been sources of wonder to him—the frog 'turned to a king and lover too', 'the tale of Cinderella' and the 'boy that did the jiants slay'. What is more, the speaker betrays his reluctance to give up the feeling of mystery and magic these memories recall when he refuses to leave them in the past. The tales of the 'huswife' are swept aside with the speaker's insistence that the experience of adulthood has destroyed childhood innocence. No doubt, he is right, yet in the telling of what has been lost, he seems to become once again caught up in the magic of these outworn tales. He is so caught up, in fact, that instead of settling for mere titles as a means of describing the stories he remembers from his childhood, he tells us each one almost from beginning to end. He even breaks into the final tale to tell us that in the face of the 'jiants' most awful threats, his heart 'sleeps on thro fear and dread / And terrors that might wake the dead' (p. 21). And then he plunges right back into this description of the giant:

When like a tiger in the wood
He snufts and tracks the scent of blood
And vows if aught falls in his power
He'll grind their very bones to flower
(p. 21)

While insisting time and again that the past is gone forever, the speaker repeatedly refuses to let go even these momentary illusions of its return.

The old tales have not changed; nor has the child's response to them. It is the speaker himself who has changed. Time and his experience of the world have replaced the delightful fears of childhood imagination with the too real cares of everyday life. The recollection of childhood becomes, then, a nostalgic escape from the reality of the present, just as the pastoral ideal of rural life is an evasion of the reality of life as it is in the country. One might argue that any look backward and toward the simple way of life that is the pastoral ideal is really an attempt to create or recreate, however briefly, the natural feelings of a happy childhood—a lack of care and responsibility, a sense of belonging, and innocence of the complexities of reality. If these feelings are not warranted from an adult point of view, that does not really matter. The choice is finally between the innocence of the childlike mind and the harsh experiences of the adult. Suffering and cares exist whether the child is aware of them or not, just as they implicitly exist (in the city or at court) whether the shepherd of the pastoral tradition is aware of them or not.

Memory, such as that which brings back the speaker's past, reproduces a kind of innocence by simply omitting all that is painful in a child's world. In the present time, in the poem of 'August', a child's day is spent like this:

The ruddy child nursed in the lap of care
In toils rude ways to do its little share
Beside its mother poddies oer the land
Sun burnt and stooping with a weary hand
Picking its tiney glean of corn or wheat
While crackling stubbles wound its legs and feet
(p. 96)

No doubt the speaker himself as a child experienced such days in August, but his memories are only of childhood joys. As he speaks in 'A Cottage Evening' he knows now that the joys and fears he felt as a result of the magic tales of his youth were as fleeting and illusory as the fairies and giants that occasioned them. But he also knows that his brief recapturing of childhood feelings is at least a momentary stay against 'A real world and doubting mind'. Sadly, for the man who would escape the reality of the present, the difference between the joys of childhood and the joys of the pastoral ideal lies in the degree of one's awareness. Childhood cannot see beyond itself, while the creator of an ideal pastoral world (or the poet who attempts to recreate childhood's feelings) must finally come to terms with the fact that he is dealing in illusion.

Nonetheless, the speaker only very reluctantly puts aside his recollection of childhood tales. The same reluctance appears when he has the chance to speak of certain rural customs and traditions of the past. 'May', for example, naturally carries a reminder of old May Day customs, and yet today old glories are 'All fled and left thee every one' (p. 60). But Clare does not leave the subject with just this bald statement. Instead, he tells us all that has fled and left. 'No flowers are pluckt to hail the[e] now' is a line sufficient to convey a simple matter of fact, but it hardly displays the feeling the speaker has for this lost custom. So we have this:

In the same way that the speaker told us the tales of childhood had lost their magic appeal and then went on to repeat each magic tale, he now tells us that old May Day traditions are no more, and then brings them back into being:

This time, however, it is not an individual's inevitable passage from innocence to experience that has taken away some good part of the past. The enemy is called by name: 'And where enclosure has its birth / It spreads a mildew oer her mirth' (p. 61). This couplet is vaguely reminiscent of one in The Deserted Village: 'Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey, / Where wealth accumulates, and men decay' (11. 51-2). But as a whole, The Shepherd's Calendar contains remarkably few references to enclosure and its effect of Helpston. For the most part, the poem seems simply to accept the present reality, and only in occasional backward glances to hint at a complaint. This is how the speaker leaves 'May':

Yet summer smiles upon thee still
Wi natures sweet unalterd will
And at thy births unworshipd hours
Fills her green lap wi swarms of flowers
To crown thee still as thou hast been
Of spring and summer months the queen
(p. 62)

As it happens, the very next month, with its account of shearing time, again brings up the subject of the changes wrought by enclosure. Old men recall past delights, and we are told of them in loving detail: the great bowl 'of frumity where yearly swum / The streaking sugar and the spotting plumb', the 'stone pitcher' and 'clouded pint horn wi its copper rim' from which 'rude healths was drank' from the 'best broach the cellar would supply' (p. 66). In fact, it is an old man who speaks sadly of a bygone past, and although his reminiscence is momentarily interrupted by the realistic demands of his task, as soon as he can he will 'wipe his brow and start his tale again' (p. 66). Here, he is very much like the poem's speaker, whose recollections of the past are broken off by the intrusions of a present reality, and yet he returns again and again to these memories he cannot easily give up. Not all of the ancient customs, however, have disappeared. There is still the opportunity for a maid 'Giving to every swain tween love and shame / Her "clipping poseys" as their yearly claim' (p. 68). But for those who remember another time, what is left is little compared to what once was, for something more important than 'ale and songs' has been lost:

And the old freedom that was living then
When masters made them merry wi their men
Whose coat was like his neighbors russet brown
And whose rude speech was vulgar as his clown
Who in the same horn drank the rest among
And joined the chorus while a labourer sung
All this is past—and soon may pass away
The time torn remnant of the holiday
As proud distinction makes a wider space
Between the genteel and the vulgar race
Then must they fade as pride oer custom showers
Its blighting mildew on her feeble flowers
(pp. 68-9)

This month's poem does not end with even the mildly positive note of 'May'. The 'proud distinction' that has grown up between the 'genteel and the vulgar race', even in this small village of Helpston, is a much more vicious result of enclosure than the consolidation of some fields and the re-routing of a few country lanes.

Clare makes his point—and it is one worth consideration—but he does not linger over it. There is the present to be lived and work to be done. The poem, from July to November, is again dominated by that sense of perpetual motion I described earlier. In fact, Clare seems to allow his speaker the luxury of pausing to look backward only when he tells of times of relative leisure for the country man or when the memory of strong rural traditions might expectedly be jolted to life. Thus it is that the past is evoked during the frozen months of January and December, during the month of May Day celebrations, and during shearing time when an old clipper has a captive audience of helpers and a host of memories. During the bustle of the harvest, for example, a country man's day is too filled with pressing tasks to permit a look to the past.

'November' is a month of mists and storms, until finally

Time's inevitable forward movement is also about to be locked in chill delay, for Christmas has come, bringing ancient traditions and memories of childhood. Labour rests from its toil, mirth beguiles care, and old customs are renewed. 'December' is, appropriately, a summing up of the rest of the year, at least with regard to the speaker's earlier thoughts on time's passage and the changes that have come about in time. The opposition of pride to simplicity that we first saw at the end of 'June' reappears to help explain the gradual loss of the old customs. And self-consciously, 'the poets song' is hailed as the preserver of the past. It is a role that is fulfilled by looking in two directions at one time, for it represents both a glance backward to the past and a record for the future. But again, Clare is more concerned to tell of ancient customs than to dwell on the fact of their passing. And so he does tell of singers and village bells, the "'Morrice danse'", the 'prentice boy' and his "'Christmass box'", and the simple mirth of friends gathering.

December is after all just the month to allow Clare to bring together his two principal ideas of the past—the past of each individual, his childhood, and the past of a society, village life before enclosure. 'December' is the natural meeting place for the joys of the child,

The wooden horse wi arching head
Drawn upon wheels around the room
The gilded coach of ginger bread
And many colord sugar plumb
Gilt coverd books for pictures sought
Or storys childhood loves to tell
Wi many a urgent promise bought
To get tomorrows lesson well
(p. 129)

and the joys of the adult,

The shepherd now no more afraid
Since custom doth the chance bestow
Starts up to kiss the giggling maid
Beneath the branch of mizzletoe …
While snows the window panes bedim
The fire curls up a sunny charm
Where creaming oer the pitchers rim
The flowering ale is set to warm
(pp. 126, 127)

The two come together in the realisation that one of the joys of adulthood is the memory of childhood joy at Christmas:

Tho mankind bids such raptures dye
And throws such toys away as vain
Yet memory loves to turn her eye
And talk such pleasures oer again
(p. 129)

But the joining of these two ideas of the past serves also to suggest that both depend on a state of mind. As in 'A Cottage Evening', the wondrous stories and the Christmas toys have not changed as much as has the man who now perceives them through an adult's eyes. It is an inevitable change that each individual experiences. But village life has also undergone a change from the past to the present time, and the fact that the Christmas season retains at least 'the shadow still of what hath been' makes the loss of other traditions throughout the year that much more poignant. Whether their day to day existence really seemed better to past generations because they had the benefit of the old customs and traditions is not a question that Clare or probably anyone can answer with much assurance. The poet can show us, however, that a man does not regret the loss of the wonder and magic of childhood quite so much when he has the simple traditions of neighbourliness and mutual good cheer to compensate for them.

Enclosure no doubt wrought physical changes in the village of Helpston. Yet it is remarkable that The Shepherd's Calendar, a poem almost passionately concerned with accurate description of the physical reality of rural life, does not speak of one such change. When Clare talks of change, it is the intangible changes and losses that he reveals—the new distinction between master and man, and the loss of the feeling for doing things as they had always been done. These changes have not come about in a place, but in time.

Ultimately, perhaps, Clare's poem has more to do with a sense of place than with a sense of time. And yet, to ignore its handling of time is, I think, to deprive the poem of one of its most profound values, both as a pastoral and as an evocation of rural life. From the point of view of time, The Shepherd's Calendar piles irony upon irony. The poem is after all a pastoral, so we think of time suspended, and a 'calendar', which sees time as cyclical and ever-renewing. Yet, ironically, its language is the language of a perpetual and forward motion, and it speaks of time's inexorable movement and the pastness of the past. And finally it is a poem, a work of art that arrests time and holds the past suspended for ever in the present.

Old customs O I love the sound
However simple they may be
What ere wi time has sanction found
Is welcome and is dear to me
Pride grows above simplicity
And spurns it from her haughty mind
And soon the poets song will be
The only refuge they can find
(p. 126)

Edward Strickland (essay date 1982)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5278

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 excerpt, Strickland demonstrates how Clare subverts the tradition of the poetic 'invitation ' in his asylum poem "An Invite to Eternity. "]

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. 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," 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." In his confinement "in the land of Sodom where all the peoples brains are turned the wrong way" 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, 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 millennium) to an equally wish-fulfilling 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. 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 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.
[In a footnote, the critic states: "I follow the text of Poems of John Clare's Madness, ed. Geoffrey Grigson, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1949."]

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.
[Text of "An Invite to Eternity" from Clare: Selected Poems and Prose, pp. 223-24.]

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 folktales 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.

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. 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)." 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 transmuted 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.

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 Ultro-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 cremitism 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. 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 Tibbies' 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." 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," 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.

II

The precise nature of Clare's invitation is as subject to debate as his eternity. From a very different perspective than the Tibbies', 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?"

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, 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." 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. In their early John Clare: A Life the Tibbies proposed that "An invite to Eternity" became an invitation directed "to Love herself perhaps." 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."

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 explict support in Clare's writings. One of the most telling lines Clare even penned comes in a song from the Child Harold cycle: "But Marys abscent every where." 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.

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 Dantinos" 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." 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 passon 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." 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." 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. 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 estrainged 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." 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."

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.

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 Musefigure. 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." 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 Tibbies' 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 confrontatione 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" 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.

Vimala Herman (essay date 1987)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8653

SOURCE: "How to See Things with Words: Language Use and Descriptive Art in John Clare's 'Signs of Winter,'" in Language and Style, Vol. 20, No. 2, Spring, 1987, pp. 91-109.

[In the following excerpt, Herman argues that contrary to popular critical belief, John Clare crafted his poems meticulously with the intention of achieving vivid images and heightened responses.]

That John Clare was a descriptive poet every reader of his poems would agree. That his descriptive skill was an unalloyed asset to his poetic art is a much more contentious issue. Thus, even the more enthusiastic appreciations of Clare's descriptive art are tempered with reservations, which echo Keats's observations as conveyed to Clare by John Taylor, that "the Description overlaid and stifled that which ought to be the Prevailing Idea."

John Middleton Murry, while endorsing Clare's "faculty of sheer vision" that he deems to be "unique in English poetry," remarks that "there is an intrinsic impossibility that vision of this kind … should ever pass beyond itself…. Clare's vision, we might say paradoxically, is too perfect." As John Barrell has reminded us, the assumption behind such statements—the idea that "for a descriptive poem to have content, it must pass beyond itself, into meditation or whatever," that is, that the "Prevailing Idea" must prevail and that the details of description must be subordinated to it—is something we should be wary of. Such assumptions have generated assessments of Clare as a failed Blake or Wordsworth. Until recently, few thought Clare's descriptive art was worth attention in its own right without such distorting external standards being applied to it. That Clare's singularity of vision presented him with artistic problems that needed radical solutions so that his individuality could find expression at all is a fact that has been recognized slowly. His debt to, as well as his distance from, the prevailing aesthetic and poetic conventions of his day are being more fully explored in order that his own artistic practice may be more fairly assessed.

One area that is still underinvestigated is Clare's linguistic art or the stylistic choices used that produce the effect of "purity of vision" in his poetry. This neglect is not surprising. Firstly, Clare's poetry has generally been regarded as a spontaneous overflow of an unmediated vision of nature. Middleton Murry is perhaps typical of this orientation:

Clare was indeed a singer born…. He was either a voice, one of the unending voices of Nature, or he was an eye, an unwearied eye watching the infinite processes of Nature; perhaps never a poet consciously striving by means of art to arouse in men's minds an emotion like his own.

What is missing from such pronouncements is the fact that the poems are crafted language—crafted to communicate the singularity of vision that was Clare's own and that such effects were a product of linguistic and rhetorical choices in Clare as much as they are in the work of any other poet. Secondly, whenever Clare's language has claimed critical attention, it has usually been to his detriment, since the focus has been on elements in his style that were seen as expressions of his social origins—dialect words, "substandard" grammar, lack of punctuation, and the like—which were regarded as offenses against prevailing canons of taste and barriers to artistic achievement. If we accept the modern case that Clare should be judged on his own terms in relation to what he was trying to achieve, then we also accept that his linguistic choices have artistic functions to perform that are worth investigation in their own right, a task that undue concentration on aspects of his biography alone cannot do. As Peter Levi has pointed out,

What was important in John Clare's genuineness was neither the extremity of his madness, nor the sweetness and harshness of his rural youth. They do mark him and limit him and define him. But in his artistry his workshop was the English language, and what is genuine in him could be seen and felt as language. That is the only medium in which we know him.

In attempting to analyze Clare's descriptive art from the linguistic point of view, this study will focus on one poem: "Signs of Winter." The aim is to explore the many strategies Clare used to activate a reader's visual sense, for it is in relation to this that the descriptive skill of the poet succeeds or fails.

     "Signs Of Winter"
Tis winter plain the images around
Protentious tell us of the closing year
Short grows the stupid day the moping fowl
Go roost at noon—upon the mossy barn
The thatcher hangs and lays the frequent yaum
Nudged close to stop the rain that drizzling falls
With scarce one interval of sunny sky
For weeks still leeking on that sulky gloom
Muggy and close a doubt twixt night and day
The sparrow rarely chirps the thresher pale
Twanks with sharp measured raps the weary frail
Thump and thump right tiresome to the ear
The hedger lonesome brustles at his toil
And shepherds trudge the fields without a song
The cat runs races with her tail—the dog
Leaps oer the orchard hedge and knarls the grass
The swine run round and grunt and play with straw
Snatching out hasty mouthfuls from the stack
Sudden upon the elm tree tops the crows
Unceremonious visit pays and croaks
Then swops away—from mossy barn the owl
Bobs hasty out—wheels round and scared as soon
As hastily retires—the ducks grow wild
And from the muddy pond fly up and wheel
A circle round the village and soon tired
Plunge in the pond again—the maids in haste
Snatch from the orchard hedge the mizled cloaths
And laughing hurry in to keep them dry.
[Eric Robinson and Geoffrey Summerfield (eds.), Clare: Selected Poems and Prose (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1966), pp. 163-64.]

"Signs of Winter" is a description of a rural village scene. It is written in declaratives, though the lack of stops, graphologically, in the punctuation means that it is a reader's syntactic knowledge that is used to reorganize a continuous passage of twenty-eight metrical lines into accessible syntactic units. The description is in the third person and in the present tense. The overall context of the poem's discourse is that of a viewer who tells us what is going on, of what is being "seen" as it happens. Participating in the discourse of the poem on the part of a reader involves, generally speaking, "sharing the view" of the scene presented—in other words, the creation, in imagination, of the perceptual context evoked by the poem's language. The persona presents salient details of the scene viewed, and it is open to readers to share the perspective presented, in the act of reading.

The success of such a sharing of perspective depends, we would expect, on the poet's skill in delineating the scene in the first place. But it is here that the first surprise of Clare's technique confronts us. Overall, the language used is remarkably plain and simple. Apart from a few dialect words and the occasional fronting of adverbials and the inversion of the Adj + Noun order, the style is bereft of the usual devices—syntactic deviation, unusual lexical collocations, virtuoso sound patternings, and so forth—that generally gladden an analyst's heart. The language is pared down to the bone, giving the impression of utter simplicity, plainness even, and if foregrounding is to be sought, it is to be found, without doubt, in the sheer ordinariness of the language used, which, in its uncompromising regularity, captures attention.

Out of such seemingly unpropitious materials, Clare has constructed a poem that achieves a vividness of effect that is the more surprising given the odds against it. The techniques used provide the means by which a reader's conceptual and perceptual operations are subtly and surprisingly controlled so as to foreground the act of viewing itself in such a way as to remove the glaze, the film of familiarity through which the habitual and the commonplace are usually perceived.

The poem opens with a simple assertion—"Tis winter plain"—which sets the scene as a wintry one, but the focus on the visual element is introduced in the next clause, when we are further informed that there are "images" around that are indicative of the season. Thus, from the very start there is the promise of a visual experience, the word images itself is foregrounded in taking two strong stresses in the opening iambic pentameter line.

Whatever our expectations of descriptions of wintry scenes and of images pertinent to them, Clare's images and the linguistic means of their construction overturn the more comfortable ones. The images chosen are commonplace and the linguistic means of expressing them show little if any originality. The noun phrases are, on the whole, simple—mostly Det + Adj + Noun with the occasional inversion of the Adj + Noun order, or Det + Noun, Adj + Noun, or Noun alone. There is some complex postmodification, as in lines 4, 5, and 6, but this is not usual. The choices of structure can be set out as shown in Table 1.

Det+Noun Det+Adj+Noun Adj+Noun Noun
the images the stupid day sunny sky noon
the rain the moping fowl (plain) winter night
one interval the mossy barn sharp measured raps day
a doubt the frequent yaum sulky gloom shepherds
the sparrow the sulky gloom hasty mouthfuls straw
the thatcher the orchard hedge mossy barn visit
the ear the elm tree tops
the hedger the muddy pond
his toil the mizled cloaths
a song the weary flail
the shepherds the (pale) thresher
the fields
the cat
the dog
the grass
the swine
the stack
the crows
the owl
the barn
the ducks
a circle
the village
the pond
the maids

There is a high preponderance of the definite noun phrase. Most of the head nouns in this list are concrete, though there is some use of abstract and mass nouns as well. In general, the nouns create a lexical field that signify familiar objects in a village scene. They could, in fact, be subdivided into those that have to do with village people and trades (thatcher, hedger, thresher, shepherd, maids), or animals and birds that inhabit the village (fowl, sparrow, cat, dog, swine, crows, ducks, owl), or familiar items of the landscape (barn, pond, hedge). The abstract nouns, on the whole, deal with the season and time of day (winter, day, noon, night), while some nouns deal with the weather (rain and sky). The objects denoted are extremely familiar ones, and the "images" that are focused on are those of the known, the familiar, and the everyday in this scene.

The use of adjectives, too, is remarkably simple, giving minimal attention to the quality of things described—thus, plain, moping, frequent, sulky, and so forth. Occasionally, nouns are used as adjectives—orchard hedge, elm tree tops, emphasizing their informational rather than their descriptive use. Clare does not use complex pre- or post- modification in the noun phrase to create intricate conceptual or perceptual configurations. Descriptive detail is kept to a minimum, and the descriptive resources of the language appear to be remarkably underused.

Neither noun nor adjectival usage furthers expectations of descriptive virtuosity. By contrast, verb usage shows variation, mainly stative or lacking in dynamism in the first part of the poem, and much more dynamic in the second part. Thus, up to about line 11 we find verbs like roost, hangs, lays, falls, leeking, trudge, which are either long drawn-out actions, or monotonously repetitive ones that inhibit a focus on mobility. After line 15, in the main, dynamic verbs are used: runs, leaps, knarls, play, snatching, swops, plunge, hurry. Thus, different qualities of the actions of the participants are focused on, rather than the actors or objects themselves. The lexis, overall, remains simple.

Such choices are indeed puzzling. As far as the images are concerned, the poem foregrounds concrete, commonplace objects, stereotypes even, with little attempt to make them complex or appealing. Given the expected descriptive goal of the poem, the absence of techniques to exploit the descriptive potential of the language is uncompromising enough to merit attention. On the other hand, the verb usage makes clear that these commonplace images are to be viewed in different aspects of movement. Thus, the fowl is seen about to roost, the thatcher in the actions of hanging and laying the yaum, the hedger hedging, the silent shepherd trudging the field, the cat running around, the dog leaping, the swine knarling grass, the crows and owl and ducks in various kinds of flight—each caught in some natural aspect of movement, making this commonplace scene uncommonly dynamic and mobile.

Even in this informal catalog of events and actions, the bounded and separated nature of the description is obvious. The images appear to have no relation to each other. The syntactic forms used, too, forbid any expansiveness of idea or perception. Although subordination is present, as in lines 5-9, its use seems to be localized. Coordination and parataxis appear to be the predominant forms used, giving the poem a loose, episodic structure. Each image is caught in some aspect of movement and the syntax encourages, in fact, directs, that its individuality and separate identity be respected, which the lack of overt cohesive ties reinforces. This is a crowded scene. Many participants are referred to but few are developed to any great extent. Each subject noun phrase that initiates a new main clause initiates a new topic as well, thus moving our attention to one more object or participant in the scene. Nor are spatial relations among objects themselves given, no hierarchies are established in terms of foreground or background, near or far. Each clause and each piece of information is given equal weight through the mainly paratactic structure—all are equally significant. The syntactic organization is such that we could easily conceive of further clauses being added to the end of the poem without any sense of dislocation. The form appears to be remarkably open-ended.

At first glance, therefore, we appear to be presented with a catalog of objects, a list. But what visual interest could there be in a list? The scene appears to be one of singulars, but how do we order this varied and singular world in order to visualize the objects together as an integrated whole? What we are given is a mode of expression, a style that has eschewed linkages that would give us interpretive directions on interrelating the details—and separate and singular details, do not, in the end, add up to an integrated notion of a whole.

Various ways have been suggested to interpret this aspect of Clare's work. In John Barrell's view, the linear order implicit in the parataxis of the syntax is, in fact, suspended in poems like these, and what is achieved is not linearity but a simultaneity of impressions—not this and this and this … but this while this while…. The images are revealed "as parts not so much of a continuum of successive impressions as one complex manifold of simultaneous impressions." This mode of simultaneous seeing is also used by Barrell to explain the lack of foreground and background in Clare's poetry. The viewpoint is close-up since the observer is not distanced from what is seen, all things are seen in the foreground. Barrell links such a mode of vision—especially the particularity and multiplicity of detail—to Clare's "sense of place," each place existing for Clare as "a manifold of things seen, heard, smelled." The manifold detail is seen as a product of knowledge, knowledge of Helpston, and signifies Clare's sense of Helpston. Thomas Brownlow too emphasizes the particularity of Clare's viewpoint, and awards the viewing persona with an "insect view" of the objects seen—the poems thus providing a "micro-panorama," not a prospect. Brownlow, however, counters the threat of a world of singulars in Clare's style by positing that the sharply delineated singulars "merge" into a whole of a "sharply dynamic picture": "It is as if the individual frames of each single sighted perception fade into each other so that nature is seen as a continuum." Thus, Clare's "experience of landscape becomes a continuous series of elements melting into each other."

Both Barrell and Brownlow are primarily engaged in the business of establishing Clare's mode of seeing as valid in its own right, especially when set against the powerful conventions of pictorial viewing promoted by Claude Lorrain and others, from which Clare's own mode of viewing was a radical departure. Clare's interest in the close viewpoint and in the particular was opposed to the principles of pictorial composition established by Claude, Poussin, and others. These principles required, among other things, that the viewpoint be from a height and that the eye be organized by the painting in such a way that it traveled through the painting to a final band of light just below the horizon. Objects in the landscape, too, were subordinated to the general design and awarded no singular interest. The general design predominated, each particular landscape organized, in turn, in terms of the "ideal" landscape, the whole being a triumph of design, of composition, which came to be privileged enough to persuade the ordinary, educated viewer that natural landscape itself was somehow organized in this way. Although these studies establish Clare's differences from the prevailing tradition, it is debatable whether the close-up view of sharply delineated singulars causes them to "fade" or "merge" into each other as suggested by Brownlow, since much in the language used, as we have seen, maintains singularity and respects the boundaries of objects in relation to each other. The notion of the simultaneity of seeing, as proposed by Barrell, is also questionable since it is not clear that we see things in this way, all objects in equally sharp focus, altogether, simultaneously. That the events described are probably happening simultaneously we would agree, but that the description denies order is more contentious. For there is an order, but the order is neither in the scene nor imposed upon it by some prior principles of design that the language reflects. It is rather the order of attention and interest of the viewing eye—of someone implicated in the scene—as it surveys the stuff of its surroundings. The perceptive eye focuses upon each object separately, giving each its due attention and establishes its own rhythm and movement as it gazes on this, glimpses that, or is distracted by something else. Each participant in the scene is focused upon for its own sake, mostly because it is there, as part of a given, habitual world. The interest of the images is the interest invested in them by the perceiver, in the familiar participants of a known scene going about their normal activities regardless of who is viewing them or whether they are being viewed at all.

There is, therefore, no motivation for "composition" in the painterly sense. The activities that occur are those that habitually occur though, perhaps, not in these particular ways each time, nor, we imagine, will the attention focus on identical aspects again. The poem captures an instance in the daily kaleidoscope of activities that occur in a lived locality. We are invited to see—to focus on objects with similar attention. It is this seeing, the activity of the gaze, that renders scenic the stuff of the everyday, thereby defamiliarizing the familiar. The moving gaze, in other words, creates the scene out of natural elements that exist outside the conventions of the "painterly" and makes them points of focus through attentiveness in the seeing. The world that emerges is not a mirror image passively recorded by the eye and represented in the language, but one shaped by selectivity and focus from that which has claimed the attention of the observer. The mode of perception presupposed by the poem is, therefore, not the gaze presupposed by a painting, trained and directed by convention and exposure, the preserve of the few, but the "active performance" of any eye turned to the world. That visual perception habitually involves such attentiveness, selectivity, intelligence, and, in its own way, creativity, has been made clear by Rudolf Arnheim:

As I open my eyes, I find myself surrounded by a given world…. It exists by itself without my having done anything noticeable to produce it. But is this awareness of the world all there is to perception? By no means. That given world is only the scene on which the most characteristic aspect of perception takes place. Through that world roams the glance, directed by attention, focussing the narrow range of sharpest vision now on this, now on that spot, following the flight of a distant seagull, scanning a tree to explore its shape. This eminently active performance is what is meant by visual perception. It may refer to a small part of the visual world or to the whole visual framework of space, in which all presently seen objects have their location. The world emerging from this perceptual exploration is not immediately given. Some of its aspects build up fast, some slowly, and all of them are subject to continued confirmation, reappraisal, change, completion, correction, deepening of understanding.

The pleasure of the poem is, in fact, the pleasure to be had by anyone who focuses on the familiar with heightened attention. It is the pleasure one may derive in contemplating the sounds and activities of the street one lives in, or looking again at the objects, lights, and shadows in a familiar or favorite room. Such things are not "composed" (in any sense of the term) for viewing, but seeing them with attentiveness makes them "scenic" for the duration and affords its own satisfaction.

The linguistic choices in the poem heighten the reader's seeing. "Sharing the view" of the persona is primarily to share the rhythm, direction, and intensity of the eye of the viewer as the objects and activities of the scene are focused upon. Most of all, it is the freshness of the familiar that is foregrounded by such perceptual acts. So how is it achieved?

In the first place, certain linguistic choices function as rhetorical strategies to draw the reader into a shared context of habituality and familiarity with the objects and actions described. Thus, the fiction of familiarity with the descriptive context of the poem is created. In particular, definite noun phrases mobilize a reader's sense of involvement in the familiar. The nouns, as we have seen, designate expected objects in a rural scene, but the definite article foregrounds knowledge of the scene described as already in common between, and shared by, the speaking persona and the reader. The reader is drawn into the fiction of a mutually known and shared context, and the surprise is not that such objects and participants are there, since we are supposed to know they are there already, but in seeing them in a particular way, with a particular focus and under certain aspects of their natural existence, patterned into art, which renders the natural, scenic.

The definite article in English has different functions to perform, and Clare brings many of them appropriately into play. It is an identifying and specifying agent; it signals that the item or subclass designated by the noun can be identified, though the direction of identification and referent retrieval can vary with the phoricity of the noun phrase in which the definite article functions as determiner; it directs a user to pick out a specific object in a context and reference. The use of the definite article also presupposes prior mention of the item so designated in the discourse. In communication, as Grice has pointed out, the definite article provides an implicature to the effect that the item referred to is known to both speaker and hearer. Thus, an utterance like "I saw the house yesterday" implies that the house in question is known to both speaker and hearer, while an utterance like "I saw a house yesterday" has no such implicature. In processing such utterances, according to Clark and Haviland, the definite article signals old or given information.

Clare's use of the definite article is a consistent feature of his language, and hence, of stylistic value. But his usage is also odd. There is virtually no prior mention of the nouns of the definite noun phrases in his poem, and almost all of them are given first-mentions only. But through its use Clare creates the fiction that the objects referred to are already known and identifiable, and within the mutual knowledge of both persona and reader as participants in the discourse. Selectivity, particularity, and specificity are thus signaled in the language in relation to the objects in this familiar scene.

Another noteworthy aspect of noun-phrase usage in this poem is the way in which such usage creates centers of focus for the viewer's eye. Most of the noun phrases are exophoric in reference. As Halliday and Hasan have pointed out, exophoric reference directs that the information necessary for identifying the referent is to be found in the situational context itself. As an example they give the following: "Don't go; the train's coming," where "the train" is interpreted as "the train we're both expecting." All immediate situational instances of the are exophoric in this way. Such types of reference also require satisfaction of the presupposition that the thing or object referred to be identified, and as such provide the cue, the instruction to the reader to satisfy the presupposition. Since this is fictional discourse, imaginative discourse, such acts of identification on the part of the reader involve the creation of the required referent—in imagination—so that the referential link with the context may be achieved. The "objects"—images—so created become the visual centers of focus in this familiar scene. The sheer regularity and variety of noun phrases of this kind means also that a whole visual field is created out of such centers of focus as they multiply through the poem. The rhythm established is the rhythm of focus of the seeing eye in relation to objects as it looks at a familiar scene and rests its attentive gaze, now on this, now on that, and heightens interest in the objects so selected by such focus. The creation of such centers of focus serves to frame for seeing the object and activity selected and make them targets of visual attention.

If this is the case, then what of visual interest is there in this selection of details that has been awarded such attention? The nouns signify objects that are exceedingly commonplace. Moreover, elaborate preor postmodification in the noun phrase has generally been omitted. Given the simplicity of the structure of the noun phrase, the head nouns become significant and remain the center of focus. This is especially the case in the subject noun phrases of the main clauses since each such noun introduces a new topic of interest. The head nouns so foregrounded refer to expected objects, but there is another dimension to them that functions for visual effect: the level of specificity in categorization specified by such nouns. Roger Brown has noted that, in a language, a referent can have many names—a dime can be a dime, a coin, money, a metal object, a 1952 dime, etc. In each such series consisting of a taxonomic hierarchy, there will be a neutral level of lexicalization, a neutral name, by which a referent is most commonly designated in a speech community and which children first learn. Brown calls this "the level of usual utility" in a community. Thus, a lexical item like dog would be at the level of usual utility rather than animal, quadruped, or spaniel, as would apple or orange rather than fruit, and table and chair rather than furniture. D. A. Cruse, developing Brown's arguments, regards such items as exhibiting what he calls "inherently neutral specificity." Contextual factors, however, can influence what passes for the neutral or "unmarked" term. Although dog would be the inherently neutral term, in a context that includes two dogs, where referents have to be successfully identified, the more specific term spaniel or Alsatian, what Cruse calls "contextually neutral terms," would be preferred in response to communicative pressures. Thus, "You take the spaniel for a walk and I'll take the Alsatian" rather than "You take the dog and I'll take the dog." Eleanor Rosch, too, working on the implications of such phenomena for human cognition, states that

categories within taxonomies of concrete objects are structured such that there is generally one level of abstraction at which the most basic category cut can be made. In general, the basic level of abstraction in a taxonomy is the level at which categories carry the most information, possess the highest cue validity, and are thus most differentiated from each other.

This basic level includes co-occurrence of clusters of attributes believed to be held in common by members of the class named, shared motor movements by humans in relation to them, and "averaged" shape. Pamela Downing, using insights from all three researchers and in relation to narratives elicited from Japanese and American viewers of the "Pear Tree" film, supports Rosch's thesis, since basic-level names outnumber super- and subordinate category names in the narratives analyzed—93 percent of normal mentions being basic-level category names.

The head nouns foregrounded in Clare's poem are, in fact, neutral specificity nouns, lexical items designating this basic level of categorization of objects. Occasionally, we have what could be regarded as context-specificity items, especially in the naming of different birds—fowl, owl, crows, ducks—since more than one kind of bird is mentioned, but these are still "level of usual utility" terms in relation to the classes named. In terms of visual effect, such a stylistic choice has two consequences. Given such neutral specification, emphasized by the absence of preor postmodification, readers are free to evoke from memory whichever kind of cat, dog, hedger, etc. they choose. No details of color, physical features, or any other individuating characteristics are given. But what is foregrounded by such usage are shapes—typical shapes of the objects mentioned, or in Rosch's words, "averaged" shapes, of a cat, dog, swine, thatcher, hedger, etc. In the fictional context of viewing a scene, such lexical items direct the focus on outlines of objects rather than on unique visual details about them. The skill of the graphic artist rather than the painter in oils appears to be at work here in the language, providing a purity of line in relation to the objects evoked that creates its own vivid, visual interest.

A tension is set up between the representational and the aesthetic demands of description. On the one hand, the existence of these objects in the visual context is achieved in the naming, which is one of the most obvious functions of the noun phrases used. In context, this function fulfills the expectation of a rural scene and gives the description specificity—these identifiable objects known to us, in this rural scene—but there are few surprises to be had at this level. On the other hand, the consistency with which a certain type of noun is used for the purpose of designation awards it stylistic value, and given the discoursal goal of visual interest in description, the visually interesting aspects of such usage are open to investigation. In the absence of any other cue in such a patterning of noun phrases, to divert the eye, the visual patterns in the objects designated become the centers of exploration for the viewing eye. The natural is thus rendered scenic since the eye is not allowed to pass over objects for information alone, but is made to focus on familiar objects in terms of their visual appeal. The cue is in the patterning, in the consistent choice of a feature—here, a kind of noun in a structurally simple noun phrase—that functions within the visual terms of the discourse, to order disparate natural objects together in relation to a common visual factor for the reader to confront.

This tension between the representational and the aesthetic demands of description is a consistent feature of the poem. In the verb phrases, too, some "true-to-life" aspect of action is delineated in relation to each object named: the hedger hedging, the thatcher about his business, the animals and birds in some familiar aspect of movement. Such actions, like the agents, are unrelated to each other. The lack of cohesive linkages to interrelate clauses ensures that each agent and its action is bounded within the clause in which it is portrayed. The object displayed in action becomes both an informational and a visual unit. In the representational dimension, the existence of such habitual actions reinforces again the sense of being involved in a typical rural scene, with everything going about its normal business. We get a sense, too, of the rich variety of the everyday in the constant flux of movement portrayed. But the patterning of such natural actions, in this normal scene, foregrounds movement and the movements portrayed, natural and unremarkable as they are from the representational point of view, create visual patterns of their own that form a high point of aesthetic interest for the observing eye.

The actions given are rather consistently ordered and pattern contrastively in the poem. This is evident in the types of verbs used: weakly dynamic or stative in the first part of the poem (roost, hangs, lays, nudged, drizzling, chirps, brustles, to stop, trudge), where movement, where it exists, is usually monotonous or repetitive, blunting thereby the impact of action. In the second part, by contrast, the verbs are dynamic (runs, leaps, grunt, play, snatching, pays, swops, flies, bobs, grow, wheel, plunge, snatch, laughing, hurry). Where the verb portrays less dynamism, the adverbs modify the verbs accordingly: thus grow wild, pays … sudden, while the word haste and its derivations like hasty and hastily are used often in this part of the poem. The transition from one pattern of movement to the other is sudden.

Action, of course, shows objects in motion, and motion, as Arnheim has reminded us, "is the strongest visual appeal to attention." Action ensures that objects change their relative position in space, and the space traversed by movement is dramatized and highlighted for the eye. Moreover, objects can be related to each other by motion, and this reveals them as belonging to an integrated, individual portion of space. Thus, although spatial relations among objects are not given—there are no interclausal depictions of spatial relations—within each clause, individual objects are linked together into integrated spatial units by the actions described, and thus larger visual units are forged. Spatial units of different sizes are thus bracketed off for attention by the movements that bring them into relation. Thus, the thatcher hanging and laying the yaum brings the height of the barn and the thatcher at work on its roof into relation to form an integrated spatial unit. Similarly, the hedger at work on the hedge forms another unit, as do the shepherds who are located within the expanse of the field. In such units, in this part of the poem, textures are also evoked in the larger and darker masses of barn and hedge, while varying heights can be inferred from such units—the thatcher and the fowl placed higher up than the hedger and the shepherds. Smaller blocks of integrated space are evident in the second half of the poem: the cat chasing its own tail integrates a much smaller amount of space; the dog leaping over the hedge brings the dog in the air, the top of the hedge, and the ground into relation. Similarly, the swine in the vicinity of the haystack close enough to snatch out hasty mouthfuls becomes a unit. Height is evoked once again in the crows perching on the elm tree tops, since it is the top of the trees and the crows that are most immediately brought into relation, and although the plural forms are used for both crows and tree tops, it is the action of crows dispersed on branches rather than a massed unit that is evoked. The maids too, in relation to their houses, are scattered rather than massed, as are the ducks in relation of the whole expanse of the village as they fly over it. These create more open spaces. Such integrated spatial units not only provide varied organizations of space in the scene, they also provide different planes of activity, different heights and distances, different textures, but all of them within the visual field of the observer—all, that is, that can naturally be seen in the landscape.

The emphasis on movement produces another effect that is worth noting. Each action mentioned traces its own movements, which animates in highly visual ways the space in which it is performed, since shapes are traced by such movements in space. Shapes thus created provide a high point of interest for the eye. The verbs in the first part of the poem trace repeated movements that either do not occur across space, or occur only very gradually. The repetition of the same movement in this way creates abstract shapes—verticals and horizontals mostly in the first part of the poem. The hanging of the yaum, the incessant drizzle of the rain, the "leeking" of the rain, the up and down sameness of trudging, all of these trace vertical shapes, while the laying and nudging of the yaum, the hedger's toil at his hedge, and even the slow progress of the shepherds create horizontal, linear shapes in the main. The moping fowl remains in a class of its own, the shape given by the noun in focus, the verb holding it in its stillness.

In the second part, the repetition of horizontals and verticals gives way to a whole choreography of dynamic shapes. Thus, circles: the cat running races with its tail, the swine running round, the owl that wheels round. A parabola is traced in the movement of the dog leaping over the hedge; a circle, or an ellipse, in the movement of the ducks wheeling over the village; zig-zag shapes in the various snatching movements—the swine snatching out hasty mouthfuls from the stack and the maids snatch their cloaths from the orchard hedge; angles—in the plunge of the ducks into the pond, and their rising, and in the owl that bobs out of the barn and bobs back in again. Even a few squiggles are available in the untidy visit of the crows on the treetops, and a horizontal in the linear movement of the maids going indoors.

The patterning of movement in this way provides visual appeal in its own right, but there is another aspect that functions for aesthetic effect. The verbs, as we saw, are patterned in terms of contrast: strongly dynamic in the second part of the poem, weakly so or stative in the first part. In the absence on the whole, of lexis-signifying color in the poem, movement, especially the patterning of contrasting types of movement, is used to "color" the scene. The effect so achieved evokes moods and atmosphere in relation, cumulatively, to a whole cluster of details rather than to distinguish any individual item in terms of its physical appearance. Thus, the first part of the poem is generally leaden and heavy in mood, while the second is light and lively, and the patterning of the verbs into + or - DYNAMIC in the two parts of the poem plays a crucial part in the creation of such an effect.

A heavy film of gray shrouds the first part of the poem, achieved, in particular, by the negative aspect of the verbs. The continuous tense in the description of the rain as drizzling and leeking, extends these actions of the rain past hope of ceasing, casting a shadow of wetness and gloom over the whole scene. Similarly, the repetitive actions of hanging and laying the yaum, and of trudging, signify monotony and heaviness, the same thing done over and over again, and slowly, laboriously. The threshing, too, foregrounds monotony. The fowl that roosts is both still and about to sleep, and that at noon, in which the adverbial reinforces the negative aspects of actions in the verb. Similarly, the positive hint in grows is negated by short, as is the possibility of dynamism in brustles, since the hedger brustles only at his toil, all of which modify, negatively, the actions signified by the verbs.

These heavy, monotonous, dreary actions are reinforced by the device of using an "insider" perspective, in which the emotional coloring given to events is negative as well. The description of the fowl as moping is as it strikes someone who has evaluated its stance. The subordinate clauses, in particular, display such an internally evaluated perspective. Lines 6, 7, and 8 tell us more about the drizzling rain but they are all evaluated observations. "For weeks still leeking on that sulky gloom": the time element has been stretched to "weeks," and hints at a persona who has been present in the scene for a long time, and who is also fed up with the incessant rain. Similarly, sulky shows the objective grayness given a subjective rendering, and in the description of the gloom as a doubt 'twixt night and day, the doubt is in the persona, not the grayness. The hedger is seen as lonesome—again as he appears to an observer, a subjective not an objective detail, while observations like the shepherds trudge the fields without a song and the sparrow rarely chirps place the observer very firmly in the scene, as an insider, someone who is familiar with what to expect and misses the sounds when they are not there. Sounds are also used effectively in the onomatopoeia of thump after thump and in twanks, since the description is from the point of view of an insider who has heard the sounds to the point of boredom. This perspective on events, similarly, focuses on the negative, the lonely, the monotonous, the dreary aspects of the scene, creating a heaviness and leadenness of mood as a result.

The long vowels used in this part of the poem reinforce this mood of leadenness. Thus, we get lexis with long vowels like roost, noon, barn, frequent, yaum, falls, weeks·, leeking, gloom, or lexis whose vowels are lengthened by the meter: hangs, lays, etc.—that slow down the rhythm and reinforce the general monotony of the actions.

There are long vowels in the second part, but they do not work in tandem with other devices to point in the same interpretive direction, which, in the first part, is mostly negative. Such a mood is radically altered, without warning, in the second part of the poem. The tempo speeds up; dynamic movement, sprightliness, and light enter the scene. The observer has withdrawn from evaluating what occurs, and the dynamism is allowed to speak for itself.

There is little representational motivation for such a contrast of patterning. In fact, in terms of representation and the "realism" expected, this aspect of the poem creates a problem. How do we integrate these two self-contained moods into the same scene? Aesthetically, however, humor is created in this unexpected turn of events. The patterning also enables us to see two otherwise antithetical aspects of the same scene as two differing aspects of life from the persona's perspective. Work is integral to the life of this scene, and by implication, to this community, but the work itself can be laborious, monotonous, and dreary. The humans, apart from the maids, are all seen as restricted and confined both in movement and space by work, and are defined by work. On the other hand, the natural life of the scene is portrayed as free in its natural existence, the rhythms of natural movement, dynamic. Life, therefore, can be hard and gray, but also light and lovely. The patterning foregrounds the distinctiveness of each aspect, but with a gentle humor evident in the co-occurrence. Nor are we allowed to make easy or exclusive conflations of leadenness and humans and lightness and nature. The bedraggled fowl and silent sparrow in the first part and the laughing maids in the second provide cross-connections between the patternings that undercut such exclusions, and integrate these aspects as within the personal experience of the persona.

Such an undercutting has other consequences worth noting. It problematizes the time factor involved in viewing this scene. The persona is located not only as "insider" but as cohabitant in this scene, not a picture-viewer viewing a representation in a gallery, nor a Claudian landscape-viewer, with picture glass in hand. The time presupposed by the poem is, therefore, the time at the disposal of a cohabitant, someone who has been in the scene and remains within it over a period of time, who has watched the changing aspects of life around him in all weathers, and is responsive to its many facets. The truth to life in this dimension is a truth arising from the stuff of lived experience, through being resident in a place, of being located within it, across real time. It is not the realism derived from the conventions of representational art that we are dealing with here, and its inclusion in the poem, paradoxically, disrupts conventionalized realism. But it is the perspective of such a persona that we share as readers of the poem, whose art of seeing and responding to his familiar world the poem makes available.

And finally, the syntactic structure of the poem, through coordination and subordination, establishes a rhythm as the eye of the observer roams over this scene, linking this world of singulars together, linearly, as the eye encounters and explores the visual events of its world. Thus, the activity of the eye is varied. Coordination generally moves the eye on to different details of the action attended to, while subordination enables the eye to pause, the gaze arrested by some aspect which, in turn, causes some effect on the persona, and a personal, evaluated response is given. Within the main clauses, therefore, spans of attention awarded are ordered differently. A rhythm is established that provides a variety that parallels the different kinds of movement traced.

The activity of the thatcher spans two lines, although the clause itself is constructed of more lines than this. The eye takes in the details of the activity, but as it watches the close laying of the yaum, the persona comments on the unending dreariness of the rain, which the thatcher's work must keep out. While all this is being indulged in, the thatcher and his activity in the incessant rain remains in focus. It is a long pause in relation to the fowl, for instance, or even the hedger or the shepherd. Similarly, the activity of the thresher captures the persona's attention, but here, the time span of the eye is reinforced by the sounds of the activity striking the ear, as the twanking of the frail goes on rhythmically, thump after right tiresome thump, until the ear is wearied and the eye moves on. In the second part of the poem, we get further instances of complex constructions, but here complexity arises mainly from coordination. The coordinate constructions are generally coordinate verbs. Thus, while the subject remains stable, different actions of the same agent are traced, and this attention to different actions that make up the overall activity is a consistent feature of this part of the poem. The continuity of the agent in the discourse in relation to the actions unifies them, but since they are different actions, the eye remains mobile and particular in its attention to this kind of detail. Smaller rhythms are thus set up in relation to the attention awarded to the overall activity. Thus, the activity of the dog leaping over the hedge and knarling the grass is broken into two time spans for the eye—leaping quicker than the repetition of knarling. The swine run round, grunt, and play with straw / Snatching out hasty mouthfuls from the stack similarly creates its own subrhythms of seeing. The stacking of verbs in this way continues: the crows pay an unceremonious visit, croak, then swop away; the owl bobs hasty out, wheels round, scared, hastily retires; the ducks grow wild, fly up, wheel . . plunge…. The simple sentences: Short grows the stupid day, The moping fowl go roost at noon, the cat runs races with her tail and the like, shorten the time span of attention. In the coordinated units, time is varied—swops, involving less attention than the long sweeping movement of the ducks flying round the village. Subordination, especially in the first part of the poem, appears to provide the longest pauses of all, a long gaze as opposed to the quicker pacing of the eye in the second part. But the eye moves naturally, in relation to the scene. It can glance at something, gaze at something else, or even glimpse a fleeting movement like the laughing of the hurrying maids, contemplate something until it moves into its own thoughts, or is distracted in whatever direction by the sudden movement of some other activity, it can take in a whole wealth of detail as it happens, its rhythms conditioned only by its own responsiveness to whatever is happening around it. This is not the gaze presupposed by eighteenth-century painting—rather the "performance" of active seeing. But the performance, in its rhythms and in its highlighting of its own acts of seeing, foregrounds itself into art.

The performance is not allowed to dull or to go stale on us. The paratactic structure bounds each clause or even a smaller syntactic unit in terms of separateness, but this has its own visual reward. Changes of topic in each of the clauses provide new foci of interest. One is, therefore, not allowed to gaze too long at anything in case the eye is dulled. Arnheim has pointed out that vision is geared more to cope with change than immobility or monotony, and that even primitive animals stop reacting to a given stimulus if it reaches them over and over again. As far as humans are concerned, the eye and brain can be similarly dulled by too much looking on the same thing:

When a person is forced to stare at a given figure he will use any opportunity to change it by varying it: he may re-organize the grouping of its parts or make a reversible figure switch from one view to the other. A colour looked at steadily tends to bleach, and if the eye is made to fixate a pattern without the small scanning movements that are never absent otherwise, that pattern will disappear from sight after a short while. [Rudolf Arnheim, Visual Thinking]

The changes of topic in the poem ensure that the focus on each of these, in turn, is sharp. Even in the first part of the poem, where repetition of movement and monotony of the work and the weather are portrayed, "scanning movements" are introduced in the repetitions of movement, and the switch is made into the observer's feelings about the scene, thus averting the danger of dulling the eye. Instead, the interest remains on all the other aspects of this part of the scene: its heavier mood, its slower rhythms, the shapes traced by movement and object, the vignettes of daily life portrayed, and the reality of the wintry aspects of the life around. In the second part, of course, changes of topic and movement are carried to a height, so that the exploitation of this aspect of vision achieves a kind of apotheosis. The open-ended nature of the ending holds out the promise of more visual wealth, but wisely refrains from satiating the eye.

John Lucas (essay date 1992)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2588

SOURCE: "England in 1830—Wordsworth, Clare, and the Question of Poetic Authority," in Critical Survey, Vol. 4, No. 1, 1992, pp. 62-66.

[In the following excerpt, Lucas compares a well-known and admired sonnet by Wordsworth with a little-known, radically unconventional sonnet by Clare and argues that it is time that both sonnets and their respective authors be granted the respect or "authority " that each deserve, but that only one has yet received. ]

In November 1830 Wordsworth set out from his home in Grasmere for Cambridge, where he was to stay for a night or two at his old college, Trinity. His route took him across the Pennines and through Derbyshire, and passed close to the Duke of Devonshire's famous house and grounds of Chatsworth. The following sonnet was almost certainly written from the comfort of the poet's former college rooms.

Chatsworth! thy stately mansion, and the pride
Of thy domain, strange contrast do present
To house and home in many a craggy rent
Of the wild Peak; where new-born waters glide
Through fields whose thrifty occupants abide
As in a dear and chosen banishment,
With every semblance of entire content;
So kind is simple Nature, fairly tried!
Yet he whose heart in childhood gave her troth
To pastoral dales, thin-set with modest farms,
May learn, if judgement strengthen with his growth,
That, not for Fancy only, pomp hath charms;
And, strenuous to protect from lawless harms
The extremes of favoured life, may honour both.

The Petrarchan form of this sonnet is handled with the neat assurance you would expect of a poet who had had so much practice at it. The break from octave to sestet on the word 'Yet' swings the argument into a new phase, and at the end the issues which have been raised are resolved by a firm closing rhyme. It was Milton who had shifted the Petrarchan sonnet in English from affairs of the heart to public affairs, even to affairs of state; and when at the beginning of the new century Wordsworth set out to write that sequence of poems which became called 'Poems Dedicated to National Independence and Liberty', he took Milton as his model for the sonnets which make up the bulk of the collection. Milton might even be said to act as model for the poem on Chatsworth. Certainly, the opening echoes the rhetorical strategy of 'Lawrence, of virtuous father virtuous son' as of course does Wordsworth's famous sonnet of 1802 which begins, 'Milton, thou shouldst be living at this hour, / England hath need of thee'. And 'strenuous to protect from lawless harms' is in both cadence and diction nothing if not Miltonic. But Milton has been captured for some very dubious motives. Wordsworth's sonnet may have about it a note of authority that suggests a calm impregnability of purpose, but this can't conceal the fact that what is being said is on behalf of the few against the many. November, 1830, was a time when all over the southern half of England the Swing riots were particularly ferocious. Writing from his rooms in Trinity, Wordsworth told those he had left behind at Grasmere that he could see fires started by the rioters reddening the night skies of the surrounding countryside for miles around. Wordsworth's sonnet presents an image of reconciliation between the great house and the small farmsteads and cottages, the 'house and the home', to which at the outset Chatsworth seems to stand in 'strange contrast'. Nature will provide for all, so at least the octave concludes in best Anglican, perhaps Evangelical, fashion. That seems straightforward enough. The sestet isn't so easy to understand. The last lines in particular are a problem. Does Wordsworth mean that now he has seen Chatsworth and its neighbouring houses he can understand that 'pomp'—Chatsworth and all it stands for—doesn't appeal merely to poetic 'Fancy' but has a real practical purpose: to protect 'the extremes of favoured life' from 'lawless harms' and in doing so honour both extremes? This would make a kind of sense: it was what the great house was supposed to do, and certainly this feudalistic reading of social relations was one that Wordsworth had come to hold and on which he was to elaborate in a sonnet sequence dedicated to 'Liberty and Order', as well as in other sonnets of the period, most notably one beginning 'They called thee Merry England, in old time'. In these, 'Heaven' or God was called upon to preserve the good relations of the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate. But the lines could as well be taken to mean that Wordsworth himself, having learnt the lesson that pomp has to teach, may honour both extremes of favoured life, because he is strenuous to protect them from lawless harms. Either way, we can hardly doubt that the lines amount to a statement in favour of 'pomp', of its use, its being deserving of honour. We are therefore a long way from the spirit of July 1789, which had found Wordsworth ready to believe in the Golden Hours of a new society; and it may well be that the July riots in Paris of 1830, which accompanied the downfall of the Bourbons, brought to the ageing poet's mind uncomfortable memories of his earlier, ecstatic welcome for the revolutionary energies which had swept aside French monarchy and its pomp.

'Pomp' was a word, almost a technical term, which had long been attached to the idea of the great house. And so, in his Epistle to Burlington, Pope commends Boyle for showing in his work on Palladian architecture that 'pompous buildings once were things of use'. Any sense of such use has gone from Goldsmith's account of the great houses built during the eighteenth century and which, in imposing themselves on a peopled place, became displays of brutal and strictly useless ostentation (one of Johnson's definitions for 'pomp' was ' A procession of splendour and ostentation'). 'Along the lawn, where scattered hamlets rose, / Unwieldy wealth and cumbrous pomp repose.' In that couplet from The Deserted Village the vigour of the one rhyme word, 'rose', rebukes the torpor of the answering rhyme, 'repose'. But 'repose' is in the present tense: 'cumbrous pomp' has taken over, has usurped the land, and as a result the hamlets are 'scattered' (the word puns on the idea of them being both 'casually' spread around in true picturesque fashion and actively dispersed—by acts of enclosure, by the depradations of pomp). Well now, few buildings possessed more pomp than Chatsworth, and this extended to its grounds and surroundings. When Wordsworth rode past it in November 1830 the 6th Duke of Devonshire was engaged, as he had been for some years, on enlarging the estate. How much Wordsworth knew about this and about what it involved I don't know; but it seems reasonable to assume that he must have felt pretty guilty about what he feared might have been involved. For how else explain those lines in which he refers to the thrifty occupants of fields who, so we are told, 'abide/ As in a dear and chosen banishment, / With every semblance of entire content'? What can this mean if not that Wordsworth guesses that they've been turfed out of their dwellings by the Duke of Devonshire? And what does that do for the man who wishes to honour pomp? Why, it persuades him that the thrifty occupants are so content that it's as though they had chosen of their own accord to get off the Devonshires' land. Perhaps they had, although I doubt it. But that doesn't matter. What does, is Wordsworth's readiness to honour a 'pomp' which had precious little use and which could therefore hardly be offered as a model for that pattern of social relations his deep conservatism led him to endorse. And anyway the uneasy conscience is surely plain in those weasel words 'As in a dear and chosen banishment, / With every semblance of entire content' (my italics). Oh, yes? How does he know? The answer is that he doesn't, that he can't. And if someone—Mary Moorman, perhaps—were to come to his defence by saying 'well, he couldn't be expected to know', the obvious rejoinder is that in that case he shouldn't have pretended he did know. But why should he have so pretended? The answer, I am certain, is that Wordsworth deeply believed in the authority of the poet, in the poet's ability to speak to and for the nation; and this betrays him into the Miltonic posture by means of which he can imply another kind of authority for himself: that of divine inspiration. In fact, of course, all he has is a style, a manner in which to honour 'pomp' and so deflect attention away from the question of how far the responsibility for those reddening night skies of the Cambridge countryside might be laid at the door of the 'favoured life' whose apologist he now was. You couldn't in all fairness call this manner one of disdain; but as Goldsmith well knew, disdain and pomp go hand in hand. As he remarked in The Deserted Village, 'the rich deride' and 'the proud disdain'.

With this in mind, I want to comment on another sonnet which was written in 1830.

We don't know exactly when Clare wrote this sonnet, which was first published over a hundred years later, in 1935. It is, however, quite probable that it was composed in November. The same red skies Wordsworth saw from his favoured window at Trinity College, Cambridge, Clare could have seen from his home village of Helpston, on the Northamptonshire-Cambridgeshire border. And if he had turned in the other direction he would have seen similar skies across the length and breadth of Northamptonshire. The country's wrongs were as visible as they were audibly insisted on—or denied by those who sang of 'peace and plenty in the midst of woe', or who claimed that 'thrifty' occupants of the fields would be looked after by 'kind' Nature. The comparison with Wordsworth is inevitable. His sonnet offers to speak for an England of annealed interests, as the final word shows: 'both'. An argument is rounded out, a firm conclusion provided. This is the voice of poetic authority. Clare's sonnet is very different. It doesn't obey any conventional form of sonnet. The first sentence stops, incomplete, after the first six lines, which compose their own movement. There follow two quatrains (a sort of reversal of the Petrarchan form except that the rhymes don't use the Petrarchan scheme); and the ending is no ending. You can't quite tell whether the final question is intended to be rhetorical or not, and indeed it's easy to imagine a further couplet being tacked on as a way of answering the question: something like, 'Forbid it, Heaven!—and MERRY ENGLAND still / Shall be thy rightful name, in prose and rhyme!' But that of course is Wordsworth. He can come to reassuring conclusions. Clare can't. Hence the radical form of his sonnet. Clare surely means to dislodge the accustomed practice of using the sonnet as a type of authoritative utterance, in the interest of producing a very different voice—his voice, or the voice of 'poor truth' which is endlessly mocked by the bland, consoling utterances of those who bid her 'be free'. And here, it is worth noting that by the end of the sonnet the 'country' has become synonymous with 'poor truth'. (The elision occurs at the moment when Clare asks 'And is it thus they mock her year by year, / Telling poor truth unto her face she lies.') In other words, Clare wants to speak for those who are left out of account in the kind of authoritative statement which Wordsworth's sonnet means to make.

The circumstances out of which Clare's sonnet springs can be worked through in some detail. There is neither the space nor the need to do that here, but it is very much to the point to note the remark made by Corrigan and Sayer in their The Great Arch: English State Formation as Cultural Revolution (1985), that during the period leading up to 1830 'the most comprehensive battery of legislative, practical, and other regulatory devices against the emerging working-class is … established'. Clare's imagery of prison-cells, of chains and bonds, provides a lived sense of how 'poor truth' understood the reality of what was happening to literally thousands of English people at a time when authority was also insisting on England as a land of freedom. And as the Swing rioters were discovering, the law was hardly likely to act with impartiality, or to look with favour on their activities. State law made possible the taxes which drained money from the poor. In Captain Swing (1969) Eric Hobsbawm and George Rudé quote from a radical pamphlet produced in Sussex at the height of the riots there in 1830, in which one Labourer is made to say that all the money collected in taxes 'was given to people who gave nothing in exchange for it, some fine ladies and gentlemen, who like to live without work, and all the time they make the working class pay the present amount of Taxes there will be no better times'. Besides, the law habitually favoured the petitions for enclosure drawn up and presented by those who had much to gain against those who for the most part found it difficult to oppose them, no matter that they were the losers. 'Forging new bonds' is a bitter recognition not only of the making of new chains to bind 'poor truth' but of the fact that the kinds of petitions passing successfully through Parliament were to all intents and purposes acts of forgery. And who made these petitions, and who sanctioned them? Why, those who damned 'poor truth' into 'madness with disdain'. Such disdain implies that bonds would be tightened round the very language that poor truth used. Clare knew all about this kind of bondage, this disdain. By 1830 he had had to suffer endless rewritings of his poems. His publishers had regularly struck out his dialect words, they had altered his syntax, cut lines, stanzas, whole poems (especially the ones that voiced his radical displeasure of 'poor truth' at the rapacity of landlords and at the iniquity of enclosure); and when The Shepherd's Calendar was published in 1827 it was subjected to such brutal cutting that Clare's most recent editors are at a loss to explain it other than by assuming that what he wrote 'did not agree with his publisher's sense of poetical fitness'. This is the power disdain can call on.

'England 1830' seems to be at least as authoritative a statement as Wordsworth's. Yet Wordsworth is an accredited 'great' poet, Clare for the best part of a century was virtually unknown. 'England 1830' was never published in his lifetime, a fate it shared with many of his finest poems. And when it eventually saw the light of day it was not as he had intended it. He would neither have indented the lines nor seen any need for the punctuation with which the Tibbies pester the poem. The recovery of Clare is part of a campaign which ought to defeat the coercive claims made for national identity, for homogeneity, for some kind of unifying 'spirit of the people'. What we need is heterogeneity, a denial of that disdain by means of which one kind of voice becomes 'the' voice of authority, claiming to speak for all and in the process denying the voices of most others.

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 excerpt, McKusick traces the ongoing conflicts between Clare and his editors and patrons, many of whom rejected Clare's use of dialect in his poetry, insisted upon standardized spelling in his publications, and disapproved of his opinions upon landed wealth.]

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." 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. 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." Taylor concludes that Clare "is most thoroughly 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, sniffing 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." 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.

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.

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. 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. 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!

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 [The Letters of John Clare, ed. Mark Storey, Oxford, Clarendon, 1985, p. 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. 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 success [John Clare's Autobiographical Writings, ed. Eric Robinson, Oxford, Oxford UP, 1986, p. 26.]

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 disgusting

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)

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. 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."

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. 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." 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. 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. 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)

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 coud 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

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. 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." 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.

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." 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. [Early Poems of John Clare 2: 123n.]

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. In June 1824 he received a copy of William Allen's Elements of English Grammar (1813), presented by the author. This was followed in November 1825 by Robert Lowth's Short Introduction to English Grammar (1762), presented by Eliza Emmerson. 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." 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." 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 'dais' [i.e. damns] Lindley Murray for 'inventing it.'"

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. 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. 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. 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 compiled 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." 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.

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." 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.

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."

Bailey provides several examples of the concision and vividness of the Anglo-Saxon, such as Inwit for conscience and Eoroses-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.

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. 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.) 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. 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." 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 correctness

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. 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, 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 doggerel verses derived from the oral tradition of his family and neighbors in Helpston. His poetry thus evolves away from what Bakhtin terms a "prim but moribund aristocratic language" 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, 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 direst 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
[The Midsummer Cushion, ed. Anne Tibble & R. K. R. Thornton, Northumberland: Mid Northumberland Arts Group, 1979, p. 485.]

The highly conventzional, 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.

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. In this pared-down, minimal prosodie 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
[The Later Poems of John Clare 1837-1864, ed. Eric Robinson & David Powell, Oxford: Clarendon, 1984, Vol. 2, p. 813.]

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 apoclyptic 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 paratactically 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? 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. 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.

John Wareham (essay date 1994)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1224

SOURCE: "Clare's 'The Awthorn,'" in The Explicator, Vol. 53, No. 1, Fall, 1994, pp. 197-200.

[In the following excerpt, Wareham asserts that with "The Awthorn," Clare strives to unite the "transience" and "perpetuity" of nature within a single poem, thereby presenting his own vision of transcendence.]

I love the awthorn well
The first green thing
In woods and hedges—black thorn dell
Dashed with its green first spring
When sallows shine in golden shene
These white thorn places in the black how green

How beautifully green
Though March has but begun
To tend primroses planted in the sun
The roots that[s] further in
Are not begun to bud or may be just begun

I love the white thorn bough
Hung over the mole hill
Where the spring feeding cow
Rubs off the dew drop chill
When on the cowslip pips and glossy thorn
The dews hang shining pearls at early morn

The early leafing-out of hawthorn (whitethorn) as harbinger of spring held a special fascination for John Clare. He alluded to it several times, although rarely with the ordered intensity of "The Awthorn." ["The Awthorn," Northampton MS 19, 70-71, c. spring 1845. Reproduced in E. Robinson and D. Powell, eds., The Later Poems of John Clare 1837-1864, Oxford: Oxford UP, 1984, Vol. 1, pp. 200-201.] Ultimately, the poem transcends landscape. Yet it is an unpeopled spring landscape first, and its poetic resources—among them contrast, repetition, occasionally disjointed syntax, diction, rhyme—strikingly achieve energy, compression, and lyricality. For all its scenery's apparent disorder, the poem's two six-line stanzas symmetrically frame a five-lined center. The sole punctuation—line 3's dash—focuses on the site of interest. The cummings-like "green first spring" (reversing part of "first green thing," so that the particular echoes the opening generality) and "in the black how green" attract attention with their defamiliarizing lyricism. Underpunctuation positively strives to capture the scene before it changes or the feelings that it generates evaporate. "Dashed" vividly conveys the pointilliste appearance of incipient foliage. The outer stanzas rhyme on monosyllables to integrate simple things clearly seen and considered, the scene as fresh as when poet, or world, first saw it.

The central section focuses on the hawthorn's precocious greenery. March has hardly begun to foster primroses or roots—the second object of "to tend"—that are "further in" woods, or soil, or dormancy. Those roots, unlike the hawthorn's, have not begun to "bud" or put forth new shoots. "Tend" and "planted," anthropocenrric or personifying in the eighteenth-century tradition of nature writing, imply earth's benevolence; but in Clare they are mere counters, for "The Awthorn" finds joy in nature despite its indifference. The prominent five rhymes with a consonantal n base reflect the way the laggard signs of spring, outstripped by the hawthorn and signalled by the impeding "Though," are held in abeyance on the same insistent note. Along with the contemplation of the potentialities of roots in their subterranean darkness, the repeated "begun" builds up a head of expectancy at spring's approach.

The final stanza releases, realizes that promise. Opening like the first, it presents the hawthorn within a web of connections joining bough to molehill to cow to dewdrop and back, cyclically, to "thorn." All are organically united in a whole aesthetically greater than the sum of its parts. Their particularity achieves an inscape of almost Hopkinsian precision: it is a "spring feeding" cow (nourished in and by the spring, in turn nourishing it), the dewdrop is "chill," the cowslips yield "pips" (Northamptonshire dialect for the florets in a cluster), and the haw's thorn, picking up the "shene" of the sallows, is "glossy." Early sunlight is reflected in dew "pearls," a dead metaphor but in another poem, "Twilight," "the cowslip pips wi' pearls untold" are preferred to "crown and scepter": chill dewdrops are valued more highly than gew-gaw or status symbol. Nevertheless, pearls adorning the objects of veneration are love-tribute and triumphal garland. Dew's connotation of fertility has a vital nexus with the other natural components of the closure's Bewick-like vignette.

In a sense there are no ideas but in the things of "The Awthorn" and these compose, create, a specific locality. "The content of Clare's poetry can be said to be his characteristic sense of place," which expresses "this is how it is here." Barrell sees a mature Clare poem as "one complex manifold of simultaneous impressions." "The Awthorn" certainly fits this description. Simultaneity is achieved in the first stanza by "when," indicating the concurrence of hawthorn's greenery with sallows' sheen, and by the compressed syntax that puts "woods and hedges" on a level with "blackthorn dell." "Green first spring" simultaneously conveys color, earliness, and season. The middle stanza presents the "green" hawthorn at the same time as primroses and roots. The final stanza establishes with "where" and "when" the simultaneity of the things presented in dynamic relationship: bough, molehill, cow, dewdrop, cowslip, dews, and morn—a simultaneous microcosm of nature. "The Awthorn" is consistent with Barrell's insightful thesis that "This habit of understanding a place as a manifold impressions, not organised by perspective and thus as it were in the foreground is a habit formed by an upbringing in an open-field landscape."

"The Awthorn," however, is not pictorially structured like the earlier landscape poems of Thomson and Dyer where "each scene is correctly composed … to enable the reader to visualise a picture after the manner of Salvator and Claude." Like Hopkins's "Inversnaid," it neither conjures up a preexisting picture nor sees the landscape itself as a picture. "The Awthorn" creates landscape through simultaneous visual impressions, welding them into a vision of a unified, harmonious, and boundless nature. What holds them is not the forces of Newtonian rationalism but the poet's loving attention. The dynamic relationships within this natural order, the interpenetration of entities, the mental pointing, the abnegation of self and yet the internalization of things loved, the veneration of the unremarkable—in such ways Clare is oriental, Zen-like. Nature's wildness has been drilled into poetry's discipline. In the Jesuit Hopkins's altogether more watery and turbulent "Inversnaid" too—where simultaneity is not an organizing principle, for the poem follows temporally and physically the cascade's course—the spiritual dimension is implicit. Clare would have empathized with "Long live … the wilderness yet" as with, elsewhere, the "Sweet especial rural scene."

Although Clare wrote finely of his "daily communings with God and not a word spoken," "The Awthorn" does not look "thro' Nature up to Nature's God" (Pope, "An Essay on Man" Ep. iv. 331). It venerates the natural level, the observable surface of country things exquisitely observed, contemplated, and unified. If Clare was "a primitive poet in the sense that he insisted on writing almost from the fertility level" that does not preclude a transition to eternity. He made the transition in

Leaves from eternity are simple things
To the world's gaze where to a spirit clings
Sublime and lasting
("The Eternity of Nature")

and in

Who ever looks round Sees Eternity there
("Autumn")

When he made his own heaven he made sure the lowly hawthorn had a place in it. Clare saw eternity in the hawthorn bough and in the union of other regenerated things that it protectively "hung over." The poem does not stop at the simultaneity of open field vision but extends to perpetuity. "The Awthorn" is a poem of becoming as well as a poem of transience.

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Clare, John (Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)