The Poetry of Clare

by John Clare

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1584

The curve of John Clare’s life—country-born and country-raised, enjoying literary success in London until the late 1820’s, ending his days in a madhouse—is important to appreciate in any reading of his poetry. Clare’s roots in the language and customs of the English countryside, more specifically of the little village of Helpstone on the borders of the Lincolnshire Fens, are immediately evident in his earlier poems, as are his extremely delicate perceptions, the totalism of a sensibility nearly always hovering on the edge either of ecstasy or of despair.

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Less evident are Clare’s strong literary affiliations with the James Thomson of The Seasons (1730, 1744, 1746), the William Wordsworth of the Ode, and the Lord Byron of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812-1818). With Robert Burns, Clare is one of the finest of the “original geniuses” of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and he wrote in a vein more authentic and serious than was then in vogue. His own Northamptonshire version of the conserving myth of the countryside, eloquently expressed in his lament for the loss of Swordy Fell by the enclosures of the 1820’s, is in the line of Thomas Gray and Wordsworth and points directly to the writings of William Barnes and Thomas Hardy later in the nineteenth century.

Clare’s provincialism, his distance from the literary fashions of his early adulthood, permitted him to mine his slender gift deeply. Again and again he returns to the themes, the moral and technical elements that are present in his earliest poems. The same subjects are to him always new and pressing: the importance of place, the loss of childhood innocence, the destruction of the countryside, absence in love, the poet as nature’s spokesperson. There is an uncomplicated resting in nostalgic description rather than a thrusting and exploratory meditation; there is no Wordsworthian straining after the philosophical poem, and Clare’s successes are therefore more limited but purer than those of Wordsworth.

Clare’s ordinary medium is the loosened heroic couplet, the informal ballad stanza, and the simple quatrain of the later Augustans, and he is not above using the “poetic diction” that Wordsworth explicitly rejected. Clare’s originality was not one of perspective or technique so much as it was the focusing of a single-minded intensity upon the problems and perceptions of people living in the country. The “ecstasy” Clare so often alludes to explains much in the tone of his poems on nature and on human love, but it is also directly related to a personal instability, the delicacy or fragility that led to the madness he himself had been anticipating.

Clare begins one of his best poems thus: “Hail, humble Helpstone. . . . Unletter’d spot! unhead in poet’s song.” The peculiarly Romantic celebration of the local and unique is here, but also a sense that the obscure village may be taken as standing for hundreds of others like it, places finally being encroached upon by wealth and civilization. The enclosure of common forage lands and the leveling of woodlands are concerns even as early as this poem of 1809: “How oft I’ve sigh’d at alterations made,/ To see the woodman’s cruel axe employ’d/ A tree beheaded, or bush destroy’d.”

The resulting conviction that nature is itself somehow threatened accounts for some of the loving anxiousness in Clare’s descriptions of both landscape and village life. One may take for an instance the fine stanza from “Summer Images.”

To note on hedgrow baulks, in moisture spent,The jetty snail creep from the mossy thorn,With earnest heed and tremulous intent,Frail brother of the morn,That from the tiny bent’s dew-misted leavesWithdraws his timid horn,And fearful vision weaves.

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The descriptive vignette, complete in a stanza, is characteristic. Clare is a cataloger, a poet who, with an evocative title (“Morning,” “Autumn”) or a generalizing opening, launches a poem organized mainly into a progression of instances. “Noon” begins multiplying instances and images with the second line of the poem.

All how silent and how still;Nothing heard but yonder mill:While the dazzled eye surveysAll around a liquid blaze;And amid the scorching gleams,If we earnest look, it seemsAs if crooked bits of glassSeemed repeatedly to pass. . . .Not a twig is seen to shake,Nor the smallest bent to quake.

“Liquid blaze,” though obviously a piece of poetic diction, is nevertheless a small triumph of authenticity. In line with this effect is Clare’s inclination to relate human moods to the four seasons. One remembers his comment that the first poetry that genuinely moved him was Thomson’s The Seasons. Perhaps the finest of his nature poems is “Autumn,” written in the unrhymed stanza of William Collins’s “Ode to Evening.”

Soon must I view thee as a pleasant dreamDroop faintly, and so reckon for thine end,As sad the winds sink lowIn dirges for their queen;While in the moment of their weary pause,To cheer thy bankrupt pomp, the willing larkStarts from his shielding clod,Snatching sweet scraps of song.

Here as elsewhere there are comparisons made between nature and human nature. This analogy works both ways; sometimes there are such phrases as “wind-enamoured aspen” (“Summer Images”). At other times childhood and virginity find images in the blooming of trees or flowers: “Young Jenny blooming in her womanhood/ That hides from day like lilies while in bud.” In the poems of Clare’s madness, when he writes of the impossibility of recovering his childhood, or of repossessing the unblemished love of his first sweetheart, Mary Joyce, he unconsciously connects his loss with the moods of the natural world. He longs “for scenes, where man hath never trod,” where he can “sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept,/ Untroubling, and untroubled where I lie,/ The grass below—above the vaulted sky.”

In such poems as “The Village Minstrel,” “To the Rural Muse,” “Pastoral Poesy,” and “The Progress of Rhyme,” Clare sets forth the naïve poetics that informs all his lyric utterance. He engages in a radical but fruitful confusion of the process of writing and the observation of natural phenomena: “Wordsworth I love, his books are like the fields” (“To Wordsworth”) and “True poesy is not in words,/ But images that thoughts express,” and observation affords a “language that is ever green. . . . As hawthorn blossoms, soon as seen,/ Give May to every heart” (“Pastoral Poesy”). It is one indication of Clare’s provinciality that he meant these lines quite literally.

An important result of this assumption about the nature and function of poetry is Clare’s accuracy of image and phrase. Where the local English is most apt, he will use it, though the effect is idiosyncratic: “—And never choose/ The little sinky foss,/ Streaking the moors whence spared/ water spews/ From pudges fringed with moss.”

No animal, insect, or scene is too insignificant to bear description: “I see. . . . I see” is one of Clare’s most habitual phrases, and when he writes of “shower-be dimpled sandy lanes,” “smoke-tanned chimney tops,” or “broad old cesspools” that “glittered in the sun,” he is bringing new veridical images into English poetry. In “Eternity of Nature,” Clare praises the power behind nature by a marvelously convincing collection of the ways the number five recurs in the phenomena of the world: “So trailing bindweed, with its pinky cup,/ Five leaves of paler hue go streaking up;/ And many a bird, too, keeps the rule alive,/ Laying five eggs, nor more nor less than five.”

John Keats thought that Clare was too descriptive, that the images from nature tend in his poetry to remain instances rather than being integrated with sentiment and meditation. The judgment is correct as far as it goes; Clare had visual accuracy, but his descriptive success must be matched against the larger enterprise of Wordsworth, who risked his poetry itself to make it a moral and teaching medium. In Wordsworth and Keats, observation leads more quickly to meditation than in Clare, a poet who does not explore the more symbolic uses of the natural image.

Clare is best known for lyric poetry that nevertheless poses serious questions about life and death and eternity. His longer works have many of the same qualities of observation to recommend them. “The Village Minstrel” and “Childe Harold” are both autobiographical, both charged with the same kind of visual acuity one finds in the shorter poems. One gets from these two poems some sense of what the “Eden” of Clare’s humble childhood was like in a poor agricultural community. Clare himself never tires of emphasizing that it was a genuine community; this is the burden of the excellent poem on the labors and customs of a country village presented in The Shepherd’s Calendar. Here, Clare describes the work, the sport, the violence, and the frank sexuality of provincial farm communities in the early nineteenth century. The honesty of his genre scenes, like the impetuous couplets of the poem, stand in vivid contrast to The Shepheardes Calender (1579) of Edmund Spenser.

Clare’s “Poems Written in Madness” remain to be described, yet there is no way to describe them in terms or categories other than those used above to discuss poems written before his institutionalization for madness. The superb poems from this period—“To Wordsworth,” “Written in a Thunderstorm,” “I’ve Wandered Many a Weary Mile,” “I Am,” “Hesperus”—represent only an unconscious focusing on the elements of despair and absence already conveyed earlier in Clare’s work.

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