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The Village Genius

1.

There are certain poets—Spenser is one—with whom other poets, whatever the prejudices or inattention of the critics, have conspicuously kept faith. After his death in 1599 (when, according to Camden, contemporary writers symbolically threw not only verses but their pens into the grave), Spenser’s general reputation slowly declined. It was with the practitioners that he continued to be important:Milton and Dryden, the young Keats, who was so transfixed by epithets like “sea-shouldring Whales” in The Faerie Queene that he suddenly began to compose verse himself, and Yeats, for whom Spenser’s lines were “like bars of gold thrown ringing one upon another.”

During the twentieth century, John Clare (1793-1864) has established himself in his own way as a poet’s poet. John Ashbery, Edmund Blunden, Donald Davie, Geoffrey Grigson, Seamus Heaney, Sidney Keyes, Michael Longley, and Theodore Roethke (among others) have all paid tribute to him, sometimes in essays, more often in their own verse. Clare is never going to achieve anything like the centrality of Spenser (although his finest volume, The Shepherd’s Calendar, need not blush at duplicating one of Spenser’s titles), but it is gradually becoming clear, even to academics, that this “Northamptonshire peasant,” as he was styled in 1820 on the title page of Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery, can no longer be relegated to the class of “minor Romantic poet.”

Although Spenser’s last years were spectacularly miserable, his personal circumstances have always, to a large extent, been separable from his poetry. With Clare, on the other hand, as with Byron, it is impossible to lose sight of the life. The son of an impoverished, barely literate agricultural worker and a mother who could neither read nor write, he was born and lived until he was almost forty in the village of Helpston, on the edge of the Lincolnshire fens. Although a rich, essentially oral, folk culture surrounded him (his father could apparently sing or recite over a hundred ballads), his formal education, which ended when he was about twelve, consisted at most of three snatched months a year, when he could be spared from threshing, or labor in the fields.

Neither ballads and chapbooks, however, nor Glinton church school turned Clare into a poet. For that, the Scottish lowlands poet James Thomson was responsible, much as Spenser was to be for Keats. When he was about thirteen, Clare was shown a mutilated copy of Thomson’s The Seasons (1730) by a weaver in the village. The weaver thought little of it. (A Methodist, he much preferred Wesley’s hymns.) But the effect of “Spring” upon Clare, for whom poetry at this point meant ballads only, and who had never heard of blank verse, was electrifying. His parents had no peace until they scraped together a few coins, and he had walked several miles to Stamford and acquired the whole work. Passing Burghley Park on the road home, he impulsively climbed over the wall and, in a setting not unlike Hagley Park in The Seasons, explored his purchase. Clare’s breach of this wall—a barrier intended to exclude the likes of him—turned out to be symbolic. A few hours later, he had written down his first poem. He had also set the seal on something already in the making: isolation, an apartness from most of the other inhabitants of Helpston. The consequences were not entirely happy.

Over the next few years, Clare moved about restlessly from one casual job to another—as horse-boy, plowboy, gardener’s assistant, lime-burner, and (briefly) soldier. During this time, he managed to borrow, or save enough from his wages to buy, other books of poetry: Milton, Pope, Cowper, Collins, Shakespeare and some of the other Elizabethans among them. He also continued in secret to pencil verse on whatever scraps of paper he could find. (Sometimes, in the fields, he had recourse to the crown of his hat.) Eventually, he had more than enough for a small volume and, indirectly, his desire to publish came to the attention of Edward Drury, an intelligent bookseller in Stamford.

Peasant poets” were scarcely new in England at this time, let alone in the Scotland of Burns and James Hogg. The Wiltshire farm laborer Stephen Duck (1705-1756) had even attracted royal patronage—only to end by killing himself. Later, Robert Bloomfield (1766-1823), a Suffolk laborer turned London shoemaker, also enjoyed a momentary celebrity, but died wretchedly poor. Drury, however, saw something fresh and distinctive in Clare’s poems, and passed them on to a more important contact in London: his cousin John Taylor, the publisher of Keats, Hazlitt, De Quincey, Coleridge, and Lamb. Taylor was impressed, and in 1820 he brought out a selection, Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery, with a sympathetic preface and a glossary of Northamptonshire dialect words. The volume ran through four editions in one year and Clare—like Duck and Bloomfield—briefly became famous.

Clare’s first volume is his weakest, partly because the poems Taylor chose reflected his own taste—which became increasingly conservative. (The subject of Clare’s “My Mary,” an earthy farmyard wench, “low in stature, thick & fat,” with a ducklike waddle and pig-bristle hair, “Who, when the baby’s all besh-t,/To please its mamma kisses it,” was obliged in the second edition to confront an infant euphemistically “all unfit,” and then banished from the collection herself, as objectionably vulgar.) But Clare also had still to come into full possession of his own talent. There are hints in such poems as “Summer Evening”—“Now the blue fog creeps along,/And the bird’s forgot his song:/Flowers now sleep within their hoods;/Daisies button into buds”—of the acute eye of the nature poet Clare was to be, but little to suggest that only a few years later, in The Shepherd’s Calendar, he would be capable of writing,

Noon gathers wi its blistering breath
Around & day dyes still as death
The breeze is stopt the lazy bough
Hath not a leaf that dances now
The totter grass upon the hill
& spiders threads is hanging still
The feathers dropt from morehens wings
Upon the waters surface clings
As stedfast & as heavy seem
As stones beneath them in the stream
Hawkweed & groundsels fairey downs
Unruffld keep their seeding crowns
& in the oven heated air
Not one light thing is floating there
Save that to the earnest eye
The restless heat swims twittering bye

(“Totter grass” is Northamptonshire for Briza media, or “quaking grass,” and “twittering” means “flickering”—the sort of shimmmering heat you can actually see on a broiling summer afternoon.)

Although Clare’s career, like that of Bloomfield and Duck, was destined to end tragically, things went comparatively well for a time after the publication of his first volume. He did not enjoy being dragged away without warning from work in the fields (he had now married, and remained dependent upon manual labor to support his growing family) in order to satisfy the curiosity of dandified gentlemen who came to inspect the rustic prodigy and promise him books for his library that he never received. (One even asked him if he and his wife Patty had conducted their courtship in a barn or pigsty, as he believed the lower orders often did.) But he was exhilarated (if rather terrified) by being taken up to London, where he met, and later commented astutely about, some of Taylor’s other distinguished authors. He acquired some well-meaning patrons there and, in the form of Earl Fitzwilliam and his son Lord Milton, in Northamptonshire as well.

The Village Minstrel, however, Clare’s second collection of poems, in 1821, was nothing like as successful as his first. The Shepherd’s Calendar, finally published in 1827, was a disaster. Readers, as Taylor informed Clare, were now turning away not just from peasant poetry but from poetry in general, in favor of novels and “useful” books. Clare’s outspoken treatment, moreover, of sexual matters and the rapacity and injustices of the rich, his Northamptonshire dialect, disregard of grammar and punctuation, and preference for meticulous description of the natural world over elevatedsentiment—all stumbling blocks from the start—were now rendering him virtually unsaleable in a newly conservative and “polite” England. There was to be only one other volume of Clare’s poems published in his lifetime: The Rural Muse of 1835, a sadly diminished version of The Midsummer Cushion, the volume he had put together himself—which waited until 1979 to appear.

A small, frail man, no taller than Keats, Clare had always been of a nervous disposition, a tendency exacerbated in childhood when he saw a laborer fall from a hay wain and break his neck. He was subject to supernatural terrors, not only in nocturnal country lanes but in London, beneath whose streets he imagined all sorts of demonic creatures lying in wait. After the failure of The Shepherd’s Calendar, financial stress and humiliating altercations with his publisher were compounded by the well-intentioned decision of Earl Fitzwilliam to install the Clare family in a larger and more comfortable cottage at Northborough. (At Helpston, where they were all packed into two rooms of the cottage in which Clare had been born, he now had to shift his chair strategically about the room whenever it rained, to keep the book he was reading from being soaked.)

The village of Northborough was only three miles from Helpston, but for Clare, already distressed by the transformations that parliamentary enclosure had gradually imposed upon the common pasture and once-open fields, woods, and streams of his childhood, this further obliteration of the familiar was intolerable. He began to have severe fits of depressive illness and, in 1837, he was admitted to Dr. Allen’s asylum at High Beech, on the edge of Epping Forest. In July 1841, he escaped, and walked the eighty miles home to Northborough.

Clare’s prose account of this experience, The Journey Out of Essex, is a remarkable and moving document, at once searingly lucid and deranged: “The man whose daughter is the queen of England,” he scribbled at one point in the little notebook he carried with him, “is now sitting on a stone heap on the high way to bugden [Buckden] without a farthing in his pocket and without tasting a bit of food since yesterday morning—when he was offered a bit of Bread and cheese at Enfield.”1 He was even driven, in desperation, to eat grass. Patty tried for a time to cope, once her husband was back at Northborough, but in December Clare was (forcibly) committed to the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum, where he spent the rest of his life.

Here, as at High Beech, although separated from what he intermittently believed to be his two wives (Patty, and his childhood love Mary Joyce, long lost, and by 1838 actually dead), Clare was treated with a leniency and kindness that would shame most mental hospitals today. He continued to write verse, some of it negligible, some superb. Only occasionally did it suggest madness. Visitors subjected to his claims to be Byron, Shakespeare, Burns, Admiral Nelson, or a series of celebrated contemporary prizefighters often remarked with surprise that when writing or talking about poetry, he was entirely rational.

  1. 1

    In Eric Robinson and David Powell, editors, John Clare by Himself (Manchester: MidNag/Carcanet Press, 1996), p. 338.

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