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Getting Clare Clear

It may seem bizarre to find that John Clare’s poetry and his prose—which I discussed recently in these pages1—have been stripped of their punctuation and presented as the work of an illiterate, when their author was clearly a learned man. Yet this is what happened during the course of the twentieth century, as editors sought to redress what they perceived as the interfering attentions of nineteenth-century publishers. What they forgot, or overlooked, was the general expectation among authors of the period that their editors would see to it that their works were punctuated on their behalf.

An early, excellent anthologist of Clare, Arthur Symons, remarks in 1908 that he has tried in vain to find the poet’s original manuscripts, “which I would have liked to have printed exactly as they were written, having convinced myself that for the most part what Clare actually wrote was better than what his editors made him write.” Symons knew three of Clare’s sonnets from a manuscript in the British Museum, of which he notes that the only oddity is they are not punctuated, “anticipating Mallarmé,” and that they use the ampersand eccentrically at the beginning of the line.2

This surprising comparison with Mallarmé finds its echo decades later in the passage by Seamus Heaney mentioned in my previous article.3 The sonnet on the field-mouse’s nest, Heaney says, “is as surely made of words as any by Mallarmé.” But while Heaney is keen to emphasize the “rare finesse and integrity” of Clare, he is also an unpunctuator: he praises the editors of the Oxford edition for giving us Clare’s works “in all their unpunctuated vigour,” and he cites with great approval Tom Paulin’s view that

the restored texts of the poems embody an alternative social idea. With their lack of punctuation, freedom from standard spelling and charged demotic ripples, they become a form of Nation Language that rejects the polished urbanity of Official Standard.4

To Paulin, Clare is a “marginalized poet whose reputation is being gradually rehabilitated—as Mandelstam’s is in the Soviet Union.” Clare’s writings (for instance, the poem “Remembrances,” quoted in my earlier article) protest against the enclosure of common lands. For Paulin, “like Stalin’s collectivization of agriculture, Enclosure was a form of violent and centrally-directed social engineering.”5 For Heaney as for Paulin, Clare is a “sponsor and a fore-runner of modern poetry in post-colonial nation languages”—West Indian (“many figures in the dub and reggae tradition”), Australian, Scottish, Irish, Orcadian, but not English and not American (unless we are talking about some safely nonhegemonic aspect of English or American poetry). Clare was, as these Northern Irish poets subliminally urge us to believe, a Russian dissident, which in this discourse is code for Northern Irish. Clare unpunctuated reminded Paulin of Heaney and (with satisfying symmetry) he reminded Heaney of Paulin.

This political Clare had his origin in the late 1960s, at a time when several distinguished left-wing historians were turning their attention to English working-class movements, and when the Ruskin History Workshops were being held annually in Oxford, inspired by teachers such as Raphael Samuel. The audience at these events was drawn as much from political activists as from historians. E.P. Thompson, whose Making of the English Working Class appeared in paperback in 1968, gave a memorable lecture at the end of which he read Clare’s “Remembrances,” in which the moles hang sweeing in the wind:

Enclosure like a Bonaparte let not a thing remain,
It levelled every bush and tree and levelled every hill
And hung the moles for traitors—though the brook is running still,
It runs a naked stream, cold and chill.

I believe that nobody who heard Thompson declaim these lines ever forgot it. I certainly didn’t.

Yet trying to reconstruct what would have passed through the minds of many in Thompson’s audience, as he read them Clare’s lament for the countryside of his childhood, I am sure that they would have been torn between respect and pity for Clare, on the one hand, and a recollection that, nonetheless, they were Marxists, and as such they respected the ruthless, revolutionary nature of the historic bourgeoisie. The Communist Manifesto is strong on this point:

The bourgeois has subjected the country to the rule of the towns. It has created enormous cities, has greatly increased the urban population as compared with the rural, and has thus rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life.

What was enclosure but a part of this progress? As Captain Swing, a book by Eric Hobsbawm and George Rudé published in 1969, informs us very early on,

Between 1750 and 1840 the population of England and Wales multiplied by rather more than two. Yet it was estimated that in the 1830s home production of grain covered 98 percent of British consumption, that is to say, that British farming had not much less than doubled its output—a very dramatic rise for so traditional a form of production as farming.

And this dramatic rise was due not to the mechanization of agriculture, which came later, but to the putting of more land under cultivation, as a result of enclosure. Bate informs us that, contrary to myth,

Analysis of land-tax assessments and expenditure on parish relief suggest that in the case of Helpston more smallholders and tenant farmers lost their land in the years immediately before the enclosure than in its aftermath, whilst the labouring poor may actually have been marginally better off as a result of enclosure.

Such considerations make Paulin’s comparing enclosure to collectivization of agriculture under Stalin particularly far-fetched.

Clare, who abhorred violent revolution, and for the most part respected the aristocracy and the Church, was not easy to co-opt into the class struggle. Edward Bond, in The Fool, a play first performed in 1975 (Tom Courtenay played the poet), has him crushed by the elite. About this work Bond later wrote: “Clare was driven into madness by the ruling class, who made it impossible for him to produce culture in direct relationship with his society.”6 This Clare is seen as a total failure, and one of the ways the rulers crush him is by charging him for the punctuation of his work:

CLARE. …That letter from my publisher—he sold all they books—first book give him three editions—he say I owe him money! Hundred an’ forty pound! Work on the land you git ten bob a week. On’t live on that let alone pay him! Now he dump this on me an say cost price! Cost? Cost? That cost me the earth!

MRS EMMERSON. Publishing is business. Printing, advertising, copies for critics—

CLARE. Hev the world gone mad? No wonder they say I’m a clown!

MRS EMMERSON. Preparing the text. You don’t even punctuate. Your penchant for native words. The foreign languages your readers know are Latin and Greek—not East Anglian! Your—scribble has to be decoded and made accessible to polite society. That has to be paid for.7

The man in charge of the Oxford edition, Eric Robinson, must have been pleased at the support he received from Heaney and Paulin (“magnificent…blessings on those devoted editors,” exclaimed Paulin in 1992) and then perhaps surprised to find himself attacked, in a letter to the TLS (July 14, 2000), by a long list of signatories, including Heaney and Paulin. The issue was Robinson’s claim to copyright in Clare’s work, and his threatened defense of his rights. Robinson had been asserting this claim on copyright pages since at least 1964, and had been defending it assiduously. Now the long work on the Oxford edition (1984–2003) was drawing to a close, and Robinson’s claim was being challenged by a scholar called Simon Kövesi. Robinson had bought the copyright, so he believed, to Clare’s unpublished work. Kövesi was challenging this right by also going back to the manuscripts, and by editing them his own way (standardizing spelling and punctuation, insofar as possible) and making no acknowledgment of Robinson’s ownership.

Suddenly what had once looked to Heaney and Paulin like an “alternative social idea” (Clare’s raw text as published by Robinson et al.) came to resemble a sort of enclosure or an incarceration: Clare’s depunctuated poetry was stuck in the nine-volume Oxford edition, immensely expensive and anyway hard to obtain, with a textual apparatus which only a handful of people in the world would want to read; anyone who wished to print a Clare poem was expected to go to Robinson for approval, and perhaps to pay for that right. By ironic contrast, Kövesi’s “alternative social idea” was that Clare’s poetry belonged to the public. Like the early-twentieth-century editors (Symonds, Edmund Blunden, Geoffrey Grigson, and J.W. and Anne Tibble) who did so much to popularize Clare, Kövesi himself asserted no sort of copyright at all.

Kövesi’s two short selections from Clare, Love Poems (1999) and Flower Poems (2001), were published from Bangkok, which happened to make it hard for Robinson to sue, as he threatened. In the second of these selections, Kövesi says that

there is little evidence in Clare’s own words to support [the] politicisation of his spelling practice. What is much more likely is that Clare would have been horrified to see his works produced without the orthographic and typographic polish that his first and most successful editor John Taylor gave his work.8

In the matter of saying “Boo!” to Robinson, Kövesi seems to have been very effective. Jonathan Bate’s new selection does for Clare’s poetry in general what Kövesi did for the poems on love and flowers. It is greatly to be welcomed, even if, as I said in my previous article, the glossary is poor. Bate might also be persuaded to insert in the poem called “Don Juan” the stanzas which appear as 2 to 5 in the Oxford text, which are out of sequence in the manuscript, but which surely belong in the poem.

But Bate seems to me quite justified in his elaboration of the attack on “raw editing” or what he called in a recent Oxford seminar “textual primitivism.” He was attacked in turn, on technical grounds, for his use of this term in this context, but he made some telling points along the way. One was that Robinson will not allow Clare his own punctuation where it seems to him excessive (Clare had an early phase of exuberant overpunctuation, before giving up trying). Another was that there is an assumption behind the movement for “raw Clare” that there was something essentially peasant about bad spelling and punctuation. But aristocrats could be just as bad spellers, and expected editors to rescue them.

All in all, through his biography and his edition, Bate has already exerted a very good influence on the argument about Clare, and where I have disagreed with him I have done so in the hope of marginally influencing second editions of these two works. For instance, Bate can hardly allow the assertion to stand that Clare would have passed, in 1824, the magnificent premises of the Royal Academy at Burlington House—the Academy did not move there until 1869. Bate makes some mistakes. But on important matters such as Clare’s mental health he is a sympathetic, undogmatic interpreter of the evidence. Indeed, his remarks in general about depression (his diagnosis of Clare’s condition) seem to come from direct observation or experience. If this double contribution marks the beginning of a new, more disinterested phase of Clare criticism and scholarship, I should say that it is very good news indeed.

—This is the second of two articles.

  1. 1

    See “John Clare’s Genius,” The New York Review, September 23, 2004.

  2. 2

    Poems by John Clare, edited and with an introduction by Arthur Symons (London: Henry Frowde, 1908), pp. 17 and 23.

  3. 3

    John Clare’s Prog,” in The Redress of Poetry (Faber and Faber, 1995).

  4. 4

    Tom Paulin, Writing to the Moment (London: Faber and Faber, 1996), pp. 258–259.

  5. 5

    Tom Paulin, Minotaur: Poetry and the Nation State (London: Faber and Faber, 1992), p. 48.

  6. 6

    See Catherine Itzin, Stages in the Revolution: Political Theatre in Britain Since 1968 (London: Eyre Methuen, 1980), p. 78.

  7. 7

    Edward Bond, The Fool and We Come to the River (London: Eyre Methuen, 1976), p. 53.

  8. 8

    John Clare, Flower Poems, edited by Simon Kövesi (Bangkok: M&C Services, 2001).

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