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John Clare’s Genius

John Clare and the Folk Tradition

by George Deacon
London: Francis Boutle, 400 pp., £15.00 (paper)


In heaven, too,
You’d be institutionalised.
But that’s all right—
If they let you eat and swear
With the likes of Blake,
And Christopher Smart,
And that sweet man, John Clare.

—“Heard in a Violent Ward,” Theodore Roethke

Roethke’s “sweet man,” John Clare (1793–1864)—loved, like Blake and Smart, for a perceived wisdom in his madness—has long been an honored presence among the poets of the English language. Of the English, Edmund Blunden, Geoffrey Grigson, and James Reeves were among his editors, and Auden (who borrowed words from John Clare in his “Letter to Lord Byron”) put him into at least three anthologies. Of the Irish, Patrick Kava-nagh and Michael Longley wrote poems about him, while Tom Paulin and Seamus Heaney (as we shall see) turned him into a quasi-political figurehead.

As to America, the examples are numerous. After Roethke, there was a hippie Clare (as there was a hippie Blake) in the American Sixties. Yvor Winters loved Clare and it was presumably under his influence that Robert Pinsky and Robert Hass came to read and admire him. Then there is a New York School Clare to be encountered in John Ashbery’s poem “For John Clare” (the inspirer of many other poems with similar dedications1 ) and in his charming, more recent Norton lectures.2

There we learn that it was Clare’s prose fragment “House or Window Flies” that started Ashbery examining the possibilities of what he calls “prosaic poetry” (I would have assumed that the models were French). Since the prose poem is so popular a form in the States today, it is worth examining this influential fragment in full:

These little indoor dwellers, in cottages and halls, were always entertaining to me; after dancing in the window all day from sunrise to sunset they would sip of the tea, drink of the beer, and eat of the sugar, and be welcome all the summer long. They look like things of mind or fairies, and seem pleased or dull as the weather permits. In many clean cottages and genteel houses, they are allowed every liberty to creep, fly, or do as they like; and seldom or ever do wrong. In fact they are the small or dwarfish portion of our own family, and so many fairy familiars that we know and treat as one of ourselves.

The strangeness of this description might be attributed by some to the fact that it was transcribed in the madhouse to which Clare was confined. But for Ashbery, madness does not come into it. Rather it is a case of

a kind of nakedness of vision that we are accustomed to, at least in America, from the time of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, down to Robert Lowell and Allen Ginsberg. Like these poets, Clare grabs hold of you—no, he doesn’t grab hold of you, he is already there, talking to you before you’ve arrived on the scene, telling you about himself, about the things that are closest and dearest to him, and it would no more occur to him to do otherwise than it would occur to Whitman to stop singing you his song of himself. It is like that “instant intimacy” for which we Americans are so notorious in foreign climes. Clare bears you no ill will and doesn’t want to shock or pain you, but that isn’t going to make him change his tale one whit; if you suddenly burst into tears, that will seem to him another natural phenomenon, like the rain or the squeal of a badger.

And, in a marvelous image, Ashbery tells us that Clare “often starts up for no reason, like a beetle thrashing around in a weed patch, and stops as suddenly.”

Clare, Whitman, Ashbery: there is a book recently out from Harvard, A New Theory for American Poetry by Angus Fletcher, which takes this trio as exemplifying “environmental poetry.” Clare here is seen as “a naive philosopher,” one who writes in the language of “naive scientific astonishment,” but is also in some sense a pre-Socratic in his metaphysics and one of those whose sense of space might be usefully examined by way of Jacques Derrida’s reading of what turns out to be an obscure and possibly incoherent passage in Plato’s Timaeus. I cannot follow this book’s argument, but only mention it here as the latest version of the American Clare, whose poetry, according to Fletcher, “is a lesson in the paradox of the nondescript, since in describing the nondescript, he reaches out to some of the most teasing questions we may propose in relation to Being.”

John Clare left at his death some three and a half thousand poems and a much smaller body of prose works—a journal, an autobiography that survives only in fragments, some letters, and some writings on natural history. In his life he was known as a peasant poet, and is still described thus, although in the strict and useful sense he was not a peasant. There was no peasant class in the England of his day. Clare was a landless agricultural laborer. He was not a dialect poet in the sense that, say, William Barnes or Paul Laurence Dunbar were dialect poets, but he used some dialect words and sometimes a nonstandard grammar.

He also—and here the difficulties begin—used standard words in ways that can mislead modern readers. The word “molehill” can mean (what it means to us in England today) the pile of earth thrown up by a mole, but also any small hillock or hummock: if he sits on a “thymey molehill,” that is a hummock in the second sense. In the entry for January 11, 1825, in his journal, he records that he “began to fetch maiden earth from molehills for my flower beds,” that is in the first sense of the word. To modern English ears, when he says he sat on a molehill, that sounds daft because a molehill in the first sense would not support a person’s weight. Clare went mad, but he was never daft.

Seamus Heaney, in his centenary lecture “John Clare’s Prog,” pays particular attention to a sonnet of Clare’s about finding a mouse’s nest. The poem begins:

I found a ball of grass among the hay
And progged it as I passed and went away.

Heaney loves this use of the word “prog,” which seems to him to convey the essential “here-and-nowness, or then-and-thereness, of what happened.” Such stubby, rural-sounding vocabulary has indeed been many a modern poet’s friend. But Heaney also extols Clare’s use of “at” and “and” and “when” in ways that make one think he should be congratulating the English language rather than the individual poet.

Heaney comes to the final couplet of the poem, with its sudden evocation of the landscape:

The water oer the pebbles scarce could run
And broad old cesspools glittered in the sun.

Here, in a resounding rhetorical flourish, a smiting of the harp, Heaney finds that

the eye of the writing is concentrated utterly upon what is before it, but also allows what is before it deep access to what is behind it. The eye, at any rate, does not lift to see what effect it is having upon the reader; and this typical combination of deep-dreaming in-placedness and wide-lens attentiveness in the writing is mirrored by the cesspools as they glitter within the sun. They too combine a deep-lodged, hydraulic locatedness within the district with a totally receptive adjustment to the light and heat of solar distances.3

I wonder, though, what Heaney had in mind when contemplating these deep-lodged, hydraulically located cess-pools. What precisely (since precision is the theme) are we looking at in Clare? And what was Heaney’s audience, what are his readers, imagining?

My guess is that people dimly suppose that we are, as the now famous poem implies, standing in a hay field, and that somewhere in the middle distance, far enough off to be not too offensive, there is the nineteenth-century equivalent of the sort of small sewage farm one finds tucked away in today’s landscape. This is clearly what Anne Barton, applauding this passage in Heaney and Clare, understands:

Relaxing his intense concentration upon the field mice, Clare had looked up, across the parched midsummer flatlands of Northamptonshire, to record an almost Words-worthian epiphany: a sudden, and piercing, clarity of vision. Words-worth, however, for all his talk about “a selection of the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation,” would have been incapable of admitting “cesspools” into a poem—let alone implying that they might be beautiful.4

And here is Ashbery, in his lecture on Thomas Lovell Beddoes, applying himself appreciatively to the same couplet:

[Clare’s] attention turns, as the poem is signing off, to the undistinguished landscape. The water is having difficulty making its way over the pebbles. It must be a dry summer. The only hint of grandeur in the closure is the appearance of the cesspools—broad, old, glittering, they have their dignity under the sun, even though most travelers would hurriedly pass them by with pinched noses.

And so on.

What we hear ringing from the collective handbag, in such passages, is the mobile phone of inadvertent anachronism. There were no such cloacal arrangements in Clare’s day, as a moment’s thought should have told these clever readers. The cesspits of the villages served each individual cottage, and were not connected to some distant works. If only they had been. They were at each back door. They were small, of a cubic capacity of some eighteen to twenty feet, surmounted by an outhouse or shed. They glittered not. They were underground chambers, emptied two or three times a year. They disgusted Florence Nightingale and they probably held no charm for Clare.

The text should anyway probably read, as in Jonathan Bate’s admirable new selection:

The water o’er the pebbles scarce could run>
And broad old sexpools glittered in the sun.

Sexpools is only a dialect variant on cesspools, but at least it warns us not to think of shit. The Oxford edition of Clare tells us that “cesspools” “refers to water which gathers on the ‘cess’ or land between a river and its bank when the river is low.”5 Bate, with equal conviction, speaks of “sexpools” as “rainwater pools in areas where peat has been dug out.” I prefer Bate’s reading, (a) because such cuttings might well be both “broad” and “old,” and (b) because the resultant image is so like something out of Heaney (“My father progged the flaxdam in the sexpool,/Now I prog after him”). Wordsworth’s leech-gatherer (“From pond to pond he roamed, from moor to moor”) undoubtedly peered into many sexpools, in the course of a day’s work.

The problem lies in the familiar, not just the unfamiliar, words. And the problem comes, in part, from the reader expecting a rustic daftness. Bate, in his new biography, tells us that Clare, in an early sonnet, “remembered how he would stand watching the light-blue smoke pour from the chimney and think of his family gathered round the fire within. His eye would be drawn to the yellow flowers of the leeks grown in the thatch as a charm against lightning.” But Clare no more had leeks growing from his thatch than he had carrots coming out of his ears. Leeks wouldn’t grow in thatch. Turning to the source of Bate’s misunderstanding, however, we find:

  1. 1

    See, for instance, Sandra McPherson’s Journey from Essex: Poems for John Clare (Graywolf, 1981). I am grateful to Saskia Hamilton for her thoughts on Clare’s contemporary reception in America.

  2. 2

    John Ashbery, Other Traditions (Harvard University Press, 2000), pp. 18–19.

  3. 3

    Seamus Heaney, The Redress of Poetry (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), pp. 65–68.

  4. 4

    Anne Barton, “The Village Genius,” The New York Review, December 19, 1996.

  5. 5

    The “Consolidated Glossary” for the Oxford edition appears in the final published volume, which is John Clare: Poems of the Middle Period 1822–1837, Vol. 5, edited by Eric Robinson, David Powell, and P.M.S. Dawson (Oxford University Press, 2003).

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