The Village Genius

John Clare
John Clare; drawing by David Levine


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…

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