Getting Clare Clear

John Clare
John Clare; drawing by David Levine

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…

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