JOHN CLARE

‘POPULARITY IN AUTHORSHIP’ (1824)

The European Magazine, November 1825 (New Series, Vol. I, No 3, pp. 300-303)


Transcribed, annotated and introduced

By John Birtwhistle


Occasion of the essay

On the twelfth of July 1824, John Clare found himself amongst a huge crowd watching Byron's funeral procession just as it left London for Nottingham. He began his essay on ‘Popularity in Authorship’ soon afterwards, and finished it that autumn. In its most sustained passage, he presented Byron as the supreme example of an author whose career poses the question: can popularity foretell true literary fame?

Clare’s remarkable account of the procession (Peterborough MS B3-71-72) meditates on fame in contrast to ‘Newspaper puffs and Magazine Mournings’. ‘The common people felt his merits & his power & the common people of a country are the best feelings of a prophecy of futurity they are the veins & arteries that feed & quicken the heart of living fame.’ The whole text is worth seeking out as a complement to the essay on popularity. It makes an effective close to 'The Autobiography' as arranged by Tibble and Tibble (1951). The re-transcription by Robinson and Summerfield (as a note to their 1964 edition of Frederick Martin’s The Life of John Clare (1865)) has been reprinted by Merryn and Raymond Williams in John Clare. Selected Poetry and Prose (1986) and by Robinson in John Clare’s Autobiographical Writings (1983). Clare's written and reported references to Byron are of course very numerous - especially two decades later, when he wrote his own 'Child Harold' and 'Don Juan A Poem' - but one other manuscript fragment is particularly related to the popularity essay. It is headed ‘Byron’ in Tibble and Tibble (1951), pp. 223-4 (compare the version quoted in their biography (1972), p.218).

The death of Byron was the immediate occasion of ‘Popularity in Authorship’, but the essay was also impelled by Clare’s anxiety that his own poems were slipping out of fashion. In 1821 his first book, Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery (1820) had sold 3,616 copies and gone into its fourth edition. His second, The Village Minstrel and Other Poems (1821), had sold 800 copies in three months. But already in 1823, Taylor had resorted to the ploy of announcing the remainder of The Village Minstrel as a 'second edition' and was reluctant to publish a further book of Clare's. The Shepherd's Calendar (1827) was to sell only 425 copies by 1829, and Clare's last book, The Rural Muse (1835), sold poorly with a new publisher.

Moreover, the decline in Clare’s market value coincided with a difficult period for poetry in general. Shelley’s essay ‘A Defence of Poetry’ had addressed this in 1821, although it was not published until 1840. Notoriously, in 1827 Taylor would be writing to Clare that 'The Season has been a very bad one for new Books, & I am afraid the Time has passed away in which Poetry will answer... the Shepherds Calendar has had comparatively no Sale...All the old Poetry buyers seem to be dead, and the new race have no taste for it... I think in future I shall confine my [financial] Speculations to works of Utility...'. Clare’s ‘Popularity in Authorship’ is, apart from anything else, a minor but unduly neglected document of his predicament in 1824, a crucial year for his life as a poet.

 


Manuscripts

There is a manuscript of the essay in the Northampton Public Library, and draft fragments are scattered amongst manuscripts at the Peterborough Museum and Art Gallery. Clare had asked Taylor to correct his prose articles for The European Magazine, and there was the usual tidying of punctuation and orthography (though not paragraphing). It would also appear, however, that in the printed version we are looking at a further state of Clare's own work. There is a substantial addition near the end (partly supplied by the Peterborough fragment D2-4). Elsewhere, minor verbal changes show Clare re-shaping his discriminations as to the spectrum of values implied by fame and reputation. For example, the manuscript expression ‘Whether Byron hath won true fame or not...’ becomes ‘What degree of favour Time will award to Byron…’ - which is a shift of thought.

‘Popularity in Authorship’ was in itself an attempt at popularity through essayistic journalism, and can be related to Clare’s publication of poems in newspapers and periodicals. His essays, drafted between 1822 and 1830, were a lengthy phase in his attempts to achieve a literary name. Anne Tibble includes six essays in John Clare. The Journal. Essays. The Journey from Essex (1980). (Of these, ‘On Honour’ (pp. 110-115) relates to that on popularity.) Robinson, Powell and Dawson add a ‘Rough sketch of an Essay sent to the London Mag: & never noticd’ (Cottage Tales, 1993). Grainger indexes forty-seven fragments amongst the Peterborough manuscripts as being intended for essays. Yet 'Popularity in Authorship' is the only essay of Clare's to be published in his lifetime. Soon afterwards, he wrote to Hessey that 'I dont think I shall trouble the 'European Magazine' much more with my contributions as the pay is but poor & the insertion very uncertain' (8/12/1825).


Publication

‘Popularity in Authorship’ was published anonymously in The European Magazine for November 1825 (N.S. I, 3, 300-303). It was reprinted by John Law Cherry in his Life and Remains of John Clare the `Northamptonshire Peasant Poet' (London and Northampton, 1873) and (together with its Northampton manuscript) by J.W. and Anne Tibble in The Prose of John Clare (1951). Clare’s poem 'The Gipsy's Song' ("The gipsies’ life is a merry life…") appeared, also unsigned, in the same number. It may be thought of as a fantasy of ‘uncontroll’d’ life outside the constraints implied by the essay.

The essay has never been fully annotated: the Tibbles merely identified the three book titles that I confirm in notes 4, 6 and 7 below. This reflects recent editorial concentration on the manuscript Clare: because the essay appeared in print, it is not included amongst the 'Essays' transcribed by Tibble (1980). Nor does it fit into either of the main categories of Clare's prose which have been edited since the Tibbles' edition of 1951 - namely the autobiographical writings edited by Tibble (1980) and Robinson (1983), and the natural history writings annotated by Grainger (1983). Accordingly, the essay has not been much discussed by critics, though George Deacon, in John Clare and the Folk Tradition (1983, pp. 45-5), notices it as a statement of Clare's views on oral poetry, and Mark Story takes it as a starting point for his essay on 'Clare and the Critics' (in Haughton, Phillips and Summerfield, John Clare in Context, 1994).

The present edition is based on a fresh transcription from The European Magazine. It does not collate the several manuscripts. It simply makes the printed form of the essay more accessible to modern readers by annotating its many proper names, titles and allusions. In the nature of Clare’s argument about transient popularity, some of the names he mentioned were disappearing from memory even as he wrote. My concern has not been to pile up encyclopaedic information about them, but rather to determine what they could have meant for Clare, with particular attention to his themes of fame and oblivion, and to the implicit issue of oral versus literate culture. His references confirm that his range extended to an ironic worldliness, as well as to a compressed, allusive way of thinking, that we have only recently learned to associate with the ‘Peasant Poet’. It is fortunate that the year of composition falls within the brief period of Clare’s Journal, and that his Autobiography was also under way. It is therefore possible to be firm about some of his reading – especially amongst his publisher John Taylor’s authors, who represented the metropolitan literary world that Clare was trying to enter. This edition is work in progress, and will be updated. I would of course be glad of any corrections or additions at Birtwhistle@aol.com.


The European Magazine text

 

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POPULARITY IN AUTHORSHIP.

—– "Rumour and the popular voice
Some look to more than truth, and so confirm
Opinions." – C
ARY’S DANTE. [1]

POPULARITY is a hasty and a busy talker; she catches hold of topics and offers them to fame, without giving herself time to reflect whether they are true or false―and Fashion is her favourite disciple who sanctions and believes them as eagerly and with the same faith as a young lady in the last century read a new novel, or a tavern-haunter in this reads the news. Now it becomes natural for Reason to inquire, whether such sandy foundations [2] as popularity builds on may be taken as indications of true fame; for it often happens that very slender names work a way into it, from many causes, with which merit or genius has no sort of connection or kindred―from some oddity in the manner, or incident in the life of the author, that is whispered over before he makes his appearance. This often proves the road to popularity, [3] for gossip is a mighty spell in the literary world, and a concealment of the author’s name often creates it and kindles an anxiety in the public notice. It leaves room for guesses and conjectures, and as all professed book-gossips are very fond of appearing wise in such matters, it becomes the small talk of the card party and the tea-table, and gains a superficial notoriety that has no resemblance to fame, not even to its shadow. Such was the case with the “Pursuits of Literature,” [4] a leaden-footed satire, that had as much claim to merit as the statue of Pasquin [5] in the market-place of Rome, which was celebrated for the vulgar squibs that were pasted upon it in the animosities of political squabbles. Everybody knew the author of this dead-letter “Pursuits of Literature,” and nobody knew him. The first names of the day were foisted into its fame, and when the secret that it belonged to one of the lowest was found out, its notoriety was gone, and it died in the little blaze that fashion had gilt upon its darkness, like the moth in a farthing taper!―Sometimes a pompous pretending title hits the mark at once, and wins a name. Who among the lower orders of youth is ignorant of “The Young Man’s best Companion,” by Mr. Fisher, Accountant, [6] or the “Book of Wisdom,” by Mr. Fenning Philomath? [7] These are almost as common as bibles and prayer-books in a cottage library. A conjecture is not hazarded in believing that popularity is but seldom the omen of true fame, but it assumes such a variety of Proteus [8] influences in its creations, that it would be a wide guess in many of its varieties to say whether it was any fame at all. Sometimes the trifling and the ridiculous grow into the most extensive popularities. Such was the share of it which a man gained by wearing a huge-brimmed hat, [9] and another who cut off the tail of his coat, and thereby branded his name on the remnant; but the spencers [10] are out of

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fashion―they have outlived many a poetic popularity. These are instances of the ridiculous. The trifling are full as extensive. Where is the poet that shares half such popularity as the names of “Warren, Turner, Day and Martin,” [11] whose ebony fames are spread through every little dirty village in England? These instances of the trifling and ridiculous made as much noise and stir in their day as the best; and noise, and stir, and bustle are the essence and the soul of popularity. But such things are poor grotesque pictures for personifications of fame. The nearest akin to popularity is “common fame,” [12] I mean those sorts of things and names that are familiar among the common people. It is not a very envious species, for they seldom know how to appreciate what they are acquainted with. The name of Chatterton [13] is familiar to their ears as an unfortunate poet, because they meet with his melancholy history in penny ballads and on pocket handkerchiefs, and the name of Shakespeare as a great play writer, because they have seen him nominated as such in the bills of strolling-players, who make shift with barns for theatres; but this sort of levelling makes a corresponding level in their minds, and the paltry ballad-mongers, whose productions supply hawkers with songs for country wakes and holidays, are poets with them, and they imagine them as great as the others, for common minds make no distinctions in these common fames. On the other hand there is something in it to wish for, because there are things of its kindred as old as England, that have out-lived centuries of popularity; nay, left half its histories in darkness, and live on as common to every memory as the seasons, and as familiar to children even as the rain and spring flowers. I allude to the old superstitious fragments of legends and stories in rhyme, that are said [14] to be of Norman and Saxon origin. Superstition lives longer than books; it is engrafted on the human mind till it becomes a part of its existence; and is carried from generation to generation on the stream of eternity, with the proudest of fames, untroubled with the insect encroachments of oblivion which books are infested with. There are also many desires to gain this common fame, and it is mostly met with in a manner where it is the least expected. While some affectations are striving for a life-time to hit all tastes, by only writing as they fancy all feel, and by not trusting to their own feelings, miss the mark by a wide throw, an unconscious poet of little name writes a trifle as he feels, without thinking of others, or fancying that he feels it, and becomes a common name. Unaffected simplicity is the every-day picture of nature―thus children’s favourites, “Cock Robin,” [15] “Little Red Riding Hood,” [16] “Babes in the Wood,” [17] &c. &c. leave impressions at the core that grow up with manhood and are beloved on. Poets anxious after common fame, as some of the “naturals” seem to be, imitate these things by affecting simplicity, and become unnatural. [18] These things found fame where the greatest names are still oblivious. A literary man might inquire after the names of Spenser and Milton in vain through half the villages in England, even among what are called their gentry; but I believe it would be difficult to find a corner in any county where the others were not known, or an old woman in any hamlet with whom they are not familiar. Yet these are not the soul of fame’s eternity―they are near cousins to popularity, but at best only common fame. In my days, some of the pieces of the living poets have gained a common fame, though it may only live for a season. Wordsworth’s beautiful ballad of “We are Seven,” [19] I have seen hawked about in penny ballads, and Tannahill’s song of “Jessy,” [20] has met with more popularity among the common people here, [21] than all the songs English and Scottish put together. Lord Byron’s hasty fame [22] may be deemed a contradiction to the above opinion, that popularity is

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not true fame, though at its greatest extent it is scarcely an exception, for his great and hurried popularity, that almost trampled on its own heels in its haste, must drop into a less bustling degree, and become more cool and quiet [23] as it approaches the silent and impartial stream of time, where the periodicals of fashion will have done with stilted praise, and the reader will find no entertainment in the popular voice of days gone by, and when merit shall be its own reward. [24] Every storm must have its calm, [25] and Byron took fame by storm: by a desperate daring he overswept petty control like a rebellious flood, or a tempest worked up into madness by the quarrel of the elements, and he seemed to value that daring as the attainment of true fame. He looked upon “Horace’s Art of Poetry” [26] no doubt with the esteem of a reader, but he cared no more for it in the profession of a poet than the weather does for an almanack; he thought of critics as the countryman thinks of a magistrate: he beheld them as a race of petty tyrants that stood in the way of genius: they were in his eye more of stumbling-blocks than guides, and he treated them accordingly. [27] He let them know that there was another road to Parnassus, [28] without taking theirs; and, being obliged to do them homage in stooping to the impediments of their authority, which stood like the paths of a besieged city encumbered with centinels, he made a road for himself, and, like Napoleon crossing the Alps, he let the world see that, even in the eye of a mortal, their greatest obstacles were looked on “as dust in the balance.” [29] He gained the envied eminence of living popularity by making a breach where the citadel was thought impregnable, and where others had laid siege for a lifetime, and lost their hopes and their labour at last. He gained the Parnassus of living applause by a single stride, and looked down as a free-booter [30] on the world below, scorning with seeming derision the praise that his labour had gained him, and scarcely returning a compliment for the laurels which fashion so eagerly bound around his brow. He saw the alarm of his leaden-footed enemies, and withered them to nothing with his sneer. He was an Oliver Cromwell with the critics, broke up their long standing parliament, [31] and placed his own will in the Speaker’s chair, which they humbly accepted: they submitted to one that scorned to be shackled, and champed the bit in his stead; they praised and worshipped him; he was all in all in their parties and writings; but I suspect their hearts had as much love for him, as the peasantry had for witches in the last century, who spoke well of them to their faces because they dared not do otherwise for fear of meeting an injury. What degree of favour Time will award to Byron I cannot tell,―my mind is too little to grasp such judgement. His popularity is of the highest order: it places him as the first of his age. But this is saying nothing for time. We have sufficient illustration for our argument in saying that popularity is not the forerunner of fame’s eternity: among all its bustle, there must only be a portion of it accepted as truth: time will sift it of its drossy puffs [32] and praises. He has been extolled as equal to Shakespeare, and I dare say the popular voice of many “readers” thought him superior, but Shakespeare has stood the winter of more than two centuries, and (in the language of the Hebrew bard) still “flourishes like a green bay-tree,” [33] and living popularity was not the forerunner of his fame. [34] Neither were Spenser nor Milton indebted to “popular applause;” yet their fames blossom in the sunshine of eternity, and have long towered above the little mildews of literary coquetry and fashionable quackery, of idle praise and censure, which fester round every living name that shares the popular voice: for the living praises of friends (like the living censures of enemies) are generally partial, and the former often injure future reputation more than the latter. One of the most absurd comparisons of this sort of praise is to be met with in

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“Landor’s Imaginary Conversations;” it is offered as serious, and therefore appears the greater burlesque and mockery. In a dialogue where Lord Byron is intended to be abused and Mr. Southey flattered, by “shadowing forth” [35] the one in the shade of Rochester, and the other as the inspiration of Milton. [36] Now this placing Southey in the sandals of Milton, though intended as a great compliment, is a great insult; for it instantly turns the sober eye of reason to Hudibrastic [37] similies and ridiculous comparisons; like Mother Hubbard’s “Cat in Boots,” [38] and such like awkward authorities. Thus Byron receives the praise and the other the mockery. Such are the partial censures of enemies and the flatteries of friends; but two centuries will wither every extravagance, and sober many a picture of its gaudy colours. Byron is one of the eternals, but as yet he is only one of those in the nineteenth century, and is too young to be placed above the venerables of time, let popularity noise and bustle as she may; for no doubt when all the eternals of the nineteenth century come to be weighed in the balance, even of the next, they will be found to be light weight against Shakespeare alone. Eternity will not rake the bottom of the sea of oblivion for puffs and praises, and all its attendant rubbish, the feelings that the fashion of the day created, and the flatteries it uttered. She will not seek for the newspaper that is illuminated with the puffing praise of Walter Scott’s (“the great unknown”) [39] fashionable oration over Caesar; [40] she will not look for Byron’s immortality in the company of “Rowland’s Kalydor” [41] and “Atkinson’s Bear’s Grease;” [42] she will seek it in his own merit, and her impartial judgement will be his best recompense. Wordsworth [43] has had no share of living popularity, though he deserves to be considered as great in one species of poetry as Byron was in another; but to have acknowledged such an opinion in the world’s ear some time back, would only have puckered the lips of fashion into a sneer against it. Yet his lack of living praise is no proof of his lack of genius; he has great beauties, and great faults―such things run parallel in great men. The brighter the sunbeam the deeper the shadow. The trumpeting clamour of public praise is not to be relied on as the creditor for the future to draw acceptances from; present fame is not the perpetual almanack to time’s fame; they often disclaim all kindred to each other. The quiet progress of a name gaining ground by gentle degrees in the world’s esteem is the best living shadow of fame: fashionable popularity changes like the summer clouds, while the simplest trifle, and the meanest thing in nature, is the same now as it shall continue to be till the world’s end: [44]

 

"Men trample grass, and prize the flowers in May,
But grass is green when flowers do fade away." [45]

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Notes

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[1]

The epigraph is slightly modified from the translation of Dante's Purgatory XXVI, lines 121-3, by Clare's correspondent the Revd. Henry Francis Cary (The Vision; or, Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise of Dante, 3 vols., 1814). The context is that some had preferred poets inferior to Arnaut Daniel, 'till truth/ By strength of numbers vanquish'd' (l.126). The lines were evidently important to Clare, as they are the only quotation in the notes for his Autobiography.

[2]

Matthew 7:26-7. In the parable, the house built upon sand was washed away, whereas (Matthew 16:18) Jesus founded his church upon a rock.

 

[3]

The Northampton manuscript reads 'mackadamizes the way to popularity' (Tibble and Tibble, 1951, read 'macadamized'). This antedates the figurative uses of 'macadamize' cited in the Oxford English Dictionary. The Scottish inventor John Loudon McAdam had perfected his method of road building in 1816: see his pamphlet, Remarks on the Present System of Road-Making. Impoverished by such schemes, he petitioned parliament and in the year of Clare's essay was voted £2000. Clare's Journal for 13/10/1824 tells us he read a 'letter on Macadamizing' in The London Magazine.

Clare often speaks of poets and their readers having to make or find a way, path or road. A dramatic example is to follow in the essay, when Byron is said to have ‘made a road for himself’ with Napoleonic energy and individualism. Conversely, he thought that ‘the neglect [of many poets] is only owing to the Publics finding no path that leads to their beautys’ (letter to Cary, 4/11/1827). The metaphor may owe something to Wordsworth’s Essay. Supplementary to the Preface in Poems (1815), which Taylor had quoted to Clare’s advantage in his 1820 ‘Introduction’ to Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery. At the same time, it had a material basis in agrarian change. Roadmaking affected Clare much as enclosure did – they were, in fact, two aspects of the same process. The edge of a field is often the line of a road. From the commercial viewpoint, enclosure was actually an opening up of the countryside – but it barred off the familiar tracks and free wandering so dear to Clare. In the same number of The Quarterly Review (May, 1820) that carried a review of his Poems Descriptive…, there was an unsigned notice of five books on road building, including a parliamentary report and two by McAdam. It made a clear connection between enclosure, and the change from ‘common tracks’ to ‘regularly constructed highways’: ‘While the greater part of any district was in a state of uncultivated nature, the inhabitants maintained one or two formed roads in the most important lines of communication, and in other directions took what track they chose, as a Calmuck over his steppe, or a La Plantan over his savanna… Of inclosures indeed we would speak respectfully… as usually facilitating the intercourse between place and place.’ (pp. 96-7)

 

[4]

The Pursuits of Literature, or What You Will: a Satirical Poem in Dialogue, by Thomas James Mathias (? 1754-1835), who published the first part anonymously in 1794. Other parts followed in 1797 and there were sixteen editions up to 1812 'when it sank into deserved oblivion' (Tibble and Tibble, 1951). Amongst other authors, it attacked Thomas Chatterton, with whom Clare identified, and Thomas Percy, whom he valued as a collector of songs and ballads. For example, Clare's journal for 5/11/1824 has him reading Percy's Reliques: 'take them up as often as I may I am always delighted there is so much of the essence & simplicity of true poetry that makes me regret I did not see them sooner as they woud have formd my taste & laid the foundation of my judgment in writing & thinking poetically as it is I feel indebted to them for many feelings'. Mathias preferred to praise Pope, and Gray whose Works he had edited (2 vols., 1814). The contemporary authors satirised in his Pursuits were mostly radicals, and in 1812 he became librarian at Buckingham Palace. Jon Mee (Dangerous Enthusiasm, 1992) sets the Pursuits among a series of satirical poems, such as William Gifford's The Baviad (1791) and the Anti-Jacobin satires, which sought to reinforce conventionally correct expression against the new taste for passionate simplicity. Mathias serves Clare as a paltry example of the publicity value of spurious anonymity, as opposed to the true anonymity of folksong - the larger case being that of Walter Scott, 'The Great Unknown' whom he derides later in the essay. There are two contemptuous references to the Pursuits of Literature in Landor's imaginary conversation between 'Southey and Porson' (Walter Savage Landor, Imaginary Conversations. Third Series. Dialogues of Literary Men (1883 (1824-9)), pp. 16, 21). Clare refers to Landor’s Imaginary Conversations below. His epithet ‘leaden-footed’ for Mathias is applied later in the essay to Byron’s critics.

 

[5]

Pasquino, the popular name for the worn stump of an ancient statue unearthed in 1501 and still to be seen off the Piazza Navona in Rome. Brief anonymous lampoons, often in verse, about current figures and events, were posted on it at night. Such squibs, often ascribed to famous C16th writers such as Aretino, were collected and published, giving rise to the term 'pasquinade' for this form of satire.

[6]

'George Fisher, Accomptant' first published The Instructor: or, Young Man's Best Companion: Containing, Spelling, Reading, Writing, and Arithmetick... in London about 1735. It reached its thirty-first edition in 1815: thereafter, the British Library has only one more, from 1853. See LC Karpinski, 'The Elusive George Fisher, "Accomptant" - writer or editor of three popular arithmetics' in Scripta Mathematica (N.Y., 1953). Clare's autobiography refers to the Companion amongst his early reading (Robinson, 1983, p.48).

 

[7]

The 'Philomath' (or lover of learning, especially science: one of the pen-names of Benjamin Franklin) was Daniel Fenning (flourished 1760-80), a prolific writer of guides to geography, arithmetic, bookkeeping and suchlike practical knowledge. His 'Book of Wisdom' is probably The Young man's Book of Knowledge: being a proper supplement to the Young Man's Companion... (four editions, 1764-1786). Amongst the early reading cited in Clare's autobiography, there are three references to Fenning's guides to arithmetic and spelling (see Robinson, 1983, pp. 9, 14, 15 and notes).

 

[8]

In Greek and Roman mythology, a sea-god who made himself elusive by continual changes of shape. The protean variety of nearly related phrases that the essay uses for popularity and fame can be confusing to the reader, but they reflect the real difficulty of discriminating between these forms.

 

[9]

For the return to fashion between 1819 and 1832 of the broad-brimmed hat, see Doreen Yarwood, English Costume (1975), p. 208.

 

[10]

The 'spencer' was a short double-breasted overcoat without tails, first mentioned in print around 1796 (Oxford English Dictionary). It is both an example of fashion and a satire upon it, being named after the second Earl Spencer who claimed fashions to be so absurd that he could set up a new one merely by cutting the tails off his coat and taking a stroll through London. In a fortnight the style was a London craze, which then spread to the continent and colonies. It is still the mess jacket of military officers. See R.R. Turner Wilcox, The Dictionary of Costume (1992). From 1819, Clare had received an annuity of £10 from the second earl. The satire on dandyism is sharpened by the essay’s going on to mention Spenser the poet.

 

[11]

Manufacturers of patent blacking for boots and fire-grates. In a letter to Taylor of about October 1831, Clare was still writing that: ' I see things praised that appear to me utterly worthless & read criticisms in the periodicals when I do see them that the very puffers of Blacking & Bearsgreese would be really ashamed of'. Thomas Babington Macaulay (in his 1830 review of Robert Montgomery’s poems) was to make a similar comparison with such advertisements: ‘All the pens that ever were employed in magnifying… Rowland’s Kalydor, all the wall-chalkers of Day and Martin, seem to have taken service with the poets and novelists of this generation.’

Richard Steele, in a testimonial supposedly received by The Spectator in 1712, had already remarked on 'the ingenious Authors of Blacking for Shooes, Powder for colouring the Hair, Pomatum for the Hands, Cosmetick for the Face... so that your Advertisements will as much adorn the outward Man, as your Paper does the inward.' In 1814, Thomas Moore referred to 'the vendor of Best Patent Blacking' in a satirical poem ('Parody of a Celebrated Letter') hoping, in a spoof of advertising copy, ‘To meet with the generous and kind approbation/ Of a candid, enlightened, and liberal nation.’ What made the advertisements of Clare’s time so ridiculous was the inflation of their language due to rivalry between two firms, both named Warren, founded by brothers who had quarrelled. As in the 'long eulogy of patent blacking' mentioned in Byron's Don Juan (XVI (1824), 26, 8), such advertisements were a kind of mock-heroic burlesque of high literature: they solemnly warned of the distinction between originality and imitation, and aped the genre of the critical puff. Byron himself was accused of accepting £500 for writing doggerel for Day and Martin’s blacking. Writing to his publisher, he pretended to fume: 'What is all this about... "Day and Martin's patent blacking."... Are the people mad, or merely drunken?'; but in an appendix to the first edition of The Two Foscari (1821), he graciously accepted that 'This is the highest compliment to my literary powers which I ever received'.

Although Clare did not know this, it is fitting to record that, also in 1824, the twelve-year-old Charles Dickens, his father being imprisoned for debt, was put to work for twelve hours a day washing and labelling bottles in a warehouse at Hungerford Market belonging to Robert Warren, the lesser of the brothers' blacking firms. That bitter servitude is remembered in the autobiographical fragment (1847) published in John Forster's Life of Charles Dickens (1872) and it surfaces compulsively in the novels - particularly in the description of Murdstone and Grinby's warehouse in David Copperfield, Ch XI (1849).

 

[12]

Compare William Hazlitt's phrase in his 1818 lecture ‘On Burns, and the Old English Ballads’ (which Clare probably read in October 1824) about the old Scottish ballad stories 'floating on the breath of old tradition or common fame' (ed. Howe, VIII (1930), p.140). As we can tell from Clare’s phrase a few lines later – ‘On the other hand there is something in it to wish for…’ – he was ambivalent about this form of popularity, being torn between his ambitions in London print culture and his affections for the still strongly oral culture of his home village.

 

[13]

Thomas Chatterton (1752-70). Clare exclaimed: 'what a wonderful boy was this unfortunate Chatterton' (Journal, 14/9/1824), in echo of Wordsworth's 'marvellous Boy, / The sleepless Soul that perished in his pride' ('Resolution and Independence', 1802; quoted in Hazlitt’s lectures (ed. Howe, VIII (1930), p. 122)). Chatterton wrote pastiche archaic poems as, more occasionally, did Clare. Again like Clare, he went to London in the hope of literary recognition. At first he wrote home 'in high spirits' and claimed 'great encouragement' from the publisher Dodsley amongst others but, after four months of poverty, killed himself with arsenic. In 1818, Clare had written: 'good God, how great are my Expectations, what hopes do I cherish! as great as the unfortunate Chattertons were on his first entrance into London which is now pictured in my Mind- & undoubtedly like him I may be building 'Castles in the Air' but Time will prove it.' (Letter to J.B. Henson; and see letters mentioning Cary's continuation of Johnson's Lives of the Poets in the London Magazine, particularly Cary's life of Chatterton.) As to Clare's sceptical point about the quality of Chatterton's fame, compare Hazlitt's lecture 'On Burns, and the Old English Ballads': 'It is his name, his youth, and what he might have lived to have done, that excite our wonder and admiration. He has the same sort of posthumous fame that an actor of the last age has - an abstracted reputation which is independent of any thing we know of his works.' (ed. Howe, VIII (1930), pp. 125-6)

 

[14]

It had been said, for example, by Thomas Percy, 'An Essay on the Ancient Minstrels in England' in his Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, I, (1765).

 

[15]

The rhyme is first recorded in Tommy Thumb's Pretty Song Book of about 1744. This date is in line with the interpretation that it mocked intrigues that had brought about the downfall of Robert Walpole's ministry; but much earlier folk and literary origins have been mooted (See Iona and Peter Opie, The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (1969 (1951), pp. 131-2). The British Library holds twelve chapbook editions from before about 1820.

 

[16]

The story is not popular (directly from oral tradition) but seems literary to the extent that it derives from Perrault and Grimm. It is, however, an example of a tale type (number 123), which is found internationally (Maria Leach, Funk and Wagnall’s Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend (1975), p. 636). It first appeared in English in Histories, or Tales of Past Times (1729). In 1803 the popular song-maker Charles Dibdin turned it into a pantomime: Red Ridinghood: or, The Wolf Robber. Some of Thomas Bewick's earliest woodcuts depict scenes from it. See Iona and Peter Opie, The Classic Fairy Tale (1974), pp. 93-4.

 

[17]

The old ballad 'The Children in the Wood', recorded by both Thomas Percy (Reliques, III (1775), ii, 18) and Joseph Ritson, was popularly known as the story of the Babes in the Wood. Of chapbook editions before about 1820, The British Library holds ten under the first title - beginning with The most lamentable and deplorable history of the Two Children in the Wood... To which is annex'd the old Song upon the same (London, 1760?)' - and five under the second, starting with an Edinburgh (?) ballad sheet of 1776. Joseph Addison had drawn attention to this ballad in an essay in The Spectator (No. 85, 7/6/1711).

 

[18]

Clare himself was promoted and received as 'the Poet as well as the Child of Nature' (John Taylor, 'Introduction' to Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery (1820)). In the context, however, the 'naturals' cannot be 'rustic' poets such as Robert Bloomfield and himself, but those who, 'affecting simplicity', imitate the style of orally transmitted 'stories in rhyme' or a song such as 'Cock Robin'. That would describe many of Wordsworth and Coleridge's Lyrical Ballads (1798). According to their programme, as Hazlitt expressed it in a lecture Clare was probably reading in October 1824, 'all was to be natural and new... They were for bringing poetry back to its primitive simplicity and state of nature' (ed. Howe, VIII (1930), pp. 161, 163; Clare's Journal for 22,23/10/1824). Francis Jeffrey, with Wordsworth particularly in mind, had written of 'the perverted taste for simplicity that seems to distinguish our modern school of poetry... The followers of simplicity are... at all times in danger of occasional degradation; but the simplicity of this new school seems intended to ensure it.' A poet should imitate the language of 'an enlightened and refined character', not of the 'poor and vulgar' (The Edinburgh Review, Oct. 1802). Richard Mant parodied Wordsworth in The Simpliciad (1808), and Byron and Shelley continued the mockery of him as dull and simple.

 

[19]

One of the Lyrical Ballads (1798). Clare's Journal of 29/10/1824 describes it as amongst his 'greatest favourites' in Wordsworth, whom he finds 'so natural and beautiful'. Simple in manner, and beginning with the words 'A simple child...', it was one of the Lyrical Ballads that critics derided for infantile simplism. Not only was 'We are Seven' one of the Lyrical Ballads that gained wider circulation through reprinting in magazines (Robert D. Mayo, ‘The Contemporaneity of the Lyrical Ballads’, PMLA, LXIX (1954), pp. 486-522). It was even beginning to enter anonymous popular culture in the way many ballads used to be formed: the British Library holds a chapbook, printed around 1820, of The Little Maid and the Gentleman; or, We are Seven (York: J. Kendrew), with no attribution to Wordsworth at all. Other examples of this phenomenon from the Romantic period are Robert Southey’s ‘The Story of the Three Bears’, and Jane Taylor’s ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star…’.

 

[20]

'Jessie the Flower o' Dunblane', one of the most popular pieces in Poems and Songs (1807) by Robert Tannahill (1774-1810), whose early reputation was second only to Burns. His fate, like Chatterton's, is poignant to Clare's own. A Paisley handloom weaver, his inspirations were 'the music of the shuttle' and the more sentimental aspects of Burns. When the publisher Constable refused a revised edition of Poems and Songs, Tannahill drowned himself in a canal. Clare praises this and two other songs of Tannahill in his Journal for 14th October 1824, and it is still one of those hummed by the ploughman in 'The hoar frost lodges on every tree...', a poem of the Northborough period (1832-37). There was an edition of Tannahill's Poems and Songs amongst Clare's books.

Clare believed there were many such 'neglected poets who illustrate the gardens of parnassus like the unnoticed blossoms on a summer landscape' (Letter to Taylor, around January 1832). 'I think many Poets only want to be more known to be more esteemed & admired & that the neglect is only owing to the Publics finding no path that leads to their beautys'; and the same goes for 'once popular poets' (Letter to Cary, 4/11/1827). To the stories of Chatterton and Tannahill should be added that of Robert Bloomfield, whom Clare much admired and whose biography he had thought of writing (Journal 12/10/1824). Riding the fashion for 'rustic' verse, Bloomfield's Farmer's Boy was said by its publisher to have sold 26,000 copies in under three years. It went into an American edition, and was translated into French and Italian. In the last five years of his life, however, Bloomfield illustrated Wordsworth's reflection on Chatterton and Burns: ‘We Poets in our youth begin in gladness;/ But thereof come in the end despondency and madness.’ ('Resolution and Independence', 1802). Bloomfield's 'physical and mental health had declined, his spirits become dejected, and his circumstances involved in embarrassment and vexation' (William Wickett and Nicholas Duval, The Farmer’s Boy (Lavenham, 1971), p.61). Hearing that Bloomfield had died in penury, Clare asked where 'the icy hearted pretenders' were that 'came forward once as his friends - but it is no use talking this is always the case - neglect is the only touchstone by which true genius is proved look at the every day scribblers... while the true poet is left to struggle with adversity and buffet along the stream of life with the old notorious companions of genius Dissapointment and poverty tho they leave a name behind them that posterity falls heir too and Works that shall give delight to miriads on this side eternity...' (letter to the watchmaker Thomas Inskip, 10/8/1824).

 

[21]

‘Here’ places the village of Helpston, rather than the London references, as the viewpoint of the essay.

 

[22]

Byron, the most popular poet as Scott was the most popular novelist of the age, is the figure who draws into constellation all the others mentioned by Clare in this essay. For his funeral as its occasion, see Introduction, above. Clare's sonnet on Byron's death, 'A splendid sun hath set…', is another statement about eternal fame versus 'shadows on times running stream'.

 

[23]

The Northampton manuscript reads 'become cool and quiet like the preaching of Irving'. Edward Irving, the Scottish revivalist minister described by De Quincey as 'unquestionably, by many, many degrees, the greatest orator of our times' ('Edward Irving' in London Reminiscences, ed. Masson, 1897, Vol. III, p. 121), and admired by Coleridge, Canning and Scott, had arrived in London in November 1822 and had not yet fallen from his renown as a preacher at the Caledonian Church in Hatton Garden. Thomas Carlyle's `Death of Edward Irving' (Fraser's Magazine, No. 61, 1835) described him as worn and wasted by London, and gives us another version of ruin by popularity: `By a fatal chance, Fashion cast her eye on him, as on some impersonation of Novel-Cameronianism, some wild Product of Nature from the wild mountains…’ Richard Cameron, the seventeenth-century Covenanter and field preacher, was founder of what Scott described (in the `Introduction' to Old Mortality, 1816) as `The religious sect called Hill-men, or Cameronians'. Carlyle goes on: ‘…Fashion crowded round him, with her meteor lights and Bacchic dances; breathed her foul incense on him; intoxicating, poisoning.... Fashion went her idle way, to gaze on Egyptian Crocodiles, Iroquois Hunters, or what else there might be; forgot this man, - who unhappily could not in his turn forget.... O foulest Circean draught, thou poison of Popular Applause! madness is in thee, and death; thy end is Bedlam and the Grave.' Clare's Journal for 23 May 1825 noticed it as a 'Wonder' that Irving's congregations were being exceeded by Benson's. His phrase in the essay manuscript may refer not to the beginnings of a decline in Irving's reputation, but rather to diminuendo as a feature of his rhetoric. Compare Gilfillan's portrait 'Edward Irving, and the preachers of the day': 'his voice deep, clear, and with crashes of power alternating with cadences of softest melody' (George Gilfillan, A Gallery of Literary Portraits (Edinburgh, 1845), p.225).

 

[24]

The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs gives ‘Virtue is her own reward’ as a translation (1642) by Sir Thomas Browne from the Latin of Claudian. Proverbs are, of course, another form of oral literature.

 

[25]

The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs gives ‘After a storm comes a calm’ (or vice versa!) as a proverb on record since about the year 1200.

 

[26]

Horace’s Ars Poetica is made to stand for neo-classical principles of criticism that Byron in fact respected.

 

[27]

Compare Walter Scott, ‘Character of Lord Byron’ in The Edinburgh Weekly Journal, 19/5/1824: ‘As an author, he refused to plead at the bar of criticism; as a man, he would not submit to be morally amenable to the tribunal of public opinion.’ (Reprinted in The Pamphleteer, Vol. XXIV (1824), p. 171.)

 

[28]

A mountain in central Greece, sacred to Apollo and the Muses: hence, poetic fame.

 

[29]

Isaiah 40:5,15: 'And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed... Behold the nations are as a drop of a bucket, and are counted as the small dust of the balance.'

 

[30]

A piratical adventurer.

 

[31]

The Long Parliament, summoned by Charles I in 1640, although not finally dissolved until 1660, was disrupted by Cromwell when he became Protector in 1653.

 

[32]

‘Puff is a cant word for the applause that writers and Book-sellers give their own books &c. to promote their sale.’ The London Magazine, Vol. I (1732), p. 81. ‘And the puff of a dunce he mistook it for fame…’ (Oliver Goldsmith, ‘Retaliation. A Poem’, second edition 1774, line 110).

 

[33]

Psalms 37:35: 'I have seen the wicked in great power, and spreading himself like a green bay tree'. The description of the psalmist as a ‘Hebrew bard’ follows a pre-Romantic attitude to the Bible as literature, as formed by Robert Lowth’s Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews (1787; translated 1787, reprinted 1816).

 

[34]

A little earlier in the essay, the Northampton manuscript has ‘Shakespear was hardly noticed in his life time by popularity, but he is known now + Byron is hardly the 10th part of a Shakespear’. Clare’s belief is exaggerated, but reflects the rise in Shakespeare’s cultural status between the age of Dryden and the age of Coleridge (See Jonathan Bate, Shakespeare and the English Romantic Imagination (1989): the primary documents are in Brian Vickers, Shakespeare. The Critical Heritage (6 vols. 1974-)). Throughout the seventeenth century, the gold standard of dramatic criticism had been Ben Jonson (Gerald Eades Bentley, Shakespeare and Jonson. Their reputations in the seventeenth century compared (Chicago, 1945).

 

[35]

The phrase is not firmly traced, although it does appear in ‘Desultory Thoughts in London’ by Charles Lloyd, whom Clare read. Compare A Midsummer Night's Dream, V, i, 14-15: '... imagination bodies forth/ The forms of things unknown'.

 

[36]

The first two volumes of Walter Savage Landor's Imaginary Conversations of Literary Men and Statesmen had appeared in 1824. In the dialogue between Bishop Burnet and Humphrey Hardcastle, Byron is satirised as Rochester's illegitimate son, but I have not found anything exactly corresponding to Clare’s reference. Landor later regretted his attitude to Byron.

 

[37]

Mock-heroic, after the manner of the Samuel Butler's long poem Hudibras, published 1663-78.

 

[38]

This confusing reference has manuscript authority (Peterborough D2-4). Clare seems to have conflated two titles: the nursery rhyme of 'Old Mother Hubbard' and the folktale 'Puss in Boots', on the model of titles whimsically attributing folk rhymes or stories to ‘Mother Goose’.

The Comic Adventures of Old Mother Hubbard and Her Dog, a rhyme by Sarah Catherine Martin, first appeared as a toy book in 1805 and, partly because it was read as a political squib, sold more than ten thousand copies in a few months. It became so successful that it was widely pirated in chapbooks and became one of their stock productions (Iona and Peter Opie, The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhyme (1951), pp. 391-20). The British Library holds seven editions published before about 1820. 'Peter Pindar' complained at how the public doted on the story (John Wolcot, Tristia: or the sorrows of Peter, 1806).

'Puss in Boots', on the other hand, is undoubtedly of folk origin, belonging to 'the great helpful animal' cycle which is found all over the world. Perrault's version, Le Chat Botté (1697), has altered the detail of the older folk form wherever it has penetrated (Maria Leach, Funk and Wagnall’s Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend (1975), pp.912-3). Iona and Peter Opie, in The Classic Fairy Tales (1974, pp. 113-116) give an English text from Histories, or Tales of Past Times (1729).

 

[39]

Walter Scott, whose Waverley was published in 1814, published novels as 'The Author of Waverley' until 1825, although his identity became an open secret. For the coinage of the phrase 'the great unknown' around 1818, see John Wilson Lockhart, Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott (Edinburgh, 1844), p. 382. The reviewers played along with this by calling him 'the Great Unknown'. In a careful assessment of the reasons for Scott's 'anonymity', Thomas Crawford (in A. Norman Jeffares, Scott’s Mind and Art (Edinburgh, 1969, p.12)) includes 'appreciation of the value of mystery as a publicity device'. In April 1824, William Hazlitt, in an essay that was to become a chapter of his The Spirit of the Age, had described Scott as 'undoubtedly the most popular writer of the age', and this is borne out by recent scholarship. Scott's own reflections on popularity in authorship are to be found in, for example, his 'Introduction' to The Abbot (1831).

 

[40]

The reference to Caesar is untraced. The Northampton manuscript simply reads 'the newspaper praise of Walter Scott', and one of the Peterborough manuscript fragments has: 'he [Byron] stood in no need of Newspaper praise not even from Walter Scott' (B3-72). Byron died in Greece on 19th April, the news arrived in England on 14th May, and from then until the funeral there were almost daily newspaper reports of details from Greece and arrangements for the body. Scott published his rather moralistic 'Death of Lord Byron' in the Edinburgh Weekly Journal for 19/5/1824.

 

[41]

Rowland's Kalydor was a skin tonic based on almond oil, advertised in 1824 as 'a never-failing specific for all cutaneous deformities' (Cecil Willett Cunnington, Feminine Attitudes in the Nineteenth Century (London, 1935), p. 309).

Another of Rowland’s vaunted unguents was Macassar oil for the hair, supposedly made from ingredients obtained from Macassar (now in Indonesia), and the reason for the ‘antimacassar’. Amongst its clients were Byron, and the White Knight in Through the Looking-Glass. In the first Canto of Don Juan (1819), Juan's mother had been extolled in terms that mock the grandiloquent advertisements of Rowland & Son: ‘In virtues nothing earthly could surpass her,/ Save thine 'incomparable oil', Macassar'. (I, 17, 7-8). See Alex Rowland junior's Essay on... the Human Hair, with Remarks on the Virtues of the Macassar Oil (1809).

 

[42]

Proprietary name for the fat of the bear, which had long been used in medical and cosmetic preparations (Oxford English Dictionary, where citations include Thackeray's Irish Sketch Book (1843)). As a specimen of advertisements for bears’ grease, see The Times, 22/1/1824. Marilyn Butler, Peacock Displayed (1979), pp. 186-7, quotes an 1832 anecdote apparently showing Peacock’s awareness of such advertisements (quoting Mountstewart E. Grant Duff, Notes from a Diary (1897), Vol. I, p. 60). A trade label, showing the doomed bear holding in its mouth its proprietary name on a scroll, is reproduced in Blanche Cirker et al., 1800 Woodcuts by Thomas Bewick and his School (N.Y., 1962).

[43]

The retrospective phrase 'to have acknowledged... some time back' shifts from 'to acknowledge' in the Northampton manuscript, where Clare had still said of Wordsworth that he 'has had no share of popularity - tho he bids fair to be as great...' etc. (Tibble and Tibble (1951) read ‘little’ for ‘no’ share). This may reflect Clare's immediate experience of having to discover Wordsworth's value despite surrounding opinion - 'When I first began to read poetry I dislikd Wordsworth because I heard he was dislikd' (Journal, 29/10'1824). He may have heard some version of the judgement against Wordsworth’s 'despicable Simplicity'. Wordsworth was still thinking of himself as neglected in the Essay. Supplementary to the Preface of 1815. As late as 1840-1, when Wordsworth was so established that he would be made poet laureate in 1843, Clare still felt him vulnerable, and in the sonnet 'To Wordsworth' beginning 'Wordsworth I love, his books are like the fields...', urged him to go on to be a greater poet yet, for 'Merit will live, though parties disagree.' The underlying point is that even great poets such as Wordsworth, Shakespeare and perhaps Byron, were subject to the same buffetings of Fortune as the likes of Chatterton and Tannahill. Clare's Journal for 11/9/1824 shows him interested in De Quincey's article denying Goethe equal status to Homer and Shakespeare.

 

[44]

Compare the 'Gloria' from The Book of Common Prayer: 'As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be: world without end. Amen.'

 

[45]

Clare also quoted this ‘fine couplet’ in his letter to Taylor of about January 1832, speaking of ‘many… neglected poets who illustrate the gardens of parnassus like the unnoticed blossoms on a summer landscape’. They are slightly modified from the last lines of 'Scorn Not The Least' by Robert Southwell, the sixteenth-century Jesuit martyr whose more famous lyric is 'The Burning Babe'. The lines play with the biblical ambivalence about grass, that it sustains the life of a pastoral people but is also an emblem of transience and mortality. If they still appear trite, they should be considered, like Clare's, against the cruel conditions in which they were achieved: see Geoffrey Hill, 'The Absolute Reasonableness of Robert Southwell' in The Lords of Limit. Essays on Literature and Ideas (1984). The theme of the poem is consistent with Clare's phrase 'the meanest thing in nature'.

Southwell was no doubt reflecting on New Testament themes (e.g. Matthew 25:40), but he does so through a variety of natural emblems, mentioning sixteen natural creatures in the twenty-four lines of this poem, and he can even suggest Clare's own particularity of observation:

While pike doth range the silly tench doth fly,
And crouch in privy creeks with smaller fish...

The couplet Clare quotes resembles some of his own, for example in 'Shadows of Taste' (ll. 93-4):

Yet truth to nature will in all remain
As grass in winter glorifies the plain.

While many of Clare's examples are from writers who, as he wrote, would be remembered only by those brought up in his own childhood years, he believed this poem to be forgotten in his own time. He was still protesting at its neglect in a letter of 1832 (Mark Storey, The Letters of John Clare (1985), p. 562). So to finish on it was a teasing challenge to trawl the collective memory for something Clare felt should be more fully remembered.


Online version editor Simon Kövesi
Last version: 27 June 2001