In Place and Out of Place: Clare in The Midsummer Cushion

by Richard Cronin

University of Glasgow

This essay originally appeared in John Clare: New Approaches, eds. John Goodridge and Simon Kovesi (Helpston: John Clare Society, 2000).
©Richard Cronin, 2000

It is a very old custom among villagers in summer time to stick a piece of greensward full of field flowers & place it as an ornament in their cottages which ornaments are called Midsummer Cushions
(Clare, headnote to The Midsummer Cushion, PMS A54)

There are, and have been for some years, two tendencies evident in the critics of John Clare. One group, led by John Barrell, celebrates Clare as a local poet. For them, Clare’s poems are uniquely valuable because through their diction and their syntax they express a mode of perception that would otherwise remain unarticulated. In reading these poems, the argument runs, we are allowed to see the world as it appeared to a particular social group, the agricultural labourers, at a particularly interesting time, the period during which the agricultural industry underwent the process of capitalization, and from a particular place, the village of Helpston in Northamptonshire. (1) Associated with this group are all those critics, many of them, like Seamus Heaney and Tom Paulin, poets themselves, who value above all Clare’s use of the language that Helpston gave him, all those words sticky as frog-spawn—‘soodling’, ‘sloomy’, ‘gulsh’d’, ‘crizzling’, ‘crumping’—that lend the objects in Clare’s poems a palpability in comparison with which the natural world as represented by other poets can seem bleached, faded into an idea. (2) A second group of critics, as yet a smaller one, (3) seems anxious that Clare should be marketed by modern critics in a way that so unnervingly recalls the stratagem of his first publisher, John Taylor, who sold Clare’s first volume of poems as the work of a peasant poet. For them, the crucial task is to establish John Clare’s right to the place that he repeatedly claimed for himself, within the major tradition of English poetry, in ‘the eternity of song’ (‘To a Poet’).

    Clare was, of course, as the title of the 1994 Clare conference held at the Nottingham Trent University reminds us, a ‘self-taught poet’, but it is worth pausing for a moment over that phrase. It is used to describe poets who had little or no formal education, and points therefore to a common biographical fact rather than to any shared quality in the poems written by those who have been so described. There is a sense, after all, in which all English poets of the modern period have been self-taught, there being no system of apprenticeship in literature of the kind that obtains in the fine arts. A contemporary of Clare’s, who had himself been accused of lacking the education proper to a poet, insisted that ‘every man whose soul is not a clod’ might claim that title ‘if he had loved / And been well nurtured in his mother tongue’, (4) and if this is the education proper to a poet then Clare, like Keats, might claim to be rather well-educated, well-nurtured not only in his mother tongue but in its poetry. Byron and Shelley had access to classical literature and to the literature of a number of modern European languages, but I do not think that either had the wide and deep familiarity with English poetry from the sixteenth century to his own time that Clare could claim. When, in 1831, Taylor sent him Southey’s selections of the British poets ‘from Chaucer to Jonson’, Clare was pleased to find Surrey, the two Fletchers and Wither represented, and especially pleased by Browne’s Britannias Pastorals, but he was disappointed by the volumes: ‘where is Suckling & where is Herrick & twenty more that ought to have been there’. (5) It is the response of an unusually well-read man.

    Clare read for pleasure, but he read, too, because he had since his early youth bound himself apprentice in the craft of poetry. It was at precisely the time of this letter, 1831, that Clare was compiling the manuscript that, though it remained unpublished until 1979, constitutes his most substantial single volume, The Midsummer Cushion, and the poems collected here are those of a man who has mastered his craft. Let me give three, brief examples, chosen almost at random. In the sonnet ‘Field Thoughts’ Clare praises, as he often does, wild flowers, which move him because their beauty is not produced by a gardener’s care, and because they are tended by nothing ‘But dews & sunshine & impartial rain...’ (Middle Period, IV, p. 311). It is a quiet line raised into monumental finality by its single epithet, a technique that in English poetry is much more commonly associated with poets steeped in the classics than with poets in the self-taught tradition. Or take a couplet from ‘Pleasures of Spring’:

How beautiful the wind awakes and flings
Disordered graces o’er the face of things (ll. 321-2; Middle Period, III, p. 61)

As John Barrell, among others, notes, Clare was fond of invoking an aesthetics of disorder, but in this couplet what strikes is how gracefully the enjambment disorders the pentameter lines. Or take the final line of ‘St Martins Eve’, a rural idyll in the tradition of poems such as Burns’s ‘The Cotter’s Saturday Night’, but written in Spenserian stanzas. The poem closes as the revellers walk home: ‘While every lanthorn flings long gleams along the snow’. Keats has very often been praised for his handling of the final alexandrine of the Spenserian stanza—‘And the long carpets rose along the gusty floor’—but Clare finds a way to register in the sense of the line its metrical extension in a manner that makes Keats’s effect seem in comparison a little studied.

    The confident expertise so repeatedly evident in The Midsummer Cushion is on the face of it an uncomplicated good. The presiding pathos underlying Gray’s Elegy is that Gray, the super-educated don, fastidiously literate in several languages, must himself step forward to tell the ‘artless tale’ of the rural poor, for the poor cannot adequately, in the ‘uncouth rhymes’ on the churchyard stones, memorialise their own lives. In the rural villages there are only those who might have been poets, Miltons who, for lack of education, must remain ‘mute’ and ‘inglorious’. Clare, it might be said, by the mid-1820s had broken down the barrier that Gray mourns between the experience of the rural poor and the eloquence necessary to articulate it. (6) But Clare repeatedly indicates that, however heartening such a view might be, it fails to convince, for it may be that the experience of Gray’s villagers is not simply hidden by their inability to articulate it, waiting to be revealed by someone like John Clare who had miraculously learned to master the arts of eloquence, but rather that theirs is an experience that is constituted by their inarticulacy, by their muteness, and therefore an experience that is falsified precisely by virtue of its being spoken.

    The crucial matter for Clare is literacy. ‘Both my parents was illiterate to the last degree’, he writes, and goes on to catalogue his father’s reading with unusual precision: the Bible, penny broadsheets, Nixons Prophecy, Mother Bunchs Fairy Tales, and Mother Shiptons Legacy (By Himself, p. 2). It is an attentiveness that is reproduced in the poems, as when the ‘Village Doctress’ pores over ‘Culpeppers Herbal’ and ‘Westleys Physic’, and on Sundays reads ‘Bunyan’s Pilgrim’ or

seeks her ancient prayer book wrapt with care
In cotton covers lest her hands should soil
The gilded back full loath is she to spoil
A book of which her parents took such heed (ll. 192-5; Middle Period, III, p. 341)

The ‘Cottager’ has his prayer-book and Bunyan, too, and also Tusser’s Husbandry and The Death of Abel. (7) The ‘Shepherd’, when he sits by his fire after work, sometimes ‘takes up a book full of stories and songs’, and in the sonnet ‘A Awthorn Nook’ the nook is occupied by a shepherd who ‘on his elbow lolls to read / His slip of ballads bought at neighbouring fair’. (8) When Clare records a house like the ‘Shepherd’s Lodge’ in the poem of that title, that is entirely without books, he pauses to ponder the fact. Its tenant is

To books unknown he never knows
What they to thinking minds supply
& yet his simple knowledge shows
Much wiser men might profit bye (ll. 103-6; Middle Period, III, p. 541)

Clare notes, then, the reading habits of his neighbours, but he also notes his own, not just in his autobiographical writings, as in the twice-narrated story of how his reading of Thomson’s Seasons made him a poet, (9) or in his Journal, in which he planned to set down his ‘opinion’ of the books that he read, but in the poems themselves. In fact, Clare, more frequently than any of his contemporaries, more frequently even than Keats, presents himself in his poems as a reader, as a man who, when he returns home from a walk, is apt to ‘reach down a poet [he] love[s] from the shelves’, a copy of Thomson or Cowper (‘The Holiday Walk’), who spends his evenings ‘bending oer [his] knees’, reading by the light of the fire, and, when he worked in the fields, would often wish for rain so that he might get back to his books (‘Labours Leisure’). (10) Clare is happy to confess, as Wordsworth would never have done, to feeling the excitements of bookishness, ‘cutting open with heart beating speed’ the leaves of a ‘brother poets’ long-sought volume (‘The Pleasures of Spring’). (11) When he takes his walks, he takes a book with him, and if the scenery is ‘delicious’ enough to persuade him to ‘shut & put the volume bye’, it is a fact worth noting (‘On Visiting a Favourite Place’). (12) Readerly habits are dear to him, especially the habit of marking a passage by turning down the corner of a page. Reading out of doors some ‘pocket poet’ a plucked primrose serves ‘Instead of doubling down to mark the place’ (‘The Pleasures of Spring’), (13) and the same habit gives Clare a metaphor to define his own poetic purpose:

How many pages of sweet natures book
Hath poesy doubled down as favoured things (‘Nature’) (14)

My first point is the obvious one: that Clare himself in his poems repeatedly acknowledges that, if he is an expert reader of the book of nature, then he owes that expertise in some part to his habitual reading in other books, and especially the books of his brother poets. My second point is that Clare’s reading complicates his relationship both with the natural world that he describes and with the community with which he shared it; both with his landscape and with his neighbours. I will begin with the neighbours. Clare’s lifelong love of Helpston did not prevent him either from feeling or on occasion from forcefully expressing his contempt for his fellow-villagers. He wrote to Taylor in 1822:

I live here among the ignorant like a lost man in fact like one whom the rest seems careless of having anything to do with—they hardly dare talk in my company for fear I shoud mention them in my writings & I find more pleasure in wandering the fields than in musing among my silent neighbours who are insensible to every thing but toiling & talking of it & that to no purpose (Letters, p. 230)

Once again, this is a disposition that informs the poems. In ‘Pleasures of Spring’ there is an entirely characteristic distinction between the ‘man of taste’, an accomplished naturalist who takes with him on his springtime walks a ‘pocket poet of some favoured muse’, and the ‘Hind’ who scans his Bible ‘wrapt in baize to keep the covers clean’ for texts appropriate to the season, and the poem is characteristic too in that Clare’s evident identification of himself with the man of taste underwrites his—in this case fond—detachment from the ‘Hind’. Even John Barrell notes this tendency, but he tends to discount it. For him, Clare’s introduction into his poems of figures such as ‘Hodge’, ‘the swain’, and ‘the hind’ is evidence only of a lingering contamination by the conventions of eighteenth-century landscape poetry, and he chooses to stress rather all those other characteristics of Clare’s poetry that identify him with rather than detach him from his community: the use of dialect words, of a grammar of speech rather than of writing, the refusal to place the objects in his poems within any framing hierarchy. (15) But it seems fairer to accept that Clare’s poems are not characterised by one or other of these habits, but by both, and to accept, too, that they are contradictory.

    Clare will sometimes claim that poetry has an existence independent of language, so that the title of poet might justly be claimed by the illiterate, and even by the inarticulate:

True poesy is not in words
But images that thoughts express
(‘Pastoral Poesy’, ll. 1-2, Middle Period, III, pp. 581-4)

The image, unlike the word, is common to all, available even to the ‘simplest’. In the same poem Clare suggests that poetry ‘sings & whistles’ before it ever ‘talks aloud’ (ll. 57-8, p. 583). He is haunted here by a dream that Keats and Shelley also entertained, that a poem might be as natural, as untaught and unpremeditated, as birdsong, but for Clare the thought has an urgency not evident in his contemporaries. It prompts him in ‘The Progress of Ryhme’ to write poetry not about, but out of the nightingale’s song:

‘Wew-wew wew-wew chur-chur chur-chur
‘Woo-it woo-it’—could this be her
‘Tee-rew tee-rew tee-rew tee-rew
‘Chew-rit chew-rit’—& ever new
‘Will-will will-will grig-grig grig-grig’
(ll. 251-5; Middle Period, III, pp. 492-503, p. 500)

This looks like a proto-modernist experiment, but it expresses a deep nostalgia for a lost time when the language of poetry was uncontaminated by the social and educational distinctions from which our ordinary language cannot be disentangled. But even in these lines Clare cannot fully assimilate language to birdsong, and in other moods he is willing to entertain the notion that for a poet to aspire to a language that evaporates, leaving no barrier between the reader and the natural world it represents, is to pursue an impossible dream. It may be, Clare sometimes recognises, that language, and in particular writing, cannot simply record the natural world, for to know a language, and to be able to read and write, is to have acquired a knowledge that informs every act of perception by which the natural world is known. Clare twice describes youngsters watching skeins of wild geese. In ‘Schoolboys in Winter’ the boys are ‘Watching the letters that their journeys make’ (Early Poems, II, p. 586, l. 5) . The thought is expanded in ‘March’ in The Shepherds Calendar, when the shepherd boy:

marks the figurd forms in which they flye
And pausing follows wi a wondering eye
Likening their curious march in curves or rows
To every letter which his memory knows
(ll. 109-12; Middle Period, I, p. 42)

The flight of geese becomes a test case for Clare, marking his sense of how literacy cannot simply allow one to record pre-existing perceptions, because a knowledge of reading and writing informs the perception itself. (16) Yellowhammers’ eggs prompt the same thought. In the sonnet sequence, ‘A Walk’, a cowboy triumphantly carries off a nest, excited by the mysteriously potent writing on the eggs, and in ‘The Yellowhammers Nest’ the ‘pen-scribbled’ eggs prompt a more literate observer to think of the ‘scrawls’ as ‘natures poesy & pastoral spells’. (17) The conclusion is clear: that when the hind and the man of taste look into a yellowhammer’s nest they do not see the same eggs, and not even the cowboy sees the eggs as a member of a pre-literate culture would do. And a further conclusion follows. Clare was not only socially isolated in his village by his fame as a poet. His ability to articulate his world of itself rendered the world in which he lived crucially different from the world that his neighbours inhabited, and the more Clare developed his craft the more different the two worlds became.

    Clare found, as had Robert Bloomfield, the poet with whom he most closely identified, that the role of the peasant poet was a lonely one, a role that in itself served to isolate the poet from the communal village life that he celebrated. (18) Like Bloomfield, Clare found himself occupying a position neither within the world of the village, nor within the literary world that both men associated with London, but somewhere between the two, at a remove equally from literary society and the community of the village. Clare was a greater poet than Bloomfield because he did not simply suffer this predicament, rather he allowed it to inform a substantial group of poems, which, for that reason, represent Clare’s greatest achievement.

    Clare, as Tom Paulin remarks, is ‘both the poet of place and displacement’, (19) and he is at his best when he is both at once. This is most obviously the case in the most widely discussed group of poems that Clare wrote, the poems named by Johanne Clare the ‘enclosure elegies’. (20) Inevitably, and properly, the bulk of commentary on these poems has been historical and political in its bent, but it is worth remarking that contemplating the enclosed landscape of Helpston brought together for Clare with peculiar intensity the two contradictory emotions the coincidence of which seems the condition of his finest poetry. First, there is the object intimately known and deeply loved, and then there is that same object withdrawn from him, become blankly unfamiliar. Clare is, of course, pre-eminently the poet of familiar things, but he is also a poet who counts among the most potent items in his vocabulary the word ‘strange’. It is the object at once familiar and strange that most excites him, and the enclosed landscape of Helpston is for him the most extreme example of such an object. This will seem a chilling remark to those, like E.P. Thompson, who prize Clare because he ‘conveys with extraordinary sensitivity the ways in which the psychic landscape of the village was savagely transformed by the enclosure of commons and open fields’, (21) but I want for the moment to incur the risk of that response, and even to increase it. After all, Clare’s best critics have themselves been apt to treat his hostility to enclosure as a metaphor—John Lucas, for example:

The hundred years between 1750 and 1850 is the century of dictionaries, of grammatical rules, and of the standardizing of pronunciation. As I have elsewhere remarked this is, in short, the period when language is being enclosed. (22)

For Lucas, Clare’s hostility to orthographic and grammatical conventions, and to ‘that awkward squad of pointings called commas colons semicolons’ (Letters, p. 421) is of a piece with his hostility to the enclosure of the open fields of Helpston, and in both cases it is a hostility that marks Clare’s solidarity with the ordinary villagers, unlanded and uneducated. But the metaphor opens more complex possibilities. The century that Lucas nominates is, after all, also the century in which the laws of copyright were gradually formulated, in which published writings were, to extend the metaphor, enclosed. Clare’s father who ‘could sing or recite above a hundred’ ballads (By Himself, p. 2) lived in an unenclosed literary landscape, but Clare, as his troubled relations with Edward Drury, Taylor and Hessey indicate, tried staunchly, if with little success, to establish his own title to his poems. (23) For Clare’s father, ballads and songs were the property not of an individual but of the community. His skill as a ballad-singer earned him social prestige, not an income. But, for his son, literature, like the enclosed landscape of Helpston, had undergone the process of capitalization. Edward Drury put the matter bluntly:

My view of these poems is to consider them as wares that I have bought which will find a market in the great city. I want a broker or a partner to whom I can consign or share the articles I receive from the manufacturer... (24)

Clare often expressed his contempt for the notion that the value of poetry might be determined by market forces, (25) but he could not afford to ignore in practice the new status of poetry as a market commodity.

    Clare, then, was at once an agricultural labourer and a manufacturer of wares that found their market in ‘the great city’, and those two, scarcely consistent roles produced the complex position out of which Clare’s poems are written. In the great poem that records his removal from Helpston to Northborough, ‘The Flitting’, he writes:

I sit me in my corner chair
That seems to feel itself from home
(ll. 17-18; Middle Period, III, pp. 479-89, p. 480)

The chair is an old possession, its contours and Clare’s frame comfortably adapted one to the other by the habit of long years, but it becomes for Clare a poetically charged object at the moment when a disconcerting strangeness is superimposed on its familiarity, when it feels itself ‘from home’, ‘at loss’, ‘ill at ease’. (26) It is at this moment that it becomes the appropriate chair on which to imagine Clare sitting as he writes his strongest poems.

    As almost all his readers have noticed, Clare never writes better than when he writes about birds, and in particular about bird-nests. Clare claims:

I found the poems in the fields
And only wrote them down
(‘Sighing for Retirement’, Later Poems, I, pp. 19-20, ll. 15-16)

He found the poems, then, as he took his daily walks, in precisely the same way that he found the bird-nests, the discovery of which these poems record, and the poems, Clare must want us to notice, are like the nests, woven together from humble natural materials, and like the eggs that the nests contain they own a fresh perfection of form that delights us when we come across them. These are, then, amongst Clare’s most natural poems, but they are also amongst his most literary, for it is in writing these poems that Clare most fully articulates his sense of his own distinctive place amongst the poets of the Romantic period. He begins his sonnet ‘The Wren’ by addressing them:

Why is the cuckoos melody preferred
& nightingales rich song so fondly praised
In poets ryhmes Is there no other bird
(ll. 1-3; Middle Period, IV, p. 164)

His first response here is to point to the thin selection of birds that do service in the poems of his contemporaries—Wordsworth’s cuckoo, the skylark that Wordsworth shares with Shelley, and the nightingales of Coleridge and Keats—and respond with a flock of poems that mocks, in the very variety of birds celebrated, the meagreness of the symbolic imagination. (27)

    The selection of British birds that the Romantic poets make is thin, but it is not arbitrary. They choose birds that can be heard without being seen: the cuckoo hidden in the leaves, the nightingale lost in the gathering gloom, and the skylark that sings from a height at which, as Shelley puts it, one ‘feels’ rather than ‘sees’ its presence; and in doing so they celebrate the possibility that poetry might free itself from the merely temporal circumstances, the ‘weariness, the fever, and the fret’, out of which it was produced. Just as the cuckoo’s invisibility renders it for Wordsworth not a bird but simply a ‘wandering voice’, so poetry is offered as a ‘mystery’ through which the constraints of earthly life may be transcended, in which it is possible to leave behind all the limiting material weight of ordinary existence in order to experience what Shelley calls ‘unbodied joy’. Even mortality itself may, in this view of things, be transcended by the song of the bird or the art of the poet: ‘Thou wast not born for death, Immortal Bird!’

    Clare is characteristically hostile to such claims. For him, the action of even the simplest of flowers, the daisy, has more power to withstand time than the poet (‘The Eternity of Nature’). But it is in his poems on birds and bird-nests that Clare most fully adumbrates his own dissenting position. His first and crucial tactic is his refusal to listen contentedly to the song of an unseen bird. The music of the nightingale prompts Clare to go ‘Creeping on hands and knees through matted thorns’ until he finds a spot from which he can watch the nightingale as it sings, and ‘marvel that so famed a bird / Should have no better dress than russet brown’ (‘The Nightingale’s Nest’). (28) Clare is willing to agree with his contemporaries that birds may be ‘poet-like’ (‘The Yellow Hammer’s Nest’), (29) but poets, in Clare’s view of things, are not released from their bodies by their music any more than the nightingale is freed from its russet brown feathers. Whatever Keats might have thought, the nightingale is not ‘viewless’: it is just that he did not know where to look for it, or did not look hard enough. Clare’s insistence on finding and describing the birds’ nests works still more strongly to ground song in the material facts of life: the need for food and shelter, and the over-riding obligation to feed and to protect one’s offspring. When Clare inspects a nest with that delighted exactitude of his, noting how the pettichap builds its nest from ‘small bits of hay / Pluckt from the old propt-haystacks pleachy brow’ and ‘withered leaves’ that ‘from the snub-oak dotterel yearly falls / & in the old hedge-bottom rot away’, fashioning the materials into a shape like an ‘oven’, lining it with ‘feathers warm as silken stole’, and contriving a ‘snug entrance... Scarcely admitting e’en two fingers in’, he is doing more than paying the natural world the tribute of his rapt attention. (30) In such passages he is making his own eloquent plea against an aesthetics of transcendence. He works out in these poems a view of his own craft in terms of which the more exalted claims of his contemporaries appear childish, like the boys who think that if they could fly so high as a skylark they would build their dwellings ‘on nothing but a passing cloud’, and live there

As free from danger as the heavens are free
From pain & toil—there would they build & be
& sail about the world to scenes unheard
Of & unseen
(‘The Sky Lark’, Middle Period, III, pp. 523-5)

But the lark itself rests content with its ‘low nest’, built amongst ‘the russet clods’ and hidden in the corn.

    Song, as Clare well knew, offers no magical escape from a world of ‘pain and toil’, and these poems quietly rebuke any such claim. But they do more. By repeatedly tracing the song-bird to its nest, Clare articulates his recognition of the intimate connection between his poetry and his village, between his song and the material conditions of his life. Hence, in this group of poems Clare might be thought to reconcile the apparent contradictions that I began by addressing. He appears in them as a poet aware of, and responsive to, the work of his peers, and yet a poet fully conscious of his own distinctive place amongst them, and thus more than able to sustain the modest claim that he makes in ‘The Progress of Ryhme’: ‘My harp though simple was my own’. (31) And he also appears in these poems as a countryman, and as a writer whose authority is grounded in his intimate familiarity with a locality; with its language and with its landscape. To refuse either of these aspects of Clare’s poetry is, it might be thought, to make the mistake that Clare seems to imply was too often made by his fellow-poets: it is to suppose that the bird might be separated from its nest. Clare was both a poet and a man of Helpston, and in him these two identities were inseparable.

    This is a heartening view, but for all that it remains unconvincing. Its defectiveness is best indicated by pointing to another characteristic of this group of poems. Clare repeatedly represents the boys of Helpston, himself among them in his remembered boyhood, as pathologically addicted to bird’s-nesting. The cowboy singing in triumph as he carries off in his hat his trophy, the ‘stubbly nest’ of a yellowhammer in ‘A Walk’, is not monstrous, but at most a case of arrested development. (32) Schoolboys, Clare tells us in the sonnet ‘Sedge Birds Nest’, are ‘In robbing birds & cunning deeply skilled’. (33) All summer long they patrol the fields ‘In their bird’s-nesting rounds’ (‘The Landrail’), and a nest, once seen, is safe from them only if their approach to it is barred by an enraged bull (‘The Wild Bull’), or if the climb to the nest is so difficult that ‘down they sluther’ before they have reached it (‘The Raven’s Nest’). (34) But it is ground-nesting birds that most move Clare; birds such as the lark, the fern owl, the peewit or the pettichap:

Its nest close by the rut gulled waggon road
& on the almost bare foot-trodden ground
(‘The Pettichaps Nest’, Middle Period, III, pp. 517-19, ll. 3-4)

He is affected by the apparent vulnerability of these nests, that somehow survive though ‘horses trample past them twenty times a day’, and that remain even though built on open ground so hard to see that

you and I
Had surely passed it on our walk today
Had chance not led us to it (ll. 9-11)

In the sonnet,‘The Meadow Hay’ Clare represents himself as just such a bird, stretched in ‘the new mown swath’ only ‘a minute from the path’, and humming a song which prompts a passer-by to pause wonderingly as he passes, and then move on,

Unthinking that an idle rhymester lies
Buried in the sweet grass
(Middle Period, IV, p. 253, ll. 7-8)

It is a pleasantly relaxed sonnet, lacking the tense alertness that characterises Clare’s nesting birds and his own best poems, and it is the tension that offers the strongest indication that he and the birds share the same landscape, a landscape intimately known, and a landscape to which they are supremely adjusted, and yet nevertheless a landscape in which both Clare and the birds remain vulnerable, and under threat.

    My point in the end is a simple and a sad one. It is not possible to understand Clare as an English poet amongst other English poets, distinguished from them only by a knowledge of the English countryside that they could not match, and neither is it possible to understand him as a villager amongst his fellow villagers, remarkable amongst his neighbours only in that he, unlike them, was able to articulate their common experience. Clare on occasion strikes each of these attitudes. He may sometimes claim a place in the literary community, as when he begins a sonnet to an admired fellow writer, ‘Friend Lamb’, and, rather more often, he may claim a place in the village community, as one of the ‘merry folks’ ‘circling round the fire’ (‘St Martins Eve’). But his true place, and the place from which he writes his most compelling poems, is neither of these, but an uncomfortable position in which familiarity and estrangement coincide, a place in which, as Clare puts it in ‘I Am’,

Even the dearest that I love the best
Are strange—nay rather stranger than the rest

Richard Cronin
University of Glasgow
January 2001


1. See Barrell, The Idea of Landscape and the Sense of Place, 1730-1840: An Approach to the Poetry of John Clare (London: Cambridge University Press, 1972). Amongst those in broad agreement with him is John Lucas in his John Clare (Plymouth: Northcote House, 1994), though Lucas may be more properly placed in between the two groups of critics that I distinguish.

2. Seamus Heaney, ‘John Clare’s Prog’, in his The Redress of Poetry (London: Faber, 1995), pp. 63-82; Tom Paulin, ‘John Clare in Babylon’ in his Minotaur: Poetry and the Nation State (London: Faber, 1992), pp. 47-55.

3. See in particular Kelsey Thornton, ‘The Complexity of John Clare’ in John Clare: A Bicentenary Celebration, ed. by Richard Foulkes (Northampton: University of Leicester, Department of Adult Education, 1994), pp. 41-56; Paul Chirico, ‘Writing Misreadings: Clare and the Real World’ in The Independent Spirit: John Clare and the Self-Taught Tradition, ed. by John Goodridge (Helpston: The John Clare Society and The Margaret Grainger Memorial Trust, 1994), pp. 125-38; and Eric Robinson, ‘John Clare’s Learning’, JCSJ, 7 (July 1988), 10-25.

4. John Keats, ‘The Fall of Hyperion’, ll. 11-15.

5. Letters, p. 550. For Clare’s own collection of books, see David Powell’s Catalogue of the John Clare Collection in the Northampton Public Library (Northampton: Northampton Public Library, 1964), pp. 23-34.

6. On the relation between Clare’s poems and Gray’s ‘Elegy’, see R.J. Ellis, ‘"Plodding Plowmen": Issues of Labour and Literacy in Gray’s "Elegy"’, in The Independent Spirit, pp. 27-43; John Goodridge, ‘"Three cheers for mute ingloriousness!": Gray’s Elegy in the poetry of John Clare’, Critical Survey, 11, no. 3 (2000), 11-20.

7. Middle Period, III, pp. 414-18.

8. Middle Period, IV, pp. 138-9, 309.

9. By Himself, pp. 10-11, and Mark Storey, ‘Edward Drury’s "Memoir" of John Clare’, JCSJ, 9 (1992), 15.

10. Middle Period, III, p. 397; IV, p. 331.

11. Middle Period, III, pp. 48-68 (ll. 27-9, p. 50).

12. Middle Period, III, pp. 561-5 (l. 68, p. 563).

13. Middle Period, III, pp. 48-68 (l. 295, p. 60).

14. Middle Period, IV, p. 163 (ll. 1-2).

15. John Barrell argues powerfully that Clare’s growing maturity as a poet is evidenced by his becoming ‘more able to emancipate himself from the influence of Goldsmith, and to discover a language of his own’ (p. 120). Similarly, for John Lucas, such expressions are merely ‘linguistic traps’, John Clare, p. 46.

16. I am indebted to Paul Chirico’s discussion of this passage in his ‘Writing Misreadings: Clare and the Real World’, in The Independent Spirit, pp. 125-38. Clare may well be recalling the story of Palamedes, who is reputed to have invented the alphabet when watching the flight of a flock of cranes, which suggested to him the possibility of letters.

17. Middle Period, IV, pp. 311-14 (pp. 313-14, ll. 62-70); Middle Period, III, pp. 515-17 (p. 516, ll. 13-15).

18. On the relationship between the two poets, see John Lucas, ‘Bloomfield and Clare’ in The Independent Spirit, pp. 55-68.

19. Tom Paulin, ‘John Clare: A Bicentennial Celebration’, in Foulkes, John Clare: A Bicentenary Celebration, pp. 69-78 (p. 74).

20. Johanne Clare, John Clare and the Bounds of Circumstance (Kingston and Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1987).

21. E.P. Thompson, [Bicentenary Thoughts], JCSJ, 12 (1993), 31.

22. John Lucas, ‘Clare’s Politics’ in Haughton, Context, p. 211.

23. Drury’s relationship with Clare is described by Edward Storey in A Right to Song: The Life of John Clare (London: Methuen, 1982), especially pp. 121-31. Clare’s publishers, Taylor and Hessey, particularly Taylor who edited Clare’s first three books, have been much maligned by Clare’s admirers for their treatment of him. They are ably and in many ways persuasively defended by Zachary Leader in his Revision and Romantic Authorship (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), pp. 206-61.

24. Quoted in Storey, A Right to Song, p. 128.

25. Most movingly perhaps in the triple sonnet, ‘To the Memory of Bloomfield’, Middle Period, IV, pp. 181-4.

26. The first two phrases are from ‘The Flitting’, ll. 18, 27, the third from ‘The Mores’, l. 50; Middle Period, III, pp. 479-89 (pp. 479, 480); II, pp. 347-50 (p. 349).

27. Amongst the birds celebrated by Clare are the blackcap, the bumbarrel, chiff-chaff, crow, fern-owl, firetail, hedge-sparrow, heron, kingfisher, landrail, lark, missel thrush, moorhen, nightingale, nuthatch, peewit, pettichap, quail, raven, redcap, reed-bird, robin, sand-martin, snipe, swallow, wagtail, woodpecker, wryneck and yellowhammer. Many of the bird poems are collected in John Clare, Bird Poems, introduced by Peter Levi (London: The Folio Society, 1980), and John Clare’s Birds, ed. by Eric Robinson and Richard Fitter (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982). Wordsworth is more various than the other poets in his bird observations, and he, like Clare, on occasion, finds their nests. See, for example, his ‘A Wren’s Nest’.

28. Middle Period, III, pp. 456-61 (ll. 13, 20-1, p. 457).

29. Middle Period, III, pp. 515-17 (l. 17, p. 516).

30. ‘The Pettichaps Nest’, Middle Period, III, pp. 517-19 (ll. 14-21, p. 518).

31. Middle Period, III, pp. 492-503 (l. 135, p. 496).

32. Middle Period, IV, pp. 311-14 (ll. 63-5, p. 313).

33. Middle Period, IV, p. 153, l. 6.

34. Middle Period, III, pp. 553-4, 520-3, 559-61 (l. 9, p. 560).