Clare and Community: The ‘Old Poets’ and the London Magazine

by Mina Gorji

Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford

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

Inclosure came & every path was stopt
Each tyrant fixt his sign where pads was found
To hint a trespass now who crossd the ground
(‘The Village Minstrel’ (1821), 107, ll. 1086-8)

In The Idea of Landscape and the Sense of Place, (1) John Barrell relates the success of ‘The Lament of Swordy Well’ (1821-4) to its freedom from ‘the sort of dependence on eighteenth-century models which was so apparent in the earlier poems.’ (2) It serves as an example of a wider pattern Barrell discerns in Clare’s verse during the 1820s, a shift away from derivative and imitative poetry, towards a more individual tone and style, a digging in of local heels. (3) Barrell praises Clare for his ability to ‘emancipate himself’ from the influence of eighteenth-century poets, and to ‘discover a language of his own.’ (4) ‘Emancipate’ suggests that Barrell’s notion of poetic influence is Bloomian and antagonistic. Such a model does not allow for the possibility that influence might be positive and friendly. This may be partly because such a model of influence seems to rest on a notion of poetic language or voice as enclosed and singular, what we might term monoglossic, so that influence is seen in terms of ventriloquism or imitation. Clare’s ‘own’ language could be seen as composite, or heteroglossic, its particularity consisting in his way of crafting combinations of words from various registers and sources, weaving in various influences, rather than being entirely possessed or overwhelmed by them.

    Barrell suggests that Clare’s poetry is best when most ‘original’, ‘individual’, ‘local’ and ‘direct’. These aesthetic terms correspond with a vocabulary he uses to describe the ideology of enclosure which, he argues, ‘sought to de-localise, to take away the individuality of a place’. (5) Barrell insists that he is not trying to argue ‘in a simple fashion’ (6) for a causal connection between Clare’s response to enclosure and what he perceives as Clare’s increasingly ‘local’ style. Nonetheless, linking the ‘idea of the local’ in terms of place and style, he implies that Clare’s localisation of language was a counter movement to enclosure. The speaking piece of land, Swordy Well, whose voice is colloquial and seemingly unliterary, serves as a symbolic example of this linkage of land and language in terms of the concept of the local. However, such coincidence is not characteristic of all Clare’s poetry, nor is a pattern of localisation of language as evident as Barrell suggests. Barrell’s seminal study was written before the publication of The Midsummer Cushion (1979), a volume which reveals perhaps more than any other the rich variety of Clare’s poetic output. Although the volume’s title refers to a local custom, the poems which it contains do not all reveal a preoccupation with local subjects, nor are they all couched in a localised poetic language, but written in a wide range of styles, tones and languages. The Midsummer Cushion contains several of the forgeries of ‘old’ poems which Clare published in periodicals during the 1820s. This essay will pay particular attention to the ways in which these forgery poems unsettle Barrell’s claims for the importance of the local and original in Clare’s verse.

    Barrell considers the effects of enclosure in terms of landscape, focusing on the process of de-localisation. As Clare perceived it, enclosure also had wider social implications: it seemed to be destroying the cohesion and sociability of his village community. Rather than considering enclosure, and its linguistic correspondences, in terms of landscape, and, as a result, focusing on the concepts of the ‘local’ and ‘individual’, I will consider enclosure from the perspective of sociological effect, and suggest that its stylistic correspondences can be seen in terms of literary sociability and community. I propose that Clare’s intertextuality rather than his originality was a response to enclosure. Clare responded poetically to the disintegration of local communities, which he associated with enclosure, by involving himself in poetic communities, intertextually, rather than through evolving a ‘language of his own’, independently. I suggest that Clare associated originality—a discourse shot through with ideas of property and individualism—with enclosure, and that he opted for a more communitarian, open poetic model. For Clare, this friendly poetic model seems to have been represented by two distinct, but (as I hope to show) interrelated literary groups: the London Magazine circle, and a group of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century poets whom Clare referred to as the ‘old poets’. (7)

    Barrell argues that despite Clare’s increasing exposure to the London literary world in the 1820s, he became ‘more tenacious in his desire to write exclusively about Helpston, to "describe the feelings of a rhyming peasant locally"’. (8) However, although Clare may have been intimidated by the urbane world of polite letters, he nonetheless profited personally and poetically from his involvement in this literary community. During the mid-1820s, Clare was composing a series of poems which he later hoped would form a collection bearing the name of ‘Visits of the Early Muses’. (9) The idea for the collection had been proposed by Clare’s publisher, John Taylor, as a way of presenting the body of work Clare had been producing in the ‘old’ style. In a letter of 15 July 1826, Clare thanks Taylor:

I am very pleased with your idea of ‘Visits of the early Muses’ as a Title for my old Poems & shall keep adding to the number as I feel inclined & I shall not publish any more of them in pereodicals now you have past your opinion of them so favourably (10)

These ‘old’ poems’ (11) were not originally published under Clare’s name, but had appeared in print as forgeries, ascribed to various ‘old poets’ in periodicals and journals such as Hone’s Everyday Book, the European Magazine, and the Sheffield Iris. Taylor encouraged Clare to acknowledge these poems as his own, and publish them as a collection. Although ‘Visits of the Early Muses’ was never published, Clare eventually placed most of the ‘forgery’ poems in The Midsummer Cushion. (12)

    Clare shared his interest in the ‘old poets’ with the circle to whom he was introduced by Taylor in the early 1820s, a group of literary men, linked in their involvement with the London Magazine (which Taylor edited between 1821 and 1825). Clare’s poetic career had been launched in the first number of the London in January 1820, in an essay by Octavius Gilchrist, ‘Some Account of John Clare, an Agricultural Labourer and Poet,’ and Clare’s poems regularly appeared on the London’s pages in the early 1820s. Lamb, Hazlitt, Darley, Cary, Cunningham, Reynolds, Gilchrist, and Keats (whom Clare never actually met), London Magazine men, shared Clare’s fondness for the ‘old poets’. Darley wrote verses in the antique style, indeed his most famous lyric, ‘It is not Beautie I Demande’, was printed as a genuine anonymous Caroline lyric by F.T. Palgrave in his Golden Treasury (it was eventually banished from the selection when assigned to Darley). Uncannily, Clare had played a similar literary trick in 1825, also pretending to have found forgotten poems on the ‘fly-leaves’ of old books. Rather than appearing anonymously, these forgeries were attributed to ‘old poets’ in the journals in which they appeared.

    Clare discussed his penchant for the ‘old poets’ in letters to Darley, Cary and Taylor. In John Keats and the Culture of Dissent, (13) Nicholas Roe has discussed the radical significance of a taste for the ‘old poets’ which Keats, Hazlitt and Hunt shared. He points out that these literary figures perceived a connection between Robin Hood and the ‘old poets’, linking them in terms of a radical and levelling sense of conviviality and sociability. Keats’s ‘Lines Written at the Mermaid Tavern’ and Hazlitt’s ‘Lectures on the Literature of the Age of Elizabeth’ are examples of this sociable understanding of the ‘old poets’. Roe also draws our attention to the stylistic implications of the generous amplitude associated with the ‘old poets’ (particularly the Elizabethans for Keats) who seemed to afford a sociable poetic model which resists the Wordsworthian and egotistical. The London Magazine itself acted as a focus for this sociable interest in the ‘old poets’: its motto, printed on the title page, was taken from Jonson’s Discoveries, and a review of The Memoirs of the Life of Sir John Suckling, which appeared in the April 1820 number of the London, spelled out this enthusiasm, declaring, ‘we have a great passion for our early poets, lyric, epic and dramatic’, and promised to ‘intersperse our pages with observations, selections, or criticisms, arising from a prevailing attachment.’ (14) On his London visits, Clare was likely to have been involved in and influenced by this shared enthusiasm. Clare visited London three times between 1820 and 1824, and during these visits became acquainted with the London’s luminaries at dinners held by Taylor. (15) The exchanges between Clare and this circle were also material, in the form of letters and books. The catalogue of Clare’s library at Northampton (16) reveals that he owned books by Lamb, Hazlitt, Cary, Reynolds, Darley and Keats, often presented to him by the authors themselves, or by Taylor.

    Clare describes the London literary community in his autobiographical writings:

I had not means of meeting the constellations of Genius in one mass they were mingld partys some few were fixd stars in the worlds hemisphere others glimmerd every month in the [London] Magazine (17)

His starry metaphor echoes Hazlitt’s description of Shakespeare’s contemporaries in his introductory ‘Lecture on The Age of Elizabeth’:

Mr. Wordsworth says of Milton, ‘that his soul was like a star, and dwelt apart.’ This cannot be said with any propriety of Shakspear, who certainly moved in a constellation of bright luminaries, and ‘drew after him a third part of the heavens.’ ... The sweetness of Decker, the thought of Marston, the gravity of Chapman, the grace of Fletcher and his young-eyed wit, Jonson’s learned sock, the flowing vein of Middleton, Heywood’s ease, the pathos of Webster, and Marlow’s deep designs, add a double lustre to the sweetness, thought, gravity, grace, wit, artless nature, copiousness, ease, pathos, and sublime conceptions of Shakspear’s Muse. They are indeed the scale by which we can best ascend to the true knowledge and love of him. (18)

For Clare, the ‘constellation’ of London literary men were linked with the ‘constellation’ of lesser-known sixteenth- and seventeenth-century poets. Both offered appealing and interrelated models of poetic community. Hazlitt, one of the London Magazine circle, makes the sociability of the ‘old poets’ explicit when he describes reading the ‘old authors’:

They sit with me at breakfast; they walk with me before dinner ... Ben Jonson, learned Chapman, Master Webster, and Master Heywood, are there; and seated round, discourse the silent hours away. (19)

This sociable link is also made apparent in Clare’s sonnet ‘To Charles Lamb’, which Clare placed in The Midsummer Cushion. (20) The poem applauds Lamb for championing the ‘old bygone bards’ in the teeth of popular neglect. Clare’s praise is couched in terms borrowed from Lamb’s essay ‘Detatched Thoughts on Books and Reading’: (21)

Friend Lamb thou chusest well to love the lore
Of our old by gone bards whose racey page
Rich mellowing Time made sweeter then before
The blossom left for the long garnered store
Of fruitage now right luscious in its age (ll. 1-5)

Here the blossom’s sweetness and the delicious consumability of ‘fruitage’ recall Lamb’s sensuous terms:

Shall I be thought fantastical, if I confess that the names of some of our poets sound sweeter, and have a finer relish to the ear—to mine, at least—than that of Milton or Shakspeare? It may be, that the latter are more staled and rung up in common discourse. The sweetest names, and which carry a perfume in the mention, are, Kit Marlowe, Drayton, Drummond of Hawthornden, and Cowley. (22)

Although it was not Lamb who introduced Clare to such poets, reading Elia, Clare felt less alone in his enthusiasm for the ‘warm homely phrase’ of these half-forgotten poets. The phrase itself suggests comfort and conviviality:

Me much it grieved as I did erst presage
Vain fashions foils had every heart deterred
From the warm homely phrase of other days
Until thy muses auncient voice I heard
& now right fain yet fearing honest bard
I pause to greet thee with so poor a praise (ll. 9-14)

The sonnet is couched in archaic language and cadences. Archaic language bonds in two directions, Clare to the ‘old poets’, and Clare to Lamb. Lamb’s fondness for ‘old’ poetry releases Clare from his melancholy isolated appreciation of these neglected poets. The ‘warm homely phrase of other days’ affords Clare the opportunity of conviviality, offering him a sociable connection to the contemporary literary world.

    Clare’s reception of these ‘old poets’ probably contributed further to his sense of their sociability. He came into contact with Herrick, Herbert, Suckling, Raleigh, Cotton, Wotton and Marvell, in collections such as Ellis’s Specimens of the Early English Poets, Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, Ritson’s Songs, and Walton’s Compleat Angler. He also found ‘old’ poems in almanac magazines such as Time’s Telescope and Hone’s Everyday Book, which place poems in broader contexts, using them to exemplify and illustrate country customs, folklore, and natural history. Percy’s Reliques mingled Elizabethan lyrics with (anonymous) ballads, so that not only were Elizabethan poets grouped together, they were also associated with a characteristic ‘low culture’ form—the ballad. Such familiar company may have heightened Clare’s sense of the homeliness of the ‘old poets’. Associated in Percy’s Reliques with ballads, the ‘old poets’ probably appeared to Clare as a vital link between the ‘low’ and ‘high’ cultures which he tries to mingle in his poetry. The contemporary association of the ballad form with sociability and community may have contributed to Clare’s sense of the conviviality of the ‘old poets’. Mingled with ballads in the Reliques, and associated with country customs and folklore in Hone’s Everyday Book and Time’s Telescope, the ‘old poets’ mediate between worlds Clare often felt torn between—the realm of verse and the rural village community.

    In his essay ‘Detatched Thoughts’, Lamb situates his fondness for the ‘old poets’ in comparison with Shakespeare and Milton. For Lamb, the two stand apart. For Coleridge, Shakespeare and Milton stood on ‘the two glory-smitten summits of the poetic mountain.’ (23) In Lamb’s estimation they stand less gloriously apart from the other poets ‘Marlowe, Drayton ... &c’, and are ‘staled’ by the comparison rather than elevated. Lamb is opening up spaces in the emerging canon, whose fixed poles were Milton and Shakespeare. The poets he praises here provide a more community-based model of poetry: they do not stand aloof like Milton and Shakespeare, but cluster together sweetly. Their names are ‘perfumed’, not awe-inspiring. The sociability associated with these poets is expressed in Clare’s sonnet ‘To Charles Lamb’, in which he uses a pastiche of their ‘old’ language to communicate a shared enthusiasm with Lamb. Clare associates this ‘old’ language with sociability, and uses it in allusion, to counteract the isolating treatment he received from publishers and critics alike. Clare’s isolation was not so sublime and glorious as Milton and Shakespeare’s. Originality carried with it, as it does in Lamb’s essay, notions of singularity. (24) Where Hazlitt’s description of Milton’s solitude is glorious, for Clare solitude carried the taint of his critics—not so much sublime as inglorious.

    Clare’s imitative style in his sonnet to Lamb presents in writing what Lamb suggests about his reading—an indifference to originality, if it involves separating oneself from others. Lamb begins his essay ‘Detached Thoughts on Books and Reading’ with a quotation:

To mind the inside of a book is to entertain one’s self with the forced product of another man’s brain. Now I think a man of quality and breeding may be much amused with the natural sprouts of his own. (25)

Beginning his essay with the words of another, Lamb immediately engages in the ‘product of another man’s brain’: merely using the quotation as an epigraph to his essay reveals his disagreements with its sentiments, so that Lamb ironically distances himself from the quotation before uttering a single word of his own. He goes on to relate how a friend of his, struck by the passage he quoted, ‘left off reading altogether, to the great improvement of his originality.’ (26) It is clear at this point that Lamb does not value ‘originality’ as much as his friend did. Lamb has not so far made much of a personal appearance in the essay, moving from the words of another to describing the effect of those words on a friend of his. He goes on to confess that he is not very much interested in ‘originality’, but rather ‘I love to lose myself in other men’s minds’. (27) In his sonnet to Lamb, Clare loses himself in other men’s words, and words which he knew that Lamb also liked to lose himself in. Lamb’s tone disguises the significance of his claims: his hostility to originality is bold, given the high premium set on originality when he wrote. Coleridge’s defensive Preface to Christabel reveals his sensitivity to the conflation of poetic value with originality. The need for such an intricate defensive strategy is indicative of the dominance of the discourse of originality.

    The discourse of originality was intrinsically involved with ideas of ownership, as Mark Rose has pointed out at useful length in Authors and Owners. (28) In Conjectures Upon Original Composition (1759), Edward Young, arguably the most influential advocate of originality, uses a metaphor of land and property to describe originality. Whereas ‘an Imitator ... builds on another’s foundation’. (29) ‘Originals’, he claims, ‘extend the Republic of Letters, and add a new province to its dominion.’ (30) Private property and poetry are interrelated: Young places great value on ownership, claiming that an original genius has ‘sole property’ of his works, and that, such ‘Property alone can confer the noble title of an Author.’ (31) Rose summarises the implications succinctly: ‘The production of poetry becomes the production of property’. (32) More recently, John Goodridge has pointed out the implications of this relationship for ‘dispossessed poets from humble backgrounds, like Clare and Chatterton,’ who, he suggests, ‘were especially vulnerable’ (33) to a discourse of genius grounded in ownership.

    Clare no doubt took a pattern from the example of Chatterton’s famous forgeries. Both Chatterton and Clare’s poetical responses to the discourse of originality, and the privileging of individual property which it encoded, were to some extent shaped by their dispossession. However, for Clare, this sense of dispossession was heightened by enclosure. In 1809, when Clare was sixteen years old, his local parish, Helpston, began to be enclosed. Clare perceived the enclosure of hitherto open common fields and parklands as a vicious assertion of ownership, and of the rights of individual property, as fierce lines from ‘The Village Minstrel’, published in 1821, reveal:

Inclosure came & every path was stopt
Each tyrant fixt his sign where pads was found
To hint a trespass now who crossd the ground...
—Inclosure thourt a curse upon the land
& tastless was the wretch who thy existance pland 
(107, ll. 1086-8, 1091-2) (34)

Clare’s use of dialect—here ‘pads’ are paths—is one sign of his resistance to attempts to enclose his verse in standard English. If attempts to confine Clare’s language were one source of frustration, the image of Clare as an original genius which Taylor had sold to the public was equally restrictive:

CLARE has a great delight in trying to run races with other men, and unluckily this cannot always be attempted without subjecting him to the charge of imitating; but he will be found free from that imputation in all the best parts of his poetry. (35)

Taylor seems blind to the ironies of conflating ‘peasant poet’ with ‘original genius’, where the discourse of original genius, as I have shown, was so bound up with the language of ownership and property. Clare was alive to the restrictions his ‘peasant-ness’ imposed on his ‘genius’, and to the freedoms from those restrictions which imitation afforded him.

    Packaged as a peasant poet, Clare was expected to write accordingly: as a poet inspired by nature, writing his responses in original, underivative verse. Clare, sensitive to the centrality of individual property in the discourse of originality, which linked it to the ideology of enclosure, resisted the constraints of originality. The discourses of both originality and enclosure value individual ownership. Both made trespass a crime. Coleridge, figuring influence as the perforation of a tank, in the Preface to Christabel, (36) shows his awareness of the relationship of originality and ownership, which Young propounds in Conjectures Upon Original Composition: both figure influence as theft. The discourse of originality and the practice of enclosure both stressed the boundaries of individual property. Clare’s poetry is full of transgressions of these bounds—full of the echoes of poetic voices and intertextual words. He imitated and mimicked poets such as Burns, Pope and Cowper frequently, and drew on their vocabularies intertextually. His verse is also enriched by the phrases and rhythms of popular songs and ballads. More boldly, he wrote under pseudonyms, ranging from ‘Percy Green’, to ‘Giles Scroggins’ in the asylum, abandoning the proprietorial claims implied in naming himself as the author. Eventually, in the madhouse, he was actually to claim to be Byron and Shakespeare, an extreme example of a resistance to originality and its firm location of the bounds of individuality. Such confusion of personalities registers a resistance to the dominant discourse of individual ownership and originality, and should not be brushed aside as a symptom of mere ‘madness’.

    Clare’s forgeries of the ‘old poets’ offer another striking example of his hostility to the discourse of originality. Unlike Coleridge, anxiously trying to prove ownership in the Preface to Christabel, Clare abandons his own name and claims to property altogether. That Clare chose to produce forgeries of a specific group of real poets renders his forgeries distinct from the more famous productions of Chatterton and Macpherson, who each invented one specific bard (though Chatterton’s ‘Rowley’ is socialised within a wider, largely invented, literary group). I have suggested that Clare was drawn toward the ‘old poets’ in part because of the sociability with which he associated both them and their nineteenth-century admirers. I’d like to consider in more detail why it might be that Clare was drawn to the ‘old poets’.

    The publication of Paradise Lost, as Lucy Newlyn has argued, (37) had a democratising effect on the franchise of poetry, making literature more accessible to a wider range of readers. The major literary events Stuart Curran describes as the recovery of Britain’s national literature perhaps had an even greater effect on Britain’s writers, since the cluster of authors who were ‘recovered’ were not seen as intimidating or inhibiting to succeeding poets as Milton tended to be perceived. They offered an alternative model for vernacular poetry. Curran describes this momentous ‘event’ as taking place ‘between 1765, when Percy first put to press his Reliques of Ancient Poetry, and 1819 [the date of the publication of Chalmers’s twenty-one volume Works of the British Poets]’. (38) Curran points to the importance of historiography in the eighteenth century for the new generation of poets emerging after 1780. Due to the endeavours of men like Warton and Percy, poets of the period we term Romantic inherited a literary past hitherto largely unknown. The process was not suddenly complete in 1819, but its implications were immense. One of the epigraphs Curran chooses for his chapter ‘The Second Renaissance’ reveals how dramatic the change was; it is an extract from an 1818 essay ‘On the Revival of a Taste for our Ancient Literature’ in Blackwood’s Magazine :

...we have raised up, as it were, from the tomb, a spirit that was only lying asleep, and that now, from the dust and darkness, walks abroad among us, in the renovation of all its strength and beauty. (39)

That the order of things could be seen to have shifted so dramatically, that poets once buried deep in ‘dust and darkness’ could suddenly emerge and come to life in the public consciousness, must surely have changed notions of poetic obscurity in some way, making the ‘dust and darkness’, seem more permeable than before. If the dead were now walking, then perhaps there was hope for those living unknown, and hope also for Clare. Gray was sensitive to the pressures exerted by those yet-undiscovered, mute inglorious Miltons, from under the dust and darkness in his ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’ (a seminal text for Clare). But Gray’s conservatism registers a sense of threat from the graveyard. (40) Most of Clare’s forgeries reveal a preoccupation with the themes of neglect and death.

    The recovery of forgotten ‘old poets’ was very important to Clare. It presents an opening up of the realms of verse which can be viewed as a countermovement to the enclosure encoded in the Romantic discourse of originality, and on another level, the enclosure of Helpston. Clare associated the ‘old poets’ with an ideal, pre-enclosure landscape, where people were free to wander at will, unhampered by fences. He says as much in a letter to George Darley of 3 September 1827:

I intend for my own part to strike out on a new road if I can & my greatest ambition is to write something in the spirit of the old Poets not those of Dr. Johnson but those half unknowns who as yet have no settled residence in the <city> Land of Fame but wander about it like so many Pilgrims who are happy to meet a stranger by the way to make themselves known or heard once in a century & I think from these you have made your own model for there is a ‘sweet savour’ stirs my imagination when I read your Poems ... the same as when I read those above mentioned (41)

These ‘half unknowns’, these ‘old poets’, were not the landed gentry of Parnassus; they had ‘no settled residence’. This must have appealed to the unenfranchised Clare, antagonistic to the idea of individual property after enclosure had changed his world. These ‘sweet songsters’ offer a ‘new road’ for Clare to take—an alternative model.

    In 1825, Clare composed ‘To John Milton, From his Honoured Friend William Davenant’. The poem was first published as a forgery in the Sheffield Iris. (42) In this poem, ‘Davenant’ addresses Milton and asks:

Poet of mighty power I fain
Would court the muse that honoured thee
& like Elishas spirit gain
A part of thy intensity
& share the mantle which she flung
Around thee when thy lyre was strung. (ll. 1-6)

Through one of the ‘old poets’, Clare attempts to open out Milton’s grand solitude. Whereas Marvell (in ‘On Mr Milton’s Paradise Lost’) and Collins (in ‘Ode on the Poetical Character’) despair that Milton has closed off a particular poetic space, leaving succeeding writers ‘no room’ for expression, Clare seems less pessimistic about the effects of Milton’s fame. Clare, through Davenant, addresses Milton as a friend, and asks, touchingly, to share his mantle. Where Collins saw Milton as curtaining close poetic space, Clare seems to have associated the ‘old poets’ with opening up such space, expressively and canonically. Gradually, as Stuart Curran has pointed out, these ‘old poets’ were emerging into an English canon, through anthologies and in newspapers and magazines. Hazlitt, for example, gives space to the starry poets and dramatists whom Shakespeare dragged down from the skies with him in his ‘Lectures on the Age of Elizabeth’. (43) Clare attempts to convert this opening up of canonical space to his own poetic ambitions, in the forgeries and through allusion. (44)

    ‘To John Milton, From his Honoured friend William Davenant’, describes Milton’s rise to fame as brightness shining through the darkness of initial unpopularity:

Though factions scorn at first did shun
With coldness thy inspired song
Though clouds of malice passed thy sun
They could not hide it long
Its brightness soon exaled away
Dank night & gained eternal day (ll. 7-12)

Clare seems to have perceived the trajectory of Milton’s career, from obscurity to fame, as a hopeful sign. Clare’s ‘forgery’ poem reveals his sensitivity both to the complex mechanism of reception, and to the importance of sociability in that process. Clare’s interest in and witnessing of the recovery of a literary past, marks his hope that he too, in time, may be acknowledged and noticed as a great poet, showing an awareness of the slow processes of reception. Establishing relationships with poets who have been neglected and later remembered by fame, Clare perhaps hoped that his reception would follow a similar pattern.

    The years between 1820, when Clare’s first volume was published, and 1832, when he completed his manuscript of The Midsummer Cushion, had witnessed the rise and fall of Clare’s literary career. His fame peaked in the early 1820s, buoyed up by the enthusiastic reception of Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery, and from then began the decline, and Clare’s increasing detachment from the literary world. His growing loneliness in these years perhaps made his desire for a sociable poetic community stronger than ever. His friendly address to Lamb in pastiche archaic language was written during this time. Not only was Clare’s sense of solitude coloured by his growing isolation, but the range of implication of solitude was widened by less individual concerns: Clare associated detachment with enclosure.

    As well as fencing up the face of the countryside, enclosure profoundly changed village social life. Common land had been used for village games and local customs, so its ploughing up and fencing off not only curtailed individual freedoms (the right to roam), but also affected the village community as a whole. George Deacon gives numerous examples of Clare’s descriptions of country customs, and his insistence that they had been destroyed by enclosure. (45) In one example, Clare describes enclosure’s role in the demise of the custom of stone-gathering in the fields and the games which accompanied it:

inclosure came & destroyed it with hundreds of others—leaving in its place nothing but a love for doing neighbours mischief & public house oratory that dwells upon mob law as absolute justice (46)

Clare sees enclosure as destructive of the cohesive traditions which held the village community together. He describes a community broken apart by enclosure, a society collapsed into crime, mischief and mob law. For Clare, poetry was one means of preserving these customs being lost. The Shepherd’s Calendar records Clare’s regret at the passing of these old customs, and registers his attempt to record and preserve them in verse.

    I mentioned earlier that Clare found ‘old’ poems in almanacs such as Hone’s Everyday Book and Time’s Telescope, where they were used to exemplify old customs and folklore, and I suggested that Clare was alive to this connection between the ‘old poets’ and the rural community. Marvell’s poetry, unlike Herrick’s for example, was not shot through with country lore. However, he was part of a group of older poets Clare believed needed rescuing from neglect, one of the ‘half unknowns’ whom he and the London Magazine circle shared a fondness for. Indeed Marvell’s separation from a group of poets interested in country customs, as well as the solitary themes of his poems, may have induced Clare to try and assimilate him into a poetic community. Clare’s fear of the loss of his village community heightened his sense of the need for a poetic community, and made him sensitive to those excluded from such a community, marginalised and half-forgotten writers such as Marvell. Placing Marvell’s lines from ‘The Garden’ as an epigraph to The Midsummer Cushion, Clare places this ‘old poet’ in the context of a particular village ritual, the custom of making cushions of flowers to celebrate midsummer, thus enacting a twofold weaving in of a marginalised and isolated figure.

    I have tried to show how Clare’s growing personal isolation, and his fear of the break-up of his village community, which he ascribed to the disappearance of customs caused by enclosure, are important factors in his interest in ‘old’ poetry. Clare uses poetic sociability as a means of establishing himself canonically, linking himself and his fate to poets who were neglected, and had since risen to fame, or were beginning to be noticed during Clare’s lifetime. Clare seems to have been sensitive to the association between the Romantic discourse of originality and enclosure and isolation. I have suggested that his intertextuality was a means of writing himself out of the ‘inclosure’ which the model of originality imposed on him, as well as providing him with a strategy of opening up space for himself in the canon. I have tried to unsettle John Barrell’s association of the emergence of Clare’s ‘individual’ voice with the de-localising effects of enclosure, suggesting instead how Clare’s efforts to involve himself in poetic communities—to open out his solitude into company—was perhaps a response to the disintegration of the local community he attributed to the enclosure of Helpston: that his intertextuality, rather than his originality, was a response to enclosure.

Mina Gorji
Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford
January 2001


1. Barrell, pp. 98-188, ‘The Sense of Place in the Poetry of John Clare’.

2. Barrell, p. 116.

3. The phrase is Seamus Heaney’s, ‘John Clare: a bi-centenary lecture’, in Haughton, Context, pp. 130-47 (p. 131). Heaney, like Barrell, privileges the local in Clare’s verse, describing him as a ‘monoglot genius’ (p. 131), distinguished from the heteroglossic geniuses Joyce and Shakespeare.

4. Barrell, p. 120.

5. Barrell, p. 120.

6. Barrell, p. 119.

7. Clare-George Darley, 3 September 1827, Letters, pp. 396-8 (p. 398).

8. Barrell, p. 122.

9. NMS 32, Letter 94; George Deacon, John Clare and the Folk Tradition (London: Sinclair Browne, 1983), p. 23.

10. Letters, pp. 381-4 (p. 383).

11. These poems are grouped together by J.W. Tibble in a section of his edition entitled ‘Poems Written in the Manner of the Older Poets’, The Poems of John Clare, 2 vols. (London: Dent, 1935), II, pp. 181-212. I have cited the texts from The Midsummer Cushion as printed in Middle Period, III-IV.

12. ‘Vanitys of Life’, first published as an anonymous seventeenth-century poem in the Sheffield Iris; ‘Thoughts in a Churchyard’, first fathered on Sir Henry Wotton; ‘To John Milton, From his Honoured friend William Davenant’ fathered on Davenant, and published in the Sheffield Iris, renamed ‘To a Poet’ in the Midsummer Cushion version; ‘Farewell and Defiance to Love’, fathered on Sir John Harington, published in the European Magazine, renamed ‘Farewell to Love’ in The Midsummer Cushion; ‘Death’, attributed to Andrew Marvell, published in Hone’s Everyday Book; ‘The Gipsey Song’, attributed to Tom Davies, published in the European Magazine.

13. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997, pp. 111-59.

14. [Octavius Gilchrist], London Magazine, iv (April 1820), I, 369-79 (369).

15. See ‘My Visit to London’, in Prose, pp. 79-93.

16. [David Powell], Catalogue of the John Clare Collection in the Northampton Public Library (Northampton: Northampton Public Library, 1964).

17. Prose, pp. 86-99 (86).

18. The quotation is reproduced in an anonymous review of Hazlitt’s Lectures on the Literature of the Age of Elizabeth; delivered at the Surrey Institution. By William Hazlitt, London Magazine, ii (February 1820), I, 189, where Clare would have most probably read it.

19. See previous note.

20. Middle Period, IV, pp. 205-6.

21. Elia (Charles Lamb), ‘Detached Thoughts on Books and Reading’, London Magazine, xxxi (July 1822), VI, 33-6.

22. Lamb, ‘Detached Thoughts’, 35.

23. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, ed. by James Engell and W. Jackson Bate (Princeton, New Jersey, 1983), II, p. 27.

24. Francis Jeffrey states as much in his (unsigned) review of Southey’s Thalaba, in the October 1802 issue of the Edinburgh Review. He links the ‘originality’ which the Lakers ‘boast of’, their ‘having broken loose from the bondage of antient authority, and reasserted the individuality of genius’, with ‘the antisocial principles ... of Rousseau’ (my italics). Robert Southey, The Critical Heritage, ed. by Richard Madden (London and Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972), pp. 68-90 (p. 69).

25. London Magazine, xxxi (July 1822), VI, p. 33.

26. London Magazine, xxxi (July 1822), VI, p. 33

27. London Magazine, xxxi (July 1822), VI, p. 33

28. Mark Rose, Authors and Owners. The Invention of Copyright (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: Harvard University Press, 1993), hereafter Authors and Owners.

29. Edward Young, Conjectures on Original Composition, 1759 (Leeds: Scolar Press, 1966), p. 11.

30. Young, Conjectures, p. 10.

31. Young, Conjectures, p. 54.

32. Authors and Owners, p. 8.

33. John Goodridge, ‘Identity, Authenticity, Class: John Clare and the Mask of Chatterton’, Angelaki, 1: 2 (Winter 1993-4), 131-48 (131).

34. Early Poems, II, p. 169.

35. John Taylor, ‘Introduction’ to Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery (London: Taylor and Hessey, Stamford: E. Drury, 1820), in Critical Heritage, pp. 43-54 (p. 52). See also Gilchrist’s ‘Some Account of John Clare, an Agricultural Labourer and Poet’, London Magazine, i (January 1820), 7-11, Critical Heritage, pp. 35-42 (p. 38).

36. The Oxford Authors. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. by H.J. Jackson (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. 66.

37. Lucy Newlyn, Paradise Lost and the Romantic Reader (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), p. 43.

38. Stuart Curran, Poetic Form and British Romanticism (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), p. 19.

39. Blackwood’s Magazine, 4 (1818), 266.

40. As William Empson has pointed out in ‘Proletarian Literature’, Some Versions of Pastoral (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1935), pp. 11-25.

41. Letters, pp. 396-8 (p. 398).

42. Middle Period, III, pp. 253-4.

43. Hazlitt discusses Marston, Chapman, Decker, Lyly, Marlowe, Heywood, Middleton, Webster, Jonson, Drummond of Hawthornden, Herrick and Marvell, among others.

44. Clare also attempted to write Jacobean style tragedy, as exemplified in the dramatic fragments printed in Middle Period, II, pp. 77-90.

45. Deacon, pp. 67-69.

46. Deacon, p. 68.