'Ambitions Projects': Peasant and Poet in John Clare's 'The Wish' and 'Helpstone'

by Gary Harrison 

University of New Mexico, Albuquerque



From The John Clare Society Journal, no. 17 (July 1998), 41-58.
(c) Gary Harrison / The John Clare Society


Click here to email the author, Gary Harrison

While Oliver Goldsmith, William Wordsworth, and even Robert Bloomfield wrote about rural England as spectators of change, John Clare experienced first-hand the social and agricultural transformation of the English countryside in the early nineteenth century. Indeed, after the Enclosure Act of 1809 Clare was literally, not figuratively, dislocated from the surroundings he had come to love around his native Helpston. Grounded in the actual experience of topographical and psychological upheaval, Clare's poetry challenges, even as it invokes, many of the pastoral assumptions of his poetic predecessors, such as Thomson, Cowper, Wordsworth and Bloomfield. If the pastoral vision of his predecessors is golden, Clare's vision is certainly green, as James McKusick explains in '"A language that is ever green": The Ecological Vision of John Clare'. (1) Indeed, for the myth of rural serenity and rustic simplicity that these poets share to varying degrees, Clare substitutes a deeply felt and clearly articulated sense of a particular place - his native Helpston and its immediate environs.

As many critics have noted, Clare's localized version of pastoral is often self-consciously critical of the golden world view that overlooks the brazen elements - poverty, ignorance, and debilitating labour - of rural life. (2) In The Parish, for example, Clare casts a cold eye upon the disingenuous praise for rustic life bantered about by 'parish queens & kings' (l. 5, Early Poems, II, 698). Furthermore, Clare condemns the kind of rustic poet who would sugar over rustic hardship with parroted conventions - 'Whose smooth tongue uttered what his heart denied' (l. 28) - simply to appease a 'host of Patronizers' (l. 25). In contrast to such 'Curst affectation' (l. 33) Clare with keen accuracy describes the natural beauties of Helpston as well as the hard circumstances of its inhabitants. Indeed, Clare's version of pastoral praises the particular beauty and features of his native village, even as it acknowledges that Helpston is a site of social injustice (both from within and without), abject poverty, and misery - what he calls in The Parish, 'the half thatchd mouldering hovels of distress' (l. 20).

In John Clare and the Bounds of Circumstance (Kingston and Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1987) Johanne Clare rightly cautions that we should not confuse Clare's defense of local customs and rights or his sympathy for the rural poor with any large-scale agrarian radicalism (pp. 17-18); nevertheless, the term 'enclosure' functions in his work as a composite symbol of violence to local topography and accumulated wrongs against the commons that were taking place not only in Helpston but elsewhere in England. 'Inclosure has spoiled all', Clare writes in his Journal (By Himself, p. 225), here referring not just to the spoiling of the lands, but also to the loss of the customary Breakday festivities that took place when the stock was led to the commons for grazing. The record of Clare's dispossession stands as testimony of a man who literally lost his place - topographically, socially and ultimately psychologically - and it is a record that speaks for many, albeit not all, who experienced similar losses. In the words of J. M. Neeson's Commoners: common right, enclosure and social change in England, 1700-1820 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), Clare's 'deliberate acts of remembrance' are 'vital, because on crucial questions [he gives] us the view from below [...] No other sources get as close to peasants who left no wills, for whom no inventories were drawn up, who had few family papers, no account ledgers or bills' (p. 11). Thus, Clare's writings bear witness to the defacement of the English countryside, the 'polarization at enclosure of labourers and the landed' (p. 324), the demise of rural festivities, and the erosion of those vestiges of common right that remained in some local economies.

The positive, though not idyllic, image of Helpston before enclosure in Clare's poetry often serves as a critical contrast to the image of Helpston after enclosure. Yet, if Helpston appears in Clare's work as a pre-lapsarian ecological Paradise, an ecotopia, it appears as an ecotopia at risk from both internal and external social pressures. Moreover, as I will argue here, Helpston is a troubled trope in Clare's poetry, for it signifies at once the paradise he hopes to regain and the paradise he has forever lost. If his poetry figures Helpston as a composite sign of all that was dear to him as a youth, it also documents with uncommon urgency the destruction of the fields, trees, and landmarks that gave Helpston its distinctive character and Clare a sense of identity. That is, the poetry that insists upon the presence of Helpston as a stay and anchor of the poet's identity simultaneously marks the very disappearance of Helpston as Clare once knew it.

In Clare's disorientation from his green world, from his romantic ecotopia, we can plumb the social and psychological consequences of his actual loss of place. Indeed, Clare's homelessness signifies what Neeson calls the 'sense of robbery [that] could last forever as the bitter inheritance of the rural poor' (Commoners, p. 291). Ironically and tragically for Clare, however, his significant gesture to record local history and to affirm the value of place ultimately intensified and widened the gulf between himself and his community. In the discussion that follows, I will show that Clare's so-called poetry of place actually anticipates the radical dis-placement and dis-orientation from both community and self that Clare experienced in the melancholia of his later years.

I choose to focus here on 'The Wish' and 'Helpstone' - both from the early Helpston period - because both poems present the utopian desires of a rustic genius as a transgressive dream or vision that is doomed to fail. In the pattern familiar to many Romantic lyrics, the speakers of 'The Wish' and 'Helpstone' embark upon an imaginative flight that concludes with a disappointing return to their place of origin, a place in these poems marked with signs of social limits. Both poems designate Helpston as home, a centre of the familiar that anchors the speakers, each of whom essays some form of centrifugal movement away for this point. More than just a geographical place, Helpstone designates a temporo-spatial point intersected by the economic, social, psychological and cultural forces that constituted Clare's sense of identity. As the speakers of each poem imagine a move beyond the boundaries of home, these early poems explore the possibility of other identities--a gentleman manquŽ and an itinerant poet. As we will see, Clare ultimately withdraws from these identities; falling into self-consciousness and recognizing the possibility of multiple selves, the dislocated subject looks upon home - in this case Helpston - as a strange and unfamiliar place. This defamiliarization of the centre, common to all psychological development, in Clare's case is compounded by the actual physical transformation, deformation, if you will, of his native village. Thus, in both poems we find registered Clare's early uneasiness about broadening his prospects, as well as a dawning sense of alienation: from the landowners and farmers who promoted enclosure, from those middle-class poets whose loco-descriptive conventions inform his poetic structure; from his fellow villagers; from Helpston itself; and finally, from himself - the identity he comes to recognize as Other. In this complex web of estrangement, both poems record an uncertainty about place and identity - a sense of uprootedness and liminality that resulted in part from the transfigurations of landscape due to the enclosure, in part from Clare's sense of his low rank in the social hierarchy, and in part from the transmutations of subjectivity engendered in his writing.


I. 'The Wish'


An early poem (c. 1814-19), though one not selected for Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery (1820), 'The Wish' reads like a working man's daydream of a life of ease; as such, the initial trajectory of the poem is utopian, progressively building a better world for the narrator. Yet, at the same time, a counterforce operates within the poem, at first imposing limits upon the imagined utopia, and finally overcoming the utopian drive altogether. In this defeat of the utopian desire driving the poem, we find early evidence of Clare's confusion about his place in society, of his doubtful desire to cross social boundaries. In his introduction to Letters, Mark Storey describes this tension between desire and doubt as a 'dire uncertainty as to where [Clare] should place himself' (p. xix). The early letters, Storey notes, evidence a movement between self-deprecation and self-elevation, an alternation between the two poles of the 'clown' and the poet; between a sense of dependence and a 'straining after independence' (Letters, p. xix).

The conflict between the utopian desire of the daydream and the limiting ideological conditions of Clare's sense of the real in 'The Wish' enact a particularly acute version of Clare's uncertainty. The narrator's daydream stages the conflicted desire as it imagines an utter transformation of the material well-being of the narrator as well as a return to the free play of childhood. Indeed, the catalogue of material things the narrator imagines having - a decent house, a roof of British oak and fine slate, an above-ground cellar well supplied with ale, a parlour lined with pictures and books, a garden, an orchard, a small surplus of money, and more - signifies those things that the poet lacks. The catalogue of desired objects in the poem thus serves as an index to Clare's own poverty.

Importantly, the desire for these objects proves to be tempered; neither excessive nor impossible, the small but well built and well furnished house and modest grounds would not exceed Clare's range of possibility. Hence the waking character of this dream, a daydream, in 'The Wish.' (3) Moreover, 'The Wish' treats these objects not as ends, but as means and accompaniments to a more profound desire: a leisurely independence. The poem's opening lines unabashedly announce the desire to acquire those 'worldly things... Such as would free me from all labouring strife / And make me happy to the end of life...' (ll. 2-4, Early Poems, I, 43). Here the utopian character of 'The Wish', emerges most powerfully, in that the real object of the daydream turns out to be the escape from work, from the physical labour that Clare, unlike the more privileged loco-descriptive poets, never confuses with pleasure. (4)

Although the actual material objects of desire in 'The Wish' may be modest, the desire for leisure and financial independence amount to nothing less than adopting the structural character of the gentry - two of the defining characteristics of what Raymond Williams in The Country and the City (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1973) called the 'rentier' class (p. 46). This ambition to occupy the place of the landed classes pervades the structure of 'The Wish', from its imitation of loco-descriptive conventions and diction to its desire for a life of leisure, of reading, and of writing. Yet, the poem also shows Clare resisting this ambition, qualifying his desire, and eventually, as at the conclusion of 'Helpstone', relinquishing altogether the attempt to step outside the bounds of circumstance.

Let me take up first the question of Clare's imitation or borrowing of loco-descriptive features and topoi. 'The Wish' clearly shows Clare struggling with these conventions, trying them out often to qualify or modify them to suit his own ends. Clare's dilemma parallels that of the postcolonial writer, whose writing, according to Bill Ashcroft, Garret Griffiths and Helen Tiffin, must 'define itself by seizing the language of the centre and re-placing it in a discourse fully adapted to the colonized place'. (5) According to Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin, postcolonial discourse necessarily involves a two-part process of abrogation and appropriation: that is, 'a refusal of the categories of the imperial culture' and a process of 'capturing and remoulding the language to new usages' (p. 38). Many critics have observed the dual markings of Clare's discourse, brought on in part by Clare's effort to find a voice of his own. In John Clare and Picturesque Landscape (Oxford: Clarendon, 1983), for example, Timothy Brownlow writes, 'Clare's problem as an artist is how to write descriptive poetry about his own landscape without recourse to this alien vocabulary' - that is, the vocabulary of eighteenth-century loco-descriptive and pastoral poetry (p. 22). Similarly, Mark Storey describes Clare's work as 'an attempt to meet the demands of the two traditions', which he calls the folk tradition and literary tradition, or the 'metropolitan and provincial' (Introduction to Letters, p. xxii). In that it sometimes rejects, sometimes borrows and modifies, loco-descriptive conventions, Clare's poetry thus negotiates a boundary between high and low; his writing is at once subject to an alien tradition and to the local idiom that links his discourse to that of his fellow labourers. As I will discuss below, as a consequence of straddling these two mutually exclusive positions - which we will characterize as that of the poet and that of the peasant - Clare often finds himself at home in neither one.

Like many of the early poems, 'The Wish' invokes the panoramic view typical of the loco-descriptive, but with a difference. Brownlow demonstrates the way Clare's poems produce a 'kaleidoscopic' optics of the local that contrasts dramatically from the 'telescopic' gaze of eighteenth-century loco-descriptive poetry (pp. 21-23). 'The Wish', which Brownlow does not discuss, makes a compromise between these two perspectives. In contrast to the prospect of the loco-descriptive which generally stations the observer on a hill overlooking a particular but vast estate, 'The Wish' stations its narrator in the humbly furnished house, located 'beneath a neighbouring hill' (l. 9, Early Poems, I, 43). Functioning as a panoptical centre, the 'descent house' enfolds the aristocratic gaze into its rustic space by means of strategically placed windows. From the chamber window looking eastward, the rustic poet's eye would 'feast' upon Constable-like scenes that, like those of the prospect poem, metonymically link the high and low in a scene of national harmony:


My chamber window should oer look the east
That in delicious views my eyes might feast. . . .

The Tree the Wood the Cot and distant Spire
I would search after with a fond desire.
In this said window too I would peruse
Each sweet production of the rural muse . . .
(ll. 79-80, 89-92, Early Poems, I, 46)

Assuming here a modified version of the high prospect, Clare's speaker approaches the 'elevated ground' that Edmund Burke's An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs (London, 1791) had secured exclusively for the natural aristocrat. For Burke, the panorama of such elevated grounds enables the natural aristocrat to 'take a large view of the wide-spread and infinitely diversified combinations of men and affairs in a large society' (p. 130); for Clare, the prospect entails a less ambitious view of the village society and the 'diversified combinations' of local flora and fauna. Thus, Clare re-orients the aristocratic gaze in a deft assimilation of the panoramic with the local. This reorientation serves as a fine example of Clare's ability to invoke a convention from eighteenth-century poetry only to modify it to serve his particular purpose.

Another motif from the loco-descriptive is the concept of productive idleness, such as Cowper's notion of a rural life 'studious of laborious ease' (The Task, III, 361, London, 1785), which Wordsworth later transforms into the famous 'wise passiveness' of 'Expostulation and Reply'. Assuming a privilege inaccessible to him, Clare's narrator dreams about a rustic life without work. He would spend part of his day inspecting his 'Acres just threescore' (l. 190, Early Poems, I, 48) or 'trifling in the garden now and then' (l. 208), while the rest of the day he would spend in gentlemanly leisure: 'The other hours I'd spend in letterd ease / To read or study just as that might please...' (ll. 212-14). As he imagines gazing out momentarily upon the prospect, Clare's speaker tells us that he would peruse the 'sweet production[s] of the rural muse' (ll. 91-2). Like the narrator of The Task busy in his studied leisure, Clare's speaker would spend his day among his books. Where an ear trained on eighteenth-century loco-descriptive poetry would expect to hear the names of Lucretius, Virgil or Milton among the 'choisest authors' (l. 50), the narrator recites a list of less illustrious, and some rustic, poets, including Bloomfield, Templeman, Hurn, Dermody, Scott, Macneil, and Burns. In substituting these local, rustic authors for the more canonical, classical authors, Clare again modifies the conventions while affiliating his work with the local and regional. At the same time, his desire for the 'raptures in a leisure hour' (l. 55) shows that Clare was indeed deprived of any such opportunity, a point underscored again in these lines from 'Poverty':


Rank Poverty dost thou my joys assail
And with thy threatnings fright me from my rest
I once had thoughts that with a Bloomfields tale
And leisure hours I surely should be blest.
But now I find the alterative scene
From these few days I fondly thought my own
Hoping to spend them private and alone
But lo! thy troop of spectres intervene
(ll. 1-8, Early Poems, II, 3-4)

Poverty, in other words, spoils even those hours spent away from the drudgery of physical labour, because the cares and fears it harbours disturb and distract the mind. Although the last lines of the poem assert that poverty will never drive the poet from writing, we know that until his confinement in the asylum Clare always had to wrestle necessity to win time for poetry.

Given that the difference between his own class and the gentry hangs upon the division between labour and leisure, dependence and independence, it is not surprising that the double nature of Clare's desire plays out in the poem's transformations of these two positions. If Clare's projection of productive idleness plays in a distinctively lower register the laborious ease of loco-descriptive convention, this working poet completely abrogates the companion notion of cheerful labour, the 'Contented Toil' that Goldsmith's 'The Deserted Village' (l. 403) attributes to agricultural labour. Since the narrator's only labour would be to 'take [his] daily rounds' (l. 206, Early Poems, I, 49) and enjoy select views of his property, 'The Wish' refuses to participate in this rentier's vision of agricultural work. Indeed, the poem, like Crabbe's 'The Village', explicitly rejects the recurrent trope of 'healthful' labour: 'Tho health from exercise is said to spring / Foolhardy toil that health will never bring' (ll. 197-8). Instead the hard physical labour of the rural worker brings 'dire ills a numerous train' that 'Will shed their torments with afflictive pain' (ll. 199-200). The remedy to this evil turns out to be fairly simple: no such work at all! Thus, the narrator's dream world is constructed so that he would have to perform no physical labour:


O'er the fair plains should roam a single cow
For not one foot should ever want the plough
This would be toiling so I'd never crave
One single thing where labour makes a slave.
(ll. 193-6, Early Poems, I, 48)

If rejecting the idea of cheerful and healthful labour sets him apart from loco-descriptive ideology, the narrator's idleness places him equally apart from those radicals, such as Mary Wollstonecraft, William Godwin or Thomas Paine, who roundly condemned aristocratic leisure as a poor masquerade for dissolute idleness. Here again Clare's narrator projects a desire to take up aristocratic practices, but on his own terms - within the limits of someone in his class. Clare's speaker, for example, imagines sufficient money 'T'relieve a Beggar or to treat a friend' (l. 235, Early Poems, I, 49). Though he wants to have sufficient money to be able to practice individual and modest acts of charity, he does not imagine acquiring vast wealth.


And now my income which I have not made
Should touch at living desent yearly paid,
This would suffice me - for I'd never stride
O'er scenes of descency to follow pride.
A little over plus I might expend
T' relieve a Beggar or to treat a friend
For while I'd money left or bread to spare
The Beggar always should be welcome there.
Tho' this was all in wishing I would have
Posses'd of these I nothing more should crave
(ll. 230-9, Early Poems, I, 49)

While envisioning some participation in practices associated with the landed gentry - that is, ownership, leisure, and charity - Clare's poem places limits upon the degree of such participation. Just as the poem adopts the comprehensive gaze of the loco-descriptive narrator only to circumscribe it within a small compass, the narrator fancies himself living a life of leisure within modest bounds. Clare's desire, then, is marked by two signatures: that of the landed gentry, and that of his own class.

The hybrid signature of 'The Wish' embodies the inherent contradictions that Elizabeth Helsinger attributes to Clare's position as a 'peasant poet', a phrase, in her words, that 'must refer to two different social locations' (Rural Scenes, p. 142). Clare ultimately finds himself in the unenviable position of partly accepting and partly resisting both of these positions. Hence, his writing places him in a sort of no-man's land, a border region that is at once enabling and alienating. Clare's inability to take root in this liminal ground speaks much about his eventual depression; his inability to graft the poet onto the peasant ultimately leads to a sense of homelessness. As if recognizing its impossible hybridity, 'The Wish' finally arrests its attempt to bridge the two worlds, and in a proleptic, Keatsian statement the speaker interrupts the daydream to remind us that the entire scene amounts to little more than an idle fantasy, the cost of which must be paid out in the anguish of longing:


Ah scenes so happy void of all controul
Your seeming prospects heightens up my soul;
E'en now so bright the fairy vision flies,
I mark its flight as with possesing eyes
But thats in vain - to hope the wish was gave
It clogs the mind and binds the heart a slave.
Tis nothing but a wish one vents at will
Still vainly wishing and be wanting still
For when a wishing mind enjoys the view
He dont expect it ever will come true
(ll. 177-86, Early Poems, I, 48)

In acknowledging the vanity and immateriality of the dream, 'The Wish' constructs Clare's utopia as an elsewhere ever receding on the horizon of desire. The collapse of the daydream returns the narrator to the dystopic present, fancy's cheating elf once again not having cheated well enough to transform the real.

II. 'Helpstone'

Another early poem, 'Helpstone,' demonstrates even more graphically Clare's sense of falling between ambition and poverty, the dilemma of the man who, as Clare puts it in 'The Peasant Poet', was 'A Peasant in his daily cares - / The Poet in his joy' (ll. 15-16, Later Poems, p. 845). In 'The Village Minstrel', Clare writes, 'Ambitions projects fird his little soul / & fancy soard & sung 'bove poverty's controul' (ll. 35-6, Early Poems, II, p. 124) - and so it did. Yet, the pull of poverty, the nostalgia for an ignorance that was bliss, continually asserted itself in Clare's work. Thus, like 'The Wish', 'Helpstone' enacts the struggle between two mutually exclusive poles of possible experience: a familiar centre, Helpston, that seems uncongenial to the ambitions of 'low genius', and an unspecified elsewhere, a 'hopeful track' (ll. 9 and 26, Early Poems, I, 156-7) that the speaker imagines only as a displaced desire. Like 'The Wish', the poem seeks to find an authentic voice, even as it protests its very project, registering a certain discomfort with its own ambitions.

'Helpstone' opens in a mood of humility, with lines echoing Gray's 'Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard' and Goldsmith's 'The Deserted Village':


Hail humble Helpstone where thy valies spread
& thy mean Village lifts its lowly head
Unknown to grandeur & unknown to fame
No minstrel boasting to advance thy name
Unletterd spot unheard in poets song
Where bustling labour drives the hours along
(ll. 1-6, Early Poems, I, 156)

These lines recall the familiar conventions of the agrarian idyll: the village is the site of what Goldsmith in 'The Deserted Village' (I, 398) calls 'the rural Virtues': modesty, simplicity, and 'contented Toil' (I, 403). Having invoked those comforting and reassuring values, however, the poem turns them on their head, as it goes on to describe a 'dawning genius' who dares to attempt to rise above the limitations of this place 'Where usless ign'rance slumbers life away' (ll. 7-8, Early Poems, I, 156). In contrast to 'The Deserted Village', where 'sweet Poetry' joins the melancholy band of departing values, 'Helpstone' portrays poetry in the form of the rustic genius who strives to run away from the limitations imposed by poverty. Indeed, as in 'The Wish' the speaker of 'Helpstone' is caught up in a 'vain wish' (l. 16): as a 'low genius' he tries 'Above the vulgar & the vain to rise' (ll. 9-10).

Despite the rustic genius's hopeful dream of discovering a better life and his desire to claim a more equal possession of the nation, to seek what the poem calls a higher view - he only finds 'Each prospect lessen and each hope decay' (l. 42, Early Poems, I, 158). Disappointed, having failed even in his hopeful daydream to enlarge his prospect or his claim to equality, the poet seeks refuge in the place he had hoped to leave behind, comparing himself to birds in winter who sought better feeding grounds only 'to seek the place from whence they went / & put up with distress & be content' (ll. 44-5). Like many a fictional protagonist, Clare's speaker in 'Helpstone' imagines that he had set out to shape his identity by affiliating with the alien conventions of a culture that normally would exclude him. His writing gave him the right of passage across this sea of dreams, and his writing led him to abandon his effort. But 'Helpstone' imagines failure, not success. In an extended metaphor, the speaker as traveller 'uncertain roams / On lost roads leading every where but home' (ll. 179-80). The 'hopeful track' that promised a new station in life has now become a 'hated track' (ll. 26 and 182). As he acknowledges that the 'happy Eden of those golden years' exists only in his memory, the speaker recognizes that he no longer has a home to which to return (l. 163); his 'lost roads' lead 'every where but home' (l. 180). As it figures Helpston as an Edenic centre and point of origin, 'Helpstone' condemns its speaker-poet to a liminal space out on open roads leading nowhere. Thus, Clare's poem censures his imagined movements, even as it endears him to a place that no longer exists except as a cherished memory.

Helsinger describes how the experience of landscape - whether the direct experience of tourism or the vicarious experience of reading illustrated guidebooks - offers 'social identity in terms of a variety of possible relationships to English scenery' (Rural Scenes, p. 165). The collections of engraved views of English landscape, which became increasingly popular after 1816, constitute a genre that in her words 'enforces' a distinction 'between those addressed as viewers of the landscape and those who can only be imaged as subjects in it'. As a rural labourer, Clare was among those who would normally be 'fixed in place [...] circumscribed within a social position and a locality, and unable to grasp the larger entity, England'. If in 'The Wish' Clare anxiously imagines taking up the station of the landowner, in 'Helpstone' he imagines breaking free from his fixed place and tentatively moving beyond his geographical and social bounds. Indeed, the speaker-poet identifies himself with 'young wanderers on a doubtful road', whose 'trembling hand' seeks guidance and whose vain wishes need chiding (ll. 14-15, Early Poems, I, 156-7). Mobile, but without direction, Clare's 'Traveller uncertain' (l. 179, p. 163) becomes one of what Helsinger calls the 'shadowy doubles' of the tourist (Rural Scenes, p. 166) - her phrase for the itinerant rural poor after the agricultural protests of 1816, 1822 and 1830. The speaker's movement in the poem articulates a claim or desire to be acknowledged - to become a member of the larger nation, to escape from the place of 'the vulgar and the vain' (ll. 10, Early Poems, I, 156); yet the poem figures this uncertain movement with its doubtful end as a threat, not to those who would perceive the itinerant labourer as impertinent and encroaching upon their privileged mobility, but to himself.

As we know, whenever Clare ventured too far from Helpston, he got 'out of his knowledge' and the world became strange. 'The Flitting', for example, records Clare's traumatic sense of dislocation upon being removed from Helpston; the poem figures the move to Northborough as an ejection from the garden:


Ive left my own old home of homes
Green fields and every pleasant place
The summer like a stranger comes
I pause and hardly know her face
(ll. 1-4, Oxford Authors, p. 250)

Not just a record of alienation from place, the poem equates the loss of place with the loss of identity: 'Strange scenes mere shadows are to me / Vague unpersonifying things' (ll. 89-90, Oxford Authors, p. 252). As McKusick rightly argues, for Clare a thing 'has value only in its proper home' ('A language that is ever green', p. 237). Away from his own proper home Clare lost his sense of place, as even his earliest poetry affirms. We may recall that in 'The Wish' the speaker imagines himself making 'daily rounds' through his small estate, 'To see that all was right and keep secure the bounds' (ll. 206-7, Early Poems, I, 49). For Clare, the threat to his security was not some intrusion from outside those boundaries; the threat came from his fear of being without those boundaries.

Elsewhere Clare records instances of being unpersonified in unfamiliar places. In his Autobiography, for example, Clare describes the anomie he felt en route to London on the Stamford coach: 'when I turnd to the reccolections of the past by seeing people at my old occupations of ploughing and ditching in the fields by the road side while I was lolling in a coach the novelty created such strange feelings that I could almost fancy that my identity as well as my occupations had changd that I was not the same John Clare but that some stranger soul had jumped into my skin' (By Himself, p. 134). Rather like the Wordsworth of The Prelude, Book VII, Clare experiences vertigo amid the novelty and variety of London. Even on his third trip to the great city Clare remarks, 'everything was so uncommon to what I had been usd to that the excess of novelty confou[n]ded my instinct every thing hung round my confusd imajination like riddles unresolvd while I was there I scarcly knew what I was seeing and when I got home my remembrance of objects seemd in a mass one mingld in another like the mosiac squares in a roman pavement' (By Himself, p. 150). As McKusick has observed of Clare's London experience, Clare 'never overcame the sense of displacement and loss of identity that characterized his first visit to London, and he always observed the city from the point of view of a dislocated outsider, often painfully aware of his own inexperience and lack of sophistication'. (6)

Clare's description of his visits to London draws upon his sense of the difference between the common and the uncommon - that is, between the known and unknown. As P.M.S. Dawson has shown, 'common' is a term charged with positive connotations for Clare. (7) Linked to Clare's affiliation with the commons and commoners - with the customary landscape and social system to which Clare was umbilically attached - 'common' often suggests the familiar. Amidst what for Clare was the unusual urban environment of London, then, it is not surprising to find him remarking that he was 'uncommonly pleased' that a song of his was to be sung at Covent Garden on the very day of his arrival; or that he was 'uncommonly astonished' at the sight of 'so many ladys' - who turned out to be prostitutes - on the streets at night (By Himself, p. 136) Thus, Clare measures the novelty of London against what Dawson aptly describes as Clare's sense of the dignity of 'the ordinary and everyday', a meaning Dawson finds associated in Clare's work with the word 'common' (p. 73). To invoke Clare's lexicon, in London and in Northborough, as when he strayed too far from the village boundaries as a child, Clare got out of his knowledge - the landscape and city were for him a terrifying terra incognita, geographically and socially. It is in just such a terra incognita that the speaker of 'Helpstone' imagines himself at the conclusion of the poem.

When the speaker of 'Helpstone' finally loses confidence in his 'fruitless wish' (l. 44, Early Poems, I, 158) for a better life beyond the bounds of the familiar, he longs for a return to the common comforts of his old home of homes, where he willingly will 'put up with distress & be content' (l. 46). Yet, in a nostalgic passage reminiscent of Goldsmith or Wordsworth, 'Helpstone' declares the impossibility of that return home, for the 'dear delights', the 'golden days', the 'sports' of youth, and the village are no more (ll. 55-7). Sweeping his eye across the landscape, the speaker notices the absence of the brook, old posts and familiar stones; 'many a bush & many a tree' (l. 74) have given way to the axe of enclosure. The loss of these familiar landmarks is so disorienting that the poem concludes with a sustained simile that underscores the rhetoric of liminality that appears throughout the poem. Indeed, the figure of the vagrant seems to provide the answer for the speaker's first uncertain thoughts about leaving Helpston:


Oh where can friendships cheering smiles abode
To guide young wanderers on a doubtful road
The trembling hand to lead, the steps to guide
& each vain wish (as reason proves) to chide -
(ll. 13-16, Early Poems, I, 156-7)

Throughout 'Helpstone' the speaker affiliates himself with figures of unfulfilled desire, vain hopes, and homelessness. He compares himself, for example, to birds in winter which search 'for food & "better life" in vain' (l. 25). '[B]ent on higher views' (l. 28), the speaker's visions, like those of the birds, vanish 'as they rise' (l. 38). The birds' 'foolish fruitless wish' (l. 44) for food correlates to the speaker's vain wish for the presence of those lost objects that denoted his native home. Strolling along through the village the speaker finds his memories insufficient surrogates for the missing objects he recalls, so that he finds himself in the midst of 'scenes obscure': a 'far fled pasture long evanish'd scene' (ll. 47 and 95). Thus, the return home, if even possible, comes at the cost of a heightened awareness of loss and unwanted change. As Clare puts it in 'Lamentations of Round Oak Waters', to revisit these scenes is 'To think how once it us'd to look / How it must look no more' (ll. 127-8, Early Poems, I, 232).

As the last lines of 'Helpstone' suggest, however, the return may not be possible at all. Just as the speaker expresses his 'one hope true to die at home at last', Clare compares him to the 'Traveller' who 'uncertain roams / On lost roads leading every where but home' (ll. 178-80). Indeed, home becomes only the object of fancy, of wishes, the validity of which the poem has called into question: the lost traveller

Makes for the home which night denies to find
& every wish that leaves the aching breast
Flies to the spot where all its wishes rest
(ll. 184-6, Early Poems, I, 163)

As in 'The Wish', the peasant poet's desire to move out of his place calls up a censorious warning of the vanity of such wishes. Having imagined a rustic genius trying to rise above the vulgar and the vain, 'Helpstone' seems to banish him forever, condemning him to a life of abject and aimless wandering - a shadowy double indeed. These figures of homelessness and liminality associate the speaker with the lost objects of the landscape; he too, like the landmarks no longer visible, has been uprooted beyond any hope of return. Thus, in 'Helpstone' the landmarks and the speaker are mutually displaced. As in 'The Lamentations of Round Oak Waters', where Clare projects the perturbations of landscape into the space of the text; the disturbance of the familiar landmarks registers the trauma of Clare's own displacement.

If the rhetoric of liminality or homelessness in 'Helpstone' collapses the distance between Clare, his speaker and 'his native place' (l. 71, Early Poems, I, 159), Clare's ventriloquism in 'The Lamentations of Round-Oak Waters' similarly blurs, if it does not erase, the gap between subject and object, between the grieving poet and the disfigured landscape, here personified as the genius of Round Oak brook. 'The Lamentations of Round Oak Waters' fuses its speaker's grief with that of the brook through an act of poetic ventriloquism: the brook recounts the story of its own injuries to a speaker already 'Oppress'd wi' grief' (l. 1, Early Poems, I, 228). The grief of the speaker here overdetermines the speech of the brook, which recounts not just the disappearance of the 'greens the Meadows & the moors' (l. 119, p. 231), but describes the speaker's grief and his psychological investment in the brook. In lines reminiscent of the conclusion to Wordsworth's 'She dwelt among the untrodden ways' - 'But she is in her Grave, and, Oh! / The difference to me!' (8) - as it recalls the loss of objects and activities centred around the once vital brook and its immediate environs, the voice of the brook pointedly elicits an affective response from the poet-speaker: '"But ah - there's ne'ery Edding now / 'For neither them nor you"' or '"All naked are thy native plains / 'And yet they're dear to thee"' (ll. 115-16 and 123-4, Early Poems, I, 231). In 'She dwelt among untrodden ways' the concluding statement is entirely self-reflexive; its sense of loss centres upon the speaker alone. In 'Lamentations', Clare sets up a dialogic situation; the brook's loss is the speaker's loss, and both, as we know, are Clare's. The voice of the brook becomes a zone of contact where the voice of the poet, the speaker and the brook merge in a collective utterance of an untimely loss.

Although the powerful identification with place that we see in these poems empowers Clare to take a strong stand against what E.P. Thompson calls the 'capitalist penetration into the peasant economy', (9) a penetration that was for Clare symbolized almost exclusively by 'enclosure', this identification led Clare to an uneasy position: for, as 'The Wish,' 'Helpstone' and 'The Lamentations of Round Oak Waters' show, Helpston after the enclosure was not the place Clare imagined in his poems, even though he made a noble effort in his work to keep his native place alive in memory and in language. With its apostrophe to the 'far fled pasture long evanish'd scene' (l. 95, Early Poems, I, 159), 'Helpstone' anticipates the later poems, such as 'The Flitting', 'Remembrances', and 'The Round Oak', where a deep sense of loss - a profound nostalgia that seems literally irrecoverable - accompanies Clare's social criticism and his defense of the rights of commons and the rights of nature. As he writes in 'The spring is come forth, but no spring is for me', the scenes that bring him happiness are scenes drawn from his memory, which itself is unstable; the only scenes of joy are scenes that cannot be recovered:

O when shall my manhood my youth's vallies meet,
The scenes where my children are laughing at Play,
The scenes where my memory is fading away
(ll. 10-12, Later Poems, p. 169)

If Clare hoped in his poetry to replace the lost landscape, the lost folk customs and the lost community of pre-enclosed Helpston, he did so at the cost of his own sense of place and, as we know, his sanity. As early as the 1820s he would look back with nostalgia for that ignorance that was bliss: 'I knew nothing of the poets experience then or I shoud have remaind a labourer on and not livd to envy the ignorance of my old companions & fellow clowns' (By Himself, p. 78). Later poems, such as 'O could I be as I have been' attest that this sense of disappointment with his ambitious project to step into the public life of poetry haunted him throughout his life. His step into poetry was a fall into knowledge and self-consciousness that ultimately transformed his ecotopia into a utopia in the original sense of the word. As the asylum poems testify, this man who speaks so eloquently for the importance of place, whose strength derives from a profound identification with a home of homes transformed utterly, became finally a man who represents the most abject of liminal conditions. When his ecotopia fell victim to the surveyor's grid and the encloser's axe, John Clare's Helpston indeed became a utopia - an imaginary elsewhere, a no place at all.


NOTES

I wish to thank P. M. S. Dawson for his helpful suggestions and comments on an earlier version of this essay.

1. University of Toronto Quarterly 61 (Winter 1991-92), 226-49. Comparing Clare's poetic expression and technique to that of Wordsworth and Gilbert White, McKusick argues that Clare constructs what he calls an 'ecolect': a poetic language that seeks 'to attain the opacity and concreteness of natural phenomena while also evoking the sincerity of response that can only emerge from a wild, unpolished idiom' ('"A language that is ever green"', p. 242). McKusick's essay implicitly affiliates Clare's 'ecological vision' with the environmental consciousness associated with the Green party. McKusick notes that Clare's 'poetry provides a powerful and suggestive model for environmental advocacy, while it also carries enormous historical significance as one of the inaugurating moments of ecological consciousness in English literature' (p. 227).

2. In particular I have in mind Barrell's The Idea of Landscape and the Sense of Place 1730-1840: An Approach to the Poetry of John Clare (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972), Timothy Brownlow's John Clare and Picturesque Landscape (Oxford: Clarendon, 1983), and Johanne Clare's John Clare and the Bounds of Circumstance (Kingston and Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1987).

3. Throughout this essay I draw upon Ernst Bloch's positive notion of the daydream. In The Principle of Hope (3 vols; trans. Neville Plaice, Stephen Plaice and Paul Knight, 1986; rpt. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1995), Bloch modifies Freud's treatment of the daydream as the extension of child's play into adult life. Bloch notes that in contrast to its absence during the nightdream, the ego remains alert during the daydream. Since the ego presides over the daydream, censorship of the dream contents takes place so that the objects of desire do not exceed the possibility of being actualized. Hence, 'the guiding image is present of what a man [or woman] would like to be and become in utopian terms' (Principle of Hope, I, p. 90). For Bloch, the utopian is defined by and limited to that which is possible.

4. Elizabeth Helsinger points out that this refusal to equate labor with pleasure also separates Clare from utopian socialists such as Ruskin, Morris, and even Marx (Rural Scenes and National Representation: Britain, 1815-1850 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), pp. 153-54). The idealization of physical, especially agricultural, labour thus is a feature common to both conservative and radical discourses.

5. The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures (London and New York: Routledge, 1989), p. 38.

6. 'John Clare's London Journal: A Peasant Poet Encounters the Metropolis', The Wordsworth Circle, 23 (1992), 172-5, p. 173.

7. 'Clare and the Ideology of "common sense"', JCSJ, 16 (July 1997), 71-8.

8. Ll. 11-12, William Wordsworth, ed. Stephen Gill, 1984; rpt. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1988, p. 148.

9. 'Custom, Law and Common Right', Customs in Common: Studies in Traditional Popular Culture (New York: The New Press, 1993), pp. 97-184, p. 180.

Click here to email the author, Gary Harrison