Broadsides, Ballads and Books:

The Landscape of Cultural Literacy in 'The Village Minstrel',

by Bridget Keegan (Creighton University, Omaha, Nebraska)

From the John Clare Society Journal, no. 15 (1996), pp. 11-19.
(c) copyright Bridget Keegan/The John Clare Society

Placing the work of John Clare within the literary landscape of the early nineteenth century has always proved a vexing issue. The extensively (though as James McKusick might say, inadvertently) heteroglossic nature of Clare's poetry both invites and precludes his comparison with and assimilation into a variety of literary idioms, ranging from that of the late eighteenth century loco-descriptive poets, to that of his Romantic contemporaries (in particular, Wordsworth), to that of the natural historians. (1) Yet as George Deacon and others have noted, Clare's relationship to the antiquarian and folklore movements -- which collected and preserved forms of popular culture -- should also be added to this list, all the more so because both the poet and his earliest critics evidence no absence of uncertainty about identifying his poetry as part of a popular folk tradition. (2) While Clare recounts in his autobiography that his first exposure to poetry was through his father's prodigious talents as a ballad singer, (3) both Octavius Gilchrist's and John Taylor's accounts neglect to mention any similar influence of popular culture on the poet. Gilchrist and Taylor's construction of Clare as a 'Child of Nature' apparently necessitated that Clare be inspired only by a certain class of cultural production. As is also evident in the autobiographical prose, Clare appears to have internalised this erasure of a part of his literary heritage by manifesting his own ambivalence to the popular culture of which he was undeniably a part. Such ambivalence is particularly notable in Clare's well-known anecdote about his epiphanic encounter with Thomson's Seasons. Not merely does Clare highlight this moment in creating the myth of his poetic origins, Taylor also emphasises it in his introduction to Poems Descriptive. Hence the story has become so much a part of Clare's public persona that, even today, it is familiar to those who may know little else about the poet. As Clare describes it, prior to reading Thomson, he 'knew nothing of blank verse nor rhyme either otherwise than by the trash of Ballad Singers' (Autobiographical Writings, p. 9). Thomson's work inspired Clare to reject the largely oral literary models of popular culture and, for the first time, to write -- to commit his verse to paper.

Yet the story Clare tells about his relationship to popular culture in his partially fictionalised vocational poem, 'The Village Minstrel,' is of a different order, and the poem makes a significant substitution in its account of the poet's coming to writing. In 'The Village Minstrel' it is enclosure, and not Thomson, that compels the poem's protagonist (and Clare's alter ego) Lubin to take up the pen. Moreover, enclosure serves to bridge the aesthetic disjunctions between Lubin and his fellow villagers and to unite them in a common expression of loss. To understand why Clare might reconfigure the story of his aesthetic education, we must first recognise his manifold motives in writing this verse narrative of the growth of a peasant poet's mind. It is no accident that the poem is the title piece of his second collection. In producing a second volume, Clare was struggling to transcend his initial reception as a 'quaint' curiosity and assert an authority for his unique poetic perspective. As such, he was disputing audience expectations about the limited imaginative capabilities of a so-called 'natural genius.' At the time of the poem's writing, the general critical tolerance for intrusions of 'ploughmen, milkmaids and other similar prodigies' into the sacred groves of poetry did not extend beyond a single volume. As one reviewer of Poems Descriptive noted, while Clare's first efforts 'demand attention and kindness,' such attention should not encourage further attempts, and 'his generous and enlightened patrons ought to pause -- ere they advise him to become anything else than a peasant -- for a respectable peasant is a much more comfortable man . . . than a mediocre poet' (Critical Heritage, p. 103).

With such condescending critics in view, Clare was placed in an even more defensive position to account for his continued efforts, a position that was exacerbated by critics' persistent doubts about the adequacy of the poet's literary education to sustain further original composition. It led them to suspect that Clare was in fact plagiarising. (4) In part because of the linguistic irregularities of his writing, and the working-class background these indicated, there was increasing critical uneasiness about Clare's abilities to adapt his voice to the more refined idiom of pastoral or loco descriptive poetry about nature. Merely possessing a knowledge of Thomson was deemed insufficient vocational training. Shortly before the publication of The Village Minstrel one critic wrote:

Nothing is more easy than for any person, of moderate talent, be his situation in life what it may, who can read and write, and is in possession of Thomson's Seasons or Beattie's Minstrel . . . to cultivate a talent for making verses -- to learn to cut out watch-papers with his toes would be more difficult -- but it is surely highly inexpedient . . . that literature should be made a walk into which the working classes should be invited to enter (Critical Heritage, p. 118).

Clare's response to such condescension is apparent in the vocational poem. Here, the influence of canonical precursor poets is omitted and the influence of popular culture, broadly conceived, is more complex and not as explicitly negative.

Given the fact that his critics were increasingly suspicious or intolerant of his efforts to produce poetry like Thomson's, it is not surprising that in rewriting the history of his learning to write poetry about nature in 'The Village Minstrel,' Clare alters the intertextual genealogy presented by the autobiographical prose, and incorporates an inventory of other literal and figurative texts. These 'texts' include the idealised figure of the 'Book of Nature,' regionally specific ghost stories and fairy tales, broadside ballads, chapbook editions of popular novels and historical legend. Any overt mention of the authority of more professional poetic discourse is deleted, and, perhaps more importantly, as I have already noted, the event that reconfigures the place of these influences and prompts Lubin to write is not an engagement with a volume of loco descriptive verse, but the trauma of enclosure.

In the poem, Clare tests dual vocational possibilities for Lubin (and implicitly for himself) as both a poet of nature and a poet of rural culture, a pastoralist and a folklorist --attempting to forge an authority in the latter domain which he was denied in the former. For in the retrospective moment in which the poem begins, the poem's narrator hesitates to extol Lubin's efforts at the pastoral idiom. Although he 'hums' 'what nature & what truth inspires / The charms that rise from rural scenery,' (5-6) because his 'lowly dreams' are 'far from what the learneds toils requite' (10) they are characterised as 'artless' and 'mean.' (5) Thus while 'The Village Minstrel' might be read as Clare's attempt, via Lubin, to answer the challenge of 'learned genius' and justify his 'right to song,' it is also a text in which Clare reopens the possibilities of a more productive relationship to a popular tradition that he had labelled elsewhere as trash.

Reading the poem as a tentative effort at reconciliation with the popular culture that Clare had initially wished to repudiate is further warranted by the fact that it was around the time of the composition of 'The Village Minstrel,' in the early 1820s, that Clare became actively engaged in collecting the folklore and folksongs of his region. Although such work never saw publication, Clare's letters and notes reveal that he took great interest in local ballads and stories, and conducted what we might today call 'field work'--listening to oral performances, committing them to memory, and finally transcribing them. Clare's activities as a folklorist, though less-well recognised, are unique because, as Deacon notes, it is unlikely that he knew of anyone else engaged in similar activities. In his project, Clare's only models were antiquarians such as Percy, whose methods and agenda were entirely distinct from Clare's. Percy's Reliques (published in 1765) was drawn entirely from a printed tradition, and Percy himself was reputed to be interested in such works only in so far as he believed they were products of aristocratic, court-attached minstrels. (6) Moreover, unlike the middle and upper-class folklorists, Clare holds the distinction of being the first member of the rural working class to actively and independently document the culture of which he was also a part. As such, his work (in 'The Village Minstrel' and elsewhere) reveals a more sophisticated and more realistic understanding of the forms and role of literary culture in rural life. Clare's work does not unilaterally equate popular with oral literature but instead explores the complex symbiosis between oral and written media (an effort which further undermines his contemporary critics' assumptions about the illiteracy of a 'Child of Nature').

For its first 1000 lines, 'The Village Minstrel' surveys a wealth of literary forms and depicts their influence on Lubin. The first mentioned are Lubin's oral imitations of Nature. Listening to the song of the thrush, Lubin 'thought it sweet & mockt it oer again . . . As nature seemly sung his mutterings usd repeat' (159, 172). But ironically, this orally immediate poetry is also figured as a reading of the 'Book of Nature.' Thus the poet's oral origins are marked by a relationship to a text that is, figuratively speaking, already written. In distinction from Lubin, the villagers participate in another separate oral tradition represented by ghost and fairy stories, the 'haunted tales which village legends fill' (82). Although the poem argues for Lubin's separation from village culture, in his solitary appreciation of nature's book, Lubin is affected by the villagers' stories: 'Dread monsters fancy moulded on his sight / Soft woud he step lest they his tread should hear' (131-2). These tales also inspire his imitation: 'His song might tremble wi the haunted pond / & tell of terrors which his heart has found' (483-4). But despite their mutual influence on Lubin, these two oral modes are not complementary. Prior to enclosure, the poem's narrator continually dissociates Lubin from the village. Even while including village cultural practices, he tells us 'theyre no lubins joys' (52), and Lubin is depicted within this culture but simultaneously 'Far far remote' (155). Not only does Lubin remain aloof from the villagers, they too do not seem to value his literary perspective: 'The sport of all the village has he been / Who wi his simple looks oft jested free' (414-5).

Although the poem initially seems to prioritise oral forms, not only does the figure of the Book of Nature already problematize orality's precedence, but the narrator is careful to demonstrate that there is no absence of printed matter in the village. Neither Lubin nor the villagers are illiterate. The first explicitly written text is mentioned in the single stanza which reports Lubin's abrupt departure from formal education. Although his parents 'draggd him from the school a hopless boy / To shrink unheeded under hard employ' (379-80), Lubin continues his reading: 'To keep the little toil coud not destroy / & oft wi books spare hours he woud beguile / & blunderd oft wi joy round crusoes lonly isle' (382-4). Much might be made of the thematic resonance of Defoe's tale. As a story of survival and an account of mastery over a hostile environment it might prove a positive model for Clare's alter ego. Like Crusoe, who read his Bible and wrote in his journal to maintain his presence of mind (and differentiate himself from the savage, Friday), Lubin uses the book as a supplemental means of nurturing his imaginative sensibility in an environment that, even prior to enclosure is, we presume, not entirely hospitable to his form of aesthetic expression. Lubin is already moving toward an understanding of the social and aesthetic differences initiated by writing.

But just as there are printed materials in Lubin's early life, so too is there print in the villagers' lives, and these artefacts are not without effect on their oral tradition. Although it is less easy to trace scripted models for the ghost and fairy stories which are essentially local in origin, many of the folk tales and ballads mentioned in the poem, particularly those which are given specific titles, have sources in broadsides and chapbook collections. While they are orally related (here by old women), the stories of 'hickerthrift' and 'cruel barbary allen' are tales that gained popularity in the printed broadsides sold throughout the countryside. Even if the text does not claim that the women owned the broadsides or even knew of them, the fluid passage between oral and written forms prior to enclosure is illustrated within the poem. We hear of 'the simple hearted swain' singing 'the thread bare ballad' of 'peggy bond' or 'sweet month of may' (both documented broadside publications) and the poem even presents a scene in which a ballad is purchased during the harvest fair:

& there the ballad singers rave & rant
& hodge whose pockets wornt stand treats more high
Hears which his simpering lass may please to want
& brushing thro' the crowd most manfully
Outs wi his pence the pleasing song to buy
& crams it in her hand wi many a smile
The trifling present makes the maid comply
To promise him her company the while (699-707)

Leaving aside the complicated issues of commodification and gender relations which this passage raises, this stanza also indicates a complex fluidity between oral and written genres in popular culture, a productive instability that will be ended with enclosure.

The final example of popular tradition included in the narrative prior to enclosure is an historical legend. It is related to Lubin by local shepherds, who 'Tho little skilld in antiquated books / Their knowledge in such matters seemd profound / & they woud preach of what did once abound / Castles deep moated round old haunted hall' (926-9). The particular tale that the poem reports serves as an apt (if somewhat ironic) prelude to the 'invasion' of enclosure. It tells of the efforts of royalist Michael Hudson to defend Woodcroft Castle 'when charles our unfortunate king / Was disdaind by each rebel out law' (967-8). Hudson is defeated by the 'coward' rebels who savagely slash off his hands and pitch him into the moat, ignoring his wish to be left to die on dry land. While one might devote considerable attention to the political problematic this passage sets up, it also functions in the text as a powerful transition to the equally violent encroachment of enclosure, which follows immediately upon the tale.

In the stanza 103, enclosure is presented as a 'civil war' of its own sort, whose 'deadly blows' devastate not a royalist stronghold but 'the green when groves of willows fell' (1056). In the poem, enclosure affects not only the landscape. It also affects language -- silencing the rural inhabitants and nature itself. Although Lubin's lament of the evils of enclosure 'No words can utter & no tongue can tell' (1055) may seem to be simply a clichŽ of inarticulable loss, this figure is echoed in the subsequent stanza: '& scarce a bush is left around to tell the mournful tale' (1065). The poem then indicates that the silencing is also quite literal. The 'shades' which once 'echod wi the singing thrush' (1076) and the woodlarks' carolling 'are banishd all' (1083) --'the woodlarks song is hush' (1081). This silencing of the voice of nature (which had made Lubin's poetic voice possible at the start of the poem) is emblematized again in stanza 107 as an invasion of writing. Enclosure's presence in the landscape is announced through the posting of a no trespassing notice: 'Each tyrant fixt his sign were pads was found/To hint a trespass now who crossd the ground' (1087-8). With enclosure, writing becomes a form of tyranny, a manner of claiming possession by usurping voice. Enclosure introduces a writing on and about nature that superscribes all previous forms of oral and written expression, whether they emanate from the Book of Nature or popular culture.

Because it remaps the organisation of the landscape and rewrites the topographical organisation of the village, the poem suggests that enclosure alters the relationship among the discursive practices of the inhabitants. By imposing written signs of possession on nature, it challenges Lubin and the villager's right to be in the landscape and their right to speak about it. The poem quickly becomes an elegy for the landscape and the personal and popular literary forms once used to speak about it, and for the remainder of the poem, Lubin transcends his previously significant discursive differences from the villagers and attempts to speak for the losses of both nature and village culture.

Moreover, he does so in writing--which he had not done at any point prior in the poem. Each time Lubin had been depicted as producing poetry, it was figured as an oral activity: humming, singing or muttering. It would seem that because enclosure has given new symbolic status to writing, it is in writing that Lubin must respond. And it is in its written form that Lubin's poetry is explicitly condemned: '& malice mocks him wi a rude disdain / Proving pretensions to the muse as vain / They deem her talents far beyond his skill / & hiss his efforts as some forged strain' (1294-7). Because Lubin has been dispossessed of Nature's Book, the source of his previous poetic inspiration, because such a 'book' has become the property of the writing of enclosure, his own efforts to write on or about nature are regarded as an attempt at unlawful possession--a forgery or plagiarism.

Yet despite this unfavourable reception of Lubin's first written verse, 'The Village Minstrel' does not conclusively condemn Lubin to eternal ineffectiveness. To be sure, the poem lacks the affirmative resolution one might expect of a vocational poem. But even while seeming to circumscribe for Lubin the vocation of a poet of nature, the poem leaves open the possibility of another, equally authentic vocation. For in the poem's final stanza, as the narrator leaves Lubin 'Where he in silent sorrow broods his woes' (1320), the young poet's troubles are allayed by a wish that 'the low muse his sleepless night may cheer' (1324). It may be, I would like to suggest, that this low muse is the muse of popular culture, a muse whose voice in Clare's poetry had been partially muted by his earliest editors and even by Clare himself. With the publication of 'The Village Minstrel' and his later volumes, Clare continued to explore ways to allow this muse to be heard. Today, with Eric Robinson's recent editions, which include many of Clare's previously unpublished poems, the critical apprehension of the voice of Clare's 'low muse' may grow stronger still.

Bridget Keegan (Creighton University, Omaha, Nebraska).

From the John Clare Society Journal, no. 15 (July 1996).

(c) copyright Bridget Keegan/The John Clare Society


1. McKusick writes that Clare's 'first attempts at poetry . . . embody a not altogether intentional heteroglossia, mingling high and low diction and grotesquely mangling the conventions of standard poetic discourse' (228). See James McKusick, 'Beyond the Visionary Company: John Clare's resistance to Romanticism,' John Clare in Context, eds. Hugh Haughton, Adam Phillips, Geoffrey Summerfield (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994) pp. 221-37.
2. See especially George Deacon, John Clare and the Folk Tradition (London: Sinclair Brown, 1983). Eric Robinson, Margaret Grainger, E.P. Thompson and Raymond Williams, among others, each have also discussed Clare's relationship to popular culture.
3. See Autobiographical Writings, p. 2.
4. With the anticipated publication of The Village Minstrel, the problem of suspected plagiarism became an issue for the poet as well, due to the work's obvious titular debt to Beattie. See, for example, the exchange between Clare and Townsend about coincidental similarities between the two texts (Critical Heritage, p. 125). For an excellent discussion of Clare's relationship to Beattie, see William D. Brewer's essay, 'Clare's Struggle for Poetic Identity in The Village Minstrel', John Clare Society Journal, 13 (July 1994), 73-80.
5. All selections from 'The Village Minstrel' are taken from Early Poems, pp. 123-179.
6. According to Peter Burke in Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe, (New York: Harper & Row, 1978), Percy '...did not think ballads had anything to do with the people, but rather that they were composed by minstrels, enjoying high status at medieval courts. However, the Reliques was interpreted from Herder onwards as a collection of folk songs' (p. 5).