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June 12, 2016
‘John Clare’s Heirs’ by Stephen Burt from “The Boston Review”
Probably nobody wishes they had been John Clare. The son of an agricultural laborer and an illiterate mother in tiny Helpston, Northamptonshire, Clare (1793–1864) had only the barest schooling. After finding, at age thirteen, “a fragment” of James Thomson’s long poem The Seasons (1730), Clare “scribbled on unceasing,” drafting his own poems in fields and ditches. Helped by a vogue for peasant poets, his Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery (1820) likely sold more than 3,000 copies in a year. Visits to London literati, and three more books, ensued, despite diminishing sales. In 1832 Clare, his wife, and their six children left Helpston for another village, a few miles off, where he never felt at home. Five years later Clare was declared insane and confined to an asylum. In 1841 he escaped and walked home, sleeping under culverts and trudging twenty miles a day. Clare spent the rest of his life in another asylum, “disowned by my friends and even forgot by enemies,” though in some years he continued to write. At times he thought he was Lord Byron. His late poems can present a scary sense of disembodied, empty confusion.
And yet most of Clare’s voluminous poetry, early and late, mad and sane, exults in what he saw firsthand outdoors: crops, wildflowers, birds, mammals, and fellow laborers, all threatened by the Enclosure Acts of the early 1800s, which turned shared fields and forests into private property. Before enclosure, Clare wrote in the manuscript version of “October” (1827),
Autum met plains that stretched them far away
In uncheckt shadows of green brown & grey
Unbounded freedom ruld the wandering scene
No fence of ownership crept in between
To hide the prospect from the gazing eye
Its only bondage was the circling sky
(Note the misspellings, which his printed books correct; some modern editors, led by Eric Robinson, restore the manuscript usage.) The wonder that Clare found in unspoiled, unenclosed landscapes was something like the wonder he found in childhood, with an unphilosophical glow:
We sought for nuts in secret nook
We thought none else could find
And listened to the laughing brook
And mocked the singing wind;
We gathered acorns ripe and brown
That hung too high to pull,
Which friendly windows would shake a-down
Till all had pockets full.
He also portrayed the gypsies, now called Roma, as “a quiet, pilfering, unprotected race” whose language he claimed he could speak. Almost everything that could have seemed, to a nineteenth-century reader, like a reason to count Clare as minor, or not to read him, makes him a resource for poets today. “Bard of the fallow field / And the green meadow,” as he called himself, Clare remained closely attentive to what we now call his environment, what he called “nature,” in a way that is neither touristic nor ignorant of agricultural effort. He saw tragic ironies all over the place, but he never sought verbal ironies himself: he is about as sincere (if not naive) as poets get. Clare seems to have benefited from few of the changes wreaked on the planet since the invention of the steam engine and cannot be blamed for whatever brought them about: he may be the last significant white Anglophone poet for whom that was true.
Better yet, Clare’s apparently unorganized—but minutely observed—poetry looks like a model for poets who want to stay true to a material world while rejecting the hypotactic, well-made structures that earlier generations preferred. Clare’s poems, Stephanie Weiner writes in her study of his legacy, “insist on their origin in real acts of perception” even though “he seems deliberately to court unboundedness.” John Ashbery loves him: in his 1969 prose poem “For John Clare,” “There is so much to be seen everywhere that it’s like not getting used to it, only there is so much it never feels new.” Twenty years later, Ashbery called Clare’s verse “a distillation of the natural world with all its beauty and pointlessness, its salient and boring features preserved intact.” The distinguished scholar Angus Fletcher found in the incontrovertibly English Clare—and in Ashbery and Walt Whitman—what Fletcher called A New Theory for American Poetry (2004), all about the anti-hierarchical, centerless, “self-organizing and nonlinear . . . . environment-poem.”
No wonder some poets now work with Clare in mind. The sonnets of The Gypsy and the Poet (2013), by the English writer David Morley, dramatize Clare’s meetings with the Romany leader Wisdom Smith:
Clare gazes at the fire. Wisdom cradles the poet’s cup and stirs
and stares at the tea leaves: ‘Our lives are whin upon this heath
whose growing makes one half of heaven and one half earth.
You desire an earthly heaven, John, and will find it in Helpston.
The leaves also say you are welcome to my fire—and to this cup.’
‘You read a world from so little,’ thinks Clare. And the Gypsy looks up.
…Morley weaves Romany lore and language (often untranslated) into his poems; a trained biologist, he also corrals the horticultural details. Morley’s wise, witty, circuitous Gypsies seem better adapted to the land than Clare himself, though his written words may outlast their music and speech: “Wisdom Smith tugs corks on two bottles. He pulls a long face. / ‘John, I know no man more half-in or half-out of your race. . . . / We die if we do not move, whereas John—John, you would die.” In their low-pressure conversation, their unobtrusive hexameters, their samples of English and Roma customs and landscape, Morley’s poems draw winningly on aspects of Clare that no American poet could use...