Gentlemen and ladies came to see the poet’s cottage

Tom Paulin

  • John Clare: A Biography by Jonathan Bate
    Picador, 650 pp, £25.00, October 2003, ISBN 0 330 37106 1
  • ‘I Am’: The Selected Poetry of John Clare edited by Jonathan Bate
    Farrar, Straus, 318 pp, US $17.00, November 2003, ISBN 0 374 52869 1
  • John Clare, Politics and Poetry by Alan Vardy
    Palgrave, 221 pp, £45.00, October 2003, ISBN 0 333 96617 1
  • John Clare Vol. V: Poems of the Middle Period 1822-37 edited by Eric Robinson, David Powell and P.M.S. Dawson
    Oxford, 822 pp, £105.00, January 2003, ISBN 0 19 812386 8

In 1865, a year after John Clare’s death in the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum, Frederick Martin, a former amanuensis of Thomas Carlyle, published the first biography of the ‘peasant poet’. It laid the foundations, Jonathan Bate says in his new Life, ‘for both the enduring myths and some of the key truths about Clare’. Though there have been other biographies since Martin’s, Bate’s should finally disprove Dickens’s dismissal of it as a ‘preposterous exaggeration of small claims’, and consolidate Clare’s reputation as a major Romantic poet (it’s strange to remember that he was much more successful in his lifetime than Keats, with whom he shared a publisher).

Clare was discovered in 1819, when Edward Drury, a young Stamford bookseller, wrote to his cousin John Taylor, who was also a bookseller – what we would now call a publisher – and told him that he had discovered a wholly untutored genius:

Your hopes of good grammar and correct verse, depend on the inspiration of the mind; for Clare cannot reason; he writes and can give no reason for his using a fine expression, or a beautiful idea: if you read Poetry to him, he’ll exclaim at each delicate expression ‘beautiful! fine!’ but can give no reason: yet is always correct and just in his remarks. He is low in stature – long visage – light hair – coarse features – ungaitly – awkward – is a fiddler – loves ale – likes the girls– somewhat idle, – hates work.

As Bate says, this is condescending, but it also shows ‘terrific enthusiasm’. The last sentence of Drury’s letter, like a moment from Clare’s prose – or, I would imagine, his conversation – catches him, pinning on him the adjective ‘awkward’, which in the spelling ‘awkard’ Clare uses obsessively in his writings. (I’m less sure of Bate’s way with adjectives: he throws out a series of phrases – ‘dodgy reputation’, ‘stunningly powerful’, ‘morally high-fibre books’, ‘wonderfully accurate’ – which are too parlando for a serious biography.)

Clare left nearly ten thousand pages of manuscript writings – poems, autobiography, journals, letters, essays and natural history writings, as well as a substantial number of traditional songs, which he transcribed and collected. Four collections of poems – less than a quarter of his output – appeared in print during his lifetime: Poems, Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery(published in 1820, when he was 26), The Village Minstrel and Other Poems(1821), The Shepherd’s Calendar; with Village Stories, and Other Poems(1827) and The Rural Muse(1835). For a short time, he was celebrated as the English Burns, but his work hasn’t had Burns’s lasting popularity and in recent years it has been hard to find in paperback (Bate’s useful selection won’t be published in this country until his biography appears in paperback). One result of this neglect is that the circumstances of his life are not widely known.

Clare’s paternal grandmother, Alice Clare, was the daughter of the senior parish clerk at Helpston in Northamptonshire. In the early 1760s, she had a relationship with John Donald Parker, an itinerant Scottish fiddler and teacher who was working in the village school. On discovering she was pregnant, he disappeared and was never heard of again. Her son was christened for the absent father, and became a talented traditional singer, a gift he passed on to his own son, John, who also became an adept fiddler, like his grandfather. Clare felt an affinity with Robert Burns, collected songs as Burns did, and during his asylum years wrote a number of songs in the Scottish vernacular. Clare says in his autobiography that both his parents were ‘illiterate to the last degree’. Concerned to dispel the myths, Bate points out that the Clares, who formed a line of parish clerks, would have been among the most literate people in their village: Parker Clare could certainly read, although his wife, Ann Stimson, did not know a single letter of the alphabet and, like many country people, regarded printed texts as a form of witchcraft. At this time, Bate notes, illiteratemeant not ‘unable to read’ but ‘ignorant of polite letters’.

Clare and a twin sister were born on 13 July 1793, in a thatched tenement on Helpston High Street, next door to the Blue Bell public house. There were two bedrooms and two downstairs rooms: in Clare’s words, his childhood home was ‘as roomy and comfortable as any of our neighbours’. There was an apple tree in the garden, which, Clare says in his autobiography, ‘stood’ his father’s ‘friend many a year in the days of adversity by producing an abundance of fruit which always met with ready sale and paid his rent’. (Martin doesn’t mention the apple tree in his biography and describes the thatched cottage as a ‘narrow, wretched hut’.) Clare was baptised on 11 August 1793, by which time his sister was dead. Bate suggests that the search for something lost – ‘something innocent, female, and associated with childhood’ – was bound into Clare’s mental state and at the heart of his poetry. The family remembered his sister as Bessy, and talked enough about her to ‘ingrain’ her in Clare’s memory.

When times were hard his father withdrew him from school to save on fees; but, encouraged by two teachers, he read the Bible, the prayer book, penny chapbooks, an agricultural manual and an old book of essays that had lost its title page. He acquainted himself with ‘Mathematics Particularly Navigation and Algebra, Dialling, Use of the Globes, Botany, Natural History, Short Hand, with History of all Kinds, Drawing, Music’. He never studied ‘Grammer’, and always expressed a dislike of its ‘tyranny’, but he was good at maths, something which helped him in negotiations with publishers. The formative texts of his childhood and early youth were, inevitably, Pilgrim’s Progress and Robinson Crusoe, both of which he echoed in ‘To the Snipe’, a lyric whose isolated, islanded atmosphere and slough-like, ‘rude, desolate’ marshes build a distinctive form of Puritan anguish.

Bate begins his third chapter with an account of the most profound experience of Clare’s childhood. One morning he went to gather rotten sticks from the wood, then decided ‘to wander about the fields’. He gazed over the yellow furze of Emmonsales Heath, and imagined, he says in his autobiography, ‘that the world’s end was at the edge of the horizon and that a day’s journey was able to find it’. He thought that when he reached the brink of the world he would find a large pit, and would be able to look down and see the secrets of the universe. He spent the whole day rambling among the furze, ‘till I got out of my knowledge when the very wild flowers and birds seemed to forget me and I imagined they were the inhabitants of new countries’. Before morning seemed over, it was dark, and when by chance he found the right track and got back to his own fields everything appeared different. When he reached home he found his parents distressed and half the village out searching for him – a woodman had been killed by a falling tree and they feared he too had been hurt. This experience – analogous to Wordsworth’s childhood need to touch external objects in order to prove they weren’t mental and ideal – is behind one of Clare’s greatest poems, ‘Birds Nesting’:

To the worlds end I thought I’d go
And o’er the brink just peep adown
To see the mighty depths below.

Clare is thought of as a marginal, provincial poet, who inhabited a remote green world of heath, woodland, riverbank and marshland, but Bate draws attention to the richness of the cultural life around him. Stamford, to the northwest of Helpston, just over the county border into Lincolnshire, was no backwater. Books were published there; it had a theatre, musical evenings and a newspaper, the Stamford Mercury, ‘the articulate voice of eastern England’. In 1809 John Drakard established a rival newspaper, the Stamford News, edited by the radical journalist John Scott, who was later to edit the London Magazine. The village of Helpston itself was caught between two landed and political interests: Burghley Park was the seat of the Exeters, who were Tories, while the Milton Estate belonged to the Fitzwilliams, who were Whigs.

Clare’s horizon was set by the parishes that surround Helpston: Maxey, Etton, Glinton, Bainton, Northborough and Ufford. During his childhood, most of these villages had open fields, but in 1799 Bainton was enclosed. Ten years later, when he was 16, a Parliamentary Act was passed for ‘Inclosing Lands in the Parishes of Maxey with Deepingate, Northborough, Glinton with Peakirk, Etton, and Helpstone in the County of Northampton’. The principal purpose of enclosure was to increase profits, but the price of ‘Improvement’ was the loss of the commons and waste grounds, which according to the Act ‘yield but little Profit’. It took until 1820 to bring the enclosure fully into effect (nearby Castor stayed unenclosed until 1898). Laxton in Nottinghamshire remains as an example of how the English landscape used to look: wide open, unhedged, its spaciousness pushing beyond the horizon.

Clare was devastated by this violation of his natural and social environment. As Bate shows, the open-field system fostered a sense of community, the fields spread out in a wheel with the village at its hub. Enclosure thwarted Clare’s ‘open-field sense of space’, as John Barrell calls it in The Idea of Landscape and the Sense of Place, his seminal study of the poems, and imposed a more linear sense. Fences, gates and ‘no trespassing’ signs went up. Trees were felled and streams diverted so that ditches could follow a straight line.

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