1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Clare

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 2:425-26.



JOHN CLARE, one of the most truly uneducated of English poets, and one of the best of our rural describers, was born at Helpstone, a village near Peterborough, in 1793. His parents were peasants — his father a helpless cripple and a pauper. John obtained some education by his own extra work as a ploughboy: from the labour of eight weeks he generally acquired as many pence as paid for a month's schooling. At thirteen years of age he met with Thomson's Seasons, and boarded up a shilling to purchase a copy. At daybreak on a spring morning, he walked to the town of Stamford — six or seven miles off — to make the purchase, and had to wait some time till the shops were opened. This is a fine trait of boyish enthusiasm, and of the struggles of youthful genius. Returning to his native village with the precious purchase, as he walked through the beautiful scenery of Burghley Park, he composed his first piece of poetry, which he called the Morning Walk. This was soon followed by the Evening Walk, and some other pieces. A benevolent exciseman instructed the young poet in writing and arithmetic, and he continued his obscure but ardent devotions to his rural muse. "Most of his poems," says the writer of a memoir prefixed to his first volume, "were composed under the immediate impression of his feelings in the fields or on the road sides, he could not trust his memory, and therefore he wrote them down with a pencil on the spot, his hat serving him for a desk; and if it happened that he had no opportunity soon after of transcribing these imperfect memorials, he could seldom decipher them or recover his first thoughts. From this cause several of his poems are quite lost, and others exist only in fragments. Of those which he had committed to writing, especially his earlier pieces, many were destroyed from another circumstance, which shows how little he expected to please others with them: from a hole in the wall of his room where he stuffed his manuscripts, a piece of paper was often taken to hold the kettle with, or light the fire." In 1817, Clare, while working at Bridge Casterton, in Rutlandshire, resolved on risking the publication of a volume. By hard working day and night, he got a pound saved, that he might have a prospectus printed. This was accordingly done, and a Collection of Original Trifles was announced to subscribers, the price not to exceed 3s. 6d. "I distributed my papers," he says; "but as I could get at no way of pushing them into higher circles than those with whom I was acquainted, they consequently passed off as quietly as if they had been still in my possession, unprinted and unseen." Only seven subscribers came forward! One of these prospectuses, however, led to an acquaintance with Mr. Edward Drury, bookseller, Stamford, and through this gentleman the poems were published by Messrs Taylor and Hessey, London, who purchased them from Clare for £20. The volume was brought out in January 1820, with an interesting well-written introduction, and bearing the title, Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery, by John Clare, a Northamptonshire peasant. The attention of the public was instantly awakened to the circumstances and the merits of Clare. The magazines and reviews were unanimous in his favour. "This interesting little volume," said the Quarterly Review, "bears indubitable evidence of being composed altogether from the impulses of the writer's mind, as excited by external objects and internal sensations. Here are no tawdry and feeble paraphrases of former poets, no attempts at describing what the author might have become acquainted within his limited reading. The woods, the vales, the brooks, 'the crimson spots i' the bottom of a cowslip,' or the loftier phenomena of the heavens, contemplated through the alternations of hope and despondency, are the principal sources whence the youth, whose adverse circumstances and resignation under them extort our sympathy, drew the faithful and vivid pictures before us. Examples of minds highly gifted by nature, struggling with, and breaking through the bondage of adversity, are not rare in this country: but privation is not destitution; and the instance before us is, perhaps, one of the most striking of patient and persevering talent existing and enduring in the most forlorn, and seemingly hopeless condition, that literature has at any time exhibited."

In a short time Clare was in possession of a little fortune. The present Earl Fitzwilliam sent £100 to his publishers, which, with the like sum advanced by them, was laid out in the purchase of stock; the Marquis of Exeter allowed him an annuity of fifteen guineas for life; the Earl of Spencer a further annuity of £10, and various contributions were received from other noblemen and gentlemen, so that the poet had a permanent allowance of £30 per annum. He married his "Patty of the Vale," "the rosebud in humble life," the daughter of a neighbouring farmer; and in his native cottage at Helpstone, with his aged and infirm parents and his young wife by his side — all proud of his now rewarded and successful genius — Clare basked in the sunshine of a poetical felicity. The writer of this recollects, with melancholy pleasure, paying a visit to the poet at this genial season in company with one of his publishers. The humble dwelling wore an air of comfort and contented happiness. Shelves were fitted up, filled with books, most of which had been sent as presents. Clare read and liked them all! He took us to see his favourite scene, the haunt of his inspiration. It was a low fall of swampy ground, used as a pasture, and bounded by a dull rushy brook, overhung with willows. Yet here Clare strayed and mused delighted.

Flow on, thou gently-plashing stream,
O'er weed-beds wild and rank;
Delighted I've enjoyed my dream
Upon thy mossy bank:
Bemoistening many a weedy stem,
I've watched thee wind so clearly
And on thy bank I found the gem
That makes me love thee dearly.

In 1821 Clare came forward again as a poet. His second publication was entitled The Village Minstrel and other Poems, in two volumes. The first of these pieces is in the Spenserian stanza, and describes the scenes, sports, and feelings of rural life — the author himself sitting for the portrait of Lubin, the humble rustic who "hummed his lowly dreams" "Far in the shade where poverty retires." The descriptions of scenery, as well as the expression of natural emotion and generous sentiment in this poem, exalted the reputation of Clare as a true poet. He afterwards contributed short pieces to the annuals and other periodicals, marked by a more choice and refined diction. The poet's prosperity was, alas! soon over. His discretion was not equal to his fortitude: he speculated in farming, wasted his little hoard, and amidst accumulating difficulties sank into nervous despondency and despair. He is now, we believe, in a private asylum — hopeless, but not dead to passing events. This sad termination of so bright a morning it is painful to contemplate. Amidst the native wild flowers of his song we looked not for the "deadly nightshade" — and though the example of Burns, of Chatterton, and Bloomfield, was better fitted to inspire fear than hope, there was in Clare a naturally lively and cheerful temperament, and an apparent absence of strong and dangerous passions, that promised, as in the case of Allan Ramsay, a life of humble yet prosperous contentment and happiness. Poor Clare's muse was the true offspring of English country life. He was a faithful painter of rustic scenes and occupations, and he noted every light and shade of his brooks, meadows, and green lanes. His fancy was buoyant in the midst of labour and hardship; and his imagery, drawn directly from nature, is various and original. Careful finishing could not be expected from the rustic poet, yet there is often a fine delicacy and beauty in his pieces, and his moral reflections and pathos win their way to the heart. "It is seldom," as one of his critics remarked, "that the public have an opportunity of learning the unmixed and unadulterated impression of the loveliness of nature on a man of vivid perception and strong feeling, equally unacquainted with the art and reserve of the world, and with the riches, rules, and prejudices of literature." Clare was strictly such a man. His reading before his first publication had been extremely limited, and did not either form his taste or bias the direction of his powers. He wrote out of the fulness of his heart; and his love of nature was so universal, that he included all, weeds as well as flowers, in his picturesque catalogues of her charms. In grouping and forming his pictures, he has recourse to new and original expressions — as, for example—

Brisk winds the lightened branches shake
By pattering, plashing drops confessed;
And, where oaks dripping shade the lake,
Paint "crimping dimples" on its breast.

A sonnet to the glow-worm is singularly rich in this vivid word-painting:—

Tasteful illumination of the night,
Bright scattered, twinkling star of spangled earth
Hail to the nameless coloured dark and light,
The witching nurse of thy illumined birth.
In thy still hour how dearly I delight
To rest my weary bones, from labour free;
In lone spots, out of hearing, out of sight,
To sigh day's smothered pains; and pause on thee,
Bedecking dangling brier and ivied tree,
Or diamonds tipping on the grassy spear;
Thy pale-faced glimmering light I love to see,
Gilding and glistering in the dewdrop near:
O still-hour's mate! my easing heart sobs free,
While tiny bents low bend with many an added tear.

In these happy microscopic views of nature, Grahame, the author of the Sabbath, is the only poet who can be put in competition with Clare. The delicacy of some of his sentimental verses, mixed up in careless profusion with others loss correct or pleasing, may be seen from the following part of a ballad, The Fate of Amy:—

The flowers the sultry summer kills
Spring's milder suns restore;
But innocence, that fickle charm,
Blooms once, and blooms no more.

The swains who loved no more admire,
Their hearts no beauty warms;
And maidens triumph in her fall
That envied once her charms.

Lost was that sweet simplicity;
Her eye's bright lustre fled;
And o'er her cheeks, where roses bloomed,
A sickly paleness spread.

So fades the flower before its time,
Where cankerworms assail;
So droops the bud upon its stem
Beneath the sickly gale.