1820 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Clare

Robert Southey, "Clare's Poems" Quarterly Review 23 (May 1820) 166-74.



Poems, descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery. By John Clare, a Northamptonshire Peasant. Second Edition. cr. 8vo. London, 1820. pp. 213.

We had nearly overlooked, amidst the bulkier works which incessantly solicit our attention, this interesting little volume; which 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 with in 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.

Clare, the youth of whom we speak, was born at Helpstone, a village most unpoetically situated where the easternmost point of Northamptonshire indents the Lincolnshire fens. His father and mother are parish-paupers; the former, from constant exposure to the inclemency of the seasons, being prematurely decrepit, the latter, his cheerful companion in youth, has become, as they totter down the hill of life, his natural and constant nurse. If this condition of the parents enabled them to afford small indulgence to the son, the example of conjugal affection, we may hope, will not be lost upon a heart very susceptible of kind impressions. Our author, who is the elder of twins, was born in July, 1793; — the sister, who died immediately after the birth, was, to use his mother's figure of speech, "a bouncing girl, while John might have gone into a pint pot;" indicating a delicacy of frame under which he has always laboured. His education necessarily squared with the limited means of his parents. Of the dame, who in every village wields the "tway birchen twigs" to the terror of the surrounding urchins, he learnt to spell and put two syllables together; and before he was six years old, was able, his mother says, to read a chapter in the Bible. As soon, however, as he was able to lead the fore-horse of the harvest team, he was set to work, and returning one evening from the field thus occupied, had the misfortune of seeing the loader fall from the waggon, and break his neck: this fatal accident threw him into fits, from which he did not recover till after a considerable lapse of time, nor without much anxiety and expense to his parents: even at this day he is not wholly free from apprehensions of their return. At the age of twelve, he assisted in the laborious employment of thrashing; the boy, in his father's own words, was weak but willing, and the good old man made a flail for him somewhat suitable to his strength. When his share of the day's toil was over, he eagerly ran to the village school under the belfry, and in this desultory and casual manner gathered his imperfect knowledge of language, and skill in writing. At the early period of which we are speaking, Clare felt the poetic oestrum. He relates, that twice or thrice in the winter weeks it was his office to fetch a bag of flour from the village of Maxey, and darkness often came on before he could return. The state of his nerves corresponded with his slender frame. The tales of terror with which his mother's memory shortened the long nights returned freshly to his fancy the next day, and to beguile the way and dissipate his fears, he used to walk back with his eyes fixed immovably on the ground, revolving in his mind some adventure "without a ghost in it," which he turned into verse; and thus, he adds, he reached the village of Helpstone often before he was aware of his approach.

"The fate of Amy" is one of those stories with which every village, more especially every secluded village, abounds; and the pool, from her catastrophe named the haunted pool, is still shewn, while the mound at the head of it attests the place of her interment. We do not propose to institute a very rigid criticism on these poems, but we must not omit to notice the delicacy with which the circumstances of this inartificial tale are suggested, rather than disclosed; indeed it may be remarked generally that, though associating necessarily with the meanest and most uneducated of society, the poet's homeliest stories have nothing of coarseness and vulgarity in their construction. Some of his ballad stanzas rival the native simplicity of Tickel or Mallett.

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 bloom'd,
A sickly paleness spread.

So fades the flower before its time,
Where canker-worms assail,
So droops the bud upon the stem,
Beneath the sickly gale. — p. 26.

For the boisterous sports and amusements which form the usual delight of village youth, Clare had neither strength nor relish; his mother found it necessary to drive him from the chimney corner to exercise and to play, whence he quickly returned, contemplative and silent. His parents — we speak from knowledge — were apprehensive for his mind as well as his health; not knowing how to interpret, or to what cause to refer these habits so opposite to those of other boys of his condition; and when, a few years later, they found him hourly employed in writing, — and writing verses too, — "the gear was not mended" in their estimation. "When he was fourteen or fifteen," says Dame Clare, "he would shew me a piece of paper, printed sometimes on one side, and scrawled all over on the other, and he would say, Mother, this is worth so much; and I used to say to him, Aye, boy, it looks as if it warr! — but I thought he was wasting his time." Clare's history, for a few succeeding years, is composed in two words, spare diet and hard labour, cheered by visions of fancy which promised him happier days: there is an amusing mixture of earnestness and coquetry in his invocation "to Hope," the deceitful sustainer, time immemorial, of poets and lovers.

Come, flattering Hope! now woes distress me,
Thy flattery I desire again;
Again rely on thee to bless me,
To find thy vainness doubly vain.

Though disappointments vex and fetter,
And jeering whisper, thou art vain,
Still must I rest on thee for better,
Still hope — and be deceived again. — p. 122.

The eccentricities of genius, as we gently phrase its most reprehensible excesses, contribute no interest to the biography of Clare. We cannot, however, regret this. Once, it seems, "visions of glory" crowded on his sight, and, he enlisted at Peterboro' in the local militia. He still speaks of the short period passed in his new character, with evident satisfaction. After a while, he took the bounty for extended service, and marched to Oundle; where, at the conclusion of a bloodless campaign, his corps was disbanded and he was constrained to return to Helpstone, to the dreary abode of poverty and sickness. His novel occupation does not appear to have excited any martial poetry; we need not therefore "unsphere the spirit of Plato," adequately to celebrate the warlike strains of the modern Tyrtaeus.

The clouds which had hung so heavily over the youth of Clare, far from dispersing, grew denser and darker as he advanced towards manhood. His father, who had been the constant associate of his labours, became more and more infirm, and he was constrained to toil alone, and far beyond his strength, to obtain a mere subsistence. It was at this cheerless moment, he composed "What is Life?" in which he has treated a common subject with an earnestness, a solemnity, and an originality deserving of all praise: some of the lines have a terseness of expression and a nervous freedom of versification not unworthy of Drummond, or of Cowley.

And what is Life? — An hour-glass on the run,
A mist, retreating from the morning sun,
A busy, bustling, still-repeated dream,—
Its length? — A minute's pause, a moment's thought.
And happiness? — A bubble on the stream,
That in the act of seizing shrinks to nought.
And what is Hope? — the puffing gale of morn,
That robs each floweret of its gem, — and dies;
A cobweb, hiding disappointment's thorn,
Which stings more keenly through the thin disguise.

And what is Death? — Is still the cause unfound?
That dark, mysterious name of horrid sound?
A long and lingering sleep, the weary crave.
And peace? — Where can its happiness abound?
No where at all, save Heaven, and the grave.

Then what is Life? — When stripp'd of its disguise,
A thing to be desir'd it cannot be;
Since every thing that meets our foolish eyes,
Gives proof sufficient of its vanity.
'Tis but a trial all must undergo
To teach unthankful mortal how to prize
That happiness vain man 's denied to know,
Until he's call'd to claim it in the skies.

That the author of such verses (and there are abundance of them) should have continued till the age of twenty-five unfriended and unknown, is less calculated perhaps to excite astonishment, than that devotedness to his art, which could sustain him under the pressure of such evils, and that modesty which shrunk from obtruding his writings on the world. Once, indeed, and once only, he appears to have made an effort to emerge from this cheerless obscurity, by submitting his verses to a neighbour, who, it seems, enjoyed a reputation for knowledge "in such matters." Even here his ill-fortune awaited him; and his muse met not only with discouragement but rebuke. The circumstance is however valuable, since it serves to illustrate the natural gentleness of the poet's disposition. Instead of venting his spleen against this rustic Aristarch, he only cleaves to his favourite with greater fondness.

Still must my rudeness pluck the flower
That's pluck'd, alas! in evil hour;
And poor, and vain, and sunk beneath
Oppression's scorn although I be,
Still will I bind my simple wreath,
Still will I love thee, Poesy. — p. 124.

"Though need make many poets," it was not need that excited Clare to write poetry, though its importunity finally drove him to "trust his little bark to the waves." Without a shilling in his pocket, with a father and mother aged and decrepit at home, who rather required his aid than contributed to alleviate his condition, with a frame so feeble by nature, as to sink under the toil to which he had all his life submitted, he at length — and on the impulse of the moment — bethought himself of endeavouring to obtain some small advantage from those mental labours which had at various seasons so deeply engaged his mind. "I was working alone in the lime-pits, at Ryhall, in the dead of winter, 1818," these are his own words, "when knowing it impossible for me to pay a shoemaker's bill of more than three pounds, having only eighteen-pence to receive at night, I resolved upon publishing proposals for printing a little volume of poems by subscription; and at dinner-time I wrote a prospectus, with a pencil, and walked over to Stamford at night, to send it by the post to Mr. Hanson, a printer at Market Deeping." Mr. Hanson had seen some of these poems in manuscript; and it is due to him to say that he was the first who expressed a favourable opinion of their merits, and thus induced Clare to venture upon this formidable measure. This prospectus was accordingly published, together with the following "Address," which we give as a sort of literary curiosity.

"The Public are requested to observe, that the TRIFLES humbly offered for their candid perusal, can lay no claim to eloquence of poetical composition, (whoever thinks so will be deceived,) the greater part of them being juvenile productions, and those of a later date offsprings of those leisure intervals which the short remittance from hard and manual labour sparingly afforded to compose them. It is hoped that the humble situation which distinguishes their author will be some excuse in their favour, and serve to make an atonement for the many inaccuracies and imperfections that will be found in them. The least touch from the iron hand of criticism is able to crush them to nothing. May they be allowed to live their little day, and give satisfaction to those who may chuse to honour them with a perusal, they will gain the end for which they were designed, and their author's wishes will be gratified."

Booksellers, whether metropolitan or provincial, are, it has been said, rarely deficient in shrewdness. The proposals fell into the hands of one of the fraternity in Stamford, and suggested to him the probability of the publication affording a profitable speculation. No time was lost in visiting Helpstone; and, for the immediate deposit of a few pounds to meet his present need, and the expectation of receiving a few more at a distant period, Clare was content to abandon his subscription and to part from the volume before us. The original chapman soon transferred his bargain to the actual publishers, by whom the poems have been given to the world in a manner creditable to themselves, and liberal, we have reason to believe, as to the author.

Looking back upon what we have written, we find we have not accomplished our intention of interspersing with our narrative such extracts as might convey a general character of Clare's poetry, — we have used only such as assorted with the accidents of the poet's life, and the tone of them has necessarily been somewhat gloomy. The volume, however, offers abundant proofs of the author's possessing a cheerful disposition, a mind delighting in the charms of natural scenery, and a heart not to be subdued by the frowns of fortune; though the advantages which he might have derived from these endowments have been checked by the sad realities which hourly reminded him of his unpromising condition. Misery herself cannot, however, keep incessant watch over her victims; and it must have been in a happy interval of abstraction from troublesome feelings that Clare composed "the Summer Morning," the result, we believe, of a sabbath-day walk; the lively pictures of rural occupation being introduced from the recollections of yesterday, and the anticipations of the morrow. We have only room for a few stanzas of this little poem, which is gay, and graceful, possessing the true features of descriptive poetry, in which every object is distinct and appropriate.

The cocks have now the morn foretold,
The sun again begins to peep,
The shepherd, whistling to his fold,
Unpens and frees the captive sheep.
O'er pathless plains at early hours
The sleepy rustic sloomy goes;
The dews, brush'd off from grass and flowers,
Bemoistening sop his hardened shoes;

While every leaf that forms a shade,
And every floweret's silken top,
And every shivering bent and blade,
Stoops, bowing with a diamond drop.
But soon shall fly those diamond drops,
The red round sun advances higher,
And stretching o'er the mountain tops
Is gilding sweet the village-spire.

'Tis sweet to meet the morning breeze
Or list the giggling of the brook;
Or, stretch'd beneath the shade of trees,
Peruse and pause on Nature's book,
When Nature ev'ry sweet prepares
To entertain our wish'd delay,—
The images which morning wears,
The wakening charms of early day!

Now let me tread the meadow paths
While glittering dew the ground illumes,
As, sprinkled o'er the withering swaths,
Their moisture shrinks in sweet perfumes;
And hear the beetle sound his horn
And hear the skylark whistling nigh,
Sprung from his bed of tufted corn,
A hailing minstrel in the sky.—

It will have appeared, in some measure, from our specimens, that Clare is rather the creature of feeling than of fancy. He looks abroad with the eye of a poet, and with the minuteness of a naturalist, but the intelligence which he gains is always referred to the heart; it is thus that the falling leaves become admonishers and friends, the idlest weed has its resemblance in his own lowly lot, and the opening primrose of spring suggests the promise that his own long winter of neglect and obscurity will yet be succeeded by a summer's sun of happier fortune. The volume, we believe, scarcely contains a poem in which this process is not adopted; nor one in which imagination is excited without some corresponding tone of tenderness, or morality. When the discouraging circumstances under which the bulk of it was composed are considered, it is really astonishing that so few examples should be found of querulousness and impatience, none of envy or despair.

The humble origin of Clare may suggest a comparison with Burns and Bloomfield, which a closer examination will scarcely warrant. Burns was, indeed, as he expresses it, "born to the plough," but when in his riper years he held the plough it was rather as a master than as a menial. He was neither destitute nor uneducated. Secure from poverty, supported by his kindred, and surrounded by grand and exciting scenery, his lot was lofty and his advantages numerous compared with those of the youth before us. There is almost as little resemblance in their minds. To the pointed wit, the bitter sarcasm, the acute discrimination of character, and the powerful pathos of Burns, Clare cannot make pretension; but he has much of his tender feeling in his serious poetry, and an animation, a vivacity, and a delicacy in describing rural scenery, which the mountain bard has not often surpassed. In all the circumstances of his life, the author of the "Farmer's Boy" was far more fortunate than Clare. Though his father was dead, Bloomfield had brothers who were always at his side to cheer and sustain him, while an early residence in the metropolis contributed largely to the extension of his knowledge. To want and poverty he was ever a stranger. Clare never knew a brother; it was his fortune to continue till his twenty-fifth year without education, without hearing the voice of a friend, constrained to follow the most laborious and revolting occupations to obtain the bare necessaries of life. The poetical compositions of the two have few points of contact. The "Farmer's Boy" is the result of careful observations made on the occupations and habits, with few references to the passions of rural life. Clare writes frequently from the same suggestions; but his subject is always enlivened by picturesque and minute description of the landscape around him, and deepened, as we have said, with a powerful reference to emotions within. The one is descriptive, the other contemplative.

A friend of Clare has expressed a doubt of his capacity for the composition of a long poem: — we have no wish that he should make the experiment; but we have an earnest desire that he should be respectable and happy; that he should support a fair name in poetry, and that his condition in life should be ameliorated. It is with this feeling that we counsel — that we entreat him to continue something of his present occupations; — to attach himself to a few in the sincerity of whose friendship he can confide, and to suffer no temptations of the idle and the dissolute to seduce him from the quiet scenes of his youth — scenes so congenial to his taste, — to the hollow and heartless society of cities; to the haunts of men who would court and flatter him while his name was new, and who, when they had contributed to distract his attention and impair his health, would cast him off unceremoniously to seek some other novelty. Of his again encountering the difficulties and privations he lately experienced, there is no danger. Report speaks of honourable and noble friends already secured: with the aid of these, the cultivation of his own excellent talents, and a meek but firm reliance on that GOOD POWER by whom these were bestowed, he may, without presumption, anticipate a rich reward in the future for the evils endured in the morning of his life.