1827 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Clare

Anonymous, Review of Clare, The Shepherd's Calendar, with Village Stories, and other Poems; The Star (24 May 1827).



The Shepherd's Calendar, with Village Stories, and other Poems; by JOHN CLARE. London, J. TAYLOR, 1827.
Eight or nine years have elapsed since the first publication of Clare, the Northamptonshire Peasant, and it cannot fail of proving highly gratifying to his early friends and patrons, to find that his rural Muse is still capable of producing fruits and flowers, worthy the continuance of their fostering care. The present volume is equal, if not superior, to any of the former productions of its amiable and modest Author. It has all his characteristic simplicity and faithful delineation of external nature, with the same excellent feeling of moral worth and sensibility. Poets are, proverbially careless and deficient in matters of worldly wisdom; but Clare, we believe, has ever preserved himself unspotted from the world, and has wisely blended the prudent with the poetical. Man was not made for versifying alone, and in these days of universal scribbling, genius has lost much of its ancient dispensing power, and of the awe and reverence with which it was once accompanied. It would be absurd and paradoxical, however, to infer from this, that true genius has lost any portion of its influence on the public mind, or that mankind have become indifferent to the merits of their best benefactors. We still hail with pride and satisfaction every indication of native talent, but we have become more wise and discriminating in our praise, and require that the conduct of the man shall not belie the strains of the Poet. To those who, like poor Dermody, believe that genius can shelter its unworthy possessors from the contempt of the world, we may say with a living Poet,

The song is saved, but the Bard is lost.

The one talent which they prized so highly, becomes in their hands a curse, rather than a blessing; and, in them, literature is at once degraded and despised.
The strains with which Clare has here solaced his leisure hours, amidst his native fens and marshes, (no very apt abode for the Muses) are full of delightful images of rural life and scenery. Hills and glens are strangers to the village of Helpstone and its neighbourhood, and, therefore, are not to be found in the calendar of our Poet. He has painted only what he has known or seen; but the common objects of nature are to the Poet full of beauty and romance. Thus, Clare, in one of the shorter pieces of the volume before us, says, finely of himself, and of his Muse,

Springs come not as they yearly come,
To low and vulgar eyes,
With here and there a flower in bloom,
Green trees and brighter skies:
Thy fancies flush'd my boyish sight,
And gilt its earlier hours;
And Spring came wrapt in beauty's light,
An Angel dropping flowers.

The following is of a higher mood:—

LIFE, DEATH, AND ETERNITY.
A shadow moving by one's side,
That would a substance seem,—
That is, yet is not, — though descried—
Like skies beneath the stream:

A tree that's ever in the bloom,
Whose fruit is never rife;
A wish for joys that never come,
Such are the hopes of Life!

A dark, inevitable night,
A blank that will remain:
A waiting for the morning light,
Where waiting is in vain;

A gulph, where pathway never led
To shew the depth beneath;
A thing we know not, yet we dread,—
That dreaded thing is Death!

The vaulted void of purple sky
That every where extends,
That stretches from the dazzled eye
In space that never ends;

A morning whose uprisen sun
No setting e'er shall see;
A day that comes without a noon,—
Such is Eternity!

Let Clare write always thus, and, in the words of Dr. Johnson, it will be vain to praise, and useless to blame him.