1820 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Clare

John Taylor, Introduction to Clare, Poems descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery (1820) 1-xxiii.



The following Poems will probably attract some notice by their intrinsic merit; but they are also entitled to attention from the circumstances under which they were written. They are the genuine productions of a young Peasant, a day-labourer in husbandry, who has had no advantages of education beyond others of his class; and though Poets in this country have seldom been fortunate men, yet he is, perhaps, the least favoured by circumstances, and the most destitute of friends, of any that ever existed.

JOHN CLARE, the author of this Volume, was born at Helpstone, near Peterborough, Northamptonshire, on the 13th of July, 1793. He is the only son of Parker and Ann Clare, who are also natives of the same village, where they have always resided in extreme poverty; nor are they aware that any of their ancestors have been in better circumstances. Parker Clare is a farmer's labourer, and latterly he was employed in threshing; but violent colds brought on the rheumatism to such a degree that he was at length unable to work, or even to move without assistance. By the kind liberality of Lord Milton he was then sent to the Sea-bathing Infirmary at Scarborough, where he found great relief; but returning home part of the way on foot, from a desire to save expenses, his exertions and exposure to the weather brought on the pain again, and reduced him to a more deplorable state than ever. He is now a helpless cripple, and a pauper, receiving an allowance of five shillings a week from the parish.

JOHN CLARE has always lived with his parents at Helpstone, except for those short periods when the distance to which he was obliged to go for work prevented his return every evening. At his own home, therefore, he saw Poverty in all its most affecting shapes, and when he speaks of it, as in the Address to Plenty, p. 48,

Oh, sad sons of Poverty!
Victims doom'd to misery;
Who can paint what pain prevails
O'er that heart which want assails?
Modest Shame the pain conceals:
No one knows, but he who feels—

And again:

Toiling in the naked fields,
Where no bush a shelter yields,
Needy Labour dithering stands,
Beats and blows his numbing hands;
And upon the crumping snows
Stamps, in vain, to warm his toes—

he utters "no idly-feign'd poetic pains:" it is a picture of what he has constantly witnessed and felt. One of our poets has gained great credit by his exterior delineations of what the poor man suffers; but in the reality of wretchedness, when "the iron enters into the soul," there is a tone which cannot be imitated. CLARE has here an unhappy advantage over other poets. The most miserable of them were not always wretched. Penury and disease were not constantly at their heels, nor was pauperism their only prospect. But he has no other, for the lot which has befallen his father, may, with too much reason, be looked forward to as the portion of his own old age. In the "annals of the poor" want occupies a part of every page, except the last, where the scene changes to the workhouse, but then the burthen which is taken from the body is laid upon the spirit: at least it would be so with CLARE; for though the contemplation of parochial relief may administer to some minds a thankless, hopeless sort of consolation, under the pressure of extreme distress, yet to the writer of the following lines it must be the highest aggravation of affliction:—

Oh, may I die, before I'm doom'd to seek
That last resource of hope, but ill supplied;
To claim the humble pittance a week,
Which justice forces from disdainful pride!
(p. 73.)

While such was the destitute condition of his parents, it may seem extraordinary that CLARE should have found the means to acquire any learning whatever; but by extra work as a ploughboy, and by helping his father morning and evening at threshing, he earned the money which paid for his education. From the labour of eight weeks he generally acquired as many pence as would pay for a month's schooling; and thus in the course of three years he received, at different times, so much instruction that he could read very well in the Bible. He considers himself to have derived much benefit from the judicious encouragement of his schoolmaster, Mr. Seaton, of Glinton, an adjoining perish, from whom he sometimes obtained three-pence a week in rewards, and who once gave him sixpence for repeating, from memory, the third chapter of Job. With these little sums he bought a few books.

When he had learned to read tolerably well, he borrowed from one of his companions that universal favourite, Robinson Crusoe, and in the perusal of this he greatly increased his stock of knowledge and his desire for reading. He was thirteen years of age when another boy shewed him Thomson's Seasons. They were out in the fields together, and during the day CLARE had a good opportunity of looking at the book. It called forth all the passion of his soul for poetry. He was determined to possess the work himself; and as soon as he had saved a shilling to buy it with, he set off for Stamford at so early an hour, that none of the shops were open when he got there. It was a fine Spring morning; and after he had made his purchase, he was returning through the beautiful scenery of Burghley Park, when he composed his first piece of poetry, which he called "The Morning Walk." This was soon followed by the "Evening Walk," and some other little pieces.

But the first expression of his fondness for Poetry was before he had learnt to read. He was tired one day with looking at the pictures in a volume of poems, which he thinks were Pomfret's, when his father read him one piece in the book to amuse him. The delight he felt, at hearing this read, still warms him when he thinks of the circumstance; but though he distinctly recollects the vivid pleasure which thrilled through him then, he has lost all trace of the incidents as well as of the language, nor can he find any poem of Pomfret's at all answering the faint conception he retains of it. It is possible that his chief gratification was in the harmony of the numbers, and that he had thoughts of his own floating onward with the verse very different from those which the same words would now suggest. The various melody of the earliest of his own compositions is some argument in favour of this opinion.

His love of Poetry, however, would soon have spent itself in compositions as little to be remembered as that which has just been mentioned, had it not been for the kindness of Mr. John Turnill, late of Helpstone, now in the Excise, who was indeed a benefactor to him. From his instruction CLARE, though he knew a little of the rudiments before, learnt Writing and Arithmetic; and to this friend he must, therefore, consider himself indebted for whatever good may accrue to him from the exercise of those powers of mind with which he is naturally endowed. For it is very probable, that, without the means of recording his productions on paper, CLARE would not only have lost the advantage he may derive from the publication of his works, but that also in himself he would not have been the Poet he is; that, without writing down his thoughts, he could not have evolved them from his mind; and that his vocabulary would have been too scanty to express even what his imagination had strength enough to conceive. Besides, if he did succeed in partial instances, the aggregate amount of them could not have been collected and estimated. A few detached songs or short passages might be, perhaps, treasured in the memory of his companions for a short period, but they would soon perish, leaving his name and fame without a record.

In the "Dawnings of Genius," CLARE describes the condition of a man, whose education has been too contracted to allow him to utter the thoughts of which he is conscious:—

Thus pausing wild on all he saunters by,
He feels enraptur'd though he knows not why;
And hums and mutters o'er his joys in vain,
And dwells on something which he can't explain.
The bursts of thought, with which his soul's perplex'd,
Are bred one moment, and are gone the next;
Yet still the heart will kindling sparks retain,
And thoughts will rise, and Fancy strive again.

There is, perhaps, no feeling so distressing to the individual, as that of Genius thus struggling in vain for sounds to convey an idea of its almost intolerable sensations,

Till by successless sallies wearied quite.
The Memory and Fancy takes her flight;
The wick confin'd within the socket dies,
Burns down and smother'd in a thousand sighs.

that this would have been CLARE'S fate, unless he had been taught to write, cannot be doubted; and a perusal of his Poems will convince any one, that something of this kind he still feels, from his inability to find those words which can fully declare has meaning. From the want of a due supply of these, and from his ignorance of grammar, he seems to labour under great disadvantages. On the other hand, his want forces him to an extraordinary exertion of his native powers, in order to supply the deficiency. He employs the language under his command with great effect, in those unusual and unprecedented combinations of words which must be made, even by the learned, when they attempt to describe perfectly something which they have never seen or heard expressed before. And in this respect CLARE'S deficiencies are the cause of many beauties, — for though he must, of course, innovate, that he may succeed in his purpose, yet he does it according to that rational mode of procedure, by which all languages have been formed and perfected. Thus he frequently makes verbs of substantives, as in the lines, "Dark and darker "glooms" the sky"— "To "pint" it just at my desire — Or verbs of adjectives, as in the following, "Spring's pencil "pinks" thee in thy flushy stain." But in this he has done no more than the man who first employed "crimson" as a verb: and as we had no word that would in such brief compass supply so clearly the sense of this, he was justified no doubt in taking it. Some future writers may, perhaps, feel thankful for the precedent. But there is no innovation in such cases as these. Inseparably connected with the use of speech is the privilege to abbreviate; and those new ideas, which in one age are obliged to be communicated paraphrastically, have generally in the wit some definite term assigned them: so legitimate, however, is the process of this, by reason of certain laws of analogy which are inherent in the mind of man, and universally attended to in the formation of new words, that no confusion can arise; for the word thus introduced into a language always contains its meaning in its derivation and composition, except it be such mere cant as is not meant to live beyond the day; and further, the correspondent word to it may always be found in other more perfect languages, if the people who spoke that language were alike conversant with the idea, and equally under the temptation of employing some word to signify it.

But a very great number of those words which are generally called new, are, in fact, some of the oldest in our language: many of them are extent in the work of our earliest authors; and a still greater number float on the popular voice, preserved only by tradition, till the same things to which they were originally applied again attract notice, and some writer, in want of the word, either ignorantly or wisely, but in either case happily, restores it to its proper place. Many of the provincial expressions, to which CLARE has been forced to have recourse, are of this description, forming part of a large number which may be called the unwritten language of England. They were once, perhaps, as current throughout the land, and are still many of them as well-sounding and significant, as any that are sanctioned by the press. In the midland counties they are readily understood without a glossary; but, for the use of those who are unaccustomed to them, all such as are not to be found in Johnson's Dictionary will be printed at the end, with explanations.

Another peculiarity in CLARE'S writing, which may be the occasion of some misunderstanding in those who are critically nice in the construction of a sentence, is the indifference with which he regards words as governing each other; but this defect, which arises from his evident ignorance of grammar, is never so great as to give any reel embarrassment to the reader. An example occurs at p. 41: — "Just so 'twill fare with me in Autumn's Life," instead of "the Autumn of Life;" but who can doubt the sense? And it may be worth while to mention here another line, which for the same reason may be objected to by some persons: — "But still Hope's smiles unpoint the thorns of Care" — as if he had intended to say "Hope smiling;" yet as the passage now stands it has also great propriety, and the Poet's conception of the effect of those smiles may have been, that they could blunt the thorns of care. But CLARE, as well as many other poets, does not regard language in the same way that a logician does. He considers it collectively rather than in detail, and paints up to his mind's original by mingling words, as a painter mixes his colours. And without this method, it would be impossible to convey to the understanding of the reader an adequate notion of some things, and especially of the effects of nature, seen under certain influences of time, circumstance, and colour. In Prose these things are never attempted, unless with great circumlocution; but Poetry is always straining after them concisely, as they increase her power of giving pleasure; and much allowance ought to be made if her efforts in this way are not always successful. Instances of the free grouping of words occur in the Sonnet to the Glowworm:—

Tasteful Illumination of the night!
Bright, scatter'd, twinkling star of spangled earth, &c.

And in the following lines:—

Aside the green hill's steepy brow,
Where shades the oak its darksome bough.
(p. 81.)

So have I mark'd the dying embers light,—
With glimmering glow oft redden up again,
And sparks crack'd brightening into life, in vain.
(p. 137.)

Brisk winds the lighten'd branches shake,
By pattering, plashing drops confess'd;
And, when oaks dripping shade the lake,
Print crimpling dimples on its breast.
(p. 134.)

Examples of the use of Colour may be seen in the Sonnets — To the Primrose, p. 176, The Gipsy's Evening Blaze, p. 179, A Scene, p. 180, and in the following verse:—

First sunbeam, calling night away.
To see how sweet thy summons seems,
Split by the willows wavy grey,
And sweetly dancing on the streams.
(p. 130.)

The whole of the Sonnet to the river Gwash is an instance of it, down to the line "And moss and Ivy speckling an my eye." A dry critic would call the former passages redundant in epithets; and the word "speckling" would excite, perhaps, his spleen in the latter: but ask the question, and you will probably find that this critic himself has no eye for colour, — that the light, and shade, and mezzotint of a landscape, have no charms for him, — that "his eye indeed is open, but its sense is shut;" and then, what dependence can be placed upon his judgment in these matters?

CLARE, it is evident, is susceptible of extreme pleasure from the varied hues, forms, and combinations in nature, and what he most enjoys, he endeavours to pourtray for the gratification of others. He is most thoroughly the Poet as well as the Child of Nature; and, according to his opportunities, no poet has more completely devoted himself to her service, studied her more closely, or exhibited so many sketches of her under new and interesting appearances. There is some merit in all this, for Wordsworth asserts, "that, excepting a passage or two in the Windsor Forest of Pope, and some delightful pictures in the Poem, of Lady Winchelsea, the Poetry of the period intervening between the publication of the Paradise Lost, and the Seasons [60 years], does not contain a single new image of external nature." But CLARE has no idea of excelling others in doing this. He loves the fields, the flowers, "the common air, the sun, the skies;" and, therefore, he writes about them. He is happier in the presence of Nature than elsewhere. He looks as anxiously on her face as if she were a living friend, whom he might lose; and hence he has learnt to notice every change in her countenance, and to delineate all the delicate varieties of her character. Most of his poems were composed under the immediate impression of this feeling, 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 decypher 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 shews 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.

It is now thirteen years since CLARE composed his first poem: in all that time he has gone on secretly cultivating his taste and talent for poetry, without one word of encouragement, or the most distant prospect of reward. That passion must have been originally very strong and pure, which could sustain itself, for so many years, through want, and toil, and hopeless misery. His labour in the fields through all seasons, it might be thought, would have disgusted him with those objects which he so much admired at first; and his taste might have altered with his age: but the foundation of his regard was too deeply laid in truth to be shaken. On the contrary, he found delight in scenes which no other poet has thought of celebrating. "The swampy falls of pasture ground, and rushy spreading greens," "plashy streams, and weed-beds wild and rank," give him as much real transport as common minds feel at what an called the most romantic prospects. And if there were any question as to the intensity or sincerity of his feeling for Poetry and Nature, the commendation of these simple, unthought of, and generally despised objects would decide it.

Of the poems which forts the present collection some few were among CLARE'S earliest efforts. The Fate of Amy was begun when he was fourteen; Helpstone, The Gipsy's Evening Blaze, Reflection is Autumn, The Robin, Noon, The Universal Epitaph, and some others, were written before he was seventeen. The rest bear various dates, but the greater number are of recent origin. The Village Funeral was written in 1815; The Address to Plenty, in December 1817; The Elegy on the Ruins of Pickworth, in 1818. To describe the occupations of CLARE, we must not say that labour and the Muse went hand in hand: they rather kept alternate watch, and when labour was exhausted with fatigue, she "cheer'd his needy toilings with a song." In a note on this poem, CLARE says, "The Elegy on the Ruins of Pickworth was written one Sunday morning, after I had been helping to dig the hole for a lime-kiln, where the many fragments of mortality end perished ruins inspired me with thoughts of other times, and warmed me into song."

In the last two years he has written, What is Life? The Fountain, My Mary, To a Rosebud, Effusion to Poesy, The Summer Evening, Summer Morning, First of May, The Dawnings of Genius, The Contrast, Dolly's Mistake, Harvest Morning, The Poet's Wish, Crazy Nell, and several other pieces, with almost all the Sonnets. One of the last productions of CLARE'S fancy is the following Song, which, as it came too late to be inserted in its proper place in this volume, may as well appear here, whom it fitly closes the chronicle of his Poems.

THE MEETING.
Here we meet, too soon to part,
Here to leave will raise a smart,
Here I'll press thee to my heart,
Where none have place above thee:
Here I vow to love thee well,
And could words unseal the spell,
Had but language strength to tell,
I'd say how much I love thee.

Here, the rose that decks thy door,
Here, the thorn that spreads thy bow'r,
Here, the willow on the moor,
The birds at rest above thee,
Had they light of life to sea,
Sense of soul like thee and me,
Soon might each a witness be
How doatingly I love thee.

By the night-sky's purple ether,
And by even's sweetest weather,
That oft has blest us both together,—
The moon that shines above thee,
And shews thy beauteous cheek so blooming,
And by pale age's winter coming,
The charms, and casualties of woman,
I will for ever love thee.

This song is written nearly in the metre of one by Burns, "O were I on Parnasaus' Hill," and the subject is the same, but in the execution they we quite different. CLARE has a great delight in trying to run races with other men, and unluckily this cannot always be attempted without subjecting him to the charge of imitating; but he will be found free from this imputation in all the best parts of his poetry, and in the present instance it may be worth while comparing him with his prototype, to see how little he stands in need of such assistance. The propensity to emulate another is a youthful emotion, and in his friendless state it afforded him an obvious, and, perhaps, the only mode of endeavouring to ascertain what kind sad degree of ability he possessed as s Poet.

This song, "The Meeting," was written at Helpstone, where CLARE is again residing with his parents, working for any one who will employ him, but without any regular occupation. He had an engagement during the greater part of the year with Mr. Wilders, of Bridge-Casterton, two miles north of Stamford; where the river Gwash, which crosses the road, gave him a subject for one of his Sonnets (p. 191.) His wages were nine shillings a week, and his food; out of which he had to pay one shilling and sixpence a week for a bed, it being impossible that he could return every night to Helpstone, a distance of nine miles: but at the beginning of November, his employer proposed to allow him only seven shillings a week; on which, he quitted his service and returned home.

It was an accident which led to the publication of these Poems. In December 1818, Mr. Edward Drury, Bookseller, of Stamford, met by chance with the Sonnet to the Setting Sun, written on a piece of paper in which a letter had been wrapped up, and signed J. C. Having ascertained the name and residence of the writer, he went to Helpstone, where he saw some other poems with which he was much pleased. At his request, CLARE made a collection of the pieces he had written, and added some others to them. They were then sent to London, for the opinion of the publishers, and they selected those which form the present volume. They have been printed with the usual corrections only of orthography and grammar, in such instances as allowed of its being done without changing the words: the proofs were then revised by CLARE, and a few alterations were made at his desire. The original MSS. may be seen at Messrs. Taylor and Hessey's.

The Author and his Poems are now before the public; and its decision will speedily fix the fate of the one, and, ultimately, that of the other: but whatever be the result to either, this will at least be granted, that no Post of our country has shewn greater ability, under circumstances so hostile to its developement. And all this is found here without any of those distressing and revolting alloys, which too often debased the native worth of genius, and make him who was gifted with powers to command admiration, live to be the object of contempt or pity. The lower the condition of its possessor, the more unfavourable, generally, has been the effect of genius on his life. That this has not been the case with CLARE may, perhaps, be imputed to the absolute depression of his fortune. It is certain that he has not had the opportunity hitherto of being injured by prosperity; and that he may escape in future, it is hoped that those persons who intend to show him kindness, will not do it suddenly or partially, but so as it will yield him permanent benefit. Yet when we hear the consciousness of possessing talent, and the natural irritability of the poetic temperament, pleaded in extenuation of the follies and vices of men in high life, let it be accounted no mean praise to such a man as CLARE, that, with all the excitements of their sensibility in his station, he has preserved a fair character, amid dangers which presumption did not create, and difficulties which discretion could not avoid. In the real troubles of life, when they are not brought on by the misconduct of the individual, a strong mind acquires the power of righting itself after each attack, and this philosophy, not to call it by a better name, CLARE possesses. If the expectations of "better life," which he cannot help indulging, should all be disappointed, by the coldness with which this volume may be received, he can

—put up with distress, and be content.
(p. 4)

In one of his letters he says, "If my hopes don't succeed, the hazard is not of much consequence: if I fail, I am advanced at no great distance from my low condition: if I sink for want of friends, my old friend Necessity is ready to help me, as before. It was never my fortune as yet to meet advancement from friendship: my fate has ever been hard labour among the most vulgar and lowest conditions of men; and very small is the pittance hard labour allows me, though I always toiled even beyond my strength to obtain it." — To see a man of talent struggling under great adversity with such a spirit, must surely excite in every generous heart the wish to befriend him. But if it be otherwise, and he should be doomed to remediless misery,

Why let the stricken deer go weep,
The hart ungalled play;
For some must watch, while some must sleep,—
Thus runs the world away.