1821 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Clare

Anonymous, Review of Clare, Village Minstrel; The Literary Gazette (6 October 1821) 625-27.



The publishers of these volumes have done themselves everlasting honour, by the liberality and friendship which they have exercised towards John Clare. Through their means, his first essay saw the light in 1820; and their continued exertions have mainly contributed to the knowledge, and with the knowledge to the popularity of an individual, as meritorious as remarkable in the annals of song.

An acquaintance with the principal features of the Author's biography, has been so widely diffused by a generous press, that we need only repeat what the Introduction to this new work states at greater length, viz. that he was a common labourer, a lime-burner, in the county of Northampton; that his struggles to earn a subsistence, and attract attention to the throbbings of his lowly muse, were as consistent with enthusiasm and romance as his sphere made possible; that he was also inspired with love of Patty, (Martha Turner,) the daughter of persons in like condition with himself; and that he was at last raised to hope, happiness, the enjoyments of filial piety and connubial bliss, by benevolent gifts or offerings to his genius, to the amount of about forty-five pounds per annum. Owing to the bounty of Messrs. Taylor and Hessey, the Fitzwilliam family, the Earl of Arundel, Earl Spencer, Lord Radstock, and others, he is now "Passing rich, with forty pounds a year;" and enabled to leave the burning of the lime-kiln, for the kindling of the muse. The fruits of this desirable change of circumstances are now presented to the world, and will, we have no hesitation in saying, justify the opinions of those who thought it would be a wrong to natural genius, to allow this humble votary of the Nine, to be driven by daily toil and sheer want from tasting of that cup of Helicon's waters, to the deep draught of which he so eagerly aspired. We are often forced to agree with the worldly-wise, that to encourage a wish for verse-making, is only to spoil useful mechanics; but it would be beyond reason scandalous, on this ground, to halt in bestowing such encouragement as he has received on such a being as Clare.

It is impossible to contemplate in detail, even the imperfect detail which, happier stars put it in the power of the more fortunate to imagine, the difficulties opposed to the child of want, to the mean, the friendless, the beggared hind, who feels impregn with the ecstasies of inspiration, without wonder at their ever being surmounted. The simplest aids, within the reach of loftier bards, are to him inaccessible; what they attain with ease, are to him obstacles of hopeless anxiety. But true talent loves to cope even with impossibilities. The Peasant, whose exertions have been rewarded and longings gratified by procuring the bare materials with which to give his fancies their first rude form, is, if truly a poet, far above the exalted Would-be, who is courted to compose by all the luxuries of literature and "all appliances to boot." Their different fates are in poesy as in the slumbers so finely described by our immortal Swan of Avon, — the coy visitant flies from the couch of vainly-wooing monarchs, to dwell in contentment with the happy lowly clown.

Several of the poems in this collection will raise the reputation of the rustic bard above his former fame; though, perhaps, it might have been better for him, in this respect, to have limited the publication to one volume, and expunged the less striking compositions. At the same, time we can readily suppose, that the kind idea of securing him a larger reward, led to the present arrangement, which is only to be regretted on account of its mixing up, with pieces of great interest, others which are less worthy of the poet, his patrons, or the public. Of these, however, we shall take no further notice: the extraordinary instance which the writer exhibits of pure inspiration, in the midst of every thing which could depress man, and plunge genius into despair, is a theme more pleasing to us to dwell upon, and if we mitigate our admiration with any alloy, we trust it will be received, not as censure, but as advice — not as stinting applause of the past, but as suggesting hints for future improvement.

Clare, in these volumes, takes a station in many points above Bloomfield, though in other particulars he is inferior to the author of the "Farmer's Boy." The peculiarities which render hint so, consist chiefly in the frequent use of words radically low and insignificant, which mar the effect of his best passages; in the employment of others too decidedly provincial, or coined without taste to suit his own occasions; in the admission of expletives to eke out the verse; in harsh ellisions unsanctioned by any good authority; in deficiency of humour where humour is attempted; and in the want of interest in things which he laments as if they were of essential value. Most of his deficiencies may, we think, he traced to these sources; to which, perhaps, we may add, that his lyrical are, with one or two exceptions, manifestly so much weaker than his descriptive powers, as to cause a regret that he should have tuned his pipe to that chord.

To illustrate what we have said, we shall only cite, as low and insignificant words, the examples of "Hope popt its smile," — to "thump the corn out," Lubin, (the Minstrel,) a "luckless clown," warriors "bumping knocks as one would thump a flail," to "take your trundle," i.e. go away, &c. &c.; which, in poetry of rather a grave and sentimental cast, ought not to have appeared. Of the provincial and new-coined terms we dislike such as "sliving night," "soodling walk," "shanny lass," "bumptious serjeant," "handles down," (hands down,) "merrimental cheer," "rounding sun," "darkly hue," "to hint" (paint or describe,) "the lad," &c. &c. Of the expletives, one short specimen is enough:—

And tell how vales and shades did please his sight,
And how the wind breath'd music thro' each bough,
And how in rural charms charms he did delight,—
To mark the shepherd's folds, and swains at plough,
And pasture speck'd with sheep, and horse, and cow,
With many a beauty that does intervene;
And steeple peeping o'er the wood's dark brow:
While Young hope's fancy popt its smile between,
And wish'd man's days to spend in some such peaceful scene.

The ellisions of which we disapprove are such as 'proaching for approaching, hind for behind, 'nighted for benighted, joy'd for enjoyed, and similarly abrupt alterations. The lack of humour we refrain from exemplifying; but the want of interest in the objects of his theme is of so much greater consequence to his after-labours, that we to call his regards especially to that. It is obvious that this has arisen in great measure, if not entirely, from the nature of the country, in which the author's life has been spent. The rushes, the sedges, the willow groves, and the sluggish rivulets of a marshy part of Northamptonshire, are to him what the forest the mountain, the lake, and the ocean, are to other poets. Now, though these are genuine sources of feeling, to him who has wandered from childhood to maturity among flat, unpicturesque and swampy fields, it is hardly possible to excite a like feeling in the general bosom, for such scenes:—

Swamps of wild rush-beds, and sloughs' squashy traces,
Grounds of rough fallows with thistle and weed,
Flats and low valleys of kingcups and daisies,
Sweetest of subjects are ye for my reed:

is a fitting invocation for the vicinity of Helpstone; but as Clare's vision becomes extended to landscapes of a more sublime and beautiful order, it is to be hoped he will turn his vivid descriptive talent to paint them. As yet, his subjects seem to limit him to the single praise of being admirably natural; — a Morland in poetry, but without so much glow of colour or skill in art.

Having premised thus much, we shall now apply to the agreeable task of displaying a few of the examples which stamp the author to be a true and original poet. The leading piece is called "The Village Minstrel," and has evidently had Beattie's Minstrel for its model. It was begun, we are told, in Autumn, 1819, and was finished in the ensuing Spring. In the person of Lubin, Clare draws his own portrait, and largely insists on his love of Nature — the grand fountain of all his emotions and of all his writings. Of this the following stanzas are proof;—

But who can tell the anguish of his mind,
When reformation's formidable foes
With civil wars 'gainst nature's peace combin'd,
And desolation struck her deadly blows,
As curst improvement 'gan his fields inclose:
O greens, and fields, and trees, farewel, farewel!
His heart-wrung pains, his unavailing woes
No words can utter, and no tongue can tell,
When ploughs destroy'd the green, when groves of willows fell.

There once were springs, when daisies' silver studs
Like sheets of snow on every pasture spread;
There once were summers, when the crow-flower buds
Like golden sunbeams brightest lustre shed:
And trees grew once that shelter'd Lubin's head;
There once were brooks sweet whimpering down the vale:
The brooks no more — kingcup and daisy fled;
Their last fallen tree the naked moors bewail,
And scarce a bush is left to tell the mournful tale.

Yon shaggy tufts, and many a rushy knot
Existing still in spite of spade and plough,
As seeming fond and loth to leave the spot,
Tell where was once the green-brown fallows now,
Where Lubin often turns a sadden'd brow,
Marks the stopt brook, and mourns oppression's power;
And thinks how once he waded in each slough,
To crop the yellow "horse-blob's" early flower,
Or catch the "miller's-thumb" in summer's sultry hour.

There once were days, the woodman knows it well,
When shades e'en echoed with the singing thrush
There once were hours, the ploughman's tale can tell,
When morning's beauty wore its earliest blush,
How woodlarks carol'd from each stumpy bush;
Lubin himself has mark'd them soar and sing:
The thorns are gone, the woodlark's song is hush,
Spring more resembles winter now than spring,
The shades are banish'd all — the birds have took to wing....

Ye fields, ye scenes so dear to eye,
Ye meadow-blooms, ye pasture-flowers, farewell
Ye banish'd trees, ye make me deeply sigh,—
Inclosure came, and all your glories fell:
E'en the old oak that crown'd yon rifled dell,
Whose age had made it sacred to the view,
Not long was left his children's fate to tell;
Where ignorance and wealth their course pursue,
Each tree must tumble down — old "Lea-close Oak," adieu!

The following are also sweet specimens of the same fine sensations:—

O who can speak his joys when spring's young morn
From wood and pasture open'd on his view,
When tender green buds blush upon the thorn,
And the first primrose dips its leaves in dew:
Each varied charm bow joy'd would be pursue,
Tempted to trace their beauties through the day;
Grey-girdled eve, and morn of rosy hue
Have both beheld him on his lonely way,
Far, far remote from boys, and their unpleasing play.

Sequester'd nature was his heart's delight;
Him would she lead thro' wood and lonely plain,
Searching the pooty from the rushy dyke;
And while the thrush sang her long-silenc'd strain,
He thought it sweet, and mock'd it o'er again:
And while he pluck'd the primrose in its pride,
He ponder'd o'er its bloom 'tween joy and pain;
And a rude sonnet in its praise he tried,
Where nature's simple way the aid of art supplied.

Nor is his address to poverty, real poverty, less forcible:—

O Poverty! thy frowns were early dealt
O'er him who mourn'd thee, not by fancy led
To whine and wail o'er woes he never felt,
Staining his rhymes with tears he never shed,
And heaving sighs a mock song only bred:
Alas! he knew too much of every pain
That shower'd full thick on his unshelter'd head;
And as his tears and sighs did erst complain,
His numbers took it up, and wept it o'er again.

In more cheerful strains he pourtrays bumkin sports, (some of them not worth the pains,) and from his account of the revels of harvest home, we shall select such stanzas, as best evince his manner, and give a lively picture of Northamptonshire customs:—

The muse might sing too, for he well did know,
The freaks and plays that harvest-labour end,
How the last load is crown'd with boughs, and how
The swains and maids with fork and rake attend,
With floating ribbons 'dizen'd at the end;
And how the children on the load delight
With shouts of "Harvest home!" their throats to rend:
And how the dames peep out to mark the sight;
And all the feats that crown the harvest-supper night.

He knew all well, a young familiar there,
And often look'd on all; for he himsen
Join'd with the sun-tann'd group the feast to share,
As years roll'd round him with the change agen,
And brought the masters level with their men,
Who push'd the beer about, and smok'd and drank,
With freedom's plenty, never shewn till then;
Nor labourers dar'd, but now, so free and frank
To laugh and joke and play so many a harmless prank.

Much has he laugh'd each rude, rude act to see;
The long-neck'd sheet-clad "crane" to poke about,
Spoiling each smoker's pipe, and cunningly,
Though blind-fold, seen to pick each bald-head out,
And put each bashful maiden to the rout;
The "fiery parrot" too, a laughing scene,
Where two maids on a sheet invite the lout,
Thrown o'er a water-tub to sit between,
And as he drops they rise, and let him sweating in.

The "dusty miller" playing many a rig;
And the "Scotch pedlars," with their jokes and fun;
The "booted hogs drove over Lunnon brig,"
Boys, who had mischief in the harvest done,
As loads o'erturn'd, and foul on posts had run;
And brandy-burning ghosts most deadly blue,
That each old woman did with terror shun;
There with the rest did Lubin yearly view,
And join'd his mirth and fears with the low vulgar crew.

To close the ranting night, the master's health
Went round in bumping horns to every swain,
Who wish'd him best of crops increase his wealth,
And's merry sport when harvest came again;
And all in chorus rallied out amain:
The harvest-song (a tugging pull) begun,
Each ere its end the brimming horn must drain,
Or have it fill'd again — there lay the sun,
Till Hodge went drunk to bed, and morts of things were done.

This characteristic and clever passage, leaves its little room for longer illustration, and therefore, from the Village Minstrel we shall only quote two very brief similes more of poetical grace:—

Nor could the day's decline escape his gaze:
He lov'd the closing as the rising day,
And oft would stand to catch the setting rays,
Whose last beams stole not unperceiv'd away:
When, hesitating like a stag at bay,
The bright unwearied sun seem'd loth to drop,
Till chaos' night-hounds hurried him away,
And drove him headlong from the mountain-top,
And shut the lovely scene, and bade all nature stop....

No insect 'scap'd him, from the gaudy plume
Of dazzling butterflies so fine to view,
To the small midges that at evening come,
Like dust spots, dancing o'er the water's blue;

In his picture of a Cotter's evening, Clare comes into too direct comparison with Burns, to be read with advantage: indeed it is in compositions liable to this dangerous contrast, (witness "Disappointment, in vol. 1.") that he is seen in the faintest light. The greater genius of Caesar predominates over his lesser fire till it is nearly extinguished, and we are glad to escape from the darkness to view him in his own brighter beaming. To this belong two pieces intitled, "Rural Morning" and "Rural Evening," which we esteem to be altogether his most perfect productions, and which we are sorry we cannot transplant into this Number of our Gazette. But we purpose at an early period to do him that justice, and in the mean time commend the annexed from among his minor pieces to our readers as satisfactory evidence, if any more were needed, that John Clare is a genuine poet, and richly entitled to the fostering smiles of the liberal and enlightened:—

TO THE CLOUDS.
O painted clouds! sweet beauties of the sky,
How have I view'd your motion and your rest,
When like fleet hunters ye have left mine eye,
In your thin gauze of woolly-fleecing drest;
Or in your threaten'd thunder's grave black vest,
Like black deep waters slowly moving by,
Awfully striking the spectator's breast
With your Creator's dread sublimity,
As admiration mutely views your storms.
And I do love to see you idly lie,
Painted by heav'n as various as your forms,
Pausing upon the eastern mountain high,
As morn awakes with spring's wood-harmony;
And sweeter still, when in your slumbers sooth
You hang the western arch o'er day's proud rye;
Still as the even-pool, uncurv'd and smooth,
My gazing soul has look'd most placidly;
And higher still devoutly wish'd to strain.
To wipe your shrouds and sky's blue blinders by,
With all the warmness of a moon-struck brain,
To catch a glimpse of Him who bids you reign,
And view the dwelling of all majesty.

SONG.
Of all the days in memory's list,
Those motley banish'd days;
Some overhung with sorrow's mist,
Some gilt with hopeful rays;
There is a day 'bove all the rest
That has a lovely sound,
There is a day I love the best—
When Patty first was found.

When first I look'd upon her eye,
And all her charms I met,
There's many a day gone heedless by,
But that I'll ne'er forget;
I filet my love beneath the tree,
I help'd her o'er the stile,
The very shade is dear to me
That blest me with her smile.

Strange to the world my artless fair,
But artless as she be,
She found the witching art when there
To win my heart from me
And all the days the year can bring,
As sweet as they may prove,
There'll ne'er come one like that I sing,
Which found the maid I love.

SONG.
There was a time, when love's young flowers
With many a joy my bosom prest:
Sweet hours of bliss! — but short are hours,
Those hours are fled — and I'm distrest.
I would not wish, in reason's spite;
I would not wish new joy to gaits
I only wish for one delight,—
To see those hours of bliss again.

There was a day, when love was young,
And nought but bliss did there belong;
When blackbird's nestling o'er us sung,
Ah me! what sweetness wak'd his song.
I wish not springs for ever fled
I wish not birds' forgotten strains,
I only wish for feelings dead
To warm, and wake, and feel again.

But, ah! what once was joy is past:
The time's gone by; the day and hour
Are whirring fled on trouble's blast,
As winter nips the summer flower.
A shadow is but left the mind,
Of joys that once were real to view
An echo only fills the wind,
With mocking sounds that once were to me.

The variety of verse which Clare has tried, shows that he has read a good deal, end studied both our ancient and modern bards. A poem on "Sunday," is full of simplicity, and at once eminently descriptive and meditatively soothing; but we have been seduced, past all bounds, by this interesting peasant, and must bid him farewell. — That our good wish may not stand unbacked, we conclude with a few lines, in which an aged country-woman relates the suicide of her youthful friend, and which strike us as being not the least pathetic and affecting in the publication:—

That very morning, it affects me still,
Ye know the foot-path sidles down the hill,
Ign'rant as babe unborn I pass'd the pond
To milk as usual in our close beyond,
And cows were drinking at the water's edge,
And horses brows'd among the flags and sedge,
And gnats and midges danc'd the water o'er,
Just as I've mark'd them scores of times before,
And birds sat singing as in mornings gone,—
While I as unconcern'd went soodling on,
But little dreaming, as the wakening wind
Flapp'd the broad ash-leaves o'er the pond reclin'd,
And o'er the water crink'd the curdled wave,
That Jane was sleeping in her watery grave.