1821 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Clare

Mus., "Clare, the Northamptonshire Peasant" Literary Chronical 3 (20 October 1821) 665-66.



SIR,—

With much respect for your impartial review of Mr. John Clare, the Northamptonshire Peasant's poems, I venture to call his attention, through your pages, to the observations which I am about to make, that he may be further encouraged to pursue the celestial art of poetry, with the easiest and best success. It is well understood that many original geniuses have become ruined imitators by yielding their judgment to the voice of party criticism, and have sunk into oblivion under the pressure of envy and malice, as though originality should be clipped and toned into a particular school, intimating the unworthiness of genius being schooled by nature and operated on by inspiration. Whoever is versed in periodical literature knows how poor John Keats was buffeted from one page to another, how much ill-nature was shed in lines of ink, and what rancorous spleen appeared in print, — because he was fostered by a political writer.

Fortunately, however, for classical and self-taught writers too, history presents a long roll of geniuses who have treated unjust criticism with that neglect which it has merited. Keats is an exception, but his constitution, like his taste, was delicate; like a rose-leaf, he was easily blown upward in his fancy, or driven downward by the sadness of his lonely spirit. Mr. Clare is otherwise. His genius is of the masculine order, from whose manly nature the sensibilities of feeling issue, but never more successfully than when he describes the crinkle of a primrose-leaf or the fluttering of love's confusion. His element is under a hedge, among the various grasses and herbs and mosses; whatever little object draws his eye in the sun-beam wins his admiration and love. His first conception is natural and striking; therefore, the crown of his hat aids his memory to paper; the lines are written, and require but little more embellishment or correction. The advantages of a thousand hallowed volumes of English poets, I conceive, would be of injury rather than service to him, for his poetic reading is already manifest, and imitation, however humble or elegant, will be the result; that "Young Edwin was no vulgar boy;" and — "Deep thought oft seemed to fix his infant eye."

One reason, why so many strike their lyre in praise of poesy is, that they partly acquire a good ear for rhyme, a correct method for the delivery of it, and attempt, but seldom produce, more than excellent verses. Mr. Clare is aware that poems, like timber, can be measured by feet, and finished off like picture frames, yet, if the timber be unsound at heart, or the frames without good pictures, neither the one nor the other are of much value. Poems should be skillfully put together, contain solid sentiments, and the most touching pathos of nature, — "Divinely felt, to make another feel." Shakespeare, with a few original authors, should be the only ones worthy of great application. I believe Bloomfield's amiable muse was never much benefited by listening to the sound "read the poets!" — "study the A's down to the Z's." "Range them by day and meditate by night."

This is an affectation for perfection, at which soi-disant critics have themselves failed. Who questions that Lord Byron is not, in some respects, the worse for his poetical reading? How many Deserted Villages have been attempted since Goldsmith's career, yet unsuccessfully. The habitual reading of poetry alone is sufficient to make a poetaster feel his way through a monthly periodical But, allowing one exception, I verily believe, now and then, a fine poem is scattered in periodical pages, far exceeding half, nay, four-fifths of puffed off published poetry; and I have often wished that a work were patronised by the literati to select the best pieces for "after ages" from those which are destined for "the soap and candles." I would not keep Mr. Clare in ignorance of the silliness of some poets, the eccentricity of some, and the disproportionate nonsense of others; but I would not advise him to trust to the strength of their weakness, which is irretrievable, from vain notions and obstinate party considerations. If he march the fields with his eye directed to nature he will be original; if he closet himself and imagine nature, he will be an imitator. London has given birth to poets, but the country has made them. Edinburgh will produce a "Pirate," but his attributes have been drawn from the scenes of action. Ramsay and Burns danced with the shepherdesses and sung with hobbinols. Cunningham used to sit on the furrows, like Prior's Cupid's ploughboy, and listen to the calm wanderings of the stream. Morland loved to lean over bridges and broken trees, in sober abstraction, before he soiled his brush. Falconer had never written his Shipwreck but for a tempest; Somerville The Chace but for his actual experience in field sports; and Olney's harp might have been unstrung but for its attractive ruralities. Hence, if Mr. Clare will be great, and form a constellation for the heaven of eternity, let him read good prose with assiduous and ardent attention; let his mind be stored with a clear knowledge of things in and out of their nature; let him reason with truth and virtue: his beauties will touch the heart while they strike the eye, and do much towards refining the understanding, which is the spiritual essence of true poetry. Well then, after all, it will appear, that I would have him unacquainted with metrical authors, ancient and modern, — not so; I would warn him against the danger of the shallows, the rocks, and the storms: he may dip, but not meditate; skim, but not dive. He may consult, but only with a view of correcting his errors. He will have to occupy his niche in "Fame's proud temple." He should watch the ellipsis and the eclipses. The apostrophe is a very useful little fellow, but should not be abused. "That is" is preferable to "that's;" "against" to "'gainst." A hobbling line is, like a lame ploughman, out of its place. "Inferior" is not full enough for three syllables at the close of a Sonnet. Mr. Clare will comprehend me by re-perusing his works. It is true, many provincialisms, with other eccentricities, might be brought forward, but his experience will tutor him to expunge them as he advances towards beautified love and eternal triumph.