1821 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Clare

Anonymous, "News from Parnassus: Clare's Village Minstrel" The Monthly Magazine 52 (November 1821) 321-25.



"Natura fieret laudabile carmen an arte
Quaesitum est: ego nec studium sine divite vena,
Nec rude quid prosit video ingenium: alterius sic
Altera poscit opem res, et conjurat amice."

Under the sanction of this high authority, we trust it may be permitted us to express, without reserve, the reflexions that have been suggested by the perusal of these interesting, but very unequal, volumes; without being suspected of a wish to crush the attempts of any meritorious, though humble, aspirant to public fame, or incurring the imputation (to use the, language of the eulogium prefixed as an introduction to the work) of cherishing "an illiberal spirit of criticism, which, catching its character from the bad temper of the age, has let slip the dogs of war in the flowery fields of poesy." The present production contains much that is good, and even beautiful; and we are disposed not only to point out its merits with readiness, but to acknowledge them with pleasure, as sincere, perhaps, as that of eulogists, whose undiscriminating praises have a tendency rather to alienate, than to conciliate, more discerning judges. But considering these poems with reference only to their literary excellence, the meed of commendation to which some parts of them may be justly entitled, is altogether a distinct question from the necessity, or even the propriety of bringing them before the tribunal of the public. The latter is what Partridge would have termed a non sequitur. We are willing to give full credit to the motives of those, whose benevolence has prompted them to introduce the effusions of the Northamptonshire peasant to general notice, but we may reasonably doubt how far they have been the means of enriching, in any great degree, our stores of national poetry, or are likely to bind a wreath more permanent than that woven by the caprice of fashion, or the prevailing appetite for novelty, round the brows of the object of their patronage.

From the time that the poetical labours of Burns and Bloomfield gained for their authors that deserved popularity, to which genuine talent, wherever found, is justly entitled, various candidates for like success, prompted either by their own self-love, or by the favourable opinion of partial friends and patrons, have made their appearance; resembling the gifted writers of the "Farmer's Boy," or the "Cotter's Saturday Night," in nothing but their want of early education, and their obscure situation in life. Ploughmen, milkmaids, and other similar prodigies have thus acquired an ephemeral celebrity; and the error of these writers appears to us far more excusable than that of their professed admirers, in mistaking the very common disease of a love for rhyming, for that rare poetic genius which, in all ages, has been accorded only to a favoured few. Most of these have flourished their brief day, indebted for their temporary success principally to that feeling of the mind, which has been happily defined "the effect of novelty upon ignorance." We are far from being disposed to regret that such attempts should have contributed to the comforts or enjoyments of those who have made them: but every principle of sound judgment and impartial criticism lead us to deplore the influence which even the short-lived favour with which they have been received has had, in vitiating the taste of no small portion of the public. In opposition to the judicious assertion of an elegant writer of our own, that "True ease in writing comes from art, not chance," an opinion has been engendered among many unreflecting persons, that the most natural and pleasing poetry is the offspring of mental powers intuitive and uncultivated; and instead of requiring that marked superiority of knowledge, which the sage in Rasselas regarded as indispensable to the formation of the poetic character, they appear to hail the existence of consummate ignorance as a happy omen of success in the votary of the muses. While such sentiments prevail, the evil of incompetent intruders into the walks of literature will obviously be an increasing one; and the "scribimus indocti doctique," a complaint better founded than ever.

Though the author of the poems before us is undeniably superior in correct observation, vigour of intellect, and native talent., to many others who have come before us with pretensions of a similar description, we do not consider him as forming an exception to the general tenor of the observations with which we have introduced our notice of his volumes. We do not conceive that occasional sweetness of expression, or accurate delineations of mere exterior objects, can atone for a general deficiency of poetical language, or the indulging in a style devoid of uniformity and consistency. The Village Minstrel is the principal poem in the collection, and is evidently intended to afford a picture of the peculiar circumstances and early scenes of the author's life. To himself this topic is no doubt peculiarly interesting; and his descriptions may very probably be productive of amusement to those who are familiar with the originals. To us, however, the writer's mention of himself appears, in general, too egotistical and querulous, and the local subjects and rural amusements, whatever opinion may be entertained of the colours in which he has pourtrayed them, have not, we think, been very judiciously selected for the purpose of inspiring general interest. There is, besides, something more than homeliness, approximating to vulgarity, in many of his themes, and it must be admitted that these are described in most suitable language. What shall we say, for instance, of lines like the following?

But soldiers, "they're the boys to make a rout."
The "bumptious" serjeant struts before his men.
His friends so poor and clothes "excessive dear."
And "don't" despise your betters "'cause" they're old.
Up he'd "chuck sacks" as one would hurl a stone.
And in disgrace at last each jockey "bumps" adown.
And "monstrous fun" it makes to hunt the pig,
As, soap'd and larded, through the crowd he flies;
Thus, turn'd adrift, he plays them many a rig.
If nought was seen he heard a "squish squash" sound.
While merrily the snuff "went pinching" round the ring.
Yon parish huts, where want is "shov'd" to die.
Eat it all an' she would, for "she car'd not a pin,
She'd other fish frying as then."

If it be urged that such language is appropriate to the subjects treated of, we reply, that subjects to which such language is best adapted, are not those which a poet should have chosen; or, if selected for the exercise of his muse, he should have spoken of them in the dialect — that "the muses love." When a writer who had submitted his production to the inspection of Voltaire, contended, in defence of some passage which the latter censured as low, that it was natural, the wit replied, "Avec permission, Monsieur, mon — est bien naturel, et cependant je porte des culottes."

Another disadvantage attending the Village Minstrel, is, the involuntary comparison which it forces on the mind with the exquisite poem of Beattie; a comparison that can hardly prove favourable to the Northamptonshire bard. We do not allude to the plan of the poem, for Mr. Clare's Minstrel appears to be without any, and is composed principally of detached descriptions, most of which might change places with one another, without the reader's being conscious of the alteration. But not only in the structure of the verse, but in many imitative passages, we seem to perceive an attempt to present us in Lubin, with a species of travestie of our old acquaintance Edwin, and we cannot approve of the experiment. Indeed the author of the present collection seems, on more than one occasion, to have lost sight of his ground, being previously occupied by those whom he could hardly expect to displace. We could have dispensed with his verses on Solitude, after Grainger's Ode on the same subject; his "Sorrows for the Death of a favourite Tabby Cat," will hardly be sympathised in, by those who ear Gray's Selima in remembrance, and it is very unfortunate. for his "Song to a City Girl," that it cannot be read without recalling to our minds the inimitable old ballad, "Oh, come with me, and be my love."

An allusion has already been made to the Productions of Burns and Bloomfield. In both these writers, the defect of early education appears to have been in great measure supplied, in the former by such natural abilities, as perhaps, with the exception of Shakspeare, scarcely any other man ever possessed; and in the latter, there is strong reason to suspect, by the refining touches of the fostering hand, by which they were first presented to the public. But in the volumes before us, the consequences of this defect are perpetually visible. The author seems always incapable of sustaining an equal flight; and hence, if we meet with a passage we are disposed to approve, it is frequently but an introduction to specimens of the bathos, which could not be exceeded by the citations -of the learned Scriblerus himself. For example

O native scenes, nought to my heart clings nearer,
Than you, ye Edens of my youthful hours,
Nought in this world warms my affections dearer,
Than you, "ye plains of white and yellow flowers!"

The following verses we have no hesitation in pronouncing beautiful; indeed it appears to us, that there are no others equal to them in the whole collection:

I cannot pass the very bramble, weeping
'Neath dewy tear-drops that its spears surround,
Like harlot's mock'ry, on the wan cheek creeping,
Gilding the poison that is meant to wound.

But would any one imagine, that they are almost immediately preceded, in the same piece, by such a line as, "Winding the zig-zag lane, turning and turning?" Again, speaking of the lark, Clare says,

With day-break's beauties "I have much been taken,"
As thy first anthem breath'd its melody.

Can there be a greater contrast, than that between the richness and force of the latter of these two lines, and the feeble vulgarity of that which precedes it?

We must likewise mark our strong disapprobation of the innovating style introduced in many parts o these volumes, by the employment of unauthorised contractions, and the use of words that have hitherto been strangers alike to our prose and poetry. Take, out of many, the subjoined specimens.

And then, for sake "of's" boys and wenches dear.
"And's" merry sport when harvest came again.
And "well's" he knows, with ceremony kind.
While I, as unconcern'd, went "soodling" on.
He heard the "tootling" robin sound her knell.
If "yah" set any store by one "yah" will.
How he to scape "shool'd" many a pace beyond.

We leave it to the sober judgment of our readers, to decide, whether these, though indisputable, are desirable additions to our language. We may perhaps be told, that a Glossary is annexed to the book; but this does not alter our view of the subject. If the example of Burns, Ramsay, Ferguson, or other Scottish poets be pleaded, we answer, that they employed a dialect in general use through an entire country, and not the mere patois of a small district. If the peculiar phraseology of the Northamptonshire rustics is to be licensed in poetry, we see no reason why that of Lancashire, Somersetshire, and other counties should not be allowed an equal currency; and thus our language would be surprisingly enriched, by the legitimization of all the varieties of speech in use among the canaille throughout the kingdom.

Our surprise is not unfrequently excited, by meeting with lines whose weakness call scarcely be exceeded.

As grinning north winds horribly did blow,
And pepper'd o'er my head their hail and snow.
Last spring he was living, but now he's no more!

The following effusions of filial affection may perhaps do honour to the heart of the writer, but certainly reflect little credit on his muse.

Bless thee, my father! thou'st been kind to me,

And God, who saw it, will be kind to thee.

My mother too, thy kindness shall be met,
And e'er I'm able, will I pay the debt
For what thou'st done, and what gone through for me,
My last earn'd sixpence will I break with thee.

The annexed instances, as well as numerous others, of "vile alliteration," are likewise to us, who are no admirers of that figure of speech, a strong impeachment of the author's good taste.

While maidens fair, with "bosoms bare,"
Go "coolly" to their "cows."
Now wenches "listen," and "let lovers lie."
"Hay-makers hustling" from the rain to "hide."
Keep off the bothering bustle of the wind.

We trust our readers will readily perceive that the above strictures have not been dictated by a spirit of fastidious or splenetic criticism; they have been prompted solely by a wish to rescue our literature from the inroads attempted to be made upon it by false taste or mistaken benevolence. It is with real pleasure that we turn from this unwelcome part of our task, to point out some favourable specimens of the native talent which we have already said the author possesses, and which would, we doubt not, in other circumstances than those in which he has been placed, have developed themselves to much greater advantage.

The following apostrophe possesses considerable spirit, and unfortunately contains but too much truth.

O England, boasted land of liberty,
With strangers, still thou mayst thy title own,
But thy poor slaves the alteration see,
With many a loss to them the truth is known:
Like emigrating bird thy freedom's flown,
While mongrel clowns, low as their rooting plough,
Disdain thy laws to put in force their own;
And every village owns its tyrants now,
And parish slaves must live as parish kings allow.

In his invocation to poverty, the author has evidently written from the genuine impulse of his feelings, and has embodied them in a manner that can hardly fail to excite the sympathy of every reader not destitute of sensibility.

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 unsheltered head,
And, as his tears and sighs did erst complain,
His numbers took it up, and wept it o'er again.

In our opinion, however, the writer of the present collection has excelled in his sonnets more than in any other species of composition that he has attempted. The second volume contains upwards of fifty of these short poems, many of which need not shrink from a comparison with the productions of loftier bards in the same department. Our limits will not admit of extracting more than two or three among those that have struck us most: but justice to the poet requires us to observe, that several others are to be found, not at all inferior in merit to those that we have inserted.

Ah, when this world and I have shaken hands,
And all the frowns of this sad life got through,
When from pale care and sorrow's dismal lands,
I turn a welcome and a wish'd adieu
How blest and happy, to eternal day,
To endless happiness without a pain,
Will my poor weary spirit sail away,
That long long-looked for 'better place' to gain:
How sweet the scenes will open on her eye,
Where no more troubles, no more cares annoy;
All the sharp sorrows of this life torn by,
And safely moor'd in heaven's eternal joy:
Sweet will it seem to Fate's oppressed worm,
As trembling sunbeams creeping from the storm.

I seek for peace — I care not where 'tis found;
On this rude scene in briars and brambles drest,
If peace dwells here, 'tis consecrated ground,
And owns the power to give my bosom rest;
To soothe the rankling of each bitter wound,
Gall'd by rude Envy's adder-biting jest,
And worldly strife; — ah, I am looking round
For peace's hermitage, can it be found?
Surely that breeze that o'er the blue wave curl'd,
Did whisper soft, 'thy wanderings here are blest;'
How different from the language of the world;
Nor jeers, nor taunts in this still spot are given:
Its calms a balsam to a soul distrest;
And where peace smiles, a wilderness is heaven.

The spring is gone, the summer-beauty wanes,
Like setting sun-beams in their last decline;
As evening's shadows, lingering on the plains,
Gleam dim and dimmer till they cease to shine,
The busy bee hath humm'd himself to rest;
Flowers dry to seed, that held the sweets of spring;
Flown is the bird, and empty is the nest?
His broods are rear'd, no joys are left to sing.
There hangs a dreariness about the scene
A present shadow of a bright has been.
Ah, sad to prove that pleasure's golden springs,
Like common fountains, should so quickly dry,
And be so near allied to vulgar things—
The joys of this world are but born to die.

Several passages in the above extracts are very pleasing, and in no small degree poetical; indeed, they must be confessed to be very superior to any thing that could have been anticipated from the limited resources and defective education of a man like Clare. So far, therefore, he is certainly entitled to praise. But we fear, when every allowance is made, that sober judges will hardly be disposed to assign these poems at the utmost, a place above mediocrity; and the elegant critic of antiquity expressly tells us,

—"Mediocribus esse poetis,
Non di, non homines, non concessere columnae."

We cannot hut regret, that those who were disposed to serve the author, have not hit upon a better expedient than that of endeavouring to force public patronage in his favour, on the ground of claims which we cannot consider as established, notwithstanding the imposing assertions of an anonymous writer, in an introduction prefixed to the poems, that "Clare has created more never-dying forms in the personification of things inanimate and abstract, and has scattered them more profusely about our paths, than perhaps any poet of the age, but one." Such extravagant commendation could hardly be admitted on the mere ipse dixit, even of a judge of recognised and unquestionable ability: much less can it be acceded to on the ground of unknown authority.