[Spenserian Sonnets.]

The Village Minstrel, and Other Poems. By John Clare, the Northamptonshire Peasant; Author of "Poems on Rural Life and Scenery." 2 Vols [John Taylor, ed.]

John Clare

Five Spenserian sonnets by the untutored Northamptonshire poet. Clare's volume received extraordinary attention, particularly in the Morning Post, where the editor John Taylor reprinted one of Clare's sonnets on an almost weekly basis for several months.

Literary Chronicle: "Though there is no species of poetry more common than the sonnet, yet there are few who succeed in it. Clare has indulged in it largely, and has given us no less than sixty specimens of his talents in this species of composition, in which we think him very successful" 3 (6 October 1821) 623-35.

Thomas De Quincey: "His poems were not the mere reflex of his reading. He had studied for himself in the fields, and in the woods, and by the side of brooks. I very much doubt if there could be found in his poems a single commonplace image, or a description made up of hackneyed elements. In that respect, his poems are original, and have even a separate value, as a sort of calendar (in extent, of course, a very limited one) of many rural appearances, of incidents in the fields not elsewhere noticed, and of the loveliest flowers most felicitously described. The description is often true even to a botanical eye; and in that, perhaps, lies the chief defect; not properly in the scientific accuracy, but that, in searching after this too earnestly, the feeling is sometimes too much neglected. However, taken as a whole, his poems have a very novel quality of merit, though a quality too little, I fear, in the way of public notice" 1840; in "Literary Reminiscences" Works (1889-90) 3:144-45.

William Sharp: "Clare's sonnets are irregular in structure, and in a sense they are only fourteen-line poems. They might as well as not be better, or worse, for being two or three lines shorter or longer. There is no inevitableness about them: one feels that the choice of vehicle has been purely arbitrary, — in a word, that they have not that essential characteristic — adequacy of sonnet-motive. Like all his work, however, they are characterised by the same winsome affection for and knowledge of nature amidst which he spent his life. Clare's poetry is often like a sunny and windy day bursting through the gloom of late winter" Sonnets of this Century (1886) 284n.

Rayner Unwin: "The sonnets which he composed are perhaps the least satisfactory [of Clare's metrical experiments]; indeed they have little but the fourteen lines in common with traditional models. It is probable that Clare did not fully understand the purpose of such poems, as he tends to use them for conveniently short descriptive passages, occasionally adding a hastily improvised moral" The Rural Muse (1954) 132.

Sweet type of innocence, snow-clothed blossom,
Seemly, though vainly, bowing down to shun
The storm hard-beating on thy wan white bosom,
Left in the swail, and little cheer'd by sun;
Resembling that frail jewel, just begun
To ope on vice's eye its witcheries blooming,
Midst all its storms, with little room to shun—
Ah, thou art winter's snowdrop, lovely Woman!
In this world dropt, where every evil's glooming
With killing tempests o'er its tender prey,
Watching the opening of thy beauties coming,
Its every infant charm to snatch away:
Then comes the sorrows thou'rt too weak to brave,
And then thy beauty-cheek digs ruin's early grave.

Here grandeur triumphs at its topmost pitch
In gardens, groves, and all that life beguiles;
Here want too, meets a blessing from the rich,
And hospitality for ever smiles:
Soldier or sailor, from his many toils,
Here finds no cause to rail at pomp and pride;
He shows his scars, and talks of battle's broils
And wails his poverty, and is supplied.
No dogs bark near, the fainting wretch to chide,
That bows to misery his aged head,
And tells how better luck did once betide,
And how he came to beg his crust of bread:
Here he but sights his sorrows and is fed—
Mansion of wealth, by goodness dignified!

Night spreads upon the plain her ebon pall,
Day seems unable to wash out the stain;
A pausing truce kind nature gives to all,
And fairy nations now have leave to reign:
So may conjecturing Fancy think, and feign.
Doubtless in tiny legions, now unseen,
They venture from their dwellings once again:
From keck-stalk cavity, or hollow bean,
Or perfum'd bosom of pea-flower between,
They to the dark green rings now haste, to meet,
To dance, or pay some homage to their queen;
Or journey on, some pilgrim-friend to greet.
With rushy switch they urge some beetle's flight,
And ride to revel, ere 'tis morning-light.

The setting Sun withdraws his yellow light,
A gloomy staining shadows over all,
While the brown beetle, trumpeter of Night,
Proclaims his entrace with a droning call.
How pleasant now, where slanting hazels fall
Thick, o'er the woodland stile, to muse and lean;
To pluck a woodbine from the shade withal,
And take short snatches o'er the moisten'd scene;
While deep and deeper shadows intervene,
And leave fond Fancy mouldling to her will
The cots, and groves, and trees so dimly seen,
That die away more undiscerned still;
Bringing a sooty curtain o'er the sight,
And calmness in the bosom still as night.

[2:155, 175, 179, 184]