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A poet restored to rustic glory

John Clare: A Biography; Jonathan Bate; Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 650 pp., $40 "I Am": The Selected Poetry of John Clare; Edited by Jonathan Bate; Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 318 pp., $17 paper

March 14, 2004|Benjamin Lytal | Benjamin Lytal is a writer and critic whose work has appeared in various publications, including the New York Sun. His fiction will appear in forthcoming issues of McSweeney's and Fence.

In the fall of 1840, Alfred Tennyson invested 1,000 pounds in a scheme to develop a steam-powered woodcarving machine. Three of his sisters put up 4,000 pounds more for this Pyroglyph, and Tennyson promised an additional 2,000 pounds, so persuasive was its inventor, Dr. Matthew Allen, proprietor of the High Beech insane asylum, where Tennyson was a sometimes patient. The venture bankrupted Allen and most of the Tennyson family.

That summer, Allen had concocted another scheme, ostensibly on behalf of a poet "in residence." According to a letter Allen published in the London Times, when John Clare was admitted to High Beech in 1837, "his mind did not appear so much lost and deranged as suspended in its movements by the oppressive and permanent state of anxiety, and fear, and vexation, produced by the excitement of excessive flattery at one time and neglect at another, his extreme poverty and over-exertion of body and mind." Allen asked charitable readers to fund an annuity to relieve Clare of his poverty, to ease and, by implication, heal his mind. All money raised went directly to Allen.

Clare never had the investment options Tennyson had. Born July 13, 1793, one year after Shelley and two before Keats, Clare was the poorest, least educated and most countrified exemplar of the Romantic period. Once, perhaps coyly, he asked why other poets wrote so much about the nightingale and the cuckoo and never about the yellowhammer and the pettichap. This is how Clare's yellowhammer, a small British finch, makes its house:

Rude is the nest this architect invents,

Rural the place, wi' cart-ruts by dyke-side;

Dead grass, horse hair and downy-headed bents

Tied to dead thistles she doth well provide ...

"Bents" are the flowerstalks of certain weeds, like the dandelion. Clare's obsessive eye for details differentiates dead grass from dead weeds, and weeds from dead thistles. The thorny consonants ("tied to dead thistles") and precision of these lines give the lie to other poets' sentiments. Where Wordsworth considered his "Solitary Reaper" from a distance -- "Behold her, single in the field / Yon solitary Highland Lass!" -- Clare, a thresher himself, plopped the rural damsel directly onto his lap--"round her slender waist I fling my arms"--and desires to palpably "bear her weight through all eternity."

The public embraced Clare because he was a bumpkin: In the jargon of the day, a clown. His publishers marketed his first and most successful book, "Poems, Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery," as the work of a naif. A patron published a picturesque preview, describing a visit from Clare: "There was a carpet, upon which it is likely he never previously set foot; and wine, of which assuredly he had never tasted before."

As Jonathan Bate writes in "John Clare: A Biography," "this is nonsense." Clare is generally considered a minor, albeit beloved, poet; Bate's biography does not strain to boost his reputation so much as to straighten it: "Because Clare was perceived as an anomaly within his culture, there was always a tendency to attach labels to him: mad poet took over where peasant poet left off." Bate's intelligence is sane and leveling, suited to a biography that could otherwise have become a caricature.

Clare never made more than 40 pounds from a book of poems. Even at the height of literary fame, he had to labor, like "a hind born to the flail and plough, / To thump the corn out and to till the earth." Clare had schooling until age 13, and he resented grammar, which was generally taught only to upper-class students of Latin: "grammer [sic] in learning is like Tyranny in government," he once wrote to his publisher.

But Clare was not ignorant. He wrote within the tradition of James Thomson and Lord Byron. His resistance to writing "in the teeth of grammer" was as political as it was practical.

The dissonance between Clare's background and that of other literary men led to conflict. His wealthy patrons were often dismayed by Clare's frank treatment of enclosure, whereby the common fields that villagers worked were divided and made private property in the modern sense. One Lord Radstock, on examining a soon-to-be published manuscript, demanded that certain stanzas containing "radical Slang" be excised.

There once were lanes in nature's freedom dropt,

There once were paths that every valley wound, --

Inclosure came, and every path was stoppt;

Each tyrant fix'd his sign where paths were found....

Lanes and paths took their natural course, according to topography and convenience, but enclosure, with its fences, interrupted the peasant's habitual relationship with the land. German philosopher Walter Benjamin would later write that an ideal way to appreciate architecture was not to look at a building from across the street but by "tactile appropriation," to walk up and down its staircases every day. When Clare's boyhood walks became impossible, he was alienated from his native countryside.

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