Saturday, December 8, 2012


John Clare

". . .the poems of Clare's that still make a catch in the breath and establish a positively bodily hold upon the reader are those in which the wheel of total recognition has been turned. At their most effective, Clare's pentameters enrage not just the mechanical gears of a metre: at their most effective, they take hold also on the sprockets of our creatureliness. By which I only mean that on occasion a reader simply cannot help responding with immediate recognition to the pell-mell succession of vividly accurate impressions. No one of these is extraordinary in itself, nor is the resulting poem in any way spectacular. What distinguishes it is an unspectacular joy and totally alert love for the one-thing-after-anotherness of the world. Here, by way of illustration, is another one of Clare's sonnets in couplets — perhaps we should call them supplets — picked almost at random from the ones Clare wrote at Northborough during his early and middle forties:

The old pond full of flags and fenced around

With trees and bushes trailing to the ground

The water weeds are all around the brink

And one clear place where cattle go to drink

From year to year the schoolboy thither steals

And muddys round the place to catch the eels

The cowboy often hiding from the flies

Lies there and plaits the rushcap as he lies

The hissing owl sits moping all the day

And hears his song and never flies away

The pinks nest hangs upon the branch so thin

The young ones caw and seem as tumbling in

While round them thrums the purple dragon flye

And great white butter flye goes dancing bye

Rarely has the butteriness of a butterfly been so available. The insect has flown into the medium and survives forever there as a pother of lip movement and a set of a substituted feet in the scansion of the line. And the old pond here is like the cesspool in "The Mouse's Nest", in so far as it embodies for Clare not only the reality of all such places as places, with distinct characters and histories, but also their value as a set of memories and affections at the back of his mind. There is dreamwork going on here, as well as photography. The casual rightness and potency of the thing come from a level of engagement well below the visual; in fact, the whole poem acts as a reminder of how integrated and concentrated a poetic response can be. What is unstated can still be felt as a potent charge inside or behind an image or a cadence, and what lies behind the self-possession, the sureness of tone and grip on place in such a poem is Clare's great feat of endurance in the face of historical and personal crises."


from Finders Keepers
selected prose 1971-2001
(Farrar, 2002)

From Helpston in rural Northamptonshire, John Clare was born in 1793.


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