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News and Commentary from the British Association for Romantic Studies

Five Questions: Simon Kövesi on John Clare: Nature, Criticism and History

Simon Kövesi is Professor and Head of the Department of English and Modern Languages at Oxford Brookes University.  He tweets as @kovesi1.  He has published widely on contemporary fiction (with a particular focus on the Scottish novelist James Kelman), on working-class literature and on the relationship between writing and the natural world.  At the heart of his work, though, is his abiding interest in and love for John Clare, on whom he has published numerous essays and book chapters.  He is the editor of the John Clare Society Journal and the co-editor (with Scott McEathron) of New Essays on John Clare: Poetry, Culture and Community (Cambridge University Press, 2015).  He has recently led a high-profile campaign to highlight the threat posed to Clare’s archives by ongoing local authority cuts.  His passion for Clare’s work has also led to his being one of the very few academics to have sparred with a straw bear on the silver screen.  Below, we discuss his most recent monograph, John Clare: Nature, Criticism and History, which was published by Palgrave in September 2017.

1) What first drew you to John Clare?

I was an undergrad on an exchange year at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  It was clear to me then that the world needed my dreadful poetry, and (boldly) I showed it to a Professor of Romanticism, the brilliant Robert Kirkpatrick, who took pity on me, and kindly invited me to an evening poetry group at his house.  I’d written this nostalgic thing about watching a fox doing a wee – I suppose I was missing seeing them rifling through the bins of suburban London (to this day I’ve never actually seen a fox doing a wee).  Nevertheless, making the best of it, Kirkpatrick read us Clare’s ‘The Vixen’.  I’d never known of anything poetical about a fox and I’d never read any nature poetry of such precise clarity, all propelled by sharp, delicate sympathy, yet beneath no ostensible organising ego.  I stopped writing poetry straight away, and thankfully.  That was in 1993 – 200 years after Clare was born – and so it happened to be a great year for high profile celebrations and publications about his work.  When I returned to Glasgow for my final year, I became obsessed.  More often than not, I read Clare instead of revising for finals.  Early on, the rich pickings of his nature poetry were extended for me by the stylisations and politics of his (seemingly) wild language; by the capitalisation of land he occasionally protests about; by his diverse insights into folk culture and local traditions; by his unique prose; by his inversions of accepted valuations of nature; by his lyrical verse (which can be nothing but ego of course); by his playfulness, his cheekiness, his political lubricity, his isolation.  Like so many, I was haunted by the sad, depleted, often-romanticised story of his life.  At the start, however, it was his late love poetry that grabbed me most of all and that was the focus of my PhD with John Goodridge.

2) In your new book, you contend that ‘nature, feeling, fidelity persist as limitations on readings of Clare’, tracing the longstanding currency of characterisations such as ‘down-to-earth’ that serve to place and constrain him.  To what extent do you think that modern criticism of Clare is still shaped by the social and critical conditions of his original reception?

Those terms come from very early comments on his work.  I argue in the book that while they have been blown apart by the best of Clare criticism, they have been latently reaffirmed by the polemical accommodation of Clare to the agendas of contemporary green criticism especially, particularly because criticism can have a deaf ear, or a ham-shaped fist, when it comes to class.  The old model of Clare as ‘honest John’ does harm to the way we read his work – many have said so but it still creeps back.  Many critics reveal discomfort in the way they deal with Clare’s class; often, this manifests through treating his work as simple documentary evidence of landscaped fact, or a kind of social realism – as if he’s not capable of slippery, literary sophistication.  Partly this is Clare’s own fault – he often romanticises his agency out of the window – he denies his art and artfulness even in the manner in which he frames its conception.

In the book I also explore the ways critical awkwardness with Clare’s class can sometimes be downright insensitivity.  Calling Clare ‘homeless’ for example, is an historical nonsense, and yet it has such traction in Clare criticism, as it works well for a prevalent version of his relationship to land, or his supposed full-spectrum alienation.  But ‘homeless’ is now a dead metaphor in Clare, and if anything serves to stop us thinking about the subtlety and variety of his versions of ‘home’, and his constant, learned attention to people without one.  Perhaps because of its origins in conservation, but also because of founding tensions with the left and industrially-born socialism, ecocriticism has never been great on class; this is compounded in Clare studies by an understandable confluence between the sentimentalising of Clare’s location with the turn to the local in moralising green criticism – which of course many green critics worry about.

From all kinds of politicised critical approaches, you can track tendencies to reduce Clare to a kind of naïve holy fool whose knees and identity wobbled if he walked beyond the bounds of his parish – and that modelling (down to Clare himself of course – or at least partially so) has been entrenched by the blunter end of green criticism, but also by the crass end of historicism which can only see straightforward autobiography in a poem like ‘The Flitting’ (there’s certainly a reductive channel of class prejudice in assuming every time Clare writes ‘I’ it is uncomplicatedly and ‘honestly’ him).  Clare said himself in one of his most unbelievable and deliberately fragmentary poems – the wilfully fraudulent ‘Child Harold’ – that his life had been ‘one chain of contradictions’.  He did wear a green suit to go dining with his new London Magazine friends who all wore ‘sable’ – but a rich friend bought it for him.  Clare did mostly live in Helpston throughout his life, but that doesn’t mean he wanted to stay there.  Clare did write himself into a tradition of anti-enclosure poems, which have convinced everyone of their veracity, but we should not forget that he worked in enclosure gangs for many years, wrote his best nature poetry after enclosure, and continued to do so after he’d left Helpston – and by no means all of it is looking back to a pre-enclosure Edenic childhood – not at all.  Clare did thresh in a barn from the age of 8 or 9 – but by his own account, he suffered deep and lasting trauma over it.  He did that labour alongside his father so that he could help pay for his schooling, not because he lusted after labour.  He fantasised about having a domestic servant – we ignore these elements if we want honest John back.

It’s indicative of the romanticisation of Clare that no one has ever asked, before me, why he was able to find work in lime kilns.  Why were there so many lime kilns across the countryside in the Romantic period?  The answer is obvious: lime was pretty much the only material cheaply available that could help drain, fertilise and regulate the acidity of newly-enclosed land.  Lime was the main tool of enclosure and Clare helped make it, just before his launch as a poet; indeed the lime-kiln money was supposed to go towards funding his first publication of poetry.  It doesn’t mean he is a hypocrite – and I don’t care about it morally at all – it just means he is not a green messiah.  If we judge him, we have to be completely unhistorical to do so.  He was a poor labourer, and working in enclosure gangs or slaking lime in a kiln was decent money, if offering extremely low social status.  The only thing he seems to have worried about when working the enclosure gangs was the ‘wild and irregular habits’ of the itinerant men he was working with: not the ‘wild and irregular’ countryside they were enclosing.  I think critics need to start incorporating the moral messiness of Clare into their valuation of him – else we’re just forging self-affirming narratives and forgetting the contingencies of a life lived.  We don’t think any the less of the poems Wordsworth and Coleridge wrote, just because Lyrical Ballads was designed to fund a trip to Germany.  Clare is robust enough for these paradoxes, these tensions and multiplicities, to surface.  Too much criticism of Clare is sentimental and patronising – delicate, even.

3) In seeking to move beyond that echoing phrase from By Our Selves – ‘John Clare was a minor nature poet who went mad’ – which occluded aspects of Clare’s life and art do you think should be emphasised more strongly?

We need to think about what we do when we emphasise Clare’s ‘lack’ of education.  What did he gain by not having a ‘formal education’?  What forms of knowledge and routes to understanding did he have open to him that other poets ‘lacked’?  Could Byron play the fiddle like Clare?  What does Byron’s poetry lack because he didn’t go to the pub and listen to storytellers spinning folk narratives?  It’s as if academics just don’t know what to do with writers who have never been to a lecture, and so we flock to the poets who have.  People like us, right?  What we tend to do is express astonishment at writers like Clare and move awkwardly on: that’s the history of the reception of working-class writing in academia in a nutshell.  Clare’s education was incredibly complicated – it needs much more attention.

In the book, I talk about ‘place’ being not just a liberation for Clare – it was not merely a ‘positive’ platform for his locally ‘botanising’ focus.  Place was also a narrowing problem: being placed, knowing his place, keeping to his place, being regarded as ‘down to earth’ – the organicist impulse is still prevalent in contemporary criticism and you can see it in the accident of phrasing sometimes.  Clare talks about feeling like a donkey tied to a post in his relation to Helpston.  Too often we turn what was a severe limitation on the life of this poorest of poets, conflate it with a certain mood in some poems, and construct a magical green or folksily happy commitment to place, particularity and soil.  This move can be dangerously patronising, dismissive of material suffering, and can mean we ignore Clare’s constant changes of mood and temperament – let alone his shifting desires.  To shift all of this into blanket ‘alienation’ is also to obfuscate things.  Clare loved London, he loved travelling to the largest seasonal body of water in England (Whittlesea Mere – drained by one of his patron’s sons when Clare was in an asylum), he loved going beyond the ‘edge of the orison’ – he wasn’t ruined by doing so.  And he loved Helpston too – but he resented its parochialness, the lack of anyone to talk to about books, and wanted it to move closer to London.  There is a funny early poem where he speculates what his fantasy home will be like one day, when he’s made it, and while the house he builds for himself is determinedly rural, someone else will be doing the labour and chores while he writes, and there’s no family around to bother him, just a maidservant.  He hated being poor and not being able to buy the books he wanted, or food for his kids, or travel.  It is amazing we have to say this, but the fact is Clare criticism ignores it.  The fraudulent Reverend of a quack who ran Clare’s asylum – Matthew Allen – thought in 1840 that the only reason Clare needed help was what we would now call ‘anxiety’ over money coupled with a poor diet across decades.

There’s no romance in poverty, rural or urban, just as there’s little romance in hand-work or pre-mechanised agriculture – pre- or post-enclosure – though Clare does manage to squeeze a good deal of emotive nostalgia out of it, for sure.  He can be sentimental and conservative, as much as he can cry for reform and protest against the monied and the greedy.  His politics are as slippery as his accounts of grammar: in this mobility he is the most Byronic of poets.  Like all good poets, Clare is an unstable subject, and we need to be aware of that much more – and stop reducing a very long writing career to a moment of fury, passion or creative depression.  I think some of his greatest poems are not about enclosure or nature: they are about human poverty, about social mores, about status, ignorance and prejudice.  And to answer the question directly, Clare could have been a great satirist but nobody encouraged him, for example, when he wrote ‘The Parish’, while his sonnet parodying Wordsworth’s use of enjambment is brilliant, and his reworking of Byron by way of poetical masculinist empowerment is as foul as can be.  He also writes light comic verse of which John Hamilton Reynolds and Thomas Hood would have been proud.  He is so knowingly playful in rummaging amongst others’ styles and techniques – a sociable yet solitary magpie – stealing shiny bits – lining his own poetic nest.

4) Which of Clare’s works do you think are particularly ripe for reconsideration from a broader range of perspectives?  Which texts would you select for an undergraduate seminar to try and give a balanced sense of his value and achievements?

In Clare studies this is a sore point.  There just are not enough editions of his verse – particularly cheap ones or selections with good scholarly notes.  There are some good collections but they do not yet amount to easy access to the full range of his work.  I hope scholars reading this blog will one day produce their own editions of Clare, according to a wide variety of editing principles and presentational styles.  Imagine the possibilities of a manuscript-based facsimile edition online, with all sorts of reading texts (as the Cornell Wordsworth called them), of all the variants – which included (rather than demoted) lifetime published texts too?  That’s got to be the future of editing Clare.  To answer the question, I think Clare’s work offering social commentary does not get enough attention: sometimes it is satire, sometimes straight narrative, sometimes polemic, and some prose moments are also unique in the period; the letters can be really pointed in this area.  We have good engagement with the nature poetry, for sure, though I think more emphasis on the work of the early 1830s would reveal some real gems – and I think it is in this period that Clare’s writing about nature becomes super-sophisticated.  Though most commentary would have it that after leaving Helpston he loses his mojo, the poetic evidence just does not support it.

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

A big travelling exhibition of Clare portraits, original manuscripts, books and ephemera, to kick off in January 2020, 200 years after the publication of Poems Descriptive.  It’s a good time to take Clare on the road, I hope – just need to locate some funding.  I’ve just signed a contract with Palgrave to co-write a book with Bridget Keegan entitled The Occupations of Labour: Labouring-Class Writers, 1800–1900; this will group what shoemaker Chartist poet James Dacres Devlin (one of my personal favourites) called ‘hand-producer poets’ into their occupations for thematic consideration.  With Erin Lafford, I am putting together a collection of new Clare essays to propose to a publisher soon.  The longer-term book I’ve been chewing on for a while now is to be called British Literature and Poverty: 1800–2000, and the reading for that is opening up all sorts of new avenues for me.  It’s probably too big a project to ever finish, but I’m happy to give it a go.  Before any of that, I’ve got to finish an essay on poverty in the Romantic period – especially in agricultural improvement debates – and another on Clare’s reading, and rewriting, of Byron.