English and Englishness

Prof. John Lucas
Hogarth Press (1990)

Included in this scholarly work on the interesting subject of Englishness, and of particular interest to Society members, is a chapter entitled 'Peasants and Outlaws: John Clare'. It is interesting on its own but does need reading in context. Prof. Lucas, who is Professor of English and Drama at Loughborough University and a member of the Society, quotes from, and refers to, much Clare material, including such poems as: 'The Flitting', 'The Mores', 'To The Snipe', 'Remembrances', 'Helpstone', 'A Vision', and 'I Am', as well as prose from letters and elsewhere... 

Clare was made to fit into the mould of the 'peasant poet' and bitterly resented the alterations made to his original material. He was effectively "manufactured" by his publishers, Taylor and Hessey, who alter his spelling and his punctuation, lay out his poems according to the dictates of acceptable literary conventions; and lines, stanzas and, on occasion, entire poems are dropped. In short, Poems Descriptive is editorialised to market Clare as a 'peasant poet'.... Moreover, Taylor and Hessey not only interfere with the poems to bring them more into line with what was expected of peasant poets, they also bow to the wishes of Clare's self-appointed patron, Lord Radstock, who had a very strong dislike of Clare's unsentimental writing about the society he knew intimately, and an even stronger dislike of Clare's politics. Yet again, regionalism has been captured and tamed.' (p.40)

Clare's verse is deeply embedded in the oral tradition and lies uncomfortably in the procrustean bed of 'Wordsworthian Romanticism inherited from Gray and others and suitably reworked' (p.7) A variation of 'peasant poet' is The Village Minstrel, though Clare had wanted to call his second publication Ways in a Village. As for The Shepherd's Calendar of 1827, Prof. Lucas notes that it 'is so insistently editorialised that it can scarcely be called Clare's own work' (p.47) and The Rural Muse, 1835, suffered 'the unkindest cuts of all'.(p.47)

The sense in which Clare is an 'outlaw' is one of perspective rather than law and is bound up with enclosure which, from the farmers' and the landowners' point of view is a fine thing, but 'change the angle of vision, the nature of experience, and the 'never weary plough' provides not wealth but devastation, 'a desert'. And it is, then, the ultimate irony that Clare's own poems themselves become out of bounds.'(p.55)

Indeed, the reason Clare has been overlooked until recently is because of his being an 'outlaw', speaking with a voice which is not 'English', at least, not in the entirely artificial, literary and culturally orthodox notion of what was and what was not possible for peasant poets to say.

Finally, in this chapter, Prof. Lucas argues that, although the case he has argued for other poets is that they have produced their own, imagined version of England and Englishness, it is because Clare challenges these imagined versions with real experience, however 'regional, partial, self-fractured and fracturing.... [that his voice must be] registered as specifically English.'(p.60)

England and Englishness takes the 'Glorious Revolution' of 1688 as its starting point because it 'marks the beginning of England as a distinctively modem nation'(p.1). It ends with the end of the 19th century when 'the poet's authority had dwindled... [and] real authority had long since passed to the novelists.'(p.205) Prof. Lucas guides us through his chosen period devoting chapters to studies of Goldsmith, Blake, Wordsworth, Shelley, Tennyson and, as we have seen already, Clare. First he discusses, among others, Dryden, Pope, Dyer, Thomson and Milton, considering the impact on the representation of Englishness of the classics.

After the Revolution and loss of the laureateship Dryden devoted himself towards the end of his life to translations of the Roman poets, including the whole of Virgil. Pope translated the Homer's Iliad and Odyssey and in 1733 published his Imitations of Horace especially the First Epistle of the Second Book, with its dedication to Augustus. (p.5) In the face of growing mercantilism and overseas expansion creating enormous wealth for some, poets were looking back to an idealised past. 'Dryden and Pope use 'Augustan', a revitalising of the Roman term for London, so as to promote an image of Rome as model for the ideal city-state.' (p.5) Epic and heroic values conflict with a growing reality of enormous wealth creation through the use by the tiny educated or landed minority of the great uneducated and underprivileged masses both at home and abroad. The pastoralism of The Georgics conflicts with the reality of incipient enclosure depriving villagers of the use of land held in common for centuries.

Prof. Lucas has produced a detailed and careful discussion of the representation by poets of England and Englishness showing the tensions between the reality and what they wrote down about it.

Prof. John Lucas
JCS Newsletter No. 27 – March 1990