John Clare: Beginner's Luck

[This talk was prepared by Edmund Blunden for the 1964 centenary of Clare's death, and was published as a pamphlet in 1971 by Bridge Books / Kent Editions, in an edition of 250, to celebrate Blunden's 75th birthday]

My purpose on this occasion is to give some account of amateur researches which have yielded greater results than those who under­took them could have counted on, although there were faith and fire within them.  To judge by anthologies, broadcast programmes, the books of new poets, the catalogues of famous book-collections and other evidences, the reputation of John Clare is now considerable and probably lasting.  In 1964 he will be honoured by many, including lovers of our literature from other nations, at his county town Northampton, his familiar city Peterborough, and sundry places besides: the Aldeburgh Festival will include a Clare occasion.  Numerous publications on and of his poems are in preparation: the Oxford edition in several volumes may of course take longer to appear than the selections of which I am told.  It is noteworthy that Clare attracts some whose first interest or training is not literary.
Before I go on with my own narrative, it may be useful to notice briefly who Clare was and what happened to him.  He was born in 1793 at Helpstone, a village not far from Peterborough, and perhaps his parents had as hard a time as any in the village.  They never­theless got him some schooling, and his father taught him the violin (there was a little money in that at local feasts and such).  He grew up as a farm labourer, pot-boy, lime-burner, gardener—and reader.  Some­how he gathered books, and then discovered that he himself could write verse; it was by no means unique in that bygone rural England for the villager to read the poets and commence poet.  But Clare had an intensity of his own.  His gift drove him on, and he was in the words of Marvell 'the forward youth that would appear'.  Meanwhile something important had happened to him: at evening school at Clinton he had been taken by the beauty and presence of a girl named Mary Joyce.  This experience went underground, so to speak, but it was for delayed action on Clare's genius.
His efforts to obtain a printer for his poems, especially when he was out of a job, make a little comedy; but they by chance brought him what he desired.  In short, in 1820 his 'Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery' came out with the imprint of Taylor & Hessey, London; this publishing house was rising into greatness; its list in 1820 also offered 'Lamia, Isabella and other Poems' by John Keats.  Clare received messages from Keats, so soon to leave England.  Clare's book was put forward as something extraordinary, by a 'Northamptonshire Peasant,' and had a very good run.  His 'Village Minstrel' (1821) was only moderately successful; his 'Shepherd's Calendar' (1827) was mainly neglected.  This last-named work is to be republished in entirety by enthusiasts at Manchester University.  It was not Clare's last work: The Rural Muse (1835) was a sadly beautiful achievement, but the title may have been outmoded.
From 1820 to 1835 Clare underwent the trial of finding that Fame is perishable.  He also had the heavy burden of a large family.  Benefactors there were, generous friends, but necessity was always upon him.  Had he been able to converse more often with his London publishers, and Charles Lamb and de Quincey and Thomas Hood and the rest, he might have brooded less.  His mind began to be strange, about the year 1836.  One puzzle was the memory of Mary Joyce, more real than Martha Clare to him.
From 1837 to 1864, with an interval when he escaped home, Clare was confined as insane.  He was usually reasonable and highly respected in Northampton, but there were hours of melancholy and fantastic outburst.  He continued to write poetry, especially lyrical, and some feel that his asylum poems surpass all the earlier ones.  His wonderful 'I am!' was printed in a newspaper in 1844, and such occasional glimpses of him were caught by the public; but naturally he was gradually almost forgotten.  Still, some knew that he was one of Northamptonshire's master-poets; the other was John Dryden.
After his death in 1864 a clever but flashy biography by Frederick Martin, Carlyle's unreliable amanuensis, displeased Charles Dickens but did something for Clare's memory; in 1873 J.  L.  Cherry's 'Life and Remains' of Clare revealed much, and particularly many of the asylum poems, though editorially, it seems, sophisticated.  Clare was never totally forgotten, and in 1893 an exhibition of his manuscripts and quantities of other relics was held at the Natural History Museum, Peterborough.  I do not think that the poets of England at that time took any notice, but hardly any of them went as far as Horsham the year before for the Shelley centenary observations.
Somehow in the early years of this century two fine volumes of autograph poems by Clare were in the hands of a London bookseller, and they were shown to a writer of prose and verse who himself seems to deserve revival—Arthur Syrnons.  He published a selection from Clare in the pleasant 'Oxford Library of Prose and Poetry', 1908, which included a number of excellent rescues from one of the said manuscript-books, and the editor's regret (in a subtle critical essay) that he had not traced the manuscripts of the asylum poems; it was Clare's astonishing lyrical faculty, he said, that he wished to illustrate through those.
Omitting a great deal which would be requisite in a thesis, I now come to the personal sequel of what has been noted.  At school in the pre-1914 period, obliged to join the O.T.C.  but not deserting 'all pleasant things', I acquired Arthur Symons's 'Clare' and one or two more selections.  It was a challenge already, how to find the missing poems on which Symons set such value.  The Oxford volume certainly gave plenty of reasons why.  I took it to the Western Front, lent it, so lost it; but the war could not overthrow the spirit of John Clare.
Chaos seemed gone again, and in October 1919 I was on my way up the steps of Queen's College, Oxford, when another freshman made some encouraging remark about our destiny.  Like me he had decided that Clare was a neglected but entrancing poet; and before long we had almost signed in our blood a pact that we would not cease from mental strife, and so on, until we had built Clare's scattered poetry up again, the unknown with the known.  The first move, after the essential craziness, was over to the Bodleian Library.  We were as men on springs as we jumped about the open shelves of those days, hoping rather than thinking out where to look for what; but it was obvious that the Gentleman's Magazine for 1864 would yield an obituary notice of Clare, and it did, with a new little poem or two.  Next, by chance, Alan Porter came on an offprint: 'Northamptonshire Botanologia/ by G.  C.  Druce, on Clare and his flower-knowledge, with quotations from MSS.  These MSS.  were or had been at the Peterborough Natural History Museum.  What next?
Dr.  Druce, we discovered, was living, in Oxford—in Crick Road; in truth he was one of the great Oxford characters, but the war had obscured them.  We appealed to him, and he gave us, as Keats puts it, 'tea and comfortable advice' and a letter of introduction to the hon.  curator of the Peterborough Natural History Museum, Mr.  J.  W.  Bodger, chemist.  Dr.  Druce had actually seen John Clare, a solitary looking at the sky.  I should interpolate here that Dr.  Druce was great on botany and could with authority say that Clare was too.
At the Easter vacation three of us set out for Peterborough.  I was the only source of funds, and we had no notion how to get ourselves put up for three weeks.  But the omens were good.  Close to Oxford railway station at that date, a second-hand bookshop lurked almost under the road, down stairs.  The train would be late; and Alan Porter, later on Professor at Vassar in America, ran to the shop, where the books were priced generally at threepence or sixpence, and returned with three old 'annuals' each adding to our knowledge of Clare's Poems.  What trouble we had at Peterborough, where there was a horse fair, to find rooms, could not depress us.

[Peterborough Museum]

Mr.  Bodger next day, rosy-faced, kind, but mildly surprised, took us into his room at the Museum and gave us the freedom.  A large cupboard was unlocked.  He explained that the masses of papers revealed were the remains of the exhibition of 1893—catalogues were still to be had.  We were soon left to see what to do with so many bundles and bound volumes, in most admired disorder, and there was no time to lose.  But one thing stood out: if Clare's Asylum MSS.  were not here, a splendid transcript of many of them was, occupying two beautifully bound folios.  To copy these entire and select later seemed the best plan.  It was obvious at a glance that here was richness, but in confusion.
So one transcriber was put on to the Asylum transcripts.  Alan Porter had a fairly free hand, and roved with his brilliant perception through many difficult-looking drafts in prose and verse.  My own share was in part that of examining such well-filled volumes of finished texts as that entitled 'The Midsummer Cushion', prepared for the press by Clare in 1832: a thick manuscript book of poems short and long.  A similar volume, not identical, had gone to America after a brief study by Arthur Symons, years before.  But we hardly knew how to pay attention to any one thing because of the allurements all round, so many and so many.  Foraging about we found drafts of Clare's impressions of people and occasions in London—Coleridge (but the page was torn), Hazlitt, De Quincey, Lamb, 'Dante' Gary, and others—not Keats alas, whom Clare probably just missed, though he possessed a portrait of him, and though they exchanged messages.
Then further the dull-looking cupboard yielded one of the most curious series of short, unadorned, intense poems in English, written when Clare's mind was beginning to dwell on loneliness and suffering —and resistance.  These pieces (some are still to be deciphered) were all unknown.  They are better circumstanced now, the 'Badger', the 'Fox' and others only possible to John Clare in rural life in 1835.
Our labours in that old Museum went on for three weeks of, shall I call it, happy insanity—the sun shone outside, and we had another illumination within.  We returned for our Oxford term, and somehow, the spirit of Clare was working for us: at least, it seemed that editors were eager to hear all about our discoveries, J.  C.  Squire of the London Mercury, J.  Middleton Murry of the Athenaeum, Holbrook Jackson of Today—yet others.  Articles were produced in good time and a gentle publisher, Richard Cobden-Sander son (grandson of the Cobden), gladly produced in 1920 'John Clare: Poems Chiefly from Manuscript'.  It was welcomed.
May I quote the first words of the preliminary Note: "For the present volume over two thousand poems by John Clare have been considered and compared; of which over two-thirds have not been published.  Of those here given ninety are now first printed"—-a heavy majority in our book.
What was our greatest capture? It must be left to others, but when I was left to myself as the practical man in continuing the quest I think I found a good candidate, among Clare's Asylum Poems.  We had printed 'Secret Love', but perhaps 'I Lost the Love of Heaven' was not in the transcripts at Peterborough—I may have dislodged it from the other Asylum collection at Northampton.  It has been regarded by the poet Siegfried Sassoon, a most grateful as well as discriminating reader of others' poems, as a true poem,- may I read it now, to vary my talk?
I lost the love of Heaven above,
I spurned the lust of Earth below.
 I felt the sweets of fancied love,
And Hell itself my only foe.

I lost Earth's joys, but felt the glow
Of Heaven's flame abound in me
  Till loveliness, and I did grow
The bard of Immortality.

I loved; but woman fell away.
I hid me from her faded flame.
  I snatch'd the sun's eternal ray
And wrote till Earth was but a name.

In every language upon Earth, —
On every shore, on every sea,
 I gave my name immortal birth
And kept my spirit with the free.

Apparently Wordsworth never said a word for or against this disconcerting rustic with his plain English, and we discovered a clever parody of Wordsworth among Clare's scraps (but Clare loved Wordsworth) which cheered us on.
I must now return to my brief history of a long research.  You have heard how it began/ and Oxford helped, and Peterborough answered our question in a sumptuous way.  If we are to reflect on the old association between literature and life, such experiences are worth recall—anything may happen besides some unearthing of hidden golden writings.  (By the way, when we were worrying Clare at his cathedral city, the local newspaper in chief came out with a headline, OXFORD MAN DISCOVERS GOLD MINE IN PETERBOROUGH.  The editor however declined to pay me for the articles he demanded.

But literary research, I believe, is what Coleridge in early glory said that poetry is: its own exceeding great reward.  To come into a sort of direct contact with some remarkable personality, someone who made a reverent and courageous study of life, is not the end of it.  To deprive oblivion of creative writings which had only by the spell of ignorance or rude mischance gone perilously near the end of all is not the only thing.  Let such writings, saved and secured, rise into our own world of many hopes and troubles,- we are mighty fine fellows, but we cannot write like William Blake, nor G.  M.  Hopkins, nor Thomas Traherne—and suppose after all that we could add Shakespeare's letters and notebooks and discarded openings to his known Works to the canon, any complaints? No, but those John Clare adventures of mine may serve as an example of the enrichment of incident, acquaintance, romance in real life, which 'the pursuit of knowledge under difficulties' may lead to.  And nowadays the difficulties may be as it were accommodated by benefits of various denominations, such as I hope all my listeners may receive, once magnetized by a fine literary object.  I spare you further details of my John Clare experiences, my many hours in his company (even in the British Museum where his incoming correspondence is kept), my days with his utterly unspoiled grandchildren.  It became unavoidable that I should leave the complete editing of his works and account of his life to others,- but now, in his centenary year, it looks as though things will be happening at Peterborough and Northampton and other sensible cities which will improve our knowledge and enjoy­ment of Clare, and one man's thanks to his character and genius, the stars of a sometimes obscure voyage through modern times.

Republished in the John Clare Society Journal 
Number 15 July 1996

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