Identity in Place: Lord Byron, John Clare and Lyric Poetry

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Abstract

This essay presents the case that during the later stages of his writing career, John Clare's poetic voice is developed through an engagement with Lord Byron's lyric verse, including the Hebrew Melodies but also the lyricised narrative of Don Juan. In particular, it argues that Byron's precedent enables Clare to articulate a distinctive concern with female figures in faraway places (namely Jerusalem and Greece) and that Byron provides Clare with a way of staging a dramatic lyricism. Byron and Clare have already been the subject of a number of discussions in academic studies, but this essay provides a fresh focus on links between the two poets by concentrating on as yet unexamined thematic, textual and formal parallels in their lyrical verse. The essay makes a case for Byron as a lyricist while attending to some lesser-known lyric poems by Clare that allow readers to see more coherence in Clare's asylum-period verse than has often been assumed.

Byron's lyric poetry was once taken to be anomalous for the Romantic period.1 In contrast, a significant portion of John Clare's verse has for a long time been understood to represent the 'very idea [...] of lyric poetry itself '.2 It might, then, seem a little odd to put Byron and Clare together on these grounds. However, in this essay I will argue that the lyric (and in some cases lyricised narrative) poetry of Byron informs the later lyric poetry of Clare in productive ways. The two writers have been compared a number of times before, of course, but a comparative focus on their lyric practices offers a fresh perspective on both.3

One of my specific concerns here is with how Byron's Hebrew Melodies are, as Sarah Houghton-Walker puts it, 'an important impetus to Clare's poetic voice during his confinement [in the asylum]'.4 This subject was first taken up by Mark Minor some years ago, but through a sustained comparative reading of Clare and Byron I will attempt in what follows to give a more detailed account of Byron's influence on some of Clare's late lyric poems, even as my essay remains indebted to Minor.5 Byron's lyric influence has a largely positive effect on Clare, allowing him to fashion a lyric voice which is noticeably different from the satirical, vulgar stance found in his better-known rewritings of his famous contemporary: 'Child Harold' and 'Don Juan A Poem'. The majority of modern critical studies of the two poets have tended to focus on these latter works, exploring issues such as identity, class, and exile,6 and seeing Clare as appropriating, plagiarising or forging Byron.7 While poems such as 'The Dream' and 'The Night Mare' also invite us to consider the ways in which, respectively, Byron's 'Darkness' and 'The Dream' were an informing presence in Clare's earlier work,8 I will concentrate on his asylum-period lyrics, which, in the cases I examine here, mainly date from the 1840s. We will see that in this period Clare consistently turns to a variety of Byron's poems (including Don Juan) as lyrical precedents.

What unites my various arguments in this essay is the notion that a female presence, often in faraway or exotic landscapes, informs Clare's recasting of the Byronic lyric, in particular the songs of Hebrew Melodies. Here I am bringing together what GeoffPayne calls the 'erotic haunting presence' found in Byron's Hebrew Melodies and the idealised female figures which populate Clare's imitation of these poems.9 A particular emphasis in my argument, however, is on the lyric understood as dramatic utterance, or, as Leopold Damrosch Jr. argues in his discussion of the genre in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, on the idea that 'any successful lyric is dramatic speech'.10 As we will see, in Clare's imitations of Hebrew Melodies,11 the complexities of lyric are focalised through various modes of address, including, for instance, apostrophes to Jewish maids and references to specific figures (Haidée, for example) from Byron's work. …