John Clare, the Popular Wood-Cut and the Bible: A Venture into the History of Popular Culture

By Robinson, Eric | Wordsworth Circle, Spring-Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

John Clare, the Popular Wood-Cut and the Bible: A Venture into the History of Popular Culture


Robinson, Eric, Wordsworth Circle


Although as a child, Clare often missed Sunday church, later in life, he attended church services and held a deep reverence for the King James Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, and the Church of England (aside from a fling with the Primitive Methodists) He not only read the Bible and the prayer-book but also numerous theological works and moral treatises. (1) Though these treatises were usually given to him by his Evangelical friends, he read them and derived pleasure and profit from at least some of them. But his love of the church is based in his childhood, his family, and his village-community.

Reared by a church-going father, strengthened by a largely Anglican community and educated in a vestry-school, his was the culture of the village-church, deepened and strengthened by his own extensive reading and reflection. As Greg Crossan showed over a quarter of a century ago, (2) for example, Clare had many unusual religious ideas--he was, for example, widely tolerant of other faiths--but he still found solace in the simple faith in which he had been brought up. He was not that far removed from "The Cottager" who went to Church most Sundays and came home to study his Bible. (3) It was a book that inspired Clare all his life -particularly the Psalms, the Book of Job, the Song of Solomon, and the New Testament. Christopher Hill makes a good point about the last when he says: "'Christ and his Apostles were Illiterate men ... Caiaphas, Pilate and Herod were Learned.' Such words encapsulated what I suspect Clare thought but never formulated so precisely." (4) And Clare himself says: "There are more pages of true sublimity to be found in the common translation of the Bible than in all the books I ever met with--In the account of the creation Noah's Flood--in the relations of Ruth in the book of Job and all the Prophets major and minor" (5) Part of the complexity that Kelsey Thornton identifies in Clare includes an essential simplicity, a simplicity that survived his childhood in his love of Bible stories and inspired him to the end of his writing life. (6)

His love of art is as overlooked as his devotion to biblical stories. Consider the strength of feeling with which he recalls seeing, during his first visit to Wisbech, an exhibition of E. V. Rippingille's pictures. (They seem to have mattered much more to him than his disappointment at being turned down for a job as a lawyer's clerk with his uncle's employer). (7) Then, after his first success as a writer and upon visiting London, it was Rippingille himself who arranged entrance for him to visit the exhibitions at the Royal Academy (8) and perhaps the Society of British Artists. Consider also his visits to some of the studios of artists of the day and his knowledge of the work of others--Sir Thomas Lawrence, William Etty, T.G Wainewright, F. Howard, Sir Francis Chantry, F.W. Smith, (9) the Behnes brothers, (10) (William Behnes and Henry Behnes Burlowe), and others. To these, add his acquaintance with William Hilton and Peter De Wint, around whom he wrote his essay on landscape-painting. This aspect, of Clare's artistic interests has preoccupied literary critics, especially John Barrell and Timothy Brownlow, (11) who deduced that Clare's artistic interests ran along the main roads of contemporary academic art.

I suggest that the strongest influence upon Clare's sensibility was rather the tradition of Hogarth, Bewick, Gillray, Cruikshank and, perhaps, Rowlandson, and the popular wood-cuts of his day, which appeared on street-ballads, chap-books, broadsides, nursery rhymes, "Cries of London," books of magic, almanacs, and newspapers. The wood-cuts had the greatest impact and strongest appeal because Clare had encountered them in his childhood, and what he saw first in life always remained with him:

  All I can reccole[c]t of the old book of Pomfrets, which my father
  used to read to me, was that it was full of wooden cuts and one at.
  the beginning of every poem, the first of which was two childen
  holding up a great Letter these pictures lured me to make an end of
  the book for one day I made use of an opportunity to cut them out and
  burnt the rest to avoid detection (12)

The first line of Clare's poem, "Childhood" is "The past it is a magic word. …

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