Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Clare's River Poetry

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Clare's River Poetry

Article excerpt

In an 1826 letter to James Montgomery, editor of the Sheffield Iris, Clare writes: "I have long had a fondness for the poetry of the time of Elizabeth, though I have never had any means of meeting with it, farther than in the confined channels of Ritson's 'English Songs', Ellis's 'Specimens' and Walton's 'Angler'; and the winter before last, though amidst a severe illness, I set about writing a series of verses, in their manner, as well as I could, which I intended to pass off under their names, though some whom I professed to imitate I had never seen" (Letters, 190). Clare adds that because these forgeries, as he calls them, were so favorably received, he was encouraged to produce more, assuming different names, including those of Andrew Marvell and William Davenant. In adopting and imitating the voices of earlier poets, Clare demonstrates a knowledge of literary history that contradicts his (self-)presentation as a "natural genius," an unlettered poet inspired only by the countryside around him.

For Clare, elements of the landscape, especially rivers and waterways, expressed his unique sense of poetic identity as a rural, laboring-class poet, his relationship to literary history and to contemporary literary culture. Rivers allowed Clare to forge a distinctive poetic voice, yet participate in Romantic literary culture and English literary history. For Clare's modern readers, "The Lamentations of Round-Oak Waters" and other lyrics about the destruction of the particular stream are identified with his vocation as a poet to represent and defend the rural countryside against the devastation wrought by agricultural "improvement." But Clare's river poems also use this natural resource to frame his relationship to literary culture, both past and present. In what follows, I sketch three different tributaries into Clare's river poetry, conveying Clare's sense of his relationship to literary history.

In the first group are poems that flow from Renaissance and seventeenth-century river poetry'. They include Izaak Walton's angling poems, which Clare mentions as inspiring such forgeries as "Percey Green" (the sonnet "Sweet brook, I've met thee many a summer's day"). The poems in this category reveal and conceal the intertextual richness of Clare's work, cloaking his voice in that of an earlier poet, real or invented. The second group includes "Sonnet on the River Gwash," which was well-reviewed when Poems Descriptive was first released. This sonnet, and other poems on lesserknown regional rivers, indicates Clare's sense of his relationship to his Romantic peers, for whom river poetry celebrates regionalism and individual poetic vocation, and for whom the sonnet is an essential form. Finally, in the third group of river poems, including Clare's earliest river poem, "To The Welland," he uses the river topos to sketch a new branch of literary history, that of laboring-class poets.

As a literary figure, rivers represent both division and continuity. In geography, the river often serves as a convenient boundary between counties or countries. While rivers separate regions from one another, they also symbolically unite a nation or culture and grant it an identity. Nearly every empire of antiquity, nearly every European nation, has a major river running through it, whether it be the Nile, the Tiber, the Seine, or the Thames. Rivers become synonymous with entire civilizations, in part because they are a natural resource that makes the development of those cultures possible, whether irrigation for agricultural or access for trade. As Wyman Herendeen has argued, the flow of the river from its source to the sea offers an analogy for a nation's history and its destiny. During the Renaissance, river iconography served the nation-building of writers such as Michael Drayton and William Camden. In early modern poetry, the celebration of symbolic marriages of rivers naturalized the often unnatural work of national unification and imperial assimilation. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.