Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Representing Rural Leisure: John Clare and the Politics of Popular Culture

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Representing Rural Leisure: John Clare and the Politics of Popular Culture

Article excerpt

WHILE HAROLD BLOOM FAMOUSLY LABELED THE AGRICULTURAL LABORER and poet John Clare a "Wordsworthian shadow," most critics have challenged the notion of Clare's derivativeness, arguing that his poems offer a new way of representing nature. (1) For Clare, natural objects are meaningful in themselves and as part of a specific local context, not because they can be "recuperate[d] ... into the aesthetic construction of the self." (2) However, Clare's unique representations of rural leisure have received substantially less attention, even though they offer a new way of understanding leisure as popular culture: the cultural expression of leisure's social and political meanings for the common people. (3) In "The Village Minstrel" (1821), Clare reworks two influential representations of rural leisure, the georgic poem and the popular antiquarian miscellany. Georgic was "the dominant mode of poetry in the mid-eighteenth century," (4) and the form of "The Village Minstrel" is modeled on georgic calendar poems, particularly James Thomson's The Seasons and Robert Bloomfield's The Farmer's Boy; it takes the form of a rural year and presents significant communal events associated with each season, such as May Day, the harvest home, and the village feast. But despite the formal similarities, Clare's poem is a carnivalesque revision of georgic, georgic turned upside-down. In georgic, the laborer's life consists of difficult work occasionally interrupted by brief periods of leisure; Clare gives us a mirror image of this narrative, in which labor is merely a momentary interruption of leisure pursuits. And while georgic poems represent labor and leisure as expressions of a harmonious rural society with vertical bonds between members of different classes, Clare shows the reader that leisure (including ballads, stories, and customs) builds community horizontally between members of the same class, offering an escape from paternalistic surveillance, and providing what Raymond Williams calls "a breathing-space, a fortunate distance, from the immediate and visible controls" of an unequal social system. (5) Customs are not merely entertainment, but an expression of the laborers' customary rights, unwritten rules that limit the master's power and grant the laborers standing in the social body.

As the popularity of georgic waned in the late eighteenth century, popular antiquarianism, or "the study of British national culture," (6) focused readers' attention on the leisure, rather than the labor, of the common people. Popular antiquarianism became, in the words of its foremost practitioner John Brand, "a general and fashionable study," emerging, as Peter Burke argues in Popular Culture in Early Modem Europe, as "traditional popular culture was just beginning to disappear." (7) As antiquarians amassed the raw materials of British history by cataloguing statues, castles, and other material remains of the past, so popular antiquarians collected and preserved ballads, dialect words, superstitions, customs, and sports. Clare's publisher, John Taylor, de-emphasized the poem's relationship to its georgic models, rejecting "The Peasant Boy" as "a tame Title, too like the Farmer's Boy," and substituting "The Village Minstrel." (8) Hoping to exploit the fashion for rural customs, he highlighted the poem's popular antiquarian aspects; his introduction featured five pages of Clare's lengthy prose descriptions of customs. However, when Clare "collects" a ballad on a local subject (a skirmish at Woodcroft Castle during the English Civil War) by incorporating it into the poem, he treats it neither as artifact nor as picturesque curiosity, but as popular culture. Clare uses his ballad to make a political point; the enclosure of common land violates the customary rights that protect laborers from exploitation by the wealthy and powerful. Clare symbolically represents this loss of rights through the loss of leisure; stripped of its political and social meanings, popular culture ceases to be a lived experience, surviving only in the laborers' memories. …

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