Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Listening with John Clare

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Listening with John Clare

Article excerpt

"SPRING IS THE POETS LUSCIOUS PRIME[,]" WRITES JOHN CLARE; "HE revels in the noise / ... & all the gushing soul of sound[.]" (1) Clare's career as a poet began in eager listening; before he was a pupil of James Thomson and William Cowper, he tells us, he was a student of nature's music. (2) "I love the wizard noise" of the wind in the "stirring leaves," he writes, "& rave in turn / Half vacant thought in self imagined rhymes[.]" (3) "I love thy lonely plaintive note / & tiney whispering song to hear[,]" he tells "The Autumn Robin," wishing his "notes [could] win aught from thine / My words but imitate thy lay[.]" (4) Though it is Clare's sharp, discerning vision that has garnered the lion's share of critical attention, his sense of hearing is equally fundamental to the themes and techniques of his descriptive works. Again and again, readers are invited not only to see the world through his eyes but also to listen to it with his ears--and with their own. As I wish to demonstrate here, Clare's interest in sound pertains to the sound of his poems as well as to the sounds he describes in them. He recognizes that the relation between these two layers of poetic sound may be oblique, but he would like it to be direct and intimate. In his middle period poems, an experimental posture toward language enables him to explore how imagery, syntax, and focalization can structure a reader's sympathetic identification with a speaker who is actively listening. This posture also leads him to attempt in various ways, most radically through his use of onomatopoeia, to merge into a single utterance the sounds of poetic language and the sounds it seeks to portray. The voice that emerges in the poems Clare composed from about 1822 to 1837, long heralded as the marker of his mature style, comes to him as the reward for his humbling struggle with the inspiration provided by nature's music and the difficulty of rendering his experience of it in poetic language. In Clare's poetry we find a sustained yet almost entirely unappreciated exploration of the relation between sound and poetry.

Clare's poems, to a degree that has sometimes led critics to underestimate his sophistication as a craftsman of language, insist on their origin in real acts of perception at particular times and places. Immediacy, specificity, and a "sense of place" are everywhere enunciated in his work and widely appreciated by his readers. (5) John Hollander's warning against mistaking Romantic "poetic conventions for the handling of sound form" for "records of actual attentive listening" would seem not to apply to Clare. (6) Yet far from representing "a spontaneous overflow of an unmediated vision of nature[,]" (7) his poems demonstrate how language mediates between a perceiving, feeling subject; the natural world; and the sensations and emotions cultivated by and in poetry--indeed, this mediation is one of Clare's central themes. Reading poetry helped Clare become a more "expert reader of the book of nature," as Richard Cronin writes, even as it "complicate[d] his relationship with ... the natural world" by introducing a new mediating layer between himself and his surroundings. (8) In the poem "Shadows of Taste" (written 1830), Clare describes how "the low herd mere savages ... / With nought of feeling or of taste imbued / Pass over sweetest scenes a car[e]less eye[,]" whereas for readers of poetry the natural world appears more beautiful and richly meaningful: "In poesys spells ... nature oer the soul her beauty flings[,]" rendering "all the sweets & essences of things ... In poesys vision more refined and fair." (9) Similarly, "Natural History Letter III" (written 1824-26) asserts that, unlike "the clown" who "knows [flowers] are flowers & just turns an eye on them & plods bye[,]" the "man of taste" understands that "to look on nature with a poetic eye magnifys the pleasure[,] she herself being the very essence & soul of Poesy[.]" When the man who has read and enjoyed poetry sees a daisy or a buttercup, he "mutters in his mind some favourite lines from Wordsworth . …

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