Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Keeping Nature at Bay: John Clare's Poetry of Wonder

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Keeping Nature at Bay: John Clare's Poetry of Wonder

Article excerpt

THE PREOCCUPATION, AMONG ROMANTIC POETS, WITH THE IDEA OF place, along with a belief in the genius loci and the notion of achieving a heightened sensibility towards nature, have been important topics in Romanticism--especially in studies of Wordsworth, whose Prelude remains a classic example of how a poet's relation to and knowledge of the natural world can influence his creative work. No poet more than John Clare suggests the kind of extreme attentiveness towards nature that might be construed as characterizing the term sensibility in its Romantic (and pre-Romantic) sense. Perhaps this is why most twentieth-century critical accounts of Clare--most notably Harold Bloom's, but more recently eco-critical accounts, too--have placed this lesser-known Romantic poet among the "visionary company" of his more famous contemporaries for having a similar kind of poetics when it comes to writing about nature. (1)

But such a comparison is apt only when one reads Clare's most typically "Romantic" or "Wordsworthian" verses, such as the frequently anthologized poem "I Am," to the exclusion of his more than a thousand others (he was an exceedingly prolific poet). Contrary to much of what is written about them, Clare's best poems--his hundreds of short pieces about birds and other farm-side animals and their habitats--often leave the reader questioning how this poet actually relates to the objects he describes. It is precisely Clare's mode of vision (and by this phrase I mean the way that the poet literally sees his environment) that distinguishes him from many of his contemporaries, who more readily pursue a deep and spiritual knowledge of the world around them. Unlike Keats in "Ode to a Nightingale," or Shelley in "Mont Blanc," or Wordsworth in his account of climbing Snowdon at the end of The Prelude, Clare hesitates to seek communion with the natural world, despite his obvious passion for its animals and scenes. Instead, Clare maintains a distance between himself and nature, usually by imbuing his natural descriptions with a sense of wonder rather than claiming any intimate or specialized knowledge of them. (2)

Consider, for instance, the small ways that Clare separates himself from the scene of the following poem about a flock of sheep in wintertime:

   The sheep get up and make their many tracks
   & bear a load of snow upon their backs
   & gnaw the frozen turnip to the ground
   With sharp quick bite & then go noising round
   The boy that pecks the turnips all the day
   & knocks his hands to keep the cold away
   & laps his legs in straw to keep them warm
   & hides behind the hedges from the storm
   The sheep as tame as dogs go where he goes
   & try to shake their fleeces from the snows
   Then leave their frozen meal and wander round
   The stubble stack that stands behind the ground
   & lye all night and face the drizzling storm
   & shun the hovel where they might be warm (3)

In his attentiveness to the actions, the hunger, and the cold of the sheep, Clare shifts the perspective of his poem away from the speaker and towards the animals themselves. Many of the verbs he uses to describe the flock's movements are strong and memorable--"bear," "gnaw," "bite" "noise," "face," and "shun"--and these words focus the poem on the sheep rather than on the speaker, who is notably absent unless we read "the boy" as a version of him. The double use of the rhymed pairs "ground/round" and "warm/storm," with their chiastic word order (Clare reverses the rhymes in their second appearance), helps reinforce the perpetuity of the cold. In a clever enjambment that subjugates the turnip boy into the grammatical object of the preposition "round" rather than as a subject of his own verb, Clare makes sure to bury his four lines about the human experience of cold in the middle of a landscape (and a sonnet) composed primarily of sheep. They "go noising round / The boy," he writes, developing an undercurrent of sheep-song ("noising") from what was presumably a visual cue (the image of sheep "nosing" through a field)--and the sheep's song muffles his own. …

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