Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Figuring John Clare: Romanticism, Editing, and the Possibility of Justice

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Figuring John Clare: Romanticism, Editing, and the Possibility of Justice

Article excerpt

SINCE JOHN TAYLOR'S FIRST EDITION OF JOHN CLARE'S POEMS DESCRIPTIVE of Rural Life and Scenery (1820), the question of how to present Clare's poetry has obsessed scholars and critics. Over the years, they have struggled with questions like: Should Clare be considered a romantic poet, or does this categorization lead us only to "colonize" Clare rather than to recognize him as the misfit that he appeared during his infrequent trips to London? Should we read Clare's asylum poetry--including poems that he wrote in Lord Byron's name--as continuous with his early poetry or rather as the "poetry of madness," whether an aberration or a lens through which Clare's complete works can retrospectively be understood? (1) Yet, it is the question of editorial presentation, specifically, whether Clare's language, spelling, and punctuation should be "normalized" or published as it appeared in manuscript (or as close to that appearance as possible), that has attracted the most intense and ongoing attention.

Clare's first editor, John Taylor (also Keats's publisher), was a great supporter of Clare while well aware of the difficulty of finding a significant audience for the poetry. Taylor was responsible for publishing the Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery, yet there is little agreement on the merits of Taylor's editorial role. Tim Chilcott suggests that from at least 1821, Clare "began to rely increasingly on Taylor to transform rambling and untidy manuscripts into poetry ready for publication." (2) The result, in the words of another editor, Arthur Symons, is that "it is difficult to know how much of the early poems were tinkered for publication by the too fastidious publisher Mr. Taylor." (3)

In their 1963 essay on "John Taylor's Editing of Clare's The Shepherd's Calendar," Eric Robinson and Geoffrey Summerfield follow this line of inquiry and aim to expose "the nature and extent of Taylor's 'slashing' of The Shepherd's Calendar" (the word "slashing" is, as they acknowledge, Taylor's own). They go on to argue that even "when all appropriate allowances have been made, Taylor cannot be judged a consistently reliable editor." (4) Jonathan Bate points out that Taylor did precisely too much "tidying" and leaves Clare's poems not cleaned up, but positively "botched." (5) It is this tidying up that led Robinson and his co-editors to undertake the massive project of producing a nine-volume collected Clare for Oxford, a collection of poetry and prose that aims to present Clare's manuscripts "intact."

Robinson goes so far as to call Taylor "careless, dilatory, bullying" and insists that "it must be appreciated that Taylor was not simply thing to transcribe Clare's manuscripts, a difficult task in itself, but also to alter Clare's vocabulary, grammar, spelling, punctuation, and sometimes sentiments." (6) In undertaking to correct Taylor's excesses, which Robinson figures as intentionally malicious, the Oxford volume intends a restoration and transcription (rather than what we might call a translation) of Clare's original manuscripts. (7) As a result, the volume maintains the obscure, and sometimes simply mistaken, spelling and grammar found in Clare's manuscripts, reproduces Clare's alternatively minimal, excessive, or incorrect punctuation, and tries to recover poems that have been erased, written over and muddled. (8) Bate, while sympathetic, to the aspirations of this project, also calls this process not editing, but "unediting," and he compares it with "the restoration of an over-varnished canvas to its original colours." (9) He acknowledges that the effect of such restoration is that "Clare's language was revealed in all its freshness and immediacy," but also worries that the confusion spawned by poor punctuation and misspellings also can interfere with the ease--and even immediacy--of the poems. (10)

In the introduction to his 1873 volume of Clare's life and works, J. L. Cherry explains: "of those [poems, selected from the manuscripts of over 500] which are printed, scarcely one was found in a state in which it could be submitted to the public without more or less of revision and correction. …

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.