Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Clare on Wordsworth

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Clare on Wordsworth

Article excerpt

Clare "would uniformly become animated when anybody spoke to him of Wordsworth," said De Qnincey, "--animated with the most hearty and almost rapturous spirit of admiration. As regarded his own poems, this admiration seemed to have an unhappy effect of depressing his confidence in himself. It is unfortunate, indeed, to gaze too closely upon models of colossal excellence" (Critical Heritage 246). De Quincey's judgment appeared in 1840; the following summer, Clare published a sonnet, "To Wordsworth," which shows a poet emboldened rather than "depressed" by his admiration:

   WORDSWORTH I love; his books are like the
      fields,
   Not filled with flowers, hut works of human
      kind;
   The pleasant weed a fragrant pleasure yields,
   The briar and broomwood shaken by the wind,
   The thorn and bramble o'er the water shoot
   A finer flower than gardens e'er gave birth,
   The aged huntsman grubbing up the root--
   I love them all as tenants of the earth:
   Where genius is, there often die the seeds;
   What critics throw away I love the more;
   I love to stoop and look among the weeds,
   To find a flower I never knew before:
   Wordsworth, go on--a greater poet be;
   Merit will live, though parties disagree!

As often in a Clare sonnet, an initial statement of feeling ("I love") is discharged through images which refine and embellish its character. If Clare begins with what looks like praise for Wordsworth as a poet of nature, he soon reveals a mot e complicated stance: Wordsworth's poems are "like the fields," Clare says, precisely because they are not filled with "flowers," but "works of human kind." Wordsworth, like Clare himself, knows "the fields" not to be a pastoral idyll. Still, it is "flowers" rather than humans that Clare turns to for the rest of the octave, as he builds towards another expression of "love"--this time for the plants he regards as "tenants of the earth." Timothy Webb suggests that these lines show Clare "concerned to discover in Wordsworth an alternative nature to the artificial one presented by gardens" (Webb 230), pointing out their allusions: "briar" and "broomwood," for instance, crop up in "The Waterfall and the Eglantine," which Clare acknowledged as a favourite; Wordsworth's "Beggars" describes "a weed of glorious feature" as "beautiful to see" (18); and "the aged huntsman" recalls "Simon Lee." (1) But Webb's reading conflicts with Clare's praise for Wordsworth's attention to "works of human kind"; it might be better to say that Clare embraces Wordsworth's extension of common feeling to the neglected human and botanical dwellers in "the fields." Yet the development of thought is hardly clear. An alternative interpretation (still at odds with Clare's celebration of Wordsworth's focus on the "human" as a badge of authenticity) is that Clare is not cataloguing favourite moments from Wordsworth's poems at all: John Ashbery ventures that the lines ought to be understood as a "half-comic lapse" in which "Clare seems momentarily to lose sight of his homage in order to get down in the grass, his favourite occupation, before righting himself' (Ashbery 13-14). Read in that way, the lines come over as a self-ironizing embodiment of the delight in nature for its own sake that distinguishes Clare's descriptive art from Wordsworth's more reflective practice.

Clare "rights himself' in the sestet through a reflection on the unhappy fate of "genius." Here the syntax, if still suggestively jumbled, is more controlled. The punctuation is likely the publisher's rather than Clare's, but it preserves an ambiguity dependent on the way the central two lines of the sentence hinge between rounding off the two that proceed them and inaugurating those that follow. Clare begins with a statement about wasted potential which both brandishes his critical independence in defending Wordsworth and reverberates with the pathos of Clare's own neglect. The next two lines, "I love to stoop and look among the weeds, / To find a flower I never knew before", might be taken as developing this thought ("critics might overlook them, but I love unearthing as-yet undiscovered poets")--though the accuracy of describing Wordsworth in 1841 as a dweller among the poetic "weeds" is dubious. …

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