Academic journal article John Clare Society Journal

Melodies in the Marketplace: John Clare's 100 Songs

Academic journal article John Clare Society Journal

Melodies in the Marketplace: John Clare's 100 Songs

Article excerpt

In the period following the 1820 publication of Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery, John Clare embarked on perhaps his most ambitious writing project to date, producing nearly a hundred songs in a matter of months. Although a number of these pieces were to find their way into his second collection, The Village Minstrel, and a few more were printed in the London Magazine, the vast majority went unpublished until Clare's recovery got fully underway late last century.1

Like his other unrealised schemes, including his biography of Robert Bloomfleld and his essays 'upon common every day matters & things of life'; like his play, his novel, and his 'Natural History of Helpstone', the songs indicate the great range of Clare's literary ambitions.2 Here was a man far from willing to be pigeon-holed as 'The Northamptonshire Peasant Poet', a professional writer well aware of the need to negotiate a fickle literary marketplace.

Clare's own efforts at 'self-fashioning', his attempts to capitalise on the market for figures from labouring-class backgrounds, have been the subject of a number of recent essays; and his move into song-writing so soon after his initial success might remind us of the furrow cut some years earlier by the 'Ayrshire Ploughman'.3 Yet it was Thomas Moore, at least as much as Robert Burns, who seems to have provided a model for Clare's projected book of songs; Moore, lest we forget, received the equivalent of £500 a year for his bestselling Irish Melodies (1808-34).4

Possibly because Clare's early poems in general have been seen as less 'authentic' than his later writing (too indebted to eighteenthcentury poets and poetics), or because attention has focused on his attempt to write longer or supposedly more 'sophisticated' types of poetry like the title-piece to The Village Minstrel, these songs have been largely ignored by critics.5 Jonathan Bate, who discusses them (albeit briefly) in his recent biography, is typical, arguing that songs 'were a pleasant diversion. What Clare really wanted at this time was to develop his narrative art'.6

While it is true that this period saw Clare gradually refine his storytelling, (a process which reached its peak in the 'Village Stories' included in The Shepherd's Calendar), his song-writing also grew increasingly assured, demonstrating a sometimes remarkable lyrical depth. Moreover, both the songs and narrative poems can be related to Clare's desire to draw productively on the popular culture of his youth, and in so doing bridge the divide between the local and the literary. Bridget Keegan has demonstrated how 'The Village Minstrel' itself can be read as a text in which Clare attempts to re-open the possibility of a more productive relationship to popular tradition, but one might argue that this is true of the bulk of Clare's writing from this time.7

A crucial meeting point for these interests was Thomas Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, given to Clare by Edward Drury in the summer of 1820; and it was Drury (cleverly, but slightly unfairly, dubbed 'Fast Eddie Drury' by Roger Sales), who did most to encourage Clare to write songs.8

The earliest explicit mention of the songs by Clare occurs in an undated reply to a letter of 6 May 1820. This had been from Chauncey Hare Townsend, who Clare informed: 'I am now employd in writing songs for a musicseller in Town If I succeed it may perhaps be to my advancment If I dont there is not much risk to run-so I am earless as to them matters'.9

A letter sent by Drury to Clare only three days after Townsend's suggests that the project was in fact already well under way. Drury comments at length on song-writing, mentioning several of Clare's songs, and offering a good deal of advice and encouragement.10 It begins:

Dear Clare,

Pray do not be discouraged. The pieces you have sent me are a very great addition to the Garland I have collected from your MSS. I shall (as usual) give my opinion on your productions, and perhaps you can glean an idea or two from my remarks. …

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