John Clare's Sonnets and the Northborough Fens

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It is a common critical perception that following John Clare's flit to the village of Northborough in the spring of 1832 he responded to the countryside in a new way. The argument that his sense of identity and belonging was unsettled by the move and that this is reflected in the poetry of the Northborough period has been repeated in different ways by several critics. John Barr ell's view is still influential: 'At about the time of his removal to Northborough Clare wrote three remarkable poems, which between them reflect the ambiguous feelings towards the move that are expressed in the letters to Taylor, and also suggest the way in which Clare's poetry was to change during the next few years at Northborough.'1 These 'remarkable' poems were 'The Flitting' and 'Decay', both of which were published in The Rural Muse (1835), and 'Remembrances' (written in 1832), and it is still a default position for many that they are the key to Clare's poetic response to Northborough. For Tim Chilcott, the 'accents sounded now strike a more urgent and insistent note, modulating into a sustained tenor of regret for the passing away of youth and joy [...] the poems are no less than litanies for the restoration of lost time.'2 Jonathan Bate's account of the move in his biography focuses on these three poems although he does suggest that 'To the Snipe' iwritten in 1832) represents Clare's attempt to 'embed himself in his new environment.'3 Paul Chirico's recent study implies that Clare's ability to respond to nature was adversely affected by his new environment. It focuses on poems written before 1832, but introduces a brief discussion of 'Decay' in the context of the move to Northborough. Chirico demonstrates that the manner of representation in 'Decay' is complex, but the reader is still left with the impression that the move provoked a transformation in Clare's response to the natural world: 'The demise of poetry here seems to relate more to the fading of "fancys visions" [Middle Period iIV), p. 114, 1. 2) than of nature itself, but the later references to the poet's belief that the flowers of his youth were "from Adams open gardens" [Middle Period (IV), 1. 66) suggests a Fall from ideal beauty.'4

'The Flitting', 'Decay' and 'Remembrances' all apparently bemoan the fact that the countryside around Northborough was not like Helpstone, but Clare did not imagine this difference.5 He explains it in a letter to John Taylor: 'there is neither wood nor heath furzebush molehill or oak tree about it' [Letters, p. 561). The countryside around Clare's birthplace consisted of hilly pastureland and woodland to the south west with flatter arable land to the north east. The area around Northborough (particularly to the north and east) was made up of flat and featureless fenland.6 There is much in these poems that supports the idea that Clare experienced a new sense of alienation from his immediate natural surroundings. But his feelings were grounded in the physical realities of Northborough. In other words while the alienation might have been real and profound, it should not automatically be linked to the simple fact of his having moved, but rather to his complex engagement with a new and very different place. It is also important to bear in mind that, as the editors of Northborough Sonnets point out, these three poems are 'crucial but probably uncharacteristic poems of [even the early] Northborough period'.7 As Bridget Keegan has demonstrated, Clare always admired the fens.8 But as she also acknowledges, it is in the short sonnet-like poems written at Northborough that he really comes to terms with the essence of the place.9 The editors of Northborough Sonnets rightly note that Clare's 'preference for shorter poetic forms' ip. ix) increased after the move to Northborough. He was at work on several sequences of his shorter sonnet-like poems, which in this essay will be called sonnets for convenience, at about the same time that he wrote 'The Flitting', Remembrances' and 'Decay'. …