Academic journal article John Clare Society Journal

Clare's Gypsies and Literary Influence

Academic journal article John Clare Society Journal

Clare's Gypsies and Literary Influence

Article excerpt

In an article on Clare and the gypsies which appeared in this journal in 1994, Claire Lamont usefully delineates Clare's autobiographical records of his acquaintance with and knowledge of this 'sooty crew'.1 She describes his attraction to their conviviality and music, his sympathy with their oppressed status, his expressed desire to join their group, and his reluctance in the final analysis to do so (a reluctance explicitly founded in the fact that he doesn't like their cooking, and doesn't fancy the hardships of a chilly life lived under the stars). Other critics, too, have been drawn to the relationship between Clare and the gypsies.2 Analyses have leant heavily on his prose accounts of his acquaintance, and it is a tendency of such considerations to see the gypsies as representatives of something Clare has lost or covets, or suffers (as markers of freedom, liminality or alienation). For Anne Janowitz, for instance, 'the Gypsy operates as a figure who, managing to live off the commons and waste in an age of enclosure, returns as a quasi-fantastical double to the English cottager.'3 Such identifications are tempting, if sometimes problematic.4 However, my own interest is founded in the fact that Clare's depictions of gypsies are part of a literary legacy, and this aspect of his representation of them has been less fully explored.5

In emphasising the role of literary precedent in Clare's depictions of gypsies, I do not wish to suggest that Clare was not familiar in a personal, first-hand way with gypsy life; this knowledge informs several of the poems in which gypsies catch the eye as features of his environment. 'Knowing' gypsies might, of course, itself be a consequence of communal discussion of them, as well as of a more direct acquaintance, but gypsies were certainly figures within immediate recognition as familiar parts of Clare's landscape. However, as I intend to demonstrate, Clare's 'knowledge' is gleaned from a range of sources and experiences, not merely from personal acquaintance. It is for this reason that this essay is entitled 'Clare's gypsies': the gypsies in Clare's poems are peculiarly 'his' because they are a blend of the real and the literary, the known and the known about icategories with distinctly permeable boundaries), and Clare's poetic imagination operates over this amalgam with a greater or lesser degree of control at various points in his career.

Beyond telling us something about Clare's representations of gypsies in the period, the following observations raise a wider point about the extent to which Clare's impressions of the world are similarly influenced by literature alongside experience, and contribute to the line of criticism which offers a caution to the tendency to treat Clare's writing as an uncomplicated historical resource. Philip Martin sounds a related warning, and he also illustrates his ideas with reference to Clare's gypsy poems. Martin addresses 'the difficulties that attend a [...] critical approach which claims for Clare an authenticity that grants him a special place.' He goes on: 'Clare's case [...] justly forces a reconsideration of authenticity [...] It is Clare's language of knowing, together with his self-authenticating rustic style, I propose, that textualizes authenticity, by a subtle figuration of the writer writing, or the rustic seeing.'6 I share Martin's unease at the too-ready granting of authenticity to Clare. However, my own particular interest lies in how the 'writing' and 'seeing' Martin invokes is informed by specifically literary influences; I disagree with his assertion that Clare's gypsy poems 'place the perceiving eye in a series of different position which variously situate the poet within, rather than above or beyond the scene'.7 I share instead Lamont's sense that Clare's depictions of gypsies tend rather to be marked by a sense of closeness with distance* and I contend that a major explanation for this 'distance' can be discovered through an analysis of the debt of Clare's gypsies to literary precedents. …

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