Academic journal article John Clare Society Journal

John Clare and the Paper Chase

Academic journal article John Clare Society Journal

John Clare and the Paper Chase

Article excerpt

President's Address to the John Clare Society, 12 July 2008

John Clare Primary School, Helpston

It might well have all begun with paper. Lots of fine new paper on which to write. A whole bookful of it. A leather-bound book waiting for words. His publishers had sent it to him, presumably in late summer else, had it arrived at the normal diary time, it would have been half-filled by now. It was a journal without dates, the fifth edition of Taylor and Hessey;s Student's Journal which they had been issuing for some years. Clare was thrilled with its emptiness, its marbled boards, its timelessness. Inside a note said that it was arranged, printed and ruled for receiving an account of every day's employment for the space of one year. The year John Clare wrote in it was 1824, the month September. Also inside, and to be expected, was a resolution quoted from Mr Gibbons7 Journal:

I propose from this day (January 1st) to keep an exact Journal of my Actions and Studies, both to assist my Memory, and to accustom me to set a due value on my Time.

Many years before a friend had sent Gilbert White a similar journal and we know what happened to it. When Taylor and Hessey's present arrived the poet wrote 'John Clare / Helpstone / 1824' on the title-page. The entries, with many omissions, would run from Monday 6 September 1824 to 11 September 1825. His resolution was a rural version of Gibbons':

I have determind this day of beginning a sort of journal to give my opinion of things I may read or see & set down any thoughts that may arise either in my reading at home or my musings in the Fields

He could have added a record of his state of health and his garden notes, for each of these subjects crop up over and over again. Clare's Journal will be the chief source of course for what happens in his cottage garden. He was an avid receiver of plants and seeds; cultivated and wild, with a passion for garden-writing.

But to begin at the beginning, which was more than halfway through the year, 1824 was a time of scarcely believable output. A stream of some of his finest poems, hundreds of letters, essays, starts on stories, an autobiography and the wearing business of his Shepherd's Calendar. And this anxiety about paper. Few great writers have been so deprived of this basic material or been so forced to worry about it. Lord Radstock and Mrs Emmerson sent him books and even a waistcoat, but never a ream of paper.

Paper on which to write would be a consideration where poor people were concerned right up until the Second World War. It was rationed in elementary schools. To blot your copy-book was a crime in itself. An army of clerks so revered paper that the ledgers of banks and offices are miracles of penmanship. Classroom inkwells and spluttering nibs were terrifying in case the paper was 'spoilt7. Pencils were a relief but jobs had to be applied for 'in ink7. John Clare sometimes wrote in his copybook hand, and sometimes in such a rough hand that it was near-indecipherable to his modern editors. And of course often on any old paper, crowding the borders and across the creases. Good and bad hands alternate in the Journal and there is this constant happy awareness of space, of the fresh page, of the feel of paper. On the paper all is not well. Clare's alternating joys and despairs pass across it in immediate confessions, like clouds and brightness crossing a firm sky. The paper belongs to a Student's Journal and it has to hold so much mature thought and experience.

Whilst filling it, richly, haphazardly, Clare was waiting for Taylor and Hessey's dragged out decision on the Shepherd's Calendar, and was in a sense filling in time. Unbeknown to him they were breaking up and going their own ways. When at long last they sent him proofs his poem was so full of cuts and changes as to be hardly recognisable. If you want to read what Clare wrote and what John Taylor finally published you get a copy of Tim Chilcott's excellent Carcanet edition in which the original text and its altered words stare warily across at each other from opposite pages. …

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