Academic journal article John Clare Society Journal

'To List the Song & Not to Start the Thrush': John Clare's Acoustic Ecologies

Academic journal article John Clare Society Journal

'To List the Song & Not to Start the Thrush': John Clare's Acoustic Ecologies

Article excerpt

One of the particular pleasures of John Clare's Journal, which he kept for just over a year from September 1824, is the sheer number of sounds it records. From the hunting dogs 'rustling in the crackling stubbs7 to the 'little dickering Songs7 of the 'harvest Cricket and shrew mouse7, Clare was alive to the tiniest variations in sound.1 This 'aural precision7, as Tim Chilcott has called it, is also a significant feature of his poetry, which sees him distinguish the nuances between such phenomena as the 'wherying7 of ducks and the 'wewing7 of starlings; the 'whirl7 of pewits and the 'wizzing7 of stock doves.2 As the Journal and poetry further demonstrate, Clare was an unusually well-read and literate man, and his presentation of sounds was informed not simply by observation, but by his thorough knowledge of literature and the language of natural description. In a Journal entry for 27 January 1825, for instance, he noted that he 'heard the buzz of the black beetle or cockchaffer that flyes about in the autumn evening and early in spring7; adding that: 'it is different to the brown or summer beetle which is described by Collins7 and 'is not so common7.3 The Journal reveals Clare to have been constantly on the lookout for fresh and accurate descriptions of nature in his reading, a fact also supported by his sadly incomplete 'Natural History of Helpstone7.4 In the third of his projected 'Natural History Letters7 he set out a 'list of favourite Poems & Poets who went to nature for their images7:

Chaucer is one - Passages in Spencer - Cowleys grasshopper &. Swallow - Passages in Shakspear - Mutons Allegro &. Penseroso & Parts of Comus - the Elizabethian Poets of glorious memory - Gays Shepherds week - Greens Spleen - Thompsons Seasons - Collins Ode to Evening - Dyers Grongar hill & Fleece - Shenstones Schoolmistress - Greys Ode to Spring - T. Warton's April Summer Hamlet &. Ode to a friend - Cowpers Task - Wordsworth - Logans Ode to the Cuckoo - Langhorns Fables of Flora - Jagos Blackbirds - Bloornnelds Witchwood Forest Shooters hill &c - with Hurdis's Evening Walk in the village Curate & many others that may have slipt my memory5

This list not only reveals the extent of Clare's engagement with English poetry; but also exemplifies his determination to forge his own literary identity; one which; while it strived to overcome the limitations placed on labouring-class writers; retained the peasant poets' right to privilege descriptive and local subject matter.6 That it met with only mixed success; can be judged from the comparative commercial and critical failure of his last published volumes; as well as his posthumous neglect; yet his peculiar fusion of polite and plebeian forms has come to seem increasingly vital.

Clare's aspiration to place his poetry within a particular tradition of writing about the landscape was matched by his commitment to invoking a specific rural locality: the area in and around Helpston; a small village in north-east Northamptonshire On the brink of the Lincolnshire fens'.7 As Hugh Haughton and Adam Phillips have pointed out, poetry for Clare was 'a form of knowledge - a place where his absolutely particular, but also historically and socially representative, knowledge of place might finally be acknowledged'.8 The relationship between what Clare knew about the places he described and the manner in which he described them is a major theme of John Barrell's pioneering study, The Idea of Landscape and the Sense of Place, the book which to all intents and purposes inaugurated modern critical work on Clare.9 In it, Barrell contrasts the Picturesque practice of looking at a landscape from an elevated viewpoint outside the scene depicted with Clare's habits of description. Clare, he asserts, does not 'detach himself from the landscape' in the manner of most descriptive poets, but attempts rather 'to suggest what it is like to be in each place'.10 Though it is not addressed by Barrell, this concept of space is inherently acoustic. …

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