Imagine, if you will, that you are a young student enrolled in a private university in the United States of America. Yours was an essentially conservative, middle-class upbringing. You are earnest and intellectually ambitious to a degree. Good grades came easily. You graduated near the top of your secondary school and so excelled in English that you may harbour ambitions of becoming a writer yourself. What are you to make of the following three stanzas from John Clare's 'Don Juan'?
Children are fond of sucking sugar candy
& maids of sausages - larger the better
Shopmen are fond of good sigars & brandy
& I of blunt - & if you change the letter
To C or K it would be quite as handy
& throw the next away - but I'm your debtor
For modesty - yet wishing nought between us
I'd hawl close to a she as vulcan did to venus
I really cant tell what this poem will be
About - nor yet what trade I am to follow
I thought to buy old wigs - but that will kill me
With cold starvation - as they're beaten hollow
Long speeches in a famine will not fill me
& madhouse traps still take me by the collar
So old wig bargains now must be forgotten
The oil that dressed them fine has made them rotten
I wish old wigs were done with ere they're mouldy
I wish-but heres the papers large & lusty
With speeches that full fifty time they've told ye
-Noble Lord John to sweet Miss Fanny Fusty
Is wed-a lie good reader I ne'er sold ye
-Prince Albert goes to Germany & must he
Leave the queen's snuff box where all fools are strumming
From addled eggs no chickens can be coming'
One of the first things you might notice is how little this conforms to your experience of poetry - neither the rich, expressive vein of lyric worked by so many poets since Wordsworth, nor the glimmering shards of High-Modernist assemblages such as The Waste Land. Written while Clare was incarcerated at the High Beech asylum, 'Don Juan' is a fractious, allusive, topical, and decidedly promiscuous poem that presents numerous problems in the classroom.
There are what we might call its moral challenges. The vulgar sexual punning of 'Don Juan', its implications of genitalia and fellatio, and deep-seated misogyny form a hurdle for my mainly conservative Midwestern students. In addition to these moral provocations, which test our sensibilities more than our comprehension,'Don Juan' presents numerous cognitive challenges. What are we to make of its obsession with consumption? To what extent do we follow its vexing puns or its elastic metaphors? How readily do we sift and make sense of its abrupt shifts in tone, register, and topic? For some, the poem's thirty-four ottavarima stanzas seem less a cohesive utterance than a 'circuit for intensities'.2 Finally, there are the practical challenges. A thicket of political reference and allusion, 'Don Juan' is exceedingly topical. For undergraduates with little knowledge of the mid nineteenth-century political landscape - of Queen Victoria's marriage to Prince Albert; of Melbourne, Wellington, and Peel, Whigs and Tories, and the election of 1841; of Corn Laws (1815) which kept the price of grains at artificially inflated levels- of the Reform Act (1832) which extended the franchise and remapped political boroughs; of Enclosure (1801) and the Poor Law Amendment Act (1834) which exacerbated the sufferings of many agricultural laborers - the poem can be extremely frustrating.
You will not be surprised, then, to hear that almost invariably students come to class piqued. They are thoroughly convinced that 'Don Juan' is a bad poem, that Clare is a bad poet, and, I suspect, that I am a bad person for having made them read it. Although the intensity of their response short-circuits the kind of critical analysis I hope to foster, it also offers me a way in. …