Academic journal article John Clare Society Journal

Clare's Mutterings, Murmurings, and Ramblings: The Sounds of Health

Academic journal article John Clare Society Journal

Clare's Mutterings, Murmurings, and Ramblings: The Sounds of Health

Article excerpt

Clare is valued as a poet of direct communication. His poems are filled with Northamptonshire dialect that fosters an instantaneous connection to his local environment, creating an immediate sense of place through sound. Likewise, Clare's representations of natural sounds, such as the 'whewing' of the pewit, the 'swop' of the jay bird as it flies, and the 'chickering crickets', have a mimetic quality that creates a direct experience of what he hears.1 Seamus Heaney grouped Clare with what he called 'monoglot geniuses', meaning that he had a gift for conveying through poetry a 'univocal homeplace' that his readers could understand without necessarily belonging to that place themselves.2

However, this idea of Clare as a poet of such direct coherency is complicated by his madness or, specifically, by his repeated usage of a vocalisation which carries connotations of madness. This essay will consider the ways that Clare represents health and madness at the level of sound, by bringing them into relationship with a mode of speaking that recurs throughout his poetry and prose: his use of muttering. It will suggest that Clare's poetic investment in muttering and the sub-vocal register as both a personalised, therapeutic mode of self-address, and a way to foster a deep poetic relationship with his natural surroundings, comes to complicate his formal representation of health as a clear 'strong voice'.3 The essay will explore muttering as a mode of communication that creates an indeterminacy of sound, which was considered a signifier of insanity by both nineteenth-century nosologists and visitors who conversed with Clare in the asylum. It will then go on to show how Clare's own investment in muttering and other indeterminate vocal sounds resists such clear distinctions between health and madness, specifically through his formal organisation of sound. Through an engagement with Gilles Deleuze's theory of 'stuttered' language, which argues that literary form can enable us to hear verbal idiosyncrasies rather than cover them up, the essay will consider how Clare's use of indeterminate rhythms and syllables brings health and madness together in the same poetic voice.

In 'Crazy Jane' (1808-19) and 'To Health' (1808-19), madness and health are both represented as a voice speaking to Clare from the natural world, but appear to require two different ways of listening.4 The voice in 'Crazy Jane' eludes recognition, confusing the listener yet, through its incoherent quality, demanding an acute attention in order that the listener can 'discern' from who and whence it comes. In 'To Health', the listener is greeted by a clear, 'strong voice' that is comprehended instantly. These two ways of listening-one that searchingly tries to interpret sound, the other instantly assured of what it hears-are fostered in the way Clare organises sound formally in each of these poems. In 'Crazy Jane' there is no narrative of how or why Jane went 'crazy', nor any descriptions of mad behaviour, but instead a moment of intense listening:

Hark what shrill mournful strains

Sounds from yon lonely plains

Where the low-bending willow

Drips thro the mimic billow

Rais'd by the adverse winds that curl the stream

How mournfully and plain

Their dying langour on the breezes seem

Say from what throat

Or is this note?

The song of Crazy Jane! -

Ye swains from whence and where?

Comes this sad grief so drear?

It must be,-(O' so grieveing)

Some loss thats past reprieving

Or hope forlorn that never will return

-They'r dumb; -Enquirey's vain

Then lead me on ye sounds and let's descern

And further know

If all this woe

Come's from poor Crazy Jane.5

The 'Crazy Jane' of this poem exists not as a fully realised character, but as a sonic presence, emitting sounds and notes that resonate in the natural world. Consequently, madness is presented as something that can be 'discerned' by listening for it and being attentive to its sounds. …

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