Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

Visions of Clare

Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

Visions of Clare

Article excerpt

Visions of Clare Jonathan Bate. John Clare: A Biography. Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2003. 608 pp. $35.00

"I Am": The Selected Poetry of John Clare. Edited by Jonathan Bate. Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2003. 256 pp. $14.00 (paper)

Sometimes a good experiment reveals things you would rather not know. For more than twenty years, following in the footsteps of I. A. Richards' pioneering Practical Criticism, I tried to find out how students actually read. A sheet of poems was distributed with the authors' names removed and archaic spellings modernized, along with instructions to comment in writing frankly, freely, and anonymously. To encourage serious attention, students had a week to look over the poems and to record how many times each one had been read. Most subjects of this experiment seemed to enjoy it. Since they did not need to worry about grading or public exposure, they could say what they really thought. Nor did they pull their punches.

Here is one poem that was regularly included:

I lost the love of heaven above,

I spurned the lust of earth below,

I felt the sweets of fancied love

And hell itself my only foe.

I lost earth's joys, but felt the glow

Of heaven's flame abound in me,

Till loveliness and I did grow

The bard of immortality.

I loved, but woman fell away;

I hid me from her faded fame.

I snatched the sun's eternal ray

And wrote till earth was but a name.

In every language upon earth,

On every shore, o'er every sea,

I gave my name immortal birth

And kept my spirit with the free.

("A Vision")

Among the hundreds of undergraduate and graduate students who commented on this poem, none ever recognized it as the work of John Clare. That says a good deal about the knowledge of English poetry in American schools. But more important, almost nobody ever liked it or thought it worth many rereadings. Few could resist sarcastic remarks about the author's claim of immortality-"Not even fifteen minutes!"-and with an air of superiority even those who were poetically challenged would point to the obvious rhymes, trite diction, poor logic, and clumsy sequence of thought. Could this be a competent, let alone famous poet?

When we discussed "A Vision" in class, I did not argue with them. Instead a few biographical facts were put on the table. Clare, a rural laborer and self-taught poet who had some early success but fell back into poverty and depression, wrote the poem while confined in the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum, which he often called "Hell." Separated from his family and from the village scenes that had always inspired him, he developed a style that relied on dreams and hallucinations far more than his earlier descriptions of nature. At the bottom of the manuscript, "A Vision" is dated "Augst 2nd 1844." Clare was 51. He would never go home again, and would die in the asylum twenty years later.

Somehow, in this new light, the poem began to look better. The deep sense of isolation, the yearning for freedom, and even the megalomania could hardly be shrugged off; evidently they were authentic. Nevertheless a shock spread through the class on those occasions when I read aloud the tributes of eminent critics such as Harold Bloom, who, in The Visionary Company, had called "A Vision" Clare's "most perfect poem," "a lucid moment of immortality," and "absolutely Blakean" (the visionary company of Blake was heavenly for Bloom, in 1961). For students, it was one thing to concede that these annoying verses might be a moving personal document. It was quite another to claim, as John Ashbery did in Other Traditions, that "A Vision" is sublime and "there is no doubt" that it ranks "among the greatest poems in English." Someone-doubtless the teacher-must be playing a dirty trick.

Perhaps so; one might argue that the experiment itself was at fault. As Richards' many critics have pointed out, poems are never read in a vacuum, and, by stripping away the name and date and circumstances of composition, a teacher who assigns anonymous poems guarantees that they will be read very badly. …

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