Academic journal article John Clare Society Journal

John Clare's Library

Academic journal article John Clare Society Journal

John Clare's Library

Article excerpt

John Clare was one of those self-taught working people who performed prodigious feats of self-improvement; always, such feats begin with the discovery of reading. As David Vincent points out in his study of early nineteenth-century working-class autobiographies, Bread, Knowledge and Freedom, whenever and wherever it occurred, for all the working men and women who succumbed to the lure of the written word it was 'a secularized conversion experience which left no part of the readers' lives untouched'.1 From then on everything was different; in the words of one such autobiographer, William Lovett: 'my mind seemed to be awakened to a new mental existence; new feelings, hopes, and aspirations sprang up within me, and every spare moment was devoted to the acquisition of some kind of useful knowledge'.2

In John Clare's case his first contact with the world of print, as for so many men and women at that time, was through broadsides and chapbooks. The purchase of his first book is described by Clare in some detail:

I think I was 13 years of age now [...] this summer I met with a fragment of Thompsons Seasons a young man, by trade a weaver, much older then myself, then in the village, show'd it me I knew nothing of blank verse nor ryhme either otherwise than by the trash of Ballad Singers, but I still remember my sensations in reading the opening of Spring I cant say the reason, but the following lines made my heart twitter with joy:

Come gentle Spring ethereal mildness come

And from the bosom of yon dropping cloud,

While music wakes around, veild in a shower

Of shadowing roses, on our plains desend.

I greedily read over all I coud before I returnd it and resolvd to posses one my self, the price of it being only Is/6d [...] On the next Sunday I started to stamford to buy Thompson, for I teazd my father out of the ls/6d and woud not let him have any peace till he consented to give it me, but when I got there I was told by a young shop boy in the street who had a book in his hand which I found to be 'Collins Odes and poems' that the booksellers woud not open the shop on a Sunday this was a dissapointment most strongly felt and I returned home in very low spirits, but haveing to tend horses the next week in company with other boys I plannd a scheme in secret to obtain my wishes by stelth, giving one of the boys a penny to keep my horses in my absence, with an additional penny to keep the Secret I started off and as we was generally soon with getteing out our horses that they might fill themselves before the flyes was out I got to Stamford I dare say before a door had been opend and I loiterd about the town for hours ere I coud obtain my wishes I at length got it with an agreeable dissapointment in return for my first, buying it for 6d less then I had propos'd and never was I more pleasd with a bargain then I was with this shilling purchase On my return the Sun got up and it was a beautiful morning I coud not wait till I got back without reading it and as I did not like to let any body see me reading on the road of a working day I clumb over the wall into Burghly Park and nestled in a lawn at the wall side the Scenery around me was uncommonly beautiful at that time of the year and what with reading the book and beholding the beautys of artful nature in the park I got into a strain of descriptive ryhming on my journey home this was 'the morning walk' the first thing I commited to paper3

This was the beginning of a lifetime of reading and writing, of book collecting and publishing. I've quoted this at some length partly because it points up some of the difficulties facing a reader such as Clare. One is the simple practical difficulty of getting access to bookshops; when they were open he was at work, when he was free the shops were shut. Another difficulty was the price of books; Thomson's Seasons was eighty years old, and by that time available in cheap editions. William St Clair has pointed out that most readers at that period were limited to the literature of earlier times, either in such cheap editions or bought secondhand. …

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