Academic journal article John Clare Society Journal

Exemplary Figures in Clare's Descriptive Poems

Academic journal article John Clare Society Journal

Exemplary Figures in Clare's Descriptive Poems

Article excerpt

The persons, animals, and birds who populate Clare's descriptive poems occupy a curious space relative to the categories 'the one' and 'the many'. They are usually singular-the milkmaid, the hare, the nightingale-and yet they are not individuals. Clare particularizes along the axes dividing one group from another, carefully differentiating the nesting habits of the nightingale, say, from those of the thrush or the moorhen. But he seldom particularizes within groups, telling us about this chickadee as opposed to that one, this ploughman rather than another. Instead, each 'one' embodies essential characteristics of the group to which it belongs; it stands in faithfully for 'the many'. What's more, Clare's persons, animals, and birds engage in activities that reveal the essence of the place and time in which they occur. The behavior of the robin and the thresher distinguishes the farmyard from the field and defines the last hour of work and the coldest part of winter. In all these ways, Clare's creatures are exemplary. They reveal what is most distinctive about their groups, the places where they live and act, and the rhythms of the day and year.

In this brief, meditative essay, I examine these exemplary figures, testing the scope and limits of their peculiar mix of particularity and typicality. I argue that the idea of exemplarity provided Clare with one of the crucial governing principles of his descriptive practice. It offered a vital, often unstated justification for the existence of poems that simply record without commentary the goings-on of village and fen: these are the kinds of things these people and creatures do at these times and places, these activities together make up the lived reality of seasonal and diurnal time and embodied space. Indeed, Clare's descriptive poems bring into new clarity not only the sorts of things that happened in and around Helpston and Northborough in spring or summer, at morning or mid-day, but also lyric poetry's enduring fascination with the only apparently trivial activities of daily life.

Clare's appeals to exemplarity, though seldom discussed as such, bear on several vital issues in the critical reception of his works. Most importantly, such appeals enabled Clare and his publisher John Taylor to strike a balance-to maintain 'a significant literary tension',1 as Tim Chilcott puts it-between inclusivity and selectivity, between Clare's 'wish to make [...] a complete Record of Country Affairs' and Taylor's preference for 'a Selection of the Circumstances that will best tell in Poetry'.2 The logic of exemplarity provided a rationale both for including a lot, and for keeping some details out. How well Clare succeeded in managing this tension, poem by poem and in general, has been a key criterion in most readers' judgments of his verse; praise of his inclusivity and his handling of form alike has tended to imply an approving recognition of the exemplary force of his images. Similarly, appeals to exemplarity helped Clare to avoid generalizing, moralizing, or elevating himself in other ways above his subject matter, a feature of his verse that has fascinated critics from the start. The idea that 'his descriptions clearly exist for their own sake' has been a leitmotif in Clare's reception,3 but we have tended to take for granted the ways in which the logic of the example enabled him to resist 'the landscape aesthetics of his time'.4

Critics who focus on Clare's language and on his relationship to botany have paid close attention to his exemplary figures. Such critics credit his frequent use of definite noun phrases with forging intimacy between the speaker and the reader, who seems already to know 'the cat' or 'the owl' in question,5 and with underscoring that his poems are 'distillations from memories of a pattern of cherished experiences' rather than records of individual events.6 According to Kelsey Thornton, 'all his descriptions are based on an understanding of the eternal within the temporal, of what happens again and again even if we only see it once'. …

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