John Clare: The Critical Heritage

By Mark Storey | Go to book overview

117.

Arthur Symons on Clare

1908

From the Introduction to Poems by John Clare, ed. Arthur Symons, 1908.

Arthur Symons (1865-1945) edited an extremely valuable selection of the poems; his Introduction puts the criticism of Clare on to a new footing (see Introduction, p. 18). Part of this Introduction was reprinted in his The Romantic Movement in English Poetry, 1909. Symons’s most notable book was The Symbolist Movement in Literature, 1899.

We are told in the introduction to a volume of poems by John Clare, published in 1820, ‘They are the genuine productions of a young peasant, a day-labourer in husbandry, who has had no advantages of education beyond others of his class; and though poets in this country have seldom been fortunate men, yet he is, perhaps, the least favoured by circumstances, and the most destitute of friends, of any that ever existed. ’ If the writer of the introduction had been able to look to the end of the career on whose outset he commented, he would have omitted the ‘perhaps’. The son of a pauper farm-labourer, John Clare wrote his earlier poems in the intervals of hard manual labour in the fields, and his later poems in lucid intervals in a madhouse, to which ill health, over-work, and drink had brought him. In a poem written before he was seventeen he had asked that he might

Find one hope true—to die at home at last,

and his last words, when he died in the madhouse, were, ‘I want to go home. ’ In another early poem he had prayed, seeing a tree in autumn, that, when his time came, the trunk might die with the leaves. Even so reasonable a prayer was not answered.

In Clare’s early work, which is more definitely the work of the peasant than perhaps any other peasant poetry, there is more reality than poetry.

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