John Clare: The Critical Heritage

By Mark Storey | Go to book overview

124.

H. J. Massingham on Clare’s uniqueness

1921

From a review of Poems, Chiefly from Manuscript, Athenaeum, 7 January 1921, no. 4732, 9-10.

Harold J. Massingham (1888-1952) was the son of Henry W. Massingham (1860-1924), editor of the Nation, 1907-23. Massingham takes a surprisingly forceful line on Clare.

The criticism of a poet who, like some sleeping seed planted by pious hands, first germinates in our own generation, is a knotty privilege….

There are over 140 chosen poems in the book, and the first question to be asked of so ample and orderly a landscape is its topography. How does Clare fit into the map of his own poetic period? It is perfectly clear that he is on a divergent tack of poetic evolution from the Romantic Revivalists, proper or improper. There are bits out of the Preface to the ‘Lyrical Ballads’ which might be modelled into one for himself, but, granted a fragment or two, Clare and the Lake Poets part company. In the whole of this volume there are only four lines which suggest that Clare had ever read a line of Wordsworth’s—from ‘The Fallen Elm’:


Thou owned a language by which hearts are stirred
Deeper than by a feeling clothed in word,
And speakest now what’s known of every tongue,
Language of pity and the force of wrong.

In the same poem there is an angry reference to the enclosures, the only clear political impression (the sonnet to Buonaparte is a stiff and impersonal exercise) in the book. It cannot be too strongly stated that Clare is a poet of the spirit—a transparent spirit through which things filtered—and not of the mind; that his attitude to nature is less conscious, less formulated, less burdened (or elevated) by human or abstract preoccupations than any other poet’s in the language. Clare’s men and women and children are part of the landscape—they grow and shine like flowers

-325-

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