John Clare: The Critical Heritage

By Mark Storey | Go to book overview

142.

Clare as an intruder into the canon

1956

From an unsigned review of Life and Poetry, The Times Literary Supplement, 27 April 1956, no. 2826, 252.

The canon of English poetry seemed until recent years fairly settled, fairly complete. There might be shifts of interest and concern, an occasional dethronement (likely to be followed by a quick restoration) might occur, a few minor figures might slip their way in; but it did seem, after adding up the decisions of Johnson, Coleridge, Arnold and latterly Mr. Eliot, after the selectors from Palgrave onwards (Palgrave aided by Tennyson), after the editors, the historians and the university scholiasts, that we could be fairly sure who was who; who, at any rate, was in the lists, up to, let us say, Hardy and Kipling and Yeats.

There have been intruders. Since 1918 a major intruder, of course, has been Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose claims are now generally allowed, backed by the wonderful clarity and acuity of his own criticism, which completes our grasp of his powers and his poetic personality. Hopkins is certainly a more dangerous intruder than we are yet willing to realize; he threatens by practice and precept and the exciting demonstration of poetic essences, a great deal of nineteenth-century verse.

But what are we to say of another intruder into the canon—John Clare? No one seems absolutely sure. In 1908 Arthur Symons edited a new selection of Clare and said that in the poems he composed in madness his lyrical faculty freed itself for the first time; he declared also that his lyrics (though Symons’s phrase would not pass now—quite rightly—in Cambridge or in Redbrick) are in fact distinguished by ‘a liquid and thrilling note of song. ’

The novelty of this lead was followed and not followed—not always followed by historians, for example. It was hard to shake off a settled judgment that while ‘Clare’s descriptions of rural scenes show a keen and loving appreciation of nature, and his love-songs and ballads charm

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