New Essays on John Clare: Poetry, Culture and Community

By White, Adam | John Clare Society Journal, June 2016 | Go to article overview

New Essays on John Clare: Poetry, Culture and Community


White, Adam, John Clare Society Journal


New Essays on John Clare: Poetry, Culture and Community. Edited by SIMON KÖVESI and SCOTT McEATHRON. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2015. pp. xii + 244. £64.99.

Some of the chapters presented in New Essays on John Clare emerged from the 'John Clare in Space' conference held at Oxford Brookes University in 2014, organised to mark the 150th anniversary of the poet's death. As the book's title makes evident, the collection is structured by three strands or themes. Of these, 'culture' receives the most treatment: four of the book's ten essays are devoted to it, while 'poetry' and 'community' occupy three chapters each. But another theme- often closely connected to the three mentioned-could be added to the list: 'class'. As Simon Kövesi and Scott McEathron say in their Introduction, 'At the heart of the matter-as always in English life, it seems-lies class; and for Clare in particular, class seems to render problematic almost every relationship he and his work might forge to the polite world of letters' [12). It is, on the face of it, a hard claim to disagree with. It also sets the tone for a number of the chapters in the book, from which Clare is read as a 'defensive' figure (63, 64), an 'outsider' (93,135, 217), and a 'victim' (2).

In fact, the idea of Clare being a 'victim' is part of a core duality ventured in the book's Introduction; that is, Clare is 'both beneficiary and victim' (2) of the considerable changes in the literary marketplace in the early nineteenth century. This idea operates almost as a modern critical palimpsest for the paradoxes of the 'peasant poet' label, the label of temporarily useful but also often crippling dual identity that explicitly marked Clare's introduction to the 'world of letters' in Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery (1820).

In this sense, New Essays closely follows John Clare in Context (1994), privileging the concept of class in its explorations of the unfortunate circumstances and contradictions which confronted the poet throughout his writing life. The Introduction acknowledges the 1994 collection, also published by Cambridge University Press, as 'the first major critical essay collection focused on the poet' (8). The emphasis on class in New Essays makes the almost excusive focus on Clare's pre-asylum writing in the collection understandable.

In Fiona Stafford's essay on 'Clare's colours' the predominant shade is, perhaps unsurprisingly, green (the colour of Clare's jacket worn on a visit to London, as many commentators have noted and as Richard Cronin reiterates in his essay in this collection on the London Magazine). However, Stafford's identification of 'multiple simultaneous possibilities' (20) that the greens and browns of a given rural scene or scenario afford Clare follows John Barrell's highly influential claim (1972, 157, 158) that a 'manifold of simultaneous impressions' in response to localised areas of the countryside is the chief feature of Clare's work. Like Barrell's book, Stafford's wider argument considers the 'sister arts' of poetry and painting (here the work of Peter De Wint). Clare's sonnet on the contemporary painter concludes with an appreciation of how De Wint makes the representation of 'rushy flats befringed with willow tree' (13) an art to rival the great Italian painters: 'befringed' is the most distinctive word in the last few lines of Clare's tribute to De Wint and suggests a kind of boundedness and by definition, a boundary; like the essentially bounded form of the birds' nests which Stafford's essay also treats, Clare's admiration of De Wint's 'befringed' craft stands as an intriguing counterpoint to the boundlessness and the blending effect (including a rather tenuous equation between colour and lack of punctuation in Clare's manuscripts) which Stafford argues is characteristic of Clare's colours.

Adam Rounce builds on John Goodridge's John Clare and Community in his account of Clare and two eighteenth-century poets, James Thomson and William Cowper. …

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