Wednesday, 2 July 2008

‘Alone and in a stranger scene’: Alienation and John Clare


The phrase used on the title of this paper[1] comes from The Flitting, a poem Clare wrote in the 1840s when he had already been confined to an asylum in Northamptonshire for nearly ten years. The focus of this poem was his sense of loss and is reiterated throughout his writings:

“Strange scenes mere shadows are to me”[2]

“Life is to me a dream that never wakes.”[3]

“The past it is a magic word

Too beautiful to last…”[4]

Alienation or detachment from the world as it is is a recurring theme in Clare’s poetry certainly from the early 1820s.

‘Nature’s Threads’

The pastoral poets of the eighteenth century, particularly Oliver Goldsmith and George Crabbe wrote of the lost peace and virtues of country life. Yet the poems of the happy tenant as the idealised and independent self of the reflective pastoral tradition are succeeded by poems of loss, change and regret, poems that express the sense of appalled withdrawal. The identification of a Golden Age of rural life with humble and worthy characters in a rural setting contrasted with the wealth and ambition of the city and the court was the creation of the mid-eighteenth century. It can be seen in Gray’s Elergy

“Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strike

Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray;

Along the cool sequester’d vale of life

They kept the noiseless tenour of their way.”

And in Goldsmith’s most famous and yet baffling poem The Deserted Village (1769)

“A time there was, ere England’s griefs began

When every road of ground maintained its man.”

The old village was both happy and productive, while the new conditions of change were both unhappy and unproductive.

“No more thy glassy brook reflects the day

But choked with sedges, works its weedy way;

Along they glades, a solitary quest

The hollow sounding bittern guards its nest

Amidst they desert walk, the lapwing flies

And tires their echoes with unvaried cries.”

The result is a shift in focus away from the landscape to seeing people in their environments and how change affected them. There was a gradual rejection of the ‘pastoral’ and the emergence of a powerful social and psychological sense of alienation. George Crabbe wrote in 1811,

“No longer truth, though shown in verse, disdain

But own the Village Life a life of pain.”

The imperative shifts from one of beauty to one of morality and the degeneration of moral values and moral support within society as a consequence of economic change. Oppression becomes the key concept as the humanitarian values of paternalism with its passionate insistence on care and sympathy and an implied standard of plain and virtuous living was deliberately and progressively dismantled. This was Thomas Carlyle’s “abdication on the part of the governors” and George Crabbe’s “where Plenty smiles – alas she smiles for few”.

A sense of change

The notion of a ‘Golden Age’ is, and has always been a rhetorical device, a means of giving nostalgia respectability. It is used, frequently by those who do not wish to change or who see change as a threat to their own vested interests. It is a concept of extreme selfishness. Yet change in rural England during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries did bring substantial ‘loss’.

First, there was a decline in the living standards of agricultural labourers as they were denied access to commons and wastes as grazing for their few animals and as sources of fuel. Thomas Bewick wrote in his autobiography of the division of waste lands in 1812: “the poor man was rooted out and the various mechanics of the village derived of the benefit of it”. Secondly, there was a growing sense of resentment against farmers and landowners felt across the political spectrum from the Tory Robert Southey to the radical Shelley. The focus for this resentment was largely, though not exclusively the enclosure of land. “All I know is, I had a cow and Parliament took it from me”, Arthur Young imagined a poor man saying and Thomas Bewick described Anthony Liddell in the following terms: “He maintained that the fowls of the air and the fishes in the sea were free to all men; consequently, game-laws or laws to protect the fisheries had no weight with him…”

The notion of a ‘Golden Age’ constructs a mythical sense of community where all, despite social and economic inequality were happy and contented. Enclosure destroyed this sense of ‘oneness’, Yet it is a community always in retrospect, a community in which mutuality of interest had begun to break down, if it had ever existed before John Clare began to write and arguably even before he was born in 1793. In this period of change, it mattered greatly where you were looking from. Points of view, interpretations, selections from reality revolved around a complex of different ways of seeing even the same rural life.

A green language

William Wordsworth moved view of rural life away from the essentially descriptive perspectives of pastoralists like Goldsmith and Crabbe. While the latter provided evidence of lack of community, of the village as a life of pain Wordsworth saw communities as separated from life in any direct way. It is the essential isolation and silence and loneliness that became the only carriers of nature and community against the rigorous and selfish ease of ordinary society. The labourer now merges with his landscape, is seen at a distance as a part of the much larger romantic conception of Nature. It is no longer the will that will transform nature, it is the lonely creative imagination alone through which it is possible to recreate the pastoral idyll, if not the reality. This is the ‘green language’ of poetry, a phrase first used by Clare in his Pastoral Poesy:

“A language that is ever green

That feelings unto all impart

As hawthorn blossoms soon as seen

Give May to every heart.”

Closer descriptions of nature – of birds, trees, the effects of weather and of light – are a marked element in Clare’s writings and clearly related to lived experience and intense observation.

The rural bard

Clare thought that his Richard and Kate made him “first of the Rural Bards in the country”. In his early poem Helpstone, he contrasted the ‘industry’ of the old world with the ‘wealth’ of the new:

“Accursed Wealth! O’er bounding human laws,

Of every evil though remains’t the cause:

Victims of want, those wretches such as me,

Too truly lay their wretchedness to thee:

Thou art the bar that keeps from being fed

And thine our loss of labour and of bread.”

This was written in 1809 when Clare was sixteen and connects a lost phase of living, lost identity, lost relations and lost certainties. It is reinforced in Joys of Childhood,

“Dull is that memory, vacant in that mind

Where no sweet vsion of the past appears.”

Nature, the past and childhood are powerfully fused. This is an experience of pain, of withdrawal into ‘nature’, into the Eden of the heart and the past. Eventually, it was to lead to the speaking silence of a neglected past, a man alone with nature, with poverty, with ‘madness’ recreating a world in his green language:

“I am, but what I am

None cares or know?

My friends forsake me

As a memory lost

I am the self-consumer of my woes

They rise and vanish in oblivious hope

Like shades in love and death’s oblivion lost

And yet I am….”

Clare was born in Helpstone near Peterborough in 1793. His parents were barely literate and, according to the law of averages he should have become an agricultural labourer earning a basic subsistence wage. When he learned to read and write, he became an exception; when he committed to writing poetry, he became an anomaly. His first book Poems Descriptive of Rural Life Scenery was published in 1820 and quickly went into four editions. Clare became a nine-day wonder. He married Patty Turner though he was haunted by memories of Mary Joyce, a local farmer’s daughter until he died. A second volume The Village Minstrel appeared in 1821 and two years later he began work on a long, ambitious poem The Shepherd’s Calendar that appeared in 1825.

He visited London in 1820, 182 and 1824 and was lionised by the literati as the ‘green man’. However, health problems began to have a serious effect on him. From 1823, he suffered bouts of severe melancholia, doubt and hopelessness that were diagnosed as manic depression. In 1828, he made his last visit to London. In 1830-31, he suffered severe and prolonged illness and moved to a larger cottage at Northborough, a few miles from Helpstone with the support of his friends. Though intended to ameliorate his plight, this proved the last straw completing his sense of alienation. He was taken to an asylum in Epping in 1837 but escaped four year later returning home in search of his first ‘wife’ Mary Joyce. He stayed at home from June to December 1841 but was then confined to the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum where he died on 20th May 1864.

Until 1825, his work was a prolific celebration of delight in perceiving and re-presenting natural life and an exploration of the relationships of a hardworking, lowly human society to a rural environment and the cycle of the year with its swings from summer to bleak winter. The relationship between word and world was harmonious and unstrained. By the early 1830s, however, difficult truths had shaken his delicate and vulnerable sensibility. The shift from a primarily oral to a literate and literary culture, though necessary to reach a wider audience increasingly cut Clare off from the people he lived among for whom poetry was a closed book. His own wife could not share his life as a poet and Mary Joyce became and remained the emblem of what might have been.

Clare discovered himself adrift and in limbo. Even his sacral landscapes had proved impermanent, despoiled beyond recognition by the ‘improvements’ of enclosure. This led to a deepening sense of disenchantment and alienation. This threatened to overwhelm the impulse to affirm the joys and delights of Nature. It proved an irreconcilable dilemma as Clare swung between bouts of mental instability and relative sanity. His own inner dialectic was played out in his later works where the positive and negative features of his psyche battle for supremacy within the same works. The dialectic between past and present, childhood and age, nature and wealth were only resolved for Clare in death. As he wrote in I Am in 1848

“I long for scenes where man hath never trod

A place where women never smiled or wept

There to abide with my Creator God

And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept,

Untroubling and untroubled where I lie

The grass below, above, the vaulted sky.”

[1] This paper was initially written in 1997 and was revised in 2008.

[2] From The Flitting

[3] This extract comes from Written in a thunderstorm July 15th 1841

[4] From Childhood

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