Anxious of Eternity:  Building a Nest  for John Clare

John Clare: A Biography by Jonathan Bate. Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2003. 650 pps. $40.00

‘I am’: The Selected Poetry of John Clare, edited by Jonathan Bate. Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2003. 318 pps. $17.00

As Reviewed By: Marc Pietrzykowski


O thus while musing wild, I’m doubly blest
My woes unheeding and my heart at rest.
—”The River Gwarsh”

The recent controversy surrounding ownership of John Clare’s manuscripts might seem a contrivance staged by some publisher’s public relations division were not the parties involved a prickly clutch of academics more concerned with arguing about textual primitivism than participating in a marketing campaign. In truth, issues surrounding ownership of Clare’s work are not new at all and have been smoldering for nearly 40 years. The story begins in 1965 when Eric Robinson, Professor of History at the University of Massachusetts, purchased (at the bargain price of £1) the rights to all of Clare’s work from the Whittaker family. How the Whittakers came into possession of the copyright is a matter of some dispute; Joseph Whittaker’s purchase, in 1864, of the rights to Clare’s work in exchange for an annuity provided to Clare’s widow, Patty, apparently involved rather sloppy paper work, and in any case the document of sale was destroyed in a German bombing raid in 1940. Various editions of Clare’s work appeared prior to Mr. Robinson’s purchase of the disputed copyright without any mention of Whittaker’s ownership, but after the purchase all editions of Clare poems had to pass Robinson’s muster and be affixed with the following blurb: “Copyright in the unpublished and much of the published work of John Clare is owned by Professor Eric Robinson who has together with Oxford University Press authorized this publication.” This state of affairs naturally rankled many a Clare scholar, but none openly challenged Robinson until 2001, when Simon Kovesi of the University of Dundee published a selection of Clare’s love poems without Robinson’s authorization. To confuse further the already muddled state of copyright law (and to protect himself somewhat from Robinson’s threats of legal action), Kovesi had his book published in Bangkok.[private]

Kovesi has since published a second collection of Clare’s poems, this one a group of flower poems. His challenge to Robinson’s copyright is understandable, as the very idea that an individual could own nearly all of a long-dead author’s body of work is repellent to most scholars, but Robinson’s justification for purchasing and holding on to the copyright has certain merits as well. In a letter sent to the Times Literary Supplement in late 2002, Robinson asserts he “…wanted to protect [his] work from being plundered by unscrupulous scholars and publishers…and ensure…that the public was given accurate texts.” While it might seem that Robinson is plagued by his own “blue devils” (Clare’s name for the apparitions that hounded him as his madness became more profound) in the form of bogeymen scholarship thieves pawning their wares to international sonnet bootleggers, his concern with restoring Clare’s work to what he sees as its proper form is very real, and very admirable.

Most scholars and poets who have opined on the issue seem to think that Clare does not need quite so much rescuing as Robinson is determined to offer. His position is that of the textual primitivist, and so his nine-volume edition of Clare’s work is replete with grammatical errors, misspellings, and some very hard to navigate leaps in subject matter, since the editors have sought to present, with as much fealty to the originals as possible, a set of source manuscripts written pell-mell on everything from envelopes to the margins and reverse side of political tracts, and even a few, apparently, on birch bark. Clare’s first publisher, John Taylor, has long been an object of scorn for the severe modifications he made to Clare’s manuscripts, which may account for some of Robinson’s paranoia; one reason Clare’s reputation languished for so long is that Taylor’s revisions were severe enough to cloud proper appreciation of the breadth of Clare’s work. Still, without Taylor’s help, Clare might never have seen significant publication, and his editorial input was, on the whole, valued by the poet. This point is central to Jonathan Bate’s new biography of Clare, and Bate’s eminently sensible recasting of the two men’s professional relationship is persuasive enough to make Robinson’s own position seem even more untenable. If the portrayal of Clare as victim of unscrupulous editors is simply an oversimplification no one has bothered to examine closely until now, then Robinson’s fear of unscrupulous scholars and publishers suffers from a similar lack of scrutiny—does Robinson intend “unscrupulous” to mean anyone who disagrees with his own editorial position, or the original (and long dead) editors of Clare’s work? Or is he simply being evasive? Elsewhere in his letter to the TLS, Robinson claims “…the object of [the copyright] is…to encourage scholars and the like to seek out and publish previously unpublished works,” a rather absurd statement unless, of course, you stand to gain from the work of the scholars (and the like) in question. Whatever Robinson’s motivation for claiming ownership of the copyright to Clare’s work, his recourse to litigation with regard to Kovesi’s challenge is troubling. Robinson’s solicitors sent a letter to Kovesi after he had published “Love Poems” alleging that not only had Kovesi breached Robinson’s copyright, but that he had used Robinson’s edited texts as the source of his own book, and also that he had defamed Robinson by, in effect, arguing about the validity of Robinson’s claim in a public forum.

The letter concludes with a request for compensation; while such a request is entirely typical to such documents, it further encourages the view that Robinson has placed personal gain before the interests of the academic community, let alone Clare’s reputation as a poet. In place of any clear moral position, then, Robinson has chosen the law, and in place of the give and take of academic debate, his own decrees, supported by the law—that is, until the outcome of his case against Kovesi is decided. Cloaking one’s lack of moral authority in the mantle of jurisprudence is the sort of maneuver normally attributed to politicians and chief executive officers, not academics, which is why the whole affair resembles a half-baked marketing scheme, replete with a letter in the TLS upbraiding Robinson’s “enclosure” of Clare signed by such personages as Seamus Heaney and Tom Paulin. With any luck, such press coverage as is afforded the Clare copyright controversy in the future will help encourage sales of Jonathan Bate’s comprehensive biography and attendant selection of Clare’s verse.


In these thy haunts
I’ve gleaned habitual love;
From the vague world where pride and folly taunts
I muse and look above.
—”To The Snipe”

The modern reconstruction of Clare’s reputation as a poet worthy of mention in the same breath as Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, and the rest of the gang has been proceeding by fits and starts since 1908, when Arthur Symons, perhaps best known as the author of The Symbolist Movement in Literature, assembled an edition titled Poems by John Clare which, for the first time, presented the public with a selection that attempted to profile the career of a poet who had seen only 400 or so of his more than 3,000 poems come to print. That Symons, shaper of the Modernist aesthetic, would be drawn to Clare’s particular genius also helps explain the continued efforts of other scholars and poets to establish him a a major figure, since the things we value in Clare—his precise descriptions, his clear, energetic language, and perhaps most importantly, his focus on the profundity of everyday experience—are just the sort of values the Modernists were trying to extract from the lees of Romanticism. That contemporary poets have internalized these values so completely might account for the state of disrepair the poetic avant-garde has blundered about in for the last quarter century, offering a vision of precisely theorized obscurity—governed by das Ich—in reaction to the precisely straightforward, but equally ego-driven, muddling of the mainstream. Jonathan Bate’s biography of Clare, and the selection of verse that accompanies it, suggest that alternate responses to this situation exist, just as the verse Clare managed to publish offered his readership a different response to nature and humanities’ place within it than did his contemporaries during the waning years of the Romantic era.

Bates’ selection of verse is meant to support the arguments made in the biography as well as provide, as did Symons’ edition, an outline for the uninitiated of Clare’s development as a poet. It serves both functions well; where the biography, for example, helps establish Clare as an active participant in the production of his published work, it does so without eliding the essentially passive character of the work, a characterization supported by Bate’s selection of verse. Passivity, in the case of Clare’s vision, has nothing to with weakness or, as has been charged by certain misguided critics, femininity; instead, it describes an almost total receptivity to experience:

Clare’s early success was fueled by the lingering fashion for “peasant poets” that persisted in the wake of Robert Burns’ spectacular flare-out, a novelty that presented such creatures as uneducated curiosities of nature, unable to engage in the delicacies of thought that more properly tutored poets could produce, but worthy in their own humble manner. Bates refutes this notion throughout A Biography, describing how Clare’s passion for books and learning was deliberately obscured in the introductions to his volumes in order to increase sales by emphasizing the “native genius” fabulation; he also manages to avoid the mistake of claiming that Clare was somehow prevented from displaying his intellect in the fashion of better-educated poets, emphasizing instead Clare’s conscious rejection of the trappings intellectual foppery, even carefully criticizing Keats, whose work he favored, as being too reliant on “a constant allusion or illusion to the Grecian Mythology.” Clare’s early work is a chronicle of his struggle to elude the dictates of poetic convention, and his dislike of Keats’ reliance on historical allusion is symptomatic of his need to grind away those traces of 18th century poetic diction that surfaced in his early verse and replace them with the plainspoken, vernacular descriptions of the natural world that characterize his mature work. Accordingly, Bate describes how “[t]he nightingale of Keats’ ode is in a long tradition of poetic nightingales, going back to the ancient Greek myth of Philomel, whereas Clare’s ‘The Nightingale’s Nest’ is grounded in natural history.” Compare the well known final verse of Keats’ poem:

with the final third of Clare’s:

and the difference in each poet’s way of apprehending the natural world becomes quite a stark one indeed. Keats’ self-regarding mode of perception is still favored to this day, of course; self-involved complexity is still seen as more authentic than self-abnegating simplicity by most poets and readers of poetry (if indeed any remain who do not dwell in both camps), and so the characteristic “kitchen-window” poem of the late twentieth century must approach its reverie of domestic joys with an under girding of emotional intricacy, the knotty subtext of a subject who has forsworn the sort of pure experience Clare enjoys, believing them to be the naive pleasures of another, simpler past—which is pretty much the way Clare’s verse was received in the early nineteenth century. We are still, it would seem, stuck fast in the Romantic era.


The only aspect of John Clare: A Biography that calls for quibbling is Bates’ tendency, in the latter half of the volume, to engage in a bit too much speculation regarding Clare’s state of mind during the last 22 years of his life, when he was confined to a series of asylums. Having prefaced discussion of Clare’s long slide into madness with the admonition that “posthumous psychiatric diagnosis is a dubious activity,” presumably to allow himself to speculate on a variety of diagnosis, Bate goes on to suggest that perhaps Clare’s madness was not so acute as we’ve been lead to believe:

In the fragment on ‘self-identity’, written during the few months back at Northborough between the two madhouses, Clare affirmed the importance of holding on to the self and suggested that the person who denies his self must be either a madman or a coward. In an asylum letter of 1849, he spoke of being ‘quite lost in reveries and false hums’. Can a man who knows and feels both his self-identity and his aberrations in this way really be described as mad?

The answer to this question, as anyone who has had prolonged acquaintance with the mentally ill can attest, is yes. These speculations would be easy to gloss over if they did not occur in one of the best written and most poignant parts of the book, and if they did not reappear often enough to become a separate theme:

The act of living vicariously through the writers whose works one admires is a mild form of madness, little more than an extreme version of the imaginative empathy that is at the heart of all good reading.

and again:

According to [asylum secretary John] Godfrey, if any of Clare’s favourite poets were mentioned, ‘he would immediately say that he knew him well or that he was a particular friend of his—evidently fully believing that his favorite authors were also his old earthly friends.’ In his aged mind there was now no distinction between reality and the life of his imagination. But is it really ‘madness’ to say that one knows a favorite author, or a poem committed to memory, as well as one knows a neighbour or casual acquaintance?

So which is it? Does Bate intend to say that a failure to distinguish between reality and the products of the imagination is not really madness at all, or that some small madness is present in us all and is the source of good reading? We can ascribe this unfortunate speculation regarding Clare’s madness to the vigorous good intentions of the author, but the way his confused protestation hiccups repeatedly through the final sections of the book does distract somewhat from what is otherwise deeply moving prose.

Involuntary spasms of the speculative diaphragm aside, Bate’s biography and his selection of Clare’s verse (and they are best seen as parts of a whole) should, at last, establish Clare as a major poet, not simply as “the Wordsworthian Shadow,” to borrow Harold Bloom’s typically ham-fisted assessment, but as a peer of realm, so to speak. Clare’s way of describing the world has as much in common with Gary Snyder, and indeed with the tradition of Zen Buddhism, as it does with Percy Shelley, perhaps more so; the marked absence in his verse of the sort of nice speculations about philosophy we have grown accustomed to (having long feasted on “The Prelude” and “Frost at Midnight”) requires a supple reader to appreciate their virtues, and rewards them not only with new way of apprehending literary virtue, but also by casting a different light on more established works of the Western canon. T. S. Eliot’s canonical anatomy lesson in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” certainly seems appropriate in the case of Clare, despite the fact that Clare’s way of seeing is not, one might suppose, the sort of thing Old Possum would put much stock in:

Bate’s two volumes have succeeded in building a nest for Clare where other biographers have failed (and they failed for a variety of reasons, including insufficient focus on the poetry, polemical meandering, and prose dry enough to suck the moisture from the reader’s body), and while Eric Robinson and his co-editors deserve much credit for assembling the raw materials, a nine-volume, $700 set of abstruse material is not likely to help build a readership or sway critical opinion one way or the other. More work must be done, of course—Bate’s selected poems, though a fine companion piece to the biography, leaves many splendid pieces out (a necessity, when choosing from 3000-plus poems) and truncates most of the long narrative pieces it does include. A collection of narrative verse in the lightly edited style Bate and Simon Kovesi follow would be welcome. Such a project is less likely to be undertaken anytime soon unless Mr. Robinson realizes how wrong-headed his copyright claim is, and how potentially injurious it could yet be to Clare’s reputation, and allows scholars and editors to go about their work without first gaining his seal of approval. Then again, the outcome of his lawsuit against Kovesi is still pending, and his claim to copyright could be denied; in any case, Clare deserved better than his lot when alive, and deserves better than to be the center of a copyright squabble now. Bate’s accomplishment is well deserved, and only makes the whole copyright affair seem that much more squalid.[/private]

About mpietrzykowski

Marc Pietrzykowski has published poems and reviews in The Antioch Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Rhino, Exquisite Corpse, Red River Review, Pinyon, White Crow, Figdust, and River Oak Review. He lives in Atlanta, where he is enrolled in the graduate program at Georgia State University.
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