Every work of science great enough to be well remembered for a few generations affords some exemplification of the defective state of the art of reasoning of the time when it was written.
‘If there’s no meaning in it,’ said the King, ‘that saves a world of trouble, you know, as we needn’t try to find any.’
Vous voyez qu’à la considérer ainsi, la machine animale devient bien plus facile à comprendre ; c’est l’intermédiaire entre le règne végétal et l’air […] (Essai de statique chimique)
[Translation (from Art and Ecology in Nineteenth-Century France by Greg M. Thomas): “the animal machine is [simply] the intermediary between the plant kingdom and the air […]”
What is going to happen? What will the future bring? I do not know, I have no presentiment. When a spider flings itself from a fixed point down into its consequences, it continually sees before it an empty space in which it can find no foothold, however much it stretches. So it is with me; before me is continually an empty space, and I am propelled by a consequence that lies behind me. This life is turned around and dreadful, not to be endured. (Either/Or, I)
It’s important to note that Kierkegaard was writing from a fixed “stage of life” during this period, these fragments pseudonymously written by a certain “A” corresponding to the initial Aesthetic stage which always gives way to despair and dread. So while despair is a very potent emotion in life, it is never – thankfully – an absolute condition, or, at least ethically (the second stage), it shouldn’t be, and religiously (the third stage), it never could be.
In a fragment catalogued blandly ‘Taste’, Clare includes “twharling,” a word which when it was first transcribed posthumously from his copious unpublished fragments by one of the Tibbles in 1932 was printed “thwarting”. Here is the restored selection taken from Grainger’s edition of The Natural History Prose Writings of John Clare:
the mind delights to indulge in the rambles—this is happiness—to lean on the rail of a wooden brig & mark the crinkles of the stream below & the little dancing beetles twharling & glancing their glossy coats to the summer sun—to bend over the old woods mossy rails & list the call of the hairey bumble bee playing with the ivy flowers till he has lost his way—& anon finds it by accident & wings out of the wood to the sunshine that lead him to his mossy nest lapt up in the long grass of some quiet nook—such is happiness—& to wander a pathless way thro the intricacys of woods for a long while & at last burst unlooked for into the light of an extensive prospect at its side & there lye & muse on the lands cape to rest ones wanderings—this is real happiness—
The question is whether this and other sundry orthographic irregularities found throughout this passage in particular and Clare’s writings in general are vital to Clare’s poetry. How do we find them to be vital and to what degree? More or less, Clare scholars agree that his odd spellings are an important artifact of his biography and some might even say his artistry, his process. But are they important to his art? For me, the fact that different caring editors doubly disagree on both the word itself (which may or may not even be a word outside Clare’s works) and its (mis)spelling precisely at the crux – the sweet spot – of an essay on “taste,” so one explicitly debating what is or is not poetic writing/reading, seems suspiciously more than interesting [NOTE: from this same text, Tibbles and Robinson/Powell record “coy flowers” while Grainger records “ivy flowers”]. The passage – a quintessentially Clare bit of prose – belies claims of country clumsiness or the remnants of the poet’s documented bouts with mania insofar as it is an immersive joy to read: the argument is lucid and clear, its language vivid and animate. Can it really just be an awkward reality that such intelligible writing happens also to be illegible?
Clare’s regular engagements in mischievous orthography is alternatively read as rustic or erratic depending on the critic. Clare’s biographer, Jonathan Bate, notes how Taylor and Hessey chose to publish Clare’s poems to preserve their “rude” presentation: “unpunctuated, unedited, highly irregular in spelling and punctuation” (205). However, Clare’s “rude way” is not simply the product of a unschooled verisimilitude, as Bate readily admits: ”[in Clare] words are made to do things they had never done before” (379). English traditions of onomatopoeias, dialecticisms (even ideolecticisms), portmanteaus (what Bate calls his “nounce-words”), as well as a multitude of regional nicknames for flaura and fauna are all labored into his writings. However, what begins to bring evidence of a truly wild English at work is the fact that these many existing devices for tinkering meaning in early-Victorian literature are not enough to compose Clare’s universal poetic, or as he opines in Pastoral Poesy,“A language that is ever green.” When Clare plays with such poetic instruments – as in: “Young hodge the horse boy with a soodling gait,” or, “The toltering bustle of a blundering trot,” or, “Moozing cool shelterd neath the skirting woods” (three instances from Rural Morning) – the poetic encounter in all its misspelled messiness is so musically peculiar and full of indefinable yet deeply relatable animation and vitality that the questionable language becomes neologistic, a new language created to express inconceivable truths. “I used to feel a pleasure […] reading the oft thumbd books which I possesd till fancy ‘made them living things’, Clare writes in an autobiographical fragment (61). Language and poetry for Clare exists in a kind of biological – “ever green” – state of flux and particularity, and both Clare’s asymmetric repetition of common words that, as Paulin writes, “take on subtly subversive vibrations of meaning” (xxiv), and his neologistic spellings that orthographically mirror the biodiversity of the natural world are indeed vital to this project. [Before reading one of Clare’s sonnets to address how this graphic, morphological interpretation of misspelling could possibly add or aid in the meaning of a poem, it is worth saying that there is not only existing linguistic theory that undergirds. The scientist and writer Alexander von Humboldt wrote theories of language and poetry – his own take on the problems of ‘Taste’ basically contemporaneous with Clare’s own work. When in 1808 the German Parisian wrote, “New forms, too, enter the common treasury of language. The speech of humans is enlivened by everything indicative of natural truth, be it in the representation of sensory impressions from the outer world or of profoundly stirred thought and inner feelings,” (Views of Nature, 141-142) it’s hard to believe he was writing before anyone knew of John Clare the poet, roughly the same year as he wrote Helpstone.
Clare’s sonnet The Crow uses language in assorted startling ways. The poem recounts the joys of seeing a crow, but the crow is animated by variant language. In its entirety it reads:
How peaceable it seems for lonely men
To see a crow fly in the thin blue sky
Over woods and fealds, o’er level fen
It speaks of villages, or cottage nigh
Behind the neighboring woods – when march winds high
Tear off the branches of the hugh old oak
I love to see these chimney sweeps sail by
And hear them over the knarled forest croak
Then sosh askew from the hid woodmans stroke
That in the woods their daily labours ply
I love the sooty crow nor would provoke
Its march day exercises of croaking joy
I love to see it sailing to and fro
While feelds, and woods and waters spread below
The musicality – “speaks,” “croak,” “croaking joy” – and animated imagery – “fly in the thin blue sky,” “chimney sweeps sail by,” “sosh askew from the hid woodmans stroke,” “I love the sooty crow” – are present in abundance and gift the poem exuberance and a feeling of controlled levity. And we sense in words like “hugh” “knarled” “sosh” and even the imagistic nicknaming “chimney sweeps” that the poem is full of instances where Clare is trying to capture a colloquial sense of how people talk, as well as poetic spelling that blurs the line between recording regional dialect and onomatopoeia. Yet, the most interesting use of language is in the doubly-unique misspellings of the word “fields”: the third line reads “fealds” while the last line reads “feelds”. How could this be anything but the odd accident? In a humorous and rambling journal entry on grammar, Clare writes the following: “what ever is intelligbe to others is grammer” (accurate spelling recorded). It is tempting to pass off these findings in The Crow as just another soodling gait, except that we find a similar instance in the poem Insects:
How merrily they creep and run and flye
No kin they bear to labour’s drudgery
Then in the heath bell’s silken hood they flie
And like to princes in their slumber lie.
So here is an other example of a word doubly-mispelled in a single poem. Neither “flye” nor “flie” being properly “fly” – a Clare word spells correctly often enough. Within the rhyme scheme, and in following after “run”, “flye” would seem to suggest the sound of “flee,” neither does he write “flee” nor does reading it seem to infer to mean “flee” but instead only possibly an alternately pronounced “fly.” What is the meaning of all this orthographic drudgery?
Yet a third poem contains double-misspellings, this time alongside its proper construction. Decay A Ballad is a cynical, sly, poignant song of 10-line stanzas and begins melodically, “O poesy is on the waine”, a line which repeats eight more times. However “waine” never shows up again written as it is introduced, the “i-n-e” configuration never resurfacing. The poem oscillates then in no apparent pattern from the correct “wane” to another error, “wain”. “Wane” wins out in the last few stanza, as if to signal yet again that spelling is a kind of tyranny over the whims of poetic musings. In this way, the title “Decay” speaks explicitly to a microcosmic decaying taking place in the surface of the poem as the poet submits to the conventions of English (perhaps in order to sell more poems).
“A language that is ever green” implies Clare’s neologisms are not mere mechanical inventions, however. His words are better viewed as creaturely: they are alive with difference. In this way, Clare’s noting of “feelds” and “fealds” in The Crow describe two distinct fields, or perhaps the same field at two distinct times; both places of the crow’s joyful croaking, though, often imperceptibly, unique. The inconstancy of nature, that which is imprecisely referred to as both impressionistic and uncanny by scholars, is graphically situated in Clare’s “green” orthography that resists the conventions of printed English. Just as repeated signs can call attention to themselves as mere words – something stark and empty which the speaker and the reader desire to be more meaningful than they actually are – negating that repetition through orthographic play preserves the bouncing unpredictable happenings of nature-before-your-eyes. In contrast, Clare’s ode to the specific bird tied together with disparate memories over time figures the fragmented memories of continuously “lonely men” rather than a single sighting affecting shifting emotional states.
Clare was so detailed in his observations of nature that his poems on occasion detailed information undocumented in scientific records of the time and using regional language undocumented in any lexicon. What a dangerous plan for an impoverished person. Yet, this desire to amplify the microscopic is what makes reading Clare’s writings such an expansive delight: “The instinct of the snail is a very remarkable & worthy notice tho such things are lookd over with a carless eye” (NHW, 32)]. In part this what makes Clare’s work so interesting alongside Humbolt: Humbolt had to be literarlly immersed in the screaming biodiversity of South American jungles to develop more-or-less the same ecolinguinstics [compare for example Humboldt’s 1844 writing, “[w]ords, therefore, are more than signs and forms; and their mysterious and beneficent influence is there most powerfully manifested where the language has sprung spontaneously from the minds of the people, and on its own native soil.” With Clare’s lines from Pastoral Poesy: “True poesy is not in words / But images that thoughts express] that Clare ascribed from his homespun corner in the Midlands; according to Bate, except once, Clare never even saw the sea. But he did see crows.
Clare’s creaturely, “twharling” language of orthographic abnormalities and crooked repetitions should be considered as composed with equal attention and care to microscopic detail that he gives to the subjects of his work.
 John Ruskin in Modern Painters III defines prophetic inspiration: “[people] who, strong as human creatures can be, are yet submitted to influences stronger than they, and see in a sort untruly, because what they see is inconceivably above them” (74).
 representational not incarnational
 Another regional poet writing in the 1840’s, William Barnes, once “declared that ‘the arraignment of the humble classes for speaking bad English’ is ludicrous, since in fact ‘they are the only persons who speak English at all’.” This seems to confirm Clare’s opening couplet from Pastoral Poesy. (Oxford, 2013, xlii)
 Editors Robinson and Powell decided to add Band-Aids to Clare’s unpublished prose piece and came up with “intellg[i]b[l]e” as though perhaps Clare didn’t purposely botch this word of all words. (481)
 As in Woodpecker’s Nest, just to give one of many instances.
New forms, too, enter the common treasury of language. The speech of humans is enlivened by everything indicative of natural truth, be it in the representation of sensory impressions from the outer world or of profoundly stirred thought and inner feelings.
From the 2014 edition of Views of Nature translated by Mark W. Person and published by University of Chicago Press. See this week’s earlier post for more on von Humboldt’s radical ecosemiotics written more than three decades after this passage.
On the advice of Andrea Wulf, whose The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World makes for stellar reading, I’ve been pouring over the German polymath’s seminal texts, namely Cosmos, Views of Nature, and Essay on the Geography of Plants. Wulf wonderfully weaves not just a kind of “Greatest Hits” of the once-infamous, since-obscured writer/thinker but delves deeply into his dense works (it helps that they are evocative and poetic to begin with) – including mentioning his theories on language. Besides Simon Winchester, who turned the history of the OED first into a British caper film a la The League of Gentlemen or X-men and then a Gothic murder mystery, I don’t know other bestsellers who openly discuss semiotics for pages and pages. More to the point: I’ve read a great many of those 20th century theories of language in vogue after the second World War, and I can’t recall a single mention of von Humboldt (even from the French, who happily hosted him even while Bonaparte was lobbing cannons at his Austro-Hungarian Empire!).
Something Wulf fails to mention explicitly (though perhaps it is the reason why she couldn’t just fail to drop the subject altogether) is that von Humboldt’s theories of language appear throughout his works; they are sporadic, but consistently sporadic.
Here are some of the heaviest sections from the introduction of Volume II of Cosmos (representing his later work from 1844, but which I randomly read first; cool fact from Wulf: he debated naming the book Gaia, especially ironic considering Wulf and other Humboldt scholars have indicated that the “pre-Darwinian Darwinist” suggested the Gaia theory of a living Earth a full +125 years before it caused a rage amongst environmentalists in the 1970s, where it is still customary to direct attribution):
Exploded errors may survive partially among the uneducated, aided in some instances by an obscure and mystic phraseology: they have also left behind them many expressions by which our nomenclature is more or less disfigured; while a few of happier, though figurative origin, have gradually received more accurate definition, and have been found worthy of preservation in our scientific language.
In a far more interesting way that I am accustomed to reading – and, importantly I think, without using the terms – he is talking about dialects, regionalisms, and slang. He continues:
That which sense grasps but imperfectly offers a free field to creative fancy; the outward impressions change with the changing phases of the mind; and this without destroying the illusion, by which we imagine ourselves to receive from external nature? that with which we have ourselves unconsciously invested her.
This is, to my recollection, a much more dynamic dialectical observation than Ferdinand de Saussure. The Swiss structuralist simply argued (and much later) that there’s no internal logic to a word referring to a thing; signifiers are relational to other signifiers in a linguistic system and not to the external world of contingencies (remember: from de Saussure we get the surrealistic, anarchical interplay of signifier and signifier à la Duchamp). Humboldt, too, is no essentialist, however he sees language not akin to a priori reason or something mechanical that ultimately has no meaningful interplay with the natural world (after all, he writes further on in the introduction, “[t]he impression produced by the grandest scenes of nature does not depend exclusively on height;” here, like Saussure he severs the external world from its cultural overdeterminacy). Rather, the functionality of language ignores (or has amnesia about) just how intimately connected it is to the signified (but not in positivist or predetermined ways). What he is articulating is very delicate and even circuitous and sounds kind of mystical (he even uses the term), but I think he’s trying to say, building on Kant and The Critique of Pure Reason, that human language has a role in natural world: this is a radical idea even today, let alone in 1844.
His clearest articulation of his “organic structure” of language is the conclusion to the introduction:
Words, therefore, are more than signs and forms; and their mysterious and beneficent influence is there most powerfully manifested, where the language has sprung spontaneously from the minds of the people, and on its own native soil.
Halloween is on a Monday this year, so we’ve begun a very long weekend indeed. For instance, on the beach this morning, my youngest son – he’s one – walked with arms outstretched toward his mother and I had the thought however vaguely of Frankenstein. But of course Boris Karloff was acting like a one-year-old in his infamous portrayal of Mary Shelley’s monster in James Whale’s classic, so this brief observation of mine begs some kind of reflective inquiry. How is it that a cultural artifact influenced by a natural phenomenon begins to replace the recognition – and naming – of that primal phenomenon? My original observation (That baby does a pretty good Karloff) is historically inaccurate and culturally nonsensical: babies are always pulling off Frankensteins because that was the whole artistic idea in the first place. Yet this fact had to be thoroughly mulled over before it became readily apprehended. This is something akin to trying to remember the word for red because your brain had involuntarily replaced it with ketchup. It must be some kind of cognitive cross-wiring, but is it cultural or linguistic? Perhaps these two associations are so deeply embedded in my brain that their causal relation to one another has reversed, or been rendered irrelevant.
In the excellent book The Idea of Landscape and the Sense of Place 1730-1840: An Approach to the Poetry of John Clare (Cambridge, 1972), John Barrell looks at a similar causal confusion in the idea of the origin of landscape, even thinking about the difference between “a landscape” (a painting) and “the landscape” (the terrain or topology). Barrel writes:
The words ‘landscape’, ‘scene’ and, to a lesser extent, ‘prospect’ (which, as our definition from Johnson shows, could be used in a general, non-local sense) demanded, in short, that the land be thought of as itself composed into the formal patterns which previously a landscape-painter would have been thought of as himself imposing upon it (2-3).
In other words, landscape painting was so fashionable that both culturally and linguistically, rural society became a landscape and understood in terms of the values of landscape paintings, thus flipping the historical context for landscape-painting in the first place. The scholar sets the stage to examine how John Clare will be a poet of “disorder” against early Victorian ideologies of order, containment, rigid legalisms and mass industrialization which are so potent they even show up in the pastoral arts. From Barrel’s point of view (and Clare’s) to see a Karloff impersonation and not a baby is the same as not looking at all.
Come to think of it, isn’t this causal confusion/reversal evident also in the way we now call the monster of Mary Shelley’s book Frankenstein, the title of the book naming the horrific “other” of the story and not, as originally written, the family name of the doctor whose whole aristocratic lifestyle becomes a flaming nightmare due to his late-night scientific experimentation?
The stage is set for the weekend.
[…] the mind delights to indulge in the rambles—this is happiness—to lean on the rail of a wooden brig & mark the crinkles of the stream below & the little dancing beetles twharling & glancing their glossy coats to the summer sun—to bend over the old woods mossy rails & list the call of the hairey bumble bee playing with the ivy flowers till he has lost his way—& anon finds it by accident & wings out of the wood the the sunshine that lead him to his mossy nest lapt up in the long grass of some quite nook—such is happiness—