The Creaturely Language of John Clare

 

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blandly ‘Taste’, Clare includes “twharling,” a word which when it was first transcribed posthumously from his copious unpublished fragments by one of the Tibbles in 1932 was printed “thwarting”.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[1] 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[2] 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.

 The Crow  

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[3], 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[4]). 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[5] 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.

[1] 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).

[2] representational not incarnational

[3] 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)

[4] 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)

[5] As in Woodpecker’s Nest, just to give one of many instances.

Advertisements

Quote #6: Alexander von Humboldt (1808)

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.

Humboldt contra Saussure

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.

On Memory

When one speaks of memory, they more often than not mean one of two things. Memory refers mainly to 1) the ability of recalling to mind past experiences, knowledge, and even vague, seemly unformed ideas, like half-dreams, or illusory sense details; or else 2) the conscious, here-and-now presence of those exact thoughts upon the person. With this second meaning, memory is experienced as the opposite of an ability (like trying to remember the digits of π, or the trivial order of U.S. Presidents, etc.) and connotes instead a kind of involuntary mental flash, an unprovoked assault of emotions, remembrances that well up as though cast by a spell (or, as Proust attests, an olfactory spirit), thus triggering an unintentionally potent emotional consciousness, itself unpredictably recalled. Memory is a human enterprise as much as it is an alienating shock to the system. The question then arises as to whether this is a case of one word meaning two separate experiences – two unique phenomena – or whether these oppositional characteristics are both, paradoxically, essential features of this profound thing we call memory.

Evoking the concept of memory, Francis Bacon in The Advancement of Learning describes two categories of student assessment practiced in medieval universities (by way of being critical of their supposed distinction): verbatim and ex tempore. Verbatim (still in our colloquial) denotes the quoting in complete passages of existing discourse in order for students to buttress the persuasiveness of an argument or stake directional paths through logical conundrums. This oral feature of ancient societies is today often distained as rote, insulating a kind of automaton-like inhumanity, even though what has replaced the by-gone culture of oral memorializing is one that leaves all data collection and storage to an entirely externalized machine (more often than not, one branded Google). Humanity in effect is perhaps now nothing but the retrievers of answers; we are the dogs of microchips.

On the other hand, ex tempore (modified in the adjective/adverb form extemporaneous/ly) responds to prompts and academic quagmires through more personalized, off-the-cuff remarks designed to highlight either a learned mind or an ignorant one, a sharp philosopher or a stumped lollygag. Ex tempore refers to the impromptu – what Bacon calls “present” (anticipating Bergson’s vitality) – spontaneity essential to human culture that should not be overlooked by grand systems of organization, least not education.

In a surprisingly modern twist, Bacon goes onto the argue that poetry (“poesy”) is evidence that even the presence of blocked intellect (i.e. one who fails at both verbatim and ex tempore) does not prove the quality of mind:

Poesy is a part of learning in measure of words for the most part restrained, but in all other points extremely licensed, and doth truly refer to the Imagination; which, being not tied to the laws of matter, may at pleasure join that which nature hath severed, and sever that which nature hath joined, and so make unlawful matches and divorces of things.

In other words, the existence of poetry is proof that this complimentary duality of verbatim and ex tempore is in no way comprehensive of the human mind (or the so-called “domiciles” of Early Modern understanding: Memory, Rationality and Imagination). Herein, memory’s disputed territory is further obscured by its conceptual collision with Imagination, or invention: “unlawful matches” “not tied to the laws of matter”. This creative hybridity is something usually not associated with a memory, until of we realize that, in an age where reference to Rashomon is commonplace, this dynamic understanding of memory as not mere recall is hardly controversial. The concept of a “mnemonic device” is another classic example of how correlative data requires an element of fantasy in order to work with any consistency. The advent of clockworks and increasingly complex navigational tools during this period further lead to Bacon’s pre-Romantic notion that Nature was a machine – a kind of God-clock – of which human endeavors work to uncover little-by-little proof of its ingenious intricacies. No wonder then that Romantics (after Alexander von Humbodt) insist poetry (and the Arts in general) is essential for any scientific understanding.

Applied to the phenomena of memory, memories are analyzed not because they exist but because they are experienced. As much as the research sciences delve into the human mysteries of memory (through neuroscience, the psychological study of PTS and trauma, AI and cognitive robotics, etc.) there will still exist the profound need to creatively express our memories in words, in language, in songs, and in poems. The conundrum then of the contradictory definitions of memory is not located internally in their descriptions per se, but in their non-poetic state, in their failure to account for the creative imperative of memory.