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blandly ‘Taste’, Clare includes “twharling,” a word which when it was first transcribed posthumously from his copious unpublished fragments by one of the Tibbles in 1932 was printed “thwarting”.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

Expensive books about poor people

It’s ironic that, given poet John Clare’s uncannily relatable biographical detail of nearly bankrupting (further) his family’s (mis)fortune because of his habit of buying books he could scarce afford [ecocritic Jonathan Bate writes that these “book-buying binges” (so: simultaneously dubious in quantity and quality) were the product of the “mania” side of Clare’s probable bipolar affliction (John Clare, 414)] his posthumous editors, Eric Robinson and David Powell, have nevertheless gone and bestowed the same fate on all inclined to study the poor bastard! Here’s but a sample of these suspiciously priced OUP unicorns:

https://global.oup.com/academic/content/series/o/oxford-english-textsjohn-clare-oetcl/?lang=en&cc=ca

I write this between pants of relief after finding simply one of these now decades-old volumes at a mere two figures (way to go https://thetracktor.com!). Just in the nick, as well: I’m slated to present work on the Northamtonshire Poet at this year’s MMLA conference in St. Louis (site: here) and should perhaps plan to know just what it is I’m talking about. I am excited for the gathering, and all the more so since, un-overpriced Clare volume under-arm, I will be joining one of the panels sponsored by ALSE, the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment.

For more questions on the ethics of overpricing artifacts of impoverishment, perhaps Christie’s and Sotheby’s can be contacted.