Many readers of Clare’s poetry will feel immediately and consistently unsettled by one aspect above all others: their seemingly arbitrary beginnings and ends—their seeming, at times, to consist of false-starts—their digressive turns—their haphazard plans, and even haphazard principles of inclusion.
But it’s also the shape and movement, the various and unpredictable tempos, of Clare’s poetry that can be especially satisfying—and more so even than the surface and depths of diction. Despite the pleasure that some modern readers find in Clare’s regional dialect, the “prog” that Seamus Heaney seized onto, for instance, Clare also wanders onto a faded tapestry of eighteenth-century magniloquence. Along the same line of complaint, Clare’s local descriptions, though attentive to detail, are easily over-valued by a generation of readers brought up on cherishing the more obvious virtues of Elizabeth Bishop, among which a patient delineation of the senses.
Bishop’s laurels do not rest on those details; the poems are not even much animated by them; instead the details are animated by their relations to a poem’s other parts, to the poems as wholes. Likewise, Clare’s poems are reduced if the details are prized without regard for their place in the larger structure that sustains them; the poems ought not to be anthologized into a hearty rustic boards of bon-mots, masticated for their smoky, local texture. To appreciate their larger structure is to appreciate how they move in, and with, time. Here a poem from the Oxford Major Works, opened at random:
These childern of the sun which summer brings
As pastoral minstrels in her merry train
Pipe rustic ballads upon busy wings
And glad the cotters quiet toils again
The white nosed bee that bores its little hole
In mortared walls and pipes its symphonies
And never absent couzin black as coal
That indian-like bepaints its little thighs
With white and red bedight for holiday
Right earlily a morn do pipe and play
And with their legs stroke slumber from their eyes
And aye so fond they of their singing seem
That in their holes abed at close of day
They still keep piping in their honey dreams
And larger ones that thrum on ruder pipe
Round the sweet swelling closen and rich woods
Where tawney-white and red flushed clover buds
Shine boddily and bean fields blossom ripe
Shed dainty perfumes and give honey food
To these sweet poets of the sunny field
Me much delighting as I sawn along
The narrow path that hay laid meadow yields
Catching the windings of their wandering song
The black and yellow bumble first on wing
To buzz among the sallows early flowers
Hiding its nest in holes from fickle spring
Who stints his rambles with her frequent showers
And one that may for wiser piper pass
In livery dress half sables and half red
Who laps a moss ball in the meadow grass
And hurds her stores when april showers have flew
And russet commoner who knows the face
Of every blossom that the meadow brings
Starting the traveller to a quicker pace
By threatning round his head in many rings
These sweeten summer in their happy glee
By giving for her honey melodie
The example, at first glance, will not do me as many favors as other poems by Clare—but even here there is something to be said for time and the poem’s structure. Clare is, like Keats and Wordsworth, a master of the sonnet. His most famous poems, the bird-hunting or nest-hunting poems, are sonnets; and he returns and reinterprets the form beyond these poems too. In “Wild Bees,” Clare offers us the form and then over-steps it: for had the poem ended at the fourteenth line, with the word “dreams,” it would have, whatever the rhyme-scheme, have been accounted one of his descriptive sonnets. At “and larger ones that thrum on ruder pipe,” though, Clare continues the poem beyond the fourteen-line resting point, also the resting point of the bees’ “close of day” and “honey dreams.”
The poem does not come to a rest, though. And this in part because it is a poem about what is ceaseless in the lives of bees and men: labor. But also because it is a poem about those occasions, holidays, when the normal orders of time are suspended. The poem reconciles both experiences of time. The time of labor (“toil” in that early line) and the time of luxuriation in nature, the sense of holiday diffused by the laborer’s (bees and man’s alike) unconscious acquaintance with, and long-established settlement within, the natural world, are inseparable. The bees sing; seeing the bees, the poet sings, as do other commoners; the world is a place of song; the song harmonizes the conflicting times of life, or because the conflicting times are harmonized, the song’s melody is possible.
But that equation is still unsatisfying, suggesting as it does a deadening schematic analogy; set aside or beneath it, the time that Clare gets into the poem, adverbially and verbally:
Sun which summer brings
Glad the cotters quiet toils again
Bedight for holiday
Right earlily a morn
Slumber from their eyes
Abed at close of day
They still keep piping
That thrum on ruder pipe
Me much delighting as I sawn along
Catching the windings of their wandering song
First on wing
the sallows early flowers
when april showers have flet
Starting the traveler to a quicker pace
These sweeten summer in their happy glee
Notice the rapid, abrupt sequence of transitions between the general and the momentary; the perennial and the transient; the one instance in time at a moment, and the sense that time will bring the same again; the sense of time as expansive, and malleable to the will of life, and the sense of time as rapid, the determinant of life. And most jarring, and strange, the reason that the poem can feel arbitrary, is that there is no central stable vantage-point, not only in space but in time, from which to decide between the different temporal perspectives. It is not clear whether Clare’s journey, or the journey of the commoners and travelers every spring, is occasioned by a more general reflection on what always happens, or whether what always happens is occasioned by the fleeting occasion of one or the other.
The sum effect is a feature of Clare’s poetry that is more pronounced elsewhere: the simultaneous and connected desires to still time, to steal time, and to fill time: to show that time is always the same, that there are rhythms of change that dictate the content of change—to return to an earlier time, or to arrive at it, eager to see what can be salvaged not just from it, but of it (to bring back time itself)—and, out of a kindred desire, the hope, to be proven in the poems, that time yields time, that time can be filled with more time.
In “Wild Bees,” the latter especially can be seen: a demonstration of time as fecund with more time. The sonnet form at the start is not insufficient, but the meditation on the holiday buzz of bees and their dream of something beyond time yields the next observation, another moment of enduring fertility in the natural order, which yields in turn Clare’s fleeting presence, his having passed that way one day. This is how time moves, or how time feels: spilling over or slipping through, from one glimpse of permanence, to another, to transience, to another moment of transience. The bees are an ideal, having mastery over time that Clare would have if he could.The resolution of the poem comes in a melody; the bees can be celebrated for their song, for keeping its time, reconciling holiday and labor.
Whereas “Wild Bees” achieves the awkward simultaneity of holiday time to other, toiling and traveling times, “Sport in the Meadows” embraces holiday time on its own terms, or in a purer form. The poem, in punctuated guise, is here.
The comparison shouldn’t be only to “Wild Bees” but also to Robert Herrick and the seventeenth-century revelers, writing when holiday was under siege. But whereas those writers invested holiday with a moral purpose, for Clare it is a time when the waste that ought to remain fixed at the center of things is granted full sway:
The sheep and cows do flocken for a share
And snatch the blossoms in such eager haste
The basket bearing childern running there
Do think within their hearts theyll get them all
And hoot and drive them from their graceless waste
As though there wa’n’t a cowslap peep to spare
–For they want some for tea and some for wine
And some to maken up a cucka ball
To throw accross the garlands silken line
Clare realizes the fullness of the word “waste” in these lines: it is chiefly, at first, the “waste” that is the common lands where cows and sheep graze, whose enclosure, begun centuries before Clare’s poetry, accelerated in his era. It is also expenditure, something in excess: and Clare activates this sense of the word by setting it against “spare” in the line following, and by a glimpse of the economics of children at play in the lines that follow that. But through the poem, there is also a sense that time itself is being wasted: that it is not only cowslips that are in short demand, sought after for the productions of childhood’s imagination. And this final sense, along with another still, rises in the second instance of the word:
Scarce give they time in their unruly haste
To tie a shoe string that the grass unties
And thus they run the meadows bloom to waste
Till even comes and dulls their phantasys
When one finds losss out to stifle smiles
Of silken bonnets strings and uther sigh
Oer garmets renten clambering over stiles
The waste of time is not distinct from the waste of cowslips or anything else scarce and worldly, but it is of a different shade if not different shape. Clare draws it out, or puts it in, this new connotation by juxtaposition, once again: “Scarce give they time” draws out scarcity, loss, and time, in proximity to waste. And the poem itself cannot stop: they have no time to tie a shoe string, and so they run—and because they run over the meadows bloom, they bring it to waste, trampling it underfoot. Clare’s lines beautifully unite how their carelessness with time drives the bloom of youth to the waste of the bloom in the meadow… The youth do not waste time through idleness, but through “unruly haste,” and the waste that results is not only to the meadows, but to the strings and garments—and we are to recall, Clare’s lines ask, that these are products of hours of labor that are not holiday hours.
But the poem does not censure or rebuke–it restores, moving not .hastily, and not without rule (the rule of rhyme dominates), but with a confidence that time will yield time, that new time will redeem old, and unexpectedly—and so the poem follows, willingly, the youth in their unruly haste, as if through it, or by it, Clare can show what time can afford despite their seeming to thoughtlessly dispense with it. Earlier, the following lines:
Good gracious me how merrily they fare
One sees a finer cowslap than the rest
And off they shout–the foremost bidding fair
To get one prize–and earnest half and jest
The next one pops her down–and from her hand
Her basket falls and out her cowslaps all
Tumble and little out–the merry band
In laughing friendship round about her fall
To helpen gather up the littered flowers
That she no loss may mourn–and now the wind
In frolic mood among the merry hours
Waken with sudden start and tosses off
Some untied bonnet on its dancing wings
Away they follow with a scream and laugh
Mid-line “that she no loss may mourn” is swept up, not only with “the wind,” but with the acceleration of time: “and now the wind| in frolic mood.” When Clare writes, “and now” or “then” in his poems, and he does quite often, he is not lazily evading the obligations of narrative continuity, he is instead marking the sudden irregular paces in time’s gait. Although the tempo of the poem, its lurching forward as it does at the moment, might be taken to represent the time as it was lived that day, we might also consider it as Clare’s acknowledgment of time’s capacity for generation: “that she no loss may mourn–and now”: the loss is recuperated, or refilled, by the interruption of another present moment, mid-line.
Many poems represent a succession of present impressions; the force of the present tense and present time cannot be abolished from any poem, no matter how intense the recollection, if only because the poet-as-writer is felt and recognized alongside the poet-as-remembered or poet-as-rememberer. But in the case of Clare’s poems, the urge to show time’s temporally generative powers, the desire to steal time back from its own movement, and the desire to hold it in place, often manifests through his insisting that he and we remain focused on the present tense, on the moment itself, rather than on recollection or projection.
I’ll turn now to another example, to the most famous of Clare’s short poems:
I found a ball of grass among the hay
And proged it as I passed and went away
And when I looked I fancied something stirred
And turned agen and hoped to catch the bird
When out an old mouse bolted in the wheat
With all her young ones hanging at hear teats
She looked so odd and groteseque to me
I ran and wondered what the thing could be
And pushed the knapweed bunches where I stood
When the mouse hurried from the crawling brood
The young ones squeaked and when I went away
She found her nest again among the hay
The water oer the pebbles scarce could run
And broad old cesspools glittered in the sun
The sonnet is set firmly in the past, but the attention of and on time through its lines is determinedly present-tense. The clinching temporal coup of the poem is the final couplet, without which it would not be a sonnet at all, but which nonetheless feels gratuitous, hardly the resolution we expect: the water runs on, the cesspools glitter. There are a few things to do with this: one is to say that the poem returns to the placidity of nature after the poet has disturbed the mouse’s nest, but nowhere else has the water been mentioned, and it wasn’t the water that was disturbed. Rational though that explanation might be, to account for the lines, and for the peculiar sense of satisfaction that they bring, we ought to see also that they represent a distinct shift of the poet’s attention: the mouse has found her nest. The poem is primed for a clinching and cinching moral or note of resolution (Burns hovers). Instead, though, we are given “broad old cesspools.” The shift, without enunciating a thought, expresses and communicates Clare’s attitude towards the world: the narrative of the sonnet, though it does not fill the sonnet, need not do so; the poem does not want to bring back, to restore, the experience of the mouse only—but to explore the experience of time that the encounter with the mouse occasioned—that loss of attention in a sustained present moment—and crucial to that loss of attention in the present-tense is the perception of the water that followed the mouse’s returning to her nest. Clare does not want to steal something back from time—but to steal back the experience of time itself, and that experience of time is not coincident with the mouse’s scurrying, but with the duration of his absorption in the present-tense, which exceeded the anecdote about the mouse.
Clare’s sonnets are not baskets in which to place former perceptions and encounters in time—but to place the former perceptions and encounters of or with time. To say this is to acknowledge that not all perceptions and encounters of or with time would be worth recording. But when Clare writes a descriptive poem, or a picaresque descriptive poem (the poet stumbling at random from one object to another), or a picaresque (children trotting from one activity to another, on holiday, or at play on a normal day; or laborers returning from work), he is presenting to us a particular encounter with time that cannot be separated from whatever perceptual exchange with the world’s objects the poem recounts. As fascinated as he is with the matter of the world, he is as fascinated with what happens to time when the matter of the world exerts its influence on his fascination, and this complex interplay is the proper subject of these poems.
I’ve compared the sonnets to baskets, but I might have said nests. Some of the best sonnets are about the boyhood pursuit of searching into, seeking out, nests, for the eggs of birds, or for the birds themselves. The poems about nesting are profoundly nostalgic without seeming to be at all aware of their own nostalgia; the pain is not detected in the poems, but is supposed as motivating them in the first place. The child Clare’s thrill and eagerness at finding a nest runs coincident to the adult Clare’s thrill and eagerness at recollecting the child’s pursuit; the sonnet becomes the nest of the adult, to be filled with the nest of the child; in both cases, the nest is itself an origin.
I’ll go out on a limb of my own here and propose that what Clare the adult seeks in writing about the nests hunted down by Clare the child is the child’s sense of time, the child’s absorption into time, as the child pursued an origin. For the adult, the original space and time is the space and time of the child’s pursuit; arbitrary as it was, relentless as it was, and, most of all, absorbing as it was, that yearning to seize upon and steal from the nest, with its life that has not yet entered into the world’s time, comes to represent, for Clare the adult, a suspension of futurity and memory; as an adult writing a sonnet about the search and seizure of nests, he conjures up a poetry that refuses time’s adult, or historical, or economic, or even literary, patterns and expectations.
As boys where playing in their schools dislike
And floating paper boats along the dyke
They laid their baskets down a nest to see
And found a small hole in a hollow tree
When one looked in and wonder filled his breast
And halloed out a wild duck on her nest
They doubted and the boldest went before
And the duck bolted when they waded oer
And suthied up and flew against the wind
And left the boys and wondering thoughts behind
The eggs lay hid in down and lightly prest
They counted more then thirty in the nest
They filled their hats with eggs and waded oer
And left the nest as quiet as before
The nest poems, and the nests, are emblematic, perhaps the purest instances, of the motivation behind descriptive sonnets and longer-poems that are not about nests at all: that intense absorption in observation, often but not solely associated with childhood, in which the time is defied, in both the structure of the poem, and in the seeming, felt removal of the observer from the world.
The mist lies on the weeds but clears away
And half the fields lie open to the day
The ditcher hollos out and cleans his spade
To see the dogs go where his dinners laid
They snuff about and stare and hurry bye
The silly sheep that need not start and flye
They snuff the morning gale and hurry on
And only follow where the game is gone
And bite the weeds in wantoness and play
And leap along the stubbles all the day
Then sit on end with pointed foot and eye
The partridge brood that round the bushes lie
And soon the shooters thunder loudly calls
And half the covey in the stubble falls
An implication of what I’m saying runs as follows: the poems are a way of keeping the time as Clare would keep it; in a way of his own; as a response to the world–or they are a way of taking time from time–or of allowing time, as plant in a miniature greenhouse, kept under proper conditions, to blossom into further shoots of time… But they are not poems whose words fit together in the Coleridgean way. And I agree: the reason for each part in relation to the whole cannot be justified. They are a greater threat not only to the art of Romantic poetry, but of the verbal machines of the eighteenth and seventeenth centuries, than any other poet of the era…than any poet until Browning. But Browning’s poems are held together by personality–the observations are as free as Clare’s, but they serve a portrait; Clare’s serve only the barest transcendental subject, or the barest scheme of a sonnet form.
But I do not mean to say that the words do not matter, that the words should be other than they are, even if they could be other than they are. Those are the words; those are the descriptions; you must take them as they are, for what they offer, and feel that they belong together int he poem because those words, and those descriptions, are the descriptions that fit best onto the experience of time that Clare is evoking. We might feel that other words, other descriptions, would serve as well for Clare to keep the time as he does—that if he is interested in tempo alone, the notes need not matter—but the implicit rejoinder in the poetry is that the experience of time cannot be divorced from the notes, from the arrangement of words and descriptions. We are so used, following Coleridge, to positing reasons for the words in a poem in relation to the subject as it is presented in the poem that we forget that we might posit reasons for the words in a poem in relation to time…but Clare’s poems ask just that, if we consider that the experience of time is their subject, even though he does not choose to explicitly discuss it (that would be to fail to represent it).
Perhaps Clare is not most productively read alongside the Romantics at all, even if, he was responding, as they were, to an abrasive new sense of time’s movement. His response is too different from theirs for the comparison to lead us where we need to go. Instead, he might best be read alongside, and through our understanding of and response to, the twentieth-century poet who wrote the most compassionate and imaginative response to Clare: John Ashbery.
His poem, “For John Clare,” can be found online—but I will quote it also here, in its entirety:
Kind of empty in the way it sees everything, the earth gets to its feet and salutes the sky. More of a success at it this time than most others it is. The feeling that the sky might be in the back of someone’s mind. Then there is no telling how many there are. They grace everything–bush and tree–to take the roisterer’s mind off his caroling–so it’s like a smooth switch back. To what was aired in their previous conniption fit. There is so much to be seen everywhere that it’s like not getting used to it, only there is so much it never feels new, never any different. You are standing looking at that building and you cannot take it all in, certain details are already hazy and the mind boggles. What will it all be like in five years’ time when you try to remember? Will there have been boards in between the grass part and the edge of the street? As long as that couple is stopping to look in that window over there we cannot go. We feel like they have to tell us we can, but they never look our way and they are already gone, gone far into the future–the night of time. If we could look at a photograph of it and say there they are, they never really stopped but there they are. There is so much to be said, and on the surface of it very little gets said.
There ought to be room for more things, for a spreading out, like. Being immersed in the details of rock and field and slope –letting them come to you for once, and then meeting them halfway would be so much easier–if they took an ingenuous pride in being in one’s blood. Alas, we perceive them if at all as those things that were meant to be put aside– costumes of the supporting actors or voice trilling at the end of a narrow enclosed street. You can do nothing with them. Not even offer to pay.
It is possible that finally, like coming to the end of a long, barely perceptible rise, there is mutual cohesion and interaction. The whole scene is fixed in your mind, the music all present, as though you could see each note as well as hear it. I say this because there is an uneasiness in things just now. Waiting for something to be over before you are forced to notice it. The pollarded trees scarcely bucking the wind–and yet it’s keen, it makes you fall over. Clabbered sky. Seasons that pass with a rush. After all it’s their time too–nothing says they aren’t to make something of it. As for Jenny Wren, she cares, hopping about on her little twig like she was tryin’ to tell us somethin’, but that’s just it, she couldn’t even if she wanted to–dumb bird. But the others–and they in some way must know too–it would never occur to them to want to, even if they could take the first step of the terrible journey toward feeling somebody should act, that ends in utter confusion and hopelessness, east of the sun and west of the moon. So their comment is: “No comment.” Meanwhile the whole history of probabilities is coming to life, starting in the upper left-hand corner, like a sail.
“What will it be like in five years’ time when you try to remember?”
“We feel like they have to tell us we can, but they never look our way and they are already gone, gone far into the future–the night of time.”
“Waiting for something to be over before you are forced to notice it.”
“Seasons that pass with a rush. After all it’s their time too—nothing says they aren’t to make something of it.”
Ashbery gets, among a lot of other stuff too, how Clare’s poems are about time, and what time is about in Clare’s poems. Thinking through Ashbery as we think of Clare, and thinking through Clare by thinking of Ashbery, might be one way of setting Clare in a right light, beyond the light of the things of the natural world—within, instead, “the night of time.”