Like "Wedding Gowns or Money from the Mint": Clare's Borrowed Inheritance
Margaret Russett, University of Southern California
The history of Clare criticism tells a "story of marginalisation and exclusion" exactly correspondent with the "authentic and inalienable voice" of its hero (Bate 7; Harrison qtd. in Bate 7). 1 While the relation between authenticity and exclusion has been variously posited by Clare's defenders, the mutual imbrication of these claims has governed the tenor of response since his appearance on the literary scene in 1820. This essay contravenes that tradition. I contend, first of all, that there can be no such thing as an "inalienable" voice for a writer such as Clare, and that, in fact, Clare came to voice by consciously poaching on other literary properties. Second, I will argue that the state of marginality, far from being an accident of empirical reception, is both thematized and theorized by Clare's appropriations--in particular, by the "Byronic" poems in which he reflected on contemporary literary production and the conditions of his own career. Clare's strongest poetry, I suggest, may also be his least "authentic."
Two touchstones of Clare's biography establish the framework for this discussion. The first, a letter from Clare to Allen Cunningham, concerns a derogatory remark by Lord Byron about the "farmer poet" Robert Bloomfield. Bloomfield's poems, Clare retorts,
will meet posterity as green and growing on the bosom of English nature and the muses as those of the Peer. . . . Titles and distinctions of pride have long ago been stript of their dignity by the levellers in genius; at least they have been convinced that the one is not a certain copyright or inheritance of the other. I should suppose, friend Allan, that "The Ettrick Shepherd," "The Nithsdale Mason," and "The Northamptonshire Peasant," are looked upon as intruders and stray cattle in the fields of the Muses . . . and I have no doubt but our reception in that Pinfold of his lordship's "English bards" would have been as far short of a compliment as Bloomfield's. (CL 302-3) 2
The second anecdote, excerpted from Clare's memoirs, belongs to the genre of the literary novitiate. At thirteen, Clare recalls, he first "met with a fragment of Thompsons Seasons." Having with difficulty purchased a copy and absconded from work, he "clumb over the wall into Burghly Park and nestled in a lawn at the wall side," in order to read the poem unobserved. Until that moment, he "knew nothing of blank verse nor ryhme either otherwise than by the trash of Ballad Singers." After furtively consuming Thomson's poem, Clare composed "'the morning walk,' the first thing I commited to paper" (Goodridge and Thornton 87-88). The two stories together suggest a constellation of themes I will explore in the remainder of this paper. We find, first of all, a telling confusion of canonicity (Byron's fame, Thomson's influence) with aristocratic privilege (Byron's title, the enclosed space of Burghley Park). We may note that Clare's earliest patron and dedicatee was one Viscount Milton, while Paradise Lost was the only long poem besides The Seasons that Clare ever "regularly read thro" (Tibble 76). 3 To aspire to poetic fame, then, is to "intrude" into a monumentalized tradition that Clare tropes as landed "inheritance."
Overlying this set of oppositions, though not quite parallel with them, is the distinction between popular, oral culture and the print literacy that is, at any rate, a precondition of canonical status. As he encounters the literate blank-verse poem, Clare begins to write, while Byron (in Clare's account) hopes to maintain his privilege by widening the division between folk utterance and the vernacular standard. These boundaries are reinforced by the topos of "copyright," or literary property, which Clare seems to regard as synonymous with cultural esteem. Byron's copyright in genius, the analogue of his title, testifies to his assurance of what Young called "the noble title of an Author" (Young 118). Finally, Clare's secret reading of The Seasons--the text at issue in the pivotal eighteenth-century copyright cases, Millar v. Taylor and Donaldson v. Beckett--resonates nicely with the metaphor of landed estate that underwrites the concept of property in words. 4 It is at least a neat irony that Clare should have experienced the sale of his copyrights as a form of dispropriation: while believing that he owned the title to his first book of poems (the only one to make a profit), Clare later learned not only that he had sold it but that he had, in effect, paid to give his property away, since his first publisher charged him twenty pounds for it (CL 470-87, 605; Tibble 135-39, 267-71).
Always frustrated by his oxymoronic reputation as "peasant poet," which he recognized as an explicitly non-canonical category (one that, in John Guillory's words, "signifies exclusion"), Clare acted out the contradictions of his role in the idiom of literary property (Guillory 484). 5 Hence both his intentional forgeries and his fears of plagiarism may be regarded as part and parcel of his various, direct or oblique, critiques of canon-formation and challenges to critical orthodoxy. From the beginning of his career, for example, he worried disproportionately about plagiarizing other poets, even (or especially) when he had not read the works in question, and later he often accused other poets of stealing from him. 6 The fear of plagiarism, specifically a crime of writing, sits oddly in the context of the "trifles" or "songs"--as Clare called his love-lyrics--which, in line with oral tradition, typically ring variations on a common stock of sentiments and motifs. Plagiarism, that is, marks a point of tension between Clare's relation to language and the conventions of the literary market, which predicates authorial property on the unique expression of "ideas."
Less purely symptomatic and more reflexive are Clare's various exercises in imitation. Very early on, and in the face of persistent discouragement by his publishers John Taylor and J. A. Hessey, Clare began to produce parodies of Wordsworth and other contemporaries, adding that "I had thoughts of imitating the styles of all the living poets as I got hold of them to read them nor has the thought left me yet--Southey & Crabb I fancy I can do to a tittle . . . [both] often border on the ridiculous tho they are both great men & geniuses as I venerate & esteem" (CL 231). Later, when his own brief celebrity had begun to wane, Clare wrote, and submitted to various magazines, a series of poems that he "fathered" on seventeenth-century poets from Marvell to Harrington. In his editorial role, he presented himself as a champion of the "neglected poetry of other days" (CL 335). The two kinds of mimickry both suggest attempts at self-measurement: the first a tacit admission of his lesser status vis-a-vis the contemporary pantheon, the second poignantly allegorizing his lack of access to the inheritance of cultural capital. Many of these older poets, he writes,
only want to be more known to be more esteemed & admired & . . . [their] neglect is only owing to the Publics finding no path that leads to their beautys--it is something like the case of the "Sleeping Beauty" that had remained so long in her Pallace of Solitude that the paths which led to it were all choaked up & over grown with trees & brushwood that took the knight errant even a number of years to cut . . . down ere he could get at his prize & break the spell of solitude. (CL 403)
These neglected poets personify for Clare "the paradox of unvalued value" exemplified by Gray's gem of purest ray serene (Guillory 493). Would these poesies still smell as sweet if they bloomed in full view? Were they better known, Clare could not successfully have forged their works. Cultivating "mystery" while courting discovery, Clare exaggerates the dialectic of transmission, in which the systemic or jurisdictional sense of literature is represented by the mastery of anachronistic genres and archaic styles. In this regard, to quote Guillory once again, "what one learns to read"--or, especially, to write--"is always another language" (Guillory 501). Forgery is the "typical aberration" that constructs a relation to literary history as a drama of loss and recovery. 7
If the canon manifests itself to Clare as an enchanted silence, the act of writing commits him to ventriloquy or impersonation, making Hessey's advice "to write in your own natural Style" (qtd. in CL 200) altogether untenable. The irony of this remark is sharpened by its context, a pseudonymous submission from Clare that purports to relate the fortunes of "a countryman in a very humble way" whose "friends will have it as I may rise by trying my tallents at poetry which they consider as very excellent indeed" (CL 196). In the enclosed poem, Clare in effect impersonates himself, or rather the commodified version of himself as "peasant poet." That persona speaks the commonplaces of Clare's early reception. "Education never made a poet," his publishers dutifully assured him, deprecating "these Fellows who...by dint of Words and the Repetition of certain Greek and Latin Lines, gain possession of the Poet's Fame to the Exclusion of the rightful Heir" (qtd. in CL 172). "Ryhme is a gift as our folks here suppose," repeats Clare's speaker;
Nor wealth nor learning ever makes a poet
Tis natures blessing so the story goes
& my condition goes the way to show it
Tho up to Bible classes I was taught
My school account is hardly worth the telling
I staid no time to master as I ought
A hardish chapter in it without spelling. . . . Still tho my genius cant be reckoned rich
That its origional youll all agree
& tho my pen is often on the itch
Ive kept from petty thieving pretty free
To tell the truth Ive hardly stole from any
Save some few things from worthey mother Bunch
A joke from Miller (praised as mine by many)
From an old pedlar once who acted punch
Playing the country bumpkin as conceited upstart, Clare satirizes both his own ambition and the topos of mute, inglorious Miltons that runs through so much of his anthologized verse. The joke hinges on the incompatibility of property markers like genius, originality, and wealth with the orality (or ungrammaticality) which was both a great source of the peasant poet's frisson and also a sticking-point of Clare's negotiations with his editors. The subtlety of the joke consists in its form, quite different from the ballads and lyric stanzas that his publishers preferred. While this stanza lacks the epigrammatic punch of a final rhymed couplet, its eight lines suggest an early (1821) version of the Byronic ottava rima that Clare would return to in his asylum verse of the 1840s. Thus, the claim that "I've kept as yet from thieving pretty free" is undercut by a "stolen" form, or rather one that evokes a high-literate and aristocratic practice of satire, casting the lowly versifier as a clown in lordly clothing.
The attraction of this form, beyond the catachresis of "low" diction and the stanza's "high" connotations, lies in the quality with which Clare identifies Byron's "strength and style" (CL 660). Byron, for Clare, is the poet who "dared the world a war to wage," who "scorned the critics mock / & soared the mightiest of the age" (CL 597). Byron ignores the critical and grammatical rules that impinge so heavily on Clare, but in a way that reads as sovereignty rather than imperfect control. Chastized by critics for his liberties with the language, he nonetheless personifies style "at the vanishing point of grammar's abrogation," the mastery so complete that he can even "use bad grammar deliberately" (Guillory 517; Strunk and White qtd. in Guillory 517). 8 Two lines from Clare's later asylum poem Don Juan summarize the aristocratic poet's privilege: he is "Lord Byron poh--the man wot rites the werses / And is just what he is and nothing more" (Later Poems[LP] 92). 9 Byron makes great poetry from negligence (worses), in sublime self-authentication; the signs of orality--Clare is of course phoneticizing a Cockney accent--are thereby subsumed into a literate (punning) joke.
Although Clare probably did not read Byron's Don Juan until 1824, he had long taken an interest in Byron's career, had certainly read Childe Harold, and may also have encountered Beppo by this early date. If, as I am positing, Clare assumes the Byronic form to dramatize the limits of his own poetic persona, this maneuver indicates a shrewd perception of how, in the phenomenon of Byronism, the extremes of aristocratic and popular traditions meet; above the law, the poetic "free-booter" is redeemed by "the notice and affections of the lower orders" (Clare qtd. in Martin 85; Byron qtd. in Strickland 61). 10 Both a byword for hauteur and the emblem of cultural mobility, Byron personifies "classic fame" (LP, 98) as understood by a self-described interloper. Clare often implied, with a crude but serviceable materialism, that "men of titles wealth & fashion" could count on immediate literary celebrity, if not the longevity necessary to an "ornament of nations" (CL 392-93; LP 125). In more nuanced perceptions of literary materiality, he linked generic hierarchies with social ranks and aspirations. Donning another of his thin disguises, he wrote to Taylor as "Percey Green," enclosing a simple ballad "like a name without a title" (CL 248-49). Attempting to expand his horizons, he proposed to Taylor that he might write "a long connected poem in Cantos" (CL 83). Elsewhere he complained of "what conscieted title pages Murray [Byron's publisher] puts out" (CL 169), even while he imagined that his own poetic offspring might "get a gilded coat" when it found itself shelved "among [its] betters" (CL 26-27).
While Byron's initial reception could be dismissed as the result of sycophancy, he was also, as Clare wrote in an essay on "Popularity in Authorship," assured of more lasting influence. That such fame equated with what Pierre Bourdieu calls "the aristocracy of culture" is suggested by Clare's phrase "the Byron of Byrons," or Lord of Lords (CL 140), his shorthand for the highest literary achievements of his time (Bourdieu 11). To win the "title" of Poet is to become not Byron but "Byron," redoubling the self-alienation of aristocratic accession. Clare writes of his first trip to his publishers in London that he "could almost fancy that my identity as well as my occupations had changd and that I was not the same John Clare but that some stranger soul had jumped into my skin" (CL 79). If such are the connotations of aspiring to Byron's title, borrowing his poems' titles offers a way to explore the relation between the aristocracy of blood and the aristocracy of letters, between circumstantial advantage and the transfigured capital of poetic form.
His career as peasant-poet behind him, Clare reflected on the conditions of that career by writing, while "imprisoned" in a succession of mental asylums, "New Cantos" of Childe Harold and Don Juan. Byron himself had long been dead by this time, so that the aristocrat who, Clare imagined, might have "medi[t]ated a stripe on my shoulders with his cane" (CL 123) could safely be "thrashed" in writing. More to the point, the dead aristocrat neatly personifies the dead weight of tradition and those classici who borrow their titles from "the highest of Rome's propertied classes" (Guillory 501). By trespassing on Byron's literary property, Clare performs his relation to literacy as a psychodrama of divided identity. I bypass the question of Clare's state of mind during the composition of these poems, nor will I attempt to decide whether he genuinely believed himself to be other than "John Clare." 11 The destabilization of identity may be taken to literalize the impersonation inherent in literary writing; not merely the titles, but also the forms of Byronism insist that Clare's thematic explorations of social identity, literary value, and kinds of fame be addressed at the level of poetics.
Both Child Harold and Don Juan, like the Byronic parody quoted earlier, begin by reopening the question of how the production of poetry correlates with various practices of literacy. In each case, a distant echo of Gray's "Elegy" serves to widen the social distance between Clare's speaker and his eponym:
Many are poets--though they use no pen
To show their labours to the shuffling age
Real poets must be truly honest men
Tied to no mongrel laws on flatterys page
No zeal have they for wrong or party rage
--The life of labour is a rural song
That hurts no cause--nor warfare tries to wage
Toil like the brook in music wears along--
Great little minds claim right to act the wrong
(Child Harold, ll. 1-9, in LP 35)
Women of fashion must of course be ladies
And whoreing is the business--that still pays
Playhouses Ballrooms--there the masquerade is
--To do what was of old--and now adays
Their maids--nay wives so innoscent and blooming
Cuckold their spouses to seem honest women
(Don Juan, ll. 1-8, in LP 83)
We might initially notice how fully the stanza from Don Juan ironizes the sentimental premise of Child Harold. While Child Harold melodramatizes its protagonist's obscurity, exaggerating the misanthropic gloom of Byron's hero, Don Juan represents a more fully reflexive and less psychologized account of literary production and reception. 12
Clare's "Child" echoes Byron's at a number of points, especially in his affectation of Byronic jadedness. The attraction of this premise probably lies in the motif of the "pilgrimage," which offers a plot for Clare's "exile" from both home and the literary capital. In this poem, Clare adopts the posthumous status of those "half unknown" older poets who, he writes, "have no settled residence in the Land of Fame but wander about it like so many Pilgrims who are happy to meet a stranger by the way to make themselves known or heard once in a century" (CL 398). But despite vague thematic parallels and intermittent echoes of Byron's vocabulary, Clare's major debts consist in the title and the stanzaic form, both of which deviate from Byron's in significant ways. Clare imitates the Spenserians of Childe Harold but typically drops the final alexandrine, the formal sign of chivalric romance. 13 He also omits the silent "e" in "Childe." This omission may be regarded as the synecdoche of his relation to Byronism: the Byronic "e" is the mark of elite literacy, of style itself as archaism--Byron's "inheritance." 14 As such, it is unavailable to Clare, whose orthography was always shaky and who, I think, simply doesn't grasp the pun. Interestingly, though, Clare returns the "e" to the aristocratic title, which he spells in an early letter as "Byrone" (CL 24).
Losing the Byronic pun, moreover, Clare--"helpless as a child" in negotiating literary commerce--finds his theme (CL 592). 15 Hence his "Byronically" aloof persona modulates easily into un-Byronic confessions of powerlessness. In two characteristic stanzas, he laments that:
My Mind Is Dark And Fathomless And Wears
The Hues Of Hopeless Agony And Hell
No Plummet Ever Sounds The Souls Affairs
There Death Eternal Never Sounds The Knell
There Love Imprisoned Sighs The Long Farewell
And Still May Sigh In Thoughts No Heart Hath Penned
Alone In Loneliness Where Sorrows Dwell
And Hopeless Hope; Hopes On And Meets No End
Wastes Without Springs And Homes Without A Friend
What is the Orphan Child Without A Friend
That Knows No Fathers Care Or Mothers Love
No Leading Hand His Infant Steps Defend
And None To Notice But His God Above
No Joy's Are Seen His Little Heart To Move
Care Turns All Joys to Dross And Nought To Gold
And He In Fancys Time May Still Disprove
Growing To Cares And Sorrow's Menifold
Bird Of The Waste A Lamb Without A Fold
(Child Harold, sts. 6-7, in LP 69-70)
Figuring himself as cultural orphan, Clare assumes the voice of a disinherited minor, unlike the titled Byron. This theme of disenfranchisement carries over as well into the speaker's relation to language. In contrast with the Byronic excess of content over phrase, instanced in Childe Harold's wish that he "could...embody and unbosom now/ That which is most within me,--could . . . wreak / My thoughts upon expression" (Poetical Works 223), Clare's speaker exhorts, "Flow on my verse though barren thou mayest be / Of thought--Yet sing and let thy fancys roll / In Early days thou sweept a mighty sea / All calm in troublous deeps and spurned controul" (LP 76). The superficial echo of Byron's "strength" merely gives poignancy to an admission of weakness, the thematic enactment of Clare's remark that he will "be content to live a flower under the shelter of the laurels & Bays of my more high & deserving Brothers in Song" (CL 412). This fantasy is compactly represented in Child Harold's first stanza, whose rejection of written law both licenses Clare's property infringements and apparently repudiates all writing for the self-negating "shelter" of orality. The empty category of "real poets" makes canonical transmission incompatible with authenticity.
Given this contradictory position, and given the repeated objections to vulgar diction and grammatical irregularity that dogged Clare's publications, to emulate Don Juan is an extraordinarily risky poetic move, and on the whole Clare's critics have wished that he hadn't attempted it. By comparison with Byron's "elegance" and "brilliantly casual style," Clare's poem has been called "sad," "laboured," "ponderous," "strained," and marred by "appalling grosserie" (Strickland 73). Without refuting these judgments, we may notice how they reproduce the disciplinary terms applied to impostors and social climbers. Nonetheless, it is hard to deny that Clare's poem "abandon[s] meaning rhymae causa" and that he overworks every signature Byronic device. Clare's Don Juan literalizes the Byronic "pretence that the poem is writing itself," regardless of plans or classical models (Strickland 73). His speaker invents nonsense words for rhymes, admits that he "really cant tell what this poem will be / About" (LP 85), and, chiding himself to return "to our text again," asks "pray where is it[?]" The answer echoes Byron's arch rebuke to his "atrocious reader": "Begin as parsons do at the beginning / Take the first line friend and you cannot miss it" (LP 90; Poetical Works 817, 832). Clare follows suit by repeating his opening assertion--itself a paraphrase of the proverbial tag (poeta nascitur, non fit) applied to him by his publishers and patrons.
Don Juan's is a formalized "psychosis" that makes questions of intention (accident or design?), tone (Romantic irony or undisciplined rant?), and mode (delusion of grandeur or scorched-earth campaign?) uniquely unanswerable. 16 Where Byron's topical satire converts the "realities" of political economy and social exchange into dreams, Clare--writing in near-total isolation, to a purely hypothetical readership--can only dream of a literary economy in which, like "wedding gowns or money from the mint," something old can be reissued as "entirely new" (LP 89). Particularly in its last few stanzas, Clare's Don Juan inverts the assumption that "poets are born" and mocks the Haroldian faith that "Poets and Poesy are aspirations / Of minds superior to the common lot" (LP 125), reducing verse-making to sheer materiality:
I wish I had a quire of foolscap paper
Hot pressed--and crowpens--how I could endite
A silver candlestick and green wax taper
Lord bless me what fine poems I would write
The very tailors they would read and caper
And mantua makers would be all delight
Though laurel wreaths my brows did ne'er environ
I think myself as great a bard as Byron
Now i'n't this canto worth a single pound
From anybodys pocket who will buy
As thieves are worth a halter I'll be bound
Now honest reader take the book and try
And if as I have said it is not found
I'll write a better canto bye and bye
So reader now the money till unlock it
And buy the book and help to fill my pocket
(Don Juan, in LP, 92-93)
For the impecunious and unread poet to steal the noble poet's most ignoble lines (as thieves are worth a halter) is as though Tom the highwayman were to impersonate Juan. His accent would give him away. Clare miniaturizes and (further) vulgarizes Byron's apostrophes to cash, begging his imaginary reader for "a single pound" in exchange for the single manuscript that cannot undergo a Byronic alchemy into gilded coats. 17 Clare's violent reductions--equating cultural capital with writing matter, the marketplace with the exchange of a coin, and a literate posterity with the damning praise of the plebum--finally suggests a rebuke to, and the irrelevance of, his asserted parity with the lord. Written to nobody but himself, in the fear that, like Sleeping Beauty, it might never be "found," the unpublished exhortation to "line my pocket" puts questions of disinterested esteem out of reach. Clare's Don Juan, therefore, may be said to project his despair in the mechanics of literary transmission. Adopting a form that radicalizes the discrepancy between the peasant's "simple strains[s]" (Emmerson 57) and the Romantic canon as he knew it, Clare dramatizes the impossibility that exclusion could, as such, translate into a canonical (or "authentic") identity. Clare's Don Juan--at once subversive and entirely parasitic, ambitious of recognition yet sheltered under Byron's laurels--is, I think, ineluctably non-canonical, but powerfully records the contradictions attendant upon the wish that the other might speak in the language of written tradition.
1 Let me exempt from this generalization the fine essay by Lynn Pearce, "John Clare's 'Child Harold': A Polyphonic Reading." As Pearce shrewdly notes, "it is almost certainly this anxious inhibition" on questioning "the existence of an authentic authorial voice" that "has maintained Clare's position as a 'minor poet'" (139). back
2 Mark Storey, ed., The Letters of John Clare. Subsequent references cited in the text as CL. Here as elsewhere, I have preserved Clare's spelling, punctuation, and capitalization, in keeping with current editorial practice. back
8 According to Jerome Christensen, "lordship . . . asserted its inalienable sovereignty by a privileged neglect of the orthographical conventions that constrained bourgeois property transactions," a privilege enacted in the "self-legitimating style" of Byron's Don Juan (Christensen 314, 357-8). back
11 Perhaps unanswerable in any case, these questions have been exhaustively addressed elsewhere. The slipperiness of such determinations, and the subtlety of Clare's positioning, are suggested by his ambiguous response to a visitor at the Northhampton asylum: "It's all the same . . . I'm John Clare now. I was Byron and Shakspeare formerly. At different times you know I'm different people--that is the same person with different names" (Clare qtd. in Tibble, 373; and in Martin, 88). back
12 In so brief a discussion, I undoubtedly oversimplify Child Harold. For a subtler account of tone and persona, couched in a Bakhtinian vocabulary but consonant in many respects with my own, see Pearce, 139-57. back
13 Pearce notes that "the Spenserian stanza is part of an elaborated literary tradition, and its mastery indicates access to the education of the ruling classes" (143). Martin comments that the loss of the alexandrine "has the occasional effect of rendering the Spenserian verse in the behavior of ottava rima" (85). back
15 Here I appropriate an insight from Marjorie Levinson, who remarks in Keats' Life of Allegory that "the social code [which] kept [Keats] from living his life" made him "as helplessly and ignominiously a 'boy' poet as Chatterton" (8-9). J. Middleton Murray's influential estimate of Clare as a poetic "child-man" suggests that the relevance of Levinson's vocabulary to this discussion; see "Clare and Wordsworth," 511; reprinted in Storey, 359-64. back
16 Christensen uses the word "psychotic" to describe the ethos of Byron's Don Juan (Lord Byron's Strength, 323); the term is differently appropriate to Clare's poem but even more appropriately so. back
17 On Tom the highwayman, see Byron, Don Juan, XI.x-xx (Poetical Works, 790-91); see also Christensen, 306, on Tom's "jargon," one analogue for Clare's dialect. For Byron's apostrophes to "ambrosial cash," see e.g. Don Juan XII.iii-iv, XIII.c (Poetical Works, 799, 820). back
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