John Clare: Nature, Criticism and History: Newly Published

John Clare: Nature, Criticism and History

by  Simon Kovesi         Published  4th Sept 2017

£66.99   hardback only

Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan

ISBN-13: 978-0230277878

  • Size: 8 x 1.8 x 21 cm

This book investigates what it is that makes John Clare’s poetic vision so unique, and asks how we use Clare for contemporary ends. It explores much of the criticism that has appeared in response to his life and work, and asks hard questions about the modes and motivations of critics and editors. Clare is increasingly regarded as having been an environmentalist long before the word appeared; this book investigates whether this ‘green’ rush to place him as a radical proto-ecologist does any disservice to his complex positions in relation to social class, work, agriculture, poverty and women. This book attempts to unlock Clare’s own theorisations and practices of what we might now call an ‘ecological consciousness’, and works out how his ‘ecocentric’ mode might relate to that of other Romantic poets. Finally, this book asks how we might treat Clare as our contemporary while still being attentive to the peculiarities of his unique historical circumstances



  • John Clare and Place              Kövesi, Simon
  • Clare and Ecocentrism           Kövesi, Simon
  • Clare Making Text; Making Text of Clare                  Kövesi, Simon
  • Looking, Painting, Listing, Noting: Clare, Women and Nature        Kövesi, Simon
  • Conclusion: Clare as Our Contemporary; Clare as History                Kovesi, Simon

Simon Kövesi is Professor of English Literature, and Head of the Department of English and Modern Languages, at Oxford Brookes University, UK. 



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Guy Butler: ‘On First Seeing Florence’ thoughts

Mostly:     On first seeing Florence                   a long poem

Guy Butler

Published:     New Coin poetry, pamphlet by Rhodes University, Grahamstown.  1968.

As far as I am aware this pamphlet/poem is unavailable.

This pamphlet has a forward as ‘author’s note’ where he explains that it was first written in 1944, shortly before his Armoured Division advanced to the southern banks of the Arno on 4th August 1944.

Not really satisfied with the original version he rewrote and expanded it in 1960 and again in 1964. The floods of the Arno in1966 and his reading of War in the val d’Orcia by iris origo took him back to his poem and finally a satisfaction that it was finished to the best of his ability persuaded him to publish as a pamphlet.

A poem divided into eighteen parts.      This long poem is broken into many stanzas within the individual parts.  Part one starts with three-line stanzas in ABA rhyme scheme with one line-end of a following stanza repeating with one of the previous stanza; in irregular order.   Different parts vary in stanza length but overall maintain approximately regular rhyme schemes within each part.

The subject is initially simple, a first view of Florence, but hugely influencing the feelings of the moment were the author’ situation of a military progress in WW2 toward a city that coalesced his childhood reading of history, legend and literature.    Not only his reading but interest in Arts.   In the poem Guy Butler describes the wide ranges of thought and emotion that flood the senses and through them the links it discloses to his boyhood in South Africa.  A moment when time, place and memory merge.

He shows his personal art and literary tour within the poem.  You can feel that these words, thoughts, emotions, bundled through his mind as he first saw the vista of Florence through the trees as light improved and mist dissolved.  (the ‘mist’ might also be associated as clearing his mind at a later date first composing then editing/re writing later). The poem begins when he had found himself in a situation in view of a’ real’ place of his childhood ‘discoveries’; was actually seeing part of his memory, his past and current influences in mind and reality.  He recalls his boyhood and his world of stories and wonders at his ‘fall’ into adulthood and his wartime circumstances of ever present loneliness and expectation of death.

This amalgamation of emotion into his previous sense of self and seemingly new awareness of his being part of a ‘universal oneness’ is fairly clear.  God was there, clearly, but where now?    One element of the many running through this poem.  For me, I find the artful allusion within the poem is understandable, no doubt appropriate for his intention but looks back into the style of Shelley rather than Wordsworth, albeit not the rhythms.  And here I have to profess to a lower enthusiasm for Shelley than perhaps I should.  Taking Wordsworth’s idea of ‘composing in tranquility’ may also have softened a little of the edge of Guy Butler’s usual style, for my taste.  Not knocking the intention or result.

Guy Butler started this poem amid writing others that appear in his well studied ‘Stranger to Europe’ poem and first collection of the same name.  The shorter poems such as ‘Stranger to Europe’ suit me better.  As does ‘Giotto’s Campanile’.  Another poem, ‘December 1944’ brings in the sights and sounds of  war with religious considerations/questions seeping through.  Talking of the same period as ‘Florence’ they seem more ‘of the moment’ hence more direct.  No surprise just a degree change of preference.  His other poetry of this period, unsurprisingly, resonates through ‘On First seeing Florence’ though their content is more literal or should I say, storytelling, almost a diary line.

As with all good poetry, re-reading ‘On First Seeing Florence’ will always offer new views and insights.  One tip is copying out any poem, or at least part, is also an interesting way to pick trends and threads of ideas of the author.

First section:   ‘On First Seeing Florence’


 Earth shakes, spine jerks, eyes flicker to the flash

   of heavy guns; tense as a dog’s, ears strain

for the obliterating salvo’s crash


upon our bivouac:  but once again

   It crumps far left.  Dun gleam on tank and truck,

on dark tents taut from midnight’s drenching rain


and dreaming towers deep in the campaign’s muck.

   And yet one dresses, dons unusual hopes

and steals abroad to try one’s curious luck.


Far more than lungs are breathing as one gropes

   towards the black hill’s crest to catch a first

close view of Dante’s town.  Long, wooded slopes


secrete a blessed sense of getting lost

   in scented labyrinths, until the Lane

on one side falls away:  sheer sky, where tossed


festoons of soft mauve cirrus sway between

   the moon’s dim burial and the unborn sun.

Transfixed, one stares.  Why should the natural scene


seem to excel itself?  Who dares poke fun

   from such a stage?  Lear’s all-licensed fool

beneath this sky, after the storm is done,


might hold a tattered heart to ridicule.

   Let tragedy alone; sit, smoke and take

a journalistic note, guard a small cold lake:


dark pines, spear straight, in massive phalanxes;

   loose robed poplars, Parthian free and bright,

each poised to wheel and prance in the slightest breeze  –


an old trick this, to take what comes to sight

   from public day into one’s private time,

fling words at it, then watch it catch alight


and, sparkling with live history, consume

  its three-dimensional sheath of metaphor  –

it’s all in old Longinus On the Sublime.


Vanity of vanities  –  as though this war

   should be fate’s winnowing wind that sifts

the grain from all the chaff I’ve lived before.


One waits and smiles at one’s own mental shifts.

   Nun’s fingers fell habitual beads to still

the heart for timeless prayer:  so eyesight lifts


thing after thing, feels each, then lets it fall

   till outer meets with inner mystery,

then pauses, holds it, and is held in thrall:


a pine is no mere non-deciduous tree;

   each poplar celebrates its own white core:

once they were gods and oracles to me,


vast presences whose tall bone-houses bore

   contrasting robes in whose deep shades I found

cool worlds to wander, dream in, and explore;


but now O how disturbingly they send

  their minor chords vibrating through my brain

to where, half over earth’s unending round,


their differing greens rise in a sun-blind plain

   to splash damp shadows on the dazzling ground

about our house.  Now I am there again.

 The threads of religion and mythology run through many of Guy Butlers poems and in the shorter poems are more easily handled than in this long poem. But one of the points of ‘……‘Florence’ is its history of millennial influence as a centre for the arts (of Western and ‘imported’ mostly) on the world.  Guy Butler is heavily influenced by such culture but in other, later works, also absorbs and narrates the stories of his surrounding South African indigenous peoples where his voice moves into honest, colourful images that seem to illuminate the harsh beauty/reality of the villages and scenery around him; where elemental Nature is itself!   This fall-back to depiction and final involvement of nature, especially tree and bush, their place in landscape as more permanent than man, is a large part of his expected long life as a poet as well as one of the ‘war-poets’.

Last verse excerpt from,

Stranger to Europe:     (From Selected Poems,  AD Donker ltd. 1975)

Now, between my restless eyes

And the scribbled wisdom of the ages

Black hills meet moving skies

And through rough hedges a late wind blows;

And in my palm through all the rages

Of lust and love now, always, lie

Brown hawthorn berry, red dogrose.

‘Home Thoughts’, is a poem in the ‘Selected Poems’ which is longer than average at some at 140 lines (broken into stanzas of 10 lines, in three parts).  Which feels its way through the legendary Apollo, linking with Galileo and their worlds and Butler’s ‘sense of communion with them’ (my words) but also about his new awareness of his and past generations’ deep roots in Africa.:

I have not found myself on Europe’s maps,

A world of things, deep things I know endure

But not the context for my one perhaps.

I must go back with my five simple slaves

To soil still savage, in a sense still pure:

My loveless, shallow land of artless shapes

Where no ghosts glamorise the recent graves

And everything in Space and Time just is:

What similes can flash across those gaps

Undramatized by sharp antithesis?

The above is the third from last verse.  Here seems to be Guy’s realisation that Europe is not his personal future, that the climate of South Africa, the soil of the Great Karoo and its own ancient world is where his future lies:   In the last two lines:

‘Cleave, crack the clouds! From his brimming drum

Spill crystal waves of words, articulate!’

A personal calling for his own muse to give him the ability to ‘write’.  And it can be read as a plea of the day (late 1940’s) for his country to awaken to its combined sense of self, beauty and history.  South Africa was calling him home, to stay.







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Of  Love and War: Vernon Scannell

Of Love and War.    Vernon Scannell.  1922-2007                           New and Selected Poems


November 16th is the 10th anniversary of the death of Vernon Scannell.(23rd  January1923 -16th November 2007)


This seemed as good as any time to read a self-selected collection of his poetry, some new but most previously published in book or magazine form.  He worked on this collection in his eightieth year and describes in a beautifully written introduction his belief in the art of poetry and its requirements.  Also of his disdain for the written poetry rising at the start of the 21st century and  throw-away performance poetry designed to be ‘disrupted-verse’ ( my ‘word’ not his).

He admitted that poetry had always been performed and ‘performance’ may have included his view of an extravagance that was acceptable for the event but unnecessary for written poetry.   This clashes somewhat with the idea that poetry is best read out loud but maybe it’s the degree.   However he gave no allowance to work turning into the first decade of the 21st Century, which is his perspective, not mine.

I previously reviewed Epithets of War

I read ‘Epithets of War’ not so long ago and was  quite taken up by his style which frequently sought to maintain a more traditional, or at least, Victorian-cum-Tennyson format.  His experiences as soldier at war and boxer may well have helped his appreciation of technique.  His choice of words was no doubt also influenced by a life that was frequented by difficult  physical situations and sights.

A poet of international standing in his day,  numerous prize winnings and often a visiting reader of his work.  From a man who is also known as a soldier from El Alamein to Normandy.  As a boxer both amateur and professional.  Making him a poet of the physical world.

Scannell’s awareness of the subtlety of metre and words can create an unexpected softness from their often terse and blunt meaning.   His poetry, often tough in language, cannot hide the variations of love that filter through.  Vernon Scannell is frequently classified as a war poet (fair enough) but reading his own excellent introduction to this book,  his commitment is to ‘poetry’ and far more can be taken from his poems.  This collection broadens the view you may have of his work.  Two sides of the same coin, you might say with compassion, nostalgia, less than subtle humour tucked in and imagery; all through straightforward storytelling. Each poem a complete entity and leading you onward to the next.

Do read his introduction.

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Waiting for the Echo< 2017 PoetryID Anthology

Waiting for the Echo, A 2017 Poetry ID Anthology

A Graph Review.   45 to plus sixty, good reading

Not yet available in bookshops,  best to purchase  via PoetryID website

978 09542867 7        48pp        Paperback         £5.

(note: there is a same-titled poetry collection by a single author, totally different to PoetryID title in cover and content, listed on Amazon)

This time a review of an anthology from Poetry ID, a creative group based in Hertfordshire.   Here we have fourteen different poets, each with three poems included ( one has four ‘extracts’).

Most of the poets here use a story mode with agile rhythms and chorded words but not so much any connecting rhymes, which I do have an occasional yen for.   Anne Copeland’s first poem has numerous end-rhymes in her Summer Evening and Runner-Up by Rose Salina twists some neatly into her short poem on competition rules.   Apart from that we stick with what might well be called Modern or Free, verse if such terms are still used.

It is a collection that ranges across the world, literally, in place, subject and with styles varied enough to keep the reader keen.  From Brexit to weddings, kangaroos to car crash and with love and many tokens between.  There is much to find and re-read.

I always suggest a few favourites, as below but all forty-three make this a very entertaining and at times thought-provoking anthology.  Always good news for a poetry collection!

The venom of a platypus is not lethal     By Jay Ward

Runner-up        By Rose Salina           Modern Dance  By David Van-Cauter

Vase      By Yuko Minamikawa Adams    Syria: the 47     By Nicola Jackson

Jazz club: Tubby Hayes    By Dick Jones



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John Clare, The Trespasser: A Graph Review

John Clare, The Trespasser.  

By John Goodridge and R K R  Thornton

A Graph Review:  high marks to 70s



Published by Five Leaves Publications.      2016.      Paper £6.99

10 pages of notes and 3 on further reading in print and web

Originally an extended essay in ‘ john Clare in context ‘,  Cambridge 1994.   For this current paperback the typescript was extensively revised, corrected and additions of new material. Also with new and updated references, recent and primary included.

Both authors are Vice-Presidents of the John Clare Society, Professors of English and have been authors and academics in literature and poetry, especially of working/labouring-class with particular interest in Clare. (among several others).

A slim volume of 90 pages of which 74 are text.

You may have read one or more of the now several biographies on Clare, perhaps an academic work such as ….. Clare’s Place in Poetry by Mina Gorji (2009).  (Reviewed on this website).  Or the growing number of texts and collections on specific areas of Clare’s life and poetry.   You will certainly be reading his poetry.  Nonetheless, this little book sums up John Clare’s personality and passions.   He placed himself as an ‘outsider’ and many small pointers throughout the text give glimpses to the make-up of Clare: from a Scottish grandfather who abandoned Clare’s pregnant grandmother to his ‘loneliness’ as a scholar in the village and much leading on from these. Other aspects may be brushed upon in this book but here the authors have hit upon Clare’s core strengths of belief that of ‘every man’s need of liberty’ and Enclosure’ was one large corrosive part of his world.

He may have been shy, awkward and diffident in the presence of those in authority though his pride may also have held him back at times. His writings showed strength of belief and a confidence in himself as a poet.  The awareness of the life of poverty he came from made him desperate to support his family but equally to refine his art and be published, ideally to provide some income to ease his family’s struggles.  A path that was too hard eventually as his health had always been problematic.  A life of hard physical work, often periods of poor or no food, hectic times of too much drink, a growing family and the costs of sudden fame followed by its slow dissipation were too much for him.  His first period in a private Essex asylum, a momentous walk home and a brief time with his family still produced much fine poetry, briefly home in Northborough and the many years lodged in Northampton Asylum produced much more.

Throughout his life he was a naturalist, an observer of all things and wrote about his local community whether from  minutely detailed wildlife, most widely known today, to village life, including satire with scorching caricatures especially in ‘The Parish’.

‘John Clare, The Trespasser’,  does indeed focus on the dire effects of Enclosure on Clare and community-life but uses the definition of a trespasser to travel over the wider fields of his life and work.   He defined himself by his locale and his community. Was compelled to be an observer, a collector, a musician with violin who wrote down words and music traditional of his day from travelling musicians and gypsies.  Gypsy music was so different to his tradition that of he was fascinated by it and spent time with them to study their music. He also found their way of life quite convivial.     His interest was also aroused by the Scottish drovers that passed through, likely as a link to his grandfather.  His liking of Burns another connection to Scotland, including the lowly origins of Burns himself and his poetical style and songs.  Clare was a man without a place in his own village for more than his writing and his spent fame that leaving him floundering, but he could assimilate much that caught his passionate nature.

The last section,  Enclosure, gives the strongest description of Clare.    For me it confirms him as a radical, political poet whose passion is shown in his work though frequently undermined by his poor circumstance and his own diffidence (shyness, almost speechlessness) in the presence of  moneyed people.  Some might say he had an inferiority complex, or more likely a class-complex.  Perhaps his behaviour was partly due to his keeping himself in check as angry outbursts to the wrong people would have severely harmed his ability to retain any employment.  The poor-house loomed large at these times for all labourers and Clare’s father would end in one.  It also seems he felt more able with his village peers when enjoying drink and music at the local ale-houses or celebrations.

Whatever his outward manner, his heart and writing were fixed on the damaging effects of enclosure on nature and the labourer and  Community.

Mentioned in this book, these are poems to read with a fresh eye:

The Mores,    The Lament of Swordy Well,   The Cellar Door,    The Progress of Rhyme .                           

The Lament of Swordy Well is highlighted as Clare’s depiction of the result of Enclosure leaving nothing but dreams of the past for the labouring poor, among much else.

The book in total is a fascinating short study of John Clare.  It may appear to focus on a small aspect but this is a core description of the man and uses choice selections to illustrate his ideals and his skill in writing more than poetic studies in natural history.  The authors explain the realities of Clare’s words and the use of poetical reference and political sub-text in particular poems.  Highlighting his use of counterbalanced language within an analysis of lines of poems, noted above, brings a strength of understanding not only to the meaning of the work but to the fire and sensibilities of Clare himself.

No doubt the ‘Conclusion’ of this work puts it more clearly….. ‘it is no longer enough to read Clare as a simple observer of nature in transparent descriptive verse,……’

And a quote from the back cover, from another reviewer:  ‘At last a label has been found that fits Clare almost perfectly’. : Roger Sales, Literature and History.

For me Clare will now be thought of as a man who dared to trespass, in a multitude of ways, throughout his life and writings.

link to another comment on Clare as labourer and Enclosure:

John Clare, The Trespasser is a ‘must read‘ for Clare enthusiasts and students of the labouring classes and landscape in the 19th century.





Efficiency versus liberty to roam.      Profit and productivity, cost of enclosure and policing.




The cellar door,     Themprogress of rhyme……. in Scottish drovers, gypsies and other clarean trespassers.




Clare: the times of his life

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Poems for April

Poems for April.

April may have been overtaken by May and Spring is now sliding into Summer so apologies for being a laggard.  Or maybe I can claim to be presumptious for 2018!   Another small selection for the seasons covering  700 years.

Short extract of beginning of Prologue to Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer.   Modern translation by Ecker and Crook  (online & published by Hodge and Braddock 1993)…. I would highly recommend this translation of the complete Tales for those in study now or for nostalgia of days studied and how it should really be translated!!

When April’s gentle rains have pierced the drought

Of March right to the root, and bathed each sprout

Through every vein with liquid of such power

It brings forth the engendering of the flower;

When Zephyrus too with his sweet breath has blown

Through every field and forest, urging on

The tender shoots, and there’s a youthful sun,

His second half course through the Ram now run,

And little birds are making melody

And sleep all night, eyes open as can be

(So Nature pricks them in each little heart),

On pilgrimage then folks desire to start.

The palmers long to travel foreign strands

To distant shrines renowned in sundry lands;

And specially, from every shire’s end

In England, folks to Canterbury wend:

To seek the blissful martyr is their will,

The one who gave such help when they were ill.


April Showers                              John Clare

Delightful weather for all sorts of moods

& most for him – grey morn and swarthy eye

Found rambling up the little narrow lane

Where primrose banks amid the hazly woods

Peep most delightfully on passers bye

While Aprils little clouds about the sky

Mottle & freak unto fancy lie

Idling and ending travel for the day

Till darker clouds sail up with cumberous heave

South oer the woods & scares them all away

Then comes the rain pelting with pearly drops

The primrose crowds until they stoop & lie

All fragrance to his mind that musing stops

Beneath the awthorn till the shower is bye

This poem taken from Midsummer Cushion, the manuscript that Clare spent a tremendous amount of time preparing for publication but it  never was in his lifetime.   It took 150 years.   Published by MidNAG &Carcanet in 1978, intro.  by Anne Tibble.    A collection of poems we know selected and ordered by himself makes this a particularly special book.


April                                        Jean Whitfield

I saw into the eye of the month with its moist buds

not quite contained on quivering branches

and an embroidered sky beyond white mazes

of yellow-cream green-shining almost-leaves

mere prickings spinning webs with sunlight

and the wild plum tree hazy with dabs of thick leaf.


A crazy Crow clowned an April trick

balancing a leg a wing a hooded beak

on one slender single-budded branch

bending low with him and springing up

against the sheer cliff-top blue

as the carrion trampolines and grinned gleaming.


Sky is all-at-once a whipped and curling ice-cream sea

with wave-tops flashing peaking into one another

and down here grass reflects its silver in these bending blades

that goldfinches skim on the surface light

and carry its message in their joy lifting and flowing.


April’s music laced with wings rejoices in its murmurings

it is all surprises at the heart of it, is a gift for us

an unfolding of the ceaseless year that is happening again.


I tasted April sharp and clear

a spring of a day bubbling out of the gill

it wet my lips filled my cold throats and flowed

like light lapping tree-tops fresh through me

and my toes shot sparks in the icy dew:

in the warming sun my skin became April.


A poem from ‘Moments’, reprinted by permission of Bakery Press.  Another example of the quality of this poet’s work.




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poems JJS


The grizzled old man looked at me

with the morning sun glistening on bristled chin.

His eyes sunken, not hooded like crows

but sprawled-over by lank eyebrows; and his nose!

Thin commas red-lining the beak and you see

the grey from his nostrils peek.

There’s a finite crease in each lobe of each ear

and the duct in his eye predicted a tear, or sleep.

The fine hair cast thin and lopped to one side

hiding the patch where the thatch had died.

Back to his jaw where the line has sagged

and the lips drawn in.

The rhythm is missing, it’s not me nor him.

Maybe, just maybe, I’m seeing his twin.




The hawthorn, once budded and blossom-smothered

So smooth and supple that she waved to and caressed the breeze

Twisting with light to loose her petals and covered

To spell the ground white with flattering ease.

As branches arched, grew wide and reached for sun,

Beneath its shade in dappled light grew nature’s young

To play and grow and shelter as young shoots

In the founding nest among the hawthorn roots.

But time, the tides of man, an unknown thing in hawthorn’s course

Seeks recompense for seasons’ gifts

And bends and wreaks with gales that force

The gnarled and ancient roots to lift

And skin the branches clean of bud and leaf

To leave a memory and make a willow weep.


Poem….                                                                          28.march17

Recollection slips into gear when sitting in my quiet place

And the setting sun brings into view a distant face

That has never aged with signs of wear.

This time it’s red-eyed Henry who heads the line

With his solemn look.  Always hid behind

BIg-foot McCluskey but now he has the shilling

His penitent father gives for sweets

and he’s always willing

To share his treats with those who fold him in.

So there he is, is Big-foot, as heavy as is tall.

With Shiny-face and cheerful smile for one and all;

Unless you mock his mother, striving hard to keep together

A house of children by working the only way she could.

And then beware, big-foot.


I sip my thermos’ tea and hough quietly as childhood ghosts

Drift across the rows of red and white-stringed beans;

Canopies of leaves that point and flutter and boast of ripened seeds

That twist and burst and fall on fallow soil, on forgotten scenes.

Big Mary, Little Jane.  Oddly sisters a year apart

Who always dangled off each other’s arms as if alarmed to part,

Except when chased by Quickey-Tom and then would dash across the lane

To squeal in unison on opposing sides and feign

Surprise or anger amid delight.

And Mickey, Smiff and then there’s Jim.

What became of him, I wonder absently, sipping tea, still steaming

Into rheumy eyes.

He had big plans. Dressed like a mannequin for any occasion.

Always scheming, planning, looking for a reason

Not to be him.


Time, they say, is a great healer.

Glasses, they say are always rose-tinted.

Beds, they say, are of your own making.

But I wonder, in my quiet place,

Of the stories they would make of me;

Of my face that never ages,

Of my eyes, one, two, three.


for Jean, Poet.                     JJS.    9jan.2017


A gossamer.

One hundred threads

of finest silken line.

A spiders web of steel

in summer through winter’s grip

and yet a sip of wine

that weds your world to mine.



Three Poems               J Johnson Smith

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