John Clare: The Parish (notes on my reading)
or, as Clare’s subtitle: The Progress of Cant.
This first edition, in hardback published by Viking 1985 at £10
0 670 80112 7 edited and introduction by Eric Robinson with Notes by David Powell
The Introduction tells us the bulk of The Parish was written between 1820 and 1823. Clare said it was finished but in later notes Clare says he has ‘improved’ (1826) some parts. Additions can be placed as late as 1827.
Eric Robinson gives an outline of Clare’s situation throughout these years with a picture of the world into which he failed to fit or make a living for himself and family. His plans and ambitions were usually struggles and the many failures up to 1820 and onwards caused him to turn his pen to caricaturing the petty and outrageous village officials and local inhabitants. This satire was written at the same time as his writing poems and songs. He was well aware that The Parish would not be suitable for publishing as it would be seen as a put-down to many in his local community, be they magistrates, farmers, vicars or any of the layers of social levels above Clare. Not a good idea for a poor and struggling labourer-cum-poet.
Robinson highlights Clare’s knowledge of and his position on religion. We are also briefed on Clare’s wide reading and appreciation of current and earlier poets, from where his model for The Parish would emerge. was one of those poets though Clare disparaged his work as having been written from a ‘snug position’, perhaps unaware of Crabbe’s earlier years. Clare’s targets were mostly from within his community and wider personal knowledge of hypocrisy and pure meanness of spirit or soul.
His writings were normally of ‘Pastoral’ themes, of poetry or essays on his naturalist’s world, as well as writing and collecting songs. A sensitive man, struggling with his new family needs and his personal darkness added to by the weight of earning a living whilst trying to get his work published in book form. His frustration and likely anger/despair pushed him to composing the The Parish and preparing it meticulously for publication.
In his day however, knowing that his position was in all respects too precarious for its actual publication it likely became a form of therapy, an angry but ‘honest’ description of what he saw. Of how he lived in a rural community changing immutably and, for the times, rapidly.
Clare was a radical in many respects but restrained by his health, wealth, family and his need to be a poet. All these difficulties accumulated into The Parish, eventually to be put away, manuscript kept carefully. Finally this edition was published in 1985, as true as possible to Clare’s design, line layout, spelling and punctuation. Eric Robinson adds notes for the very few ‘alterations’. In all a remarkable exercise considering the deciphering needed for the large amounts of mss and correspondence available. Additional ‘Notes’ and ’Glossary’ complete the book. Now The Parish can now be placed where it deserves to be in the hierarchy of poetical standards.
Clare’s ‘Prefatory Note’ is included fully and is a pithy description of the conditions of pay and work that existed for labourers, also noting the likely prospect those conditions would improve. He ends by saying; ‘but better times and better prospects have opened a peace establishment of more sociable feelings & kindness – & to no one upon earth do I owe ill will’. So he may have been angry but had no malice in his heart, only the feelings of injustice.
For me this suggests that he had a great observational understanding of the ways of the world as well as intense knowledge of the natural world. No doubt he was ‘an angry man’, partly as a pseudo Radical with a wide Biblical knowledge but mostly for the weight of circumstance against him.
From line 8 Clare states clearly his desire to satirise those people and positions and their serious flaws:
‘I fearless sing let truth attend the rhyme
Tho now Adam’s truth grows a vile offence
And courage tells it at his own expense’
The vain, the foolhardy, the farmer’s daughter, the squire and warden are all targets for his pen, as are many more that preened or fawned or were mean. True to his word, Clare casts his net widely and clearly. Satire it is but more honest than cruel.
Lines 355 to 380 are a brief description of ‘a plain mean man’ from Clare’s boyhood ‘Who near (never) aspired on follys wing to soar’. Which might be Clare’s unconscious view of himself. By now he did believe his poetry was good enough and important enough to be read and seen by the public. His position and potential he knew though he may not have taken his own manner and health into account. He positioned himself in the ‘market’ as a Peasant Poet (see John Clare and the Place of Poetry by Mina Gorji) but was unable to push through or change direction when needed. His pride and his insecurities may also have held him down in a world where he was intellectually competent in many ways but still poor and naive in relation to the literary and artistic circle he found later when in London.
Clare was honest, much interested in religion, liked an alcoholic drink, enjoyed a song but was a little too easily led when in drink. For a rural man with an obsession for poetry and natural history, insecure health and income he needed luck to be on his side. Luck was neither his friend nor fortune. The luck seems to have been that he saved his poetry and writings while he could and when in asylums he was treated with kindness and respect and his ‘manuscripts’ were recovered and collected. His luck was that he was recognised as a great poet, albeit by a significant few. Our luck has been that in each generation since his death there have been literary figures and poets recognising and securing his work and helping make it available.
The Parish picks almost entirely at the faults of the parish ‘officials’ or those of so-called standing, seemingly always conning or weighing down on those villagers they deemed less than themselves. Quick to highlight the cliques and petty rules enforced to put coins into their own pockets and helped keep power over those below them. And the divide is widened with those holding down the poor with one hand using the other to raise themselves up, ingratiate themselves to their ‘superiors’ or peers. He casts his disdain widely, be they farmers, magistrates, vicars or wardens. The bailiff is deemed the lowest of the low, doubtless due to his father having to go into the workhouse.
‘Young Brag a jack of all trades save his own (line 739)
From home is little as the farmer known’
Is caustically portrayed as a know- all who knows little except how to rouse a rabble and proud of that fact alone. After some caustic descriptions this personality type is finally established as the norm for all local politicians:
‘this village politics – and hopes for pelf
Live in one word and centre all in ‘self’. ‘
(pelf= money, ill-gotten gains)
‘The reasoning jargon of unreasoning fools
Versed in low cunning which to handle brief
Is but a genteel title for a thief’
At one point Clare casts back to the humble vicar of yesteryear who truly lived as poorly as his parishioners. A quality much admired by Clare though the reason for this was more a matter financial between Church and Estate owner of the parish. Had he known this Clare may have been even harsher on the Church Hierarchy. Here, his pastoral leanings prompted memories of a lost Golden-Age as contrast to his jibes. Did he believe in a Golden Age? Personally I think he wished it rather than believed it. Remembering a ‘Rosead past’ was one way to live with the woes of his present.
John Clare was extremely well-read and literate, which was another thorn in his mind when he looked at his position in comparison to those around him.
The Parish was written over several years. The quality of the poem is maintained with clean rhythm and couplet lines throughout. It is a satire and understandable why Clare felt it would never be published. He hits out at all the people he would have had personal dealings with in his village and local area. Satire picks on the bad and worst of people and this poem lashes out at all his hates and dislikes. His observation is keen and his insight into character as deep as his wide understanding of the Bible and his religious and moral ideals. Thus, he was well aware of the reality of his writing; had suffered at the hands of those he wrote about and was both angry and fearful at his lowly and fragile position. That he had belief in his poetry was both a mainstay and a diversion. Along with pride that did him no good at times.
Despite his difficulties and health, thanks to his forthcoming brief success and some early friendships, he developed a wide range of contacts and friendships among his literary and artistic peers though not always capable of maintaining a ‘sane’ engagement with them.
From The Parish we have a pretty accurate picture of the downside of village life, written by someone with a piercing observation and literally from a ground-level position. Reading the later Don Juan was a harsher experience, a level up in anger and cynicism but by then Clare had experienced some success. Maybe also some elements of the depravities of London followed by the fall into an almost obscurity again. It was to be a frustrating obscurity. Pride, naivety and a turning of the poetical tide no doubt crushed the chance of financial or national success and security. Nontheless he had gained a local celebrity status which, unfortunately also hindered his capacity for returning to a more normal life. Hindered too by his weakness from birth, his life of frustration, poverty and his mental health.
Eric Robinson suggests that The Parish should be recognised as a great poem and in the Public Hall of Fame (my words here). It is a significant piece of verse, a satire that also deserves to be acknowledged as having a place alongside the likes of Hammond’s Village Labourer as descriptive of period rural life.