John Clare This Happy Spirit
Poems of Clare selected and edited by R.K.R. Thornton and Carry Akroyd.
Illustrated by Carry Akroyd
£9.99. Paperback ISBN: 978 095641133 4
I tend to note down the poems I especially like as I read a collection then re-read and whittle down to the ones that echo longest to suggest them for other readers. I know I have read many of Clare’s poems and biographies over the last 50 years, admittedly with assorted gaps between then and now and found many I like. So, as usual I start to note the poems as I like them in this collection: some new to me, others welcome returns. Here lies the problem; I could write them all down as potential recommendations…….
The cover blurb states: ‘this selection, a companion to The Wood is Sweet, presents less familiar poems of John Clare. It emphasises Clare’s ability to use, in Wordsworth’s words, his ‘deep power of joy’ to ‘see into the life of things’. This delight and intimacy with essentials is what makes Clare’s poetry alive, and this edition, with Carry Akroyd’s striking evocations of the flora and fauna he knew, will please those who know Clare’s work, and will bring new readers to the pleasures of his poetry.’
I need say no more, a blurb that states truly the quality of the poetry and artwork that matches superbly with those poems. the book is divided into sections highlighted as: The Poet in the Fields; Flowers; Forests,Woods and Trees; Birds; The Seasons; and Village Life.
Clare had a unique ability to observe the smallest detail of his humble world not purely flora and fauna. This collection focuses on the natural world around him. His genius was in writing that detail in such a concise and descriptive way that even now readers can see the images he saw and feel his excitement at the wonder, the variety, of nature in all its flavours and seasons.
The selection keeps away (almost) from extracts of his longer poems though as many of these (longer poems) were written in chunks over periods of time it could have been an option, except that their tones of satire may have unbalanced this collection.
The sheer volume of his output means that there are subjects often repeated though always with a slightly altered perspective. All aspects of his poetry show his commitment and love of being ‘at one’ with his natural, humble, habitats. Even his satirical long poem The Parish thrusts his written images into the mind of the reader with such immediacy that his passion shines through. Though in the Parish it is his anger that is uppermost in his passion of ‘place’. What is also obvious is his recognition and understanding of his surroundings.
This Happy Spirit has a brief introduction to Clare’s life and a chronology, also a note on editors/artist and a three page glossary of words needing clarification.
Despite my stated problem of choosing my favourite poems I have noted a few. Some because the linocuts add to the experience but would also promote all others, every single one:
Rural Scenes…..and full page linocut opposite
The Meadow Hay
The Beans in Blossom……..with accompanying linocut
The Winter’s Spring………… With a full page linocut opposite
The Woodman Comes Home
May I quote one poem from the book:
I never saw a man in all my days –
One whom the calm of quietness pervades –
Who gave not woods and fields his hearty praise,
And felt a happiness in Summer shades.
There I meet common thoughts, that all may read
Who love the common fields: – I note them well,
Because they give me joy as I proceed,
And joy renewed, when I their beauties tell
In simple verse, and unambiguous songs,
That in some mossy cottage haply may
Be read, and win the praise of humble tongues
In the green shadows of some after-day.
For rural fame may likeliest rapture yield
To hearts, whose songs are gathered from the field.
John Clare may have claimed to be a simple poet, a simple peasant, for his publishing and readership but that takes no account that with his knowledge of poetry and poets of his day he seems to have chosen his own path of style and subject rather than imitate. I suspect that he knew early that his strengths were clarity of eye and understanding of life around him and maybe a sense of genius (difference) despite the huge difficulties of his life. Perhaps too frequently the poems selected start with ‘I love to’ or at least ‘I love’; which is no reflection on the individual poems but noticeable. Of course with Clare that is exactly what he ‘loved’ so why not say it? Clare’s rhythm and rhyme-schemes are frequently easy and lilting but like his use of language there is also subtlety and skill in the construction around the world of the labourer he portrays. The editors’ sympathetic addition of some punctuation adds overall whilst there is still freedom to enjoy the elements where words are allowed to run naturally.
With the good number of 77 poems the additional linocuts are a huge addition to the content-value of this little paperback. The John Clare Society have produced a rare item of beauty where the quality far outweighs the very reasonable price of £9.99 ( my copy from Heffers in Cambridge) but also available from the John Clare Society and shop at Helpston.
This is a companion to the earlier: The Wood is Sweet also published by the John Clare Society.
‘This Happy Spirit’ is recommended reading for anyone interested in Natural History in all its forms as well as pure poetry of Clare and the beautiful relevance and precision of Carry Akroyd’s work.