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.
On the first pages, Goodridge quotes from an early Clare poem: ‘Narrative Verses Written after an Excursion from Helpston to Burghley Park’ and describes it as a core ‘journey’ (experience) in his development as a poet.
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