A Review of "The Later Poems of John Clare" by Ronald Blythe

The Later Poems of John Clare, 1837-1864
volumes I and II
Edited by Eric Robinson, David Powell and
Margaret Grainger,
Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1984.

It is no exaggeration to say that everyone who has read John Clare, ordinary appreciator of his work and scholar alike, has long been in urgent need of this book. Nearly half of the poet's life was spent in asylums where, as he rightly said, all that was left to him was what he found in his dreams. In his imagination, he meant. What a remarkable 'all' this was is now borne out by this chronological publi­cation of nearly everything he wrote in these institutions. Nearly, because there are probably still a few fugitive pieces adrift in the world. But the enormous bulk has been gathered-in by Eric Robinson and his fellow editors, and there cannot be praise enough for their meticulous achievement. To read these Later Poems right through, from Epping Forest to the 'little wood' in the last verse he composed before his death, as it were, is to come to a fresh understanding of Clare. The huge output of 1837-1864 certainly contains longueurs and confusions but the lasting revelation is one of energy and resurgent power. It decries the notion that he was in a pitiful state these twenty-seven years, for no writer of his rank could work at some of the levels shown here without experiencing a self-recognition which must often have lifted him out of his wretched circumstances. But included too are the 'I Am' poems, which are among the most moving cries from the pit in the language, and others which check us from taking too easy a view of what happened to him. Near to death he described his life as 'A night without morning.' In spite of such low ebbs this fat collection is filled with some of the brightest mornings in rural literature.

These two volumes mark the beginning of what will eventually be John Clare's collected works. While the editors offer generous praise to everyone previously connected with this major poet of the fields, from John Taylor to the Tibbies, it is they who have come nearest to presenting him to us in a definitive sense. Their dealings with Clare's famously erratic grammar, handwriting, borrowings, etc. has been an art in itself and what the specialist and common Clare reader alike will possess as he makes his way through these over a thousand pages is a direct access to much which was previously muddled, half-glimpsed or quite unknown. They were wise to include the biblical paraphrases, particularly those on Job, and Eric Robinson's explanation of Clare's girl-balladry and the 'Byron' poems, brief and to the point, corrects a lot of earlier misunderstanding. Every poem is prefixed with what is known about its history and there is a full glossary of the poet's village words.

The vivid impression made by this mass of asylum poetry is hard to analyse. Its collective impact makes one personally re-think     Clare     from     every     aspect, biographical,   stylistic   (his   mastery   of various poetic techniques], that of rural recorder and psychological. He loved the earth, not as 'Nature', but as the provider of an endless range of humble, private joys, and these Later Poems ceaselessly restate this love. He is like his bee

That sing their wood journey
And stop at wood blooms
Where the primroses burn ye
And the violet perfumes
There to myself talking
I rub through the bushes
And the boughs where I'm walking
Like a sudden wind rushes.

Ronald Blythe

John Clare Society Journal
Number 3 - July 1985
© John Clare Society

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