by John Clare
Interest in John Clare seems to be in something of a renaissance. A character in Alan Moore’s novel Voice of the Fire some years ago, he recently figured in (and posthumously contributed the title to) Iain Sinclair’s Edge of the Orison. This may not sound like much, but Clare’s not terribly well known; I took an undergrad course in the Romantic poets, and I don’t think his name ever came up. In later years, I came to know Clare’s nature poetry well enough, but I think this was my first exposure to his more satirical side.
It’s really very good. It’s angry, bitter, mournful, and — crucially — wise. Clare’s unconventional diction recalls Blake in more than just superficial details; there’s a feel here not unlike the Songs of Experience, as though the parish Clare anatomises in the course of over 2000 lines is itself fallen as a whole from the innocence of earlier days. Clare seems to touch on every aspect of parish life, rich and poor, male and female, young and old. And everywhere there’s a fire to his portraiture of life, a sense of outrage which I think holds up well next to Blake and Shelley. Even more than Blake (and quite unlike Shelley), Clare lived on the fringe of society, and turned his anger at what he saw into verse. It’s quite a sustained performance, and it deserves to be better known than it is.