24 December 2009

A Snowstorm & a 'Peasant Poet of England'

It was when I moved to Greece that I discovered Fr Andrew Phillips’s Orthodox England site. In my opinion, one of the most moving things on there is Chapter 3 of his book, Orthodox Christianity & the English Tradition, entitled ‘The Hallowing of Orthodox England’. It was there that I first learned of John Masefield (whom I've mentioned before, here and here), and there too, that I read this:

It was left to the humble and blessed soul, John Clare, and later the lyric heart of the priest William Barnes, the peasant poets of England, to write of how this people was finally brought low and humiliated by the wealthy landowners and industrialists; that was an age of great sorrow and oppression, but also an age of righteousness, when a righteous man or woman, a mystic, was to be found in villages and hamlets up and down the land. It is the fragments of that great and precious heritage with which we are left today . . .

Although I haven’t delved into Clare and Barnes to the extent that I have Masefield, soon after my return to the States I did find a wonderful anthology edited by W.H. Auden which includes a number of examples of their work (along with many others that I’m thrilled to have): 19th-Century British Minor Poets. [1]

Today I am snowed in—an unusual situation here in Oklahoma where snow is rare, usually falls in light amounts, and melts within 24 hours. But with snow naturally on my mind, I conducted a little search for a snow poem to post here, and found one of Clare’s. It was not, however, in Auden’s book, but in Harold Bloom’s Stories & Poems for Extremely Intelligent Children of All Ages, a Half Price Books find. In Book IV, ‘Winter’, we find Clare’s ‘Snowstorm’:


What a night! The wind howls, hisses, and but stops
To howl more loud, while the snow volley keeps
Incessant batter at the window-pane,
Making our comforts feel as sweet again;
And in the morning, when the tempest drops,
At every cottage door mountainous heaps
Of snow lie drifted, that all entrance stops
Until the besom and the shovel gain
The path, and leave a wall on either side.
The shepherd, rambling valleys white and wide,
With new sensations his old memory fills,
When hedges left at night, no more descried,
Are turned to one white sweep of curving hills,
And trees turned bushes half their bodies hide.


The boy that goes to fodder with surprise
Walks o’er the gate he opened yesternight.
The hedges all have vanished from his eyes;
E’en some tree-tops the sheep could reach to bite.
The novel scene engenders new delight,
And, though with cautious steps his sports begin,
He bolder shuffles the huge hills of snow,
Till down he drops and plunges to the chin,
And struggles much and oft escape to win—
Then turns and laughs but dare not further go;
For deep the grass and bushes lie below,
Where little birds that soon at even went in
With heads tucked in their wings now pine for day
And little feel boys o’er their heads can stray. [2]

Here is George Creeger’s biographical note on Clare from the Auden anthology:

John Clare (1793-1864)

Clare was born into the family of a Northamptonshire farm laborer. He received very little by way of formal schooling, but from the beginning he showed a keen interest in poetry and began to versify at an early age. Whatever variety of work he turned to as a young man, he always continued to write. Some of his poems ultimately came to the attention of John Taylor, who published a volume of them in 1820. Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery brought Clare considerable fame and the acquaintance of such men of letters as Reynolds and Lamb; but it did not guarantee him financial security or a comfortable existence. Marriage, a growing family, and increasing money difficulties were part of the burdens that caused a psychological collapse in 1836-37; from 1841 until his death he was confined to the General Lunatic Asylum in Northampton. Much of his best poetry dates from these asylum years. [3]

[1] W.H. Auden, ed., 19th-Century British Minor Poets, notes by George R. Creeger (NY: Delacorte, 1966).

[2] Harold Bloom, ed., Stories & Poems for Extremely Intelligent Children of All Ages (NY: Scribner, 2001), pp. 414-5.

[3] Auden, p. 344.


Anonymous said...

Does Creeger's closing sentence mean that this and other poetry was written while Clare was in the asylum?

aaronandbrighid said...

Well, it sounds like he did publish Poems Descriptive before the asylum. I don't know about 'Snowstorm' because I got it from an anthology. But I certainly took the statement to mean that 'much of his best poetry' was written while he was in the asylum.