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This article is taken from PN Review 162, Volume 31 Number 4, March - April 2005.

What John Clare Do We Read? R.K.R. Thornton

When Clare went to visit the Marquis of Exeter at Milton Hall in 1820, Edward Drury sent him a shirt to go in. It is often difficult to find the mind-set that allows Clare not to be smartened up.

The appearance in the same year of two very differently-edited selections of Clare prompts a consideration of where we now stand with the editing of this important poet. 2004 saw Oxford World's Classics bring out a new edition of Eric Robinson and David Powell's John Clare: Major Works (2004 with an introduction by Tom Paulin, 1st edition 1984); and Faber and Faber published the English version of Jonathan Bate's John Clare: Selected Poems, which was first published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in America in 2003. The two editions represent two seriously different views of the text and the business of the editor.

First a little historical background. Clare, the son of a rudimentarily literate flail-thresher from the village of Helpstone (then in Northamptonshire), had the little education one might expect for a peasant, though he made wonderful use of what he got. His poetry brought him to the notice first of local and then of national publishers. John Taylor, who was also Keats's publisher, brought out in 1820 Clare's first book, Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery, whose poems he helped select, edit, punctuate and 'correct' (which sometimes involved rewriting) - he polished them to make them acceptable to the contemporary ...

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