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Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this review to editor@pnreview.co.uk

This review is taken from PN Review 35, Volume 10 Number 3, January - February 1984.

WHERE POEMS COME FROM George Deacon, John Clare and the folk tradition (Sinclair Browne) £15

This fascinating, if confusing, book is the first published edition of all the songs, tunes and dances collected and written down by John Clare in his native Northamptonshire. As such it is a document of value to anyone interested in Clare, or anyone curious about folk song, broadside ballads or folklore. The book includes extracts from Clare's prose, his text of the Helpston Mummer's Play, dance manuscripts, 263 tunes collected by Clare and also has a section of notes and letters about village customs and games written by Clare. George Deacon, the hard-working editor, has included a critical introduction, notes, a full bibliography of the subject, and even the text of songs mentioned by Clare but which he did not collect. Deacon attempts to suggest tunes for those songs not given tunes by the poet and, in his notes, goes out of his way to educate us on what he feels is original and what added to a song by Clare; or even which songs he feels might have been wholly written by Clare. As such the book provides a unique glimpse into the world of Clare's native village and its folk traditions in Clare's day.


In his introduction Deacon advances the hypothesis that:

It has become apparent in the process of editing these accounts that Clare's poetry owes much to the tradition that surrounded him throughout his development from dame-school pupil to poet of national fame. His poetry had a musicality redolent of the tunes he played and assiduously collected, while its rhythm and metre are as much a product of ballad and song as they are of a conscious attempt to innovate.


To say this applies to the whole of Clare's poems is to overlook the obvious fact that Clare was first and foremost a conscious and deliberate literary artist, shaping poems into artefacts on the page. The editor would be hard pressed to prove that the carefully manipulated modulations of rhythm within 'Remembrances', Clare's magnificent elegy for rural England, owe anything to ballad and song. Clare's other undoubted masterpiece, 'The Flitting', similarly belongs to the world of literary art at its most subtly controlled.

Deacon's hypothesis comes from his acceptance at face value of Clare's own explanation of his 'first feelings and attempts at poetry' in chapter 4 of The Autobiography, an essential text of Romanticism:


I cannot say what led me to dabble in Rhyme or at what age I began to write it, but my first ( ) were imitations of my fathers songs for he knew and sung a great many I made a many things before I ventured to commit them to writing for I felt ashamed to expose them on paper . . .


Deacon quotes not from this published text but from another manuscript which similarly emphasizes the sense of commiting something to paper from the oral tradition; making a literary artefact part borrowed, part his own on the page. Clare was teaching himself how to write by developing what came to hand, and that in his case meant making variations on the songs sung by his mother and father.

Throughout this book of songs, we can witness the curious spectacle of an oral song tradition being changed into the mainstream literary tradition by the simple fact that words were transposed from the voice to paper. Anyone who has attempted to write down the words of a song either while it was being sung or shortly after, will grasp that many of Clare's so-called additions to songs could in fact be merely attempts to fill in forgotten parts. Nonetheless I do think that Deacon had uncovered a truth about Clare and the way his local culture and especially the songs heard in youth must have stayed with him as a part of the whole man all his life. Clare as a youth was as interested in songs and tunes as in books or printed broadside ballads and both traditions complemented one another for him.

Thomas Hardy, another nineteenth-century poet born into a musical line, was similarly involved in both traditions as a young man. Like Clare Hardy knew the particular elation and almost physical pleasure to be found in making music with one's compeers for mutual amusement and instruction:


Any little old song
  Will do for me,
Tell it of joys gone long,
  Or joys to be,
Or friendly faces best
  Loved to see.


It may be that such an experience was at the time denied to someone born into a financially and socially more secure world, where cases of books screened some of the harsher realities and the experience that before things became words on a page they were things in themselves. As Clare wrote:


True poesy is not in words
But images that thoughts express
By which the simplest hearts are stirred
To elevated happiness


Both Clare and Hardy willingly extricated themselves from the oral world in their almost involuntary commitment to literature. The main struggle, as with so many young men with a taste for poetry, was in scraping together the necessary cash to buy the books needed to develop their interest and knowledge.

It seems that before he read many books Clare enjoyed the printed broadside ballads and chapbooks sold by the bookman visiting Helpston. It is indicative of Deacon's sensitivity to his subject that it occurs to him to quote 'To John Clare', one of the late poems:


The pigs sleep in the Stye the bookman comes
The little boys Lets home close birdnesting go
& pockets tops & taws where daiseys bloom
To look at the new number just laid down
With lots of pictures & good stories too
& Jack and jiant killers high renown


There is something familiar about this picture of children rushing to read books 'With lots of pictures & good stories too'; my generation felt the same about The Eagle which was delivered each week with picture stories of Dan Dare and the Mekon! Surely chapbooks, or even comics, are a sub-culture of the literary world rather than the oral tradition, so Deacon's hypothesis is put in doubt rather than reinforced.

Elsewhere Deacon demonstrates that elements of his idea are accurate in spirit to Clare. He proves quite conclusively that Clare's poem 'Song' which begins 'Theres beauty in the summer flower/& in the awthorn blossom' derives from a song he collected earlier called 'Mary Neil a Ballad' which was 'taken from a ploughmans singing with additions'. Here it is quite clear that the 'similarities of phrasing, rhyme and verse structure' noted by the editor are accurate.

I am convinced that Clare did add words, lines, even whole stanzas to songs he wrote down; partly, as I have already suggested, to fill in gaps, but also to elaborate and improve the words in his attempt to create specific effects in his writing. Sometimes Clare's literary exercises make the songs quite unsingable. I can claim to know this having attempted to sing several to the tunes suggested by the editor. 'To Day the Fox must dye, a hunting song' quite defeated me in 6/8 time, with words such as:


The bugle blows the sporting train
Swift mounts the snorting steed
Each fence defiance bids in vain
Their progress to impede


Another song, 'Widowers Sigh - old song altered', verges on music-hall pathos while still working as a poem:


Birds are singing on the tree
Flowers are springing on the lea
Every heart but mine is gladdened
Every love but mine returned


From time to time we find in the notes to songs the editor's plea that 'This is surely a song written by Clare' and Deacon may well be right; or as right as anyone can be who has spent so long examining the manuscripts.

So far as I can see not one of the poems for which Clare is best remembered is cited as being influenced by the folk tradition in the whole of this book of songs, tunes and ms; so we never feel with the editor that 'once incarcerated in Northampton Asylum . . . an inexorable process of institutionalisation may have restricted his language and poetic vision but . . . even in this period Clare could rely on his roots in the [folk] tradition to inspire his muse.' To make such a statement is to ignore the simple fact that many of Clare's most fully characteristic and successful poems were written when he was 'incarcerated'. What of 'Love lives beyond/The tomb, the earth, which fades like dew', 'An Invite to Eternity', 'I Am', 'Clock-a-Clay', 'First Love', 'I Hid my Love', 'Meet me in the Green Glen', 'A Vision', that spiritual affirmation in which Clare said he 'kept my spirit with the free'? Apparently nothing according to Deacon. Yet it is in these poems that we meet Clare at his most memorable, writing from that eery sense of both spiritual and mental solitude which gave rise to his essential poetic self. So we can only agree with the editor's hypothesis if we ignore Clare's finest late poems.

Rather than proving an hypothesis, Deacon's achievement, which is not inconsiderable, is to make us re-examine Clare's work with a new-found awareness of the two traditions, both literary and oral, which do somehow meet in him. Throughout Clare's work we find poems with the title 'Song', and we can now see that these poems stem as much from memories of songs heard as a boy as any later read in books. Our awareness of their possible origins teaches us something of the nature of both the poet and the oral tradition which peeps from behind poems from time to time.

As such this very rich book is necessary reading for all Clare enthusiasts, and read in conjunction with that other study of songs as literature, James Reeves's The Idiom of the People, shows the reader who perhaps has only been taught the mainstream of English literature that things other than poems in the canon do affect what poets make of poetry.
JONATHAN BARKER

This review is taken from PN Review 35, Volume 10 Number 3, January - February 1984.



Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this review to editor@pnreview.co.uk
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