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Three Clares (2): John Clare

The name ‘Clare’ seems to have followed me around for as long as I can remember …

Gilbert de Clare was responsible for the construction of a building which played a very important part in my childhood. You can read my piece about him here.

Though no-one could ever replace Dylan Thomas as my favourite poet, I’m also fascinated by the life and poetry of John Clare, whose work first came to my attention about twenty-five years ago. I studied his poems whilst working on my Masters and I viewed the temporary John Clare exhibit at Peterborough Museum (which also houses many of his manuscripts) on a number of occasions. A visit to his cottage in Helpston, formerly Helpstone, originally in Northamptonshire but now in Cambridgeshire, is on my current ‘to do’ list.

And then there’s Clare Means, a young U.S. singer/songwriter based in California, whose compositions and performances as a musician and busker have never ceased to entertain and amaze me, together with many of her thousands (and thousands!) of followers, at first on the now-defunct Periscope app, but nowadays on a range of online platforms as listed on her website.



A personal response to the life and work of John Clare

Like me, John Clare (13th July, 1793 – 20th May, 1864) started life in humble beginnings. He was the son of a farm labourer. Some of his poetry takes me back to my early childhood, conjuring mixed emotions.

But perhaps the first thing to note about John Clare’s work is its sheer volume. My quick tally-up of the first lines of the poems catalogued in the National Archive suggests he published a total of around 2,800 poems. There are nine collections, starting with the first, Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery, published in London in 1820. He also wrote a number of essays. 

Besides his productivity, his raw, uneducated writing style is, perhaps surprisingly, an essential and attractive characteristic of his writings. Clare said that he

“… found the poems in the fields,
And only wrote them down”,

and what I would call his “naturely” language (and what Charles Lamb referred to as his “provincialisms”) are an aspect of his pastoral style that his publishers wrestled with then and scholars have discussed ever since. They argued over whether such dialect expressions were permissible where they were not local to Clare’s neighbourhood, for instance. For many, like me, his uncultured spelling and punctuation, together with his use of unfamiliar countryside words and expressions, lend a charm and sense of genuine emotion which is unmatched in the work of any other English Romantic poet (though maybe on a par with Burns). It’s as though he speaks the language of nature – as though he is an advocate on behalf of the natural world.

For example, he uses “sturnels” for starlings, “cranking” for singing dolefully and, when “The ploughman mawls along the doughy sloughs”, he is dragging wearily. There are innumerable examples of these quaint dialect words throughout his work. In addition, we find him often adapting more familiar words to create striking images, as where, instead of writing “like gems”, he prefers “gemmed”:

“Where bramble bushes grew and the daisy gemmed in dew”; Remembrances

“I love to see them gemmed with morning hours”; The Maple Tree

“Some live content in low grass gemmed with dews”; Shadows of Taste

“The star gemmed early morn, the silent even”; Child Harold

Clare is nowadays accepted by the literary community as a leading member of the Romantic poetry pantheon.

Whereas as a young child I lived in a damp house in the south Wales valleys, with an outside toilet, Clare lived his early life in what various commentators have referred to as ‘dirt poor’ surroundings: a section of a cottage (below) in a remote little village in Northamptonshire called Helpston (now part of Cambridgeshire and quite close to where I now live with my wife, Lynn).

As mentioned, until the age of ten I too lived in modest surroundings – a small, two-up/two-down terraced cottage. Although my parents made improvements before they saved up the money for a deposit on a new bungalow, the accommodation was always very basic: for instance, I remember the installation of electric light, replacing the ancient gas mantle light fitting in the middle of the ceiling in the sitting room. But … there’s no place like home.

O home, however homely, – thoughts of thee
Can never fail to cheer the absent breast;
How oft wild raptures have been felt by me
When back returning, weary and distrest;

from Home, John Clare, Sonnets, pub. 1821

Our hearth comprised an old, black, coal-fuelled fireplace, with a small compartment on each side which served as an oven (for baking small jam tarts, for instance), although we did have a gas cooker in the kitchen at the back. There was no bathroom. As a young child, my bath time took place in a galvanised metal bathtub on the floor in front of the hearth. (I sometimes mentally recalled those days when my advertising career took me to swish hotels in places such as London, Geneva, Paris and Monte Carlo). It was certainly a loving home, though the relationship between my mother and father was often fractious, frequently to the point of embarrassment, with the neighbours easily able to hear the bawling and fighting that was a symptom of near-poverty conditions and frustrated ambition. Nonetheless, I have many fond memories of that humble dwelling, memories which have helped keep me grounded in times of both strife and success. It may not have been luxurious but it kept me safe and was a gateway to a wondrous natural playground.

Through the gate at the end of our handkerchief of a back “garden”, and across the lane, there was Porsett Brook, a meeting place for Mother Nature and industry. It was a highly polluted stream, about fifteen feet wide, with long strands of brown gunge waving to and fro in its babbling flow. I now know that the source of the discolouration and growths was the extremely smelly upstream tanyard, where animal skins were soaked and washed in its waters to remove any traces of blood and other material that might affect the quality of the leather. But if I crossed the brook on the stepping stones, I was suddenly immersed in a wild and natural world crammed with plants, trees, insects and birds that were at once a refuge and a source of intense fascination.

John Clare felt similar affection for his childhood home, as he expressed in his sonnet To My Cottage, published in 1821.

Thou lowly cot, where first my breath I drew,
Past joys endear thee, childhood’s past delight;
Where each young summer’s pictur’d on my view;
And, dearer still, the happy winter-night,
When the storm pelted down with all his might,
And roar’d and bellow’d in the chimney-top,
And patter’d vehement ‘gainst the window-light,
And on the threshold fell the quick eavesdrop.
How blest I’ve listen’d on my corner stool,
Heard the storm rage, and hugg’d my happy spot,
While the fond parent wound her whirring spool,
And spar’d a sigh for the poor wanderer’s lot.
In thee, sweet hut, this happiness was prov’d,
And these endear and make thee doubly lov’d.

Yes, my escape route from those parental clashes was to get away out into the unspoiled fields at the back of the house. I wouldn’t then have thought of myself as “communing with nature” or have used any such flowery expression to describe the sheer fun I derived from exploring the fields, Porsett Brook, the woods, the birds and other wildlife, the pathways, the old railway line and the fern-swathed hill in the distance. But looking back I feel as though I was much more at home in those fields and hillsides – climbing trees, making bows and arrows or whistles, tunneling through the ferns or identifying birds’ nests and eggs – than I was in that house (or indeed in the advertising world much later in life). As I’ve described previously, I’d often go on egg collecting expeditions. On more than one occasion, I wandered far away with my friends for so long, so late in the day, that my parents, accompanied by one or two neighbours, would come looking for us. Mynydd Rudry (shown below in its Winter colours) could be seen in the distance from my bedroom window. We’d climb to the top through ferns and bracken and make our way to the stands of tall trees beyond.

In his autobiography, John Clare describes (in his raw, untutored prose style) just the same kind of event happening in his childhood:

“I lovd this solitary disposition from a boy & felt a curiosity to wander about spots were I had never been before I remember one incident of this feeling when I was very young it cost my parents some anxiety it was summer & I started off in the morning to get rotten sticks from the woods but I had a feeling to wander about the fields & I indulged it I had often seen the large heath called Emmonsales stretching its yellow furze from my eye into unknown solitudes when I went with the mere openers and my curiosity urged me to steal an opportunity to explore it that morning I had imagind that the world’s end was at the orizon & that a days journey was able to find it so I went on with my heart full of hope’s pleasures & discoverys expecting when I got to the brink of the world that I coud look down like looking into a large pit & see into its secrets the same as I believd I coud see heaven by looking into the water So I eagerly wanderd on & rambled along the furze the whole day till I got out of my knowledge when the very flowers seemd to forget me & I imagind they were the inhabitants of new countrys the very sun seemd to forget me & I imagind they were the inhabitants of new countrys the very sun seemd to be a new one & shining in a different quarter of the sky still I felt no fear my wonder-seeking happiness had no room for it I was finding new wonders every minute & was walking in a new world & expecting the world’s end bye & bye but it never came often wondering to myself that I had not found the edge of the old one the sky still touchd the ground in the distance & my childish wisdom was puzzld in perplexitys night came on before I had time to fancy the morning was by which made me hasten to seek home I knew not which way to turn but chance put me in the right track & when I got back into my own fieldds I did not know them everything lookd so different The church peeping over the woods cod hardly reconsile me when I got home I found my parents in the great distress & half the village about hunting me as one of the woodmen in the woods had been killd by the fall of a tree & it seemd to strengthen their terrors that some accident had befallen myself as they often leave the oaks half cut down till the barkmen come to pill them which if a wind happens will fall down unexpected”.

John Clare loved nature with a passion – the plants, birds, insects and small animals in the surrounding countryside; it was a love which was to stay with him all his life. 

Clare, quite a “waukly” child, had a “bonny” twin sister who died a few weeks after their birth. Commentators have suggested that this tragedy had a longer-term, perhaps subconscious, effect on his state of mind. I’d heard of John Clare vaguely in my younger years but studied his poetry more intensively when working for my Masters. He was regarded as fairly obscure for quite a long time, other than during a brief period of fame during his lifetime; but interest in Clare’s life and work grew quite dramatically during the twentieth century. Biographies, editions, radio programmes, inclusions in festivals and commentaries have appeared all over the place in latter years. His keen interest in gardening, for instance, spawned a September 2014 symposium on Clare’s engagement with the natural world as both a botanist and a poet. There’s a stimulating BBC radio programme on Clare in Melvyn Bragg‘s In Our Time series, 

One of the attractive things about John Clare, besides his prolific output of around 3,500 poems, is that we have so much information about his fascinating and, ultimately, tragic life.

The narrative of Frederick Martin‘s The Life of John Clare, published in May, 1865, just a year after Clare’s death, is apparently “drawn from a vast mass of letters and other original documents, including some very curious memoirs” [1]. All of this material enabled this contemporary writer to pass down to us an extremely detailed and vivid account of Clare’s life. The fact that its narrative is written in a simple, down-to-earth style is reminiscent of Clare’s mode of expression, though its reliability has been called into question by some scholars.

Sir Jonathan Bate, Provost of Worcester College at the University of Oxford, is nowadays regarded as the leading biographer of the poet. His biography is the seminal work on Clare. It’s jaw-droppingly thorough and relates a fascinating analytical account of the early successes and the later torments and struggles which dogged Clare through most of his life, together with a host of valuable insights into his poetry. 

(Incidentally, I’m all for Roland Barthes‘ 1967 proclamation of the “death of the author” and the mountain of literary theorising that it spawned; in the context of hermeneutics, a ‘readerly’ interpretation of poetry gets my vote. But let’s not underestimate the value of biographies. Many poets had interesting lives away from their musing, as Samuel Johnson and so many others have pointed out).

Clare loved books, even though he was so poor that it was extremely difficult for him to gain access to them, and he developed an early passion for poetry. English was my best subject at school and I, too, developed a lifelong love for reading poetry and still try my hand at writing, as can be seen elsewhere on this site (example). But of course Clare was destined for greatness, to an extent in his own time but much more so, especially more recently, in literary history.

After my father died when I was 14, I almost immediately became part of a band (pop group) which I formed with some school friends. For me, composing songs and playing music turned out to be a great diversion from the black horror of our little family’s loss and something I’ve continued to do throughout my life. John Clare also loved music -like his father, Clare was a fiddler who collected many village tunes and and gypsy songs and also composed songs himself. 

CDs of George Deacon’s covers of Clare’s own songs can be purchased here.

Yes, I’ve found myself able to identify with a number of aspects of John Clare’s life, such as the times when he left his home to go out into the big wide world. I moved to London on my nineteenth birthday to begin my first degree studies. I must say I never felt completely at ease in all the years I lived, studied and worked in London. As I stood on the platform at Cardiff General Station (as it was known back then), I little realised how much my attitudes to so many things had been pre-programmed well before that birthday; my Welsh roots, buried deep in the culture of a nation with an immensely strong sense of its own identity, rarely allowed me to feel entirely comfortable when discussing politics, sport, business or other issues.

When I came to study the life and work of John Clare, I often found myself empathising with his unease in being away from his home territory, away from the innocence and inspiration of the countryside. His “country” was the countryside. He never settled down in London, visiting it on only four occasions.

This piece is not meant to be an in-depth scholarly analysis of Clare’s work, merely a way of explaining some of what I bring to a reading of his work and what he gives back. I should emphasise that I don’t find his poetry a simple mirroring of my experiences – he is always surprising, quirky, imaginative and authentic.

So, in the interests of brevity, here are links to a few John Clare poems that I really like: 

The Shepherd’s Calendar – https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/the-shepherds-calendar-november/

The Crow Sat on the Willow – https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/the-crow-sat-on-the-willow/ (by the way, see my prose piece about Crows here …)

Grasshoppers – https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/grasshoppers/

Clare’s subject matter was not confined to the natural world; but notice the references here to nature, in similes and metaphors which evoke both the pleasure and the pain of First Love

I ne’er was struck before that hour
With love so sudden and so sweet,
Her face it bloomed like a sweet flower
And stole my heart away complete.
My face turned pale a deadly pale,
My legs refused to walk away,
And when she looked, what could I ail?
My life and all seemed turned to clay.

And then my blood rushed to my face
And took my eyesight quite away,
The trees and bushes round the place
Seemed midnight at noonday.
I could not see a single thing,
Words from my eyes did start –
They spoke as chords do from the string,
And blood burnt round my heart.

Are flowers the winter’s choice?
Is love’s bed always snow?
She seemed to hear my silent voice,
Not love’s appeals to know.
I never saw so sweet a face
As that I stood before.
My heart has left its dwelling-place
And can return no more.

I’ve described how his poems resonated with certain aspects of my own life. Like most people, I have had ups and downs in my life. But John Clare experienced real suffering after his early poetic successes. He became extremely depressed and indeed delusional, imagining that he was still married to both his first and second wives, for instance. In 1837, he was committed to High Beach asylum. After a brief release, he was committed to Northampton General Lunatic Asylum.  He continued to compose poetry throughout his time there. Arguably Clare’s most famous, most moving and most beautiful poem is I Am, describing his feelings of helpless loneliness, written whilst he was in the Northampton asylum which was his home (or prison …) from 1842 to his death in 1864.

I am: yet what I am none cares or knows,
My friends forsake me like a memory lost;
I am the self-consumer of my woes,
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shades in love and death’s oblivion lost;
And yet I am! and live with shadows tost

Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life nor joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;
And e’en the dearest- that I loved the best-
Are strange- nay, rather stranger than the rest.

I long for scenes where man has never trod;
A place where woman never smil’d or wept;
There to abide with my creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept:
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie;
The grass below- above the vaulted sky.

Here’s a moving reading of I Am, performed by Kelsi James:

In the end, Clare’s life was a tragedy out of which came some of the most brilliant Romantic poetry of the nineteenth century.

Picture credits

Ruth Sharville / Mynydd Rudry in Winter colours – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mynydd_Rudry_in_Winter_colours_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1069808.jpg


[1] Though I note that Sir Jonathan doesn’t seem that impressed by Frederick Martin’s work (see below)!

The Kindle edition of John Clare’s complete works is available from Amazon here:

Delphi Complete Works of John Clare (Illustrated) (Delphi Poets Series Book 24) eBook: Clare, John: Amazon.co.uk: Kindle Store


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Wordsworth’s relevance to solitude and the lockdown

Covid-19 is forcing many people into states of isolation which they find difficult to bear. People find themselves cut off from the outside world, locked into a frightening situation that is beyond their control. Our most populous cities have become a breeding ground for loneliness. Others, though, seem to be rising to the challenge, drawing on inner resources of fortitude and even optimism that they might not otherwise have known they possessed.

Solitude can create deep mental anguish through the agonies of loneliness; or, on the contrary, it can provide a refreshing respite from the overbearing burden of modern life. “The World Is Too Much With Us”, wrote William Wordsworth in a sonnet (XXXIII, pub. 1807) with that title. As he saw it, more than two hundred years ago, the Industrial Revolution was constructing a barrier between men and the natural world. “Getting and spending”, we are “out of tune” with Nature and have “given our hearts away”, he complained. Although this is probably not a passion which would resonate with keen shoppers currently enduring home-bound lockdown, it might well strike a chord with some – those, especially, who have taken opportunities to escape to the country, or whose dearest wish is to get away from the maddening, infected crowds.

Loneliness, lack of freedom, being alone, solitude – all closely-related expressions, but by no means interchangeable. In Wordsworth’s huge body of poetical works we find numerous descriptions of different characters, real or imaginary, having to deal with solitude in different ways and in different settings. Conversely, one is also struck by Wordsworth’s joy in communing with Nature, on his own, away from other people. Whether he himself would have thrived in a lockdown seems very unlikely, not only because he would have been kept from meeting family members and friends: I think he would have most sorely missed the freedom to roam the fields and hills. His personal experiences of solitude were more revelatory than frustrating. Living in the inspirational Lake District and on the moors, he benefited from the kind of freedom many modern holiday-makers would seek out with great enthusiasm. On the other hand, seeing other much less fortunate individuals scratching a living in rural isolation often provided vicarious experiences which often, in that moment, became the mainspring of his creative urge. Life could be tough, even for those living in idyllic surroundings.

His kindred spirit and writing companion for some years, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, shared many of Wordsworth’s passions. In June 1797, a brief lockdown came Coleridge’s way, following an accident which prevented him from joining some visiting friends during the whole time of their stay. His poem, “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison”, seems to speak for them both in describing his sense of loss in being confined to his garden:

“Well, they are gone, and here must I remain,
This lime-tree bower my prison! I have lost
Beauties and feelings, such as would have been
Most sweet to my remembrance even when age
Had dimm’d mine eyes to blindness!”

On the other hand, he suggests, being locked in has its compensations, in making us vow to appreciate freedom much more once it is returned to us:

” … sometimes
‘Tis well to be bereft of promis’d good,
That we may lift the soul, and contemplate
With lively joy the joys we cannot share”.

Yes, and I think eventually we will all appreciate freedom of movement much more, if and when this deadly plague is itself locked down.

The imaginative power which solitude held for Wordsworth owed a great deal to his childhood experiences. In Book II of “The Prelude” (the first part of a planned gigantic work called “The Recluse”, which he was never to complete), he describes his habit of getting up early, while at Hawkshead, and walking round to Esthwaite Water before school,

” … when the Vale,
Yet slumbering, lay in utter solitude …
Oft in these moments such a holy calm
Would overspread my soul that bodily eyes
Were utterly forgotten, and what I saw
Appeared like something in myself, a dream,
A prospect in the mind”.

He would walk alone, “under the quiet stars”, or stand beneath a rock as the sky darkened, listening to “notes that are the ghostly language of the earth”. “Thence”, he writes, “did I drink the visionary power”. Some of his most visionary impressions came to him when he was alone on the moors at night, setting ‘springes’ to catch woodcocks, or plundering birds nests, or while he was boating on Ullswater. He came to learn, “to feel, perhaps too much, the self-sufficing power of Solitude”.

He describes his sense of awareness of the power, over the mind, of Nature, in an early passage in “The Prelude”, Book I. He recollects the sights which he had seen during a boating expedition, and describes the effect of such sights on his imagination:

” … after I had seen
That spectacle, for many days, my brain
Worked with dim and undetermined sense
Of unknown modes of being; o’er my thoughts
There hung a darkness, call it solitude
Or blank desertion. No familiar shapes
Remained, no pleasant images of trees,
Or sea or sky, no colours of green fields;
But huge and mighty forms that do not live
Like living men, moved slowly through the mind
By day, and were a trouble to my dreams”.

Wordsworth’s abiding interest in Nature, coupled with a consciousness of the significance for him of solitude, led him to combine the themes in much of his poetry. From a young age, it helped develop in him a sensibility attuned to the place of Man in Nature, something that can speak to us even during this period, as we find ourselves “cabined, cribbed, confined” (to borrow from the Scottish play) in ways we find uncomfortably alien. No doubt Wordsworth would have us re-assess our obsessions with “getting and spending” and rather opt for the simple life, seeking fulfilment not on websites, in department stores and trawling through supermarkets, but in the hills and valleys; and companionship not in city streets, bars and restaurants, but in the natural world in all its forms.

“The Old Cumberland Beggar”, written in 1797 (publ. 1800, in the collection “Poems Referring To The Period of Old Age”), describes a meeting with “a solitary Man”, while the poet was walking through a village in that county:

” … In the sun, …
Surrounded by those wild unpeopled hills,
He sat, and ate his food in solitude”.

The beggar’s solitude, and independence, is described by Wordsworth as though the old man were a living incarnation of the spirit of Nature, as it infuses a similar imaginative power into the poet’s works. The beggar is not to be scorned:

“Like the dry remnant of a garden-flower
Whose seeds are shed …”,

merely because his life is a simple one or because he is of a lowly social rank. He is rather to act as a “binding” influence on the people of the village:

“Still let him prompt the unlettered villagers
To tender offices and pensive thoughts”.

The beggar assumes a rare dignity in Wordsworth’s eyes:

“Reverence the hope whose vital anxiousness
Gives the last human interest to his heart”,

and the poem ends with a wish that the old man may have around him “the pleasant melody of woodland birds”. It is apparent , even in a fairly early poem such as this, that Wordsworth had formed the opinion that mankind could commune with “Eternity and God” through such experiences – that he could be redeemed through Nature’s influences.

It may not be so surprising that a poet living in a sparsely-populated part of the country should meet with various facets of solitude; but what is worth noting is the fact that Wordsworth’s imagination seems to have been particularly fertile in such a setting. Vivid memories laid down in natural surroundings became a well-spring for future creativity. As Wordsworth famously wrote in his manifesto-like Preface to the “Lyrical Ballads” collection:

“Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.”

Wordsworth wasn’t anti-social. He enjoyed the company of other students while at St John’s College, Cambridge, between 1787 and 1791, for instance:

Friendships, acquaintances were welcome all,
We sauntered, played, or rioted; we talked
Unprofitable talk at morning hours”.

He travelled extensively on the continent and also to London. Whilst in France, including time he spent there during the Revolution, he made many close friendships in locations such as Paris, Blois and Orleans. But his thoughts frequently wandered back to his experiences in rural surroundings. The ethos of urban life, with its hustle and bustle, jarred with the idyllic scenes that were the stable backdrop to his everyday thoughts. For him, life in the city often brought out the worst in people, as he wrote whilst on a visit to London in 1802:

“Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour:
England hath need of thee: she is a fen
Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen,
Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,
Have forfeited their ancient English dower
Of inward happiness. We are selfish men;
Oh! raise us up, return to us again;
And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power”.

(from Sonnet XIV, London, 1802, publ. 1807)

The solitude might be real, as in the case of “The Solitary Reaper” (a “Highland Lass” – “Alone she cuts and binds the grain,/ And sings a melancholy strain;/ O listen! for the Vale profound,/ Is overflowing with the sound”); or a product of the imagination, as in “Tintern Abbey”, where the poet is paying a return visit to a lonely place:

“These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms and ‘mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind,
With tranquil restoration”.

Tintern Abbey: The Crossing and Chancel, Looking towards the East Window,
J M W Turner, 1794

As someone who grew up in a (comparatively) rural setting, I know that feeling. The sense of alienation one can endure when living alone in a big city is at the same time both heightened and assuaged by memories of being in more tranquil surroundings.

The solitary figure recurs throughout his poetry. Wordsworth makes great use of the contrast between a sight or sound, perhaps made by a lone human figure or a bird or animal, and a still, silent background. Such images are to be found in Book IV of “The Prelude”: a hermit in the wilderness, a solitary watchman in a lighthouse, the sudden appearance of someone along a lonely road, are vivid images which have a direct appeal to the imagination:

“How gracious, how benign is Solitude”, he writes;
“How potent a mere image of her sway;
Most potent when impressed upon the mind
With an appropriate human centre”.

Most of the story-form poems which Wordsworth wrote have as their “human centre” some actual event in his life, and a story told to him as a child by his “step-dame”, Anne Tyson of Hawkshead, inspired both the account of shepherds in Book VIII of “The Prelude” and the very moving pastoral poem “Michael”. Evidently Wordsworth had been very affected by the original tale:

Anne Tyson’s Cottage

” … It was the first
Of those domestic tales that spake to me
Of shepherds …”

The deep impression it made on the young Wordsworth is highlighted by a passage in “The Prelude”, in which he refers to the shepherd as a genius:

“I felt his presence in his own domain
As of a lord and master, or a power,
Or genius, under Nature, under God,
Presiding; and severest solitude
Had more commanding looks when he was there”.

The poem “Michael, A Pastoral Poem” is in the true sense of the word pastoral in that its subject is common life, rather than the poet’s own moods and themes. Michael, an old shepherd “of unusual strength”, living in a place of “utter solitude”, works hard every day, supported by his loving wife Isabel, to bring up their son, Luke. Ultimately a tragedy, it is the kind of tale that would have gripped early eighteenth century readers, a poem meant to be recited aloud, I think, with simple vocabulary arranged in flowing iambic pentameters. Towards the end, Luke helps his father make a stone sheepfold. In a way this simple enclosure symbolizes the way Michael, through sheer hard work, makes the most of a life which is terribly constricted, albeit in such beautiful surroundings. But all Michael’s work comes to naught. Luke is given the opportunity to escape from the privations which had trapped his parents and heads for the big city. It doesn’t end well. Actually, Wordsworth is not as concerned with the downfall of the son so much as its effect on his aged father, who remains locked into a life of hardship, albeit hitherto rich in spiritual rewards. At the climax, Wordsworth allows the facts to speak for themselves:

” Luke began
To slacken in his duty; and, at length,
He in the dissolute city gave himself
To evil courses: ignominy and shame
Fell on him, so that he was driven at last
To seek a hiding place beyond the seas”

The pity of onlookers for a lonely, betrayed old man is the element which provides all that is necessary for an understanding of his feelings:

” … ‘Tis not forgotten yet
The pity which was then in every heart
For the Old Man – and ’tis believ’d by all
That many and many a day he thither went,
And never lifted up a single stone”.

Feelings of a lack of freedom are nothing new or unusual. Hopefully the necessities of enduring lockdown in a pandemic are temporary. But Wordsworth relates documentary, narrative poems like Michael to work allegorically and timelessly, enabling any reader to compare their own situation with those of others who have lived lives (to use modern parlance) ‘on the edge’.

Another poem based on actual events is “Resolution and Independence“, or, as it is more familiarly known, “The Leech Gatherer”. Wordsworth had noted: “I met this old man a few hundred yards from my cottage; and the account of him is taken down from his own mouth”. Coleridge, by the way, criticizes the poem in “Biographia Literaria”, Chapter XXII, as showing Wordsworth’s “inconstancy of style”, noting his “sudden and unprepared transitions from lines or sentences of peculiar felicity (at all events striking and original) to a style not only unimpassioned but undistinguished”. It was in deference to Coleridge’s judgment that in the later editions Stanza IX was cancelled.

Wordsworth drew upon only the external details of the old man. It’s obvious from the poem that he was forcibly struck by the man’s “fortitude and patient cheer”, but the description of the meeting, contained in his sister Dorothy‘s “Journal”, is wildly different from the situation described in the poem: the story, and the thoughts on poverty, death and insanity which arise from it, are all products of Wordsworth’s imagination. The poem begins with a picture of his own journey across a moor, with vivid descriptions of natural beauty. Wordsworth is quite joyous as the poem opens, but becomes depressed, for no other reason than the fact that he begins to wonder if ” … there may come another day to me,/ Solitude, pain of heart, distress and poverty”.

The contrast between his own melancholy and the cheerfulness of Nature is impressive, but is surpassed by the sudden appearance, by the side of the pool, of the leech-gatherer – he looked

“Like a Sea-beast crawl’d forth, which on a shelf
Of rock or sand reposeth, there to sun itself”.

When Wordsworth speaks to him, “a flash of mild surprise” breaks from “the sable orbs of his yet-vivid eyes”. The poet is inwardly moved by the leech-gatherer’s story of hardship and patience, and sees the old man with his mind’s eye:

“About the weary moors continually,
Wandering about alone and silently”.

Coleridge quoted this passage, in the “Biographia Literaria”, as one which justified Wordsworth’s claim, in “Elegiac Stanzas suggested by a picture of Peele Castle” (1805), that poets:

” … add the gleam,
The light that never was on sea or land.
The consecration and the poet’s dream”.

The imaginative description and moral force of this presentation of resolution in solitude must place the poem very highly among Wordsworth’s poems as a whole.

The effects of solitude and a natural environment are also dealt with in “The Excursion”. The poem signals, however, a distinct decline in Wordsworth’s poetical powers, which lapse had been noticeable since 1807, and was to become more pronounced from 1815. “The Excursion” was written as the second part of the proposed three-part, vast philosophical poem, the title of which, “The Recluse”, may again be indicative of Wordsworth’s faith in the powers of the imagination in solitude. “The Excursion” appeared in 1814, mystifying his public, as “The Prelude”, intended as the first part of the longer work, was still to be published. Though it lacks the glamour, the emotive power, and the sense of structure of “The Prelude”, its rural descriptions possess all the attributes of Wordsworth’s best nature poetry. Coleridge found the poem “especialy characteristic of the author. There is scarce a defect or excellence in his writings of which it would not present a specimen. But it would be unjust not to repeat that this defect is only occasional” (“Biographia Literaria”, ch XXII).

There are many references in “The Excursion” to what Wordsworth had called, in “I wandered lonely as a cloud”, “the bliss of solitude”. The description of the situation of ‘The Wanderer’, of Book I, is an example:

” … Thus informed,
He had small need of books; for many a tale
Traditionary round the mountain hung,
And many a legend, peopling the dark woods,
Nourished Imagination in her growth,
And gave the Mind that apprehensive power
By which she is made quick to recognize
The moral properties and scope of things”.

Wordsworth’s interest in children, and childhood, gives us another insight into the significance of solitude for his poetic work. It was his recollection of his own early days which prompted this interest. He had been entranced by natural beauty, as I’ve already noted, in his school days, the scenes having impressed themselves upon his mind in no ordinary way. Retrospectively, they had “the charm of visionary things”. For this reason, Wordsworth was fascinated in later life by the children he knew best: Edward Montagu, his own children, and Hartley Coleridge (right). He noticed that they were given to periods of happy self-absorption in musing or play, when they seemed utterly remote from the active world of ordinary human beings. Writing in 1811 about his three-year-old daughter, Catharine, he says:

” … this happy Creature of herself
Is all-sufficient, solitude to her
Is blithe society”,

and this theme was frequently taken up elsewhere.

As John Jones points out, in “The Egotistical Sublime – a history of Wordsworth’s imagination“, the unifying factor in Wordsworth’s use of the theme of solitude is the fact that all his solitary figures have “a primordial quality by virtue of which … [they] … stand anterior, in time or in logic, to a divorce in human understanding”. That is to say, their very “being” is comment enough: they stand, in life, as a poetic comment on enduring qualities such as fortitude, loneliness and independence. Their simplicity is a key to their value as symbols. Wordsworth commented, on an earlier version of “Resolution and Independence”:

“A person reading this poem with feelings like mine will have been awed and controuled, expecting almost something spiritual or supernatural – What is brought forward? “A lonely place, a Pond” “by which an old man was, far from all house or home” – not stood, not sat, but “was” – the figure presented in the most naked simplicity possible”.

Wordsworth’s solitary figures are drawn with illustrations from all modes of being, all solitary walks of life and, apparently, with little reference to time. “The Old Cumberland Beggar” seems no older than he did when Wordsworth met him: his solitude is less temporal than spatial, and in that sense still speaks to us now.

The concept of the solitary as encompassing many modes of being is illustrated in “The Excursion”, where the person described had an eye

” … that, under brows
Shaggy and grey, had meanings which it brought
From years of youth; which, like a Being made
Of many Beings, he had wondrous skill
To blend with knowledge of the years to come,
Human, or such as lie beyond the grave”.

The triumph of the solitary figure, suggests Jones, is that he understands that “only the permanent can change”. Such figures are believable in embodying higher spiritual aspirations, rather than in having amusing characteristics. Wordsworth’s primary concern is not with externals: nonetheless, his “recollection in tranquility” of a figure in a landscape would invariably provide images which worked through appearances, these being sustained, concrete descriptions; ideas, abstractions and significances were the more potent for being attached to such imagery.

The importance of solitude, then, in the poetry of Wordsworth, derives from its powerful effect on his imagination, especially during his early life, and, in the poetry itself, is the element which transforms a figure who walks alone into a figure embodying certain unchanging human values. The significance of the natural environment is particularly noticeable in bringing the transformational power of loneliness into a larger perspective. Wordsworth’s imagination was deeply affected by the “Souls of lonely places” and “the sleep that is among the lonely hills”. As he writes in “A Poet’s Epitaph”:

“The outward shows of sky and earth,
Of hill and valley, he has viewed;
And impulses of deeper birth
Have come to him in solitude”.

Wordsworth offers us a stimulating perspective. He prompts us to re-assess our values and reject the unnaturalness of a lifestyle founded on artificialities. He brings into crystal clear focus the spiritual benefits of being more alive to the beauties of the natural environment. Acknowledging that life’s course can be beset with hardships, loneliness and tragedies, he urges us to confront these challenges with strength, optimism and fortitude.

Such advice is as valuable today as it ever was.


Image credits: Anne Tyson’s cottage – FFNick, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

All others – public domain

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