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Politics: John Clare

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In this week’s lessons, we focus on the politics of the English Romantic writers. We looked at abolitionist poetry, we have touched in passing on the politics of gender, class, race, tyranny and Empire. We have also looked at representations of liberty. In the final session for this week we shall look at the politics in the poetry of John Clare. (Refer Slide Time: 0:43) John Clare’s poetry was devoted to the praise of his immediate geographic and topographic location (Helpston in Northamptonshire). It was also a protest against the socio-economic changes occurring therein, mainly enclosure, deforestation, and social stratification. In fact, as recent essays show, his description of climate is itself unique in terms of particularities (Poetzsch). They focus on very specific issues of concern that have to do with climate in that particular region. (Refer Slide Time: 1:23) Here is an excerpt from Clare’s “Helpstone” which he refers to as dear native spot. He describes the woodmen and the acts which have destroyed a tree: Dear native spot which length of time endears The sweet retreat of twenty lingering years And oh those years of infancy the scene The dear delights where once they all have been ... In those past days for then I lov’d the shade How oft I’ve sighed at alterations made To see the woodmans cruel axe employ’d A tree beheaded or a bush destroy’d Nay e’en a post old standard or a stone Moss’d o’er by age and branded as her own Would in my mind a strong attachment gain A fond desire that there they might remain ... (“Helpstone”) (Refer Slide Time: 1:36) Like Wordsworth, Clare also saw the divine in Nature. You will recall what we spoke about Wordsworth’s environmentalism, his obsessive interest in portraying nature as quasi-divine or divine itself. There is an environmental stance in all this, but it is also disputed and debated if this is the right approach. Clare is actually following in the footsteps of William Wordsworth. Here is an instance of Clare’s divinization of Nature. This is from Middle Period, Part IV: In these thy haunts I’ve gleaned habitual love From the vague world where pride & folly taunts I muse and look above Thy solitudes The unbounded heaven esteems and here my heart warms into higher moods & dignifying dreams I see the sky Smile on the meanest spot Giving to all that creep or walk or flye A calm and cordial lot Thine teaches me Right feelings to employ That in the dreariest places peace will be A dweller and a joy (Middle Period, IV) Clare rejected the transformation of Nature into objects entirely evaluated in terms of their human value. What does that mean? What he is saying is you cannot see Nature via an instrumentalist perspective. What can Nature do for the humans? This instrumental perspective is what many environmentalists say, causes our damaging of Nature. We see Nature as a resource to be exploited, to take from Nature whatever we need for our home, for our industry, for our cities, for our civilization in general. The instrumental view of Nature means Nature is subordinated to human nature, to human needs and human requirements. (Refer Slide Time: 3:29) Clare rejected the transformation of Nature into objects entirely evaluated in terms of their human value. He saw this as refusing to accept that Nature has any intrinsic value. We see Nature as having value only for us. And Clare traces the destruction of Nature as a result of this instrumentalization or instrumental view due to the landlords and their enclosures. He emphatically absolved the poorer farmers and the laborers from this ethos of destruction. He is the principal poet of the anti-Enclosure sentiment. Here is a description that best captures the question of the landlord’s role. (Refer Slide Time: 4:05) But sweating slaves I do not blame Those slaves by wealth decreed No I should hurt their harmless name To brand ‘em wi’ the deed Altho their aching hands did wield The axe that gave the blow Yet ‘t’was not them that own’d the field Nor plan’d its overthrow “The Lamentations of Round-Oak Waters” Look at what he is saying. The slave who wields the axe, who chops up the trees or levels the land is not to blame. Because the slave does not own the land, Clare is linking two things, the instrumental view of nature and the question of property, that people who own Nature as property are not seeing it except as something that exists to serve them. As he says it was not them that own the field, nor was it the slave that planned its overthrow. (Refer Slide Time: 4:56) Clare saw human actions such as the Enclosure Acts as creating deserts. The peasant-poet here Clare’s persona: There once were days, the woodsman knows it well, When shades e’en echoed with the singing thrush; There once were hours, the ploughman’s tale can tell, Where morning’s beauty wore its earliest blush; How woodlarks carol’d from each stumpy bush; Lubin himself has mark’d them soar and sing: The thorns are gone, the woodlark’s song is hush, Spring more resembles winter now than spring, The shades are banish’d all—the birds have took to wing “The Village Minstrel” (Refer Slide Time: 5:39) By Langley bush I roam but the bush hath left its hill On cowper green I stray tis a desert strange & chill And spreading lea close oak ere decay had penned its will To the axe of the spoiler & self interest fell a prey And cross berry way & old round oaks narrow lane With its hollow trees like pulpits I shall never see again Inclosure like a Buonaparte let not a thing remain It levelled every bush & tree & levelled every hill And hung the moles for traitors—though the brook is running still It runs a naked brook cold & chill “Remembrances” (Refer Slide Time: 6:29) Continuing another poem, “The Mores”: On paths to freedom & to childhood dear A board sticks up to notice ‘no road here’ & on the tree with ivy over hung The hated sign by vulgar taste is hung As tho the very birds should learn to know When they go there they must no further go Thus with the poor scared freedom bade good bye and much the[y] feel it in the smothered sigh and birds & trees & flowers without a name All sighed when lawless laws enclosure came “The Mores” What is Clare doing? Clare is saying: On paths to freedom and to childhood dear, a board sticks up, a notice which says ‘no road here’. What he is saying is it used to be a common land, it used to be common pathways and common roads. Suddenly there is a notice which says there is no longer a road here. It is literally the privatization of land. If you are reading the newspapers across India, you will see these descriptions that what used to be a common road has been taken away by a cantonment or an organization, it has been privatized. In fact if you think carefully, what Clare is talking about here, is what you see in urban cities now. The mall for example is the street taken in, as urban studies scholars of shopping, such as Sharon Zukin have argued. The mall takes in the street, so previously you used to walk down a street to shop, now you enter a building to shop because the street has gone inside. Clare is saying: no road here. Suddenly everything has changed. In the conclusion of those lines, he says “and birds and trees and flowers without a name/ all sighed when lawless laws enclosure came.” (Refer Slide Time: 7:53) Clare likens enclosure to Napoleon. This is greed, this is conquest and there is nostalgia for the land lost to human greed. He says in “The Mores”, Unbounded freedom ruled the wandering scene Nor fence of ownership crept in between To hide the prospect of the following eye Its only bondage was the circling sky One mighty flat undwarfed by bush & tree Spread its faint shadow of immensity and lost itself which seemed to eke its bounds In the blue mist the orisons edge surrounds Now this sweet vision of my boyish hours Free as spring clouds & wild as summer flowers Is faded all— Unbounded freedom – in Clare’s account, the boundary is not about freedom alone, but the boundaries or fences around fields. One could recall here a connection to the description in Blake’s London of chartered streets and chartered river Thames. Chartered, meaning they have been sanctioned off as private property, and you require an order to be allowed to go through it. (Refer Slide Time: 8:59) John Burnside argues that the “invocation of the circling sky and the horizon’s edge, echoes the sense of the sky and air as a source of imaginative freedom.” It is an innovative reading. Burnside is arguing that the description of vast seas and horizon is about imaginative freedom itself. (Refer Slide Time: 9:18) In terms of environmental politics, Clare extends his respect for all lifeforms and the land itself. He is very visionary in that sense. For example, here is the famous poem, “The Lament of Swordy Well,” where he says he is looking at different forms of life itself. of awl am no man to whine & beg But fond of freedom still I hang no lies on pitys peg To bring a gris[t] to mill On pitys back I neednt jump My looks speak loud alone My only tree they’ve left a stump & nought remains my own “The Lament of Swordy Well” Clare is seen as a proto-Marxist for his political views on community and land. John Burnside has also marked him as the forerunner of some of today’s dissidents including those in the Occupy movement due to poems such as “The Tramp.” (Refer Slide Time: 10:10) He eats (a moments stoppage to his song) The stolen turnip as he goes along And hops along & heeds with careless eye The passing crowded stage coach reeling bye He talks to none but wends his silent way And finds a hovel at the close of day Or under any hedge his house is made He has no calling and he owns no trade An old smoaked blanket arches oer his head A whisp of straw or stubble makes his bed He knows a lawless clan that claim no kin But meet and plunder on and feel no sin No matter where they go or where they dwell They dally with the winds and laugh at hell In this poem, he talks about people who are “illegitimate occupants” of a particular area, that they are not supposed to be there but they are there. So Burnside’s innovative reading, in which he refers to the Occupy Wall Street movement, is about how the students and those protesting against globalization or capitalism, went and occupied those places which were associated with high finance and high capitalism. Burnside argues that poems like “The Tramp” are actually anticipating the arrival of the occupied protests where the tramp is where he ought not to be. He stops where he should not stop. (Refer Slide Time: 11:01) John Clare is not a very anthologized writer for some peculiar reason. But his poetry teaches us about several things such as environmentalism, the politics of community, enclosures and the social hierarchies that determine our use of the land itself. So reading Clare means we understand the environment, social hierarchy and proto-capitalist situations in England, the link between the arrival of the industrialist, attitude towards the land and what happens to environmental thinking in itself.