#34: THE DREAM OF A DEFINITIVE TEXT. Poets write, editors edit, and we read the published result—it all sounds so simple. But behind this everyday event may lie vast tangles of alternative texts, editorial choices, lately discovered manuscripts of varying legibility, and the battles of scholars. Many questions never get settled: the latest edition of the one-volume Oxford Shakespeare, for instance, presents two full texts of "King Lear," which differ considerably. And many poets wait a long, long time for anything resembling an authoritative text: the recognized edition of Blake, in Anchor Books, was published only in 1965, 138 years after Blake’s death. Thomas Johnson’s great edition of Emily Dickinson appeared in 1955 (Dickinson died in 1886) but many of the cheap and remainder-table reprints of Dickinson still follow the old texts, in which Dickinson’s individuality of punctuation, metric and diction—in other words, a distinct chunk of her greatness—was smoothed over and edited to the conventions of the time.
No poet so much worth caring about is in a worse textual quandary than John Clare. Readers may likely first find his work wrapped around with biography: peasant birth, the enrapturing discovery of verse, first popular success, dwindling interest in his work, the tragedy of the rural enclosures, then the long blank undifferentiated years of madness in the High Beech asylum. But his poetry sorts itself away from his biography relatively quickly, and this may be due to the special character of his work. When we read the official succession of the Romantic Period poets—Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats—we have landscapes, persons, whole worlds seen from distinctive and convincing viewpoints. In many of Clare’s poems we see past him to particular places, particular people, particular animals—badger, martin, ragwort, Ralph Wormstall, Ann Foot, Lolham Brig, the Clock-a-clay, Emmondale Heath—all seen and evoked for their own sakes, not to be pressed into philosophy’s service. Clare’s “minute particulars” are convincing because they seem not to be trying to convince us of anything in particular—the depth of thought is there, but second to the greater magic of evocation. Behind the poems, always visible, is a love of place so consuming and helpless we really believe that Clare paid for it with his sanity. In his native fields, no poet was more absorbed and happy than Clare; removed from them, none more thoroughly confused and displaced.
The matter of Clare’s texts was made noisily controversial when Professor Eric Robinson bought up the copyright of Clare’s unpublished work in 1965, which was seen as a kind of preemptive strike against scholarly competition. Robinson’s editions were done in the “textual primitivist” manner—as little emendation or correction as practically possible—which sometimes makes Clare look primitive indeed but which could also be like “discovering the original of a great painting previously known only through engravings” (John Barrell). But other editors and plans for other editions ran into claims for copyright fees, slowdowns, and threats of suit. Happily, though, Clare scholar Simon Kovesi told me recently in an e-mail that the issue of late seems to be dormant, and that editions of Clare are being published in a variety of editorial styles. Jonathan Bate, who issued a very full and admirable biography (John Clare, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux) in 2003 has also edited "I Am": Selected Poetry of John Clare (also Farrar, Strauss), a good example of editing Clare to bring him closer to the norms of punctuation and such while still respecting Clare’s individuality. Several selections of Robinson’s editions have been done—Major Works, published by Oxford in 1984 with a good introduction by Tom Paulin, is probably the largest single-volume selection of Clare’s work, and it includes the heartbreaking prose fragment “Journey Out of Essex”—“but Mary was not there”—which should not be missed. Clare is slowly taking his place in the succession—battles or no, we are all the winners.
P.S. 2014: One of the happiest events and best successes of Robinson’s and Summerfield’s work with Clare is their republication of his book-length poem The Shepherd's Calendar. In its first published form Clare’s editor John Taylor had gussied it up, scoured out the dialect words and shaped it to the London tastes of its time; in restoring Clare’s original and staying with his rough dismissal of what he called “the awkward squad of pointings called commas colons semicolons etc,” the poem has gained, not lost speed, and The Shepherd's Calendar is revealed as one of the most vivid, lively and convincing pastoral poems in the English language. Compare Spenser’s earlier Shepherd’s Calendar with Clare’s and you see the difference between a beautifully worked-out conceit and a voice from deep within the world it describes. David Gentleman’s woodcuts are the perfect accompaniment; it’s a beautiful little book.