A Week in Books: The People's Poet must be set free

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The Independent Culture
TODAY, THE John Clare Society will meet in his home village of Helpston, Northamptonshire, to celebrate the most powerful poet of rural life that England ever bred. Born into a poor labouring family on 13 July 1793, Clare explored in his verse - and felt in his soul - a "chain of contradiction" that shackled the life of this gifted, sensitive man. His own torments matched the destruction of old country ways by the agribusiness interests that framed and then profited from the period's Enclosure Acts. After decades of anguish, Clare spent the last 23 years of his life (to 1864) in the Northampton asylum, lucid, always writing, but confined as "mad".

Yet today's events will do more than remember a poet who left a glorious harvest of much-loved verse against all the odds. They will draw attention to a weird anomaly that arguably keeps Clare from taking his rightful place alongside Keats or Wordsworth. As a land worker and a much-patronised "peasant poet", Clare suffered a lot from what he called "the fence of ownership". Amazingly, he still does.

For John Clare, who died in the mid-Victorian period, is still subject to all the restrictions of copyright. In normal circumstances, of course, copyright expires (under current EU law) 70 years after a writer's death, when the work enters the public domain for free use without cost or constraint. In Clare's case - uniquely, for an author of his period - he still seems to be firmly enclosed.

His widow sold Clare's copyrights to Whitaker's for pounds 50 in 1864. Sporadic editions followed until, in 1964, the Clare specialist Eric Robinson "bought" all rights to the poet for a single pound. Professor Robinson does not own Clare's main manuscripts. They remain available to all in the Northampton library and Peterborough museum. Yet he receives the privileges of a copyright holder on their use, controlling every Clare publication. At Helpston today, a Clare scholar, Simon Kovesi of Glasgow University, will launch his new edition of love poems as a direct challenge to the Robinson monopoly (John Clare, Love Poems, pounds 7 from M&C Services, PO Box 3993, Glasgow G51 3YH).

Past editors have ignored Robinson's presence at their peril. When Raymond and Merryn Williams made an unauthorised selection of Clare in the 1970s, he had the book withdrawn. Yet Kovesi argues that his role may have no legal basis and finds it hard "to understand how this has gone unchallenged for so long". He adds: "I think that it really comes down to academic timidity."

Why should it matter? Rather like a stickler for "authentic" instruments in music, Robinson insists on reproducing the quirks of Clare's erratic spelling and punctuation. For Kovesi, these textual foibles are just accidents of transmission, and not essential parts of Clare. To preserve them "maintains his marginal status" and so deters many modern readers. Professor Jonathan Bate of Liverpool University, who is writing a biography of Clare for Picador, agrees that Robinson's approved editions "have the effect of continually making Clare look like an oddity". After all, would readers love many of Keats's greatest poems so much if they had to be re-printed, complete with his scatty punctuation, embedded in the letters into which he put them?

No one disputes the huge value of Robinson's contribution to Clare studies. But scholars now suspect that his belief that he owns the copyright might not stand up in court. Kovesi thinks that "there is a secret feeling ... things must change soon." At the end of his struggles, Clare longed to sleep "untroubling and untroubled", after "the vast shipwreck of my life's esteems". Yet the laws of property, which hurt him so much during that life, still refuse to let him go.

n The winner of our recent French Literature competition was C R W Powis of Chestfield, Kent. She wins a weekend break for two in Paris with ballet tickets, organised by Liaisons Abroad, the event ticket specialist