BOOK REVIEW / Northamptonshire visionary: The 200th anniversary of the poet John Clare on Tuesday threatens to pass unnoticed. Tom Paulin pays tribute to 'this country's greatest nature poet'

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Born in 1793, the son of a thresher, Clare published his first collection in 1820, and followed it over the next 15 years with 'The Parish', 'The Village Minstrel', 'The Shepherd's Calendar' and 'The Rural Muse'. By 1836 he was suffering delusions, and in 1841 entered the asylum where he remained, continuing to write poems, till his death in 1864.

A WEEK or two back, in the fortress of Broadcasting House in Belfast, I watched an actor scribble a few last-minute changes to the script of a radio play, then screw his face up and remark that his handwriting was nearly as bad as John Clare's. He went on to talk about some manuscripts of Clare's he'd seen in the Peterborough Museum - what an enormous poetic gift, what a sad sad life. 'You know his poem 'I Am'?' he asked, and quoted the opening lines: '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'. Immediately and spontaneously another actor added: 'They rise and vanish in oblivion's host / Like shadows in love's frenzied stifled throes'. And then a third member of the cast took up the quotation: 'And yet I am, and live - like vapours tost / Into the nothingness of scorn and noise.'

Perhaps this is the way poets should be celebrated - out of the blue, in a break from doing something else, by an ad hoc group that has come together like a tiny cloud formation and will never meet up again. It was a moving moment, all the more so because, across the water, the England of national heritage, warm beer and critical theory has contrived to leave Clare's bicentennial almost unnoticed. A few events in his native Northamptonshire, an article in The Guardian, a short programme on the World Service, but otherwise hardly a whisper. No major biography or critical study, no important academic conference, no united voices singing in praise of this country's greatest nature poet, a scandalously neglected figure who is one of the most important writers of the Romantic era and who deserves to be as well-known as his contemporaries Shelley and Keats. Cast out of the canon, lonely and unhoused, Clare has indeed been forsaken 'like a memory lost'.

How, then, do we celebrate this unique poet? Perhaps first by recognising that Clare does not have a fully formed or settled reputation. Rather he is a writer whose achievement is still in a process of cultural formation - he is on a version of that legendary journey out of Essex, a journey out of obscurity towards posterity. The experience of reading through the enormous Oxford edition of his poems is like entering scenes 'where man hath never trod'. If an anthology piece is like an overcultivated flower, Clare's poems are like wild flowers or wild creatures on whom we have laid almost no no critical judgments:

I lost earth's joys, but felt the glow,

Of heaven's flame abound in me:

'Till loveliness, and I did grow,

The bard of immortality.

In this poem, 'A Vision', the normally vulnerable, uncertain, apologetic Clare - 'With ragged coat and downy chin / A clownish silent haynish boy' - is transformed into the giant Prometheus who snatches 'the sun's eternal ray' and gives his name 'immortal birth'. This is a vision of true fame, not mere celebrity - fame as Milton imagined it, a dedication of one's gift to heavenly not earthly applause. In Clare's rapt, strict lines there is an Enlightenment ambition to recast history and society into a visionary but rational structure. His poem reads strangely like a cross between a lyric by William Blake and an architectural drawing by Thomas Jefferson.

Although Clare identifies with power here - the consuming power of poetry - it is much more usual for him to merge himself with the powerless and the weak. One of his finest poems, 'To the Snipe' catches this sense of oneness in subtly mystical manner, addressing itself to the snipe, a 'lover of swamps', and tenderly setting out a marshy paradise where, in a beautifully unexpected verb, 'tiny islands' are seen 'just hilling from the mud and rancid streams'. Into this paradisal place of 'little sinky' fosses come 'free booters' who intend to kill and slay. More than simply hunters, they are symbols of enclosure, plundering freemarketeers who have come to steal the common land and destroy the delicate ecological balance there. They have entered a marshy open-air church with its 'hassock tufts of sedge' in order to kill the spirit of place. Out of this vulnerable ontological sense of utter remoteness issues the final bleak ironic passive vision: 'Thine teaches me / Right feelings to employ/That in the dreariest places peace will be / A dweller and a joy'.

Clare is the poet of dwelling, of Being, of Dasein. He inhabits his native landscape with all the nervous intensity of someone who knows he's been evicted from where he belongs. He is therefore both the poet of place and displacement: 'Inclosure came & every path was stopt / Each tyrant fixt his sign were pads was found'. His oral poetry - unpunctuated, and shimmering with dialect words like moozing, soodling, crumping, drippling, soshing, brustling - offers a sometimes angry, often anguished challenge to the rights of property and the bruising tread of the Lockean individualist. Like Emily Dickinson, he is a poet of the anxiety of consciousness.

The delicacy of Clare's imagination can be observed in a whole series of acoustic images which stucture his poems: the marvellously clattery evocation of the sound of a carthorse's hoofs - 'the toltering (hobbled/clumsy) bustle of a blundering trot' - or these lines describing a labourer's walk: 'While hard as iron the cemented ground / & smooth as glass the glibbed pool is froze / His nailed boots wi clenching tread rebound / & dithering echo starts & mocks the clamping sound'. He enjoys both pleasant suthering sounds and those rebarbative grincing scrapes made by the mower who leans over his shoulder and 'wetting jars wi' sharp & tinkling sound'. Clare's heightened sensitivity to sound patterns may be a gift that was at least partly the result of growing up in an oral culture. In his Autobiography he writes that both 'my parents was illiterate to the last degree, my mother knew not a single letter and superstition went so far with her that she beleved the higher parts of learning was the blackest arts of witchcraft.'

Within oral culture there is an instinctive suspicion of print culture because it expresses power and law and lays emphasis on the individual. The uniqueness of Clare's language expresses a communal vitality. In celebrating his use of Northamptonshire vernacular, we celebrate the native genius of the English language - a language of dwelling or Being which we hear, to quote Yeats, 'in the deep heart's core'.

Acoustic pattern, dialect, oral culture, the in-dwellingness of spoken language are all present in Clare's fascinated observation of birdsong - the cuckoo's 'pleasant russling noise', the heron 'cranking a jarring melancholy cry'. His work is packed with examples - there's even a 22-line rather Joycean transcription of the nightingale's song. What he delights in are not finished patterns but those patterns in the music of their happening or becoming. He sees this in fish as well as in birds:

. . . the gudgeons sturting bye

Cringd neath water grasses shade

Startling as each nimble eye

Saw the rings the dropples made

Clare loves these slippery liquid happenings, 'where oaks dripping shade the lake /

Prints crimping dimples on its breast'. He has a particular fondness for crimpling, crinkling, dimpling surfaces and for fizzling, crizzling, crumping sounds. What we get is a fusion of the processes of perception and of sound forming and travelling. The comparison that comes to mind is with the technique employed by Satyajit Ray in films like Pather Panchali, where the camera will dwell for a long time on, say, a water drop forming on a leaf, then the drop falling.

This strangely perfect, intensely pleasurable fusion of Being and Becoming is there even in Clare's evocation of the wagtail, which links the tittering tottering nimbling motion of the wagtail to the 'dimpling water pudge' - the little wind-stippled puddle. This image of gentle motion, along with Clare's favourite, haunted word 'home', is developed in 'Clock A Clay', a lyric of such tender, redemptive vision that to read it is like being gently initated into one of the secrets of the universe:

In the cowslip peeps I lye

Hidden from the buzzing fly

While green grass beneath me lies

Pearled wi' dew like fishes eyes

Here I lye a Clock a clay

Waiting for the time o' day . . .

It is time we praised John Clare, the great Northamptonshire visionary, to the skies.

(Photograph omitted)