Wednesday, August 19, 2015

a thresher & a labouring rustic

Graingerism instead of Frommianism: a policy that I will not keep up in a million years, and might as well chuck away on the spot, but at least the aspiration is good: it looks nice, and I can feel relieved for a second. Grigory Potemkin must have been cheerful. "I'm happy as a cherub when no one encumbers my life with declarations of esteem." (Robert Walser, tr Susan Bernofsky, The Robber.) Margaret Grainger, the editor of the Natural History Prose Writing of John Clare, writes an introduction without symmetry; she explains Clare's influences in a modulated way and she can even write the word "momentous" without being dramatic, like this: "Clare's twenty-seventh year, 1820, was momentous; it brought marriage, publication of Clare's first volume, Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery, by the London partnership of John Taylor and James Hessey in uneasy collaboration with the Stamford bookseller, Edward Drury, Taylor's cousin; and a visit to the metropolis" – followed by more -- "The poet received his first letters, made visits to the homes of local aristocracy, was pestered with callers to his house seeking 'out of a mere curiosity … to know wether [he] … was the son of a thresher & a labouring rustic,' and was taken by such patrons as Mrs Emmerson and Lord Radstock –" the word momentous is ballasted with evidence until you can relax into the impression that she has written a vision of John Clare as John Clare, and not as a parallel or symmetrical object in opposition to whoever: Wordsworth, John Dyer, or any other nature poet who was around at the time, Clare himself expressing pleasure at the work of Mrs Charlotte Smith (1749 - 1806). "[H]er poems may be only pretty but I felt much pleasd with them because she wrote more from what she had seen of nature then from what she had read of it there fore those that read her poems find new images which they have not read of before tho they have often felt them & from those assosiations poetry derives the power of pleasing in the happiest manner." (Natural History Letter II, c. 1824.)

Sonnet XLII

Composed during a Walk on the Downs, Nov. 1787

The dark and pillowy cloud, the sallow trees,
    Seem o'er the ruins of the year to mourn;
And, cold and hollow, the inconstant breeze
    Sobs through the falling leaves and wither'd fern.
    O'er the tall brow of yonder chalky bourn,
The evening shades their gather'd darkness fling,
    While, by the lingering light, I scarce discern
The shrieking night-jar sail on heavy wing.
    Ah! yet a little--and propitious spring
Crown'd with fresh flowers shall wake the woodland strain;
    But no gay change revolving seasons bring
To call forth pleasure from the soul of pain;
Bid Syren Hope resume her long-lost part,
And chase the vulture Care--that feeds upon the heart.

Charlotte Smith


  1. sad poem; sometimes it's a wrench to throw one's mind back to the victorians. seeing the lissome maiden with the back of her hand against the forehead is not trite, but real. as with clare, the emotions expressed are real and original. time erodes the language so that meaning is covered or changed somehow, even the heartfelt cries of long ago. "pillowy clouds": very nice.

  2. The saddest thing I see in her Elegiac Sonnets is the repetition of the word "care" over and over throughout the poems -- "the force of hopeless care," "the cares that press | On my weak bosom," "the pale spectre Care," "care and anguish," "sweet forgetfulness of human care," "the cruel traces left by care," "my anxious care," "sad vicissitudes of care," "care and sorrow," "the cave of Care" -- it's not a quick burst of unhappiness that the poet wants to tell you about, it's the kind of long-lasting, wearing strain that never seems to end.

    1. sort of like anxiety or weltanschaung, weltschmerz; although it may be sexist, is she remembering a lost love perhaps? care in the above sense is universal; it effects all humans as they worry their way through life, don"t you think...? in which case it truly is a statement for the ages, especially nowadays when the planet is in such miserable condition, human wise anyway.

    2. I'd go along with that, though she had a very concrete reason for her misery as well: namely: her violent husband had bankrupted the family and she was writing the poems in a debtor's prison. "Tho infidelity, and with the most despicable objects, had renderd my continuing to live with him extremely wretched long before his debts compelld him to leave England, I could have been contented to have resided in the same house with him, had not his temper been so capricious and often so cruel that my life was not safe," she wrote to a friend ten years later in 1793.

    3. my god, the poor thing! one tends to forget that social experiences in the victorian could be very dire indeed. i guess any reader of dickens could attest to that.

  3. "only pretty," eh? Ruskin would've praised a painter for having painted "more from what she had seen of nature then from what she had read of it." But there's a lot more to the poem you include than images of nature, which I assume you do deliberately. I love the Prometheus image, with Care pecking at the poet's heart until the return at spring of Hope, but Hope as siren, leading us to destruction on the rocks. A good poem. I've never heard of Charlotte Smith, thanks. I may put this sonnet into the MS I'm revising. There's some shadow play about sonnets in the novel, and hope.

  4. The other Elegiac Sonnets are online here if you want them:

  5. the poem quoted on mr. bailey's blog made me very uncomfortable; i guess that shows how effective it was. by her life experiences, the horror must have come to ms. smith naturally, while she was sitting in durance vile. did she ever get out of debtor's prison? or get even with her worthless husband?

    1. To quote Wikipedia (yeah, I know):

      "Charlotte joined Benjamin in debtor's prison, where she wrote her first book of poetry, Elegiac Sonnets. Its success allowed her to help pay for Benjamin's release. Benjamin's father attempted to leave money to Charlotte and her children upon his death, but legal technicalities prevented her from ever acquiring it.

      Charlotte Smith eventually left Benjamin and began writing to support their children. Smith's struggle to provide for her children and her frustrated attempts to gain legal protection as a woman provided themes for her poetry and novels; she included portraits of herself and her family in her novels as well as details about her life in her prefaces. Her early novels are exercises in aesthetic development, particularly of the Gothic and sentimentality. "The theme of her many sentimental and didactic novels was that of a badly married wife helped by a thoughtful sensible lover" (Smith's entry in British Authors Before 1800: A Biographical Dictionary Ed. Stanley Kunitz and Howard Haycraft. New York: H.W. Wilson, 1952. pg. 478.) Her later novels, including The Old Manor House, often considered her best, support the ideals of the French Revolution.

      Smith was a successful writer, publishing ten novels, three books of poetry, four children's books, and other assorted works, over the course of her career."

    2. I see the husband still died in a debtor's prison but at least he didn't take her with him.

    3. maybe some justice after all, in the long run. too bad people have to suffer, though. i'll have to look up her books. many thanks for the information.