Wednesday, September 2, 2015

o'er my soul short rays of reason fly

I mentioned this in the comments but I will say, again, here, in the open, that I feel disappointed whenever I realise that those two facts can't be mated closely together – I mean that one can't be turned into the consequence of the other – 1. the fact that John Clare read Charlotte Smith's phrase, "mossy nest," and 2. the fact that he wrote about a mossy nest. I do not have the satisfaction of John Livingston Lowes who notices that when Dorothy Wordsworth walks at night with Coleridge "the moon which she sees is the Mariner's moon" because in her journal entry for that day it is "horned," when everywhere else it is "crescent;" and from that Lowes deduces that her friend has recited

The hornèd Moon, with one bright star
Almost atween the tips

I see my desire reflected in Fromm, who is so tempted by the proximity of upheaval in Dorothy Richardson's life to the upheaval of the Second World War that she shoves them together: "yet just as England was to withstand the terrible blitz, Dorothy Richardson's strength of character would pass the supreme test: the failure of an edition that Richard Church had represented to her as 'the final bid for fame.'" (The Selected letters of Dorothy Richardson.)

In Fromm's phrase the importance of Dorothy Richardson is being asked to reside not in herself and her private reaction but in her synonymity with an international event: the biographer is longing to see Richardson's fortitude mount grandly outwards, and I think of a related longing in Smith, several times, in her sonnets, when she decides that a human being's emotion or fate is as the landscape is.

But the wind rises, and the turf receives
        The glittering web:--So, evanescent, fade
Bright views that Youth with sanguine heart, believes:
        So vanish schemes of bliss …

(from Sonnet LXIII)

Or in the turbid water, rude and dark,
        O'er whose wild stream the gust of Winter raves,
Thy trembling light with pleasure still I mark,
        Gleam in faint radiance on the foaming waves!
So o'er my soul short rays of reason fly,
Then fade …

(from Sonnet XXIII)

Some of this romantic "mellancholly" in Clare's first published book of poems too (whereas in the later work a more precisely nostalgic sadness, if I'm right). "I began to write Sonnets at first from seeing two very pretty ones in an old news paper I think they were by charlotte Smith [sic]" he says in Autobiographical Fragment A32. The first were begun when he was fourteen or fifteen.


  1. "the dew is on the thorn and the primrose underneath just against the mossy root is smiling to the morn": from "the primrose bank", an early effort. true it speaks of moss, but is characteristic of his cheerful attitude when young, anyway, i think. later, he is indeed melancholy, although i don't know what sort of melancholy it may be: "i am-yet what i am none cares or knows; my friends forsake me like a memory lost"; from "i am". and he does seem to feel lost and not in control in much of his later verse, as he would be if feeling romantic or nostalgic. i feel clare had a gift for language but he was not sophisticated, which is a large part of his charm.

  2. I'm thinking of the sadder lyrics in his Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery (1820) -- "Helpstone" for example --

    "When this vain world and I have nearly done.
    And Time's drain'd glass has little left to run.
    When all the hopes, that charm'd me once, are o'er,
    To warm my soul in extacy no more."

    -- or "Address to a Lark" (which he says "was written in a mellancholy feeling" on a morning when "the ground was so froze that I could not work"):

    "Vain Hope ! of thee I've had my portion
    Mere flimsy cobweb ! changing ocean !"

    or "Address to Plenty":

    "Depress'd with want and poverty,
    I sink, I fall, denied by thee."

    and so on -- and the rhetorical formality does seem to be less in the later work; he writes as if the sadness is more complicated now – as if he's thought around it and decided that it needs to be extrapolated at length, the ins and outs of it –

    "I’ve ventur’d with much fear of usage ill
    Yet more of joy. Though timid be my skill
    As not to dare the depths of mightier streams;
    Yet rocks abide in shallow ways, and I
    Have much of fear to mingle with my dreams."

    ("To the rural muse" (1835))

  3. well, maybe it's just me, but i sense a distinct difference between the kinds of melancholy expressed by charlotte smith and clare. the former seems rather more cosmic, more globally encompassing, whereas clare's expressions appear to cling to him more closely. maybe this had to do with his mental episodes, or instead the episodes were symptomatic of his narrower comprehension of his personal concerns. i've noticed as i have aged that i can tell pretty well the state of a writer's consciousness(one might say)behind his or her writing much more easily than i could fifty years ago. or perhaps i am just better at deluding myself. we're all caterpillars on a watermelon, so to speak...