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Posts Tagged ‘Robert Bernard Martin’

Nature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Its manifestations are diversified by varying causes, and in this diversity there are signs for men of discernment. Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world.

Tablets of Bahá’u’lláhpage 142

Once on board, each night before I slept I read at least 50 pages of Bate’s biography of Clare. This was usually after spending an hour or two on one of the decks watching the sunset and looking out for dolphins. I hoped it would help me get a better grip on what Bate’s had meant by poetry being the song of the earth.

Eventually, I’d settle down with my book, faintly conscious of the slight swaying of the ship and the constant grumble of the engine.

Bate’s compassionate account of Clare’s troubled existence brings to life some of the more abstract aspects of man’s exploitation of nature. Clare was both deeply connected from childhood with the nature around him and forcibly cut off from it first by the Enclosure Movement, then by an enforced move from his birth home to one he experienced as every different and finally by his incarceration in an asylum. All these dislocations were further confounded by his success as a poet, where his experience of London changed him radically.

This time I picked up the book from where I had left off, already with a clear sense of how damaging the process of Enclosure had been for Clare, his family and his neighbours. As Bate’s explains (pages 49-50):

Enclosure was… symbolic of the destruction of an ancient birthright based on cooperation and common rights. The chance of Clare’s time and place of birth gave him an exceptional insight into this changed world.

This was because a high proportion of local villagers held common rights, an unusually large area of the parish was heathland, and the open fields survived until an unusually late date.

Bate continues:

For Clare himself, enclosure infringed the right to roam, which had been one of the joys of his youth… E.P. Thompson grasped the radical significance of this, discerning that ‘Clare maybe described, without hindsight, as a poet of ecological protest: he was not writing about man here and nature there, but lamenting a threatened equilibrium in which both were involved.’

In Clare’s own words:

Inclosure like a Bonaparte let nothing remain
It levelled every bush and tree and levelled every hill
and hung the moles as traitors –

Much later I came across this prose description in a similar spirit, which I’ll quote now to give another clear example of Clare’s unedited mode of writing (page 272): ‘what terryfying rascals these wood keepers and gamekeepers are – they make a prison of the forrests and are its joalers.’

His love of nature, I already knew, was quasi-religious (page 59):

. . . though he professed himself an Anglican, Clare’s attendance at church was mostly irregular. His deepest feelings of a religious kind were reserved for his experience of nature and his memories of childhood innocence and joy.

I was really looking forward to learning more, though I knew that Clare’s life had a tragic trajectory, ending as it did in an asylum over almost his last two decades.

Clare’s feeling for nature were not unique and he would have resonated to Wordsworth’s ‘sense sublime’ of ‘something far more deeply interfused’ within it (pages 100-101):

. . . if someone who had never read – perhaps never even heard of – such nature poets as Thomson, Cowper and Wordsworth nevertheless responded to nature in the same way as they, then there must be ‘universal feelings’ about nature which poetry was but an echo… Clare saw it as his task to write down the poetry that was already there in nature itself.

That his gift was recognized by a publisher was a blessing to his parents (page 120):

Drury’s faith in the potential of Clare’s poetry saved Parker and Ann from the poor-house.

But this came at a price (page 166):

[On his way to London in the wake of his success] full of anticipation at the prospect of seeing a place known only from fireside tales, he looked out from the coach at the labourers ploughing and ditching in the fields: ‘the novelty created such strange feelings that I could almost fancy that my identity as well as my occupations had changed – that I was not the same John Clare but that some stranger soul had jumped into my skin.’

He had become disconnected from his old sense of self (page 171):

After his exposure to fame and London, he could never fully return to his old life. In this sense, his consciousness of a new identity as he sat in the Stamford coach was prophetic.

I put the book down and switched off the light. My head hit the pillow to the continuing growl of the engine. As usual, my sleep was fitful. Just as I was falling asleep again for the umpteenth time, I heard the ship’s intercom through the cabin door: ‘For exercise only. For exercise only. For exercise only. All medical staff to the muster room on B deck. Repeat – all medical staff to the muster room on B deck.’

My wife and I were both awake. It was 7.30 am. We groaned and got up grumbling.

When we were dressed and had left the cabin to head for breakfast at the buffet on Deck 15, we bumped into our steward in the narrow corridor outside our room.

Standing by the trolley piled high with towels and bedding, he greeted us with his usual friendly smile.

‘How are you both?’

We asked him if he knew about the recent earthquake. He didn’t. We apologised for worrying him but explained that we were concerned to know whether his family were all OK.

He was clearly concerned. He explained that he would not be able to find out yet but hoped to get in touch with family later in the day.

We parted without our usual exchange of joking comments.

En route to the buffet we picked up our newsletter and puzzles. The puzzle sheet had a fairly demanding Sudoku on one side and ridiculously easy crossword on the other. The newssheet was based generally on yesterday’s news and was only worth picking up if we’d missed Sky news the night before.

Horizon was a more valuable read. It told us what would be happening the following day and was left in our cabin the evening before. On this occasion, over my usual breakfast of oats, raisins and milk plus a slice of toast and for once marmalade, we looked at the day’s events and spotted a talk on Lowry, a joint favourite, in the theatre. As we both knew a fair bit about the artist from reading his biography and going to see his paintings at Salford Quays, we decided to give the talk a miss but to go to the gallery where some prints were on show.

This was probably a wise decision given the delay caused by having to queue for clean teacups at the buffet. We would’ve missed the start of the talk anyway. As it was there was only one print that caught our attention: The Brothers. I don’t have a copy of that in my Shelley Rohde’s biography, nor have I ever seen the original anywhere.

Lowry’s ‘The Brothers’ (For source of image see link.)

Its impact was quite intense.

The way the brothers overlap in the print conveys the strong sense of a symbiotic relationship. Their merged black hats make them seem almost like twins joined at the head. The colour of the arch overhead matches their coats and, along with the narrowness of the picture, seems to imply that they are both in some way imprisoned or at least overshadowed by their relationship. The townscape behind them is unusually constricted for Lowry and the church and flats, if that’s what the red buildings were, would not look out of place in a doll’s house, hinting that, in spite of the greying hair of the background brother, we are not quite in a fully adult world here.

Most of Lowry’s work contrasts quite strongly with Clare’s rural home, in which I was so vicariously immersed at the time. His less well-known seascapes, which I first encountered on visiting the Lowry gallery at Salford Quays, added a new dimension to my understanding of his work, and would’ve blended in better with my cruise perhaps if I’d found one of those in the ship’s gallery.

I didn’t realise at this point that I would soon be encountering a third very different environment in paint. Blended with the artificial world of the cruise ship, nature, art and town alone began to weave a pattern of insights I haven’t quite digested yet.

‘Head of Man with Red Eyes’ painted after spending an exhausting night ministering to his hypochondriacal autocratic mother’s imaginary needs. (Image scanned from L S Lowry: a life by Shelley Rohde)

Part of the pattern is clear. Clare was uprooted from the earth of his childhood with devastating effects on his mental health and an inspiring impact on his poetry. Lowry’s roots were in the Northern townscape, which fed his art but may have starved his emotional life, though his voraciously demanding mother and a possible poorly understood autistic tendency didn’t help.

The third world I entered, through prints again, opened up another world altogether, but that will have to wait till next time. Together they illustrate just how complex is the relationship between art, personal life and nature. This idea, that poetry might, at some level, simply be the song of the earth, was seeming slightly fragile.

Even Bate, in his biography of Ted Hughes, is clearly aware that poetry comes in many forms. For example (page 93), he describes Yeats as ‘the poet of the land and the spirit of place’ in contrast to Eliot as ‘the poet of deracinated modernity.’ This of course still leaves begging the question of whether a poet who simply ‘gives voice to a new terror: the meaningless’, is a poet in the full sense of the word, no matter how powerful and honest that voice may be.

This relates to my struggle, explored in earlier posts, with much modern art, if it seems to capitulate to the dissonance and disbelief of the modern world with no counterbalancing sense of meaning and purpose. Can true poetry be simply nihilistic? Not that I’m saying, as should be clear by now, that poetry is only authentic if it sings about nature. Nature is not the only higher value poetry can draw upon to give it depth.

Clare though made a strong case for nature as a front runner in this race (page 480):

‘Birds bees trees flowers all talked to me incessantly louder than the busy hum of men and who so wise as nature out of doors on the green grass by woods and streams under the beautiful sunny sky – daily communings with God and not a word spoken.’

To complete the picture, it might help here to fast-forward to where my reading of Bate’s whole biography of Clare left me.

After his brief moment in the spotlight and two less successful collections of what Bate feels were superior poems, Clare’s world was turning significantly darker. Not only was the impact of Enclosure still tightening but his success had brought with it the opportunity to move three miles away to a more spacious home, something which proved a mixed blessing.

Even before the move things were not going well (page 276):

The changes in the land wrought by enclosure were by now symbolic of his own narrowing prospects and the loss of the familiar landmarks of his childhood.

There was no going back (page 317):

Save in memory and poetry, there was no road back to childhood, to the unenclosed commons, to Eden. As his depression closed in upon him, the only future was alienation.

Now there was the impending challenge of a serious mental health problem, brought on by a combination of factors, not least his increasing sense of alienation. His move to Northborough did not help (page 388):

The accommodation was much more spacious than at Helpston… But the village never became home. It felt like a closed community, hostile to newcomers.

Clare describes his feelings of loss and displacement in The Flitting (Page 389):

I’ve left my own old home of homes,
Green fields, and pleasant place:
The summer, like a stranger comes,
I pause – and hardly know her face.’

His poetry, which Bate sees as rooted in Clare’s ‘art of noticing’ and ‘intuitive responsiveness to minute particulars’ (pages 300-01) had so far lost nothing of its power though in this unhinging process (page 390):

His remembrance is not just of his old home, but specifically of the pre-enclosure landscape. It was also at this time that he wrote another of his great enclosure elegies, a vigourous poem of political complaint spoken in the very voice of a piece of land, ‘Swordy Well’. . . . With the enclosure, it was taken by the parish overseers as a source of stone for road mending. In the poem, the land speaks out against its own enclosure in the same terms as a labourer would have used to complain about his loss  of ancient rights. ‘I ha’n’t a friend in all the place,’ sings the desecrated earth, ‘Save one and he’s away.’ That one is Clare himself, both physically away from Helpston and mentally distant from his own unenclosed youth.

And again (page 405):

Clare’s sense of his own status as a perpetual outsider, a man who did not fully belong in either the world of London property or that of literary propriety, is nowhere better caught that in a sonnet on his fear of trespassing: ‘I dreaded walking where there was no path.’

I can resonate to this to some degree, as I was transplanted from lower middle class roots at the age of seventeen to the lofty heights of privilege at Cambridge in the early 60s. Since then I have always felt déclassé, belonging neither to my culture of origin nor to the rarified atmosphere of dinner suits and cocktail parties. This may partly account for why I found the cruise concept of ‘black-tie dining’, something that happened on four nights of our journey, a somewhat bizarre experience: I tried it once, in my green suit not a dinner suit, and stuck to the casual dress of the buffet after that.

Compared to Clare though my experience was relatively mild. The stresses of it did not strain me beyond endurance so that I would end my life staring from the window of an institution which felt like a prison, as Clare did in his asylum according to one of his visitors (page 475):

‘There was a birdcage, with a skylark in it, near the window; and pointing to the iron bars in his apartment, he smiled gloomily, and said, in a strong provincial accent, “We are both of us bound birds, you see.”’

I couldn’t help but remember Hopkins’s poem as I read those words[1]:

As a dare-gale skylark scanted in a dull cage,
Man’s mounting spirit in his bone-house, mean house, dwells –

In a sense that Clare does not express as far as I know, this would make him double-caged, as of course was Hopkins in the Jesuit order, though he never admitted that explicitly in any of his poems as far as I’m aware. Hopkins shared another passion with Clare (Robert Bernard Martin’s biography – page 212):

When an ash tree was felled in the garden, he ‘heard the sound and looking out and seeing it maimed there came at that moment a great pang and I wished to die and not see the inscapes of the world destroyed any more.’

Clare would certainly have been familiar though with the words of Blake that came tumbling into my head a this point:

A Robin Redbreast in a Cage
Puts all Heaven in a Rage.
A dove house fill’d with doves and pigeons
Shudders Hell thro’ all its regions.

I was beginning to feel that the motif of the prison was becoming an uncomfortably frequent theme.

In the end, divorced from nature by the Enclosure process, by his well-meant but unavoidable move to a different locality and by the social elevation his obsessive versifying earned him, he broke down and entered the final alienation of the asylum. He registers the ultimate consequence in his poem An Invite to Eternity (page 491):

Clare had coined the term self identity. Now he coins its opposite: sad non-identity. The absence of home and family has stripped Clare of his sense of self. At the same time, the very act of writing is a defiant assertion of the self. ‘At once to be and not to be’ is a breath-taking riposte to Hamlet’s question.

Even so, he is able to capture this in powerful poetry that does not completely capitulate to his sense of annihilation.

In the end there was no viable escape from his distress, except through poetry. Concerning his poem I am Bate writes (page 505):

In imagination, even in the asylum, he could complete the circle of vision, undoing his troubles by laying himself to rest between grass and ‘vaulted sky.’ He longs at once for both childhood and the grave.

He does not, if Bate’s sense of him is to be trusted, invest as much meaning in the horizon, or perhaps even in nature, as Emily Dickinson did, according to Judith Farr in her book, The Passion of Emily Dickinson. Nature was crucial to her, as it had been to the Brontës and to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, because for her (page 294) ‘nature offers clues about infinity,’ and she makes this explicit. This was even to the extent that (page 302):

The horizon was a point of order for landscape painters like Church. For poets like Dickinson, it was the point of fusion of this world and the next.

Maybe though for Clare, even though poetry began as a song of the earth, in the end it was more than that. I’m not sure I can quite find words right now for what that means. All I can say at the moment is that poetry itself can be a kind of transcendence, that brings meaning, perhaps even consolation, into the darkest moments of our lives.

When we spoke to our steward later that day to check how things were back home, he looked quite worried and told us that his cousin was missing, but the rest of his family were thankfully OK. We commiserated with him and assured him that we would remember his family in our prayers and hope that all would be well.

Footnote:

[1]. It would be fascinating to explore this further here but the post is long enough already. For now it is enough to indicate that R B Martin’s biography of Hopkin’s suggests (page 268) that an enforced move from St Beuno’s in rural Wales, where he had been studying for the priesthood, may have accounted in part for this sense of (page 264) ‘limitation, entrapment, a kind of stifling imprisonment of the spirit.’ The intensity of his connection with nature (page 203) would be more than enough to suggest a close affinity with Clare at least in this respect, and a comparable reaction to being torn away from nature by his move.

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Idyllic path

O if we but knew what we do
When we delve or hew —
Hack and rack the growing green!

(Gerard Manley Hopkins – from Binsey Poplars)

It’s hard to express how much I value trees though I’ve made one attempt already on this blog.

A hint of it perhaps comes across from my reaction to a recent walk in Haugh Wood. We changed our usual route and crossed the main road from the car park and walked to the pathway down the hill on the other side. We nearly didn’t proceed any further when we saw the warning sign that forestry work was in progress. We looked at the sign more carefully and it explained that we had to observe the various warnings against climbing on log piles or walking down paths where work was under way.

At first it was the usually tranquil experience of shadow, subtle greens and birdsong. We thought we had perhaps initially exaggerated the risks implied by the warning sign. As we descended more deeply into that part of the wood we noticed unusual tracks, as of some huge and heavy creature. Ominous printsShortly after, we heard its roaring coming from somewhere to our left. We squinted valiantly to glimpse the source of the sound if we could. Finally we caught hints of the monster shining its red warning through the crowded undergrowth. Tractor among treesWith its massive motor muscles it was heaving the corpses of fallen pine into piles in a distant clearing. It did not take long for us to find, shortly after a bend in the path, evidence of its earlier work. Dead pineI know this kind of work has to be done by the forestry commission if woodlands are to be managed properly though sometimes I feel it might be a touch overzealous. Richard Mabey expresses some words of caution in his recent book The Ash and the Beech. Writing of the activity after the Great Storm of 1987 he explains (page xv):

There was more damage caused to our woods by reckless clearing up after the storm, than by the wind itself, and living trees, and millions of seedlings and even the topsoil were often swept away by bulldozers, responding to political pressure and the public distaste for what appeared to be untidiness.

I also realise that corridors clear of trees have to be created to encourage the butterfly population.

However, these thoughts do little to ease the shock of such a massive pile of felled nobility – and, to be honest, the pine is not even my favourite tree. To have seen the trunks of oak or beech collected in similar numbers would have been almost intolerable. I am with Hopkins in this, though not quite as ready to die (Martin A Very Private Life – page 212):

When an ash tree was felled in the garden [at Stonyhurst], he “heard the sound and looking out and seeing it maimed there came at that moment a great pang and I wished to die and not see the inscapes of the world destroyed any more.”

Pine ringsThis was not the only such pile as we walked further down the path. Amid all these disturbing stacks of felled pine there were flashes of beauty that would not otherwise have been visible to us, for example the clear view of the rings that marked the years of making, but they utterly failed to compensate for the cost in terms of trees felled to provide it.

I know my attitude is perhaps a bit extreme.

It’s not even consistent. I know books are dead trees but I still love to read them. In fact, this love of books contributes to my sense of gratitude to trees for what they provide us so generously. Even when I’m pegging out the washing and using one of our wooden pegs to secure a towel or shirt to the line, the same sense of wonder and indebtedness comes over me as I feel the texture of the wood and see the beauty of the grain in even such a small and common thing.

Nothing else to say really.

Peg

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