Lisa Robertson on John Clare

Emmonsail’s Heath in Winter


I love to see the old heath’s withered brake
Mingle its crimpled leaves with furze and ling,
While the old heron from the lonely lake
Starts slow and flaps his melancholy wing,
And oddling crow in idle motions swing
On the half rotten ashtree’s topmost twig,
Beside whose trunk the gipsy makes his bed.
Up flies the bouncing woodcock from the brig
Where a black quagmire quakes beneath the tread,
The fieldfares chatter in the whistling thorn
And for the ewe round fields and clover rove,
And coy bumbarrels twenty in a drove
Flit down the hedgerows in the frozen plain
And hang on little twigs and start again.

‘If history is the record of survivors, Poetry shelters other voices,” wrote American poet Susan Howe. Instinctively, I agree. But what is voice? In a culture of competing identities, where the person is a market unit and psychology a spectacle, voice is a term gone flat.

I need collaborators and commotion to think, and lately I find the surest help in a miniature 1834 version of Samuel Johnson’s dictionary, where words lay tipped with their meanings like ready darts. He defines voice as “a vote; suffrage; sound emitted by the mouth; language.” In synch with Johnson, I’ll suppose voice is a hybrid of the sonic and the political.

In this poem by John Clare (1793-1864), we’re given nothing of biography, desires or losses. As with many poets, Clare’s story (in brief, agricultural labour, quick fame, poverty and long institutionalization) is far better known than his poems. But he resists personal delving to compose a voiced structure of sounds. The poem’s specific attention is on the textured jostling of vernacular consonants, vowels, verbs and names.

Compare the first line of Emmonsail’s Heath to the final line of Shakespeare’s Sonnet XIX : “I love to see the old heath’s withered brake” versus “My love shall in my verse ever live young.” These two 10-syllable units follow a similar pattern. But where Shakespeare’s line flows with a suave liquidity, Clare supplants the lithesome tone of his opening with a consonantal carnality: He both absorbs and parts from the traditional ease of the iambic line.

In Clare’s line the lengthening softness of the diphthongs is in counterpoint to the stopped cadence caused by the hard T, D, B and K. This roughed-up sound quality patterns the duration of the poem. The effect is to slow down the reading, so that the ear, rather than skimming from end-rhyme to end-rhyme, is absorbed stutteringly into the rich middlespaces of the lines.

It’s almost impossible to read it aloud quickly. These lines are not about endings, but about internal movement. Swinging, bouncing, mingling, roving, flitting — kinetic velocities are launched by the sounded perceptual unit that is the line and, I would argue, the voice. And all this is held in the balance of two elegantly symmetrical sentences.

Even though I don’t really know what a bumbarrel is, I now know what it does, so it acts convincingly in the poem. Likewise with “brake” and “ling.” Clare knits local customs of naming into the sensitive chaos of an ecology of foregrounds. His attention to birds and foliage is almost courtly.

The long, unifying view of “landscape” was not Clare’s aesthetic model. During his lifetime, the traditional English open-field farming system was dismantled by enclosure, which displaced rural labour from common lands to maximize the land’s productivity. Detailed, familial knowledge of the countryside was foreclosed. New laws and fences blocked physical and economic access to what had been a birthright. “The land” became an effect of aesthetic or productive abstraction.

In Emmonsail’s Heath, Clare sings a dissonant bodily perception of the natural world, with all the stresses and contusions of dispossession. His ear is intensely political. “I am glad if een a song/ Gives me the room to speak,” he said in a later poem about enclosure. Clare lacked suffrage. But this proliferating poem gives room to listen, an increasingly fugitive and necessary luxury.

When this appeared originally in the Globe & Mail on September 8, 2001, Lisa Robertson identified as the author of the Governor-General’s Award-nominated Debbie: An Epic, and, most recently, The Weather...Since then she has published many more books, including Nilling and The Men. She now lives in France.

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