150+ essays on literary topics
John Clare wrote three kinds of poem: observations on himself (‘I am – yet what I am none cares or knows’), observations on social change (‘Enclosure like a Bonaparte let not a thing remain’) and observations on natural history, the last being the kind he wrote most. Writing natural history in verse makes him part of a long tradition, reaching back to Lucretius and Virgil, but he reaches forward too. The immediacy of his observations calls to mind the commentaries we are used to hearing in television programmes about nature. In The Nightingale’s Nest, he leads us on a country walk, speaking directly to us as if we were there with him.
‘Up this green woodland-ride let’s softly rove
And list the nightingale – she dwells just here.’
It is easy to imagine the familiar voice of David Attenborough speaking in hushed tones as he creeps through the undergrowth.
‘Hark! there she is as usual – let’s be hush –
For in this blackthorn-clump, if rightly guessed,
Her curious house is hidden. Part aside
These hazel branches in a gentle way
And stoop right cautious ‘neath the rustling boughs…’
The camera follows him in. We hear the rustling as he creeps under the branches. We hold our breath. The tension mounts.
‘Ay, as I live – her secret nest is here,
Upon this whitethorn stulp. I’ve searched about
For hours in vain – there, put that bramble by –
Nay, trample on its branches and get near.’
The camera focuses on the nest and the naturalist describes it for us.
‘How curious is the nest: no other bird
Uses such loose materials or weaves
Its dwelling in such spots – dead oaken leaves
Are placed without and velvet moss within
And little scraps of grass and, scant and spare,
What scarcely seem materials, down and hair.’
It is striking how Clare is able to accommodate so natural a speaking voice within the verse form, as if metre and rhyme flow naturally through the words. Clare, though a countryman who earned his living on the land, was well-read. The iambic pentameter was as familiar to him as the Northamptonshire countryside. Like the Elizabethans, he thought in verse. Poetry is best when it is closely allied to the way we speak, which is itself closely allied to the way we think.
Edward Thomas is said to have found his voice as a poet when Robert Frost pointed out to him the poetic quality of his prose. He was already the author of several books, mainly biography and nature writing, and had a reputation as a prose stylist, when his friendship with Frost caused his writing to take a new direction. Between 1913, when he was thirty-five and had been writing professionally for sixteen years, and 1917, when he was killed, he wrote about a hundred and fifty poems. Many of them started life as passages of prose taken from his notebooks and lightly transformed into poetry. He ‘put his trust in rhythms of speech,’ Matthew Hollis tells us in his introduction to the Faber Selected Poems (2011), ‘at a time where this was not the received style,’ and quotes Thomas himself as saying, ‘Only when a word has become necessary to him can a man use it safely, if he try to impress words by force on a sudden occasion, they will either perish by his violence or betray him.’ This was a principle he had learned to apply in his prose and then sought to apply in his poetry. Usually he succeeded, but not always. His poetry sometimes reads as if it is trying to escape from the form it’s written in. The intensity of his thought was not so easily tamed as Frost’s.
‘After night’s thunder far away had rolled
The fiery day had a kernel sweet of cold,
And in the perfect blue the clouds uncurled,
Like the first gods before they made the world
And misery, swimming the stormless sea
In beauty and in divine gaiety.’
The diction seems to belong to an earlier age. It reads almost like an eighteenth century translation of a Latin poem. The first line could be Dryden. Thomas asks more of his verse than he does of his prose. Frost ambles comfortably through his lines, but Thomas is more urgent. He wants each word to count. The basic unit in Frost’s poems is the sentence, in Thomas’s it’s the word. I can’t help thinking that Thomas, the prose stylist, had an idea in his head of the perfect poem as something small and dense, something that looks light until you pick it up, like Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience or something by Marvell. Robert Frost could not have written Cock-Crow.
‘Out of the wood of thoughts that grows by night
To be cut down by the sharp axe of light, –
Out of the night, two cocks together crow,
Cleaving the darkness with a silver blow:
And bright before my eyes twin trumpeters stand,
Heralds of splendour, one at either hand,
Each facing each as in a coat of arms:
The milkers lace their boots up at the farms.’
Adelstrop, which is perhaps the closest he came to his ideal, owes more to Robert Browning than to Robert Frost. Its four verses, each of four lines, with their simple rhyme scheme and their easy-going, absent-minded rhythm, remind me of Browning’s Memorabilia (a title which would have suited Adelstrop just as well).
‘Ah, did you once see Shelley plain,
And did he stop and speak to you
And did you speak to him again?
How strange it seems and new!
But you were living before that,
And also you are living after;
And the memory I started at –
My starting moves your laughter.
I crossed a moor, with a name of its own
And a certain use in the world no doubt,
Yet a hand’s-breadth of it shines alone
’Mid the blank miles round about:
For there I picked up on the heather
And there I put inside my breast
A moulted feather, an eagle-feather!
Well, I forget the rest.’
In a very long review of a book about Philip Roth in the London Review of Books (vol. 36, no. 2, 23 January 2014) Adam Mars-Jones writes, ‘Art is always a one-way sharing: I can be privy to Dante’s mind but he is impervious to mine.’ Leaving aside the question of what Dante has to do with Philip Roth, this seems to me to be a fundamental misunderstanding of what art is and what it seeks to do. The Divine Comedy is not the subject of a conversation between Dante and Adam Mars-Jones. The point of reading it is not to get to know Dante, as if he were someone you had just met at a party. The Divine Comedy, once written, exists independently of its writer. So do Philip Roth’s novels, however autobiographical their origin.
The title of my next essay, due on 5 February, is Modern theatre’s debt to Ben Jonson.
The next entry in my Reader’s Diary will be published on 12 February.
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