Saturday, December 8, 2007

John Clare - what endless new lessons may we learn from nature

John Clare (1793-1864) was genuinely poor, an agricultural laborer. A peasant. He received enough of an education, just enough, to allow him to become a poet. He had enough talent to become a great one.

A while ago I posted this poem. I don't exactly remember why, except that it's excellent. It's untitled, but often referred to as "The Mouse's Nest":

I found a ball of grass among the hay
And proged it as I passed and went away
And when I looked I fancied somthing stirred
And turned again and hoped to catch the bird
When out an old mouse bolted in the wheats
With all her young ones hanging at her teats.
She looked so odd and so grotesque to me
I ran and wondered what the thing could be
And pushed the knapweed bunches where I stood.
Then the mouse hurried from the crawling brood
The young ones squeaked and when I went away
She found her nest again among the hay.
The water oer the pebbles scarce could run
And broad old cesspools glittered in the sun.

The narrator sees something curious. He investigates. Then he looks away. That's the poem.

Clare was a real naturalist ("the knapweed bunches"), interested in really observing nature and describing it accurately. Romantic Poets get too much credit for being poets of nature. Wordsworth was, to some degree, and William Cullen Bryant, but they are both much more interested in grander effects - the sublime, the spirit in nature, that sort of thing. Man in nature. Coleridge, Byron, Shelley - were they really interested in nature at all?

Clare worked on a much smaller scale: the ordinary life of people around him, the behavior of birds and animals, plants and seasons. This particular poem, especially the last couplet, has gotten a lot of attention because its objectivity is so stark. The poet tells you a lot about what he sees, and just a little bit about what he thinks - the mother and babies look "so odd and so grotesque." But then what? Is there some moral lesson?

If so, he keeps it to himself. What is the poet thinking in the last two lines, when his attention seems to turn from the mouse to the landscape, to the nearly dry stream and the glittering cesspools? What is the reader thinking? A very modern effect.

The quote in the header is from the end of a letter, p. 477 of the Oxford Major Works.


  1. As a biologist, that pleases me. Nature as subject, not metaphor.