Romantic Stuff

I’ve been remiss! Yesterday was important for two writers of the Romantic/early Victorian walking poetry club. July 13 is the anniversary of William Wordsworth’s visit to the ruined Tintern Abbey in 1798 during a walking tour of the Lake District. By the time he had walked on to Bristol several days later, he had, he claimed, composed the entire 1200 line poem in his head. Upon arrival, he wrote it all down with, he always maintained, not a line changed. You can just about hear the rhythm of walking in all those unrhymed lines of iambs, but you have to listen very closely.

The other famous walker was John Clare, born in 1793. He was a peasant poet, and he merited both words. He really was a peasant who not only could have set Wordsworth straight on some of his fantasies of the rustic life but also found sudden celebrity with the publication of his first book. Alas, he was also mad, being first treated at High Beach private asylum from 1837 till 1841, when he slipped away and walked 90 miles home from Essex to Northampton. Among his other delusions, he believed that he was married to his first love, a girl named Mary Joyce, as well as his real wife, Martha, and that he was Lord Byron and Shakespeare. When pressed, he would say that he had been those writers in a previous life, a good trick since Byron was still alive for the first quarter-century of Clare’s life. He was free but increasingly difficult for five months at home, at which time he was committed to a public asylum, where he would spend the final twenty-three years of his life. One of his doctors said that in life and in prose he was utterly deranged but in his poetry he was completely sane. In any event, the poems poured out of him, over three thousand during his lifetime. Adam Foulds has a wonderful novel about Clare’s days at High Beach, The Quickening Maze. Here is his poem “Autumn”:

The thistledown’s flying, though the winds are all still, 
On the green grass now lying, now mounting the hill, 
The spring from the fountain now boils like a pot; 
Through stones past the counting it bubbles red-hot. 
The ground parched and cracked is like overbaked bread, 
The greensward all wracked is, bents dried up and dead. 
The fallow fields glitter like water indeed, 
And gossamers twitter, flung from weed unto weed. 
Hill-tops like hot iron glitter bright in the sun, 
And the rivers we’re eying burn to gold as they run; 
Burning hot is the ground, liquid gold is the air; 
Whoever looks round sees Eternity there.