Tuesday, October 07, 2014

`The Larks and Linnets Kept Singing'

Books trigger a yearning almost sexual in afflicted readers, a state that shouldn’t be confused with lust for mere ownership. Collectors are not always readers and readers are not always rabid. Especially in the benighted days before the internet and effortless interlibrary loans, knowledge that a certain title had been published somewhere, at some distant date, could torment the aroused reader.  If you were a book-drunk Midwestern kid in the nineteen-sixties without access to a university library or acquaintances with well-stocked shelves, and you wanted to get your hands on, say, Roderick Random or A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, you were out of luck. Books not in the public library or book shops accessible by bicycle or bus entered the realm of myth – teasingly elusive. Today we dwell in a reader’s paradise. If you want it, you can probably get it. 

In The Life of John Clare (1865), Frederick Martin (1830-1883) describes the peasant-poet as a boy working at the Blue Bell, a pub near his family’s house in Helpston, Northamptonshire. While Clare (1793-1864) was tending his master’s cattle, a farm boy showed him a copy of The Seasons (1730) by James Thomson, a four-part, book-length poem of remarkable popularity and influence. Martin writes: 

“Examining the book, he got excited beyond measure. It was the first real poem he had ever seen, and in harmony as it was with all his feelings, it made upon him the most powerful and lasting impression. Looking upon the book as a priceless treasure, he expressed his admiration in warm words, asking, nay, imploring the possessor to lend it him, if only for an hour. But the loutish boy, swollen with pride, absolutely refused to do so; it was but a trumpery book, he said, and could be bought for eighteen-pence, and he did not see why people who wanted it should not buy it.” 

The farm boy gave Clare the name and address of the book dealer in Stamford where he bought the volume. Clare wasn’t due to be paid for his work at the pub, and had only six-pence of his own, so he asked his father, Parker Clare, for the loan of a shilling. “A spare shilling,” Martin writes, “was not often seen in the hut of the poor old man, dependent chiefly upon alms, and in want, not unfrequently, of the bare necessaries of life. But the loving mother could not listen to her son's anxious entreaty without trying to assist him, and by dint of superhuman exertions she managed to get him seven-pence. The fraction still wanting to complete the purchase-money of the book was raised by sundry loans at the 'Blue Bell,' and John waited with eagerness for the coming Sunday, when he would have time to run to Stamford.” 

At this point in Martin’s account, I started getting anxious. Will young John make it? Will he have enough money? Will Thomson’s book still be on sale? A reader’s empathy for another reader’s fate is boundless. He made it, but the shop was closed for the Sabbath. On the way back to Helpston, he came up with a plan. By raising another two-pence, the following morning he could bribe the cowherd on a neighboring farm to watch his master’s horses. The plan worked and Clare traveled the seven or eight miles to Stamford to await the opening of the shop:    

“Was there ever such a customer seen at Stamford? The good bookseller was not accustomed to excitement, for the old ladies who dealt at his shop bought their hymn-books and manuals of devotion without any manifestations of impatience, and even the young ones, though they asked for Aphra Behn’s novels in a whisper, came in very quietly and demurely.” 

Instead, the book dealer discovers the future poet, “a queer, haggard-looking country boy,” sitting on his step. He questions the boy, having never encountered so impassioned a reader, and proves himself a generous man: 

“…the Stamford shopkeeper was a man of compassion, and seeing the wan little figure before him, resolved upon a tremendous sacrifice. So he told Clare that he would let him have Thomson’s `Seasons’ for one shilling: `You may keep the sixpence, my boy,’ he exclaimed, with a lofty wave of the hand. John Clare heard nothing, saw nothing; he snatched up his book, and ran away eastward as fast as his legs would carry him. `A queer customer,’ said the shopkeeper, finishing to take down his shutters.” 

I don’t care if the story is apocryphal. Jonathan Bate doesn’t recount it in his standard modern life, John Clare: A Biography (2004). Like childhood’s inaccessible books, the story possesses the satisfying truth of myth – hard work, cleverness (bribing the farm boy) and devotion rewarded. Martin’s book was much admired by the late poet C.H. Sisson and a second edition was published as recently as 1964. Martin lays it on a little thick, and even suggests that Thomson’s book immediately inspired Clare to write his first poems. If that’s not the way it happened, it’s the way it should have happened. Here is Martin’s account of Clare’s journey home to Helpston, book in hand: 

“He was just passing along the wall of the splendid park surrounding Burghley Hall, the trees of which, filled with melodious singers, overhung the road. The village of Barnack in front looked dull and dreary; but the park at the side was sweet and inviting. With one jump, John was over the wall, nestling, like a bird, among some thick shrubs in the hedge. And then and there he read through Thomson's 'Seasons'—read the book through twice over, from beginning to end. And the larks and linnets kept singing more and more beautifully; and the golden sun rose higher and higher on the horizon, illuminating the landscape with a flood of light, a thousandfold reflected in the green trees and the blue waters of the lake. John Clare thought he had never before seen the world so exquisitely beautiful; he thought he had never before felt so thoroughly happy in all his life. He did not know how to give vent to his happiness; singing would not do it, nor even crying. But he had a pencil in his pocket and a bit of crumpled paper, and, unconscious almost of what he was doing, with a sort of instinctive movement, he began to write—began to write poetry. The verses thus composed were subsequently printed, but with great alterations, under the title, `The Morning Walk.’”

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