The microscopic eye of John Clare

By Sue Edney
John Clare liked to get his head down in the grass – ‘close to nature’ in every way. In his poem Clock a Clay, Clare takes a ladybird’s eye-view, hiding in cowslip heads or ‘peeps’, ‘[w]hile grassy forests quake surprise’. His sightline makes the ‘buzzing fly’ a monster, the dew drops on the grass as big as ‘fishes eyes’, the wind and rain strong enough to force the little creature to grass level. But no matter:

“In the cowslips peeps I lye
In rain and dew still warm and dry”

Shakespeare’s Ariel in The Tempest had already discovered the potential of cowslips, and Clare might have heard Ariel’s song in his head at Northampton Asylum where he wrote this poem. His little insect hides for safety, however, while the ‘sprite’ is singing of his coming freedom:

“Merrily, merrily shall I live now
Under the blossom that hangs on the bough.”

The ladybird has no intention of risking her security with such abandon.

Clare contains the entire world, magnified, in a cowslip, and in doing so demonstrates the similar situations of insects and humans, especially the poor labourer, with not much more than grass and mud making up his cottage, in thatch and ‘puddled’ walls. Perhaps the ladybird is better off; she has flowers for her bed and dew to drink.

His acute sense of danger coupled to his hyper-realised vision creates a miniature asylum where Clare might find greater solace than in the place he called a prison, no matter how kind his ‘jailers’. Nature gathers to support as well as threaten.

Clare uses the magnifying glass of water drops to illuminate the grass tips, shown huge in the ‘pearl’, like the black pupil of a fish-eye. The microscope had long provided close observation of tiny things by the time Clare was writing, although there was still some discussion about the merits of expanded vision. Robert Hooke, in his astonishing Micrographia (1665) had spoken his mind about the benefits of close examination:

“The truth is, the Science of Nature has been already too long made only a work of the Brain and the Fancy:
It is now high time that it should return to the plainness and soundness of Observations on material and obvious things.”

This was a directive to ‘see into the life of things’, as Wordsworth was to encourage. Yet, in 1712, Joseph Addison perceived the dangers of distortion when faced with extremities.

“Our reason can pursue a particle of matter through an infinite variety of divisions; but the fancy soon loses sight of it, and feels in itself a kind of chasm, that wants to be filled with matter of a more sensible bulk.”

Both Hooke and Addison seem concerned with ‘things’ substantial; ‘material’, ‘obvious’, ‘matter of a more sensible [as in perceptible] bulk’; but neither of them – in these passages at any rate – attempt to define the thing itself. A flea is a thing; so is a mountain – so too, for Wordsworth and Clare, the experience of either. Close observation helps us experience the ‘thingness’ of life, which certainly led both poets to a deep appreciation of our relationship to things.

Wordsworth called ‘the bodily eye’ ‘the most despotic of our senses’, ambivalent about the power of things to disturb, aware, in his youth, of how blinkered one’s sight can become, even by beauty.

“What wonder, then, if, to a mind so far
Perverted, even the visible Universe
Fell under the dominion of a taste
Less spiritual, with microscopic view
Was scanned, as I had scanned the moral world?”   [The Prelude Bk. 12, 88-92]

He notes his own failings as those of Clare’s man of taste whose ‘heart oerflows with swarms of thought / To that great being who raised life from nought’, yet ‘arts strong impulse mars the truth of taste’.

Wordsworth seems painfully aware of Addison’s ‘chasm’ but mostly because, unlike Clare, he can no longer see for looking.

In the poem quoted, Shadows of Taste, Clare notes the poetic gatherings of nature in his everyday world; birds and flowers have taste, but you need to understand their ironic mimicking of human perception.

“The yellowhammer like a tasteful guest
Neath picturesque green molehills makes a nest
Where oft the shepherd with unlearned ken
Finds strange eggs scribbled as with ink and pen
He looks with wonder on the learned marks
And calls them in his memory writing larks” (ll. 9-14)

This crafty poem – in every sense – has a gentle dig at just about everyone; here Clare touches on his own predilection for nest-raiding, and his sense of wonder – and humour – at nature’s apparent collusion with human responses. And Clare insists on looking. Richard Cronin in New Approaches to Clare noted how most ‘Romantic’ bird poems are about the ones you can’t see, only hear: cuckoos, nightingales and skylarks. Clare, though, will struggle through the undergrowth to see the nightingale, even though his presence renders her silent. The shepherd examines the eggs with unlearned knowledge – exactly that insight that Clare sees as a prerequisite for ‘natural’ poetry. There is sight and there is insight; in his description of the eggs that humans ‘know’ but cannot ‘read’ Clare pinpoints his own relationship with writing things down. His ‘nest’ poems are among the finest observations of ‘material and obvious things’ and also determined exercises in reciprocity. No more the raider, yet perhaps he was aware of a different kind of betrayal in trying to make birds real for his audience. And yet Clare can excel in what Hooke found suspect in natural science; the work of ‘fancy’, the poet’s eye. In The Yellowhammer’s Nest, Clare returns to the ‘pen-scribbled’ eggs:

“Five eggs pen-scribbled oer with ink their shells
Resembling writing scrawls which fancy reads
As natures poesy and pastoral spells”

The ‘writing larks’ were a common farmland sight; their song – ‘a-little-bit-of-bread-and-no-cheese’ – a familiar sound. Peter Thompson, writing online for the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, comments on their decline and on his own discovery of the nests ‘hidden away in tangled bramble and grass in the bottom of a hedge … I instantly realised as I looked down on the four creamy coloured eggs with random scrawled lines all over them, why the local keeper called these birds “scribbling larks”’.

“The weedy forage crops are no longer needed and overwintering stubbles are weed free, as modern herbicides have done their job so well. Life is tough for the modern day yellowhammer.”
Life was tough for Clare’s bird as well: ‘For snakes are known with chill and deadly coil / To watch such nests and seize the helpless young’ (ll. 25-6). Clare weaves discovery and danger together in his nest poems, the ‘cowboy’ coming across the nest on his way to ‘dewberry’ gathering, the risks of harm for the bird and the man, by water and by land. As far as Clare is concerned there is no reason why you can’t blend Keats with country-lore, Parnassus and Castalia with mole-hills and horse-hair. Fancy need not preclude observation, and a close reading of the scribbled eggs reveals their magic power, in another link both to Keats and to Clare’s own folklore, as John Goodridge points out in John Clare and Community.

“The natural world seemingly writes poetry as he does. And to make quite sure the reader is properly beguiled by this idea, it is explained in terms of bewitchment: the writings on the eggshell are fancied as pastoral ‘spells’.”

But this witchery also hints at Clare’s own fears of discovery and betrayal, and leads us to Eden’s serpent. While science might dictate our necessary understanding of nature ‘red in tooth and claw’, of which Tennyson was to complain at a later date, Clare sees something deeper in the devastation of a raided nest, or frightened ladybird, whether by snakes or by clumsy or devious humans.

“And like as though the plague became a guest
Leaving a houseless-home, a ruined nest
And mournful hath the little warbler sung
When such like woes hath rent its little breast.” (ll. 27-30)

I would imagine that Hooke might think this truly fanciful, except that Hooke’s own descriptions lead him into the wonder of nature, not observation alone. Here, we come back to the ethics of observation. Being in the present moment is a joy and a pain, as Clare and Wordsworth both experienced. Wordsworth attempted transcendence in his observation:

“While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.” [Tintern Abbey, ll. 48-50]

In a way, Clare was too honest an observer. The houseless-home is terrifying. It was a real threat for those living on the edge of subsistence, human and non-human alike.

The ladybird’s name – ‘Clock a Clay’ – alludes to the idea that you can tell the time by her in much the same way as a dandelion-clock, as she sits on your hand while you count the hours before she flies away. There has always been a close story-telling link between the little beetle and her human observers, urging her away to save her house from fire and return her children to safety. Did this tale also inform Clare’s vision? No fire for him, either; she will be safe if it’s the last thing … ‘watching for the time of day’ (l. 24). Time for what; to be free, or to get on with everyday life? Is this the Last Trump?

In Clock a Clay, again Clare combines close observation with fancy and folk-lore, but this time his imagination no longer needs to please anyone but himself, reduced to the asylum but free, did he but know it, to write whatever he chose. His late sonnet The Yellowhammer is more optimistic: Clare sees a bright, confident bird, convinced his dwelling-place is right.

“The yellow hammer trailing grass will come
To fix a place and choose an early home
With yellow breast and head of solid gold.” (The Yellowhammer, ll. 12-14)

Solid gold – some magic there! Surely ‘trailing clouds of glory’ to match!

Sue Edney

Sue Edney returned to academic life after raising a family and 25 years as a self-employed therapist, completing a PhD at Bath Spa University on John Clare, William Barnes and cottage gardens. She teaches English at Bath Spa University at undergraduate and postgraduate level, and also at Bristol University as a tutor for the part-time continuing education programme at degree level. Sue participates widely in conferences and has published several papers and essays in journals and essay collections on 19th-century dialect writing and connections to place. She is at present completing a monograph on dialect, landscape and identity with particular reference to Clare and Barnes.