. . . And sky-bound mores in mangled garbs are left
Like mighty giants of their limbs bereft
Fence now meets fence in owners’ little bounds
Of field and meadow large as garden grounds
In little parcels little minds to please
With men and flocks imprisoned ill at ease . . .
. . . Each little tyrant with his little sign
Shows where man claims earth glows no more divine
But paths to freedom and to childhood dear
A board sticks up to notice ‘no road here’
And on the tree with ivy overhung
The hated sign by vulgar taste is hung
As tho’ the very birds should learn to know
When they go there they must no further go . . .
From The Mores, John Clare, 1812–3.
The Mores (or The Moors) was one of many poems written by John Clare about the effects of enclosure in the second decade of the nineteenth century on Helpston, the Northamptonshire village that was his home until 1832, and unpublished in Clare’s lifetime.
It opens with a glimpse of an ‘unbounded’, pre-lapsarian landscape, where the cattle may wander at will to the “wild pasture as their common right”, as does the poem’s narrative, with very little grammar or punctuation to hamper its progress. Clare indeed wrote to his long-suffering editor and publisher, John Taylor, protesting, “grammar in learning is like tyranny in government – confound the bitch I’ll never be her slave and have a vast good mind not to alter the verse in question . . .”. Taylor it was, whose literary and commercial judgments shaped his career from the publication of Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery in 1820 to The Rural Muse in 1835.
But relations between poet and publisher broke down in the years that followed. Clare was first admitted into an asylum in 1837, after one particularly public exhibition of madness, when he had accompanied the Bishop of Peterborough’s wife to a performance of the Merchant of Venice, only to bring the performance to a halt by climbing on his seat in the box reserved to the wife of the Lord Bishop and arraigning the actor playing Shylock as a “murderous villain”. The performance had to be suspended when he attempted to climb onstage. He spent the last 23 years of his life ‘trapped’ in Northampton General Lunatic Asylum where he died in 1864.
During this period he wrote some of his best poetry, leaving behind an unwieldy mass of manuscript material. At his death his four published volumes contained only a tenth of the 3,000 poems written by this finest and most prolific of English rural poets. In 1965, Professor Eric Robinson, a historian at the University of Massachusetts, claimed to have purchased the copyright to all Clare’s unpublished writings in the possession of Whitaker’s publishing house for one pound. For the next 40 years, his Oxford editions dominated Clare scholarship.
The Oxford editions favoured ‘textual primitivism’, seeking to preserve the manuscript untrammelled, with all its misspellings and erratic punctuation intact. Once again the unique Child of Nature and solitary Original Genius was to be preserved for posterity in the ‘raw’. Other scholars felt that this misrepresented a man whose poetry was not only self-consciously steeped in the landscape and other conventions of eighteenth-century verse, but profoundly alert to the philosophical paradigms of his Romantic peers.
Andrew Kötting, By Our Selves, 2015. All rights reserved.Underneath the disputes about who Clare really was and what best served the poet’s memory was the uneasy sense that well over a century after the poet’s death, no single individual should be able to exert exclusive control over his writings as his or her private property; especially the work of one so passionately opposed to exclusionary possession and enclosure as John Clare. In 2000, Seamus Heaney, Tom Paulin, and the poet laureate, Andrew Motion, united with 25 other Clare scholars in a campaign to ‘free’ the poet.
This year, an entirely different attempt to do something kindred is being screened, followed by a Q&A with the director, at the Open City Documentary Festival. Andrew Kötting’s second collaboration on film with the writer and psychogeographer Iain Sinclair is a black and white road movie, By Our Selves, documenting the four-day walk over 80 miles made by Clare from Epping Forest back to his own village of Helpston in July, 1841, when he absconded from High Beach Asylum where he had then been incarcerated for four years.
Clare’s escape from High Beach is chronicled in his own, Journey Out of Essex, begun on the road in a tiny pocket notebook that also includes sections of his Byronic poems, "Child Harold" and "Don Juan”. It is this account of him, lying down at night with his head towards the north so that he would know which way to go in the morning, as he kept heading for the horizon (spelt by Clare, "orison") and home, that provides much of the moving first person narrative for this film. Clare was certified insane by Messrs Skrimshaw and Page, backed by all the power of English law in December 1841 on the grounds of being “addicted to poetical prosings”.
150 years after Clare’s death, Toby Jones, Iain Sinclair and a Straw Bear follow in the poet’s footsteps, meeting many interesting people on the way, a personal journey of exploration for Iain Sinclair recorded in his book, Edge of the Orison, which becomes the shooting script for the ‘deranged drift’ of Kötting’s film.
Sinclair’s own existential performance in this book has been described as “a love letter to British Romanticism”, and it is, more specifically, a paean to the madness of the Romantic poet. Where Clare’s wandering poetic lines, unconstrained by punctuation, allow in the subconscious, so does Sinclair’s riffing, divining prose, driven by signifiers, seemingly in any direction. When Clare fled the asylum, this Romantic break-out from constraint was also driven by his compulsion to be reunited with his beloved first wife, Mary Joyce, some years deceased. Sinclair’s journey is an extended tribute to the love of his life. Clare worshipped the poetry of Byron, and in later years was convinced that he was a reincarnation of that poet. Sinclair, near namesake with Clare, takes his bond with the poet to exhaustive lengths in exploring his partner’s claim to being related to John Clare.
It is no accident that both writers have been dogged by critics itching to edit their free associations into submission. Sinclair’s response to them is an invitation to join him instead: “The reality is democratic, anyone can play. All it requires is open eyes and stout boots. Start moving and the path reveals itself.” As in the case of the exiled Byron and his relationship to his own Byronic hero, literature anticipates life rather than the other way around. These ‘mad acts’ are performed for one’s self and one’s loved ones. As Sinclair retraces Clare’s footsteps, he is out to revivify the ‘Peasant Poet’, commodified, established and undone by literary London.
By Our Selves takes this act of revivification one step further. It too, is far more than a tribute to a cherished poet. This is Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, diverted to the yellow brick road before our eyes, and ornamented with an occasional outdoor seminar. The black and white footage places Clare’s journey simultaneously at one remove, and in a recent past. We share the acoustic footsteps in Clare’s bid for freedom, as we share his hallucinations in this intimate soundscape of the spoken word. Keeping madness company is done with fearlessness, humour, respect and admiration. It is redemptive, retracing Clare’s journey as a performative act of identification with an England that has still to reassert its credentials, democratic and humane. In By Our Selves, enthusiastically crowdfunded at Kickstart, it is heartening to see Clare in good company at last.
By Our Selves is screening at the Open City Documentary Festival on 20 June 2015.