I left R.S. Thomas last week grumpily considering the distance between himself and the hill farmers of Wales. I suggested that Novoneyra could represent that hill farmer. It was certainly a part of the image he put out to the world: the man who is happy in the hills, the man who talks to farm labourers. This week, however, I want to get closer to the ground by considering the English poet John Clare. This consideration will allow us to see Novoneyra in another light: as an educated intellectual who rides the wave of modernist thought into the twentieth century.
John Clare is a unique poet. He was born in the eighteenth-century in Northamptonshire just when the Enclosure Acts were transforming that landscape for good.
John Clare was a peasant farmer. He is unique because peasants do not usually write poetry. Our view of the countryside is overwhelmingly given by people who have an education, live in the same community as farmers, but are alienated from them. The generations of peasant farmers that lived and died before John Clare do not speak to us in their own words. They are given voice in curiously artificial creations like the “passionate shepherd” or in the melancholy observations of the lettered poets who were able to put words into their mouths. They were often priests like R.S. Thomas (see previous post).
Clare was taken up by the Romantics. Across Europe nineteenth-century Romantics showed a new interest in local traditions, languages and cultures. (Regional languages, like Galician, were revived and brought into literary prominence.) Peasants and their customs had always been the subject of poetry, but they were not thought of as artists or art. Country people had songs, peasant dances and quaint customs that could be used by artists, but their creations were craftwork or handiwork: good when they followed traditional patterns; marred by anything approaching invention. Clare then was exceptional. He never moved up a social class. He was always a peasant farmer.
I was drawn to think of the comparison of Clare and Novoneyra for several reasons.
- They both write about things that are real, focussing on lived experience.
- The poetic world of both writers is tied to specific places and both Os Eidos and The Shepherd’s Calendar follow the full cycle of the year through in one location.
- They are both social critics who live through changes in the landscape that affect them deeply.
Clare’s poetry gives us a rich variety of linked images that show his close connection to the land. Each month of The Shepherd’s Calendar is pricked out with details that bear the unmistakeable tint of direct experience. They trot off the page one after the other in a succession of detailed observations. In November, for example, the rainstorm catches a boy in the field:
[he] in hurry weaves,
Beneath an ivied tree, his sheltering seat,
Of rushy flags and sedges tied in sheaves,
Or from the field a stock of stubble thieves.
There he doth dithering sit, and entertain
His eyes with marking the storm-driven leaves;
Oft spying nests where he spring eggs had ta’en,
And wishing in his heart ‘twas summer-time again.
This is not the shepherd boy of pastoral who seems to exist in a rosy dreamland. Even compared with Basho, whom we have looked at previously, this writing has a quality of unique lived experience; he identifies with the people in his verse; he is not a distant moon-figure. There is an arresting sharpness to the picture of the child sheltering from the rain, making himself a seat of rushes under an old ivy-decked tree. He can see the birds’ nests because the trees have lost their leaves and his meditation about the eggs he took in the springtime is wholly believable. Clare is at his best when we get the vivid sensation that he is writing about experiences culled directly from his own life.
Compare this to Novoneyra:
Brilla a agua nas beiras…
As calzas do cuco polas uceiras
I as bouzas dos outos boscos
Nos tesos núos e foscos
Viñeron os ventos de cara a Rodela
Viñeron as feiras
De ir a meniña insinala canela.
(Water sparkles in the eaves/cuckoo socks* on the moors/ and clumps of high woodland/on the naked and gloomy peaks.//The winds came into Rodela/the fairs came/so the young girl can go and sell cinnamon. *Cuckoo socks: petticoat daffodils (narcissus bulbocodium) although my edition says this refers to the last snows of the winter.)
Novoneyra is more economical in painting his word picture than Clare. Although he uses rhyme, rhythmically his line is more varied than Clare, who uses a predictable iambic rhythm and a regular syllable count for each line. This shows that he lacks the literary sophistication of Novoneyra: he looks for that ti-TUM, ti-TUM rhythm and inserts extra words to preserve it; dithering, entertain his eyes. Novoneyra does not shy away from rhyming, but his fragments carry the weight of a greater awareness of pre-existing literature.
He explicitly aligns himself with troubadour poets to construct his identity as a Galician bard of the mountains. Clare does not. The contrast between the two is striking and revealing. Novoneyra works in an educated poetic tradition. Clare, by contrast, seems strikingly naïve. When I first read The Shepherd’s Calendar as a teenager I was disappointed. I suppose I was hoping for something a little more like Novoneyra. I wanted to believe that there was an authentic poetry of the people. I imagined it would be less artificial than educated poetry, but the simple artifice of Clare’s poetry is declared in every line.
Consider this fragment, in which Clare is talking about enclosure:
The spoiler’s axe their shade devours,
And cuts down every tree.
Not trees alone have owned their force,
Whole woods beneath them bowed,
They turned the winding rivulet’s course,
And all thy pastures plough’d
The rhythms are ponderously poetic with their 8,6,8,6 syllable count, conventional rhymes and heavy iambic feet:
Ti-TUM ti-TUM// ti-TUM ti-TUM
Ti-TUM ti-TUM ti-TUM
Popular ballads and children’s rhymes use the same heavy structure.
The same would be true of ballads in Galicia, in the Courel. Have a look at this verse:
Maruxiña, Maruxiña, das montañas de León
Sete fillos que tuveche e ninguno che foi varón
¡rebenteras tu con eles xunto do teu corazón!
(Maruxiña, Maruxiña from the mountains of Leon/you had seven children and not one of them a boy/ you will burst with them along with your heart.)
This section of a verse from Flor de Romances de Cervantes e Pedrafita (Frouma, Santiago de Compostela, 2001, p.85) continues in the same manner for another 13 lines. Anabel Amigo, who went through the villages of the Courel collecting these verses, dutifully transcribes the different variants that she found. You will immediately notice the heavy rhymes, the rolling rhythm and the caesura systematically placed in the middle of the poetic line.
These poems are part of an oral tradition. The rhythm is essential to the mnemonic quality of verse that will be recited, learnt and passed on through generations. Clare is faithful to the rhythms of popular poetry in a way that Novoneyra is not.
It was due to the fact that traditional poems were so easy to remember that they survived until the Romantics of the nineteenth-century discovered them. When they did so they used the source material as building blocks for a different kind of poetry: authored poetry; poetry that connected to broader political ideas about the language. They ignored the bilingual quality of the popular verses- many of them are in Castilian Spanish- and reframed them as essential components of a Galician identity. They added in Celtic themes to promote this sense of identity.
Let’s return to Clare. Clare writes with the naïve rhythms of a poet who has had no formal literary training. He cannot work at the level of Wordsworth whose ability to create a sustained argument over the course of The Prelude, putting the poet’s experience of the immanent Sublime in powerful and flexible lines that swell from conversational to ecstatic, is in a different league to Clare’s manner of proceeding. Clare writes according to his own conception of what poetry is and should be.
The rhythms and the rhymes are one part of that. The images are the other. Clare explicitly says that the poet’s gaze is turned towards beauty. In October, for example:
Nature now spreads around, in dreary hue,
A pall to cover all that summer knew;
Yet, in the poet’s solitary way,
Some pleasing objects for his praise delay.
He says that “every trifle will his eye detain.” There is an obvious difference with Novoneyra here. The Galician poet steers away from trifles and has set themes that run through Os Eidos, almost as though he were trying to build up a philosophy around the few concrete experiences that come to his senses. There is a powerful metaphorical undertow with the wolf, the distant road, dreaming and the constant feeling of dissolution of the ego throughout the collection. The few people that appear are rarely given much to do or say. Clare walks through a populated world; Novoneyra is sunk into existential solitude.
I will reflect on Novoneyra’s connection to modernism, Heidegger and fifties angst in my next post. I want to finish this one, however, by considering the curious parallel between the experience of Clare, living uncomfortably in a world of change, and the experience of Novoneyra in the latter part of his life as he moved away from the mountains and towards Santiago. Here is what he says in Antón Lopo’s A Distancia do Lobo:
Now the Courel is not even the way I remember it. I prefer not to go. Not to see it. The seventies and the eighties ripped the heart out of the villages at a vertiginous rate. The empty houses of Parada, of Moreda, of Meiraos, of Romeor, of Mercurín, of Esperante… There are even villages that ended up with their tendons exposed, anorexic and bloodless.
John Clare did not have the same options available to Novoneyra. He was bitter about the effect of the enclosures on the traditional village life that he knew. He refers to the commons as “the sweetest of gardens… loved as an Eden by me.” Yet he was persuaded to cut out lines in his writing that implied social criticism so as not to offend wealthy patrons.
The rural economy ceased to revolve around village communities and coalesced around larger landowners and country houses. Farming moved away from small-scale trading and self-sufficiency to farming as a business. Some land was suitable to arable, some to stock. It was more efficient for cattle to be moved around from field to field so that they were always eating fresh grass; it was more efficient to grow corn in large fields and not in strips. The peasant farmer suffered in this reorganization of the countryside because self-sufficiency is not rational on a large scale.
Whole villages disappeared.
When I was a teenager and first picked up The Shepherd’s Calendar I hoped to find something different in its pages to what I encountered there. The pretty and charming scenes seemed like a betrayal of what could have been a sharp and angular vision of a real countryman, like the taciturn woodsmen I met on my walks up onto the Blackdown Hills. I could sense that there was a historical injustice in the very prettiness that I walked up those hills to survey and, in my own naivety, I imagined that the voice from the other side would be muscular in rage and condemnation. Clare, on the other hand, seemed to be struggling hard to look for the pleasant, the pretty and the scenic.
It did him no good. He went insane and finished his days in an asylum.