Poetic Thought for the Day (8/21/2014): John Clare ~ Horizon & Natural Fact

A WISH will rise in every breast,
For something more than what’s possess’d…
– John Clare, The Poet’s Wish

If you’ve not read John Clare’s works you’ve missed out on a poet whose simplicity and grace overshadows even the greats like Wordsworth in a specific registrar of modality: the journey toward the horizon. Clare would bring home the old saw that poet’s cannot speak of anything without “invoking the merest things of nature and nature’s various appearances”.1

Such a simple thought he declares in the poem in my epigraph, but one that comes home to most of us when we think of poetry. Many seem dissatisfied with their present lives of drollery, work, and life choices as if we were stuck in a rut, going through the same water wheel route over and over and over again wondering is there a possibility of something new or not; can we find love and happiness; a good job, a lover; and, for poets it comes down to finding one’s own voice, one’s place within the thousands of poets that already clog the superhighways of the internet and literary journals. What we possess is our mind and body, or let me rephrase that we are encompassed by our horizon: our body, mind, and the limits of our senses. Beyond that is a sort of no man’s zone of unclarified transcendence that we are all hard put to say anything about, but all the typical clichés of our (multi)cultural inheritances that weave us into their own narratives. Beyond that we roam alone into the wilderness of poetry tapping first this horizon of meaning, then that one till we discover certain relations that match our internal and external visions. Yet, on the far horizon as we advance toward it we realize everything is mucked up, jagged, malformed, without any distinct outline whether on land or sea, internal or external to our actual sensual lives or our abstract thought. Everything seems in disarray and we begin to track it down, hunt down the strangeness and find words for it; else invent new words to portray the worlds we’ve discovered.

The horizon of our mind and body is the farthest limits of our hopes, fears, and dreams. All our visions of heavens, hells, myths, gods seem to be projected beyond the corridors of this limited horizon of sight and mind. Most of poetry is built not out of air, but truly out of natural fact; even such spiritual poetry as Dante and Milton rely more on physical fact or a fantastic amalgam of such natural facts to make up creatures such as angels or devils, etc. that we wonder if poets can ever know anything beyond the natural realm. I think the answer is no, that for better or worse the natural is our paradise and our limit test of reality. We live amidst appearances, and for all the philosophers talk of hinterlands of consciousness, etc. we still use natural facts around us to describe things present or absent.

Yet, the horizon carries us outside ourselves too. It opens up our inquisitiveness, our curiosity to know what’s on the other side of the limits; so we continue striving against the local horizons of meaning and pushing them farther and farther back, and with them our language grows and changes because we discover things on the edges of these horizons that drift out of the unknown into our shadowed hinterlands that we begin to give names and define them until suddenly they too are part of that greater circle of our outer horizons of thought and knowledge. One could say that the poet is the walker of horizons, the linguistic ambusher of those extreme realms between the outside in as new objects and thought emerge out of this darker realm.

John Clare would in his attempts at autobiography describe a moment when he was a child and had wandered into the fens surrounding his village. He’d decided after a few hours of gathering wood, watching turtles, frogs leap, mice chittering, and assorted other things that kept him preoccupied that he’d never found the end of the fen, that it seem to enclose him in some circle or horizon beyond which he knew nothing. So he decided to find the end of it. He wandered for hours and hours until he realized things around him had changed: animals he’d never noticed before, different plants and critters in the grass, rabbits, etc. The he realized there was no end and that he was always going to be surrounded by a circle or enclosure or horizon of some type. He had to make his way back home in the dark which was difficult and brought out spooky things, and yet something in him also felt solid, a ballast or balance within himself about what had happened. He’d discovered a horizon in himself, a power that matched the outer circumference he had to travel through and that would keep him steady no matter what else happened in his life.

After reading Johnathan Bate’s fascinating biography of John Clare I feel a great deal of sympathy for the man. I’d not heard of him much as a young man myself, seems the scholarship didn’t really speak of him as a major Romantic Poet at that time. Now they do. Funny how scholars and critics change their mind from age to age, but the poets still find their own audiences no matter the critic. Even if the man John Clare had a difficult and uneasy life, the poetry of his years is unassailable and magnificent in its simplicity of intent and its equally difficult message. That he can be read on many levels is true, yet first and foremost he was a poet of the natural order given to the sweet and bitter of the natural world, and of its movement toward ever expanding horizons. 

That’s my thought for today!

I’m trying to keep these to a shortened length rather than full blow essays so I can keep up with this as a daily rotation. We’ll see how I attain a better approach over time. I’m adding this one a little early…

For more on John Clare his poetry in total is on John Clare Poems.

A little snippet from the Shepherd’s Calendar:

TO sober with sad truths the laughing mirth
Of rosy daughters round the cottage hearth,
And pass the winter’s lengthen’d eve away,
A mother told the tale of SALLY GREY:—
“How time,” she said, “and pleasure vanish by!”
Then stopp’d to wipe the tear-drops from her eye;—
“Time gains upon us distance unawares
………… Stealing our joys and changing them to cares:

’Tis nine-and-thirty years ago,”—the date
To prove, she look’d above her where she sat,
And pull’d the Bible down—that certain guide
When boys and girls were born, and old friends died—
That lay with penny stories rustling near,
And almanacks preserved for many a year;
Stopping her story till she found the place,
Pulling her glasses from their leathern case—
’Twas right: and from her lap, in sadden’d vein,
She took her knitting, and went on again.—
“Poor thing! she died, heart-broken and distress’d,
Through love. The doctors, who should know the best,
Said ’twas decline that wasted life away:
But truth is truth; and be it as it may,
She ne’er did aught that malice could reprove;—
Her only failing was the fault of love!


1. Angus Fletcher. A New Theory for American Poetry. (Harvard University Press, 2004)

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