Friday, July 5, 2013

"Where All The People's Brains Are Turned The Wrong Way"

I don't know exactly what it is, but there is something beguiling and lovely about the following poem.  Some may find it too sentimental.  Others may think that there is not much to it.  But I am very fond of it.  Maybe I am simply a soft touch when it comes to dogs . . .

                    Country Letter

Dear brother Robin this comes from us all
With our kind love and could Gip write and all
Though but a dog he'd have his love to spare
For still he knows and by your corner chair
The moment he comes in he lyes him down
and seems to fancy you are in the town.
This leaves us well in health thank God for that
For old acquaintance Sue has kept your hat
Which mother brushes ere she lays it bye
and every Sunday goes upstairs to cry
Jane still is yours till you come back agen
and neer so much as dances with the men
and Ned the woodman every week comes in
and asks about you kindly as our kin
and he with this and goody Thompson sends
Remembrances with those of all our friends
Father with us sends love untill he hears
and mother she has nothing but her tears
Yet wishes you like us in health the same
and longs to see a letter with your name
So loving brother don't forget to write
Old Gip lies on the hearth stone every night
Mother can't bear to turn him out of doors
and never noises now of dirty floors
Father will laugh but lets her have her way
and Gip for kindness get a double pay
So Robin write and let us quickly see
You don't forget old friends no more than we
Nor let my mother have so much to blame
To go three journeys ere your letter came.

John Clare, in Edmund Blunden and Alan Porter (editors), John Clare: Poems Chiefly from Manuscript (1920).  The spelling and punctuation are as they appear in Clare's manuscript.

So, where lies the appeal of the poem?  Perhaps this:  there is truth and beauty in the commonplace.  And when the commonplace is put into heroic couplets, even more so.

Samuel Palmer, "The Gleaning Field" (c. 1833)

Here is part of a letter that Clare wrote to his wife on July 19, 1848, while he was in the Northampton Asylum:

"My Dear Wife,
     I have not written to you a long while, but here I am in the land of Sodom where all the people's brains are turned the wrong way.  I was glad to see John yesterday, and should like to have gone back with him, for I am very weary of being here.  You might come and fetch me away, for I think I have been here long enough.
     I write this in a green meadow by the side of the river agen Stokes Mill, and I see three of their daughters and a son now and then.  The confusion and roar of mill dams and locks is sounding very pleasant while I write it, and it's a very beautiful evening; the meadows are greener than usual after the shower and the rivers are brimful.  I think it is about two years since I was first sent up in this Hell and French Bastille of English liberty.  Keep yourselves happy and comfortable and love one another.  By and bye I shall be with you, perhaps before you expect me."

Ibid, pages 40-41.  The spelling is as it appears in Clare's letter.

Samuel Palmer, "A Hilly Scene" (c. 1826)

The "perhaps before you expect me" in Clare's letter brings to mind his escape from an earlier asylum (Fair Mead, in High Beech, Epping Forest, Essex) in July of 1841.  During that escape, he walked back to his home in Northborough, which was 90 or so miles away.  He later wrote an account of his travels, in the form of a daily journal, which he gave to his wife.  At one point, he describes sleeping out in the open at night:  "I lay down with my head towards the north, to show myself the steering point in the morning."  Frederick Martin, The Life of John Clare (1865), page 283.

     Journey Out of Essex
   or, John Clare's Escape
       from the Madhouse

I am lying with my head
Over the edge of the world,
Unpicking my whereabouts
Like the asylum's name
That they stitch on the sheets.

Sick now with bad weather
Or a virus from the fens,
I dissolve in a puddle
My biographies of birds
And the names of flowers.

That they may recuperate
Alongside the stunned mouse,
The hedgehog rolled in leaves,
I am putting to bed
In this rheumatic ditch

The boughs of my harvest-home,
My wives, one on either side,
And keeping my head low as
A lark's nest, my feet toward
Helpston and the pole star.

Michael Longley, No Continuing City (1969).

Samuel Palmer, "Harvest Moon" (c. 1833)


Julie Whitmore Pottery said...

Stephen , a stellar post.
I think its a rare reader who could not be moved by John Clare's life and natural brilliance with all its wrenching misfortune.
The dog poem is new to me; but I like it immensely, with its gentle prodding and hopeful tone. You can almost see the expression on the dog's face looking often towards the door, can't you?

Bovey Belle said...

It came to me, as I was reading the first poem, that this was John Clare. Not that I can claim any foreknowledge - just an instinctive guess. What a lovely piece though - I can just see the scene set by such down-to-earth words. Beautiful. I don't blame you for liking it.

He sounds so sane in his letter from the Asylum - I must away and find out more about his latter years.

What a lovely final poem too . . .

Stephen Pentz said...

Julie: thank you -- I'm glad that you liked the post.

Yes, "wrenching" is a good way to describe Clare's life. You may have already come across it, but, if you haven't , I recommend Jonathan Bate's fairly recent biography of Clare. I had to read it in small doses, because it was too sad -- the madness, of course, but also the way that he was ill-used by publishers, etc. But, as you know, his creativity never seemed to abandon him, despite what he went through. As you say, very moving.

Well, yes, dogs will always get to me. I like your observation about the "gentle prodding" in the poem -- especially in the final lines.

It's always good to hear from you.

Stephen Pentz said...

Bovey Belle: it's nice that you suspected it was Clare. I'm pleased that you like it. With respect to Clare's latter years, I recommend the biography by Jonathan Bate that I mentioned in my response to Julie's comment.

Michael Longley is good at writing poems about other poets. As you probably know, he has written many fine poems about Edward Thomas, a few of which have appeared here.

Thank you for visiting again -- I always look forward to hearing your thoughts.