Both John Clare and Robert Burns are poets invested in rural lives – in dialect, in tradition, in worlds previously voiced only by aural tradition. The poet who chooses to reveal these intimate portraits of a life all but completely hidden from literature is somewhat like a spy in his own village. Every appropriation of a dialect word is a type of thievery – in a way, Clare is right to see himself as a ‘robber’. He is taking something that sprang from the landscape or the tongues of the local people and enfranchising it within a literary culture that has shunned such inclusiveness for centuries.
O rural life what charms thy meanness hide
What sweet descriptions bards disdain to sing
What Loves what Graces on thy plains abide
O could I soar me on the muses wing
What riffel’d charms should my researches bring
Pleas’d would I wander where these charms reside
Of rural sports and beauties would I sing
Those beauties wealth which you but vain deride
Beauties of richest bloom superior to your pride.
Clare, ‘The Harvest Morning’ l.65-73
Clare is a poet anxious to find his place. He is at once tied to the ‘rural life’ that he, from childhood, has had access to, and uncertain of where, within language, to locate his feelings. Need he apostrophise his home, speak of ‘Loves’ and ‘Graces’ as personified and thus highly conceptualized terms? The conditional is used as if Clare is aware that his poetically clichéd address towards nature essentially corrupts the spirit of rural life. Bards may ‘disdain to sing’ (a verb used twice in this stanza) but are bards still the measure of poetical ingenuity? The rhyme between ‘sing’ and ‘wing’ does not recall a Classical muse but instead a bird, lurking somewhere, implicitly, behind the flourishes, the lofty Latinisms of ‘reside’ and ‘deride’. The distance of poetry from the language of the common people – that advocated by the Lyrical Ballads – informs Clare’s belief that he must conduct ‘researches’ in order to unravel the world about him. ‘Research’, from the French ‘recherche’ implies that which is lost being regained; specifically, Clare must find room for the thoughts he has lost and for the language that accurate translates these thoughts to the page. He laments that his loss of innocence, the infiltration of exterior knowledge, has deprived him of sovereignty in his own dialect:
Tho in the midst of each endeard delight
Where still the cowslaps to the breezes bow
Tho all my childish scenes are in my sight
Sad manhood marks me an intruder now.
Clare, ‘Childish Recollections’
Note that the poem is titled ‘Childish Recollections’ as opposed to situating them confidently within the sphere of a location and time. They are ‘childish’, not ‘childhood’, or ‘recollections from when I was a child’. They are imprecisely attached to his youth. His ability to ‘see’ is not an ability to apprehend, to grab hold of what he views and set it down in permanence on the page. The frustration of translating thought to poetry is undercut by a pervasive language barrier, attempting authenticity with the knowledge that his literary invention does something artificial to the landscape.
They chant their artless notes in simple guise,
They tune their hearts, by far the noblest aim;
Perhaps Dundee’s wild-warbling measures rise,
Or plaintive Martyrs, worthy of the name;
Or noble Elgin beets the heavenward flame,
The sweetest far of Scotia’s holy lays:
Compar’d with these, Italian trills are tame;
The tickl’d ears no heart-felt raptures raise;
Nae unison hae they, with our Creator’s praise.
Burns, ‘The Cotter’s Saturday Night’
Burns celebrates the Scottish language for its ‘artless[ness]’ and ‘simple guise’ – he shows an awareness of how the language has been neglected by the literary world, but thus allowed to become more attuned to the greatest rhythm of human existence – the ‘heart’ and its heartbeat. There is something unknowing in the language, as if it is unaware of the nobility of pursuing humanity above literary aims. The developed world of Italy, associated with the Renaissance and its advances in art and science has ‘tame[d]’ language as it has tamed nature, thus failing to listen or to express the truth of experience – the language that Burns celebrates is not that of Enlightenment Edinburgh, but of a rustic family scene, which he has grafted onto the mode of poetry, intruding upon the ‘trills’ of current poetry with the jolly sounds of Scottish lays.
But here my Muse her wing maun cour,
Sic flights are far beyond her power;
To sing how Nannie lap and flang,
(A souple jade she was and strang),
Burns, ‘Tam o’Shanter’
Note that Burns, like Clare, uses the image of a muse as a bird, with a ‘wing’. However, this ‘Muse’ is one concerned with describing a wild dance on a cold night near Ayr, not the very essence of nature – it is not so confused as Clare’s muse. Burns seizes hold of literary tradition that it might do his bidding, galloping through ‘Tam o’ Shanter’ and translating the landscape into a mixture of universal and purely Scotch imagery. The use of the pronoun ‘we’ helps us along in accepting that Burns is immersed in a poetic ruralism that gives voice to the housewife, the drunkard and the landscape itself.
Nonetheless, there is a fear of permitting poetry to receive a world only otherwise expressed and known in dialect. It has very vulnerable specifics – as Robert MacFarlane argues in his book Landmarks, the use of local words expresses nature and points out its strange, private curiosities, some only voiced and thus noticed by the local people. In his ‘The Lamentations of Round-Oak Waters’, Clare could well be talking about the obliteration of the linguistic landscape as well as the literal one:
The banks and Eddings are no more
The pastures too are gone
The greens the Meadows and the moors
Are all cut up and done
There’s scarce a greensward spot remains
And scarce a single tree
All naked are thy native plains
And yet they’re dear to thee’
Clare, ‘The Lamentations of Round-Oak Waters’
Use of both ‘Eddings’ and ‘greensward spot’ implies a greater specificity to this poem. It is about the Cambridgeshire landscape and the Cambridgeshire language. One may hear the word ‘native’ and think of far-off imperial pursuits, but Clare implies that the clearance of ‘greens, the Meadows and the moors’ is a way of ‘cut[ting] up’ and having done with not only the features, but the linguistic features that permit their vocalization. The ambitions of agriculture have left behind a barren landscape that Clare can only recall in his memory, and, frustratingly, only access in negative terms. The attack on the home of a mouse in ‘To A Mouse’ is an analogy for this greater invasion of linguistic imperialism.
Wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie,
O, what a panic’s in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
Wi’ bickering brattle! I wad be laith to rin an’ chase thee,
Wi’ murd’ring pattle! … But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain;
The best-laid schemes o’ mice an ‘men
Gang aft agley,
An’lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!
Burns, ‘To a Mouse’
The Scottish Bard can open up the anatomy of the ‘beastie’, listening acutely to what lies within its breast. ‘Beastie’ transfers easily to ‘breastie’, accommodated by the dialectic variations that permit the rhyming of the two words. Burns’ exaggerated southern Scots dialect is his means of communication with the animals of rural life. However well lessons on existential crises are translated to the ploughman’s language, they are never entirely integrated – one is impressed upon the other. Take the penultimate stanza – ‘In proving foresight may be vain’ could be taken from any high-culture poem in standard English and applied to the rural situation. It is accommodated by rhyme but not by linguistic reasoning. Visually, the rhyme can be accepted, but the aural transfer from lexis to lexis indicates something problematic in attempts to interlace one culture with another. Burns extends this sense of high-culture intrusiveness by thematically focusing ‘To a Mouse’ on the invasion of a mouse’s nest by the agricultural violence of the plough – the furrows created by the plough are not dissimilar to lines of poetry, impressed upon the natural world for its cultivation and for the benefit of human kind. One might equally say that the ‘best-laid schemes’ to tie ‘mice an’ men’ together ‘Gang aft agley’.
But the privacy of these dialects is compromised by its very expression. Clare is particularly concerned with giving nature its proper dues, while still controlling the way in which it is given to the outside world. The analogy of constructing a house is suitable in that it provides for the intimacy of situations in which these tongues were spoken. While Burns situates ‘The Cotter’s Sunday Night’ in an intimate family situation that mirrors the quiet nobility of the Scottish language (‘in some cottage far apart,/ [one] May hear, well-pleas’d, the language of the soul; And in His Book of Life the inmates poor enroll.’) Clare takes us one remove further to show us how one might build a language where dialect does not intrude but is welcomed, necessary and beautiful.
Beside a runnel build my shed
Wi’ stubbles coverdoer
Let broad oaks oer its chimney spread
And grass plats grace the door …
I love the sparrows ways to watch
Upon the cotters sheds
So here and there pull out the thatch
As they may hide their heads
Clare, ‘Proposals for Building a Cottage’
Where Clare finds his footing is when speaking the dialect of his people. The construction of the cottage matches the structure of the poem – it interlaces humanly manufactured elements with concessions to the natural world, creating defined places wherein the dialect may flourish. ‘Beside a runnel build my shed’ – while pulling up walls within which to confine a set space, so as to build a ‘shed’, a set space is provided for the dialect word ‘runnel’. Like thatch pulled out to make space for the sparrows to nest, Clare urges his mother tongue to finds its place, to burrow itself into his poetry where he has made provision for them. Burns speaks directly to that which his his home dialect was born to voice – as the writer Henry Porter observes, words with very specific localities do ‘not simply label an object or action but in some mysterious and beautiful way become part of it’. In their foreignness, their specificity, they conduct a powerful current between signifier and the signified. Addressing nature with its own language gives it unique agency – an agency that Burns and Clare attempt to realize in the accommodation of misspellings, of dialect words, of places and people otherwise unknown to literary culture. They are, in this way, early advocates of maintaining the British countryside, early National Trust members perhaps. Using the language of the local people and their earth within the bounds of poetry indicates a growing need to protect and defend, a growing perception of the gap between man and the place whence he came.