Editorial Problems in John Clare (excerpt)

The problems of Clare's editors do not abate. If John Taylor had his problems in deciding what to do with the poet's manuscripts before publishing them, so do his twentieth-century editors. It is true that since Geoffrey Summerfield and I first published our edition of Clare's Shepherd's Calendar in 1964, most editors have tended to follow our practice of keeping as close as possible to what Clare actually wrote. Indeed, if anything, the custom has grown up of maintaining an even closer relationship to Clare's writings, changing no spellings at all, preserving absolutely all intrusive punctuation and protecting every ampersand from transliteration. This has become increasingly true not only of editions primarily intended for the academic but even in those directed to the general reader. 

Summerfield's and my hope that ordinary readers would soon learn to accustom themselves to the peculiarities of Clare's expression, warts and all, seems to be justified by the ever-increasing numbers of Clare's works presented in this strict way. And even schoolchildren seem to make their way without too much difficulty through Clare's aberrations from standard English. Though the annotation gets a little fuller, glossaries become more extensive and more reliable, and editorial comments point out the commonest pitfalls, the general reader continues to derive under­standing and pleasure from Clare's writings without their being rendered in the forms usually preferred for other "educated" poets in the traditional canon of English literature. 

Yet there is a ground-swell running counter to all this. Such editors of Clare as Geoffrey Grigson, James Reeves, and Peter Levi, as well as the editors of some anthologies, prefer to do as the Tibbies did in their 1935 edition of The Poems of John Clare, i.e. correct Clare's spelling and grammar, sometimes prefer John Taylor's substitutions of^standard vocabulary for Clare's own words, and punctuate his writings in whatever manner they deem appropriate. Reviewers also occasionally chastise the purists — Summerfield, Robinson. Grainger, Powell and Thornton — for being pretentious in sticking so close to Clare's writing habits, thereby, in the reviewers' opinion, rendering him quaint and severing him from an even larger readership. It seems time to look at these editorial problems again in the light of nineteenth-century and twentieth-century literary history, and to set the problems of Clare's modern editors once more alongside those of his earlier editors and publishers.

When Summerfield and I published our article 'Taylor's editing of The Shepherd's Calendar' in the Review of English Studies, 1963, we were very new to the job of editing Clare and immensely excited by our discoveries. The most superficial comparison of Clare's manuscript poems with the versions published by Taylor, Symons, Cherry, Gale and the Tibbles revealed many discrepancies, many of which seemed to derive from simple misreadings of Clare's hand­writing. To discover, for example, that birds and trees were not 'high' but rather 'h ugh'(Clare's spelling of 'huge') meant that sense could be brought back to lines that had lacked it in previously published versions. Neither Summerfield nor I were fanatical disciples of F. R. Leavis, but we had both been influenced by his insistence on the need to read poetry with close attention in order to discover what the poet was saying. (I had attended Leavis's lectures at Cambridge and both of us had read Leavis's published works: we were also contributors to Denys Thompson's journal, Use of English.) We struggled over the problems of transcription, checking each other's readings, laughing at each other's mistakes, as well as those of other editors. I remember to this day my excitement at finding Clare writing about 'gilladdling geese' and then my chagrin when it turned out to be 'gabbling' written over 'gadding.' The number of corrections that we were able to make at that time, however, were so numerous that we thought of ourselves as, in effect, rediscovering a poet who, though loved by a minority, had been often hidden from true appreciation by the mistakes of his editors. We were filled with enthusiasm not only by the corrections we were able to make but by the great quantities of Clare's verse that had not found its way into print at all. Accordingly, an expedition to Northampton Public Library or to Peterborough Museum was always an adventure for us.

To correct 'dreary joys' to 'dreaming joys', 'warm fancies' to 'vain fancies', 'quickly run' to 'thickly run', 'forward maid' to 'favourd maid', and to hear the 'crane' (rather than the 'crow') 'repeat its lonely cry' still seems to me valuable work, and these corrections, together with many more, encouraged many readers to pay closer attention to Clare and not to attribute some oddity in a poem to Clare's ineptitude or ignorance, a natural conclusion when the published versions of Clare's writings were so full of absurdities. In some editions of Clare's prose it was possible, at that time, to find thirty to forty errors to a page. What we did not realize, however, was that, though we were getting much closer to what Clare had intended, we too were fallible and sometimes made mistakes. After twenty years of editing Clare, I would now say that it is impossible to be one hundred per cent sure that one is reading accurately what Clare wrote, though we have certainly moved on to a higher plane of accuracy than existed before. We cannot be one hundred per cent sure because we cannot read squiggles at the end of a word or because Clare is not always consistent in his spellings and we cannot be sure which alternative he has selected.

The very earliest transcribers of Clare had difficulties with his handwriting. Harry Stoe Van Dyk, a friend of Lord Radstock and Mrs. Emmerson, who assisted John Taylor, often left gaps in his transcription and had to ask Clare what he had written or wait for Taylor to give an opinion. W. F. Knight in Clare's days at St. Andrew's and other transcribers there certainly misread Clare's words from time to time and, because of our long experience of Clare's habits, David Powell and I will suggest in our forthcoming volumes from Oxford University Press some emendations of their readings. Clare was often consistent in his misspellings so that it is sometimes possible to guess how a transcriber has misread him, even when the original manuscript is missing. Some editors of Clare supply photographs of Clare's manuscripts, however, and (hereby provide incontrovertible evidence of their own misreadings) and these the general reader may check for himself.

John Clare Society Journal
Number 2 – July 1983
© Eric Robinson

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