from "Poems Chiefly From Manuscript"

Poems Chiefly From Manuscript
Edmund Blunden & Alan Porter

The year 1820 found Clare unemployed once more, but the said Mr. Holland arrived before long with great news. "In the beginning of January," Clare briefly puts it, "my poems were published after a long anxiety of nearly two years and all the Reviews, except Phillips' waste paper magazine, spoke in my favour." Most assuredly they did. The literary world, gaping for drouth, had seen an announcement, then an account of "John Clare, an agricultural labourer and poet," during the previous autumn; the little cloud, no bigger than a man's hand, in a little while seemed to usurp the whole sky--or in other terms, three editions of "Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery" were sold between January 16 and the last of March. While this fever was raging among the London coteries, critical, fashionable, intellectual, even the country folk round Helpston came to the conclusion that Clare was something of a phenomenon.

"In the course of the publication," says Clare, "I had ventured to write to Lord Milton to request leave that the volume might be dedicated to him; but his Lordship was starting into Italy and forgot to answer it. So it was dedicated to nobody, which perhaps might be as well. As soon as it was out, my mother took one to Milton; when his Lordship sent a note to tell me to bring ten more copies. On the following Sunday I went, and after sitting awhile in the servants' hall (where I could eat or drink nothing for thought), his Lordship sent for me, and instantly explained the reasons why he did not answer my letter, in a quiet unaffected manner which set me at rest. He told me he had heard of my poems by Parson Mossop (of Helpston), who I have since heard took hold of every opportunity to speak against my success or poetical abilities before the book was published, and then, when it came out and others praised it, instantly turned round to my side. Lady Milton also asked me several questions, and wished me to name any book that was a favourite; expressing at the same time a desire to give me one. But I was confounded and could think of nothing. So I lost the present. In act, I did not like to pick out a book for fear of seeming over-reaching on her kindness, or else Shakespeare was at my tongue's end.

Lord Fitzwilliam, and Lady Fitzwilliam too, talked to me and noticed me kindly, and his Lordship gave me some advice which I had done well perhaps to have noticed better than I have. He bade me beware of booksellers and warned me not to be fed with promises. On my departure they gave me a handful of money--the most that I had ever possessed in my life together. I almost felt I should be poor no more--there was £17." Such is Clare's descryption of an incident which has been rendered in terms of insult.

Other invitations followed, the chief practical result being an annuity of fifteen pounds promised by the Marquis of Exeter. Men of rank and talent wrote letters to Clare, or sent him books: some found their way to Helpston, and others sent tracts to show him the way to heaven. And now at last Clare was well enough off to marry Patty, before the birth of their first child, Anna Maria.

Before his marriage, probably, Clare was desired to spend a few days with his publisher Taylor in London. In smock and gaiters he felt most uncertain of himself and borrowed a large overcoat from Taylor to disguise his dress: over and above this question of externals, he instinctively revolted against being exhibited. Meeting Lord Radstock, sometime admiral in the Royal Navy, at dinner in Taylor's house, Clare gained a generous if somewhat religiose friend, with the instant result that he found himself "trotting from one drawing-room to the other." He endured this with patience, thinking possibly of the cat killed by kindness; and incidentally Radstock introduced him to the strangely superficial-genuine lady Mrs. Emmerson, who was to be a faithful, thoughtful friend to his family for many years to come.

In another direction, soon after Clare's return to Helpston, the retired admiral did him a great service, opening a private subscription list for his benefit: it was found possible to purchase "£250 Navy 5 Per Cents" on the 28th April and a further "£125 Navy 5 Per Cents" a month or so later. This stock, held by trustees, yielded Clare a dividend of £18 15s. at first, but in 1823 this income dwindled to £15 15s.; and by 1832 appears to have fallen to £13 10s. To the varying amount thus derived, and to the £15 given yearly by the Marquis of Exeter, a Stamford doctor named Bell--one of Clare's most energetic admirers--succeeded in adding another annuity of £10 settled upon the poet by Lord Spencer. But in the consideration of these bounties, it is just to examine the actual financial effect of Clare's first book. The publishers' own account, furnished only through Clare's repeated demands in 1829 or thereabouts, has a sobering tale to tell: but so far no biographer has condescended to examine it.

On the first edition Clare got nothing. Against him is entered the item "Cash paid Mr. Clare for copyright p. Mr. Drury ... £20"; but this money if actually paid had been paid in 1819. Against him also is charged a curious "Commission 5 p. Cent... £8 12s.," while Drury and Taylor acknowledge sharing profits of £26 odd.

On the second and third editions Clare got nothing; but to his account is charged the £100 which Taylor and Hessey "subscribed" to his fund. "Commission," "Advertising," "Sundries," and "Deductions allowed to Agents," account for a further £51 of the receipts: and Drury and Taylor ostensibly take over £30 apiece.

The fourth edition not being exhausted, the account is not closed: but "Advertising" has already swollen to £30, and there is no sign that Clare benefits a penny piece. Small wonder that at the foot of these figures he has written, "How can this be? I never sold the poems for any price--what money I had of Drury was given me on account of profits to be received--but here it seems I have got nothing and am brought in minus twenty pounds of which I never received a sixpence--or it seems that by the sale of these four thousand copies I have lost that much--and Drury told me that 5,000 copies had been printed tho' 4,000 only are accounted for." Had Clare noticed further an arithmetical discrepancy which apparently shortened his credit balance by some £27, he might have been still more sceptical.