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John Clare: The Nature of Writing

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My work considers the relations between text and nature in John Clare’s Midsummer Cushion, the last substantial work he produced in the early 1830s before being committed for madness at High Beach hospital, and then sent to Northampton General Lunatic Asylum. The full text was never published, though a thoroughly-edited version titled The Rural Muse was printed in 1835. A ‘midsummer cushion’ was, Clare explained in the introduction to the manuscript, was a ‘cottage custom,’ a piece of ‘greensward full of field flowers & place[d] as an ornament’. It was, he suggested, ‘a title that was not inapplicable to the contents of the Volume’. I want to explore the relationship Clare created between this ‘ornament’ of the natural field (representative of the artificial and the wild, collected and rooted) and the textual field of his poetry. In particular I will look at Clare’s efforts in his prose and poetry to represent and analyse what he called ‘the pages of sweet natures book.’ Clare’s writing was acutely attentive to the natural environment it described, particularly that of botanical nature, and to the experience of writing, reading, coding and decoding the natural world as it was partaken of by the poet. In so doing, he showed that the space of the page is a key location for mediation between man and nature, a space central to the formation of interpretative interactions. Through an examination of Clare’s own experiences in ‘getting to know plants’ as nature lover, gardener, and amateur naturalist, and the conflict he found to exist between wildness and cultivation, I hope to discuss how these poems present such conflict in a complex interplay between language and nature on the page, a space where writing about nature also concerns the nature of writing.

This talk is part of the Wolfson College Lunchtime Seminar Series - Wednesdays of Full Term series.

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