- The Aesthetes’ John Clare: Arthur Symons, Norman Gale and Avant-Garde Poetics
In 1908, some months before a mental collapse brought on partly by financial distress and overwork, Arthur Symons predicted that John Clare’s asylum poems would form the basis of his twentieth-century reputation.1 The prediction was at once discerning and self-fulfilling, and Symons’s inclusion of a large sampling of asylum verse along with previously unpublished manuscript material in his Poems by John Clare “inaugurate[d] a new way of looking” at the poet whom nineteenth-century readers had tended to see in the minor, faddish guise of the Northamptonshire Peasant Poet.2 Notwithstanding the uncanny biographical coincidence of Symons’s support for Clare’s “Prison Poems” and his own descent toward incarceration and breakdown, it is somewhat surprising that Symons proved such a good reader of Clare.3 For his contemporaries as for scholars, Symons was a prominent practitioner and the foremost theorist of the cosmopolitan, urban, impressionist aestheticism of the fin de siècle, a writer whose tendencies not only differ from but react against the provincial, rural, particularistic poetry of earlier nineteenth-century English authors such as Clare.4 Nor was Symons the only nineties writer to discover Clare in the first years of the twentieth century. Norman Gale, whose volumes of experimental pastoral lyrics such as Cottage Songs (1893) were among the decade’s best-selling aesthetic books, edited his own Poems by John Clare in 1901.5 Gale, too, moved away from the prevailing view of Clare as a peasant poet, finding in his work a strain of pastoral verse akin to Gale’s own conception of avant-garde writing. Thus the Clare we know today was in a meaningful way born not in the last decade of the eighteenth century but in the first decade of the twentieth, when the special genius of his work became intelligible to two poets whose artistic preoccupations were decidedly au courant. [End Page 243]
Yet it was those same ideas about art that enabled Gale and Symons to see Clare as they did. Gale’s Poems by John Clare is printed in the fine press style and his selections present Clare as an earnest aesthete reviving the pastoral mode by bringing to bear upon it keen observation and a chaste sensualism. Gale’s own poems are in the same vein, and his edition of Clare assimilates the earlier poet into the strand of aestheticism that Gale exemplified, in which a Paterian dedication to sense experience leads to a life-affirming art whose avant-garde credentials lie in attention to physical sensation, engagement with received verse forms, and lexical economy. For his part, Symons reads Clare as a poet of observation with a symbolist theory of the image and an aesthete’s sensibility. For Symons, Clare’s asylum poems are “rarer and finer” than the early poems with which he had been identified because his madness severs him and his art from the concrete world, forcing him to infuse mimetic referentiality with “gentle hallucination” and “exalt[ing] him as a poetic consciousness.”6 Symons also brought to his encounter with Clare his own more recent experiments in descriptive poetry, particularly the Amends to Nature sequence in The Fool of the World and Other Poems (1906), which enabled him to appreciate Clare’s rendering in poetry of his experience of nature. Gale and Symons engage Clare in conversations that are still legible in the thematic and formal resonances between their own poetry and their editions of Clare’s poems, both in their introductory essays and in their selections and editorial procedures. These conversations shed light on the history of aestheticism and on the history of Clare’s reception, as well as on the point at which these divergent ideas and practices of art unexpectedly and fruitfully crossed paths.
Recent scholarship about aestheticism has emphasized its inclusiveness and heterogeneity. Investigations of missionary aestheticism, religion, imperialism and, above all, women writers have drawn a complicated portrait of the turn-of-the-century literary scene.7 “Aestheticism” increasingly refers not only to the “performative codes” such as “languor, narcissism, effeminacy, artificiality, [and] frothy aphoristic humor...