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KATEY CASTELLANO Moles, Molehills, and Common Right inJohn Clare’s Poetry J ohn Clare’s middle-period poetry serves as a cultural marker of the expropriation of the commons and curtailment of common right in the early nineteenth century. The poems identified as Clare’s “enclosure elegies” document the most visible forms of land expropriation: former common land is now marked as private by the erection of fences and notrespassing signs, and the landscape is altered by the deforestation of oldgrowth trees, the elimination ofgrazing spaces between fields, and the till­ age of common land. In most instances, as J. M. Neeson argues succinctly, “Enclosure meant the extinction of common right.”1 Yet while enclosure, as Clare documents, closed off and transformed the spaces that were com­ mons, it did not fully extinguish the practice of common right; enclosure encouraged in Clare’s poetic work a reconception ofthe commons that re­ animated claims to common right. Common right, as E. P. Thompson argues, allowed the poor and prop­ ertyless to cultivate localized “usages” of private property, such as digging turf, gathering wood, foraging for food, or grazing animals.2 These local­ ized usages not only gave the poor access to land-based resources, but the work of common right was also constitutive of a limited but vital sense of freedom, for commoners and communities, from the vicissitudes of wage labor. Peter Linebaugh argues, “commoning is embedded in a labor pro­ cess; it inheres in a particular praxis of field, upland, forest, marsh, coast. Common rights are entered into by labor. ”3 All forms ofcommon right are I. Neeson, Commoners: Common Right, Enclosure, and Social Change in England, 1700—1820 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 15. 2. Thompson defines common right as “a subtle and sometimes complex vocabulary of usages, of claims to property,” in Customs in Common (New York: The New Press, 1993), 151, 3. Linebaugh also makes a clear distinction between common and human rights: “com­ mon rights differ from human rights. First, common rights are embedded in a particular ecol­ ogy with its local husbandry.” See The Magna Carta Manifesto: Liberties and Commonsfor All (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 44—45. SiR, $6 (Summer 2017) 157 158 KATEY CASTELLANO entered into through work with the land and its resources, and this work strategically resists individual ownership. Clare’s post-enclosure poetry in­ sists that the work of commoning is not undertaken by humans alone, but also by cooperating with the “silent work” of non-human animals, plants, and natural processes. Although he never goes so far as to monetize the work of nature like current economists who suggest, for example, that the economic value of the work of bees and other pollinators is worth roughly $250 billion per year,4 Clare is particularly attuned to the value created when nature “Is left at her own silent work for years.”5 6 Such acknowledgment of nature’s work challenges John Locke’s labor theory of property as land that has been im­ proved solely by human labor, and that property owners “hath by this la­ bour something annexed to it that excludes the common right of other men.”'’ The Lockean concept of private property erases the labor of the propertyless poor, as Raymond Williams argues.7 Yet Clare’s poetry takes this critique even further by pointing to the way in which both property­ less humans and non-human life are constantly contributing to the produc­ tivity and “improvement” of land. Agricultural labor is not, as Locke would have it, “the unquestionable property of the labourer” but rather is dependent upon the work of soil, plants, and animals.8 The work of the possession of land by an individual, in other words, always involves the dispossession of both the working-class and non-human life that enable that endeavor. Clare’s middle period poetry about work, both human and non-human, is inflected by the georgic mode, which depicts human agricultural labor as heroically pressing the land into productivity.9 Yet Clare decenters the georgic emphasis on human work in order to tackle the problem of how 4. Marie Fabio Carmen, “Pollinators: The Fragile State of the World...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2330-118X
Print ISSN
0039-3762
Pages
pp. 157-176
Launched on MUSE
2020-03-06
Open Access
No
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