I love the weeds along the fen
More sweet than garden flowers
In my last post I cited this amazing description of a weed from James Schuyler’s “The Morning of the Poem.”
The intense effort of this passage reminded me of John Clare’s minute descriptions of birds nests. In both instances, the poets go beyond generalities and simple names to render hyper-detailed descriptions. (Clare famously complained about how Keats “often described nature as she appeared to his fancies and not as he would have described her had he witnessed the things he described”).
If fact, I sense a vague kinship between the two poets, with Schuyler’s “clumsy” (see my previous post) being roughly analogous to Clare’s favorite word, “rude”—a word Clare uses 260 times (at least according to Tom Paulin).
Consider the opening of Clare’s poem, “The Yellowhammer’s Nest”:
Just by the wooden brig a bird flew up,
Frit by the cowboy as he scrambled down
To reach the misty dewberry—let us stoop
And seek its nest—the brook we need not dread,
‘Tis scarcely deep enough a bee to drown,
So it sings harmless o’er its pebbly bed
—Ay here it is, stuck close beside the bank
Beneath the bunch of grass that spindles rank
Its husk seeds tall and high—’tis rudely planned
Of bleachèd stubbles and the withered fare
That last year’s harvest left upon the land,
Lined thinly with the horse’s sable hair.
Five eggs, pen-scribbled o’er with ink their shells… .
As a descriptive passage, this is magnificent, but what I’m interested in is how Clare has to stoop to see the nest. (I don’t see Keats or even Wordsworth including this unflattering description of themselves in a poem). But the point is that for both Schuyler and and Clare, intimate acquaintance with the world is a matter of moving beyond polite discourse and being willing to stumble a bit, and, linguistically speaking, get their hands dirty.
But when I first formulated this tenuous link between these two poets, it didn’t occur to me that there’s another more apparent connection: both are champions of weeds. Clare once described weeds as “wild and neglected like me.” In a letter he points out that there are “several water weeds too with very beautiful or peculiar flowers that have not yet been honored with christenings from modern botany.” And in “Cowper’s Green,” he fondly recalls a childhood scene:
Where uncheck’d the brambles spread;
Where the thistle meets the sight,
With its down-head, cotton-white;
And the nettle, keen to view,
And hemlock with its gloomy hue;
Where the henbane too finds room
For its sickly-stinking bloom;
And full many a nameless weed… .
Weeds are not flowers in the crannied wall; you have to stoop and get dirty to see them. And weeds, regarded as a general nuisance, are not often deemed worthy of specific names. Ultimately, for me, it’s not so much subject matter or descriptive style that Schuyler and Clare share; it’s their humility, their willingness to forego easy names and face things in all their stammering complexity.
More numbers on Clare: a search of the Delphi e-edition of Clare’s works indicates that “weeds” and its variants occurs 132 times; “stoop”: 78 times