Show Hide image

How John Clare captured the peasants' calendar

Adam Foulds on a vanished world of natural wonders and cyclical labour.

Image: Laura Carlin

Image: Laura Carlin

Last spring was one of the coldest ever recorded in the UK. This year, widespread floods preceded a hot spell that gave way to chilly rain. Latterly, Saharan dust has blown up from the south, imparting a sepia tinge to dangerous levels of air pollution. On the other side of the Atlantic, 2014 began with a cold system stuck in place, a polar vortex that blew weeks of snow down America’s east coast. There have always been variations in the weather but they seem now to be of a new swiftness and severity and there is plenty of climate science to tell us why. We are heating the planet; there is simply more energy in the atmosphere. I don’t think I am imagining that I can feel it sometimes outside, this arrhythmical turbulence, the weather not knowing what to do with itself.

For previous generations, the changing of the seasons was more orderly. Year rhymed with year and a form of poetry emerged to celebrate the pleasures and labours of each part. Around 42BC, Virgil began writing his bucolic Eclogues. A thousand five hundred years later, Edmund Spenser used them as the model for his Shepheardes Calender and three hundred years after that John Clare published his own Shepherd’s Calendar, a handsomely illustrated reissue of which has appeared this month from Oxford University Press to commemorate the passing of 150 years since Clare’s death. His poem, a month-by-month description of the peasant’s unfolding year, has a sparkling freshness. Here is his spring arriving in April:

Young things of tender life again

Enjoys thy sunny hours

And gosslings waddle oer the plain

As yellow as its flowers

Or swim the pond in wild delight

To catch the water flye

Where hissing geese in ceasless spite

Make childern scamper bye.

This happens in the present tense, as does everything in the poem. November’s birdlife – “The Owlet leaves her hiding place at noon/And flaps her grey wings in the doubling light” – is as present as April’s geese. The living year breathes in its entirety at every moment because in a world of reliable repetition every moment is immanent in every other. The reader’s sense of this is heightened by how subtle Clare’s observations are. As well as the familiar rural pageantry of those waddling goslings, there are the most evanescent effects. In March we see a woman spinning:

When the bright sun will thro the window steal

And gleam upon her face and dancing fall

In diamond shadows on the picturd wall

While the white butterflye as in amaze

Will settle on the glossy glass to gaze . . .

It’s a rich and a safe world, in which even this momentary flush of strengthening light, as delicate as that butterfly on the window, can be vouchsafed.

Clare became celebrated as a “peasant poet”, a singing prodigy of a class that no longer exists in Britain. In the 1970s the art critic and novelist John Berger, a familiar presence in these pages, moved to the Haute-Savoie, where he lived alongside the region’s remaining peasants and wrote a trilogy of novels about peasant life called Into Their Labours. His “historical afterword” to the first of these books is as good a description of the world of Clare’s childhood as you could find. In it, Berger talks about peasants dwelling in a “culture of survival” that “envisages the future as a sequence of repeated acts . . . Each act pushes a thread through the eye of a needle and the thread is tradition. No overall increase is envisaged.” This is in contrast to the culture we inhabit, that of capital and consumption that is insecurely founded on a vision of a future that is endlessly expanding, infinite growth emerging from the promises of credit, forever more and more to consume. For a peasant this is not plausible: the land can only produce so much. “Work routines are traditional and cyclic,” Berger writes: “they repeat themselves each year, and sometimes each day.”

The Shepherd’s Calendar describes those repeated acts from the inside. Here’s a moment from July:

The weary thresher leaves his barn

And emptys from his shoes the corn

That gatherd in them thro the day

And homward bends his weary way . . .

Those painful corn kernels in the labourer’s shoes – that has the ring of lived experience, and indeed Clare had threshed, wielding his flail next to his father. But by the time of writing the poem, he feared that the survival of peasant life was already coming undone. The enclosures of land that he saw as a boy had inaugurated a new pattern of ownership and land use. The large monocultural fields of agribusiness were on their way. His poetry celebrated the old cyclical life of the countryside for an educated audience largely alienated from that world, caught up in the linear onrush of progress. It is hard to read it now without feeling a pang of loss. We know that that world is gone, that we are all consumers now, that there’s no peasantry from which we might learn one method of survival even as we wonder what next week’s weather will bring.

Adam Foulds’s novels include “The Quickening Maze” (Vintage, £8.99), about John Clare, and most recently “In the Wolf’s Mouth” (Jonathan Cape, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double

DE AGOSTINI PICTURE LIBRARY / BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
Show Hide image

Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era