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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

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Yiyun Li: Can reading help you conquer depression?

In her memoir of depression and reading, Yiyun Li speaks to all those with unquiet minds.

Most sufferers of severe depression will tell you that the condition is incommunicable: it cannot be expressed, except through metaphors, and then those, too, are pitifully inadequate. How does one talk about a great, centrifugal force that spins the self away to fragments, or towards annihilation, leaving no stable, immutable self to write about?

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life (the title is a quotation from a letter by Katherine Mansfield) is a memoir of depression and reading, and the first work of non-fiction by the acclaimed Chinese-American writer Yiyun Li, whose books include the prize-winning debut collection A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and The Vagrants, her astonishing and bleak first novel. In Dear Friend, she grapples with the question that lies at the heart of books as diverse as William Styron’s Darkness Visible and Andrew Solomon’s Noonday Demon, but from the outset Li swerves away: she never once mentions depression by name, talking instead about “a difficult time”, or her mind being in “poor shape”, and about “this emptiness in me”.

A severe reluctance to talk about herself has led her to devise a way of writing about emotions in a forensically intellectual manner, subjecting each feeling to the rigours of close reading and an investigation-by-argument not a million miles from the practice of philosophers. In fact, the first chapter of the book is divided into 24 short subsections, of anything between four lines and just over a page: a collection of thoughts, observations, memories, aphoristic distillations, even propositions.

This sets the formal template for what follows: the titles of the subsequent chapters lead one to expect thematic unity, but the greater coherence comes from Li’s overarching project in Dear Friend of thinking about time. She starts out with the notion that the book “would be a way to test – to assay – thoughts about time. There was even a vision of an after, when my confusions would be sorted out.” To talk of a “before” and “after” is to acknowledge an intervening present; all posit an experience unfolding in time. But right from the start she is acutely conscious of a self-defeating task: “To assay one’s ideas about time while time remains unsettled and elusive feels futile.”

This compulsive argumentation and dissection of feelings into ever finer strands can produce the occasionally cloudy culmination, usually aphoristic or epigrammatic in style, almost always paradoxical. Even context fails to illuminate fully, for example, these sentences on Elizabeth Bowen: “‘The moment one is sad one is ordinary,’ she [Bowen] wrote. But that is not enough. The moment one feels anything one feels fatal.” Or: “To say nothing matters is to admit that everything matters.” Li’s emotions are thoughts, a pre-emptive mechanism to salvage a frangible self; perhaps this is the only way one can talk about an illness that eats the very faculty that produces thought. “As a body suffers from an auto-immune disease,” she writes, “my mind targets every feeling and thought it creates.”

Slowly, a bare-bones biographical narrative emerges: an immature, unstable monster of a mother; a quiet, fatalistic and long-suffering father; episodes from a childhood in China; a career in science cast aside for writing; two stays in hospital for serious depressive episodes (we find out their exact nature only in the afterword).

But, other than the self-consuming mind, the one constant running through this ­deliberately fractured memoir, like a flowing stream whose noise is always present, sometimes near, sometimes far, is the theme of reading. Here, too, Li is original in her approach, in describing how writers speak to her unquiet mind or to the darkness at her core. Take her love of biography or writers’ correspondence. She tells us that it springs from “the need – the neediness – to find shelter from one’s uncertain self in other lives”. It is heart-rending to read that she finds her “real context” in books: “. . . all that could not be solved in my life was merely a trifle as long as I kept it at a distance. Between that suspended life and myself were these dead people and imagined characters. One could spend one’s days among them as a child arranges a circle of stuffed animals when the darkness of night closes in.”

Li is a writer who has made her name in the lyrical-realist school, producing pellucidly moving works that enrich our understanding of psychological interiority and affect, so it is not surprising to note her admiration and love for Turgenev and Chekhov, Mansfield, John McGahern, William Trevor, Stefan Zweig, Bowen. More unpredictable, at least when these first occur, are the names of Marianne Moore, Graham Greene and Philip Larkin; the Moore and Larkin connections with her life are particularly unexpected when they unfurl.

There is a beautiful and profound chapter on renouncing her mother tongue – even though Li never wrote in Chinese – and the decision to adopt English. She gives the ­penultimate chapter of her book, fittingly, to the writer who has mattered to her most: Trevor, a writer she “aspired to be”, “to see as he does”. At the end of her assay there is a sense of endurance; this book is “an experiment in establishing a truce with what cannot be changed”, a terribly beautiful gift to the reader, who will always remain locked in her own life as the author is in hers.

Neel Mukherjee’s most recent novel is “The Lives of Others” (Vintage)

Neel Mukherjee is an Indian writer writing in English. His book The Lives of Others was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize and he reviews fiction for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit