This entry places John Clare’s book The Rural Muse in the context of the publishing landscape of 1835. Tracing the publication history of two poems that appeared in that volume as well as in the periodical press and in literary annuals, “A Spring Morning” and “The Nightingale’s Nest,” Weiner shows how attending to the modes and formats of print publication illuminates thematic and formal aspects of Clare’s poems. Clare’s approach to the sonnet, his treatment of nature, and his concept of the book are examined.
Or, rather, it was a rare, sweet victory for new poetry in a publishing world that had turned its back on living poets.
Or, yet again, it was a bitter, sweet victory for Clare’s friends, whose unstinting labors brought the book into print only to see it sell poorly and “ma[k]e little impression,” and for Clare himself, who knew the poems of these years were “among the best I have written” (Storey 12; Letters 626).
Two of these best poems—“The Nightingale’s Nest” and “The Thrush’s Nest”—exemplify his distinctive genius. They are vivid, surprising, and arresting, and they seem to pluck elements of the natural world directly from the fen country of eastern England and to plant them, like so many seedlings, in the equally flat but fertile ground of the page.
Indeed, when considered in light of their publication history, as I do here, these poems can be seen to meditate on the relation between that world and what Clare would later call “poesy’s page,” between a minutely observed nature and a carefully crafted work of literary art (Later Poems 13).
Rare, bitter, sweet: “The Nightingale’s Nest” and “The Thrush’s Nest” before The Rural Muse
The path these two poems wound to publication in The Rural Muse was circuitous. Its twists and turns tell us much about Clare’s relation to print and about the broader marketplace for poetry in the 1830s.
Between about 1790 and 1830, “all readers benefited” from “a reading boom” that corresponded to a boom in publishing (Jackson 9). The growth and diversification of the publishing industry was fueled in part by social, political, and technological changes such as increased rates of literacy and the invention of new papermaking machines and the power press (see Erickson 19-26). According to H. J. Jackson, however, its primary impetus was “competitive commercial activity, especially advertising and reviewing” (9).
The boom was good for readers of poetry. The market for poetry expanded as publishers contrived ways of making money from both cheap and expensive editions, from reprints as well as new collections, and from narrative, descriptive, and lyric poetry. Reading poetry became “something of a fad in genteel society,” a marker of gentility among the rising middle classes, and a sign of intellectual and political seriousness among self-educated workers (Erickson 21).
But the boom was not necessarily good for poets themselves. As William St. Clair explains in his encyclopedic study The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period (2004), “The great majority of authors of verse, including some, such as Shelley, who later became famous, were never commercially published in their lifetimes” (165). Instead, their works appeared “on commission,” at their own expense: “it was the author who was the investor who accepted all the costs and the risks, and the publisher who took a royalty on sales” (St. Clair 165).
Over the course of the 1820s, competition made a difficult situation more difficult for poets and publishers of poetry by radically shrinking the market for new verse. Single-authored works by living writers were nearly squeezed out of the field. “Between 1830 and 1858,” Julian North writes, “Edward Moxon stood virtually alone as a publisher of original poetry” (44).
Tellingly, Moxon became Wordsworth’s publisher in our year, 1835.
The collapse of the market for new poetry was widely recognized. The “establishment publisher” Longman said “nobody wants poetry now” (St. Clair 159; qtd. in Erickson 26). In 1830, Clare’s former publisher and friend, John Taylor, told him, “I am no publisher of poetry now” (Letters 493). Poking fun at the “purple” passages penned by “pretty poet[s],” Benjamin Disraeli declared in Vivian Grey (1826-27) that “the reign of Poesy is over” (85).
Yet the same market forces that were constricting the publication of collections of poems by living writers were also opening up new audiences for poets like Clare.
Competition in the poetry market came mainly from cheap reprints of previously issued poems, the periodical press, and literary annuals. Clare published numerous poems in these venues, as well as in calendars and anthologies such as The Naturalist’s Poetical Companion (1833; 2nd edn., 1846).
“The Nightingale’s Nest” was first published in 1832 in the Stamford Bee, the initial site of publication of many poems by Clare. Other poems he wrote in the 1820s and 1830s appeared in papers as diverse as the British Magazine, the Athenaeum, the London Magazine, the Boston Gazette, Hone’s Every-Day Book, and the Scientific Receptacle.
Similarly, and like many other Rural Muse poems, “The Thrush’s Nest” and “The Nightingale’s Nest” had appeared earlier in annuals. The literary annuals, also known as albums and giftbooks, were a new and fabulously successful publishing product. “Sold every Christmas ready-bound in silk, soft morocco, or decorated leather, [they] contained ready-selected collections of poems, stories, and engravings such as a woman might wish to have copied into her manuscript book” (St. Clair 229). As such, they made public and commercial the longstanding practice of copying extracts into a private, manuscript commonplace book, whose layout and eclecticism they imitated (see St. Clair 229-30). As St. Clair explains, “by 1829 they were a substantial sector of the book market” and popular titles such as The Keepsake sold as many as 15,000 copies a year (229, 230).
“The most lucrative way of publishing poetry after the mid-1820s,” the annuals were also the best avenue for most poets to access a broad audience (North 44). When they appeared in The Friendship’s Offering, “The Thrush’s Nest” (in 1832) and “The Nightingale’s Nest” (in 1833) reached between 8,000 and 10,000 households (see Colclough 55). As Stephen Colclough writes, The Friendship’s Offering brought Clare’s poetry to “its largest ever audience . . . an audience of new readers who were unlikely to have seen” his previous, single-author volumes (55).
The periodical press and the annuals significantly widened Clare’s audience at the very time when he found it most difficult to bring a book of poems into print.
They also encouraged Clare to write more poems in the modes editors tended to find most attractive. Chief among these was the sonnet. All four of the Clare poems included in The Friendship’s Offering of 1829, for example, were sonnets. Clare wrote hundreds of sonnets during these years, as did other poets such as Wordsworth, whose first widely popular book was the volume issued by Moxon in 1835, Yarrow Revisited and Other Poems, the majority of whose contents was sonnets.
Sonnets were popular with readers. At once readily accessible and recognizably poetical, traditional and modern, sonnets were also a favorite choice among amateur authors. As Paula R. Feldman and Daniel Robinson explain, the nineteenth century was a “golden age” for sonnets, in which “it seemed that nearly everyone wrote them—women and men, the rich and the poor, rural and urban poets, established professional writers and those struggling to make a name for themselves” (3).
Whether they were sonnets or other short lyrics, the poems Clare published in periodicals and annuals were, by and large, easily assimilated to contemporary taste and norms. Moreover, as Colclough notes, “to read Clare in the annuals was to read Clare in a specific context” (55). Individual poems were “defined both by the overall structure of the volume, and by the other poems that surrounded it in its immediate location,” poems that usually addressed similar themes and that often shared identical titles (55). Short poems shared space on the page with lines from adjacent entries.
Taken together, editors’ preferences and the discursive fields created within venues such as anthologies and annuals had the effect of highlighting the conventional features of Clare’s writings. Like the other works published alongside them in these venues, Clare poems selected for inclusion typically describe a conventional set of elements—nightingales and cuckoos, primroses and violets, bees and breezes—whose importance derives in the first instance from the ways they exemplify diurnal and seasonal patterns. Picturesque effects of chiaroscuro and pleasing disorder are common, and Clare’s joy in nature resonates with the sentimental, pious, and often affecting feelings expressed by the lyric subjects of neighboring poems.
That said, these publications also bring into a sharp focus the more distinctive aspects of Clare’s work. Most obviously, they provide a conventional backdrop against which his experiments appear in vivid relief. Formally, for example, his sonnets depart from the English or Italian structure of most of the sonnets that appeared in these venues. To whatever extent he was responding to market pressures in composing these poems, he was also experimenting with the form in ways that were central to his work during these years. “A Spring Morning,” for example, one of the sonnets that appeared in The Friendship’s Offering of 1829, consists of seven rhyming couplets, an idiosyncratic scheme to which Clare returned often in the 1830s, including in the Northborough Sonnets that are among his most important and challenging works.
At the level of theme, when Clare’s poems are read alongside others in the annuals and anthologies, their descriptive precision stands out immediately. In addition to the usual order of soaring skylarks and cooing doves, Clare mentions a quail who “cries, ‘wet my foot’” and a “seldom-seen landrail [who] / Utters, ‘craik—craik,’ like voices under ground” (Naturalist’s118). Both “The Nightingale’s Nest” and “The Thrush’s Nest” depict nature in ways that are far more accurate and specific than the generalized and familiar pictures of “the flowers . . . birds and bees . . . the woods . . . the earliest wild-bird’s song” in poems such as Mary Howitt’s “Lays of the Seasons” (Friendship’s Offering 88).
Editors such as the Rev. Edward Wilson, who compiled The Naturalist’s Poetic Companion, clearly valued Clare’s poetic accuracy and the eager observation to which the poems trace themselves. In his “Preface,” Wilson explains the intellectual and spiritual benefits of carefully attending to nature:
By a continual analysis, comparison, and generalization of things, the study of Natural History teaches the art of thinking clearly and accurately, and of reasoning with precision and force . . . by fixing the mind on living objects, in which wisdom and goodness are strikingly exhibited, and by raising it through them to the Creator . . . the study of Natural History excites a continual train of ideas most friendly to whatever is pure, benevolent, and grateful. And next to the devout exercises of religion, perhaps nothing will more completely remove sadness and disquietude, than the silent eloquence of flowers, and the vocal song of birds. (v-vi)
Such prefatory remarks must have helped readers take meaning from Clare’s exceptionally precise poems about nature, and they explain why editors chose poems depicting atypical creatures such as a “hoarse crow” and an “idle puddock” as well as containing comparatively slight indications of orthodox insight (Friendship’s Offering 416, 151).
“The Nightingale’s Nest” and “The Thrush’s Nest,” in their turn, minutely represent acts of observation. Here is “The Thrush’s Nest” as it appeared in the Naturalist’s Poetical Companion:
Within a thick and spreading hawthorn bush
That overhung a molehill large and round,
I heard, from morn to morn, a merry Thrush
Sing hymns to sunrise, while I drank the sound
With joy:—and often, an intruding guest,
I watch’d her secret toils, from day to day,
How true she warp’d the moss to form her nest,
And model’d it within with wood and clay.
And by and bye, like heath-bells gilt with dew,
There lay her shining eggs, as bright as flowers,
Ink-spotted-over shells of green and blue,
And there I witness’d, in the Summer hours,
A brood of Nature’s minstrels chirp and fly,
Glad as the sunshine and the laughing sky. (179)
The spiritual nourishment gleaned from listening to the bird’s “hymns to sunrise” is intimately intertwined in this poem with the aesthetic pleasures of seeing the “shining eggs, as bright as flowers” and with the empiricist expertise that comes from peering inside the prickly bush and noticing the whole ecological context in which the nest has been built. Each of these elements is made intelligible by Wilson’s preface and by the other poems he chose for his collection.
Small miracle: “The Thrush’s Nest” and “The Nightingale’s Nest” in The Rural Muse
The press that published The Rural Muse, Whittaker & Co., was a firm specializing in “scientific, technical, and educational works,” particularly books about electricity (‘The Bookman’ Directory 84). Poetry was not their forte, but they employed a man named Jeremiah How, who took an interest in Clare’s poems.
Clare’s longtime friend Eliza Emmerson selected the poems from his larger manuscript collection, and her husband Thomas assisted in negotiations with the press. Thomas managed to secure Clare a payment of forty pounds, “the most lucrative deal of Clare’s career” and an exceptional sum for an author to receive in 1835 (Bate 374-75). Taylor corrected the proofs and rearranged the material (see Bate 375-76). How continued to support the book even after leaving the employ of Whittaker & Co. (see Bate 375-76).
Clare was pleased with the idea of publication, and he approved of the firm. In 1834 they had issued two beautifully illustrated volumes of The Feathered Tribes of the British Islands, popularly known as Mudie’s British Birds—“a book on birds” Clare said he had “lo[ng] wished to see” (Letters 614).
“The Nightingale’s Nest” is a poem about a small miracle, a tiny nest that houses a tiny bird whose “marvel[ous]” voice belies her “dress [of] russet brown” (Rural Muse 31). When she sings, she is, wonderfully, “at a distance hid . . . / Lost in a wilderness of listening leaves” (31). Clare’s rich phrase “listening leaves” suggests that they are full of sound, that the trees themselves attend to the bird’s song, and that his own listening connects him to the world in a profound sense.
…“melody seems hid in every flower,
That blossoms near thy home. These harebells all
Seem bowing with the beautiful in song;
And gaping cuckoo-flower, with spotted leaves,
Seems blushing of the singing it has heard. (33)
Once again the birdsong captivates everything within its reach. Here, we learn that the characteristic response is to “bow” down in homage and to be made beautiful oneself, as embarrassed pleasure brings color to one’s cheeks and to leaves and blossoms.
Both these passages in “The Nightingale’s Nest” emphasize that the bird is hidden when she sings. Indeed, Clare puzzles over the “unseen” bird throughout the poem, in which he leads the reader on a treasure hunt under the “old-man’s-beard,” past the place where a child went “creeping” to gather “blue-bell flowers,” crawling “on hands and knees through matted thorn” to find the “fern-strewn thorn-clump round and round” where “her curious house is hidden” (33, 31-32). Her nest is a “home . . . / Where Solitude’s disciples spend their lives / Unseen” (33).
Early on, Clare confides to us that he has often “hunted like a very boy” in search of the nest, a search in the midst of which “All seemed as hidden as a thought unborn” (31). The phrase “hid as thoughts unborn” also appears in the Rural Muse sonnet “Summer Moods” (115). The repetition of the phrase in the two poems amplifies its suggestiveness, endowing the hidden nest and the song of an unseen bird (also the context of “Summer Moods”) with epistemological weight. Careful listening, especially listening without seeing, makes vivid and perceptible otherwise un-thought thoughts. It turns latent possibility into actual aesthetic experience and insight, even wisdom.
And careful visual observation also yields rewards, as in this passage in which Clare describes the nightingale’s nest:
How curious is the nest; no other bird
Uses such loose materials, or weaves
Its dwelling in such spots: dead oaken leaves
Are placed without, and velvet moss within,
And little scraps of grass, and, scant and spare,
What scarcely seem materials, down and hair;
For from men’s haunts she nothing seems to win. (33)
The passage is important first and foremost for its remarkable precision. Its details provide a complete and supremely tactile description of the nest, while its rhythms offer a vivid account of the wonder and respect with which Clare gazes upon the bird’s home. But in the context of The Rural Muse, the passage, and the poem as a whole, also acquires a subtle meta-poetic valence.
Throughout The Rural Muse Clare describes birdsong and other natural melodies as models for his own lyric art. In “November,” “Shepherd’s Tree,” “The Wren,” and “Boston Church,” he draws inspiration from nature and seeks to imitate her “wizard noise” (132).
The theme of reading runs through The Rural Muse, appearing in poems such as “Evening Pastime” (one of the Friendship’s Offering sonnets), “The Old Willow,” “Eternity of Time,” and “Rural Scenes,” where Clare imagines a scene in which his own “simple verse, and unambitious songs, / . . . in some mossy cottage haply may / Be read” (113). The self-deprecating description of his own poems partakes of another persistent topic in The Rural Muse: the illusory and fleeting nature of public recognition of printed poetry. “Lord Byron” and “To the Memory of Bloomfield” consider this subject in relation to well-known poets, while “Vanity of Fame,” “Fame,” and similar poems inflect it autobiographically.
Indeed, from the punning phrase “listening leaves,” which also suggests the leaves of paper folded together in a book, to the final statement “Aye, as I live! her secret nest is here,” Clare places the bird as much in the book as in the world of nature (31, 32; italics mine).
However fleeting might be fame, the book is a permanent place of listening and seeing in which the sounds and sights of the world find a new, audible, visible home. The Rural Muse considers hidden nests and unseen singing birds in order to “breathe a living song,” a still-living song, within its pages (132).
HOW TO CITE THIS BRANCH ENTRY (MLA format)
published May 2012
Weiner, Stephanie Kuduk, “On the Publication of John Clare’s The Rural Muse, 1835.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web. [Here, add your last date of access to BRANCH].
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Clare, John. The Rural Muse. London: Whittaker & Co., 1835. Print.
—. The Later Poems of John Clare. Ed. Eric Robinson, David Powell, and Margaret Grainger. Vol. 1. Oxford: Clarendon, 1984. Print.
—. The Letters of John Clare. Ed. Mark Storey. Oxford: Clarendon, 1985. Print
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Storey, Mark. “Introduction.” Clare: The Critical Heritage. London; Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973. Print.
Weiner, Stephanie Kuduk. “Listening with John Clare.” Studies in Romanticism 48 (Fall 2009): 371-90. Print.
Wordsworth, William. Yarrow Revisited, and Other Poems. London: Edward Moxon, 1835. Print.
Wordsworth, William. Sonnet Series and Itinerary Poems, 1820-1845. Ed. Geoffrey Jackson. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004. Print.
 On middle-class readers, see Davidoff and Hall, Family Fortunes; Fergus, Provincial Readers; and Gallagher, Nobody’s Story. On working-class readers, see Maidment, Poor-House Fugitives and Rose, Intellectual Life.
 On poetry publication during the 1830s, see also Chilcott, A Publisher and His Circle, 183-98; Erickson, Economy of Literary Form, 19-48; and North, Domestication of Genius, 31-57.
 On cheap reprints, see St. Clair, Reading Nation, 172-79 and 208-209; on the periodical press and literary annuals, see North, The Domestication of Genius, 44-49.
 The poems were “Evening Pastime,” “A Spring Morning,” “The Wren,” and “Nature [How many pages of sweet Nature’s book].”
 On Wordsworth’s later Sonnet Series and Itinerary Poems, see Geoffrey Jackson’s edition of that title and Simonsen, Wordsworth and Word-Preserving Arts, 102-25. On the popularity of Yarrow Revisited, see Gill, Wordsworth and the Victorians, 19.
 On Clare’s treatment of sound and listening, see Weiner, “Listening with John Clare.”