John Clare – Song: I peeled bits o’ straw and I got switches too

In this ‘song’, John Clare takes the familiar subject of a shunned lover driven to distraction, and changes the perspective so as to portray in detail the madness or mental anguish itself. Pastoral imagery associated with the ‘lover’s complaint’ idea is de-romanticised, made more tangible but also dulled and embittered. This conveys a genuine frustration that goes deeper than the typically artificial, impassioned cries of mental torment often seen in love poetry. At the same time the poem does see itself within this genre, and from this we get the soulful, singing anapaestic metre, and the moralizing summary of the final couplet.

From the start, rural imagery is prevented from becoming pastoral imagery by its being broken with unpleasantness, dullness, and implicit violence. The listless monotony of the speakers’ actions is emphasized in the repeated phrase constructions, ‘I peeled’, ‘I got’, ‘I switched’. Consequently the skipping, song-like effects of the meter and couplets in weakened to lethargy. A feature of this scene that makes it distinctly unpastoral is the prominence of decay – something that fits with the lethargic mood. From the ‘grey peeling willow’ to the ‘dry bone’ of the speaker, everything described is tired and lacking the glossy lustre of pastoral scenery. Yet there is something more real, more graphic about this imagery – the speaker has an Elizabethan’s lurid fascination with getting beneath the skin in ‘marrow’, and mortality in the idea of being buried alive. This suggests both the speaker’s actual delusional visions, and the poet’s desire to get underneath poetry’s traditionally superficial portrayal of madness and melancholy.

A major concern in the poem is the idea of isolation and self-exclusion. There is a forceful decisiveness in ‘I shunned them’ which might suggest disgust, but the certainty of the statement contrasts with the dull, passive tone of the rest of the poem, suggesting that this ‘shunning’ ought not be taken at face value. The speaker’s description of how he ‘flew’ suggests fear and desperation rather than decisive action. ‘The flower in green darkness’ is a complex image for the speaker, starved of the light of ‘love’, also the love itself, that when dwelt upon ‘blossoms’ for a time and then gradually diminishes, and finally the poet himself. This poem – according to the dates at the bottom of my copy – was written in 1842 and not published until 1920. Thus the poem itself ‘blossoms’ in secrecy, hidden from the traditional pastoral figures which can represent other contemporary poets. The desperate futility of this expression of beauty is conveyed in the form, where the added stresses and alliteration around ‘green darkness buds blossoms’ is suggestive of dense and rich foliage, which then seems to ‘fade’ away at the end of the line in assonance.

The sketched encounter with a ‘woman’ in stanza 3 illustrates both the poet’s adherence to typical models for romantic poetry, and its rejection of those models. The first lines of the stanza profess to lay out the speaker’s situation in the form of cause and consequence. The idea of excessive devotion is not unfamiliar in the ‘lover’s complaint’ poem; it also owes something to theatrical tragic conventions – the idea of being punished by the gods. The meeting itself departs from convention, however, in that the woman is faceless, voiceless, and the encounter unsatisfactory. The way she is described having ‘wandered away’ echoes the same passive lethargy of the speaker – there is no passion or care in her actions, she is fleeting and intangible. The inability to communicate recurs here as an idea, having been visited metaphorically in the ‘flower in green darkness’ image. The speaker’s preoccupation is not with the woman but with his own interrupted, frustrated modes of expression. It’s interesting that this poem, having been written a century earlier, is published just after T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock – dealing with such similar issues in the dislocated self and inability to communicate.

The final stanza repeats the first to suggest an ongoing state of anguish – denying us a resolution. The speaker remains a ‘hermit’, assimilated into nature, or, in the poems own words, ‘buried alive’ in it. Here perhaps is a vehicle of expression that offers a potential solution – an opportunity of expression. We witness that the speaker ‘talked to himself’ in isolation, while unable to communicate with others. The final couplet jars with this conflicted, anguish-filled state by offering a one-dimensional, moralistic pseudo-resolution. It seems to draw attention to itself as an inadequate summary of the poem’s complex message – we are aware that for the speaker, the madness goes deeper than that caused by the eyes of fair woman’.

This poem presents itself under the guise of a lover’s complaint. Yet it convinces us that the madness and isolation of the speaker is something without a simple cause, but intrinsic within the individual or perhaps within all individuals. It challenges the notion of idealized pastoral and incorporates the images of felsh and decay typical of early modern writing, combining the two to give an earthy, visceral imagery, presented in a tone that is paradoxically disconnected, passive and distancing.


2 thoughts on “John Clare – Song: I peeled bits o’ straw and I got switches too

  1. Hi :),

    Name’s Carmen Thong, currently living in Malaysia. I’m applying to universities in UK to read English Literature, and I came across the link to your blog. Just would like to letcha know that I’ve been reading your posts to brush up on my own skills.

    I did not study English Literature formally, and your essays have been very helpful to help me establish the methodology of practical criticism.

    Thought you would be glad to know someone’s reading! Will comment further when I finish reading your essays.

    Have fun!

    (Oh yeah, if you don’t mind, could you tell me where you found all your unseen poetry? I’m using Norton’s Anthology.)

    • Hi! Ah good I’m glad its useful

      Yeah I use the big Nortons as well – that is the Anthology of English Literature not the Anthology of Poetry. They’re almost all from there but if not then they might just be from other random books, in which case you can usually find them on poemhunter or google…

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