John Clare, Biopoetics, and the Romantic Lyric

When I read the blurb for Sara Guyer’s book Reading with John Clare: Biopoetics, Sovereignty, Romanticism in the NASSR bulletin this past July, I felt both fascinated and puzzled. What could Romantic lyric poetry possibly have to do with biopower and its institutional controls? What constitutes a “biopoetics”? A few months have passed and I’ve finally found the time to ask these questions of the book itself, which I’ve found to be a challenging, but ultimately rewarding, read. In this post, I’ll share some insights I’ve gleaned from Reading with John Clare–insights about Clare’s poetry but also about Romantic aesthetics and its legacies more generally.

reading with John Clare

     Biopoetics is a theory of romantic writing that Guyer develops through close readings of Clare’s poetry and prose. The terms biopolitics and biopoetics are, perhaps necessarily, elastic rather than static terms in the book; Guyer’s flexible approach to key concepts allows them to do a lot of important critical work. Clare’s Romantic biopoetics, she contends, undo concepts of personal sovereignty, national belonging and organic genius that have, for better or worse, been associated with Romantic lyric poetry from its nascence through the days of ideology critique. The theory is exciting and thoroughly ambitious but I suspect readers may be wondering: how, more specifically, do Clare’s poetics do all of this? In attempt to address this question, I’ll discuss the theoretical groundwork that Guyer lays down and then turn to some of the interventions that she makes in Clare studies.

At stake in Reading with John Clare is a rethinking of Clare’s life and lyrics but also a rethinking, following Paul de Man and Barbara Johnson, of the relationship between lyric poetry and biological life, apostrophe and sovereignty. In her essay “Apostrophe, Animation and Abortion,” (1986) Barbara Johnson contends that all politics of abortion rely on prosopopeia and apostrophe, rhetorical devices that we find in Romantic and post-Romantic lyrics. Johnson cites Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” as an example of a Romantic lyric in which a male speaker employs apostrophe to animate the inanimate. It occurs to me that this is not a rhetorical move that the Romantics invented; Shakespeare’s infamous sonnet “Shall I Compare Thee” works this way too. Johnson’s concerns, in any case, lie more precisely with Gwendolyn Brooks’ “The Mother,” a poem that features a female lyric speaker who addresses and is addressed by an aborted fetus.

Gwendolyn Brooks with Langston Hughes
Gwendolyn Brooks with Langston Hughes

Johnson’s reading of Brooks’ poem sets up Guyer’s claim that lyric poetry exposes an ambivalence about “the proper meaning of life” (16) that is basic to the structure of apostrophe and the biopolitics of abortion. While the lyric speaker may wish for the sovereign power to animate or “make live,” the distinction between viable life and death is undone in the very attempt. This is an insight into the lyric form that Paul de Man, who appeared to be more interested in language than biological life, nonetheless predicted when he wrote that figuration in Autobiography “deprives and disfigures to the precise extent that it restores” (74). It is here where Guyer turns to John Clare’s writing to support her contention that, while biopoetics and biopolitics both rely on a “rhetoric of animation,” (24) Clare’s poetics expose the “excesses that biopower and its institutions inherently fail to contain” (4).

Clare is a good focal point for Guyer’s theory because he spent a third of his life in an asylum; his writings during this period are irrevocably tied up with the new conceptualizations of survival that took hold around the beginning of the nineteenth century. In a tremendous reading of Clare’s poem “To Mary,” Guyer shows how the speaker’s lyric apostrophe to a dead lover becomes evidence of his pathology, or, of that that was both the cause and the effect of Clare’s stay at the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum. The form of life that both poetry and the asylum sustain is a “form of madness or haunting” (23) that breaks with the dyadic models of life and death that govern biopolitical thinking within the asylum.

Painting of John Clare by William Hilton, oil on canvas, 1820
Painting of John Clare by William Hilton, oil on canvas, 1820

In chapters two and three of Reading with John Clare, the concept of Romantic biopoetics clashes with traditional ways of reading and understanding Clare’s life and work. In these chapters, Guyer persuasively argues that readers who remember Clare primarily as a “natural genius” and editors that have sought to recover Clare’s true voice alike misrecognize him, though for different reasons.

Known as the “Northamptonshire Poet,” Clare was linked in his lifetime to the regional circumstances and class position that his poetic genius supposedly enabled him to transcend. Well-read but without formal schooling, Clare was understood as a person whose poetic genius derived from nature rather than nurture: the inscription on Clare’s grave–“A poet is born not made”–expresses this idea in no uncertain terms. The critics Mina Gorji and John Goodridge have written wonderful books that dispel the myth that Clare’s talent for poetry was unlearned. Though Guyer rejects the notion that Clare was a born prodigy, she has little interest in recovering Clare’s agency as a critical reader of the poetic tradition or as a self-conscious stylist. Instead, Guyer shows us where Clare’s writing reveals a more complex relationship of life to poetry than the one inherent in the idea of the natural genius.

John Clare's gravestone

Guyer contrasts the words inscribed on Clare’s tombstone–“A poet is born not made”–with an 1824 journal entry of his. On the page in Clare’s journal that interests Guyer, he prematurely sketches his grave. The drawing appears alongside life writing about Clare’s failing health and feelings of neglect. What is interesting is that, as Clare imagines his tombstone forty-some years prematurely, he insists on the separation of poetry from biology: while the grave he draws will mark the death of his body, it will not mark the date of his death, because, he writes, “I wish it [the date] to live or dye with my poems and other writings” (29). While Clare’s grave “leaves open the possibility that he will continue to live a life beyond life in poetry,” the complaints about his failing health attest to the pressing relevance of his corporal life. Guyer’s conclusion is that, in the place of an uncomplicated fusion of poetry and biology, Clare’s journal entry shows us that “a body that is left to die” cannot be disentangled from a “poetry that is made to live” (33).

Guyer takes the assertion that Clare’s writing unravels received ideas about him in a different direction in her reading of his editorial history. Clare’s first editor John Taylor mediated everything from Clare’s spellings and punctuation to his sentiments. Because of this, the question of how to present Clare’s poetry to the reading public has been a hot topic of debate since the publication of Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery (1820). Without getting into the details of the most recent editorial controversies, it will suffice to say that both sides maintain that Clare’s authentic voice was lost in Taylor’s editing process and that it may be recovered through their own editorial procedures. Guyer’s surprising claim is that Clare’s voice “never was there to be lost” (48). Rather than attempt to recover the “true” voice of Clare, critics and readers might more productively attend to “the nonidentity of Clare’s work that is spawned by indeterminacy, incoherence, and uncertainty” (49). The captivating idea of “nonidentity,” or, identity in the absence of recognition, is borrowed from Agamben’s essay “Identity without the Person.” Guyer goes on to develop the connection between Clare’s lyrics and Agamben’s theory in subsequent chapters.

Selected Poems

     As a reader of Clare and as a particular fan of his enclosure elegies, the last chapter of Guyer’s book–on the poetics of homelessness–is my favorite. Throughout the book but especially in the final chapters, Guyer’s elegant close readings emphasize the value of, as her title goes, reading with John Clare. Guyer insists that the practice of close reading may yet help us to think about human problems like “violence and loss, identity and belonging, survival and viability” (101) in ways that are unavailable by means of political science and distant reading. The careful readings of Clare, Agamben, Johnson and de Man that are on offer in Reading with John Clare affirm that the work of close reading is as pressing today as ever.

Agamben, Giorgio, and Daniel Heller-Roazen. Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1999.

De Man, Paul. The Rhetoric of Romanticism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984.

Goodridge, John. John Clare and Community. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Gorji, Mina. John Clare and the Place of Poetry. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2008.

Guyer, Sara. Reading with John Clare: Biopoetics, Sovereignty, Romanticism. New York: Fordham University Press, 2015.

Johnson, Barbara. “Apostrophe, Animation, and Abortion.” Diacritics Diacritics 16, no. 1 (1986): 29–47.