Child Harold or Child Harolds:

The Editing of Clare’s Texts

by Tim Chilcott


From The John Clare Society Journal, no. 19 (July 2000)
(c) Tim Chilcott / The John Clare Society


Few works in Clare’s long career better exemplify the continuing debate about editing his texts than the asylum poem Child Harold. Composed in 1841, Child Harold contains practically every ingredient for a recipe of editorial perplexity and argument. The poem is almost certainly unfinished, its composition scattered among no fewer than seven separate manuscripts. Part of it exists only in draft-form; the rest is copied out, though whether that copy represents an intended final version is far from clear. There is some question, too, whether the sections in draft-form only are indeed to be linked to the rest under a single title. The proposed sequence of stanzas is often uncertain. Drafting is interrupted by, but also continued through, momentous personal shocks: incarceration for the first half of the year in High Beech asylum, escape in July, return to a home that becomes homeless, re-incarceration at the end of the year in Northampton asylum. And in addition, the poem embodies all the difficulties that Clare’s manuscripts present throughout his career: handwriting that is sometimes ambiguous or now faded, minimal punctuation, grammatical solecisms, sudden interpolations of extraneous or unrelated material. Only in one respect, indeed—the influence of copyists, editors and publishers such as John Taylor or W.F. Knight—does Child Harold seem free of complicating agents (1). In all else, it is fraught with imponderables, the stuff of every textual editor’s sweetest dream, or (if they are sensible) their worst nightmare.
        Given these circumstances, it is scarcely surprising that the few ‘complete’ versions of the poem to appear during the last half-century have varied considerably (2); and it is worth establishing their distinctive features at once, as a preface to the larger questions they raise:

Geoffrey Grigson, Poems of John Clare’s Madness, 1949
It is this edition that first brings Child Harold into the public domain as a fully-fledged poem, clearly identified with a title, after nearly a century of almost total obscurity (3). Grigson’s editorial approach is a curious amalgam of the careful and the cavalier, the imaginative and the innocent. On the negative side, a number of words, phrases, and occasionally even whole stanzas, are inaccurately or misleadingly transcribed. Despite protests against ‘the condescension of those who can spell and insert semicolons’ (p.1), grammar, spelling and punctuation are nevertheless regularised according to ‘accepted’ usage. The songs and ballads that Clare clearly integrated into the sequence of stanzas are removed, and placed as separate poems elsewhere in the book. No justification is offered for either the regularisation of accidentals or the omission of songs and ballads. Nor is any reason given for the otherwise challenging view of Clare’s intended structure for the poem: as a sequence of four Cantos corresponding to the four seasons. But in other respects, Grigson’s presentation is compelling. His long, fifty-page introduction offers persuasive contexts for approaching Clare’s asylum work, from telling biographical detail to judicious analysis of Clare’s literary affinities, notably with Hölderlin. In the light of later editors’ dramatisations (4), the tone of Grigson’s voice is especially noticeable: it understates its insights, allowing them to emerge simply and without rhetoric. It holds Clare’s creative life at the centre of attention, and fifty years later, still remains one of the most perceptive introductions to an edition of his work. If not entirely faithful to a text, Grigson is faithful, at least, to an imagination.

Eric Robinson and Geoffrey Summerfield, The Later Poems of John Clare, 1964
The very first paragraph of this edition unequivocally sets out very different principles to those of Grigson, who is speedily and explicitly criticised for his editorial arbitrariness and ‘persistent inaccuracy’ (p. 1). At the centre of Robinson and Summerfield’s approach is the principle of exactness, a vigorous fidelity to the manuscript that Clare actually wrote, reproducing the text as closely as possible, with all its mis-spellings and erratic punctuation retained, apart from expanded ampersands. The manuscript sources of Child Harold are described and discussed in much fuller detail than in Grigson, and textual notes clearly and helpfully identify differences of phrasing between early drafts and later copy. The transcription itself is outstandingly accurate, and generates a sustained sense of freshness and immediacy. In terms of interpretative insight, on the other hand, the introduction offers little of note; and a questionable decision is made about the sequencing of stanzas that will influence an entire generation of editions. Acknowledging that the uncopied draft stanzas precede the copied verses in time of composition, Robinson and Summerfield nonetheless place the drafts after the copy. The result is a Child Harold that evokes first the summer of 1841, then moves into the autumn and winter of the year, then abruptly switches back to May, and then even further back to early spring. Grigson’s thesis of four Cantos that marked the successive seasons of the year could not have been more forcibly challenged.
       
The transcription of Child Harold offered in this edition, with all the textual principles that underlie it, is copied for the next thirty-five years. Without any modification, it is reproduced twenty years later in Robinson and Powell’s The Later Poems, 1984, and also in the same editors’ Oxford Authors John Clare, 1984. It is also largely followed in Summerfield’s John Clare: Selected Poetry, 1990, though here with light punctuation added and prefaced by perceptive commentary. Faute de mieux, the 1964 version of the poem achieves authoritative status.

J.W. and Anne Tibble, John Clare: Selected Poems, 1965
Although much of the text in this collection is based upon the editors’ earlier Poems of John Clare, 1935, the version of Child Harold produced here derives from a new reading of Clare’s manuscripts. Some errors in transcription remain, nevertheless; and overall, the version veers between the careful and the careless. Clare’s ampersands are retained, for instance, but his capitalisation of words in the drafts is not (the reverse of Robinson and Summerfield’s procedure). More significantly, the Tibbles endorse Grigson’s seasonal structure, and consequently place the draft stanzas written in spring and early summer towards the beginning of their sequence. But they still open the poem with stanzas explicitly evoking summer, then midsummer, then May, then spring. In other words, although an overall spring-summer-autumn-winter structure is presented, specific sequences fail to follow the chronology, even when they might have done so. No editorial justification is offered for this anomaly, though the Tibbles properly emphasise that the sequence they present is ‘not at all incontrovertible’ (p. 239).

Salman Dawood Al-Wasiti, ‘The Poetry of John Clare: a Critical Study’, 1976
In an appendix to a doctoral dissertation at the University of Leicester, Al-Wasiti seeks to present Child Harold in terms of its chronological order of composition. Supporting Grigson’s view that the manuscript can be arranged seasonally, he further emphasises its structure by entitling its parts. Four sections are specifically named: I The Spring Canto: High Beech; II The Summer Canto: [a. High Beech]; [b. On the Road to Northborough]; [c. Northborough]; III The Autumn Canto: Northborough; IV The Winter Canto: Northborough. Individual stanzas and sequences are persuasively placed within the four ‘Cantos’, and convincing evidence offered for their positioning. The transcription is extremely accurate. The result is a version that is both textually attentive and imaginatively compelling. As an appendix to an unpublished dissertation, however, it seems to have fallen into immediate and total obscurity, being referred to by neither Robinson and Powell (1984) nor Summerfield (1990). The version of Child Harold that best combines textual scrupulousness with imaginative understanding remains unpublished to this day.

These necessarily brief summaries may be sufficient to demonstrate the range of presentation and argument that Child Harold has generated in the last half-century. And what is at stake, it becomes clear, is more than a matter of mere accidentals (ampersands instead of ‘ands’, or light punctuation instead of none). Grigson, Robinson, Summerfield, Powell, the Tibbles, Al-Wasiti, differ in their perception of central features in the poem. In no clearer way is this shown than in the crucial issue of sequencing. The table below presents the ordering of stanzas in the four versions above, according to the ‘raw sequence’ of draft (Northampton MS 8) and copy (Northampton MS 6). The table may appear long; but its implications should be quickly discernible:

 

MS ‘raw sequence’

Grigson 1949

Robinson Summerfield
Powell
1964—1990

Tibbles 1965

Al-Wasiti 1975

         
         

8-33 The Paigles Bloom

46

70

36

1

8-50 Green bushes & green trees

21

71

5

30

8-51 Where are my friends

37

72

26

24

8-52 Now Come The Balm

22

73

8

2

8-52 Like Satans Warcry

23

74

9

3

8-52 My Mind Is Dark

24

75

10

4

8-53 Song: Say What Is Love

 

76

11

16

8-54 What Is The Orphan Child

25

77

12

5

8-54 No Mothers Love

26

78

13

6

8-54 The Dog Can Find

27

79

14

7

8-55 But Providence

28

80

15

8

8-55 Sweet Rural Maids

29

81

16

9

8-56 How Doth Those Scenes

30

82

17

10

8-56 But Memory Left

31

83

18

11

8-56 For Loves However Dear

32

84

19

12

8-57 Ballad: The Blackbird

 

85

20

14

8-58 Yet Love Lives On

33

86

21

15

8-58/9 Ballad: The Rose

 

87

22

17

8-59 [Love?] is of heaven

34

88

23

18

8-59 Nature thou truth of heaven

35

89

24

19

8-61 There Is A Tale

36

90

25

13

8-61 The Dew falls on the weed

38

91

27

20

8-61 A soul within the heart

39

92

28

21

8-62 Flow on my verse

40

93

29

22

8-62 My themes be artless cots

41

94

30

23

8-62 I rest my wearied life

42

95

31

25

8-62/4 The apathy that fickle love

43

96

32

26

8-64/5 Song: I saw her in my

 

97

33

27

8-65 O she was more then fair

44

98

34

28

8-65 Her looks was like

45

99

35

29

8-65/6 Hail solitude still Peace

47

100

37

31

8-66 Wrecked of all hopes

48

101

38

32

8-66 Sweet is the song of Birds

49

102

39

33

         
         

6-4 Many are poets

1

1

1

34

6-4/5 Ballad: Summer morning

 

2

2

35

6-5 & he who studies

2

3

3

36

6-5/6 Song: The sun has gone

 

4

4

37

6-6 Mary thou ace of hearts

3

5

6

38

6-6 Song: I’ve wandered*

 

6

40

53

6-6 Love is the main spring

4

7

7

39

6-6/7 Song: Heres where Mary*

 

8

41

54

6-7 My life hath been one love

5

9

42

40

6-7 Yet absence claims them

6

10

43

41

6-7 How servile is the task

7

11

44

42

6-7 How beautifull this hill

8

12

45

43

6-7/8 I sigh for one & two

9

13

46

44

6-8 Here is the chappel yard

10

14

47

45

6-8 I have had many loves

11

15

48

46

6-8 Cares gather round

12

16

49

47

6-8 Written in a Thunder storm

 

17

50

48

6-9 This twilight seems a veil

13

18

51

49

6-9 Remind me not

14

19

52

66

6-9 Life is to me a dream

15

20

53

50

6-9 Tie all my cares up

16

21

54

51

6-9 England my country

17

22

55

52

6-9/10 Friend of the friendless

18

23

56

57

6-10 For her for one

19

24

57

58

6-10 I loved her in all climes

20

25

58

59

6-10 Song: O Mary sing

 

26

59

55

6-11 Song: Lovely Mary

 

27

60

56

6-11 Now melancholly autumn

50

28

61

61

6-11 I love thee nature

51

29

62

62

6-11 Thus saith the great & high

52

30

63

70

6-12 That form from boyhood

53

31

64

60

6-12 Ballad: Sweet days

 

32

65

63

6-12 Tis pleasant now

54

33

66

65

6-12 Fame blazed upon me

55

34

67

68

6-12/13 Though they are blazoned

56

35

68

69

6-13 Song: Dying gales

 

36

69

71

6-13/14 Song: The spring may

 

37

70

72

6-14 Song: No single hour

 

38

71

73

6-14 Now harvest smiles

57

39

72**

64

6-14 This life is made of lying

58

40

74

67

6-15 Song: They near read

 

41

75

78

6-15/16 Song: Did I know where

 

42

76

79

6-16 Dull must that being live

59

43

77

74

6-16 After long absence

60

44

78

75

6-16 So on he lives in glooms

61

45

79

76

6-17 & yet not parted

62

46

80

77

6-17 Song: O Mary dear

 

47

81

81

6-17 The autumn morn

63

48

82

80

6-17/18 Song: Tis autumn now

 

49

83

82

6-18 Sweet comes the misty

64

50

84

83

6-18 What mellowness

66

51

85

84

6-18 The meadow flags

65

52

86

85

6-18 About the medows now

67

53

87

86

6-19 Sweet solitude thou partner

68

54

88

87

6-19 For in that hamlet lives

69

55

89

88

6-19 Song: Heres a health

 

56

90

89

6-19 The blackbird startles

70

57

91

90

6-20 Song: Her cheeks are like

 

58

  91

6-22 Honesty & good intentions

 

59

   

6-36 The lightenings vivid flashes

71

60

92

92

6-36 A shock, a moment

72

61

93

93

6-36 The towering willow

73

62

94

94

6-36/7 The lake that held a mirror

74

63

95

95

6-37 Song: The floods come

 

64

96

96

6-37 Abscence in love

75

65

97

97

6-45 Song: I think of thee

76

66

98

98

6-45 Tis winter & the fields

77

67

99

100

6-45/9 Song: Thourt dearest

 

68

 

99

6-57/8 Song: In this cold world

 

69

100

101

* These two songs also appear on 6-1.

** At this point, the Tibbles include a stanza from MS 10-91, ‘In cant & mystery’ (no.73 in their sequence).

In a number of instances, as even a quick scanning of this table shows, editors are agreed about certain ‘runs’ of stanzas. But the position of those sequences within the poem as a whole is often very different. As a result, the actual experience of reading Child Harold is radically changed from one edition to another. You can, for example, read one version that is only three-quarters the length of the others, its narrative time consequently foreshortened. You can begin reading with either of two stanzas (‘Many are poets’ or ‘The Paigles Bloom’), and end with any of three (‘Tis winter’, ‘Sweet is the song of Birds’ or ‘In this cold world’). You can encounter final lines that draw into an imaginatively persuasive closure, or into a seemingly random sequence of images (5). You can select a single stanza (‘The Paigles Bloom’, say) and encounter it as no. 46, or 70, or 36, or 1, in the sequence you read. Alternatively, you can identify the mid-point of the sequence (no. 50) and find that it begins ‘Now melancholly autumn’, or ‘Sweet comes the misty mornings’, or ‘Written in a Thunder storm’, or ‘Life is to me a dream’. You can fix upon what seems the steady drum-beat of the four seasons, and then realise that its sound pulses regularly, intermittently, sporadically, or not at all. More and more, it may seem, this is less a theme with variations than entirely different pieces of music.
       
The fact that an ostensibly single entity entitled Child Harold can so easily atomise into a series of separate Child Harolds is not unique to this text. In fact, Child Harold points to a resonant debate that sounds throughout Clare’s work, and indeed far beyond. Untheorised though almost all editions of Clare have been, they have nevertheless revealed one or other of two fundamentally different ways of perceiving, and presenting, literary works. In one camp have stood the textual purists, believing in the authority and sanctity of a definitive text, which it is the editor’s foremost task to retrieve and protect. Such a view, as Douglas Mack points out, can be argued to derive from what are recognisably Romantic assumptions: ‘that a canonical text is, as it were, the inspired utterance of the Poet-as-Prophet’ (6). Such inspired utterance, however much mis-spelt or unpunctuated or otherwise unpolished, is the closest, most authentic, ‘purest’ version of the poet’s imagination. As a corollary of this view, the more such a text is expelled from Eden—the more it becomes contaminated by the intervention of grammarians and copy-editors, compositors and publishers—the more corrupted it becomes. To the followers of the other camp, however, the expulsion from Eden is not a corruption but a maturation. In Jerome McGann’s words, any poem has to be ‘train[ed]…for its appearances in the world.’ (7) And the process of its training involves a socialisation in which the co-operative effort of editors and printers, critics and proof-readers, is acknowledged and endorsed. Just as a play, after the crucial text has been created, requires the major support of actors and directors, lighting engineers and designers, so too a poem needs similar influences and contributions before it can complete the process of its ‘education’ into the world.
       
It will not be difficult to place the editions and editors mentioned above in one or other of these two camps. And at first sight, the differences in approach between them might seem to make for a vigorous and saving pluralism. As different positions are argued, assimilated, modified, and replaced by further perceptions, critical understanding is challenged and advanced (8). During the 70s, 80s and 90s, such pluralism could well have generated a number of different published versions of Child Harold:

• a ‘reading text’ following ‘normal’ grammar, with mis-spellings corrected, ampersands expanded, and light or normal punctuation added;

• a textually accurate version, retaining all the solecisms, but placing the spring and early summer drafts before the later copy;

• a version with a copy of the holograph manuscript on verso pages, and an exact transcription (down to the size of Clare’s print, his line divisions in prose, and so forth) on recto pages; (9)

• a textually ‘primitive’, chronological version, contextualising the poem by placing it alongside the other poetry and prose written during 1841; (10)

• a variorum edition, with drafts of the poem presented on verso pages and later copies aligned on corresponding recto pages;

• ‘multi-media’ versions, imaginatively adapted for film, or radio, or stage, or music, or photography, or painting.

The number of these variants, far from being unusual, would in fact be small compared with other Romantic poets. Since 1970, to take a single example, Wordsworth’s poetry has been differently presented by Abrams, Brett, Curtis, Darlington, Gill, Hobsbaum, Jones, Jordan, Ketcham, Landon, Maxwell, Owen, Parrish, Wordsworth, Wu—to name but fifteen editors. Keats’s poetry and letters, to take another instance, have been variously edited by Allott, Barnard, Cook, Gillham, Gittings, Roe, Rollins, and Stillinger, to name but eight—and comparable lists could be cited for Blake and Coleridge, Byron and Shelley, as well as other Romantic writers. Whatever the textual bias of each version, the prevailing impression generated by such a wealth of editions over a generation is of dynamic and comprehensive debate—of editorial discussion that may occasionally be acrimonious, but which is always alive, and which is ultimately both generous and renewing. In the case of Clare, however, this kind of pluralism has not occurred. With Child Harold, richness of perspective has been replaced by a single view: that of the 1964 Robinson and Summerfield (and then Robinson and Powell) version. A textual Eden has been preserved in amber for over a generation.
       
A major reason why this single view should have prevailed for thirty-five years is not hard to discover. Since 1965, the copyright in almost all of Clare’s published and unpublished work has been claimed by one of the Vice-Presidents of the Clare Society, Eric Robinson, who explicitly, publicly, and consistently affirms his ownership of this crucial aspect of Clare’s texts. ‘Permission’ to publish can be ‘authorised’ only by him or by his agents, to the extent of his authorisation even prefacing a text edited by himself (11). Those who publish without such permission (and Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, Raymond Williams and Margaret Drabble have been among those arraigned) are taken to task and required to acknowledge copyright. The moral appropriateness of such arrogation has long been questioned; and the ironies (to phrase the matter gently) of any claim to own a poet who so tellingly damned all manifestations of ‘property’, ‘possession’ and ‘enclosure’, have been widely recognised. But within the last two years, generalised dissatisfaction has taken on a sharper edge. Hugh Haughton’s vigorous and persuasive review essay in the 1998 Journal (12), challenging many of the critical and ideological assumptions behind the copyright claim, has now been followed by Simon Kovesi’s courageous ‘unauthorised’ edition of Clare’s Love Poems (13). Major articles about the copyright issue have appeared in the national press, as well as extensive coverage in local newspapers (14). Whilst many writers have acknowledged Robinson’s lifetime achievement in editing Clare—an achievement that deserves every applause—none to my knowledge has supported his continuing claim to copyright, or to the control that is thereby exercised. The legal reality of an incontrovertible and inviolable ‘ownership’ is more and more coming into question—a question that may even yet be decided only in the courts.
       
It is not usual for an article of this kind to introduce such material into its argument. But that very unusualness serves only to demonstrate how much the copyright claim has politicised our view of Child Harold, just as it has politicised our view of all Clare. For the kind of textual primitivism espoused by Robinson and his fellow editors in the OET editions and elsewhere, has not simply been a neutral, intellectual position, to be tested in the open market against contrasting views that enjoy equally unfettered expression. Textual primitivism has itself become a powerful agent of critical and emotional enclosure, channelling into a single editorial perspective the ways in which readers of Clare may perceive and respond. It is of course impossible to know the private impact of such control—how much self-imposed censorship may have occurred, for example, as potential commentators or editors in the last three decades have reflected, ‘There’s something I want to say about Clare; but it’s not worth the trouble of trying to say it.’ What can be more publicly discerned, however, is the impoverishment of editorial debate compared with other Romantic writers, the absence of challenging alternative views, the deadening hand of the authorised ‘definitive version’. It should not need a post-modernist sensibility to recognise that no such version of Child Harold can ever exist, or indeed that Clare would ever have comprehended the notion. His own sense of his text was far more fluctuating:

I am sorry to say that my writings are in such a disordered state that I am not able to do any thing with them when I was well & a thought struck me I wrote it down on a scrap of paper & when I wished to correct them I stiched these scraps together & found the beginning of even a Sonnet at one end of the book & the end at the other (15)

Despite the moving attempt reported here to fashion some kind of editorial coherence out of his manuscripts, Clare’s realisation of the uncertainty of his texts resonates more strongly. In this shifting light, the single Child Harold becomes what it always was, plural Child Harolds; and no attempt to fix the light on the poem at a single angle can ever ultimately succeed. Indeed, any attempt to control or perpetrate a single view can only make Clare less and less authentic, less and less authoritative, by stifling the imaginative variousness that he expresses. For a generation, the editorial landscape of Clare studies has been static, single, and enclosed. It is only when it becomes fluid, shifting and mobile that it will actually achieve an enduring authority and authenticity. The millennium would be a good year to start.

Author's Email: chilcott@globalnet.co.uk


NOTES

1. By 1841, John Taylor had long ceased to act as Clare’s publisher; and it would be four years before W.F. Knight, the House Steward at Northampton Asylum, encountered and began to transcribe his work in 1845.
2. This article focusses only upon the ‘full-length’ versions of Child Harold that have appeared, although several editions present extracts of varying content and length.
3. Cathy Taylor notes and develops these details in her doctoral dissertation ‘"The Resurrection of Child Harold": a Transcription of Nor, MS6. and a Reconsideration of John Clare’s Child Harold and Related Writings’, University of York, 1999, pp. 20-1. I am indebted to Dr Taylor’s account of the textual history of Child Harold (pp. 20-39), as well as her generosity in sharing perceptions and material.
4. See, for example, ‘What conflicts arose within him when he saw that his fantasies of fame and fortune were never to be realized? If our disappointments as editors in our struggles to obtain full recognition for him are bitter, how much greater his own must have been!’ (By Himself, p. xi); ‘It is an education in the marvels of the human will to work among Clare’s MSS, preserved for posterity by the burgesses of Peterborough and Northampton…’ (Early Poems, I, p. ix); ‘…we have come to this decision in the light of two separate lifetimes dedicated to the honour of Clare’s work’ (ibid., p. xii); ‘…most of the time [Professor Robinson] has been obliged to work in rooms ill-lit by natural light’ (ibid., p. xxiv).
5. Compare the impact of ‘Song: In this cold world’, which moves to a coherent, if despairing, realisation that ‘abscent Mary long hath left / My heart without a home’ (Tibbles and Al-Wasiti versions), with that of ‘Sweet is the song of Birds’, which simply stops the poem with an entirely unexpected image ‘the splendid palace seems the gates of hell’ (Robinson, Summerfield and Powell versions).
6. ‘Editing Different Versions of Romantic Texts’, Yearbook of English Studies, 29 (1999), 176.
7. A Critique of Modern Textual Criticism (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1983), p. 51.
8. For a similar argument, interestingly couched in terms of Hegelian thesis/antithesis/synthesis, see Jonathan Bate’s review of Poems of the Middle Period, vols. 3 and 4, in JCSJ, 18 (1999), 81-3.
9. Such a version of the MS 6 copy of Child Harold has now been persuasively presented in Taylor (see n. 3 above)
.
10. This version of Child Harold has now been presented in my John Clare: The Living Year 1841 (Nottingham: Trent Editions, 1999).
11. See the verso of the title page in By Himself. Mark Storey comments briefly upon such self-authorisation in his review of this edition (JCSJ, 16 [1997], 83-5).
12. ‘Revision and Romantic Authorship: The Case of Clare’, 65-73.
13. Bangkok: M & C Services Company, 1999.
14. See The Independent (10 July 1999), Nottingham Evening Post (21 July 1999), Peterborough Evening Telegraph (6 August 1999), Times Higher Education Supplement (13 August, and correspondence 20 August 1999).
15. The Letters of John Clare, ed. Mark Storey (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985), 626. Storey dates this account to the period [1834-5].