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Transforming Nature with John Clare

This week, as the second in a five-part series of blog posts on poems that approach nature, Carl Phillips explores a poem by John Clare that dates back to before 1820.

To the Fox Fern

Haunter of woods, lone wilds and solitudes
Where none but feet of birds and things as wild
Doth print a foot track near, where summer’s light
Buried in boughs forgets its glare and round thy crimpèd leaves
Feints in a quiet dimness fit for musings                                                   5
And melancholy moods, with here and there
A golden thread of sunshine stealing through
The evening shadowy leaves that seem to creep
Like leisure in the shade.

—John Clare

From “I Am”: The Selected Poetry of John Clare, Jonathan Bate (ed.)
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003

From Charlotte Smith’s imagined madman of my last post, we travel to a poet who was indeed considered mad and who spent much of his life in an asylum. And yet this poem by John Clare shows the sensitivity to wilderness and the human ability to reason about it that elude Smith’s lunatic. Clare’s poem ostensibly celebrates the fox fern, is an homage to the plant’s existence. I say ostensibly, because the homage lasts only as long as the title and first line do. After that, it’s a description of a kind of wild solitude that the poem’s gaze stays with for its remaining eight lines. It’s as if the fox fern were merely the way in, toward what Clare really cares about, a space divorced entirely from human experience. In this way, the poem resonates with Smith’s, in their shared longing for an escape from the so-called civilization of human society in favor of a world unmarred by human reason, the thing that prevents humans from being at one with the wilderness.

It’s the diction, first, that turns this poem from mere portrait to sly argument. Clare describes the woods as a place “where none but feet of birds and things as wild” set foot, and attempts to present such a world as humanless. I’ll ignore the fact that some human has to have entered the woods and left tracks there, in order even to know of the fox fern’s existence, and I’ll go right to “forgets” in line 4—said of the light, which has no power to forget or remember: memory is a human property. Nor can the light “feint,” a verb that, as spelled, means to make a false move deliberately, in order to distract one’s opponent. It’s possible that Clare means “faints,” as a way of suggesting “grows faint,” but even in that case, notice how this all occurs in a “dimness fit for musings/And melancholy moods”—again, humans muse and experience melancholy. In the last two lines, Clare seems to recognize his earlier anthropomorphisms as inaccuracies, correctly stating that the leaves “seem to creep like leisure,” acknowledging that this is only how it seems, and that it is like leisure, not leisure itself, which leaves of course cannot know.

Clare’s diction, then, enacts the human impulse to see non-human things in human terms; or, perhaps more accurately, it manifests our inability to see differently, to understand other than through the particular human lenses of self-consciousness and reason. And these shut us out, ultimately, from nature. At the same time, I also read the attempt to anthropomorphize as an attempt at closeness, at approximating sameness—though to impose sameness is finally colonization. But who is the victor here? In a poem of 72 words, I find only six that attach to human experience. One way to see this is that the human is ultimately crowded out of—or overwhelmed by—the natural world, a minority to the wilderness’s majority.

That’s diction and word count. In terms of grammar the poem is one extended fragment—there’s nowhere a main verb. All verbs here are part of subordinate clauses; “summer’s light/Buried in boughs forgets its glare” would be a complete sentence, if it didn’t follow “where,” making it a relative clause. The same goes for “none but feet of birds and things as wild/Doth print a foot track near.” The presence of the word “that” makes “seems to creep,” in the penultimate line, again part of a relative clause: “The evening shadowy leaves that seem to creep.” What we have is the stability of the sentence reduced to the instability of the subordinate clause—less stable because dependent. All of this within the governing instability of the fragment that comprises the poem itself. For fragment, read wilderness; for sentence, read civilization. And grammatically, the poem becomes a portrait of the ongoing restlessness between the two as fragments strive toward sentences, as apparent sentences succumb to the fragment that any clause is.

This blog post is based on Foliage & Pattern, a talk Phillips gave at Poets House in the (6 x 5 = 30) series, where six poets each provided close readings of five seminal poems as part of Poets House’s 30th Anniversary season.

Carl Phillips is the author of 14 books of poetry, most recently Wild Is the Wind (2018). Other books include The Tether, winner of the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, and Double Shadow, winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. His prose books are The Art of Daring: Risk, Restlessness, Imagination (2014) and Coin of the Realm: Essays on the Life and Art of Poetry (2004), and he has translated Sophocles’s Philoctetes (2004). He is a professor in the English department at Washington University in St. Louis.

Posted In: Close Readings