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Mad Poets in the Spring

ISSUE:  Spring 1927

The dew is on the thorn,
 And the primrose underneath
 Just agen the mossy root
Is smiling to the morn,

With its little brimming eye
 And its yellow rims so pale
 And its crimp and curdled leaf—
Who can pass its beauties by—

So sang a poet in the springtime—a springtime a little over a hundred years ago. Can you see him, small of stature, with wide eager eyes, a high forehead and long light fair hair falling down in wild tangles to his shoniders? He is in the poorest sort of peasant smock, and his hands are the unkempt scarred hands of a field laborer. He bows as he is introduced into your polite society, awkwardly, but with a proper deference, showing that he accepts your position and his own. Although he has been up to London once, in a borrowed overcoat to cover his stained smock frock: although he has met Lamb and Hood, Coleridge, Hazlitt and De Quincey: although Madame Vestris has recited at Covent Garden one of the verses from his newly published volume, and Rossini has set another to music, he is uncomplainingly aware that he is the son of a pauper farmer. But do not think it is the irrevocable humbleness of his lot that has brought the look of defeat into his agonized sensitive face. No, in 1820 in England one accepts the stratum of one’s birth as one accepts blue eyes or brown. It is the strain of physical overwork, of continual undernourishment, the terror and pressure of a domestic load too heavy for him to support, that is already casting a shadow of derangement across his face. He is only twenty-seven, and he has two aged parents, his wife and a rapidly increasing family to maintain, as an unskilled laborer. They all live in the wretched hut in which he himself was born. This then is John Clare, England’s “peasant poet,” for whom Mr. Taylor, his bland publisher, introducing his first volume, apologizes: “And although Poets in this country have seldom been fortunate men, yet he is, perhaps, the least favored by circumstances and the most destitute of friends of any who ever existed.”

Mr. Taylor has not overstated the case. John Clare, who knows every flower and weed and bird and insect of his native fields so well that his poems are not descriptions of reality so much as reality itself, loves them with such passionate and intimate completeness that he not infrequently forgets that there are human beings in the world. “Man I never did like, and woman has long since sickened me,” he wrote later in a letter to Dr. Allen. But the “white-nosed bee,” the “little chumbling mouse gnarling the dead weeds for her house,” the first sunbeam on the stream “split by the willows wavy grey,” the solitary crane winging lonely to the unfrozen dykes Cranking a jarring melancholy cry
Through the wild journey of the cheerless sky,
the baby blackbirds caught by a sudden shower … in a nest of love
Where the hedge the bramble hopples
Cried, cawed and stretched their necks above
With their down all hung with dropples,
into these sounds and sights he has transfused his very soul. Never before or since, in the history of English letters, has this peculiar merging of human consciousness been emotionalized with such delicate ardor or sung with such utter simplicity.

He watches insects—those “tiny loiterers on the barley’s beard,” “smoothing the velvet of the pale hedge-rose,” not as a scientist watches, deliberately, collecting facts; not as the moralist watches, seeking to find a lesson. He simply sees and loves the actual incidents of the actual fields, in his own particular part of England. He does not even select his material. He enumerates caressingly, beginning anywhere and stopping anywhere. Crimp-filled daisy, bright bronze buttercup
Freckt cowslip peeps, glit whins of morning dew.
He does not strive to be poetic or original. He merely recounts his loves, with naive and unforgettable exactitude. I found the poems in the fields
And only wrote them down,

he says.

The result of this exquisitely objective adoration is one of curious reality, and a handful of songs beyond all criticism because they are, in their own peculiar metier, unsurpassed.

John Clare’s early work was written during intervals between sheep-tending, gardening, working in a lime-kiln, and ditching in the fields, his latter ones in the Northampton Asylum where, after a long and losing struggle against poverty, drink, and disillusion, he was finally taken.

Perhaps all poets are a little mad. “So man’s insanity,” says Melville, “is heaven’s sense.” But here in this small group of poets we have the fascinating study of a definite aberration working through imaginations of excessive sensibility, and in each case the alchemy is different. When Clare’s broken and prematurely aged body was incarcerated in the asylum, his lyrical faculty was simultaneously liberated. A new joy springs into his verse. The conflict is over. He need no longer sorrow for his lost human love, or contend with overwhelming human difficulties. In the “silken bed and roomy painted hall” of his madness, he can watch the … little lambtoe bunches springs
In red tinged and begolden dye
Forever, and like China kings
They come, but never seem to die.

He can lie, with his head on a cushion of moss and muse that on such a velvet seat David sat and played his harp. And David’s crown has passed away
Yet poesy breathes his shepherd’s skill
His palace lost, and to this day,
The little moss is blooming still.

He has become a child again. His enfeebled body with its large head bowed over in the attitude of habitual thought is that of a broken field laborer, but his limpid soul is flowing into the stream of nature all around him, and is reflecting her beloved face. Once again he is the child who cries: The cowslips on the meadow lea
 How have I run for them!
I looked with wild and childish glee
 Upon each golden gem.
And when they bowed their heads so shy
I laughed, and thought they danced for joy.
The springtime of the year and the springtime of the race fuse in his mind. About the child who … could not die when fields were green,
For he loved the time too well,
he exclaims wonderingly: Infants, the children of the Spring!
 How can an infant die
When butterflies are on the wing,
 Green grass, and such a sky—
How can they die at spring?
The spring of 1837 brings madness to John Clare. And madness brings release. Except for brief periods of melancholy when he remembers   I am a sad and lonely hind.
Trees tell me so, day after day,
As slowly they wave in the wind,
he is gently content. He sits in a sunny alcove reading, or lies on the grass watching the bees “stroke their little legs across their wings,” and listening to “the water ruckling into waves.” It is here that he writes the final sublime lines which are included in every anthology of English poetry, and by which he is chiefly remembered by the casual reader, those lines ending

I long for scenes where man has never trod,
A place where women never smiled or wept;
There to abide with my creator GOD
And sleep as I in childhood gently slept,
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie
The grass below—above, the vaulted sky.

Nature, to John Clare, is not a symbol of anything else. It is the supreme and satisfying reality, and into this fragrant and absorbing reality he enters, as he leaves the world of men.

Was it in this same reality that another poet lived so long? William Blake’s birth was humble, his life was a close and continual struggle with poverty, and he wrote enchantingly of lambs and roses and “honied dew” and he was and still is considered quite mad by the majority of people. But the skyey madness that illuminated William Blake was different from the cloud which shut off John Clare from his fellows, just as Blake’s “lillies by the water fair” are of quite different texture and scent from John Clare’s primrose “with its crimp and curdled leaf.”

Blake was city born and city bred. With the exception of three years at Felpham and for occasional walks in the country with his beloved Kate—his “shadow of delight”—his human habitation was bound by the cramped yard in the rear of his house in the Hercules Buildings. But his human habitation was the least thing that interested William Blake. He could at any time, to use his own words, “enter into Noah’s rainbow and make a friend and a companion of one of these images of wonder which always entreat him to leave mortal things.” Living in one small room in which he and his wife ate, and slept, and together worked at his engraving and painting, he was continually surrounded by an innumerable host of angels singing “Everything that lives is holy,” of tender lambs in “clothing of delight,” of lions with “ruddy eyes that flow with tears of gold.” He saw these animals and flowers as clearly as John Clare saw his—for, as he explained: “Man’s perceptions are not bounded by organs of perception. He perceives more than sense (though ever so acute) can discover.” For one who believes “The imagination is not a State: it is the Human Existence itself,” or in even more metaphysical terms, “Imagination is the Divine Body of the Lord Jesus, blessed forever,” it is inevitable that all temporal objects should be merely symbols of eternal truths. Thus when Blake writes that Monks in Black gowns
Were walking the grounds
And binding with briars
My joys and desires,
he is not referring to any sharp and actual briar like the one that bit John Clare’s roughened fingers, but to a thorny symbol of man’s harsh prohibitions. When he writes of the lamb and the cloud and the tiger and the clod, he uses them quite simply as illustrations of divine attributes. He observes as vividly and as naively as Clare, but his perceptions are, as he expresses it, “through the eye, not with it.” He delineates what he sees with the same concrete exactitude, but what he sees is the essence.

For double the vision my eyes do see,
And a double vision is always with me.
With my inward eye ’tis an old man gray
With my outward a thistle across my way.

Not that Blake is a moralist. The moralist is concerned with good and evil, right and wrong conduct. Blake is far beyond that entire region of thought. It is being, not action, that interests him. He does not worship good or condemn evil. He worships energy, the parent fire of life, “because the soul of sweet delight can never be defil’d.” His poetry is a clear and passionate affirmation of that sublime, that God-intoxicated energy. It expresses itself in “the ruddy limbs and flaming hair” of youth, in the “lily white that shall love delight,” and in the unveiling of the naked soul. What he says of his painting could be as well applied to his poetry. “But as I cannot paint Dirty rags and old Shoes where I ought to place Naked Beauty or simple ornament, I despair of ever pleasing one Class of Men.”

Like the great parables, the best of Blake’s poetry, the lyrics, may be read by a child or a philosopher. If the sun and moon should doubt
They’d immediately go out
may be regarded as a nursery couplet or as a truth of more possible significance than the Einstein theory. (“God forbid,” he said, “that truth should be confined to mathematical demonstration. He who does not know truth at sight is not worthy of her notice.”) For those who choose to hold to the nursery couplet interpretation, naturally Blake is merely a silly old gaffer.

The spring that comes to such a soul as this is necessarily a rapturous spiritual manifestation rather than a natural phenomenon.

  Such pleasure as the teeming earth
  Doth take in easy nature’s birth
When she puts forth the life of everything;
  And in a dew of sweetest rain
  She lies delivered without pain
Of the prime beauty of the year, the spring.

Was Blake mad? Is a man who speaks quite casually of God “putting his head to the window,” who gently insists that he frequently sees and converses with Dante, Voltaire, Jesus Christ and Milton, who says “I write when commanded by the spirits, and the moment I have written I see the words fly about the room in all directions. It is then published and the spirits can read”—is such a man mad?

Is a man who writes in a letter to a friend: “I am more famed in Heaven for my works than I could well conceive. In my brain are studies and chambers filled with books and pictures of old, which I wrote and painted in ages of eternity before my mortal life; and those works are the delight and study of archangels—” is such a man mad? Certain it is that he who utters such wild rhapsodies will be for popular convenience so classified. Thus we find the critics, both of his day and ours, referring to him as “an insane man of genius.” Thus we find his friends calling him “the gentle visionary Blake.” Thus we hear even his faithful wife occasionally complaining that “Mr. Blake was incessantly away in Paradise.”

Was Blake mad? Yes, if a fiery ecstasy of imagination, an oblivion to worldly things, an absorption in the inner life of the mind and an absolutely literal belief in those things which all Christians “profess” to believe, are signs of derangement. Yes, if to live in barest poverty and to declare “I want for nothing” and to die singing are proofs, then William Blake was mad. The springtime that he celebrates in his “Songs of Innocence” is not the springtime that we know or that John Clare knew. It is the Springtime from on High, revealed only to those “gentle souls who guide the great wine-press of Love.”

How comes the spring to another mad poet? The Irish spring, tender and mystic? The breeze that is ruffling the grasses about John Clare’s feet, this self-same breeze, tainted with dust from Dublin streets and odors from Dublin gutters, is eddying around a strange gliding figure, wholly oblivious to its touch. Who is this man in a tight threadbare coat buttoned closely up to his chin, a quaint crazy steeple-shaped hat like a witch’s and with umbrella clutched under his arm? His delicate face is corpse-like, the intellectual features withered, the fine hair bleached almost white. Only his eyes, extraordinarily blue and glittering, proclaim his vitality.

He darts into an open door, that of the University of Dublin, and as we follow him we remember the brief outlines of his history. Born into poverty thirty wretched years ago, he has been a copyist in a scrivener’s office for seven weary years. He has been an attorney’s clerk; with very little education, and a mother and sister to support, he has contributed to the Irish magazines and Penny Journals —never to British publications, being a passionate Papist and a rebel—and has somehow managed to teach himself many foreign languages and acquire an extensive and pe-cniiar culture. At last, given employment in the University Library at Dublin, he spends all his spare hours where we shall now find him, perched spectre-like on the top of a ladder in some recess of the building, a large book in his arms, and his soul in the book.

How comes the spring to this strange abstracted scholar? It comes as winter comes, as summer comes. Without joy, without hope. He who has longed to travel and has never left Ireland nor ever will, he who loves the country and has never been farther than the hills of Wicklow, has chartered other passage to other realms. His only travels are when with the aid of his blessed opium he drifts away entirely from the purgatory of earth, in strange wild voyages whose return is agony.

And visions of all brilliant hues
   Lap my lost soul in gladness
     Until I wake again
And the dark lava-fires of madness
   Once more sweep through my brain.

What is there about this obscure eccentric with his pallid face, sitting high on a ladder, devouring an ancient Spanish tome, that has become so inextricably fused with English poetry? Not his wretchedness. Fearful as his sufferings have been and are destined to be, suffering alone does not entitle one to immortality. Not his polyglot culture, remarkable as that is. But the luxuriance and beauty of the dream-world in which he lives, and the undefiled sweetness of his nature. Beaten by circumstances which were too much for his peculiar temperament, James Clarence Man-gan was wrecked in health and morale by the time he was thirty. From then until he died at forty-six, his material existence was nothing but a torturing treadmill of life-in-death, and he was always humble, affectionate and prayerful. He never envied others their good fortune, or blamed his own lack of it on anyone but himself. He died apologizing for the trouble he was making.

The reader may find it all in his poetry: the physical misery, the mental versatility, the spiritual sensitiveness, and the poetic facility. He will find these things in the fervidly patriotic ballads of Ireland which have always kept Man-gan dear to Irish hearts. He will find them in the “translations” from the Spanish, German, “Coptic,” Persian and what-not—”translations” which portray not only Mangan’s familiarity with foreign tongues but also his shrewd knowledge that his own verse would command a readier market under such spurious guise. And he will find the record of a terrified and yet undefiant human consciousness enduring the torments of intermittent madness, a record of the soul
The startled soul, upbounding from the mire
Of earthliness and all alive with fears
Unsmothered by the lethargy of years.
Unlike Blake and Clare, Mangan was not considered mad by his contemporaries, and he has almost entirely escaped the present-day psycho-analytical critic. Our chief authority for deciding that he was a pathological case is himself. A wild note of derangement tears through all he wrote like a yell. I see black dragons mount the sky
 I see earth yawn beneath my feet
I feel within the asp, the worm,
 That will not sleep and can not die.
“The Groans of Despair,” “The Song of a Maniac,” “Four Idiot Brothers”—the very titles of these poems are revealing. Everywhere are scattered references to the heart, yearning, “in its lucid moods, To Thee alone”—references to being cruelly robbed of “brains and bread and glory” by the fiend of his own disorder and weakness.

His preoccupation with the subject is more painful because more subjective than even Poe’s. In his most powerful ballad, “The Nameless One,” he achieves the apotheosis of his art and of his suffering. Here is the supreme terror of demoralized emotion depicted by a powerful mind just about to crack. Like John Clare’s “I Am,” Mangan’s “The Nameless One,” is in every anthology of English verse. It is a spectacular masterpiece of despair. But for those whose ears are tuned to catch a smothered cry, there are other lines even more mournfully revealing. In one of those moments when the poor city-dweller was hurriedly aware that somewhere outside of Dublin’s dust and racket there were spring-time flowers and the song of birds, he groans:

But when shall rest be mine? Alas!
 When first the winter wands shall wave
The pale wild flowers and long dark grass
 Above mine unremembered grave.

No summary of poets of madness could be complete without the following sonnet, “To One in Bedlam.”

With delicate, mad hands, behind his sordid bars.
Surely he hath his posies, which they tear and twine;
Those scentless strips of straw, that miserably line
His strait, caged universe, whereat the dull world stares,

Pedant and pitiful. O, how his rapt gaze wars
With their stupidity! Know they what dreams divine
Lift his long, laughing reveries like enchaunted wine,
And make his melancholy germane to the stars?

O lamentable brother! if those pity thee,
Am I not fain of all thy lone eyes promise me;
Half a fool’s kingdom, far from men who sow and reap,
All their days, vanity? Better than mortal flowers,
Thy moon-kissed roses seem: better than love or sleep,
The star-crowned solitude of thine oblivious hours!

The man who wrote this is a figure slighter, frailer, younger than the others. He has none of Clare’s worshipful absorption in nature, none of Blake’s exaltation, none of Mangan’s emotional weight. He is a delicate shy youth with a look and manner of pathetic charm. His face is that of “an archangel slightly damaged,” his voice and gestures exquisitely refined, and his clothes decidedly dilapidated. He is Ernest Dowson, one of the weaker and yet curiously persistent personalities in the English poetry of the nineties.

While he succeeded in being very completely and very constantly miserable during his thirty-three years of life, this misery was in no way caused by unkind circumstances of birth or of fortune. He was well-educated, although irregularly so. Frequently shabby and even hungry, he was never entirely without funds. Never robust, he had sufficient strength for a normal existence, had he desired one. He wasted them all—his strength, his money, and his social opportunities. The only thing that he honored was his art, and for that he had a pure and ambitionless reverence, and, from that ash, has grown the small white immortelle of his remembrance.

Dowson had dallied with hashish in Oxford, but later he concentrated with a fidelity deserving a worthier mistress, upon alcohol. When sober he was one of the most charming figures in the literary circle of his day. When drunk he was an irresponsible madman. More definitely than most alcoholics, more definitely than most poets, he was the victim of dual personality. To the consummately artistic blending of these two divergent consciousnesses, “To One in Bedlam” owes its unique value.

Dowson lacked the intellectual vigor that distinguished Clare and Blake and Mangan* He possessed to an abnormal and intensified degree their sensibility. It was this tortured sensibility that drove him, when his dreams eluded him, into sordid surroundings and grossest human contacts. In England he lived by preference in a mouldering house near an old dock. In Paris it was Les Halles, and in Dieppe, the squalid harbor dives, that were the haunts of that romantic figure, with his fastidious face, his yearning body and his diction so choice and harmonious that even now, twenty-seven years after it has been silent in death, it still echoes in the ears that heard it.

“There was never a simpler or more attaching charm,” writes Arthur Symons, who knew him, “because there was never a simpler or more honest nature. It was not because he ever said anything particularly clever or particularly interesting, it was not because he gave you ideas, or impressed you by any strength or originality that you liked to be with him; but because of a certain engaging quality which seemed unconscious of itself, which was never anxious to be or do anything, which simply existed as perfume exists in a flower.”

Why do we in America, far away in time and in space, remember this plaintive and picturesque young man? Because it is spring, when the oldest poets stir again the embers of their drowsy fires, when new poets unfold on every side like violets over night, and when all youth that is not improvising its own verse is quoting some poet’s.

During a certain spring a little over thirty years ago, the literati of England and America were avowing in rapt unison

  I am desolate and sick of an old passion,
   Yea, hungry for the lips of my desire:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

For one year, for two, even for three, the intoxicating lines were chanted, and Dowson’s delicate features and demoralized existence became a fetish. And even now, through the roar of violent modern free verse, the clamor of new voices, and the resuscitation of old, there still persists the note of his fluid and reticent song,

I have forgot much, Cynara! gone with the wind,
Flung roses, roses riotously with the throng,
Dancing, to put thy pale, lost lilies out of mind;
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
 Yea, all the time, because the dance was long:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

As a patch of ephemeral bright flowers will suddenly every spring brush the side of an immemorial hill, in the selfsame spot, and with the selfsame fleeting enchantment, so always every spring there will be new discoveries of Cynara.

Dowson was not a lover or even an observer of Nature. She was for him only a dreamy symbol of sentiment. “No roses are pale enough for me,” he sighs. But he is a poet of springtime, because he is a poet of youth. His misery is of exquisite ^substantiality, just as his squalor is a perversion of refinement. He joins our little group because he was, in his frail fashion, a pure poet: because he was kin to those in whose blood madness flies, and because he is bound by the most impalpable of threads to the enduring poetry of spring.


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