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My First was dark o'er earth and air,
As dark as she could be!
Were only two or three:
As you or I could see.
"Away, King Cole," mine hostess said,"Flagon and flask are dry;
Sir Hilary charged at Agincourt,—
Sooth 'twas an awful day!
Had little time to pray,
My First to all the brave and proud
Who see to-morrow's sun;
Before to-day's be done;
This charade is still a mystery to me. Solve it, fair readers
i 11 i i
Nearly at the same period when Macaulay and Praed sprang into public life, the world of letters was startled by the announcement of a new poet, a Northamptonshire peasant, whose claims to distinction were vouched for by judges of no ordinary sagacity, little given to mistake, and by no means addicted to enthusiasm. His character was blameless and amiable. Although of a frame little suited to severity of toil, he had for many years supported his aged parents by manual labor, and in bringing his powers into the light of day, he had undergone more than the ordinary amount of delay, of suspense, of disappointment, and of "the hope deferred that maketh the heart sick."
From the prefaces to his three publications, the "Poems, Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery," "The Village Minstrel," and " The Rural Muse," his early history may be collected. At the age of thirteen, when he could read tolerably, and knew something of writing and arithmetic, he met, accidentally, with "Thomson's Seasons," a book which not only awakened in his mind the love of poetry, but led him at once to the kind of poetry in which, from situation and from natural aptitude, he was most likely to succeed. For another sixteen years his brief leisure was filled with attempts, more or less successful, to clothe, in the language of verse, his own feelings and observations. His chief trial, during this long probation, must have been his entire loneliness of mind—the absence of all companionship or sympathy. At this time he met with the "Patty" whom he afterward married, and, in the hope of improving his circumstances, began to consider seriously about publishing a small volume by subscription; and, having ascertained that the expense of three hundred copies of a prospectus would not be more than a pound, he set himself resolutely to work, and by hard labor, day and night, at length succeeded in accumulating the required sum.
"I distributed my papers," said the poor author, "but as I could get no way of pushing them into higher circles than those with whom I was acquainted, they consequently passed off as quietly as if they had still been in my possession, unprinted and not seen." For a long while the number of subscribers stood at seven. At length, however, a copy of the proposals won their way to London. Messrs. Taylor and Hessey gave twenty pounds for the Poems; and, what was far better for the author, contrived to obtain for them immediate publicity.
The little volume was striking in what it had and in what it wanted. The very struggle between original thought and imperfect expression sometimes resulted in happiness and beauty. One thing was certain: John Clare was no imitator. Persons of taste and generosity in the higher classes took him by the hand. Lord Exeter sent for him to Burleigh, and hearing that he earned thirty pounds per annum by field labor, settled an annuity of fifteen pounds upon him, with a view to his devoting half his time to agricultural occupations, and half to literary pursuits. This benevolent proposal, which sounds so hopefully, proved a notable failure, chiefly in consequence of our national failing of running after everything and everybody that has attained a sufficient portion of notoriety. Poor Clare became as great a lion as if he had committed two or three murders. He was frequently interrupted, as often as three times a day, during his labors in the harvest-field, to gratify the curiosity of admiring visitors; and a plan, excellent in its principle, was abandoned perforce. Other wealthy and liberal noblemen joined in the good work. Lord Spencer gave ten pounds per annum. A subscription was set on foot by Lord Radstock, to which the present King of the Belgians, Lord Fitzwilliam, and Lord John Russell contributed generously, and which, together with the profits of his works—for "The Village Minstrel" had now been published—realized for him altogether an annual income of five-and forty pounds. This appeared affluence to our poet, and he married.
Praised by the " Quarterly," and befriended by noble patrons and generous booksellers, his prospects seemed more than commonly smiling. His third publication, too,"The Rural Muse," in spite of its unpromising title, more than justified all that had been done for him. The improvement was most remarkable. That he should gain a greater command over language, a choicer selection of words, and the knowledge of grammatical construction, which he had wanted before, was to be expected; but the habit of observation seemed to have increased in fineness and accuracy in proportion as he gained the power of expression, and the delicacy of his sentiment kept pace with the music of his versification. What can be closer to nature than his description of the nightingale's nest?
Up this green woodland ride let's softly rove, And list the Nightingale; she dwells just here. Hush! let the wood-gate softly clap, for fear The noise might drive her from her home of love;For here I've heard her many a merry year, At morn, at eve, nay, all the livelong day, As though she lived on song. This very spot Just where that old-man's-beard all wildly trails Rude arbors o'er the road, and stops the way; And where the child its blue-bell flowers hath got, Laughing and creeping through the mossy rails;
There have I hunted like a very boy,
Creeping on hands and knees through matted thorn,
To find her nest, and see her feed her young,
And vainly did I many hours employ:
All seemed as hidden as a thought unborn.
And where those crumpling fern-leaves ramp among
The hazel's under boughs, I've nestled down
And watched her while she sang; and her renown
Hath made me marvel that so famed a bird
Should have no better dress than russet brown.
Her wings would tremble in her ecstasy,
And feathers stand on end, as 'twere with joy,
And mouth wide open to release her heart
Of its out-sobbing songs. The happiest part
Of Summer's fame she shared, for so to me
Did happy fancies shapen her employ.
But if I touched a bush, or scarcely stirred,
All in a moment stopt. I watched in vain:
The timid bird had left the hazel bush,
And oft in distance hid to sing again.
Lost in a wilderness of listening leaves,
Rich ecstasy would pour its luscious strain,
'Till envy spurred the emulating Thrush
To start less wild and scarce inferior songs;
For while of half the year Care him bereaves,
To damp the ardor of his speckled breast,
The Nightingale to Summer's life belongs,
And naked trees and Winter's nipping wrongs
Are strangers to her music and her rest.
Her joys are ever green, her world is wide!
Hark! there she is, as usual. Let's be hush;
For in this black-thorn clump, if rightly guessed,
Her curious house is hidden. Part aside
Those hazel branches in a gentle way,
And stoop right cautious 'neath the rustling boughs,
For we will have another search to-day,
And hunt this fern-strewn thorn-clump round and round
And where this reeded wood-grass idly bows
We'll wade right through; it is a likely nook.
In such like spots, and often on the ground
They'll build where rude boys never think to look;—
Ay, as I live! her secret nest is here
Upon this white-thorn stump! I've searched about
For hours in vain. There, put that bramble by,—
Nay, trample on its branches, and get near.
How subtile is the bird! She started out,
And raised a plaintive note of danger nigh
Ere we were past the brambles; and now, near
Her nest, she sudden stops, as choking fear
That might betray her home. So even now
We'll leave it as we found it; safety's guard
Of pathless solitudes shall keep it still.
***** * We will not plunder music of its dower, Nor turn this spot of happiness to thrall, For melody seems hid in every flower That blossoms near thy home. These bluebells all Seem bowing with the beautiful in song;And gaping cuckoo-flower, with spotted leaves, Seems blushing of the singing it has heard. How curious is the nest! No other bird Uses such loose materials, or weaves Its dwelling in such spots! Dead oaken leaves Are placed without, and velvet moss within. And little scraps of grass, and scant and spare, What hardly seem materials, down and hair;For from men's haunts she nothing seems to win.
Snug lie her curious eggs, in number five, Of deadened green, or rather olive-brown, And the old prickly thorn bush guards them well. So hero we'll leave them, still unknown to wrong, As the old woodland's legacy of song.