Inspired by the Great Outdoors

I am posting the following review of Ronnie's latest book in its entirety. The review is from the Church Times of 2nd February 2007. Ronnie writes a weekly column for the Church Times, "Word from Wormingford" in which Clare and his writings sometimes figure.

John Whale on the trials and wellsprings of a writer’s life
A Writer’s Day-Book Ronald Blythe
Trent Editions £9.99 (978-1-84233-124-8)

PILGRIMS to distant holy places long ago in search of healing will indeed have found it, Ronald Blythe suggests a touch mischievously: the job will have been done by exercise and fresh air. Several of these pieces (mostly published before in a variety of journals) are about the virtue of being out of doors with your lungs and your eyes open. Especially for the writer, argue Blythe’s examples.

Traherne, 17th-century Herefordshire cleric and mystic, discovered the kingdom of God “via the enchantments of nature”. Coleridge wrote all his best verse in a single year, 1797, at a village near the Somerset coast; the Quantocks, which he stumped to preach in Unitarian chapels, became for him “both a paradise and an oceanic border of terror”.

The three Powys brothers, sons and grandsons of the parsonage, wrote allegorically of the supernatural between the 20th century’s two world wars; at the heart of their work lay “a natural mysticism, that sensuous searching and probing of this life, this earth”.

John Clare, early-19th-century worker of the Northamptonshire soil, qualified as a poet “at the vast university of nature”. The phenomenon above all others in nature that brought him to stillness and contemplation was the bird’s-nest, secret, intimate, vulnerable.

Blythe has a special relation here. He is President of the John Clare Society; he carried a midsummer cushion, a turf stuck with wild flowers, from Wormingford to Westminster Abbey when Clare was commemorated in Poets’ Corner in 1989. “It weighed a ton,” Blythe remembers. (The publishers of this collection have their own Clare link. They are an imprint of Nottingham Trent University, which has a John Clare Lecture Theatre. The copy-editing skills of the new firm need a little honing.)

Though five of the pieces in the book are about Clare, other rural writers have the same sympathetic gaze played on them: Mary Russell Mitford, Francis Kilvert, Ted Hughes. Shrewd things are said, too, about letter-writers and the needs that impel them. This group includes Conrad, Baudelaire, Katherine Mansfield, Pound, Arnold Bennett, and Shaw. Altogether, Blythe’s reader gleans, like Ruth, in a rich field. Ruth’s Boaz was “a mighty man of wealth”; it is stored literary wealth, in particular, that makes a good diarist.

The life of a writer is not represented here as an easy one, even when nourished out of doors. A perceptive reading of another letter-writer, Virginia Woolf, fastens on her increasing difficulty in getting anything except letters down on paper. “This tension”, Blythe observes, “between the compulsion to work, the dread — and even the hatred — of the toil involved, and the fear of having nothing left inside is, of course, a common one to writers, probably the most common.”
It is a tension that, out of modesty and courtesy, is seldom even hinted at in “Word from Wormingford”.

John Whale is a former editor of the Church Times.

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