John Clare and the folk tradition

George Deacon's thesis is that John Clare, the Northamptonshire poet, was a product of the folk tradition. His evidence for this is largely taken from the Clare manuscripts at Northampton and Peterborough Libraries. From these sources he has reproduced Clare's collections of song texts, his two tune-books for the fiddle, and relevant references in his poetry, autobiographical notes, and correspondence, including mention of customs. These records are prefaced by an important essay that successfully relates Clare's poetry to the oral tradition in which he grew up, in which he participated, and of which he was an observer. Deacon asserts, “His poetry has a musicaliiy redolent of the tunes he played and assiduously collected, while its rhythm and metre are as much a product of ballad and song as they are of a conscious attempt to innovate” (p. 10). The book is a tour de force, meticulously edited and annotated, and the remarks that follow should be seen in this context.

Without doubt John Clare was a remarkable man and his legacy provides us with a unique insight into the village culture of Helpston in the early nineteenth century. There is justification to Deacon's claim that Clare was almost certainly the first song collector in southern England, preceding John Broadwood by twenty or more years. Following the Scottish tradition of publishing ballad collections exemplified by Allan Cunningham, Tannahill, and Burns, Clare set about preparing his own. His primary source was his parents, but he also included songs from a shoemaker and a shepherd. Most of the fifty-two songs are unsourced, and many of these show the signs of Clare's own hand to a greater or lesser extent. While it is to be regretted that Clare's documentation is so sparse and that he has failed to distinguish between accurate oral record and his own input, we cannot overlook the fact that Clare was working from within the tradition. After all, if Clare had not been the poet, he would certainty never have bothered recording any songs, and we would have missed out on such classic items as ‘The Maid of Ocram Or Lord Gregory,' his version of' ‘Robin Hood Rescuing Three Squires,' or 'The False Knight's Tradegy'.

A review of George Deacon’s seminal book
“John Clare and the folk tradition”
Sinclair Browne (1983)
(Unknown Source)

The book is still available - click on the link on the left.

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