Mike Cooper

‘There is no accounting for Editors’

‘There is no accounting for Editors’: Marketing John Clare.

Of the major nineteenth-century British poets, John Clare (1793-1864) has taken longest to be accepted.   The reasons for his effective exclusion from the canon were founded in his class, in the practical difficulties this made for him in his attempts to be a writer and in the perceptions of his contemporaries, which compromised his status as a literary figure.   Without doubt, the literary market in 1820, the date of publication of his first collection Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery found his position puzzling.[1]     How to regard work by a scantily educated writer of rural origin?   Where to place him as a writer?   Was he a serious poet or merely a curiosity?

In this essay I shall be looking at some problems of publishing John Clare, from John Taylor, his first publisher,  to Eric Robinson, principal editor of the recently completed Clarendon Edition, a near complete traversal of Clare’s poetry.

I shall say something about how the work of John Clare came to the point of being considered for publication and  briefly indicate how Taylor’s dilemmas are produced again and again by the modern history of Clare editing.   Often, Clare realised the difficulties which stood in the way of his becoming a writer, including those arising from reader perception,  and I shall refer to attempts to address this which can be seen in his adroit handling of the range of skill and ability which he was able to deploy in the work he offered for publication in Poems Descriptive.   I shall demonstrate how his perception and ability made him special, forming and accomplishing his position as a different and attractive writer.

Attempts to influence and exploit the market could be only limited.   How the work of John Clare was received by the market was not decided by John Taylor and Clare, however skilful and determined.   It was decided by Clare’s potential readership, whose perceptions and preferences will be indicated by  reference to power related discourses of the day pertaining to perceived differences between different literary genres.   Discourses affecting reader perception of groups within society in general, like those about the perception of  poets in particular, were the major controls which operated to restrict reception of Clare and his work in the market place and I shall offer discussion of this function of readership.   Synergistically, these discourses were closely allied to views of the incidence of genius in creative writing and I shall demonstrate how Clare’s personal view and experience of genius was central to his self-presentation.   In a number of ways, it enabled him to experience some modification of the manner in which he was perceived and I shall examine the consequences of this  for attempts to publish the work of John Clare and for his initial literary reception.

[1] John Clare, Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery by John Clare a Northamptonshire Peasant (London: Printed for Taylor and Hessey, 1820)

Making Books, Shaping Readers

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