Yesterday I was musing about John Clare's poetry, and in particular the poem Emmonsails Heath In Winter. I've been looking at it again today, and several things strike me.
One (of course), is Clare's unorthodox use of English, such as "oddling crow in idle motion swing", which would seem to demand an "s" on the end of "crow" or "swing". Clare, though, was resistant to any attempts to tidy up his poetry, preferring it to more accurately reflect his humble rural origins. It's possible that nowadays (it might well have happened back then) he'd get accused of being a 'professional peasant', or some such, and with some other writers that might have validity. With Clare, though, the poems are often so personal that the idiosyncratic grammar, syntax and diction is an essential part of the whole. Maybe his poems attract me because, in my own, I tend to use very regular English, something to do, no doubt, with having been in a job that pretty much demands the same for the last 15 years or so. Whatever, the important thing is that Clare makes his idiosyncracies work.
Linked to that is his use of dialect words. One here, "bumbarrels", immediately jumps out. In fact it's a term still used in some parts of the country for Long-tailed Tits, and has to do with their domed nests, but it absolutely begs to be used here. Can you imagine the line working, in any way, with the proper name?
Finally, I like the fact that, in nature poems such as this one, there's no visible attempt to press-gang the birds and animals into service as metaphors. Sometimes, often maybe, they are, but the reader is allowed to do that work, to impose their own meaning on them. Clare simply gets on with observing very acutely. I like the use of the last two birds mentioned. Fieldfares are not only emblematic of the freezing English countryside (and the fields round here are still full of them in winter), they're one of the few birds that seem to actively like winter, standing there with their chests puffed out defiantly. Of course, coming from Scandinavia, our puny winters are probably something to be laughed at. The "coy bumbarrels", on the other hand, are the sort of small birds that suffer terribly in bad weather, and which band together to survive, often relying on each other's body heat to get through the cold nights. Whenever I read the poem I find myself thinking that maybe Clare was identifying himself with both birds - the Fieldfare he'd like to be, taking whatever was thrown at him, and the Long-tailed Tits, at the mercy of a cruel world and doomed for certain if left isolated.