Thursday, March 20, 2008


To Be Happy At Home

According to Samuel Johnson, The Rambler 68 (Saturday, November 10, 1750),
The great end of prudence is to give cheerfulness to those hours, which splendour cannot gild, and acclamation cannot exhilarate; those soft intervals of unbended amusement, in which a man shrinks to his natural dimensions, and throws aside the ornaments or disguises, which he feels in privacy to be useless incumbrances, and to lose all effect when they become familiar. To be happy at home is the ultimate result of all ambition, the end to which every enterprise and labour tends, and of which every desire prompts the prosecution.
Whether or not John Clare ever read these words, I think he would have agreed that "to be happy at home" is the acme of bliss. Certainly his poem Home Happiness, published in The Rural Muse (London: Whittaker & Co., 1835), pp. 108-110, paints an attractive picture of domestic happiness, especially with its homely details, such as the cat cleaning her face with her foot and Clare's children making houses of cards:
Like a thing of the desert, alone in its glee,
I make a small home seem an empire to me;
Like a bird in the forest, whose world is its nest,
My home is my all, and the centre of rest.
Let Ambition stretch over the world at a stride,
Let the restless go rolling away with the tide,
I look on life's pleasures as follies at best,
And, like sunset, feel calm when I'm going to rest.

I sit by the fire, in the dark winter's night,
While the cat cleans her face with her foot in delight,
And the winds all a-cold, with rude clatter and din
Shake the windows, like robbers who want to come in;
Or else, from the cold to be hid and away,
By the bright burning fire see my children at play,
Making houses of cards, or a coach of a chair,
While I sit enjoying their happiness there.

I walk round the orchard on sweet summer eves,
And rub the perfume from the black-currant leaves,
Which, like the geranium, when touched, leave a smell
That lad's-love and sweet-briar can hardly excel.
I watch the plants grow, all begemmed with the shower,
That glitters like pearls in a sun-shiny hour;
And hear the pert robin just whistle a tune,
To cheer the lone hedger when labour is done.

Joys come like the grass in the fields springing there,
Without the mere toil of attention or care;
They come of themselves, like a star in the sky,
And the brighter they shine when the cloud passes by.
I wish but for little, and find it all there,
Where peace gives its faith to the home of the hare,
Who would else, overcome by her fears, run away
From the shade of the flower and the breeze of the day.

0 the out-of-door blessings of leisure for me!
Health, riches, and joy! — it includes them all three.
There Peace comes to me — I have faith in her smile —
She's my playmate in leisure, my comfort in toil;
There the short pasture-grass hides the lark on its nest,
Though scarcely so high as the grasshopper's breast;
And there its moss-ball hides the wild honey-bee,
And there joy in plenty grows riches for me.

Far away from the world, its delusions and snares —
Whose words are but breath, and its breathing but cares, —
Where trouble's sown thick as the dews of the morn,
One can scarce set a foot without meeting a thorn —
There are some view the world as a lightly thrown ball,
There are some look on cities like stones in a wall —
Nothing more. There are others, Ambition's proud heirs,
Of whom I have neither the courage nor cares.

So I sit on my bench, or enjoy in the shade
My toil as a pasture, while using the spade;
My fancy is free in her pleasure to stray,
Making voyages round the whole world in a day.
I gather home-comforts where cares never grew,
Like manna, the heavens rain down with the dew,
Till I see the tired hedger bend wearily by,
Then like a tired bird to my corner I fly.
But when Clare wrote these lines, he was living in a rented cottage in Northborough, and his dream was to have a cottage of his own. In Proposals for Building a Cottage, Clare gives precise directions to the imaginary builder:
Beside a runnel build my shed
Wi' stubbles coverd oer
Let broad oaks oer its chimney spread
And grass plats grace the door

The door may open wi a string
So that it closes tight
And locks woud be wanted things
To keep out thieves at night

A little garden not too fine
Inclosed wi painted pails
And wood bines round the cot to twine
Pind to the wall wi nails

Let hazels grow and spindling sedge
Bent bowering over head
Dig old mans beard from woodland hedge
To twine a summer shade

Beside the threshold sods provide
And build a summer seat
Plant sweet briar bushes by its side
And flowers that smelleth sweet

I love the sparrows ways to watch
Upon the cotters sheds
So here and there pull out the thatch
As they may hide their heads

And as the sweeping swallows stop
Their flights along the green
Leave holes within the chimney top
To paste their nest between

Stick shelves and cupboards round the hut
In all the holes and nooks
Nor in the corner fail to put
A cubboard for the books

Along the floor some sand Ill sift
To make it fit to live in
And then Ill thank ye for the gift
As something worth the giving
Clare's The Wish is too long to quote, but it repeats some of the details mentioned in Proposals for Building a Cottage, such as the bookcase (lines 45-56):
Near the fireside close fitted in the wall
I'de have a nice made cubboard not too small
Each shelf in breadth so uniformly pland
That books in eightvo size or more might stand
For this one use I'd have the cubboard made
Where none but choisest authors should be laid,
Such as Dermody Scott Macniel and Burn
With rural Bloomfield Templeman and Hurn
These are the authors that can boast the power
Of giving raptures in a leisure hour,
And tho I read some of them every night
Their songs near fail of adding fresh delight.
I've never read most of the authors Clare mentions. Scott I assume is Sir Walter Scott, and Burn might be Robert Burns. "Rural Bloomfield" is Robert Bloomfield (1766-1823), author of The Farmer's Boy (1800), and Hurn is David Hurn, author of Rural Rhymes (1813). Dermody is the Irish poet Thomas Dermody (1775-1802), whose works were posthumously published as The Harp of Erin. MacNiel is Hector McNiel (1746-1818), a Scots poet. Templeman may be James Templeman, who published three volumes of verse between 1808 and 1810. The only one of these in my bookcase is Burns.

In lines 205-213 of The Wish, Clare imagines how he would spend his day if his wish of a cottage of his own were to come true:
All I would do should be to view my grounds
And every morning take my daily rounds
To see that all was right and keep secure the bounds:
With trifling in the garden now and then
Which finds employment for the greatest men.
Each coming day the labour should renew
And this is all the labour I would do,
The other hours I'd spend in letterd ease
To read or study just as that might please.
Abraham Cowley also wrote a poem called The Wish, and the two poets shared many of the same desires (a cottage, a garden, "lettered ease", etc.). But in one important point they differed. Cowley wanted a solitude à deux:
How happy here should I
And one dear She live, and embracing die!
She who is all the world, and can exclude
In deserts solitude.
So, too, Keats in his Ode to Solitude wanted a companion and thought it must be
Almost the highest bliss of human kind,
When to thy haunts two kindred spirits flee.
But Clare in The Wish (lines 214-219) imagined that he would be happier without a wife:
This is the way my plan of life should be
Unmaried Happy in Contentment free.
For he that's pester'd with a noisey wife
Can neer enjoy that quietnes of life
That does to life belong—Therefore I'd ne'er
Let Hymen's torch within my cot appear.
On this disputed point, I cast my vote with Cowley and Keats against Clare.

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