Clare's Enclosure

The poet John Clare died in the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum in 1864. During his lifetime he was known as 'the peasant poet', though he was not, strictly speaking, a peasant but a landless labourer, and lived in an era of social upheaval, enclosures and landless labour, when a landless labourer had even less rights than a peasant.

Clare was from a rural labouring family, and had little education, but is now recognized as the greatest English poet of nature, as important as his contemporaries, Keats, Byron and Shelley, of whom everybody has heard. As the critic Geoffrey Grigson wrote as long ago as 1949, "Clare has gradually been transformed from 'peasant poet' into poet, from cottage rushlight into what indeed he is, a star of considerable and most unique coruscation."

Clare ignored the rules of punctuation and spelling, probably as a consequence of the slightness of his education, and wrote: "I am gennerally understood tho I do not use that awkward squad of pointings called commas colons semicolons etc and for the very reason that altho they are drilled hourly daily and weekly by every boarding school Miss who pretends to gossip in correspondence they do not know their proper exercise for they even set grammarians at loggerheads and no one can assign them their proper places for give each a sentence to point and both shall point it differently."

The modern fashion for removing punctuation from poetry became popular with the French modernist poets, Apollinaire and Cendrars, in the early decades of the twentieth century, but Clare had his own untutored, and strangely modern, take on the rhythms and nuances of poetry and punctuation. Clare's lack of punctuation, and his feelings about it, are at the heart of the academic disputes that surround his work.

Clare was poor, and seldom had the wherewithal for the meagre tools of the trade. Before he gained his moment of fame he made the paper on which he wrote from the bark of birch, and ink from "a mix of bruised nut galls, green copper, and stone blue soaked in a pint and a half of rain-water" or wrote on the discarded scraps that were available to him. His texts are notoriously chaotic, hard to read and decipher, peppered with spelling mistakes and lapses of punctuation, and dotted with dialect words and phrases which have slipped from the language. His poems were written up and down the page, round the margins, and above and below his other texts. The ink was smudged and faded. For this reason editors and academics love to tinker with his diction and his punctuation.

Clare's first book sold well by the standards of his time, and outsold Keats by some margin, but his relative commercial success was short-lived, and he depended for his income on patrons, who sometimes over-edited and censored his material, so that they might "improve" his "uncouth" way with words and grammar. Much of his better poetry was written during the 23 years he spent in the lunatic asylum - "the purgatorial hell and French bastile of English liberty, where harmless people are trapped and tortured until they die", to which he was consigned after the collapse of his income and his sanity.

Most of his work, some 2700 poems, remained unpublished during his lifetime, and at the time of his death he was all but forgotten, despite the best efforts of his publisher, John Taylor.

But due to a quirk in English copyright law, 140 years after Clare's death, the ownership of the copyright to Clare's unpublished writings, (and the original manuscript copies of those that were published) is claimed as the sole property of one individual, Professor Eric Robinson, who purchased the rights for a £1 in July, 1965. This has been a point of contention among Clare scholars and publishers for the last 40 years.

"On paths to freedom & to childhood dear
A board sticks up to notice 'no road here'
& on the tree with ivy over hung
The hated sign by vulgar taste is hung"

At the time of Clare's death the ownership of Clare's unpublished work was passed to James Whitaker, best known as the creator of Whitaker's Almanac, with the intention of producing a posthumous collection of Clare's unpublished work.

Whitaker made a "provisional bargain", presumably verbal, with the dying John Taylor in May 1864, to pay Clare's widow, who could neither read nor write, £10 a year for Clare's manuscripts and publication rights. Later the same year he signed an agreement with Clare's widow and her children for the transfer of their rights to Clare's copyrights. This agreement, discovered in the archive of the Whitaker publishing house in 1932, was destroyed with the rest of the archive during the London blitz eight years later.

Whitaker's edition of Clare never appeared, and he transferred the bulk of the surviving manuscripts (and, it was assumed by some, the copyright) to the care of the Peterborough Museum Society before his death in 1895. No edition of Clare published between Whitaker's death and Robinson's purchase of "all rights whatsoever possessed by the company in the published and unpublished works of John Clare" in 1965, acknowledged any copyright holder.

In English law, under the 1842 Copyright Act, an author, or after his death his personal representative, retained perpetual control over his work as long as it remained unpublished. This clause remained in force until it was finally replaced in the 1988 Act with a finite, 50-year term of protection (made potentially extendable by a further 25 years in a 1996 Act).

Although Robinson has contributed much to Clare scholarship over the last half-century, his claims to the ownership of Clare's legacy has caused much controversy. According to John Goodridge, writing in the Guardian in 2000, Robinson "has enforced this claim, demanding acknowledgment and often payment from anyone who wishes to publish Clare material." Simon Kovesi was threatened with legal action for publishing an unauthorised edition of Clare's Love Poems, which he eventually published in Bangkok, beyond the reach of English copyright law. In the view of Tim Chilcott, a leading Clare scholar, as quoted by Goodridge, the effect has been 'the impoverishment of editorial debate compared with other Romantic writers, the absence of challenging alternative views, the deadening hand of the authorised definitive version.'"

A core concern of Clare's poetry was the disruption to the traditional patterns of life caused by the enclosures of the English commons. Like Gerard Winstanley, Clare believed the earth to be a "common treasury for all". It seems unlikely that Clare would approve of a situation where the rights to his work were enclosed and claimed as the property of one individual, who is no relation, 140 years after his death.

"And me they turned me inside out
For sand and grit and stones
And turned my old green hills about
And pickt my very bones."

Richard Hillesley

The John Clare Copyright Dispute:

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