Vile Atmospheres and Stagnant Wonders: Clare in the Fens

In our latest Romantic Climates blog post, Dr Erin Lafford (Oxford) writes on John Clare, fenlands, and ‘Romantic air’.

In his essay ‘The Correspondent Breeze’ (1984), M. H. Abrams laid a foundation for thinking about the role of ‘air-in-motion’ in Romantic period poetry.[1] Alongside tracing the significance of air (and its movements in winds, breaths, and breezes) as a key metaphor for emotional and political renovation, Abrams also acknowledged that ‘the moving air lent itself pre-eminently to the aim of tying man back into the environment’. He did not, however, specify what type of environment this is or should be. If the legacy of Abrams’ essay is that there has long been identified a prominent aerial imagination in Romantic poetry and poetics, then there is room now to think about how this aerial imagination might speak to, and be readdressed by, the concerns and approaches of the environmental humanities. Specifically, in this blog post I hope to offer some thoughts about how the trope of aerial inspiration so central to Abrams’ reading of Romanticism can be brought into relationship with ideas about the impact of the environment and its climatic effects on individuals that were circulating in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Air is a beguiling element, unseen and yet ubiquitous. It was, however, and continues to be, conceived as a key medium of transmission between the self and their environment, especially where health is concerned. Such a viewpoint necessitates thinking about air as it relates to specific environmental conditions; rather than a general ‘tying’ of ‘man’ into an unidentified habitat or climate, this blog post will explore how Romantic poetry and its surrounding medical and environmental discourses reveal an interest in air as a site of differentiation between places and their healthy or unhealthy effects. The idea of a ‘correspondent breeze’, when brought into contact with the material specificities of a poet’s surroundings, was not without its fears and anxieties, and the line between inspiration and contagion was not always distinct. To draw out some of these ideas, I am going to focus on the poetry of John Clare and its exploration of the Northborough fenland by which he was surrounded from 1832-37.

The landscape that features in much of Clare’s ‘middle-perid’ poetry is the vast expanse of fenland in East Anglia, ranging between Souh Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire, which he encountered properly when he moved from Helpston to Nortborough in 1832.   The principle characteristic of fenland is its flatness, marked by expanses of shallow water (either fresh or salt), in which dead plant matter does not fully decay, and so forms a layer of saturated peat and bog. In his poem ‘Winter in the Fens’ Clare opens with a rather gloomy prospect of such a landscape:

So moping flat & low our valleys lie
So dull & muggy is our winter sky
Drizzling from day to day with threats of rain
And when that falls still threatening on again
From one wet week so great an ocean flows
That every village to an island grows
And every road for even weeks to come
Is stopt, and none but horsemen go from home

(ll. 1-8)

The sense of a waterlogged, ‘muggy’, and ‘threatening’ environment captured in these lines taps into anxieties prior and contemporary to Clare about the hostile and unhealthy nature of the fens. The presence of stagnant water, which in turn was thought to propagate a potentially noxious atmosphere of miasmas and vapours, combined to foster a fear of this environment as both physically and morally dangerous. Such wariness was expressed in literary, medical, and agricultural texts. James Armstrong’s four-book poem, The Art of Preserving Health (1744) warned readers against treading near the ‘slothful Naiad of the fens’, for fear that their ‘humid soil’, ‘watry reign’ and ‘Eternal vapours’ should result in ‘Tertian, corrosive scurvy, or moist cattarh’ (I, ll. 130-59). For Arthur Young, the apparent uhealthiness and moral degradation bred in the fens was justification enough to warrant their drainage, called for during the onward march of enclosure acts in the region. In his General View of the Agriculture of the County of Lincoln (1799), he stated that ‘So wild a country nurses up a race of people as wild as the fen; and thus the morals and the eternal welfare of numbers are hazarded or ruined for want of enclosure. Drainage supposedly liberated the fens from being a rancid site of infection to a fertile and prosperous landscape where ‘fens of water, mud, wild fowl, frogs, and agues have been converted to rich pasture […] Health improved, morals corrected, and the community enriched’.[2] The ‘agues’ mentioned here, otherwise known as a malarial illness referred to as ‘fen fever’, also appear in a medical treatise by Dr Fenwick Skrimshire, Clare’s Peterborough doctor who was one of the signatories on his committal papers to Northampton General Asylum. Skrimshire’s The Village Pastor’s Surgical and Medical Guide (1830) situates his readers in a decidedly hostile environment, depicting the fens as a hotbed of illness and disease. He writes of ‘the prevailing fevers of our fenny country’, and that ‘the swamp and the fen, in whatever climate they may be situated, are not fit places for human habitations’.[3]

Crucially, the purportedly infectious air and atmosphere of the fens played the most significant part in their literary, cultural, and medical reputation for being so inhospitable. In Rural Rides (1830), William Cobbett recalled an encounter with a mass of fog on the journey from London to Newbury, but was assured by its resemblance to more innocuous clouds formed from above rather than risen from below: ‘I do not think that they are by any means injurious to health. It is the fogs that rise out of swamps, and other places, full of putrid vegetable matter, that kill people’.[4] It is the emphasis that Cobbett places on these ‘fogs’ as rising from the ground that offers such a significant distinction between this form of air and the kind Abrams had in mind when he wrote ‘The Correspondent Breeze’. In his book The Matter of Air (2010), Steven Connor distinguishes between ‘Romantic’ air and its antithesis: the first is a kind of inspirational ‘radiance’ that falls from above, a ‘Romantic haze’ that both ‘diffuses and retains radiance’. The second is more pathological: a ‘vaporous sensibility’ where ‘mists and fogs are held to be the unhealthy halitosis of the ground […] full of infection, as opposed to the ethereal lucidity of the upper air’.[5] The air that reeks upwards from the fens, then, does not lend itself to participation in the ‘aim of tying man back into the environment’ that Abrams conceived. A poem that sought to harness such an atmosphere would be treading a fine line between inspiration and contagion. Clare was all too aware of this. He frequently wrote to his publishers, John Taylor and James Hessey, about bouts of fever that he attributed to the surrounding fenland: ‘I have just got over a very bad fever that is now raging from house to house in our fenny villages like a plague’; ‘I was taken soon after I received your letter with the books & was ill six weeks     it was a very bad Fever & I expect I brought it out of the Fens home with me’.[6] His friend and champion in London, Eliza Emmerson, frequently expressed fears about the effects of the fens on Clare’s health, and wrote to him in June 1825 asking about the well-being of one of his daughters (also named Eliza): ‘She, too, cannot escape the ague-like effects of the season, and your vile fenny atmosphere. I sincerely wish both for your children’s sake & your own you could quit the flats & bogs of Helpstone’.

Yet for all of his fears of exposure to the threatening atmosphere of the fens, and indeed his experiences of ill-health (both mental and physical) that were so often attributed to them, Clare did not deem this landscape unfit for poetic representation. Poems such as ‘Winter in the Fens’ offer a rather bleak view of what it means to inhabit this landscape, and some, such as ‘The Fens’, draw on the anxiety of contagion. The landscape is figured as provoking shudders, chills, and the ague, with fearsome creatures lurking beneath murky waters:

Wandering by the rivers edge
I love to rustle through the sedge
And through the woods of reed to tear
Almost as high as bushes are
Yet, turning quick with shudder chill
As danger ever does from ill
Fear’s moment-ague quakes the blood
While plop the snake coils in the flood

(ll. 1-8)

The ‘shudder chill’ and ‘moment-ague’ that ‘quakes the blood’ in these lines announce an uncomfortable version of being ‘tied’ into an environment, where innocuous ‘wandering’ invites potentially harmful encounters with the landscape; the verse enacts a fearful ‘turning’ way from the environment in this respect, even as Clare’s speaker tracks his movements through it. However, elsewhere in his poetry Clare counters the anxiety surrounding the fens by choosing instead to celebrate their biodiversity and beauty. In ‘Wanderings in June’ especially, the speaker’s enjoyment at trudging through fenland turns not on a sense of freely circulating, refreshing air, but on a sense of stagnation. He marks how a sudden encounter with the topography of the fens (‘But now my footsteps sidle round / The gently sloping hill / Now falter over marshy ground’ (ll. 185-87)) gives way to a moment of amazement at the forms of life they contain:

What wonders strike my idle gaze
As near the pond I stand!
What life its stagnant depth displays
As varied as the land
All forms & sizes swimming there
Some sheath’d in silvery den
Oft siling up as if for air
Then nimbling down again

(ll. 201-208)

The static, ‘idle’ environment offered here cultivates a turn away from a ‘correspondent breeze’ to harness instead a stagnant atmosphere as the means of revelation.   Stagnation and its requisite lack of circulation becomes a model of focussed attention and, crucially, of wonder. It is the airless (‘as if for air’) that informs Clare’s poetic gaze here, and the unhealthy connotations of stagnant water and its vapours become rehabilitated into a model of deep environmental engagement.

By figuring the fens as a source of pleasure and wonder, then, Clare offers a way into complicating the aerial imagination of Romantic poetry. He brings the specificities of his local environment to bear on his verse, and finds inspiration never far away from the threat of contagion. The sluggish atmosphere of the fens, considered the antithesis to a Romantic ideal of ‘air in motion’, is transformed in his verse into a vehicle of enchantment and attentive wonder. Clare also, I think, invites us to consider how he self-consciously sought to transform the toxic air of his locality into the material of poetic composition, and how our understanding of Romantic air can be enriched and diversified by his poetics. I conclude this post with some lines from one of the many songs Clare composed, in order to think about how the noxious air of the fens also became the source of a sung, poetic ‘air’; Clare’s song hails not from the correspondent breeze, but from the swamps, and we must think about what it means for a poet to harness deliberately such a ‘low’ form of air:

Swamps of wild rush beds & sloughs squashy traces
Grounds of rough fallows wi thistle & weed
Flats & low vallies of kind cups & daiseys
Sweetest of subjects are ye for my reed
Yer skies may be gloomy & misty yer mornings
Yer flat swampy vallies unholsome may be
Still refuse of nature wi out her adornings
Yere dear as this heart in my bosom to me

(ll. 1-24)

This is not an ideal, generalised poetic ‘air’ but one borne out of a specific topography and that bears the traces of a supposedly inhospitable atmosphere. That Clare can not only breathe, but sing in the fens, is a reimagining of inspiration that brings it down from the clouds towards the material influences of a poet’s environment (healthy or unhealthy) and an alternative form of Romantic air.

[1] M. H. Abrams, ‘The Correspondent Breeze: A Romantic Metaphor’, in The Correspondent Breeze: Essays On English Romanticism (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1984), pp. 25-43.

[2] Arthur Young, General View of the Agriculture of the Country of Lincoln (London: Bulmer and Co, 1799), p. 246.

[3] Fenwick Skrimshire, The Village Pastor’s Surgical and Medical Guide (London: Hatchard and Son, 1838), p. 259.

[4] William Cobbett, Rural Rides (London: William Cobbett, 1820), p. 127

[5] Steven Connor, The Matter of Air: Science and Art of the Ethereal (London: Reaktion Books, 2010), pp. 178-79.

[6] The Letters of John Clare, ed. Mark Storey (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985), p. 245; p. 446.

Erin Lafford is currently a Stipendiary Lecturer in English at Trinity College, University of Oxford. Her research centres around thinking about Romantic period literature in relation to medical and environmental thought, and she has recently completed her doctorate on ‘Forms of Health in John Clare’s Poetics’.