Margaret Grainger (ed.), The Natural History Prose Writings of John Clare

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Peterborough MS A46 contains more natural history prose than any other extant Clare manuscript except Northampton MS 15. On p. 114, written below 'The Pheasant' and above 'Larks', is the heading 'Prose Scraps / Natural History', and it is apparent that the contents were intended for Clare's 'Natural History of Helpstone "Biographys of Birds & Flowers" with an Appendix on Animals & Insects'.1 The Tibbles comment that 'This reached no further state of completion than the Natural History Letters and Notes' included in their book;2 a considerable understatement. They, in fact, print only seven A46 notes and Clare's longest list of Northamptonshire birds;3 Robinson and Summerfield give one additional passage;4 a further forty-seven passages, four of which also occur in Peter-borough MS A45,5 and an additional short bird list,6 are unpublished.

Some of the entries, such as 'On Cats Dogs &c', 'A Summer Landscape' and 'The early assosiations of spring', are scarcely more than headings. Some, such as Notes A and B, are fragmentary jottings which later find a more considered and developed form in the Natural History Letters of MS A49, whilst a passage such as 'The Butter Bump' is longer and obviously already thought of by Clare as a Natural History Letter.7 In 'Larks' Clare, at l. 8, appears to be just about to provide a quotation from Cunningham's poetry, a further instance of the method of combining first-hand natural history observation with illustrations from the poets which he adopted for his Natural History Letters.

As in the case of A49, some of my divisions are arbitrary. I have pg 82left notes, however brief, as separate items, except in the case of 'Animal Instinct' where Clare's headings and the related subject matter made it sensible to combine thirteen discrete paragraphs8 under the one heading; here I number the lines continuously for easy reference. If he had ever completed his 'Natural History' Clare would probably have effected smooth transitions and put together a finished essay or letter on this subject which so obviously fascinated him.9

Many of the A46 passages are extensions of notes which occur in Clare's Journal and these are particularly helpful in dating the material. 'On the notions of male & female spieces in trees & flowers' (and possibly 'Male & female flowers of the Oak'), Note J on mildew and 'Fairey Rings'1 must refer to the entry for Saturday 11 September 1824: 'Written an Essay to day "on the sexual system of plants" & began one on "the Fungus tribe & on Mildew Blight &c" intended for "A Natural History of Helpstone" '. 'On creeping plants'2 relates to the Journal entry for 16 December 1824, Note K to the entry for 6 February 1825, Notes W, AA, and BB to the entry for 22 April 1825 and Note Z to the entry for 28 April 1825. Note B must precede 25 March 1825, the date of A49 Natural History Letter IX, but by how long I am unable to say. Note EE can be placed by reference to the Stamford Mercury where the account transcribed by Clare occurs on 13 May 1825.

In the light of this handful of passages which I can date with certainty, and in the absence of evidence to the contrary, it seems safe to assume that all the natural history prose of A46 belongs to the period 1824–5. Since I cannot date the notes more precisely and since, for instance, the group U—CC may all have been written down at the same time even though the observations they refer to may have been spread over some months, or even years, it has seemed wiser to follow manuscript order throughout. The leaves of A46 are in six stitchings: Notes A-C occur in the second stitching; 'The Pheasant'-'On Ants' in the fourth; all the Appendix II list and the first eleven pages of the detailed bird list given in my main text, in the fifth; the remainder in the sixth.

Notes Settings


Editor’s Note
1 Journal for 11 Mar. 1825.
Editor’s Note
2 Prose, p. 139.
Editor’s Note
3 Ibid., pp. 195–204, 261–91.
Editor’s Note
4 Selected Poems and Prose (1966), pp. 147–8; (1967), p. 109.
Editor’s Note
5 I give these in their revised versions in the A45 section. The A46 versions are slightly longer but less 'correct'; they are also crossed through vertically which indicates that Clare intended the A45 versions to stand.
Editor’s Note
7 See Pet. MS A46 list, l. 770, where, in writing about the bittern, Clare says 'see Letter'.
Editor’s Note
8 The paragraph order that Clare intended is uncertain so, with the exception of paragraphs seven and eight which I reverse to achieve better sense, I retain the order in which they occur in the MS.
Editor’s Note
9 This passage on 'Animal Instinct' should be read in conjunction with Pet. MS A45, Note B.
Editor’s Note
1 Included in the A45 section.
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