I love the poetry of John Clare and his understanding of the rhythms of the natural world. But I particularly love his use and linguistic invention. This came clearly into focus for me in 1993, when I spent a lot of time around his home village of Helpston researching my play Honest John, commissioned by Northampton Royal Theatre; working on a spoken word performance piece made his use of language all the more fascinating.
Clare's precision of thought, and frustration at the lexicon available to him sometimes led him to make up or appropriate words if their sound matched his purposes. One of my favourite poems of the thousands he wrote is 'The Flight of Birds', in which words we may not recognize in his context are given new life and meaning. For example:
'The Pigeon suthers by on rapid wing.'
The word 'suthers' as a verb is archaic, meaning either the sound of the wind sighing or moaning, or – as Clare uses it here – as the whirring of a bird's wing. Yet used to identify a pigeon's flight, it does more: it gives us the essence of 'pigeon' in a sound, not the call of the bird, but its inner character. Because I hear it, I see it. Earlier in the same poem, he is equally precise:
'The crow goes flopping on from wood to wood...'
Of course it does! No one has seen or said it better. But it is the next line that contains my word:
'The wild duck wherries to the distant flood.'
My OED gives me:
Wherry (1443, of unknown origin). 1. A light rowing boat used chiefly on rivers to carry passengers and goods. 2. A large boat of the barge kind (1589).
So it's a noun. Yet the way Clare uses it gives us the sound of a duck as it takes off or lands on water to perfection by turning it into a verb. Living on the edge of the Fen, he would have known of the wherry as a boat plying the waterways of East Anglia, although it best known in terms of its Norfolk origins. Which leads me to ask if the word's original definition was based on the sound it made as it scudded through the water? 'Wherry' is full of the breezy light and open skies through which Clare's birds flew, and the chill waters upon which the ducks landed; onomatopoeia translated into the object, waiting for Clare to turn it back on itself again. It is at least a possibility. Be that as it may, in such poems and word usage, he teaches us to examine language for its sound as much as for its meaning. To use the word as a noun, 'like a wherry' would have been good, good enough for a lesser poet. But as a verb, it is a stroke of genius.
Seán Street is a poet, broadcaster, teacher and writer on sound aesthetics. Books include Camera Obscura (poems) and the prose trilogy, The Poetry of Radio, The Memory of Sound and Sound Poetics: He is Emeritus Professor at Bournemouth University.