John Clare and the Ubiquitous Editor
Editors have always played an important and powerful role in the works of John Clare, from Clare’s own time until the present. An Invite to Eternity presents a model of that relationship between text and editor in microcosm, from its composition inside the walls of a mental institution to its transcription by an asylum attendant, to its early publication and its modern re-presentation today. Written in the 1840s, no extant manuscript of the poem exists in Clare’s own hand and each version of the poem is inflected by its editor in different but always significant ways. In recent years, this is reflected in the sole copyright control over Clare’s work exercised by his most prominent editor, whose own interpretation of Clare governs the way the poet and his poems are presented to a modern audience.
The publication history of all of John Clare’s work is, in the end, a history about editorial control and influence. Even An Invite to Eternity, written within the confines of a mental institution seemingly distant from the literary world, is not an exception to this rule, for it and Clare’s other asylum poems do not escape the power and problem of the editor. And, further, this problem of the editor is not one confined to the past, to the actions of Clare’s original publisher John Taylor or to W.F. Knight, the asylum house steward who transcribed the poetry Clare wrote during his 20 odd years of confinement. In fact, debates continue and rankle over the role of the editor in re-presenting Clare’s work to a modern audience: should the modern editor present the unadulterated, raw Clare manuscript or a cleaned up, standardized version as Taylor did? Only exacerbating and exaggerating this problem of editorial control in the present day is the fact that the rights to nearly all of Clare’s work is literally owned by one of his editors, Eric Robinson, whose vision of Clare dominates how the poet is presented today.
An Invite to Eternity was written around 1847, while Clare was an inmate at the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum, but this date is only speculative as the manuscripts of his asylum poems are not often dated. (1) “Invite” is part of what are referred to as the “Knight Transcripts” of Clare’s asylum work, poems written between approximately 1842 and 1850 (he was at Northampton from 1842 until his death in 1864). The house steward of the Northampton Asylum, W.F. Knight, befriended Clare, encouraged him to continue writing poetry and transcribed the drafts of those poems into this collection of manuscripts.
Knight, though simply attempting to copy over Clare’s work, works as an editorial filter on these poems, simply because the physical act of his reading and transcribing is imperfect. So, regardless of how carefully or conscientiously Knight tried to copy Clare’s work, it seems almost inevitable that his copies could have deviated from the originals, especially when we consider his discussion of his...