`Grammer is a bitch': John Clare on grammar

Tony Fairman


John Clare (poet, 1793-1864) is a rare case of a writer of unschooled English, who made metalinguistic statements when he justified his verse and prose against the censure of publishers and well-wishers, whose attempts to 'improve' his grammar he resisted as far as he could without thereby having all his work barred from being published in his lifetime.


Clare wrote very little on the subject, but over a period from about 1819 to 1832 (to judge by texts which can be dated) his views did not change.


Understanding the term 'grammar' as it was understood in Clare's time to mean all linguistic levels including what we now call grammar, and quoting from Clare's own texts, which Eric Robinson and other scholars have published in the past two decades exactly as he wrote them, this paper is a preliminary exploration of Clare's views on grammar: 'grammer in learning is like Tyranny in government - confound the bitch Ill never be her slave'.


I shall argue that Clare's linguistic practices and ideas are like those of other partly-schooled writers of his time, whose position may be likened to that of powerless consumers of other people's grammar take it, if you can or want to, or leave it, which most did.


To support my argument, I shall use data from contemporary reports on the domestic situations of the poor and from my own ongoing research into how reading and writing were taught (what booka were used and what their lesson content was) in the types of school which Clare and other partly-schooled writers attended. I shall also support my argument with a few examples from letters written by several hundred partly-schooled writers in my corpus of over 200,000 words and 1200 letters, c1800-1834.



Tony Fairman