In his social context, ‘peasant poet’ John Clare was not odd in being a constant reader of the ‘aristocrat poet’ Lord Byron. Even after the latter’s attacks in English Bards and Scotch Reviewers on ‘cobbler’ poets, along with all ‘sons of needless trade’ who might rhyme (‘weavers’, ‘taylors’, labourers with ‘plough’ or ‘spade’), Byron remained a leading influence on labouring-class poets’ work.1 Introducing his volume of labouring-class poetry of the first thirty years of the nineteenth century, Scott McEathron argues that along with Burns and Bloomfield, Byron loomed large for poor poets, including Clare:
perhaps partly because of his avowed hostility, he served several of these figures as a force to grapple with, to imitate, and sometimes to impersonate. Further, the aggressive self-indulgence of his verse, especially Don Juan but including Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, seems to have suggested a new avenue of artistic empowerment, and his influence is clear (and often announced) in the vein of wit, satire, and iconoclasm.2
Duncan Wu, meanwhile, gets fired up by the notion that Byron was taken up as a liberal hero3
– making a mistake as he does so, in assuming that myths and fantasies, public relations and public desire for heroes, are any less important than mere facts. To an extent, fine-grained decades-long reader of Byron though he was, Clare was caught up in that same mythology and idol-worship, as we shall see.