Friday 10 July 2009

Amazing words

The Quickening Maze, by Adam Foulds (Jonathan Cape)

I’ve been interested and amused over the last few years by the usage of nouns and adjectives as verbs. I first started to become more aware of it when working in America: ‘Will you fridge those beers for me?” as an interrogative; ‘Menu me’ as an imperative’. But before we hasten to finger American linguistic sloppiness as the culprit, consider this from Shakespeare. Cleopatra says to her handmaidens describing Antony’s advances: ‘He words me, girls”. Later on, Antony, fearing being paraded as a captive, says ‘Wouldst thou be windowed in great Rome?’. Now all these examples are of nouns being used as verbs and we coin such coinages all the time. Go on, google it. It is rarer though to see adjectives used as verbs. Maybe there are just fewer of them or maybe normally we use a suffix (-en) to turn, for example, fast into fasten. There are examples though: ‘It is my job to green the company’. Whatever that might mean. And John Clare, the agricultural labourer, poet and subject of Adam Foulds’ new novel, The Quickening Maze, was more inventive in his use of language in this sense than many.
In his ‘Little Trotty Wagtail’ we have:

Little trotty wagtail you nimble all about
And in the dimpling water-pudge you waddle in and out

Which gives us nimble - adjective to verb - and dimpling - verb to adjective.

Or as Jonathan Bate observes in his magisterial John Clare: A Biography, talking of the poem ‘The Nightingale’s Nest’:

And where these crimping fern-leaves ramp among
The hazel’s underboughs I’ve nestled down
And watched her while she sung.

Here we have the verb to crimp used as an adjective and the adjective ramping used as a verb.

Quickening is more straightfoward of course, adjective to verb to verbal noun, but the play between its meaning as a noun and as a verb is thoughtful: is it the maze that is getting faster or is it making us faster? Running to escape perhaps? Or is the maze in the process of coming to life and sentience itself? Quickening as the first movements of the fetus, in the original sense of quick as meaning life, as in the quick and the dead? Maybe though it is being-in-the-maze that makes us start to come to life: it is a metaphor for the dead ends, false starts, and secrets of life, for the feeling that we are always coming upon the answer and then realising there is still further to travel.

Foulds’ maze is Epping Forest in Essex, surrounding High Beech Asylum where Clare was treated for madness between 1837 and 1841. In his largely accurate account of Clare’s time there, Foulds’ characters are all drawn into the forest’s maze whether it is Alfred Tennyson musing on poetry, Clare trying to escape institutionalism and recover lost loves and the freedom of his youth, or his doctor, Matthew Allen, trying to harness the very wood itself to create his ‘Pyroglyph’: a steam-powered machine to reproduce the wood carvings of master craftsmen ‘so precisely that it is impossible afterwards to tell the original from the copy’. The hubristic machine, even remade in steel, funded by the Tennysons, promising to make their money and themselves come alive and grow, offering people the ‘moral enhancement that comes with living with fine design, in wood’, is of course a resounding financial catastrophe that achieves nothing but to propel Dr Allen towards his own madness and breakdown while recasting Clare’s ‘madness’ as an almost sane reaction to a world gone crazy.

Clare takes to venturing out more and more, into the forest, where he meets up with a Romany encampment and remembers the singing and freedom of his youth in Northamptonshire before the commons were enclosed. ‘It’s criminal what is nominated law now. Theft only, taking the common land from the people. I remember when they came to our village with their telescopes to measure and fence and parcel out. The gypsies then were driven out. The poor also.’ He wasn’t to know of course that the enclosure acts would lead to the most fantastic advances in agriculture: enough to see off even the most pessimistic Malthus. He was a tragic product of that epochal period of massive change from rural to industrial life and he serves to document its impacts through his poetry, his life and his madness. A surface reading of The Quickening Maze, especially in these times where Man increasingly stands accused in the court of Nature, might see nothing more than a rejection of modernity and capitalism as irrational and destructive systems which, unable to create machines in harmony with nature must resort to the violence of steel to destroy it, and thereby undercut its very project, ending up as nothing more than meaningless and fruitless consumption.

Quickening though, resists this easy reading, and, as a process of living, becoming alive, does not leave us with a simple message of turn your back on the future and return to nature. Clare in fact leaves the forest and the asylum to return to civilisation and his lost love(s) and moves on. Not back to rationality maybe - and I don’t want to spoil the ending here - but forward at least, striving. He stands as an interim figure, between the Romantics and the Victorians in terms of poetry, and is revealed in his very humanity, struggling to sense the world through his poetry and his life, in a fight to understand and change.

One wishes the John Clare Trust, now reopening his cottage as a ‘centre dedicated to environmental education’, had benefited from a careful reading of both Clare and Foulds instead of opting for an opportunistic appropriation of his life to contemporary pessismism about the future. The attempt to green Clare is a deadening reification, a distorted reading backwards, which judges him only by the degree to which his poetry more or less accurately reflects nature (and he is by no means only a nature poet): making him just a passive observer of wagtails and nightingales.

Clare is a creator, however, who quickens his material, making it come to life for us, who speaks no pre-lapsarian language of truth but who wrestled with English and the conventions of poetry to create something genuinely new and illuminating of the world he lived in. Foulds does well to remind us that the point of a maze is not to get half way in and then try and retreat to the beginning again: we need to continue to try and find a way out, even if we risk tragedy in the trying, because it is in the very attempt that we create art and meaning and start to become more alive.


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