Stonework is published by Houghton College, a Christian liberal arts college located in New York’s rural Genesee Valley. Stonework seeks a diverse mix of mature and emerging voices in fellowship with the evangelical tradition. Published twice a year, the journal reflects the arts community at Houghton College where excellence in music, writing, and the visual arts has long been a distinctive.

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  • Issue 6
    Poetry by Paul Willis and Thom Satterlee. Fiction and interview with Lori Huth. Essay by James Wardwell, and student poets from Christian campuses.
  • Issue 5
    Poetry by Susanna Childress and Debra Rienstra. Fiction excerpt by Emilie Griffin. Art from Houghton's 2007 presidential inauguration and a forum on women writing.
  • Issue 4
    Matthew Roth--new poems. Diane Glancy--from One of Us and an interview. John Tatter-on gardens and poetry. The Landscapes of John Rhett. Stephen Woolsey--on the poetry of Jack Clemo. James Wardwell--on Herrick.
  • Issue 3
    Poetry by Julia Kasdorf, Robert Siegel and Sandra Duguid. Fiction by Tom Noyes. The portraits of Alieen Ortlip Shea. An anthology of Australian Poets
  • Issue 2
    Thom Satterlee - Poems from Burning Wycliff with an appreciation by David Perkins. Alison Gresik - new fiction and an interview. James Zoller - Poems from Living on the Floodplain.
  • Issue 1
    Luci Shaw — new poems with an appreciation by Eugene H. Peterson & Hugh Cook — new fiction and an interview

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

“Naming Wholeness in a Sick Climate”: Landscape, Nature, and Grace in Jack Clemo’s Poetry

~Stephen A. Woolsey

“Never did He make two things the same; never did he utter one word twice. […]
After a falling, not a recovery but a new creation.” C. S. Lewis, Perelandra

Many readers would be stymied if asked to identify even one modern Cornish writer, let alone two, but at least two twentieth-century authors—one well-known, the other much less so—deserve our attention for the very different ways in which they have captured the landscape and spirit of Cornwall. The first, Daphne du Maurier, was born in London in 1907 to a family of wealth and privilege, but lived much of her life in Cornwall and made her literary name by writing novels set on the Cornish coast and moors, which she infused with mystery and romance. The second, John Reginald (better known as Jack) Clemo was born in relative poverty in 1916 near Goonvean, Cornwall, son of a restless working-class father who died at sea when Clemo was less than a year old, and of a mother who, disappointed in her marriage to a man with whom she had little in common, did her best to raise young Jack on her own, surrounded by the scarred gray industrial landscape of pits and dumps created by the clay-mining industry near St. Austell, Cornwall.

In du Maurier’s work the Cornish coast and landscape are haunted, enchanting, and perfectly beautiful in their wild mystery. For Clemo too the land and water of Cornwall are haunted, but by a “twisted clay-spell” (“On the Prospect of Leaving My Birthplace” Murano 20) rather than by lovely enchantment. All around him the natural world has been corrupted and the earth torn open, its now-raw contours carelessly reshaped by human excavation, making it the very emblem of sin, both original and personal. Moreover, when Clemo was only five years old he experienced his first episode of the blindness—and a few years later of the profound deafness—that would plague him for the rest of his life. This onset of serious physical disability further influences his depiction of the Cornish landscape, since his double handicap seemed to end any possibility of full connection with the human and natural worlds around him. Thus for Clemo the clay landscape represents not only radical human isolation but also the “cradle” of his depravity, to be “outgrown” and left behind as he makes his pilgrim way to a beautiful new country of the heart, mind, spirit, and imagination. He does not forget that old clay country as he passes beyond its borders, however, instead carrying it with him in his “redemptive memory,” where the saving truth about his journey—where it began, where it will end, and all that must change in the process—continues to unfold (Murano 20).

For both du Maurier and Clemo the Cornish landscape and natural world define the vision and shape the consciousness of those who live on this “claw” of granite and clay which is always “probing the grey Atlantic” (du Maurier 9). The wild beauty of this place where land and sea meet dramatically at the base of rocky cliffs finds its echo in the human passions of “the Cornish character, smouldering beneath the surface, ever ready to ignite” (du Maurier 11). The fire buried in the hearts of the Cornish people helps to explain their traditional ways of making a living, either by illegal “wrecking”—salvaging goods from ships that run aground on the jagged coastal rocks—or by digging for various kinds of treasure buried deep in the earth. As du Maurier puts it, “They were, are, tinners, copper-seekers, quarriers, slate-breakers, clay-workers, farmers; an earthy people with an earthy knowledge” (14) of the ground beneath their feet, source of their living, but also realm of their dead. Evoking Cornwall’s ubiquitous standing stones, cairns, and tumuli, du Maurier declares that death haunts this place; every hike on almost any moor is a stroll past or over ancient tombs, for “scattered throughout the length and breadth of the peninsula are other stones and other chambers, barrows and trenches, mounds and circles, so that it might be said that death, like the sea, is ever present” (13).

Still, those who walk the Cornish earth must find a way to earn their livings, and for generations the soil itself has offered the best opportunities. Just when the Cornish tin mines had largely played out in the nineteenth century, according to du Maurier, a Plymouth Quaker named William Cookworthy established a thriving china-clay enterprise, employing many former tin-miners to dredge out the clay, “a species of moist granite” that has been “reduced by decomposition into a soft adhesive substance,” according to Mr. Cookworthy (qtd. du Maurier 150). A system of channeled water-streams, tanks, and kilns was used to sort and purify the dredged clay, which would then be shipped to factories in the English Midlands, where the “kaolin” would be transformed into fine porcelain products. Over the course of almost two centuries these clay-works gradually re-shaped the land’s contours, as clay waste piled up in vast heaps, creating a “lunar landscape” of pyramidal mountains, and sometimes whole ranges, with pools and even small lakes of turbid water at their bases (du Maurier 152, 153). Refusing to see desolation in this parched, largely-monochromatic landscape created by industry, however, du Maurier reminds her readers that natural forces and processes eventually bring even abandoned clay-works and their waste-mountains into living harmony with surrounding moors: “Wild flowers straggle across the waste, seeds flourish into nameless plants, wandering birds from the moorland skim the lakes or dabble at the water’s edge. Seagulls, flying inland, hover above the surface. There is nothing ugly here” (du Maurier 152).

In this Cornish clay country Jack Clemo was born and grew up, but his impressions of the landscape bear little resemblance to du Maurier’s, as we see in his wry description of the rough “four-roomed granite cottage” in which he was born: “It was a fitting birthplace for me, being dwarfed under Bloomdale clay-dump, solitary, grim-looking, with no drainage, no water or electricity supply, and no back door” (Rebel 15). Clemo does not suggest that all the land-forms created by the clay-works of his home country are ugly, but he does depict an alien and alienating sort of beauty at odds with the “sensitive mind.” He recalls “a hostile world of grey beauty, …a landscape of purgation in which the soil was thrown into tanks and kilns,” and he evokes a vision of houses, farmsteads, and fields gradually engulfed by smothering clay-waste, bringing “to the human spirit more poignantly than anything in the peaceful countryside the sense of insecurity, the sudden pounce of the destroyer” (Rebel 5, 6).

In this landscape of purgation the clay-works disrupted both human and natural cycles, Clemo declares, as “the carts rattling about under the puffing stacks were filled as often with coal and clay as with farm produce, manure or fodder,” adding that “there were no rhythms about it, no recurrences; only a pitiless finality in every change” (Rebel 5, 6). In the poem “Crab Country,” Clemo unexpectedly brings together images of land and sea to describe a profoundly-disturbed natural balance and order:

Pincer movement on the hills.

Salty clay-crabs advance, edging sideways

Or straight ahead over fields, lanes and thickets.

The whole scarp slowly fills

With vast crusted shells, gleaming like armour,

And the gravelly claws

Baulk the bus, stop the plough of the farmer. (SP 70)

The phrase “landscape of purgation” points to a complex, paradoxical, but crucial theme in Clemo’s work: the redeeming work of grace which begins in renunciation of a ruined world and ends in affirmation of a world transformed, made new—in C. S. Lewis’s words, “not a recovery but a new creation” (Perelandra 214). As the “dual stress of Nature and purgation” shaped his mother’s early years (Rebel 6), so it shaped Clemo’s spiritual, emotional, and artistic life. The clay-works which dotted the north-Cornish landscape during Clemo’s lifetime often disrupted or overwhelmed both human and natural rhythms and systems, but they provided many (including Clemo’s father) with a livelihood, and though the clay extraction process involved ripping the earth open, blighting the landscape with gaping wounds and piles of debris, it also brought out from deep in the earth itself the raw material which could be purified and then transformed by human craft and touch into useful objects of astonishing beauty and fragility.

Thus, in a way, a very earthy human sort of grace transmuted and even redeemed the
end of a process that seems inherently hostile to natural patterns and processes, hostile to beauty and even to life itself, and eventually, years later, a scraggly, vital layer of green covers the land’s scars, gouges, and heaps, giving the earth new, living contours. We can see an analogous pattern in the emotional, spiritual, and thematic arcs of Clemo’s poetry: from a bitter, apparently self-destructive pattern of renunciation and denial—of nature, of beauty, of love, of joy—through a process of purgation, to a landscape of heart, mind, and spirit made new in hope, made beautiful by love, both human and divine.

Over and over Clemo’s early poetry depicts the horrors inflicted on the land by the clay industry. He remembers his boyhood trudges in search of safe, clean water,

Holding my pitcher to the wheezing pump

Or the valley spring-pipe, forty years back.

All waters fouled by clay sores

Around my home, except what the pump lifted

And that clear spurt in the niche

Between bridge wall and thorn-clump,

Where the poisoned brook crawled under the road.

(“The Riven Niche” SP 68)

He recalls images of dirty water lapping at the base of sodden waste-heaps until “the whole clay-belly sags,” and darker images, half-memory and half-fantasy, of lives buried beneath waste-water and cast-off soil:

What scenes far

Beneath those waters: chimney pots

That used to smoke; brown rusty clots

Of wheels still oozing tar;

Lodge doors that rot ajar. (“The Flooded Clay-Pit” SP 19)

Perversely, human industry makes the living world of greening nature seem alien, out of place. Brambles grow on the ash-heap of “fires long dead” beside an abandoned engine-house, despite the filth and poison which linger in the soil:

All that’s left

Of purging and consuming fire now feeds

The rousing seeds;

And the world of refuse feels the alien sting

In the crumpled cleft,

In the warmth of Spring:

Sap forcing out through rubble, filming green

With soft coarse leaves the gritty silt

Which pit and engine-house have vainly spilt

To make the earth unclean. (“The Cinder-Heap” SP 20)

Clemo acknowledges in a poem entitled “Link at Oxford” that when he was a young man the industrial wasteland created by the clay-works found its echo in his heart, mind, and soul: “I saw tip-waggons bombard earth’s beauty / Till my faith caught their mood […]” (Murano 30). Embittered as his bouts of blindness and deafness lasted longer and grew worse, desperately lonely because his condition cut him off from social contact with peers, and chafed raw spiritually and emotionally by the comfortless rigors of Reformed theology, Clemo responded with poetry that seems almost venomous in its rejection of natural beauty or loveliness of any kind, including poetic. Thus in “The Clay-Tip Worker,” for example, Clemo’s speaker initially seems regretful about the nature-destroying effects of his industry: “Our clay-dumps are converging on the land: / Each day a few more flowers are killed, / A few more mossy hollows filled / With gravel” (SP 25).

Soon, however, we realize with horror that the speaker actually rejoices when waste dirt covers “springtide beauty” and tarry engine-house oil befouls “ferns and furze” and makes them “droop black and battered,” because he believes he is doing God’s purgative work, punishing those who make natural beauty, and the poetry which celebrates it, into false gods. His clay-dump is “a finger of God / That wars with Poetry,” and thus, he tells us, “I advance to pour / Sand, mud and rock upon the store / Of springtime loveliness idolaters adore” (SP 25). Again in “A Calvinist in Love” the speaker scornfully rejects the attractions of earthly beauty and the tenderness of real human intimacy, along with the poetry of love, insisting that they only contaminate those who embrace them with the disease of death. He turns instead to rough, crude sensuality and disgust at any suggestion of nature’s benevolence, as two representative stanzas suggest:

This bare clay-pit is truest setting

For love like ours:

No bed of flowers

But sand-ledge for our petting. […]

No poetry of earth can fasten

Its vampire mouth

Upon our youth:

We know the sly assassin. (SP 14)

The cruelty born of frustration seems to be gone in the poem “Neutral Ground” (perhaps a tip of the hat to Thomas Hardy’s “Neutral Tones”?), replaced by numb indifference and a blank, hopeless conviction that even God has turned His back on this world that we human beings have made ugly with our physical, spiritual, and emotional clay-pits, except to mete out cold absolute justice. The speaker is left to make what he can of empty desolation:

God’s image was washed out of Nature

By the flood of the Fall:

No symbol remains to inspire me,

And none to appal.

His Hand did not fashion the vistas

These poets admire,

For He is too busied in glutting

The worm and the fire.

Not in Nature or God must my vision

Now find some relief

While I deepen my hatred of beauty,

Suspend my belief.

I will turn to a world that is ravaged,

Yet not by His Will,

A world whose derision of Nature

Is rigid and shrill.

I have lost the sensitive, tender,

Deep insights of man:

I will look round a claywork in winter,

And note what I can. (SP 17)

In other poems the numbness of Clemo’s clay-pit desolation yields to a painful and potentially health-renewing consciousness that God has not abandoned creation, nor is the speaker merely a victim of God’s wrath. “Clay-Land Moods,” for example, begins with a sequence of images linking the speaker with the Cornish soil and suggesting that God is the great excavator, stripping and ripping his very being to bring to the surface all that so far is only ugly, raw, and formless—man crucified by God. By the striking final stanza, however, the speaker has concluded that in effect, his human bitterness and despair have crucified Christ, and perhaps himself, on the twin crosses of the natural world and his fallen nature:

There is a certain mystic hour

When pyramid and clay-tip grow

Alive with darker power;

A mood unknown to Nature, a mortal mood

Caught up in His Godhead: taste of blood,

Anguish that makes each tip-frame a gibbet, bared

Until I feel on each the swing of my hand, a pale

Ghost-self of primal guilt that drives the nail. (SP 30)

Poems such as this one mark a turning point in Clemo’s spiritual, emotional, and artistic quest, as the clay-country landscape and its related natural systems begin to take on a transformed significance. In “The Two Beds,” for instance, Clemo acknowledges a kind of experiential and emotional kinship with D. H. Lawrence, another writer whose life and vision were profoundly shaped by the mining industry, especially during his childhood years, but he also uses mine-related imagery to emphasize the essential difference between them. In this poem Clemo connects the coal that Lawrence’s father mined with darkness, sin, and damnation, while he now associates the clay-works which loomed over his own childhood with light, sacrificial love, and redemptive possibility, since the crucified Christ can make a loving cup of this world’s clay:

Could light of my clay have fallen

On your black pit (yet not my light,

But the Light that is not as you supposed;

I tell you, the Man who died

Is not as you supposed), why, then

Your symbol would have changed, flesh have been known

As clay-bed and not coal-bed, its yield

The patterned cup for the great Marriage-feast,

No brute-lump of dusky fuel, soiling, corroding

With its primordial stain as it goes unpurged

From the subterranean womb to fires of perdition. (SP 33)

At this stage in his work Clemo begins more often to link the clay-pit with his own spiritual renewal, in imagery that evokes the Biblical story of salvation. “Goonvean Claywork Farm” provides a typical example. In that poem the speaker addresses his mother to recall a mystery now rich in new symbolic significance. As excavators’ explosions caused a “white gashed cliff” of clay-waste to spill over into a fertile field “Hemmed in and peeled / By the blast,” his mother prayed that a precious orchard with its “menaced fruit” would be spared. Though the cliff finally engulfed the orchard, it stopped short of a stable which the speaker says stands “to this day […] with its sweet warm straw,” a reminder of “The birth of the Word / Who […] set / Bounds to the clay-waste, won / A new world for your son” (SP 39, 40). Clemo clearly associates the stable at Goonvean with the stable in Bethlehem where Christ took on the dust and ashes—the clay—of the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, beginning the work that would ultimately establish the victory of life by setting limits on the death that would otherwise engulf all of creation.

The clay-pits and pools which symbolize that suffocation and those buried lives
begin to lose their power over Clemo’s speakers, and come to be associated with release from bondage, and with baptism, as we see in “Reclaimed”: “My soul once felt the press / Of the iron track of fate, […]/ But now the fanged pit cowers; / Baptismal waters flood the bed of clay, / Fate’s workings are stilled” (SP 41). In moments of divinely-inspired revision the poet starts to see the human body and the body of this created world no longer as objects to be scorned and abused, but rather as repositories of treasure and life that lie buried, waiting for release. The excavators’ blasts are analogous to the explosions of grace that free the believer, mind, body, and spirit:

I shall see the flesh that is clay, the open-cast mine

Where men are not trapped but work with the wind on their faces

And the cold rain stings them away from the sterile swoon.

[…] the signal granted,

Comes the sharp snap of blast

As the agnostic rock is splintered and the barrier passed.

(“Clay Phoenix” SP 52).

What produced this radical transformation of vision and heart? It began, Clemo suggests in the poem “Outsider,” with his rejection of an intellectual, emotional, and spiritual life that was too orderly, too efficient, and “too sleek for miracle.” The breakthrough could only come when he was ready to embrace an “unkempt faith,” finding at the same time the grace he needed to sustain him on what he calls his “fierce old pilgrim’s way” (SP 62, 63) of “erotic mysticism” (Rebel Preface ix), his pathway toward the miraculous apprehension and experience of divine love through the richest human expressions of love: deepest esteem, tender affection, passionate touch, all transforming mortal clay into a vessel of God’s great love, though that vessel remains fully human. In other words, the miracle he sought all along involves the intersection of Incarnation and sacrament—God inhabiting human clay while remaining fully divine, two human beings or natures becoming one while remaining two, all that is earthy yielding up the raw material that can be transmuted by the mystery of grace into lasting treasure. Clemo had finally come to see that an “unkempt” faith can affirm and rejoice in such messy, illogical, but life-giving paradoxes, while a tidy, obsessively-orderly understanding of faith baulks at them.

Clemo’s long quest for the incarnational, sacramental miracle that would result in spiritual healing and emotional wholeness finally found its fulfillment in the love he shared with a woman named Ruth Grace Peaty. After years of loneliness and a series of failed romances, Clemo began corresponding with Ruth, and they married in 1968 when he was 52 years old. The result was a life made new by love—“the youthful incubus outgrown,” “the mature release / From dark tuition” (SP 88)—and a new geography of imagination and spirit. In “Broad Autumn” Clemo describes a transformed country of mind and heart, a landscape which incorporates the bleak clay-country of his first 50 years but also reflects the pilgrim’s passage late in life over into a new land burgeoning with vitality:

True faith matures without discarding:

All I unearthed, each sky-sign crudely mapped

On the white rasped hills of youth,

Warms me still by rowan-topped crags

Far up the autumnal mountain,

Incredibly remote in climate, texture, weathering

Of bare stones, from my first insights:

I left no wreckage on those low rasped cones….

I have not changed my country;

I have grown and explored

In my faith’s undivided world. […] (SP 107)

The facts might seem to contradict Clemo’s declaration that in his union with Ruth and his fuller union with God he did not change his country, since Clemo and Ruth did actually move from the Cornish clay-country in order to set up house-keeping amidst the “thatch-warm villages,” lush greenery, the palms and the peaceful beaches of Dorset, “so magically sweet” (“Daybreak in Dorset” SP 48, 49). His later poems make it clear, however, that he carried with him into the new, paradisal country of marriage a redeemed vision of the clay-pit landscape, and of the body’s human clay. “Love’s reborn shape” does not deny or erase the years of “pit-torture” and “dark belief / In the chronic martyrdom of man,” but rather incorporates them into a landscape transformed by joy and hope, full of life and whole (“Wessex and Lyonnesse” SP 122).

In its simple, lovely profundity, Clemo’s story of the Cornish landscape, nature, and grace stands in striking contrast to Daphne du Maurier’s, especially because the story he tells through his poems and memoirs is so intensely personal. du Maurier frames her largely-impersonal narrative account of Cornwall’s religious history in terms of dramatic cultural collisions and shifts: from the matriarchal religion of Cornwall’s earliest settlers, probably Mediterranean in origin, to their embrace of Celtic paganism’s “predominantly male” gods; from Roman Catholicism’s appropriation and “re-dedication” of Cornwall’s pagan sites to the Reformation’s orderly theological systems that “banished” faith’s “mystique”; and finally from thwarted religious zeal to the Wesleyan revivals, which gave Cornish people “the outlet they desired—tears, lamentations, beatings of the breast, a falling upon the knees, the relief of confession, followed by the joys of salvation and a bursting into song” (111, 112, 118). Jack Clemo’s story of his spiritual pilgrimage from familiar yet alien clay-country to his “soul’s Jerusalem” in Dorset, with Ruth, has its moments of high drama as well, especially during Clemo’s early years. But his journey is finally much quieter, a story of peace and of life as a new creation. As Clemo sums it up in “On the Prospect of Leaving My Birthplace”:

Pit-blasts could not unearth the key

To my real self, the pilgrim-planted

Treasures of redemptive memory.

Clay-ravage was a fitting stage

For the doomed creature I seemed to my young mother,

Not for the happy husband I am to my wife,

Serene in mind and flesh, busily blending

Those foreign voices that broke the twisted clay-spell.

For nearly seventy years the slate roof

Has slanted above my sleep or my empty bed,

But the man I am, the fulfilled believer,

Needs palms, sweet modest hills and gentle

Cleansing ripples on the unhacked beach,

Not the rubble-wreckage of defiled meadows

Or the iron teeth of an outgrown rejected cradle. (Murano 20)

Having left behind the barren clay landscape of his first home, and found love and a new home in a lush green landscape of “multifoliate grace” (“The Riven Niche” SP 69), Jack Clemo could affirm the vocation he shared with C. S. Lewis: “Naming wholeness in a sick climate” (“Link at Oxford” Murano 30).


Works Cited

Clemo, Jack. Approach to Murano. Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1993.

Clemo, Jack. Confession of a Rebel. London: Chatto & Windus, 1949.

Clemo, Jack. Selected Poems. Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1988.

du Maurier, Daphne. Vanishing Cornwall: The Spirit and History of Cornwall. Garden

City: Doubleday and Company, 1967.

Lewis, C. S. Perelandra.