John Clare Looks Good in a Dishdash: Linking John Clare to Middle Eastern Poetry

Risse, M. “John Clare Looks Good in a Dishdash: Linking John Clare to Middle Eastern Poetry,” John Clare Society Journal 30 (2011): 53-63. (revision of paper presented at MLA conference in January 2011).

I came to an appreciation for John Clare through a circuitous route. In the United States I earned a PhD in English literature with a focus on travel writing, so my attention was drawn to how people interact with and describe cultures new to them. I might have read some Clare poems, but I do not remember studying him. I then moved to the United Arab Emirates in 1995 to teach literature at a newly-built university, in fact it was the first private university on the Arabian Peninsula in which men and women were in the same classroom. After two years (in which I stuck close to the Norton Anthology), I returned to the United States. In 2005, I moved back to the Middle East, to Salalah, a town in Oman located on the Indian Ocean.

As one of two literature professors among eighteen teachers in the Languages and Translation Department, I am now responsible for a wide variety of classes, from ‘Introduction to Literature’, ‘Poetry’, ‘Drama’, ‘Victorian Literature’, ‘Culture in the Classroom’, and ‘Creative Writing’. In six years, I have written the syllabi for and then taught twenty different courses. As our students actively share class notes, I have to find new texts every time I teach a class. Thus I spend a fair amount of time each semester going through poetry anthologies to try to find new texts, which is how I discovered John Clare.

I found his poem ‘Summer Morning’ in an anthology and thought it was perfect for my students. And as they did, in fact, enjoy it, I looked Clare up in the little reference book The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English[1], then I searched for Clare on the internet. I was thrilled to find The John Clare Page[2] which contained a selection of his poems. My town has one English language bookstore and my university (only seven years old) has a very small library, so all the literary books I have access to I either own or have ordered for the library[3]. To explain the context, Dhofar University is the only university in a large region; it is a ten-hour drive to the nearest large town with a university. In the town of Salalah live approximately 40,000 Omanis, with about 400 Western ex-pats, most of whom work at the port or are connected to the military base.

Dhofar University has 2,000 Omani students and about 25 non-Omani students. Men and women work in the same classrooms but do not interact with each other at all. Many of my students’ parents never had the chance to have formal education and some are illiterate. About 30% of my students speak a non-written, local language as their first language; Arabic is their second language and English is therefore often their third.

Omanis are incredibly pleasant people; it is a joy to live and teach here. As a single, Christian, American woman I have never been harassed or bothered in any way in six years. But I also have to respect the local culture and customs in the same way I teach literature. In simple terms, this means no sex, no drugs, no politics and no religion, which leads me back to the topic of John Clare.

The poetry class, required for all English language majors, is usually the only exposure students will have to poetry in English. The aim of the class is not to present students with the history of English poetry, or even try to give the ‘highlights’ but to discuss twenty poems in order to demonstrate how poetry works in English. Given the fact that the students are working in a foreign language with a foreign teacher, I try to come up with poems which connect in some way to my students’ lives. It can be challenging to come up with twenty new poems every semester which are acceptable within the linguistic and cultural constraints. Modern poetry is often inappropriate for my students and poetry from the 1600s, 1700s and 1800s often uses vocabulary which is too obscure.

After finding such a positive reaction to ‘Summer Morning’, I also taught ‘I Hid My Love’, ‘An Invite, to Eternity’, and ‘July’. My students enjoy John Clare’s poems because what he describes often chimes with my students’ world view. An important theory in teaching a foreign language is the ‘affective filter’, which means that learning is easier when a student feels less anxious and unsettled. Thus, Clare’s familiar settings and metaphors make him understandable and enjoyable for my students.

To show how this works in practice, I will discuss briefly how Clare’s work is conceptualized in Oman starting with ‘I Hid My Love’[4]:

I hid my love when young while I
Couldn’t bear the buzzing of a fly;
I hid my love to my despite
Till I could not bear to look at light.
I dare not gaze upon her face
But left her memory in each place,
Where ere I saw a wildflower lie
I kissed and bade my love goodbye. I met her in the greenest dells
Where dewdrops pearl the wood bluebells;
The lost breeze kissed her bright blue eye
The bee kissed and went singing by.
A sunbeam found a passage there,
A gold chain round her neck so fair;
As secret as the wild bee’s song,
She lay there all the summer long.

I hid my love in field and town
Till e’en the breeze would knock me down;
The bees seemed singing ballads o’er
The fly’s buzz turned a lion’s roar.
And even silence found a tongue
To haunt me all the summer long;
The riddle of nature could not prove
Was nothing else but secret love.

Given my students’ low level of English, I first need to work on the level of vocabulary and basic understanding. The homework assignment for every poetry class is to read and prepare the poem, by which I mean students should look up new words and try to understand the metaphors. In class, I ask the students to read the poem aloud, each student taking one line in turn. Then I take them through the poem line by line, asking for definitions of words and discussing what they say, whilst ensuring they have the right idea. For example, from the first few lines above I would have to go over: ‘buzz’, ‘fly’, ‘despite’, ‘till’, ‘bare’, ‘dare’, ‘gaze’, ‘ere’, and ‘bade’. I would then stop for a minute on ‘bare’ and explain bare as naked, able to withstand (‘bear’) and the large animal (‘bear’).

Next we would go through the poem at the strictly literal level. ‘I hid my love’ is a text my students can understand as it is not acceptable for college age people to make private, much less public, affirmations of affection. ‘I dare not gaze upon her face’ fits perfectly as men should not look at women they are not closely related to, unless in a formal business situation.

‘Wildflower’, ‘greenest dells’, ‘dewdrops’, ‘pearls’, ‘breeze,’ and ‘bee’ are all familiar concepts as Salalah is surrounded on three sides by low mountains which are green during the monsoon season, and most families go there to enjoy picnics in the ‘green dells’. ‘The gold chain round her neck so fair’ also works for the students, as most women carry their wealth in the form of gold rings, bracelets and necklaces. Also, all Salalah women wear a chiffon black headscarf and a light, loose fitting black cloak; the ensemble sometimes leaves the area at the base of the throat bare so one can see the gold necklaces a woman is wearing.

Finally we can get to a more imaginative interpretation and after asking the typical open-ended question of ‘what does this mean?’ one student replied, ‘When you can’t say who you love, you become crazy’. This met with universal approval from the class. ‘Sah, sah, sah’ – a term expressing agreement – I hear the students mutter. This is perhaps not what Clare meant or how it is explicated in scholarly texts, but in the class in which I taught ‘I Hid My Love’, it was the first poem from which the students were able to derive a non-literal meaning on their own. I am not sure how American college students would react, but Omani students read the poem with a sense of identification and understanding.

To change topics for one moment before I discuss the second Clare poem, Herrick might seem a natural fit for my literature classes, but he often strays onto culturally inappropriate topics (wine, religion, and charming young women). One of his most famous poems ‘Corinna Goes a Maying’[5] when read in my class became simplified to ‘it’s a beautiful day so get out of bed early and let’s dance’. As dancing in public is something that none of my students can appreciate, the poem was confusing and alienating. Dancing is segregated by sex and usually only occurs at wedding parties. The idea that the narrator would want a woman to dance in the street was seen as scandalous. ‘Why would she dance in front of men?’ was the main question, resolved by some students saying ‘culture, culture’ the standard response to new or foreign behavior.

Similarly, many poets who use images of Nature and might be supposed to work in a Middle Eastern context, confuse my students with their insistence on being alone in nature, in poems such as ‘Lake Isle of Insifree’[6] by William Butler Yeats or ‘Ode on Solitude’[7] by Alexander Pope. I asked my students about the main theme of John Masefield’s ‘Seafever’[8] which starts:

I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,

And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by…

They answered: don’t go near the beach, no one is there to talk to. Other poems I can use with a little ‘modification’. For example, I explain Marlowe’s famous ‘The Passionate Shepherd to His Love’[9] as a man asking a woman to be his wife: why else would she go to sit with him if they weren’t married?

Thus, Clare’s poems are perfect for teaching in Oman. For example, ‘An Invite, to Eternity’[10] might seem complicated and obscure to Western college students but as women in Salalah move into the house of their husband, the idea of marriage being an ‘invite’ into a new, possibly inhospitable, climate makes sense. One student commented that it is impossible to forget one’s parents, but others chimed in, in Arabic, leading to a heated discussion I couldn’t understand, although I was glad they were at least interested enough to debate. The final class opinion was that it was not a good poem, but yes, for some women ‘it is like that’.  Perhaps this is the first time this poem was read as an accurate description of events.

I would like briefly to mention two other Clare poems that I have used. Living an hour’s drive from the ‘Empty Quarter’ (250,000 square miles of desert) means that my students instantly grasp the lines ‘Till noon burns with its blistering breath / Around, and day dies still as death’[11] from Clare’s ‘July’. The lines are similar to a couplet from ‘Autumn’[12]:

The ground parched and cracked is like overbaked bread,
The greensward all wracked is, bents dried up and dead.

Crickets, flies, a landscape that ‘sleeps’, ‘oven-heated air’, ‘overbaked bread’ and the ‘joy’ of sunset are part of my students’ world and, just as importantly, part of their poetic vocabulary. The linking of heat and death (instead of, for example, heat and love) is normal for my students. Clare’s ‘July’ pairs perfectly with Ahmed Muhammad Al Khalifa’s ‘The Deserted Valley’ which begins ‘I came to it when the valley flowers were withered’[13], and Abdalla Muhammad Jabr’s amusing ‘The Bursting out of Summer’, the second stanza of which begins ‘Tell the heat to spare me / until another day’.[14] Ibrahim al-Hadrani’s ‘The Fountain’ begins ‘My love, we passed by this fountain once, / when our love was flowing freely, / we came back to it when the grass / was dry’.[15] A later line reads ‘You are not guilty; if the grass has withered and wilted and the streams are all dried up’. These recurring motifs of dead grass and dead hearts crisscross back and forth between nineteenth-century England and the Arabian Peninsula of the twenty-first century.

I would like now to return to a line from ‘Summer Morning’: ‘But left her memory in each place’. I believe Clare resonates with my students because of nature-based vocabulary and recognizable themes, and also because his images link to specific tropes in Arabic poetry. This idea of searching for a ‘trace’ of a lover appears often in English as in Spenser’s ‘Lacking my love I go from place to place’ which contains the line ‘I seeke the fields with her late footing signed’.[16] But that search for evidence of one’s lover is even more important in Arabic poetry, given the primacy of tracking in the Bedu desert tradition. For example, here is Fawziyya Abu Khalid’s ‘Butterflies’:

When you abandoned me

I didn’t need an elegy

because you had planted

a flight of butterflies in my heart

whose path I follow

like a Bedouin who knows

how to perfectly trace the footsteps

of his truant mare.[17]

This theme of looking for marks of the existence of one’s love dates backs to the origins of Arabic poetry. There is a collection of seven revered poems in Arabic composed and compiled in the fifth and sixth centuries. They are called ‘the suspended’ (al-Mu’allaqat) because it is traditionally believed that they were embodied in gold thread and hung from the sides of the Ka’ba in Mecca. Each poem is by a different author and is known by the author’s name, for example the ‘Mu’allaqa of Labid’. The poems celebrate and describe the Bedouin lifestyle. Labid’s poem includes the following lines:

The tent marks in Minan are worn away,

where she encamped

and where she alighted…

Stripped bare now,

what once held all that tribe

they left in the early morning

leaving a trench and some thatch…

But why recall Nawar

She’s gone

Her ties and bonds to you

are broken.[18]

Similarly, Antar’s poem, the ‘Black Knight’, includes in the first stanza:

From my camel

I salute the campsite of my longed-for lady

to satisfy my need of her gone absent.

The camp’s a ruin now, deserted by departure. To find

her again will prove difficult.[i]

[i] World Poetry, p. 290.

A third example from the al-Mu’allaqat is provided by Zuhair whose poem begins ‘Does the blackened ruin, situated in the stony ground between Durraj and Mutathallam, which did not speak to me, when addressed, belong to the abode of Ummi Awfa?’[20] As Khaled Mattawa writes, Zuhair is a ‘complex persona that has demonstrated knowledge of love, loss, pain and one that appreciates beauty and has known the value of peace’,[21] a description that could also work for Clare.

A final example of the connection to Clare my students might feel, lies in the fact that I have many students whose family members are shepherds for flocks of goats or who herd cows or camels. Clare’s ‘Summer Morning’ is, to them, an accurate description of a daily event with the ‘village-spire’ translating into a minaret. The image of flocks of sheep or goats is common in Arabic poetry, as in the modern poem, ‘Our Old House’[22] by Saif al-Rahbi:

The sheep have come back from the fields

except for the one a wolf ate.

I can then bring in Sappho’s ‘Star of Evening’ to show how the same image resonates through three different cultures, languages and centuries.


you bring

home everything

which light of day dispersed;

home the sheep herds

home the goat

home the mother’s darling[23]

As I sometimes irreverently refer to my search for texts as a process of ‘getting sonnets on camels’, and this links back to my work on travel writing. Having a background in the description of cultural interaction as well as literature, explains to me a point not often discussed: where a text is taught is often as important as how it is taught. The canonical anthropology text ‘Shakespeare in the Bush’[24], makes it clear that texts can lose their stability if read at a distance from their original culture.

My students were not happy with Catherine’s behavior in Wuthering Heights. They understood that Heathcliff was ‘too low’ for her to marry, and were well-acquainted with the concept of having to marry someone for the family’s sake, but they did not like the fact that she loved Heathcliff but was marrying someone else. Their answer was that Catherine should go to Edgar Linton, ask him for money (which, in Omani terms, he had to give her because he loved her), which she would then give to Heathcliff so that he could go away to become a gentleman. When he came back with money, he would be able to repay Edgar and marry Catherine. My students also suggested that at the end of Rebecca West’s Return of the Soldier, Chris Baldry should take Margaret Allington as his second wife. And if Kitty doesn’t like sharing her husband, she should ask him for a divorce and go back to her father. After all, her child is dead so there is no problem. She is still pretty; she can remarry.

Thus teaching Clare in relation to the pastoral tradition works very differently in Salalah to the way it would work in Moscow, Tokyo or Rio. From my classroom, I can see the mountains surrounding Salalah; when I drive home there are often wild donkeys next to my house; driving to the grocery store, I sometimes have to stop to allow a herd of goats to cross the road. Camels are all owned by someone, but are often left free to wander during the day. If a camel strays downtown and onto main road though, it is herded into the back of a pick-up truck and taken to the ‘camel jail’ where the owner has to pay a fine to release it. Thus the ‘pastoral tradition’ as it might be discussed in abstract in some classrooms is a still a relevant and honoured way of life among my students. Shepherds are not a ‘concept’ for my students – many know, and are related to, shepherds. One of the men in my research group has a father who practices transhumance. He occasionally leaves his job as a broadcast engineer to help his father move his herd of camels to better pasturage.

Thus, I don’t teach Clare the way I expect he is taught within the North American or European contexts. The countryside is not something I can ‘theorize’ about for the majority of my students. Men who have spent the nights of infrequent rain storms trying to get herds of cows, goats or camels out of danger just laugh when I try to explain the idea of the ‘idyllic’ life of shepherds. The ‘idyllic’ for them is watching Arsenal vs. Real Madrid on a large TV.

And in this Clare resonates with my students. I have not yet taught his poem ‘Badger’,[25] but that is an anti-pastoral poem which I think they would understand. I could pair his somber, dispassionate view in ‘Badger’ with Sharif Elmusa’s ‘No Flowers for Flowers’ Sake’,[26] which begins:

I cannot understand the sublime,

patrician ways of flowers.

Cannot tell when a rose is sick,

or why a pansy

doesn’t answer my questions…

I can blame my being such a philistine on my parents

who grow olives and pears and figs and whatnot.

The blossoms of their orange trees are only a prelude

to the fruit. No flowers for flowers’ sake.

The most abstract plant around their house is mint.

Although I cannot teach political poems, ‘Badger’ would also work well with Gregory Orfalea’s ‘The Bomb that Fell on Adbu’s Farm’.[27] This short poem describes the bombing of a Syrian farming village. A woman milking a cow is killed, then:

Next door, in my great-uncle’s newly-

irrigated fields, a bomb fell.

The poem’s beginning has the same distanced tone as Clare’s ‘Badger’ – death is observed with a calm, descriptive eye. Orfalea’s poem ends with an unexpected, Candide-like twist. The bomb fell in a wet field and…

The mud smothered it. The mud

talked to it. The mud wrapped

its death like a mother. And

the bomb with American lettering

did not go off.

Water your gardens always. Always.

This last line would resonate with my students, who long for the summer monsoon season in which mist and drizzle cover the mountains for two months.

As I have argued elsewhere, I do not believe that what students ‘like’ should be the guiding principle in choosing texts. But within the context of my university, I prefer to introduce poems, such as Clare’s, which might develop a cross-cultural understanding. I would like to end with a quotation from one of my student’s papers about Clare which I think shows the benefit of attempting to bridge cultures: ‘John Clare can let us feel and live with him at his buskin’.






A version of this paper was first presented at the Modern Language Association convention in Los Angeles in January 2011. My thanks to Michael Beard and Joe DeFilippo for their support and encouragement.


[1] Ian Ousby, The Cambridge Paperback Guide to Literature in English (Bath: Avon Press, 1996).

[2] ‘Autumn’, ‘I Hid My Love’, ‘An Invite, to Eternity’, ‘July’, and ‘Summer Morning’ all sourced from The John Clare Page, ed. Simon Kövesi, <>.

[3] I have since ordered several Clare volumes for the university library.

[4] ‘I Hid My Love’, The John Clare Page, ed. Simon Kövesi, <>.

[5] Robert Herrick, ‘Corinna Goes a Maying’, <>.

[6] William Butler Yeats, ‘Lake Isle of Insifree’, <>.

[7] Alexander Pope, ‘Ode on Solitude’, <>.

[8] John Masefield, ‘Seafever’, <>.

[9] Christopher Marlowe, ‘The Passionate Shepherd to His Love’, <>.

[10] ‘An Invite, to Eternity’, The John Clare Page, ed. Simon Kövesi, <>. See also Oxford Authors, p. 351.

[11] ‘July’, The John Clare Page, ed. Simon Kövesi, <>.

[12] ‘Autumn’, The John Clare Page, ed. Simon Kövesi, <>.

[13] The Literature of Modern Arabia: An Anthology, ed. Salma Khadra Jayyusi (London: Kegan Paul International, 1988), p. 139.

[14] Literature of Modern Arabia, p. 125.

[15] Literature of Modern Arabia, p. 104.

[16] Edmund Spenser, ‘Lacking my love I go from place to place’, Amoretti, no. 78, <>.

[17] Literature of Modern Arabia, p. 137.

[18] World Poetry, ed. Katherine Washburn and John Major (New York: W.W. Norton, 1998), p. 293.

[19] World Poetry, p. 290.

[20] The Poem of Zuhair, <>.

[21] Khaled Mattawa, ‘Freeways and Rest Houses: Towards an Arab Location on the American Cultural Map’, in Post Gibran: Anthology of New Arab American Writing, ed. by Khaled Mattawa and Munir Akash (Syracuse: Jusoor / Syracuse University Press, 1999), p. 55.

[22] Saif al-Rahbi, ‘Our Old House’, <>.

[23] World Poetry, p. 90.

[24] Laura Bohannan, ‘Shakespeare in the Bush’, <>.

[25] ‘Badger’, in Essential Pleasures: A New Anthology of Poems to Read Aloud, ed. Robert Pinsky (New York: Norton, 2009).

[26] Sharif Elmusa, ‘No Flowers for Flowers’ Sake’, in Flawed Landscape: Poems 1987-2008 (Northampton, MA: Interlink, 2008), p. 41.

[27] Gregory Orfalea, ‘The Bomb that Fell on Abdu’s Farm’, in Inclined to Speak: An Anthology of Contemporary Arab American Poetry, ed. Hayan Charara (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2008), p. 266.