Dead poet's propriety

August 13, 1999

Having spent his life opposing the 'fence of ownership', 19th-century poet John Clare is now at the centre ofa copyright spat. Jennifer Wallace reports on this ironic twist of fate

A poet is a nightingale who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds," wrote the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1821. One might well think of poets as just such free spirits, drawing inspiration from their imaginations and from nature, to be enjoyed and discussed by anyone who cares to study them. But that is not always the case.

This summer, Romantic critics are rivetted by a dispute over the copyright of one early 19th-century poet, John Clare, which highlights the naivety in assuming anyone is at liberty to be a nightingale, past or present.

The argument has been sparked by the publication of Clare's Love Poems by Simon Kovesi, 28, an enthusiastic young scholar who recently completed his PhD on Clare at Nottingham Trent University and who is now a tutor at the University of Glasgow. Kovesi compiled his book from the manuscripts of Clare's poems that are held in the Northampton Central Library and the Peterborough Museum because he loves the poetry. "I want to make Clare as popular and accessible and cheaply available as possible," he says.

Priced Pounds 7, Kovesi's book, published by Bangkok-based M&C Services, is available by mail order from Glasgow. Kovesi's right to publish Clare's poems, however, is being disputed by Eric Robinson, 75, retired professor of history at the University of Massachusetts. For many years he has claimed the copyright to all of Clare's unpublished poems and many of his published works. Since the 1960s, Robinson has been gradually publishing all of Clare's work in many volumes through Oxford University Press. Robinson bought "all the rights in the published and unpublished works of John Clare", according to the deed, from the publishing house Whitakers in 1964 for Pounds 1, after trawling the archives to discover who actually owned the copyright to the Clare estate. "Nobody was interested in those days," Robinson reflects. "I think it was a brilliant piece of entrepreneurial effort."

Robinson wanted to get copyright in order, as he puts it, "to clear his back", so that he would not have to continually ask permission to publish Clare. He has spent the past four decades producing numerous Clare editions and establishing the previously little-known poet as "one of the best poets of the early 19th century". But, according to Hugh Haughton, a Clare scholar based at the University of York, it has also meant that Clare's poetry is "enclosed under the ownership and direction of one figure, Eric Robinson", who controls all editorial access to the manuscripts held in the public libraries.

This control has led Robinson to a dogged pursuit of any copyright infringers. Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney and Margaret Drabble have all been taken to task in the past for quoting Clare without asking his permission. Artist Carry Akroyd, who incorporates individual lines from Clare's poems within her paintings, was summoned by Robinson and "went round nervously" to be given the go-ahead to proceed with her work.

Although Robinson is motivated partly by the simple desire to be rewarded for years of Clare scholarship and his ingenuity in procuring copyright in the first place, his doggedness is also fuelled by disagreements over how best to edit Clare's poetry.

Clare's original drafts of his poems were frequently unpunctuated and misspelt, and the few poems that were published in his lifetime were corrected and polished up by his publishers. According to Kovesi, this was common practice in the period, and writers expected their editors to correct their manuscript mistakes. But Robinson believes that the manuscript versions of the poems are the authentic ones, which subsequent editors traduced. Thus, in Robinson's editions he reproduces Clare's original inconsistencies.

Under the 1988 Copyright Act, copyright to a writer's published work lasts for 80 years after his or her death. Copyright to a writer's unpublished work lasts for 50 years after the date the work is first published or after December 30 1989, whichever is earlier. "The fear has always been that if copyright is too restrictive it can act as a form of censorship," says Kate Pool, from the Society of Authors. "Copyright tries to be a balance between giving earning power and control to the person who creates something and trying to foster academic inquiry and scholarship."

The issue came to the fore in March when the Ted Hughes estate refused permission for academic journal Textual Practice to publish quotations from Hughes's Birthday Letters in an article about trauma literature. Further debate is likely when an unauthorised biography of Hughes is published in New York.

Robert Woof, director of the Wordsworth Trust in Grasmere, which holds the rights to the Wordsworth manuscripts, feels that owning copyright to a poet should not be used as a means to stop various editions of the text. While multiple volumes of the official Cornell Wordsworth are now going through the press, Woof has also given permission to other scholars to produce their own versions: "It would be disappointing if you could not have the scholarly community able to feel that debate about the text was open."

But Robinson believes that he is producing the only authoritative text of Clare and that he has a responsibility to protect his poet from erroneous editing. "I'm doing what I think Clare would approve of and I hope that the old boy will stand me a pint when we meet, wherever we meet," he growls.

So does Robinson have a case? According to Jonathan Bate, who is writing a biography of the poet, it all depends on how Whitakers got hold of the copyright in the 19th century. There is uncertainty, for example, over whether Whitakers acquired rights from Clare's publisher or from his widow, and therefore whether the copyright covered just the published poems or whether it extended to the unpublished papers as well. Bate has also found a letter that suggests that Whitakers got rid of its rights to some of Clare's best unpublished poems known as The Midsummer Cushion in 1837. "It is a very complicated and murky situation," he says. "I welcome the fact that what Kovesi has done has meant that the situation will have to be examined in copyright court."

So far, Robinson has only contacted his solicitors and fired off a stiff letter to Kovesi. But both sides are gearing up for a fight.

Kovesi's publisher, Mike Gorman, who served time in a Bangkok jail for libelling a member of the government in 1982 and has devoted much of his life to high-profile crusades for press freedom, is determined to expose what he thinks is an absurd situation. "It is rather like somebody claiming copyright for King Lear," he says. "This is a matter of the freedom to enjoy our literary heritage without somebody else intervening. I look forward to seeing Eric Robinson trying to establish copyright to an author who died in 1864."

Robinson is equally fired up. Banging the kitchen table, he reminds me how many years he has been editing Clare and how "despicable" it is that the "Kovesis of this world" should not acknowledge his scholarship. "I'm too old to expect justice in this world, but I do know how to fight," he barks.

Other scholars in the Romantic community are holding their breath awaiting the results of this case but are quietly supporting what Gorman sees as "the courage" of Kovesi, who is doing what many Clare scholars have wanted to do for a long time. And, with youthful idealism, he is happy to blaze a trail. "This edition is a small step towards my ultimate goal of relieving Clare's work from the constraining limitations of a nonsensical copyright," Kovesi says. "I expect other editors and publishers to follow suit."

Jennifer Wallace is director of studies in English at Peterhouse, Cambridge.

JOHN CLARE: A FREE SPIRIT

John Clare was born in the village of Helpston, Northamptonshire, in 1793.He published his first collection, Poems Descriptive of Rural Life, in 1820. Demand for his work waned, and although he wrote about 3,500 poems, not many were published in his lifetime. In 1841 he was committed to an asylum, where he died in 1864.

Much of his writing was concerned with the effects of theenclosure of common land and with the iniquity of what he called "the fence of ownership".

Jonathan Bate says: "It is deeply ironic that Clare should still be possessed by an individual so long after his death when the whole issue of possession, enclosure and him as a victim of other people's ownership was so central to his life and his work."

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