I found the poems in the fields
And only wrote them down
- John Clare, ‘Sighing for Retirement’
Jonathan Bate’s biography of John Clare, which I have just finished reading, is a magnificent account of the life and work of the ‘peasant poet’ (an appellation he hated) that brings you as close to Clare as is conceivable at the distance of some 150 years.
Clare came from the poorest of the agricultural labouring classes, and continued working as a labourer long after he had attained literary celebrity. Helpston, the Northamptonshire village where he grew up, was impoverished, and it was remarkable that such a background should produce any kind of writer, let alone, one as gifted and well-read as Clare . This latter point highlights one of many misconceptions about Clare that Bate is keen to correct in this outstanding work of scholarly research: Clare may not have been confident about his punctuation and grammar, but he read widely in the poetry of his day and was an avid collector of books.
Bate’s book is rich in many ways. It is a compelling narrative of Clare’s life, drawing on Clare’s own voluminous writings and the letters and papers of many others who knew him in his lifetime. It is a deeply moving account of the mind of a man who often felt himself to be an outsider among his own countrymen, and who spent his last decades confined in asylums. Bate explores the web of Clare’s friendships and literary connections – with publishers and patrons. Calmly and methodically he pares away the myths surrounding Clare, discussing the intricacies and confusions surrounding the various editions of his work, and the misconceptions arising from the first biography published in 1865 by Frederick Martin.
The Helpston of his childhood was not quite so illiterate as Martin makes out, but it was nevertheless a place of grinding rural poverty. Clare’s London acquaintances treated him better than Martin implies, but he certainly felt disoriented in the city. Drink was an important factor in his decline, but probably not as uniquely important as Martin suggests.
We learn of the kindness shown to Clare and his family by his wealthy patrons and admirers, though Bates notes that invitations to Milton Hall were not to visit Lord Milton, the local grandee, but to spend time with his servants. Among these were self-educated, intellectual men who would become some of Clare’s closest friends and companions – Tyrell Artis, the household steward, a keen antiquarian and archaeologist; and Joseph Henderson – ornithologist, botanist and entomologist, who had a fair knowledge of Latin and French – who was head-gardener. They lent each other books and shared literary gossip.
A powerful factor in Clare’s alienation was the sense of the world around him changing beyond recognition. For Clare , Enclosure meant the end of the world he had known from birth. Between 1809 and 1820, through Clare’s adolescence and early adult life, Helpston and the neighbouring parishes were steadily enclosed, new public roads pushed through and rights of way restricted. Fences, gates and No Trespassing signs went up. Trees came down. Though Clare could still breathe the air of his paradise in Helpston, he felt an ‘alien’ at the centre of his own universe. Bate quotes EP Thompson as stating, “Clare may be described, without hindsight, as a poet of ecological protest: he was not writing about man here and nature there, but lamenting a threatened equilibrium in which both were involved.”
By Langley Bush I roam but the bush hath left its hill;
On Cowper Hill I stray, ’tis a desert strange and chill;
And spreading Lea Close Oak ere decay has penned its will,
To the axe of the spoiler and self-interest fell a prey;
And Crossberry Way and old Round Oak’s narrow lane
With its hollow trees like pulpits, I shall never see again;
Inclosure like a Buonoparte let not a thing remain,
It levelled every bush and tree and levelled every hill
And hung the moles for traitors – though the brook is running still,
It runs a naked brook, cold and chill.
Bate explores how Clare gained his distinctive poetical voice from the late 1820s onwards, as he “overcame the ‘deadness’ of mere description through the particular life of emotion and experience with which they were infused.” A fine example is ‘The Nightingale’s Nest’, written in 1832, which combines close and detailed observation of the bird, the nest and its environment, with an intimate and conversational voice. Written in the present tense, it is as if we are walking with Clare and he is whispering to us, drawing attention to little details and remembering childhood encounters with the bird:
Hark! there she is as usual – let’s be hush -
For in this black-thorn clump, if rightly guest,
Her curious house is hidden. Part aside
These hazel branches in a gentle way,
And stoop right cautious ’neath the rustling boughs
A central argument that Bate puts forward is that the poetry has never been published in the form that Clare intended. The volumes of Clare published in his lifetime, demonstrates, are travesties of his intention, omitting his earthier interests and frankly rewriting much of his work. He offers, as an extreme example, ‘The Shepherd’s Calendar’, in which at one point the manuscript runs:
The starnel crowds that dim the muddy light
& puddock circling round its lazy flight
Round the wild sweeing wood in motion slow
Before it perches on the oaks below.
The editor ‘improved’ this as follows:
And whirr of starling crowds, that dim the light
With mimic darkness, in their numerous flight;
Or shrilly noise of puddocks’ feeble wail,
As in slow circles round the woods they sail.
In an appendix, Bate explains how, in the 20th century, there was a reaction to this: with editors pruning away all the rewrites ans even the corrections to spelling and grammar that would make the texts easier for the reader. He also touches, in a diplomatically-worded passage, on the controversial stance of Professor Eric Robinson, who for the past 35 years has claimed copyright on all Clare’s poems with the result that a definitive edition of his work has been stymied.
‘The Nightingale’s Nest’
Up this green woodland-ride let’s softly rove,
And list the nightingale – she dwells just here.
Hush ! let the wood-gate softly clap, for fear
The noise might drive her from her home of love ;
For here I’ve heard her many a merry year -
At morn, at eve, nay, all the live-long day,
As though she lived on song. This very spot,
Just where that old-man’s-beard all wildly trails
Rude arbours o’er the road, and stops the way -
And where that child its blue-bell flowers hath got,
Laughing and creeping through the mossy rails -
There have I hunted like a very boy,
Creeping on hands and knees through matted thorn
To find her nest, and see her feed her young.
And vainly did I many hours employ :
All seemed as hidden as a thought unborn.
And where those crimping fern-leaves ramp among
The hazel’s under boughs, I’ve nestled down,
And watched her while she sung ; and her renown
Hath made me marvel that so famed a bird
Should have no better dress than russet brown.
Her wings would tremble in her ecstasy,
And feathers stand on end, as ’twere with joy,
And mouth wide open to release her heart
Of its out-sobbing songs. The happiest part
Of summer’s fame she shared, for so to me
Did happy fancies shapen her employ ;
But if I touched a bush, or scarcely stirred,
All in a moment stopt. I watched in vain :
The timid bird had left the hazel bush,
And at a distance hid to sing again.
Lost in a wilderness of listening leaves,
Rich Ecstasy would pour its luscious strain,
Till envy spurred the emulating thrush
To start less wild and scarce inferior songs ;
For while of half the year Care him bereaves,
To damp the ardour of his speckled breast ;
The nightingale to summer’s life belongs,
And naked trees, and winter’s nipping wrongs,
Are strangers to her music and her rest.
Her joys are evergreen, her world is wide -
Hark! there she is as usual – let’s be hush -
For in this black-thorn clump, if rightly guest,
Her curious house is hidden. Part aside
These hazel branches in a gentle way,
And stoop right cautious ’neath the rustling boughs,
For we will have another search to day,
And hunt this fern-strewn thorn-clump round and round ;
And where this reeded wood-grass idly bows,
We’ll wade right through, it is a likely nook :
In such like spots, and often on the ground,
They’ll build, where rude boys never think to look -
Aye, as I live ! her secret nest is here,
Upon this white-thorn stump ! I’ve searched about
For hours in vain. There! put that bramble by -
Nay, trample on its branches and get near.
How subtle is the bird ! she started out,
And raised a plaintive note of danger nigh,
Ere we were past the brambles ; and now, near
Her nest, she sudden stops – as choking fear,
That might betray her home. So even now
We’ll leave it as we found it : safety’s guard
Of pathless solitudes shall keep it still.
See there! she’s sitting on the old oak bough,
Mute in her fears ; our presence doth retard
Her joys, and doubt turns every rapture chill.
Sing on, sweet bird! may no worse hap befall
Thy visions, than the fear that now deceives.
We will not plunder music of its dower,
Nor turn this spot of happiness to thrall ;
For melody seems hid in every flower,
That blossoms near thy home. These harebells all
Seem bowing with the beautiful in song ;
And gaping cuckoo-flower, with spotted leaves,
Seems blushing of the singing it has heard.
How curious is the nest ; no other bird
Uses such loose materials, or weaves
Its dwelling in such spots : dead oaken leaves
Are placed without, and velvet moss within,
And little scraps of grass, and, scant and spare,
What scarcely seem materials, down and hair ;
For from men’s haunts she nothing seems to win.
Yet Nature is the builder, and contrives
Homes for her children’s comfort, even here ;
Where Solitude’s disciples spend their lives
Unseen, save when a wanderer passes near
That loves such pleasant places. Deep adown,
The nest is made a hermit’s mossy cell.
Snug lie her curious eggs in number five,
Of deadened green, or rather olive brown ;
And the old prickly thorn-bush guards them well.
So here we’ll leave them, still unknown to wrong,
As the old woodland’s legacy of song.
In 1837 Clare was admitted to Dr. Allen’s High Beech Asylum in Epping Forest, where, interestingly, for a time Alfred Lord Tennyson and his brother Septimus were also residents. After four years he absconded and embarked on the famous journey from Essex. It took him only four days to walk the hundred miles home; without money, he was reduced to eating roadside grass, which he found as tasty as bread. Bate’s account of this walk is deeply moving. A few miles from home, a woman leapt down from a cart and tried to persuade him to get in with her. He thought she was mad. In fact, she was his wife.
‘The rest is near silence’
The last 23 years of Clare’s life are desperately sad. On 28 December 1841 Clarfe was certified insane for the second time and admitted to Northampton General Lunatic Asylum. His wife seems never to have visited him. His friend William F Knight (who helped him finish some 800 poems between 1841 and 1849) left the vicinity. By 1852 he was virtually invisible to the outside world, and although generally calm around others, deeply troubled in himself: ‘They have cut off my head and picked out all the letters of the alphabet.. all the vowels and all the consonants and brought them out through my ears – and then they want me to write poetry! I can’t do it’.
In every language upon earth,
On every shore, o’er every sea,
I gave my name immortal birth
And kept my spirit with the free.
- John Clare, from A Vision
‘On the day that this poem was written, 2 August 1844′, writes Jonathan Bate, ‘the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum witnessed a triumph, not a desolation. There is a thin partition between the delusion of madness and the highest reach of humankind’s imaginative vision’.
Yet the period after his march from Essex was highly productive. His most sustained piece was a prose description of Autumn, written, Bates says, ‘with the precision of observation that is his perpetual hallmark’:
solitary persons are sideing up the hedges and thrusting the brushwood in the thin places and creeps which the swine made from one ground or field into another and stopping gaps made in harvest by gleaners and labourers – the larks start up from the brown grass in the meadows where a couple of flutters and fights and drops out of sight as suddenly again into the grass . . .The rawky mornings now are often frosty- and the grass and wild herbs are often covered with rime as white as a shower of snow . . . there is a pair of harrows painted red standing on end against the thorn hedge and in another ground an old plough stands on its beam ends against a dotterel tree.
In a closing chapter, Bate argues that it was not until the twentieth century that other writers started noticing such ordinary things for their own sake.
Those red harrows and the old plough could as well have been observed and valued by one of the great twentieth-century poets of what Gerard Manley Hopkins would call ‘thisness’. One thinks of Edward Thomas’s ‘tall nettles’ covering rusty harrow and ‘plough long worn out’, and indeed of Wllliam Carlos Williams’s red wheelbarrow, upon which ‘so much / depends’.
Tall Nettles cover up, as they have done
These many springs, the rusty harrow, the plough
Long worn out, and the roller made of stone:
Only the elm butt tops the nettles now.
This corner of the farmyard I like most:
As well as any bloom upon a flower
I like the dust on the nettles, never lost
Except to prove the sweetness of a shower.
- Edward Thomas, ‘Tall Nettles’
The discovery of Clare was one part of the alchemy that transformed Thomas…from prose writer to poet during the course of the First World War. His poetry, written on the Westrern Front, shares with Clare’s a responsiveness to the seasons, a care for small things such as bird’s nests and ponds, and an alertness to the power of memory to lodge itself in the seemingly inconsequential, as when he notices dust on ‘Tall Nettles’ in the corner of a farmyard. Thomas learned from Clare how emotional intensity could be buried below apparently simplicity of natural description.
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
- William Carlos Williams, ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’
Bate recalls that New York city poet John Ashbery has a prose-poem, ‘For John Clare’, that ‘improvises on his voice in a manner akin to that of jazz’:
Kind of empty in the way it sees everything, the earth gets to its feet and salutes the sky…There is so much to be seen everywhere that it’s like not getting used to it, only there is so much it never feels new, never any different…The whole scene is fixed in your mind, the music all present, as though you could see each note as well as hear it. I say this because there is an uneasiness in things just now. Waiting for something to be over before you are forced to notice it. The pollarded trees scarcely bucking the wind- and yet it’s keen, it makes you fall over. Clabbered sky. Seasons that pass with a rush.
Bates also notes how several Irish poets have ‘made Clare’s cause their own’. He references ‘Journey Out of Essex or, John Clare’s Escape From the Madhouse’ by Michael Longley:
I am lying with my head
Over the edge of the world,
Unpicking my whereabouts
Like the asylum’s name
That they stitch on the sheets.
Sick now with bad weather
Or a virus from the fens,
I dissolve in a puddle
My biographies of birds
And the names of flowers.
That they many recuperate
Alongside the stunned mouse,
The hedgehog rolled in leaves,
I am putting to bed
In this rheumatic ditch
The boughs of my harvest-home,
My wives, one on either side,
And keeping my head low as
A lark’s nest, my feet toward
Helpston and the pole star.
Tom Paulin’s ‘The Writing Lark’ is a poetic ‘Letter to John Clare’ that delights in his rough dialect:
Dear Mr Clare
Dear John Clare
I’ll start with pudge
- pudge not budge
because pudge is a smashed puddle
A muddy puddle on a track
Or a whole clatter
Scattered like broken plates
- shiny plates
on scoggy scroggy marshland
- each pudge
is like piss cupped in a cow-clap
so I imagine a boot . . .
‘These lines’, writes Bates, are written with an intuitive understanding of the elemental quality of Clare’s language and rhythms – and of the fact that he was at root a walking poet’.
And he quotes from the poem that RS Thomas wrote in tribute on the bicentennary of his birth in 1993:
Young, he was in his own
sky, rising at mornings
over unbrushed dew,
with no-one to introduce
him to earth’s bustling creatures
but his love. It was love
brought him, as it brings
all of us in the end, face
against glass, to demand
brokenly of the anonymous: Who am I?
Bate’s closing wiords are from Jean-Paul Sartre:
‘Genius is not a gift, but the way out a person invents in desperate circumstances’.
In 2009 Clare’s original home in Helpston was renovated and opened as a centre dedicated to the literary and natural history of early 19th-century Britain. At the opening Jonathan Bate said Clare had hugely influenced modern poets writing on the environment. “Many of the young poets interested in the environment today, such as John Burnside, Paul Farley, and Alice Oswald, are deeply influenced by Clare,” he said. “It’s partly his style of writing about nature with great precision, but also his concern with the local. His imagination is always grounded in a sense of place, which is a huge issue for modern poets – being universal by being local.”
Safe in your place deep in the earth
That’s when they’ll know what you were really worth.
Forgotten while you’re here
Remembered for a while
A much updated ruin
From a much outdated style.
Fame is but a fruit tree
So very unsound.
It can never flourish
Till its stock is in the ground.
So men of fame
Can never find a way
Till time has flown
Far from their dying day.
- ‘Fruit Tree’ by Nick Drake
The silkscreen images in this post are by Carry Ackroyd from here ‘John Clare series’.