Terrific In  Our Time this morning (the 750th broadcast!) on John Clare, with his biographer Jonathan Bate joining Melvyn Bragg and other experts to discuss the Northamptonshire labouring class poet. The small cottage in Helpston he shared with his parents, his wife Patty and their six children still stands, now renovated by the John Clare Trust.

Melvyn was magnificently outraged, as always, by the enclosures: ‘This open land, which had been common land for centuries, should be privatised; and the privatisation consisted of fencing it off, barring ordinary people from it, diverting streams, cutting down woods, taking it over and trespassers were prosecuted.’ Clare, of course, decried the enclosures; in ‘The Moors’ (complete poem) he wrote of how they robbed his fellow-countrymen of their livliehoods, nature of its unbounded freedom, and he of his childhood:

Each little tyrant with his little sign
Shows where man claims earth glows no more divine
But paths to freedom and to childhood dear
A board sticks up to notice ‘no road here’
And on the tree with ivy overhung
The hated sign by vulgar taste is hung
As tho’ the very birds should learn to know
When they go there they must no further go
Thus, with the poor, scared freedom bade goodbye
And much they feel it in the smothered sigh
And birds and trees and flowers without a name
All sighed when lawless law’s enclosure came

John Clare's cottage still stands in Helpston
John Clare’s cottage still stands in Helpston

In ‘Fallen Elm’ (complete poem), Clare condemned the enclosing landowner who cut down his favourite tree: ‘With axe at root he felled thee to the ground, And barked of freedom’, concluding:

Thus came enclosure – ruin was its guide,
But freedom’s cottage soon was thrust aside
And workhouse prisons raised upon the site.
Een nature’s dwellings far away from men,
The common heath, became the spoiler’s prey;
The rabbit had not where to make his den
And labour’s only cow was drove away.
No matter – wrong was right and right was wrong,
And freedom’s bawl was sanction to the song.
– Such was thy ruin, music-making elm;
The right of freedom was to injure thine:
As thou wert served, so would they overwhelm
In freedom’s name the little that is mine.
And there are knaves that brawl for better laws
And cant of tyranny in stronger power
Who glut their vile unsatiated maws
And freedom’s birthright from the weak devour.

John Clare
John Clare

As always, Melvyn chaired an excellent discussion which explored his roots as a farm labourer who learned to read and write at the village dame school, paying for his lessons with money saved from his earnings. Fellow-panellist Simon Kövesi emphasised the vitality a village culture of songs, balladry and festivals which nurtured Clare’s sensibility (his father was a fiddler who sang traditional ballads at village gatherings) and Clare was drawn to verse after dipping into a book brought to the field where they were working by a fellow labourer.  He began writing his own verse, and achieved his first literary success with Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery.

The discussion ranged over Clare’s astonishing eye for detail in his poems’ descriptions of the natural world he observed as he laboured in the fields around his village or tramped for miles through the local countryside, his initial literary success and then neglect, and finally his declining mental health and many years spent in asylums. Largely forgotten in the 19th century, John Clare is now seen as one of the great poets of his age.

At one point the panellists made an interesting comparison between between Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ and Clare’s ‘The Nightingale’s Nest’ (complete poem). As Mina Gorji noted, while Keats never actually sees his nightingale and thought that Clare merely described his bird, Clare felt that Keats – for whom the nightingale becomes a symbol for poetrty and music – described things ‘as they appeared to his fancies’, not as though he’d seen them for himself. Gorji celebrated the informality of Clare’s poem, the way ‘he takes you by the hand and brings you to see this nightingale, at one point getting onto his hands and knees to watch her,’ and the intricate detail with he describes the bird and the textures of her 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.

[…]

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 discussion concluded, naturally, with the panellists reviewing the years of Clare’s mental illness and incarceration in asylums. I recall a fine article by George Monbiot in the Guardian a few years ago in which Monbiot made the connection between our present ills and Clare’s own distress:

As Jonathan Bate records in his magnificent biography, there were several possible causes of the “madness” that had Clare removed to an asylum in 1837: bipolar disorder, a blow to the head, malaria (then a common complaint on the edge of the fens). But it seems to me that a contributing factor must have been the loss of almost all he knew and loved. His work is a remarkable document of life before and after social and environmental collapse, and the anomie that resulted.

What Clare suffered was the fate of indigenous peoples torn from their land and belonging everywhere. His identity crisis, descent into mental agony and alcohol abuse, are familiar blights in reservations and outback shanties the world over. His loss was surely enough to drive almost anyone mad; our loss surely enough to drive us all a little mad.

For while economic rationalisation and growth have helped to deliver us from a remarkable range of ills, they have also torn us from our moorings, atomised and alienated us, sent us out, each in his different way, to seek our own identities. We have gained unimagined freedoms, we have lost unimagined freedoms – a paradox Clare explores in his wonderful poem The Fallen Elm. Our environmental crisis could be said to have begun with the enclosures. The current era of greed, privatisation and the seizure of public assets was foreshadowed by them: they prepared the soil for these toxic crops.

On In Our Time, Jonathan Bate referred to Clare’s great poem ‘I Am’, composed when Clare was an inmate of the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum, isolated by his mental illness from his family, friends, and the countryside he loved:

I am – yet what I am none cares or knows;
My friends forsake me like a memory lost:
I am the self-consumer of my woes –
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shadows in love’s frenzied stifled throes
And yet I am, and live – like vapours tossed
Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life or joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;
Even the dearest that I loved the best
Are strange – nay, rather, stranger than the rest.
I long for scenes where man hath never trod
A place where woman never smiled or wept
There to abide with my Creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept,
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie
The grass below – above the vaulted sky.

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10 thoughts on “John Clare celebrated in terrific 750th episode of In Our Time

  1. How strange. I just picked up Clare’s Selected Poems (edited by Bate) on Saturday and am about half way through! I’ll have to check this programme out. I’d read smaller selections of his poetry before but never a substantial collection. I was born and raised in Northamptonshire so can relate to his country scenes, and some of his local dialect. Although not considered part of the elite of Romantic poets he shares their directness, love of the rustic and suspicion of reason unmoderated by imagination. I was struck by his lines in the Shepherd’s Calendar where (as he often did) he pondered on his childhood and the magic that fables and folk tales were then able to exercise on his mind. He regretted that he could no longer be stirred in that way and wrote:
    But reason like a winter’s day
    Nipped childhood’s visions all away,
    Nor left behind one withering flower
    To cherish in a lonely hour.

    Steve

  2. Gerry, When I was a social worker I had clients at the St Andrews Hospital, Northampton where John Clare was long resident.

    Each time i drove into the grounds i would mutter to myself :

    “I am—yet what I am none cares or knows; My friends forsake me like a memory lost: I am the self-consumer of my woes”

    I really liked this mornings elucidation of his life – someone cares!

    Andy

    >

  3. “I Am” has made me cry every time I read it since childhood (I related to it even then). I was born and raised in Northampton and lived next to the asylum. At preparatory school we were given a project on John Clare which first fired my passion for poetry. We studied his poem “Description of a Thunderstorm” I think was the title.

  4. The last line of ‘I Am’ (The grass below – above the vaulted sky’) always reminds me of John Lennon’s lines in ‘Imagine’: ‘No hell below us | Above us only sky’. In the context of the poem, Clare’s line has great pathos.

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