Poet Laureate of the English Shires

A hundred and fifty years after his death, John Clare remains the
greatest lyricist of country life

Critique Literature
John Clare:

Elegiac recorder of a tranquil world that was already vanishing. This portrait was commissioned by his publisher, John Taylor  (credit: National Portrait Gallery)

Love of the countryside, idealisation of the “organic” village community, gardening and bird-watching, respect for local traditions and folk customs: all these things are often celebrated in discussions of the nature of Englishness. The special place held in the English imagination by painters such as Constable and Samuel Palmer, together with composers such as Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius, is testimony to the force of the English rural muse. One important dimension of Shakespeare’s multifaceted qualification for the title of “national poet” is his attunement to what might be called “deep England”, as manifested in his witty portrayal of small-town life in The Merry Wives of Windsor and his dramatisation of the voice of the mouldering shires in the great military recruiting scene in Henry IV Part 2, set in a Gloucestershire orchard and replete with references to the Cotswold hills and the price of bullocks at market.

But Shakespeare spent most of his working life in the City of London. We have to look elsewhere for the authentic poetic voice of English rural life. William Wordsworth is traditionally invoked in this regarded, but his is a poetry less of village communities than of sublime and near-empty places — lakes and mountainsides in which the poet communes with a vast landscape that is shared only by a solitary reaper, a wandering leech-gatherer or a dogged shepherd. Where, the English often wonder on Burns night, is our equivalent of the divine Robbie, the ploughman poet, the Scottish bard? Where is the poet of the English land, English labour and the English pub? The answer to that question has been staring us in the face for nearly 200 years, but it is still forgotten more often than it is remembered. What better time, then, for some serious remembering than the 150th anniversary of the death of the man who deserves the title of our English Burns?

John Clare was born in the village of Helpston, Northamptonshire, in July 1793. His father was a casual agricultural labourer with very little formal education but a great love of songs and ballads (and beer). As a boy Clare benefited from some part-time local schooling, but also worked as a ploughboy, a reaper, a thresher and a pot-scourer in the kitchen of the inn next door to his family’s cottage. He also became a voracious reader, discovering James Thomson’s elegant landscape poem The Seasons around the age of 13. His love of poetry set him apart from his peers, made him seem like an oddball. The paradox of Clare’s life and work commences here: his poetry seems to offer the reader an inalienable vision of a life lived at one with a sense of place and yet the very act of communicating through poetry in a largely illiterate rural community was a form of displacement. To read the seasons in a book was to begin to lose the ability to live at ease with the seasons of the working life of farm and field.

Clare’s sense of alienation from the quotidian life of his village was compounded by the intensity of his response to change. It is not an uncommon experience to lose your first great love — for Clare that was a girl called Mary Joyce, whose parents disapproved of him because as yeoman farmers they were a cut above the hired labouring class. But Clare felt the loss with uncommon depth: the memory of Mary Joyce haunted him for the rest of his days, like that of childhood itself.

Analogously, the inhabited spaces of his childhood disappeared during the very period when he was becoming a man. In 1809, Parliament passed an Enclosure Act for Helpston and the surrounding parishes. Under the old “open field” system that had endured for centuries in this part of England — endured for much longer than in many other counties, such as Warwickshire, where questions of enclosure troubled Shakespeare — there had been a sense of the villagers sharing the ownership of the land and participating in the time-honoured rhythms and rituals of the rural year, its patterns of work and holiday or holy day. With enclosure, what Clare called “the fence of ownership” closed down the landscape and imposed a strictly economic ethic on the relationship between the villagers and the land. The “commons” — meaning both the common heathland and the “commoners” (the labouring people, as opposed to the rentier class of proprietors) — were under threat. Many of Clare’s greatest poems are elegies for the commons, protests against the enclosure:

Moors losing from the sight, far, smooth and blea,
Where swept the plover in its pleasure free,
Are vanished now with commons wild and gay
As poets’ visions of life’s early day.
Mulberry bushes where the boy would run
To fill his hands with fruit are grubbed and gone,
And hedgerow briars — flower lovers overjoyed
Came and got flower pots — these are all destroyed,
And sky-bound moors in mangled garb are left
Like mighty giants of their limbs bereft.
Fence now meets fence in owners’ little bounds
Of field and meadow, large as garden grounds,
In little parcels little minds to please
With men and flocks imprisoned, ill at ease . . .
Each little tyrant with his little sign
Shows, where man claims, earth glows no more divine.
On 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 though the very birds should learn to know
When they go there they must no further go.
Thus, with the poor, scared freedom bade good-bye
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.

In lines such as these, from a poem called “The Moors”, the emotional development of the poet is precisely elided with the changes in the land and the effect of those changes on his community. In curtailing the right to roam, the new landowners simultaneously blocked off the route to freedom and the path of access to happy childhood memory. Furthermore, the community for which Clare speaks is an extended one, embracing birds and flowers as well as fellow human labourers. Clare regarded the unnecessary enclosure of the land as an impediment to humankind’s capacity to dwell harmoniously upon the earth. Jean-Jacques Rousseau compared “the state of nature” to two things: childhood and a relationship to the land that is anterior to the proprietorial. In Clare’s world, these two states were simultaneously foreclosed by enclosure. Poetry was the only place of freedom that remained to him.

He was fortunate that there was a thriving local publishing industry — the nearby town of Stamford had an unexpectedly rich cultural life, partly because it was on the main coaching route to London. In 1820, Clare’s first book, Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery, was published, followed the next year by The Village Minstrel and other Poems. His publisher, John Taylor, brought him to London, where he was fêted and had his portrait painted — he looks uncomfortable in his Sunday finery. A clever marketing campaign branded him as “The Northamptonshire Peasant Poet”. Comparisons with Burns were made explicit in the press coverage.

Clare enjoyed the company of other writers: thanks to Taylor and his circle, he met Wordsworth and Coleridge as well as the essayists William Hazlitt, Charles Lamb and Thomas De Quincey. He and John Keats passed each other like ships in the night, one of them arriving in Taylor’s office just after the other had left. But he felt ill at ease in the city. Then again, when he returned home, now a local celebrity, he sensed the jealousy among the villagers: as Hazlitt once remarked, the trouble with rural life is that everybody knows everybody’s business and petty meanness is readily compounded into something more damaging when a community is small, closed and unused to change. Once again, Clare saw himself becoming an outsider. He retreated to the woods and wandered the footpaths. He turned within himself. In the middle years of the 1820s he endured periods of severe depression.

His relationship with John Taylor was strained by arguments over editorial intervention, royalty payments and the delays surrounding his third book, The Shepherd’s Calendar: with Village Stories and other Poems. To be fair to Taylor, it did not help that, following the death of Lord Byron in 1824 and the onset of a recession, the publishing industry had gone into decline, especially at the rarefied end of poetry as opposed to the popular market of cookbooks and uplifting religious works. The Shepherd’s Calendar finally limped into print in 1827, but it fell on stony ground. Taste had changed and Clare had missed his moment.

In 1832, Clare’s patrons and friends persuaded him to leave Helpston and move to a better-appointed cottage, with its own garden and orchard, in the village of Northborough, some three and half miles away. To us, the distance seems negligible, but for Clare — a poetic miniaturist, an inhabiter of locality — removal to Northborough meant exile from all that he knew and all in which he felt secure. He marked his departure with a great poem of homelessness called “The Flitting”, in which he imagined even his favourite armchair feeling displaced in the new house.

The second cottage — which remains in private hands today, in contrast to the Helpston home which has been bought by the John Clare Trust as a place where schoolchildren can come to learn about nature and England’s great nature poet — would never feel like a true home. Clare’s insecurities mounted and his family found it increasingly hard to live with him. In 1837, he was admitted by authority of his wife Patty to a private lunatic asylum at High Beach in Epping Forest on the outskirts of London. While there, his physical health improved but he suffered increasingly from delusions. He imagined that he was Lord Byron, or a prizefighter called Jack Randall. He was allowed considerable liberty to walk in the forest — the asylum keeper, Matthew Allen, used relatively advanced methods of treatment, the nature cure among them.

In 1841, Clare escaped. He walked home to Northamptonshire along the Great York Road, a distance of some 90 miles. He was so hungry that he ate the grass by the roadside. At night he lay down with his head pointed towards the north so that he would know which way to go in the morning. On returning home, he recorded his journey in a piece of prose writing of astonishing honesty and clarity. But shortly afterwards he was again removed, this time to the Northamptonshire General Lunatic Asylum (later known as St Andrew’s Hospital, it would be the place where James Joyce’s daughter Lucia found herself confined).

Clare lived and wrote in the Northampton asylum for more than 20 years, until his death in the summer of 1864. His voice dried up and dementia set in towards the end, but it was in the asylum that he wrote some of his most haunting, visionary lyrical poems:

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 oblivion’s host,
Like shadows in love-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.

Clare has always been a poet’s poet. Important selections of his verse were edited by the 20th-century rural poets Edmund Blunden and Geoffrey Grigson. More recent poets from Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney to Tom Paulin, Kathleen Jamie and Glyn Maxwell have been huge admirers. But he has never been an academic’s poet. His words seem almost too pellucid for the taste of critics reared on T. S. Eliot’s code of poetic difficulty. And yet his technical range is astonishing: there are hundreds of sonnets, many in highly innovative variations upon the usual rhyme schemes of the form; there are long and lively narrative poems, songs and ballads, extended descriptive pieces, philosophical reflections. There is poem after poem on birds and birds’ nests, flowers and fishponds, ploughed fields and little acts of trespass.

In honour of the 150th anniversary of his death, Oxford University Press has issued a handsome and well-priced hardback of their text of The Shepherd’s Calendar, with evocative wood engravings by David Gentleman. A health warning should be attached: the volume follows the annoyingly “primitivist” textual strategy of reproducing the poems not from the text prepared by his editors for public consumption but from Clare’s original manuscripts, which had no punctuation and highly irregular spelling. It is true that Clare fell out with Taylor over his increasingly interventionist editorial approach to dialect words — Clare wanted to preserve the voice of his region whereas Taylor pushed the work in the direction of standard English — but it was never Clare’s intention that his work should be read without punctuation and with irregular spelling, something that plays into the stereotype of “the peasant poet”. Most poets at the time, Cambridge-educated Wordsworth and Byron included, left punctuation to their editors. It would have been easy enough for Oxford University Press to create a text that respected the norms of punctuation and spelling, as Clare intended, while restoring those dialect works and purposeful solecisms that Taylor excised.

So in giving the flavour of Clare on a summer’s day I shall take the liberty of inserting some punctuation into the lovely opening lines of “June”:

Now summer is in flower and nature’s hum
Is never silent round her sultry bloom;
Insects as small as dust are never done
With glittering dance and reeling in the sun;
And greenwood fly and blossom-haunting bee
Are never weary of their melody;
Round field-hedge now flowers in full glory twine
Large bindweed bells, wild hops and streaked woodbine
That lift athirst their slender-throated flowers
Agape for dewfalls and for honey showers
These round each bush in sweet disorder run
And spread their wild hues to the sultry sun.

No other writer has evoked the fecundity and the “sweet disorder” of the English countryside with such clarity and force. No other writer has so presciently preserved the landscapes and customs of rural England that were vanishing even as he sketched them. And no other writer who has lived with the black cloud of depression has given his readers so many visions of how both the natural world and the work of poetry itself can pour balm upon the hurt mind. He deserves to be read and loved long after his rural England is finally gone.