John Clare: 150th anniversary of his death, Tuesday May 20th

John Clare Book Cover

Centenaries abound where ere the sun doth his successive journeys run: Dylan Thomas, Laurie Lee, World War One, my dad … but Tuesday May 20th marks the 150th year since the death of John Clare.
‘JD’ pointed out in the Guardian on Saturday that there is only one national event to mark this day; ‘JD’ adds that ‘this marks a falling-away from the Clare revival’ of some ten years ago, when Jonathan Bate’s biography praised Clare’s credentials, and not just as a working-class poet and as an opponent of enclosure.
We recalled this yesterday, when walking around Wotton: we gazed down into the vale at the quilt-work pattern of hedgerows, discussing the rule of thumb for the dating of a field hedge: one species of tree or shrub for every hundred years; many of our hedges were planted in the 18th century when the big, old, open fields of medieval times were, so to speak, privatised.
So why not commemorate John Clare with a walk on common land on Tuesday? If you have no common land close by, then find an interesting hedgerow, perhaps. But a common might be best because …
“The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
But leaves the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from off the goose.”

When you find your spot, we could do worse than read these lines of Clare’s about enclosure:

‘Far spread the moorey ground a level scene
Bespread with rush and one eternal green
That never felt the rage of blundering plough
Though centurys wreathed spring’s blossoms on its brow
Still meeting plains that stretched them far away
In uncheckt shadows of green brown, and grey
Unbounded freedom ruled the wandering scene
Nor fence of ownership crept in between
To hide the prospect of the following eye
Its only bondage was the circling sky
One mighty flat undwarfed by bush and tree
Spread its faint shadow of immensity
And lost itself, which seemed to eke its bounds
In the blue mist the horizon’s edge surrounds
Now this sweet vision of my boyish hours
Free as spring clouds and wild as summer flowers
Is faded all – a hope that blossomed free,
And hath been once, no more shall ever be
Inclosure came and trampled on the grave
Of labour’s rights and left the poor a slave
And memory’s pride ere want to wealth did bow
Is both the shadow and the substance now
The sheep and cows were free to range as then
Where change might prompt nor felt the bonds of men
Cows went and came, with evening morn and night,
To the wild pasture as their common right
And sheep, unfolded with the rising sun
Heard the swains shout and felt their freedom won
Tracked the red fallow field and heath and plain
Then met the brook and drank and roamed again
The brook that dribbled on as clear as glass
Beneath the roots they hid among the grass
While the glad shepherd traced their tracks along
Free as the lark and happy as her song
But now all’s fled and flats of many a dye
That seemed to lengthen with the following eye
Moors, loosing from the sight, far, smooth, and blea
Where swopt the plover in its pleasure free
Are vanished now with commons wild and gay
As poet’s visions of life’s early day
Mulberry-bushes where the boy would run
To fill his hands with fruit are grubbed and done
And hedgrow-briars – flower-lovers overjoyed
Came and got flower-pots – these are all destroyed
And sky-bound mores in mangled garbs 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 path that led its pleasant way
As sweet as morning leading night astray
Where little flowers bloomed round a varied host
That travel felt delighted to be lost
Nor grudged the steps that he had ta-en as vain
When right roads traced his journeys and again –
Nay, on a broken tree he’d sit awhile
To see the mores and fields and meadows smile
Sometimes with cowslaps smothered – then all white
With daiseys – then the summer’s splendid sight
Of cornfields crimson o’er the headache bloomd
Like splendid armys for the battle plumed
He gazed upon them with wild fancy’s eye
As fallen landscapes from an evening sky
These paths are stopt – the rude philistine’s thrall
Is laid upon them and destroyed them all
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
And dreams of plunder in such rebel schemes
Have found too truly that they were but dreams.

George Monbiot thinks that July 13th should be designated Clare Day – John Clare was born on the 13th July 1793, and Monbiot wrote in the Guardian on the 10th July 2012 of Clare’s eventual incarceration in an asylum: “But it seems to me that a contributing factor must have been the loss of almost everything he knew and loved. His work is a remarkable document of life before and after social and environmental collapse, and the anomie that resulted…John Clare, unlike Robert Burns…is a poet of the day. So a Clare Night…does not feel quite right. I’m not going to wait for anyone else. As far as I’m concerned, 13 July is Clare Day, and I’ll be raising a glass to celebrate and mourn him. I hope you’ll join me.”

Further grist to our mill comes from psycho-geographer Miles Coverley , who has pointed out how the Game Laws, enclosure and the privatization of public spaces such as common lands, resulted, in effect, in the criminalization of certain habits of walking. Walking could become defined as trespassing, when once it was merely an act of wandering. Thus, the 1824 Vagrancy Act defined a rogue and a vagabond as “every person wandering…lodging in any barn or outhouse…any deserted or unoccupied building, or in the open air, or under a tent, or in any cart or wagon, not having any visible means of subsistence and not giving a good account of himself or herself.” This Act followed statutes that had existed since the aftermath of the Peasants’ Revolt and the attacks on the poor instituted by the Tudor Poor Law.

Coverley mentioned an article by Donna Landry, “Radical Walking”, in which she tells us that “The ambiguity of walking can be traced to its association with vagrancy, the quintessential social crime in late sixteenth century Britain.” With this in mind, why not take a walk and have a night under the stars as an act of radical recreation and re-creation? Intone the following lines of John Clare’s as an explanation for your saunter:

“Unbounded freedom ruled the wandering scene
Nor fence of ownership crept in between
To hide the prospect of the following eye
Its only bondage was the circling sky…
Inclosure came in and trampled on the grave
Of labours rights and left the poor a slave…”

Flaneurs of the world unite on May 20th and July 13th: you have nothing to lose but your miles, furlongs, yards, feet, inches, and, of course, your chains.

1 thought on “John Clare: 150th anniversary of his death, Tuesday May 20th”

  1. Well said.But when you are doing this wandering,and a proprietor rolls up in their 4×4, winds the electric window down (shades of Ian Fleming here) and asks in a haughty tone "can I help you?", be sure of your reply. They could start by ditching the analogy between the land and the factory floor, an analogy that impoverishes all. They could make room for the birds whose ghosts we hear, curlew,peewit,skylark… They could release the fugitive meadow flowers from the corners where they skulk until they are sprayed by someone with a notion of "tidyness", they could let the air be filled with buzzing insect life……. Let them know that they really could help you! Bill F

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