John Clare Day (July 13th)

John Clare Book Cover

For those of you for whom John Clare is a new name,
But who might want to join us on a John Clare Walk,
Around the common lands of Stroud and the 5 Valleys,
On John Clare Day and Night, every July 13th,
(He was born on July 13th 1793, at, in Clare’s words:
‘Helpstone, a gloomy village…on the brink of the Lincolnshire fens’.)
Here is a selection of his poem titles, to give you a flavour,
Taken from my treasured 40 year old Everyman edition:

Impromptu on Winter; The Robin; To the Violet; Winter’s Gone;
The Village Minstrel; The Setting Sun; The Primrose; Autumn; Badger;
Swamps of wild rush-beds; The Shepherd’s Calendar; Swordy Well;
Evening Pastime; Winter Winds cold and blea; Summer Images;
The Spring returns; The Eternity of Nature; The Voice of Nature;
The Shepherd’s Tree; The Nightingale’s Nest; The Blackcap; The Vixen;
The Missel-thrush’s nest; The Redcap; The Lark’s Nest; The Flight of Birds;
The Fern-owl’s Nest; The Reed-bird; The Wren; The Thrush’s Nest;
The Mole-catcher; The Frightened Ploughman; A Walk in the Forest;
The Pale Sun; Haymaking; April; The Round Oak; The Winter’s Come; Dewdrops;
The Beanfield; The Peasant Poet; The Daisy; The Autumn’s Wind;
The Green Lane; Early Spring; The Dark Days of Autumn;
Evening. It is the silent hour when they who roam; Enclosure;
Mary. ‘Tis April and the morning, love.

This is just the smallest selection from my second hand book,
Bought in Camden Town to offer respite and relief
From the tedium of studying political theory at UCL,
When we all knew Karl Marx had it all tied up,
And was the only show in Town – plus ca change -,
So, join us for some walk, talk, refreshment and readings,
Sunday, July 13th, time and place to be confirmed.

Even though Clare was born in 1793, two of his grandchildren were still alive in the 1950s and, as Jonathan Bate points out in his biography, ‘It is strange to think’ that Clare was ‘born two years before Keats and only four after the storming of the Bastille’. But we don’t need to show this generational overlap as evidence for the relevance of Clare: far better to look at his writing. And we shall start by looking at his writing about enclosure.
We lament the disappearance of hedgerows today, but for Clare’s generation, hedgerows meant a violation of landscape and liberty. How he hated the hawthorn hedgerows of enclosure! The following selections show this; we’ll start with a few lines from ‘The Lament of Swordy Well’:

‘The gipsey’s camp was not afraid
I made his dwelling free
Till vile enclosure came and made
A parish slave of me.’

His poem about his village, Helpston, contains lines that Lord Radstock objected to as ‘radical slang’; here are a few:

‘Accursed Wealth! o’er-bounding human laws,
Of every evil thou remain’st the cause:
Victims of want, those wretches such as me,
Too truly lay their wretchedness to thee:
Thou art the bar that keeps them from being fed,
And thine our loss of labour and of bread;
Thou art the cause that levels every tree,
And woods bow down to make a way for thee.’

Now here’s a few lines from Impromptu on Winter:

‘To me all seasons come the same:
Now winter bares each field and tree
She finds that trouble sav’d in me
Stript already, penniless,
Nothing boasting but distress;
And when spring chill’d nature cheers,
Still my old complaint she hears;
Summer too, in plenty blest,
Finds me poor and still distrest;
Kind autumn too, so liberal and so free,
Brings my old well-known present, Poverty.’

And now here’s a stanza or twain from The Village Minstrel:

‘Spring more resembles winter now than spring,
The shades are banish’d all – the birds have took to wing.

There once were lanes in nature’s freedom dropt,
There once were lanes that every valley wound –
Inclosure came, and every path was stopt;
Each tyrant fixed his sign where paths were found,
To hint a trespass now who cross’d the ground;
Justice is made to speak as they command;
The high road now must be each stinted bound;
Inclosure, thou’rt a curse upon the land,
And tasteless was the wretch who thy existence plann’d.’
And now for a few lines from Enclosure:
‘Far spread the moory ground, alevel scene
Bespread with rush and one eternal green,
That never felt the rage of blundering plough,
Though centuries wreathed spring blossoms on its brow.
Autumn met plains that stretched then far away
In unchecked shadows of green, brown, and grey.
Unbounded freedom ruled the wandering scene;
No fence of ownership crept in between
To hide the prospect from the gazing eye;
Its only bondage was the circling sky.
A mighty flat, undwarfed by bush and tree,
Spread its fair 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 forest flowers,
Is faded all – a hope that blossomed free,
And hath been once as it no ore shall be.
Enclosure came, and trampled on the grave
Of labour’s rights, and left the poor a slave; …

The skybound wastes in mangled garbs are left,
Fence meeting fence in owner’s 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.’

Jonathan Bate comments in The Song of the Earth; ‘In 1809 Parliament had passed An Act for Inclosing Lands in the Parishes of Maxey…and Helpstone, in the County of Northampton.’ And so:

‘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 hates 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, sacred 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’.

Professor Bate in his biography John Clare mentions EP Thompson’s perspective on Clare: ‘Clare may be described, without hindsight, as a poet of ecological protest’; Bate goes on to show, as Thompson implied, that enclosure affected Clare in a visceral way: he felt the changes in the landscape personally, for his village community and, as it were, for the very fields, trees, flowers, hills and springs themselves.

‘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 had 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 tree like pulpits, I shall never see again:
Inclosure like a Bonaparte 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 goes on to show this ecological empathy with ‘The Lamentations of Round Oak Waters’; Clare uses the voice of the water to voice his lament for the clearing of the trees that once shaded the brook (‘There’s scarce a greensward spot remains, And scarce a single tree.’) This mixture of the personal and the ecologically empathetic was always unceremoniously and forcefully brought home to Clare when he could no longer walk and wander where old habits would lead:
‘I always wrote my poems in the fields…I used to go out of the village to particular spots which I was fond of…in one of these rambles I was in a narrow escape of being taken up as a poacher…I found a beautiful spot…and…began to rhyme till I insensibly fell asleep and was awakened by muttering voices on the other side of the thicket – I looked through and saw they were keepers by their guns – one of their dogs came up…the part I was in was enclosed by a wall and belonged to the Marquis.’
These lines written after his move from Helpstone to Northborough (a 3 mile distance, but infinite to Clare) further convey his sense of intrusion, loss of freedom and anxiety about new rights of property:

‘I deaded walking where there was no path

And prest with cautious tread the meadow swath

And always turned to look with wary eye

And always feared the owner coming bye

Yet everything about where I had gone

Appeared so beautiful I ventured on

And when I gained the road where all are free

I fancied every stranger frowned at me

And every kinder look appeared to say

You’ve been on trespass on your walk to day

I’ve often thought the day appeared so fine

How beautiful if such a place were mine

But having nought I never feel alone

And cannot use another’s as my own.’