The name ‘Clare’ seems to have followed me around for as long as I can remember …
Gilbert de Clare was responsible for the construction of a building which played a very important part in my childhood. You can read my piece about him here.
Though no-one could ever replace Dylan Thomas as my favourite poet, I’m also fascinated by the life and poetry of John Clare, whose work first came to my attention about twenty-five years ago. I studied his poems whilst working on my Masters and I viewed the temporary John Clare exhibit at Peterborough Museum (which also houses many of his manuscripts) on a number of occasions. A visit to his cottage in Helpston, formerly Helpstone, originally in Northamptonshire but now in Cambridgeshire, is on my current ‘to do’ list.
And then there’s Clare Means, a young U.S. singer/songwriter based in California, whose compositions and performances as a musician and busker have never ceased to entertain and amaze me, together with many of her thousands (and thousands!) of followers, at first on the now-defunct Periscope app, but nowadays on a range of online platforms as listed on her website.
2. JOHN CLARE
A personal response to the life and work of John Clare
Like me, John Clare (13th July, 1793 – 20th May, 1864) started life in humble beginnings. He was the son of a farm labourer. Some of his poetry takes me back to my early childhood, conjuring mixed emotions.
But perhaps the first thing to note about John Clare’s work is its sheer volume. My quick tally-up of the first lines of the poems catalogued in the National Archive suggests he published a total of around 2,800 poems. There are nine collections, starting with the first, Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery, published in London in 1820. He also wrote a number of essays.
Besides his productivity, his raw, uneducated writing style is, perhaps surprisingly, an essential and attractive characteristic of his writings. Clare said that he
“… found the poems in the fields,
And only wrote them down”,
and what I would call his “naturely” language (and what Charles Lamb referred to as his “provincialisms”) are an aspect of his pastoral style that his publishers wrestled with then and scholars have discussed ever since. They argued over whether such dialect expressions were permissible where they were not local to Clare’s neighbourhood, for instance. For many, like me, his uncultured spelling and punctuation, together with his use of unfamiliar countryside words and expressions, lend a charm and sense of genuine emotion which is unmatched in the work of any other English Romantic poet (though maybe on a par with Burns). It’s as though he speaks the language of nature – as though he is an advocate on behalf of the natural world.
For example, he uses “sturnels” for starlings, “cranking” for singing dolefully and, when “The ploughman mawls along the doughy sloughs”, he is dragging wearily. There are innumerable examples of these quaint dialect words throughout his work. In addition, we find him often adapting more familiar words to create striking images, as where, instead of writing “like gems”, he prefers “gemmed”:
“Where bramble bushes grew and the daisy gemmed in dew”; Remembrances
“I love to see them gemmed with morning hours”; The Maple Tree
“Some live content in low grass gemmed with dews”; Shadows of Taste
“The star gemmed early morn, the silent even”; Child Harold
Clare is nowadays accepted by the literary community as a leading member of the Romantic poetry pantheon.
Whereas as a young child I lived in a damp house in the south Wales valleys, with an outside toilet, Clare lived his early life in what various commentators have referred to as ‘dirt poor’ surroundings: a section of a cottage (below) in a remote little village in Northamptonshire called Helpston (now part of Cambridgeshire and quite close to where I now live with my wife, Lynn).
As mentioned, until the age of ten I too lived in modest surroundings – a small, two-up/two-down terraced cottage. Although my parents made improvements before they saved up the money for a deposit on a new bungalow, the accommodation was always very basic: for instance, I remember the installation of electric light, replacing the ancient gas mantle light fitting in the middle of the ceiling in the sitting room. But … there’s no place like home.
O home, however homely, – thoughts of thee
Can never fail to cheer the absent breast;
How oft wild raptures have been felt by me
When back returning, weary and distrest;
from Home, John Clare, Sonnets, pub. 1821
Our hearth comprised an old, black, coal-fuelled fireplace, with a small compartment on each side which served as an oven (for baking small jam tarts, for instance), although we did have a gas cooker in the kitchen at the back. There was no bathroom. As a young child, my bath time took place in a galvanised metal bathtub on the floor in front of the hearth. (I sometimes mentally recalled those days when my advertising career took me to swish hotels in places such as London, Geneva, Paris and Monte Carlo). It was certainly a loving home, though the relationship between my mother and father was often fractious, frequently to the point of embarrassment, with the neighbours easily able to hear the bawling and fighting that was a symptom of near-poverty conditions and frustrated ambition. Nonetheless, I have many fond memories of that humble dwelling, memories which have helped keep me grounded in times of both strife and success. It may not have been luxurious but it kept me safe and was a gateway to a wondrous natural playground.
Through the gate at the end of our handkerchief of a back “garden”, and across the lane, there was Porsett Brook, a meeting place for Mother Nature and industry. It was a highly polluted stream, about fifteen feet wide, with long strands of brown gunge waving to and fro in its babbling flow. I now know that the source of the discolouration and growths was the extremely smelly upstream tanyard, where animal skins were soaked and washed in its waters to remove any traces of blood and other material that might affect the quality of the leather. But if I crossed the brook on the stepping stones, I was suddenly immersed in a wild and natural world crammed with plants, trees, insects and birds that were at once a refuge and a source of intense fascination.
John Clare felt similar affection for his childhood home, as he expressed in his sonnet To My Cottage, published in 1821.
Thou lowly cot, where first my breath I drew,
Past joys endear thee, childhood’s past delight;
Where each young summer’s pictur’d on my view;
And, dearer still, the happy winter-night,
When the storm pelted down with all his might,
And roar’d and bellow’d in the chimney-top,
And patter’d vehement ‘gainst the window-light,
And on the threshold fell the quick eavesdrop.
How blest I’ve listen’d on my corner stool,
Heard the storm rage, and hugg’d my happy spot,
While the fond parent wound her whirring spool,
And spar’d a sigh for the poor wanderer’s lot.
In thee, sweet hut, this happiness was prov’d,
And these endear and make thee doubly lov’d.
Yes, my escape route from those parental clashes was to get away out into the unspoiled fields at the back of the house. I wouldn’t then have thought of myself as “communing with nature” or have used any such flowery expression to describe the sheer fun I derived from exploring the fields, Porsett Brook, the woods, the birds and other wildlife, the pathways, the old railway line and the fern-swathed hill in the distance. But looking back I feel as though I was much more at home in those fields and hillsides – climbing trees, making bows and arrows or whistles, tunneling through the ferns or identifying birds’ nests and eggs – than I was in that house (or indeed in the advertising world much later in life). As I’ve described previously, I’d often go on egg collecting expeditions. On more than one occasion, I wandered far away with my friends for so long, so late in the day, that my parents, accompanied by one or two neighbours, would come looking for us. Mynydd Rudry (shown below in its Winter colours) could be seen in the distance from my bedroom window. We’d climb to the top through ferns and bracken and make our way to the stands of tall trees beyond.
In his autobiography, John Clare describes (in his raw, untutored prose style) just the same kind of event happening in his childhood:
“I lovd this solitary disposition from a boy & felt a curiosity to wander about spots were I had never been before I remember one incident of this feeling when I was very young it cost my parents some anxiety it was summer & I started off in the morning to get rotten sticks from the woods but I had a feeling to wander about the fields & I indulged it I had often seen the large heath called Emmonsales stretching its yellow furze from my eye into unknown solitudes when I went with the mere openers and my curiosity urged me to steal an opportunity to explore it that morning I had imagind that the world’s end was at the orizon & that a days journey was able to find it so I went on with my heart full of hope’s pleasures & discoverys expecting when I got to the brink of the world that I coud look down like looking into a large pit & see into its secrets the same as I believd I coud see heaven by looking into the water So I eagerly wanderd on & rambled along the furze the whole day till I got out of my knowledge when the very flowers seemd to forget me & I imagind they were the inhabitants of new countrys the very sun seemd to forget me & I imagind they were the inhabitants of new countrys the very sun seemd to be a new one & shining in a different quarter of the sky still I felt no fear my wonder-seeking happiness had no room for it I was finding new wonders every minute & was walking in a new world & expecting the world’s end bye & bye but it never came often wondering to myself that I had not found the edge of the old one the sky still touchd the ground in the distance & my childish wisdom was puzzld in perplexitys night came on before I had time to fancy the morning was by which made me hasten to seek home I knew not which way to turn but chance put me in the right track & when I got back into my own fieldds I did not know them everything lookd so different The church peeping over the woods cod hardly reconsile me when I got home I found my parents in the great distress & half the village about hunting me as one of the woodmen in the woods had been killd by the fall of a tree & it seemd to strengthen their terrors that some accident had befallen myself as they often leave the oaks half cut down till the barkmen come to pill them which if a wind happens will fall down unexpected”.
John Clare loved nature with a passion – the plants, birds, insects and small animals in the surrounding countryside; it was a love which was to stay with him all his life.
Clare, quite a “waukly” child, had a “bonny” twin sister who died a few weeks after their birth. Commentators have suggested that this tragedy had a longer-term, perhaps subconscious, effect on his state of mind. I’d heard of John Clare vaguely in my younger years but studied his poetry more intensively when working for my Masters. He was regarded as fairly obscure for quite a long time, other than during a brief period of fame during his lifetime; but interest in Clare’s life and work grew quite dramatically during the twentieth century. Biographies, editions, radio programmes, inclusions in festivals and commentaries have appeared all over the place in latter years. His keen interest in gardening, for instance, spawned a September 2014 symposium on Clare’s engagement with the natural world as both a botanist and a poet. There’s a stimulating BBC radio programme on Clare in Melvyn Bragg‘s In Our Time series,
One of the attractive things about John Clare, besides his prolific output of around 3,500 poems, is that we have so much information about his fascinating and, ultimately, tragic life.
The narrative of Frederick Martin‘s The Life of John Clare, published in May, 1865, just a year after Clare’s death, is apparently “drawn from a vast mass of letters and other original documents, including some very curious memoirs” . All of this material enabled this contemporary writer to pass down to us an extremely detailed and vivid account of Clare’s life. The fact that its narrative is written in a simple, down-to-earth style is reminiscent of Clare’s mode of expression, though its reliability has been called into question by some scholars.
Sir Jonathan Bate, Provost of Worcester College at the University of Oxford, is nowadays regarded as the leading biographer of the poet. His biography is the seminal work on Clare. It’s jaw-droppingly thorough and relates a fascinating analytical account of the early successes and the later torments and struggles which dogged Clare through most of his life, together with a host of valuable insights into his poetry.
(Incidentally, I’m all for Roland Barthes‘ 1967 proclamation of the “death of the author” and the mountain of literary theorising that it spawned; in the context of hermeneutics, a ‘readerly’ interpretation of poetry gets my vote. But let’s not underestimate the value of biographies. Many poets had interesting lives away from their musing, as Samuel Johnson and so many others have pointed out).
Clare loved books, even though he was so poor that it was extremely difficult for him to gain access to them, and he developed an early passion for poetry. English was my best subject at school and I, too, developed a lifelong love for reading poetry and still try my hand at writing, as can be seen elsewhere on this site (example). But of course Clare was destined for greatness, to an extent in his own time but much more so, especially more recently, in literary history.
After my father died when I was 14, I almost immediately became part of a band (pop group) which I formed with some school friends. For me, composing songs and playing music turned out to be a great diversion from the black horror of our little family’s loss and something I’ve continued to do throughout my life. John Clare also loved music -like his father, Clare was a fiddler who collected many village tunes and and gypsy songs and also composed songs himself.
CDs of George Deacon’s covers of Clare’s own songs can be purchased here.
Yes, I’ve found myself able to identify with a number of aspects of John Clare’s life, such as the times when he left his home to go out into the big wide world. I moved to London on my nineteenth birthday to begin my first degree studies. I must say I never felt completely at ease in all the years I lived, studied and worked in London. As I stood on the platform at Cardiff General Station (as it was known back then), I little realised how much my attitudes to so many things had been pre-programmed well before that birthday; my Welsh roots, buried deep in the culture of a nation with an immensely strong sense of its own identity, rarely allowed me to feel entirely comfortable when discussing politics, sport, business or other issues.
When I came to study the life and work of John Clare, I often found myself empathising with his unease in being away from his home territory, away from the innocence and inspiration of the countryside. His “country” was the countryside. He never settled down in London, visiting it on only four occasions.
This piece is not meant to be an in-depth scholarly analysis of Clare’s work, merely a way of explaining some of what I bring to a reading of his work and what he gives back. I should emphasise that I don’t find his poetry a simple mirroring of my experiences – he is always surprising, quirky, imaginative and authentic.
So, in the interests of brevity, here are links to a few John Clare poems that I really like:
The Shepherd’s Calendar – https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/the-shepherds-calendar-november/
The Crow Sat on the Willow – https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/the-crow-sat-on-the-willow/ (by the way, see my prose piece about Crows here …)
Grasshoppers – https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/grasshoppers/
Clare’s subject matter was not confined to the natural world; but notice the references here to nature, in similes and metaphors which evoke both the pleasure and the pain of First Love:
I ne’er was struck before that hour
With love so sudden and so sweet,
Her face it bloomed like a sweet flower
And stole my heart away complete.
My face turned pale a deadly pale,
My legs refused to walk away,
And when she looked, what could I ail?
My life and all seemed turned to clay.
And then my blood rushed to my face
And took my eyesight quite away,
The trees and bushes round the place
Seemed midnight at noonday.
I could not see a single thing,
Words from my eyes did start –
They spoke as chords do from the string,
And blood burnt round my heart.
Are flowers the winter’s choice?
Is love’s bed always snow?
She seemed to hear my silent voice,
Not love’s appeals to know.
I never saw so sweet a face
As that I stood before.
My heart has left its dwelling-place
And can return no more.
I’ve described how his poems resonated with certain aspects of my own life. Like most people, I have had ups and downs in my life. But John Clare experienced real suffering after his early poetic successes. He became extremely depressed and indeed delusional, imagining that he was still married to both his first and second wives, for instance. In 1837, he was committed to High Beach asylum. After a brief release, he was committed to Northampton General Lunatic Asylum. He continued to compose poetry throughout his time there. Arguably Clare’s most famous, most moving and most beautiful poem is I Am, describing his feelings of helpless loneliness, written whilst he was in the Northampton asylum which was his home (or prison …) from 1842 to his death in 1864.
My friends forsake me like a memory lost;
I am the self-consumer of my woes,
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shades in love and death’s oblivion lost;
And yet I am! and live with shadows tost
Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life nor joys,
And e’en the dearest- that I loved the best-
Are strange- nay, rather stranger than the rest.
I long for scenes where man has never trod;
A place where woman never smil’d 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.
Here’s a moving reading of I Am, performed by Kelsi James:
In the end, Clare’s life was a tragedy out of which came some of the most brilliant Romantic poetry of the nineteenth century.
Ruth Sharville / Mynydd Rudry in Winter colours – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mynydd_Rudry_in_Winter_colours_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1069808.jpg
 Though I note that Sir Jonathan doesn’t seem that impressed by Frederick Martin’s work (see below)!
The Kindle edition of John Clare’s complete works is available from Amazon here: