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Celebrating nature, mourning lost landscape: England’s ‘awkward’ poet John Clare

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John Clare, that widely admired 19th century poet of nature, who also wrote about countryside used by ordinary people that was lost to land enclosures, died on 20 May 1864, and this year marks the 160th anniversary of his death. Here’s a seasonal poem by Clare, that was posted by long-time admirer Roger Arborfield on the John Clare Poet Facebook page earlier this month:


How beautiful May and its morning comes in!

The song of the maidens you hear them begin,

To sing the old ballads while cowslips they pull,

While the dew of the morning fills many pips full.

The closes are spangled with cowslips like gold,

Girls cram in their aprons what baskets can't hold;

And still gather on to the heat of the day,

Till force often throws the last handful away.


Then beneath an old hawthorn they sit one and all,

And make the May garlands and round cuck a ball

Of cowslips and blossoms so showy and sweet,

And laugh when they think of the swains they shall meet.

Then to finish the garland they trudge away home,

And beg from each garden the flowers then in bloom;

Then beneath the old eldern, beside the old wall,

They sit out to make it, maids, misses, and all.


The ribbons the ploughmen bought maids at the fair,

Are sure to be seen in a garland so fair;

And dolls from the children they dress up and take,

While children laugh loud at the show they will make.

Then they take round the garland to shew at each door,

With kerchief to hide the fine flowers cover'd o'er;

At cottages also, when willing to pay,

The maidens their much admired garland display.


Then at duck under water adown the long road,

They run with their dresses all flying abroad;

And ribbons all colours how sweet they appear!

May seems to begin the new life of the year.

Then the garland on ropes is hung high over all,

One end to a tree and one hooked to a wall;

Where they cuck the ball over till day is nigh gone,

And then tea and cakes and the dancing comes on.


And then, lawk! what dancing and laughing is there,

While the fiddler makes faces within the arm chair;

And then comes the cushion, the girls they all shriek

And fly to the door from the old fiddler's squeak;

But the doors they are fastened, so all must kneel down

And take the rude kiss from the unmannerly clown.

Thus the May games are ended, to their houses they roam,

With the sweetheart she chooses each maiden goes home.


The Later Poems of John Clare 1837-1864

ed. Eric Robinson and David Powell

(Oxford, 2 volumes, I-II, 1984)


embedded image from entry 135211 Here are some basic biographical facts about John Clare, garnered from the Poetry Foundation’s summary of him. He was born into a peasant family in the village of Helpston in 1793, and attended a day school for a few months every year until he was about 12. During his school days he met Mary Joyce and embarked upon a romantic relationship with her. Although the two eventually separated and Clare married Patty Turner, he would devote much of his later poetry to Mary.

Although Clare received some education, the work he did out of financial necessity consisted largely of manual labour such as gardening, ploughing, threshing, or lime-burning. At the same time he began to write poetry, and soon accumulated a substantial collection, which was published in 1820 by John Taylor (who also published the work of John Keats) as Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery.

In his introduction to the volume, Taylor defended Clare’s occasionally incorrect grammar, asserting that “Clare … does not regard language in the same way that a logician does. He considers it collectively rather than in detail, and paints up to his mind’s original by mingling words, as a painter mixes his colours.” Rural Life was a success, selling 3,000 copies and was generally well reviewed. A Quarterly Review critic found Clare to have “an animation, a vivacity, and a delicacy in describing rural scenery.”

The success of Rural Life brought Clare recognition. He visited London that year, attending plays and dinner parties and meeting literary luminaries. Clare also married Patty Turner, who was already several months pregnant with their first child. Although the pressures of fame and family slowed his production somewhat, Clare soon published another collection, The Village Minstrel, and Other Poems (1821).

The Village Minstrel did not enjoy the wide success of Rural Life, but the book sold respectably and the critical reception was generally favourable, with many reviewers praising Clare’s development as a poet. Clare’s next major effort to be published was The Shepherd’s Calendar (1827), which did not garner the same critical attention or public interest, and divided critics.

Although Clare had to contend with physical and mental illness in the years following the publication of The Shepherd’s Calendar, he was able to recover sufficiently to produce The Rural Muse, which was published in 1835, and includes songs, sonnets, and autobiographical poems.

The Rural Muse was the last major collection published in Clare’s lifetime. He continued to write, but his mental and physical health weakened during the late 1830s and his doctor recommended that he recuperate in an asylum. In 1836 Clare was admitted to High Beech asylum in Essex, where he was allowed considerable freedom to write poetry and stroll the grounds. The poet missed his family, however, and in 1841 he walked away from the asylum and continued to walk until he reached his home four days later. His stay was relatively brief, though, since he was becoming increasingly difficult for Patty to manage. Clare was admitted to Northampton Lunatic Asylum—where he was to spend the rest of his life—five months after he left High Beech.

After more than 20 years at Northampton, Clare died in 1864. The more recent editions of Clare’s work, including Eric Robinson and Geoffrey Summerfield’s editions of The Later Poems of John Clare and The Shepherd’s Calendar, have reinstated Clare’s idiosyncrasies in language, spelling, and punctuation, which were “corrected” by his editors in early versions. Clare’s opinion of the rules of grammar was said to be thus: “do I write intelligable I am generally understood tho I do not use that awkward squad of pointings called commas colons semicolons &c & for the very reason that altho they are drilled hourly daily weekly by every boarding school Miss who pretends to gossip in correspondence they do not know their proper exercise for they even set grammarians at loggerheads and no one can asign them their proper places.”

embedded image from entry 135133 Helpston was not exactly inundated with poetry pilgrims/tourists when we stopped by in early May, although it was a day when the John Clare Cottage was closed to visitors. St Botolph's churchyard, pictured left, where John Clare is buried, was pleasant in the sunshine. The Bluebell pub was doing a lively Sunday lunchtime trade, and May blossom was bursting from the hedgerows, bordering the extended, ploughed fields.

I am no Clare expert, but I admire the simplicity of his language, and the accuracy of his descriptions, observations and knowledge. He did not write his poems ‘slant’, as is the current vogue, but maybe they have endured all the more because of that. And he did not always celebrate rural life by any means – see his poem ‘The Badger’, for instance.  

In his biography of Clare Jonathan Bate notes that in “the years from 1809 to 1820, as Clare grew from adolescence to adulthood, Helpston and its neighbouring parishes were steadily enclosed … Fences, gates, and No Trespassing signs went up. Trees came down. Streams were stopped in their course so that the line of ditches could be made straight … For many villagers … Enclosure was … symbolic of the destruction of an ancient birthright based on co-operation and common rights. The chance of Clare’s time and place of birth gave him an exceptional insight into this changed world.”  

Clare has been described by the historian EP Thompson as a “poet of ecological protest”. Here’s an extract from his poem ‘Remembrances’:


By Langley bush I roam but the bush hath left its hill

On cowper green 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 cross berry way and old round oaks narrow lane

With its hollow trees like pulpits I shall never see again

Inclosure like a Buonaparte 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


In a programme from the BBC archives that was broadcast again last month, Paul Farley explored ecology, Englishness and 'home' through John Clare's poem, ‘The Lament of Swordy Well’, written in the 1830s, before he was committed to the asylum. Clare wrote ‘The Lament of Swordy Well’ about a tract of limestone heath near his home in Northamptonshire where poor families gathered to rest or feed cattle. It fell victim to land enclosures, and was taken into private ownership. Under the Enclosure Acts farmers were permitted to fence in common areas and turn them into private land for farming. The site - now Swaddywell - is one of scientific interest, a nature reserve that has been preserved for its wildlife and habitat.

‘Peasant Poet’?! Poet of a lost and stolen England, more like. No wonder it drove him mad.

Here’s a poem by Trevor Breedon, titled ‘John Clare’s Awkward Squad’. It takes his part against those 19th century contemporaries of Clare who belittled his lack of grammar and education, and unsympathetically edited his published work. Trevor is a former newspaper sub-editor, as well as being a poet. There’s also a reference to Clare’s poem ‘I Am!’ at the end:



by Trevor Breedon


I care not two spade spits for their gamekeeper grammar

It is nothing but a snare for words running free on the open page

Their tyrant scratches and squibs usurp my meaning

embedded as they are in the soil of my verse like stones

to clunk and chip in the reader’s head

Do we come into this world bearing a dictionary

As babes festooned with commas stops and colons

It is an awkward squad of pointings to plague to us all

If I can make myself understood in the ale house

can I not signify in poetry

My scrawl I confess presents a thicket to the makers of my book 

but must they slash it to the edge of survival when every man knows

it is gentle pruning that gives good growth

It is natural for my writing to be vague

my rough hands being chubbed from fork and hoe

and carrying a shake thank you from one of my weaknesses strong drink

I will not name the other in the hearing of my good wife

They claim to expend more time making my lines clear and proper

than I did in first putting them down

and they give themselves fair credit for it in my volumes

They complain that my scraps are scribbled at all angles

I reply that a good farmer covers every corner of his plot with seed

to gain a bigger crop

and paper is a dear price for a man of my means

All I wish to say without impediment in my poeticizing

as every lord lady and labouring man must also desire

as must every living creature in nature

all I wish to say simply is that

I Am


In 1989 Ted Hughes, as poet laureate, unveiled a memorial to  John Clare in Poets' Corner at Westminster Abbey.


embedded image from entry 135135



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Trevor Breedon

Sat 11th May 2024 07:46

Very timely and welcome piece, Greg, though Clare is always relevant with the countryside increasingly under threat. Like myself, my late father-in-law was a great admirer of John Clare. Being Northamptonshire born and bred, he was furious when boundary changes shifted Helpston into Cambridgeshire. Always felt he’d been robbed of part of his heritage.

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Russell Jacklin

Sat 11th May 2024 07:23

I live not far away from his cottage and in the past I have completed a presentation on social history from inside to the John Clare society. I have a collection of his works and his poems inspire me to write more of the natural world as I walk through the South Lincolnshire lanes and footpaths. Brilliant, brilliant man, much misunderstood

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keith jeffries

Fri 10th May 2024 16:25

It was only when I moved to live in Oundle that I came across the poetry of Clare. It was interesting to read his poems as I sat looking out at the rolling countryside of one of Englands most beautiful counties. Northamptonshire is still a part of England which I feel drawn to as I am sure Clare found it to be his home.

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