11 February 2017

Clare

Born into rural poverty in 1793, John Clare spent all the early years of his life in and around the village of Helpston between Stamford and Peterborough in eastern England. As an adult, he was only five feet tall. It is believed that this small stature was the result of malnutrition. Records of 1818 show that in that year he requested and  received  charitable support - what was known as "parish relief".

He had little formal education but as an agricultural labourer he learnt a great deal about the natural world that surrounded him. He was in tune with it and knew its vocabulary and seasonal rhythms intimately. Sometimes he would scribble down his primitive early verse on tree bark as he couldn't afford to buy paper.

The door to publishing may have been forever closed to him had he not stumbled accidentally upon "Seasons" by the eighteenth century Scottish poet James Thompson. It inspired Clare to show some of his own poems to a book seller in nearby Stamford. Co-incidentally the bookseller's cousin worked in publishing in London.

One thing led to another and in 1820 Clare's collection, "Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery"  was published. It was a massive turning point in his life. You might say that he was in the right place at the right time. Middle class England had developed  an appetite for new literature and as industrial towns and  cities drew in farm workers and other country folk  there was an associated longing for some kind of lost rural idyll.

Clare's poems celebrated the countryside and as the nineteenth century advanced he became a minor national celebrity, The income he received from his pastoral writing allowed him to just about keep his head above water. However, neither he nor his publisher or his many fans had reckoned on Clare's painful descent into mental ill-health. 

He died in an Essex asylum at the age of seventy one, his body being returned for burial to the churchyard in distant Helpston.
John Clare by William Hilton
& below an example of Clare's poetry...
Emmonsail's Heath in Winter

I love to see the old heath's withered brake
Mingle its crimpled leaves with furze and ling,
While the old heron from the lonely lake
Starts slow and flaps its melancholy wing,
An oddling crow in idle motion swing
On the half-rotten ash-tree's topmost twig,
Beside whose trunk the gypsy makes his bed.
Up flies the bouncing woodcock from the brig
Where a black quagmire quakes beneath the tread;
The fieldfares chatter in the whistling thorn
And for the awe round fields and closen rove,
And coy bumbarrels, twenty in a drove,
Flit down the hedgerows in the frozen plain
And hang on little twigs and start again.

By John Clare

N.B 
"awe" - hawthorn berries
"bumbarrels" - long tailed tits
"closen" - small enclosed fields

18 comments:

  1. I imagine John Clare is still rarely heard of today. It takes somebody like you to notice such a poet.

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    1. Please tell the citizens of Red Deer about John Clare. You could write an article for "The Advocate".

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  2. I'm going to admit to getting to the "writing poems on bark" part and going to wikipedia to make sure you were not putting us on. What an interesting story and quite sad. It reminds me that it hasn't been so very long since those with mental health problems very often found no relief from them. And yet this poet produced great work despite that. I like the poem you have given us to read. He has caught the different kinds of bird flight and behavior so precisely.

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    1. As if I would "put you on" Jenny! I am delighted that you paused a while to find out about John Clare and to consider the example poem. Please tell your friends and neighbours about him!

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  3. OK - I am off to find more of his work. That poem is just what I needed. Thank you.

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    1. Much is free on Amazon for kindle. Downloading now ...

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    2. I am proud to have pointed you in the direction of John Clare Wilma. Enjoy!

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  4. 1820 - the year that made John Clare. His poem has a distinct voice.

    Alphie

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    1. Yes Alphie. His life was utterly changed in that year. It was also the year that William Hilton painted his likeness. In spite of his renown it seems that he was never a wealthy man.Perhaps his publisher profited more than he did.

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  5. I had never heard of him YP. Reading through that poem I imagined that you have such thoughts on your ramblings.

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    1. John Clare, may I introduce you to Libby? Libby, this is John... I like the idea of a self-made poet from humble origins, someone who was really steeped in the countryside - unlike Keats who was a Londoner yet often focussed on Nature.

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  6. He may have had little formal education and, perhaps, his publisher as also a diligent editor, however, Clare certainly had the words and the inspiration of observation. I rarely indulge myself with poetry these days but I am off to download his works to explore.

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    1. Perhaps Clare will inspire you to become The Poet of Bayble. It's never too late to start.

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    2. The more I read his poems the more difficult I find it to understand how he had such broad knowledge if he had little formal education and was a farm labourer. I am obviously going to get drawn into his autobiography as well.

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    3. I am sure you will get to know more about him than I do Graham...but he was clearly pretty different from mainstream poets of the nineteenth century. I have the sense that he was used - like a curiosity.

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  7. I enjoy writing that celebrates nature. A.E.Housman's A Shropshire Lad,and Laurie Lee's work. I will find and read Clare's poems now. Thank you x

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    1. I'm very pleased that this post aroused your curiosity Sheila. Thanks for calling by.

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  8. I do hope children nowadays are taught the beauty of poetry. I hope it remains as an important part of today's generation and those of the future.

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Mr Pudding welcomes all genuine comments - even those with which he disagrees. However, puerile or abusive comments from anonymous contributors will continue to be given the short shrift they deserve. Any spam comments that get through Google/Blogger defences will also be quickly deleted.