A Clare vision of nature
Asked to name three English poets of the 18th and 19th centuries who wrote about our native wildlife and top of the list for most might be John Keats and William Wordsworth possibly followed Coleridge, Blake or Shelley. Collectively known as the English Romantics, for more than 100 years they cast such a spell over publishers, critics and the public that the achievements of one of England’s most accomplished poets is often overlooked. John Clare was born in July 1793 in Helpston, a Northamptonshire village as rural and remote as any of our own villages at that time.
Through working on the land from a young age, Clare was able to pay for his schooling which gave him the gift of literacy. From his labouring and travel around the district whilst living with gipsies he was able to use his superior skills at observing everyday experiences of the natural world to compose a new style of poetry. John Clare was somewhat condescendingly described as the ‘Peasant Poet’. Luckily, aged just 20, his collection of odes, sonnets and prose attracted the attention of a local bookseller who persuaded his cousin in London to publish a book on Clare’s descriptions of rural life. His poetry and prose might have been raw and unsophisticated compared to that of the Romantics but it arrived at a time when literacy amongst the middle and even some working class was increasing and poetry was in demand.
Here is the first part of one of these early published poems and, characteristically, his style is to use his insightful observations to gradually reveal which insect he is telling us about:
Thou little Insect, infinitely small
What curious texture marks thy minute frame!
How seeming large thy foresight, and withal,
Thy labouring talents not unworthy fame,
To raise such monstrous hills along the plain,
Larger than mountains, when compar’d with thee:
To drag the crumb dropp’d by the village swain,
Huge size to thine, is strange, indeed, to me….
If you’re not sure which insect he is describing – it is an ant.
Reading through his poetry you find many examples of how well he observes everyday sights which most of us would probably not give a second look. Even in death Clare could summon up his appreciation for the contribution our flora and fauna make to habitats and landscape.
In the next example he pays a generous tribute in a poem entitled ‘To a Dead Tree’. His respect for the tree is almost as though he had lost a long-time friend. Perhaps regretting the lack of appreciation he had for the pleasure the tree had given him during its life:
Old tree thou art wither’d – I pass’d thee last year,
And the blackbird snug hid in thy branches did sing,
Thy shadow stretch’d dark o’er the grass sprouting near,
And thou wert as green as thy mates of the spring.
How alter’d since then! not a leaf hast thou got,
Thy honours brown round thee that clothed the tree;
The clown passeth by thee and heedeth thee not,
But thou’rt a warm source of reflection for me.
I think, while I view thee and rest on the stile.
Life’s bloom is as frail as the leaves thou hast shed.
Like thee I may boast of my honours awhile,
But new springs may blossom, and mine may be fled:
Fond friends may bend o’er the rais’d turf where I’m laid,
And warm recollection the past may look o’er,
And say by my life, as I say by thy shade,
“Last spring he was living, but now he’s no more.”
In the light of Clare’s unique ability to describe only what he saw, it was not surprising that after his first book of poems was published he was praised for excelling all other poets in his knowledge of “the fields, the flowers, the common air, the sun and the skies…and is happier in the presence of Nature than elsewhere. He looks as anxiously on her face as if she were a living friend, whom he might lose, and hence he has learnt to notice every change in her countenance”.
Unlike the Romantic’s, such was Clare’s rural education that he was never taught much grammar, which meant he often misused adjectives as nouns and nouns as verbs. As a consequence descriptions of his daily observations of wildlife broke with the poetry conventions of the day and resulted in earthy rather than ethereal depictions. Added to this his poetry incorporates many words and phrases that were unfamiliar to those more used to the conventions dictated by Dr Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language. To overcome this, the publisher incorporated a glossary with explanations for those unaccustomed to Clare’s ‘midland dialect’. For example, bird-boy is an infant who frightens birds from the corn; chelp is to chirp or make a chattering noise like a bird; cumbergrounds is a stand of useless trees; puddock – a red kite; quawking the noise of crows and swain is a lazy or unemployed youth.
In some cases it is not just the language or the rural scene that has disappeared. In another of Clare’s early poems the first three lines go as follows:
Tasteful Illumination of the night,
Bright scatter’d, twinkling star of spangled earth!
Hail to the nameless colour’d dark-and-light…
To the Glow-worm described a night-time encounter with a nocturnal insect that is today a very rare sight indeed.
Back on more familiar ground, one herb we are still very familiar with is captured in his ode “To an April Daisy”, which starts:
Welcome, old Comrade! peeping once again;
Our meeting ’minds me of a pleasant hour:
Spring’s pencil pinks thee in that blushy stain,
And Summer glistens in thy tinty flower.
Hail, Beauty’s Gem! disdaining time nor place;
Carelessly creeping on the dunghill’s side;
Demeanour’s softness in thy crimpled face
Decks thee in beauties unattain’d by pride.
I hope a few at least are encouraged to seek out the works of John Clare.