John Clare*, the Northamptonshire peasant poet was born on July 13, 1793. This is remarkable, because last Friday (July 13th), I was considering a Poet in Mind post, and thought of John Clare, whom I had discovered quite by accident several years ago. I was perusing the stacks of my library’s poetry section, something I enjoy because I discover new things, and I saw a collection of John Clare poetry. Out of curiosity, I checked it out and was not sorry for it.
John Clare was born into an illiterate farming family. He did receive some formal schooling, probably enough to function in a class-oriented society. He worked as a farm labourer to earn money. The fact that much of his poetry focuses on the natural world leads me to think he probably wrote much of his poetry in his head while watching nature in the fields he worked. He was also of the Romantic style.
By John Clare
Come we to the summer, to the summer we will come,
For the woods are full of bluebells and the hedges full of bloom,
And the crow is on the oak a-building of her nest,
And love is burning diamonds in my true lover’s breast;
She sits beneath the whitethorn a-plaiting of her hair,
And I will to my true lover with a fond request repair;
I will look upon her face, I will in her beauty rest,
And lay my aching weariness upon her lovely breast.
The clock-a-clay is creeping on the open bloom of May,
The merry bee is trampling the pinky threads all day,
And the chaffinch it is brooding on its grey mossy nest
In the whitethorn bush where I will lean upon my lover’s breast;
I’ll lean upon her breast and I’ll whisper in her ear
That I cannot get a wink o’sleep for thinking of my dear;
I hunger at my meat and I daily fade away
Like the hedge rose that is broken in the heat of the day.
The Romantic style can be summed up as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”**, with the additional work and “pain” of using strict meter and form. It’s not easy expressing your emotions in such structural forms, and the Romantic Movement recognized that as a means to develop “good” poetry.
Trial by fire, as it were.
John Clare was always a lesser known poet, perhaps because of his humble background. He actually did publish during his lifetime, though he could not make a living as a poet. He had to continue with a variety of manual labor jobs to support his wife and family. It was a struggle that contributed to poor health, heavy drinking and bouts of depression. However, he wrote rather prolifically. About love and nature, Rural life, his passions***, animals, birds, insects.
By John Clare
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 as 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.
His depression and declining mental health eventually led him to admitting himself to an asylum where he primarily lived the last 27 years of his life. After his death in 1864, his poetry languished for the remainder of the 19th century, but Clare’s poetry was rediscovered in the late 20th century, and he was recognized for his keen descriptions of nature, the rural English countryside, and his dedicated practice of the Romantic style.
To close, I selected two poems that juxtapose different views of hope. Both demonstrate the power of poetry, the struggles that we face, and how we can meet the challenges.
By John Clare
AH, smiling cherub! cheating Hope, adieu!
No more I’ll listen to your pleasing themes;
No more your flattering scenes with joy renew,
For ah, I’ve found them all delusive dreams:
Yes, mere delusions all; therefore, adieu!
No more shall you this aching heart beguile;
No more your fleeting joys will I pursue,
That mock’d my sorrows when they seem’d to smile,
And flatter’d tales that never will be true:
Tales, only told to aggravate distress
And make me at my fate the more repine,
By whispering joys I never can possess,
And painting scenes that never can be mine.
THE INSTINCT OF HOPE
By John Clare
Is there another world for this frail dust
To warm with life and be itself again?
Something about me daily speaks there must,
And why should instinct nourish hopes in vain?
‘Tis nature’s prophesy that such will be,
And everything seems struggling to explain
The close sealed volume of its mystery.
Time wandering onward keeps its usual pace
As seeming anxious of eternity,
To meet that calm and find a resting place.
E’en the small violet feels a future power
And waits each year renewing blooms to bring,
And surely man is no inferior flower
To die unworthy of a second spring?
*John Clare image by Edward Scriven, after William Hilton
stipple engraving, published 1821
© National Portrait Gallery, London
**William Wordsworth. He knew a thing or two about Romantic poetry.
***He had a lifelong crush on his first love, Mary Joyce. She is a frequent subject of his love poetry, and obviously his muse. He was never allowed to court her formally, because they were of different classes in society. He continued to write about her throughout his life, and was apparently devastated to learn of her death in 1838. This is supposed to have contributed to his depression and eventual self-imposed admission to an asylum.