Clare... and Faith

From Ronnie Blythe
(Church Times -- 28th July 2006)


OBSERVING the white night at 3 p.m., I can see the heat resting, as it were. The corn is solid gold, huge, still wedges of it fitted between the headlands; and the garden flowers remain open. There is no dawn chorus, but here and there I can hear a listless soloist. Two horses talk to each other beneath a may-tree. 

Should I get up and write? Should I lie back in the cool, ancient room? Should I listen to horrors on the bedside radio? If I make a sound, the cat will dash in for breakfast.

My oldest friend has died: should I mourn her? At 91? Come, come! I can hear her say. "Try not to be silly, dear." I will read John Donne's soliloquy at her committal, the one about "coming to that holy room, Where . . . I shall be made thy music". But fancy dying during such a summer!

To Helpston for the 25th John Clare Festival. The handsome stone village burns in the sunshine, his cornfields, too. The bar in whose threshing-dust the poet wrote a little algebra with his finger is like an oven. His birthplace would be unrecognisable to him, so white and smart -- his pub, too, with its lavish ploughman's lunch and crowd of authors.

But here is his great -- (several greats) grandson, and here are his readers come to do him honour. Homage-paying literary societies must have begun in the Mermaid Tavern after Shakespeare had departed. Or possibly in Athens, when Sappho had gone to Olympus.

I had to write about John Clare's faith. His church was out of doors. He describes it constantly. Like William Wordsworth, he drew his beliefs from "Nature and her overflowing soul". Clare was the outside worshipper, and poem after poem by him delights in the freedom of the sabbath fields and hearing distant bells. His creed began: "Nature, thou truth from Heaven".

His fellow worshippers were shepherds, gypsies, and herdboys, though mostly he preferred to sing alone amid birds and flowers. The annual cycle of growth, the seasonal weather, and the continuity of creatures and plants in more or less the same few acres, witnessed to him the eternal. In fact, he summed up his religion in a long statement, "The Eternity of Nature", and in a perfect epigram for himself:

He loved the brook's soft sound,
The swallow swimming by;
He loved the daisy covered round,
The cloud bedappled sky;
To him the dismal appeared
The very voice of God. . . 
A silent man in life's affairs,
A thinker from a Boy,
A Peasant in his daily cares --
The Poet in his joy.

In a tender hymn, "A Stranger once did bless the earth", he saw Christ as "An outcast thrown in sorrow's way", and this tragic figure contrasts with his magnificent God, "creator of Nature". Even when cast into the very depths of this world's suffering, in Northampton Asylum, Clare was kept sane by the huge truth of "my Creator God". He and "the insects in the brake" were brothers.

To a favourite tree

Old favourite tree art thou too fled the scene
Could not the ax thy clining age delay
& let thee stretch thy shadows oer the green
& let thee dye in picturesque decay

What hadst thou done to meet a tyrants frown
Be dragd a captive from thy native wood
What was the cause the raige that hewd thee down
Small value was the ground on which thou stood
So sweet in summer as thy branches spread
In such gay cloathing as thy boughs where drest
Where many a shepherd swain has laid his head
& on thy cooling fragrance sunk to rest
Adieu old friends ye trees & bushes dear
The flower refreshd by Morning dews
Hopeful blooms in asure skies
Anon the Noontide heat ensues
It hoples Withers droops & dies
O Cruel change of Love like mine
To bid me hope one only day
& ere that worst of days declind
To snatch that only hope away

Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery (1820)

On some friends leaving a favourite spot

[Image: Anne Lee]

Is this a poem about the beauties of Walkerd and therefore written especially with Patty in mind?  Unfortunately, it is now virtually impossible to get anywhere near Walkherd Lodge, although Mike Hobson did manage two atmospheric photographs that we used in our book "The Poet in Love"... the story of the meeting, courtship and marriage of John and Patty.  

Is it significant that in line 3 Clare deleted ‘gardens’ and substituted ‘edens’? Certainly we think that the poem beautifully describes the environs of the Lodge. (RR & ProfER)

Tho thou wert not the place of my being & birth
Tho I spent not the sports of my childhood in thee
Mid the dear spots we call edens on earth
Thou art one of the fairest thats known unto me
Five beautiful springs thee & thine have I known
Thy woods & thy brooks winding peacful at will
Thy heaths & like hermitage standing alone
Thy cottage that smoaks by the side of a hill

I have rambld the plains were no being beside
Hath intruded the whole summers day
& followd the shepherds paths dimly descryd
By the hedges all lind with dog roses & may
& wilds were no tracks but the rabbits hath been
Were flowers bloom untouched till they dye
Were the whole summer thro neer a schoolboy is seen
& the linnets brood lives in its nest till they flue

I have turnd to thy springs with the birds when adry
& hunted the flowers with the hoarse honey bee
& the few scantly pleasances that manhood supply
Were some of them sought for & gathered in thee
& a flower that grew with thee the fairest of all
That decks the soft bosom of april & may
Blooming lovly & wild by the lone cottage wall
Love wood it with rapture & won it away

& Ive walkd oer thy wilds with that flower I esteem
& livd in the peace of her cottage a guest
& mused by the charms of thy hearth & thy shame
As she shrunk on our walks on my bosom to rest
& the bowers on thy heaths sprinkld over with cows
Were we sat down in some a cool minute to spend
Enjoying the wind that fannd thro the green boughs
Where I left them & bade them farwell like a friend

Tho spring brings  the wild heath its annual bloom
Spreading white sheets of flowers on
Yet tyrants have been with the friends of her home
& strangers are there to inhabit it now
The footpath as usual inviteth us on
& the old cottage chimney still peeps oer the dell
But the friends of the blossom I gathered are gone
& bidden the fields & the dwelling farwell

We might roam as wont to the heaths yellow oer
With furze flowers & lamb toe that creeping I rove
Down the crookd path that leads to the fountain once more
The scenes of her childhood & haunts of her love
& the cottage might shine just the same in her eye
But the voice of old welcomes woud meet us no more
We might pass her lovd dwelling as strangers pass by
& no eye would notice or open the door

I lovd the dear haunts of the sweet solitudes
That round its lome walls in the circle do lye
Were no living thing all the season intrudes
But a bird or a bee humming wearisome bye
& Ive hunted for spots by the brook & have found
The lonliest existing an hour to abide
With nought but the green light of trees flitting round
& the shadow that seemed stretchd asleep by my side

The wood rides as wont wound beneath the oak bough
Still tempting the eye that admires to rove on
But stranger feet with in their lonliness now
& their old fellow hermits that lovd them are gone
The birds in the gardens shades nesting among
As fond of their neighbours that used to dwell bye
Hear strange voices now & stop short in the song
& startled peep down of fresh faces flye

The sparrows no doubt will grow coy & complain
To medlesome foes that their freedom is oer
& the fond robin pauses ere he ventures again
To pick up the crumbles of bread by the door
The martin that comes to the cottage repairs
& once met a welcome & quiet enjoyd
May now find a tyrant as cruel as theirs
& morning retreat its dwelling destroyd

The black bee that hums by the mud creviced wall
Eaen they may old friend & old neighbours deplore
While meddlesome childen with frolicsome brawl
Shoutest loudly that friendship & freedom is oer
Ive seen these delights in their season of peace
When their old friends & neighbours was labouring nigh
Ere a tyrants intrusions had warnd them to cease
& I deeply regret that such seasons are bye

Long long in seclusion their lives had been nurst
Neighbours only to blossoms to birds & to bees
Till plumb stones & damsons set when they came first
& small apple curnels had grown up to trees
& a thorn that was not when they came to the spot
Which a linnet might bring when an awe from the dell
Had grown when thet left half as high as the cot
& quite overshadowed the cub of the well

The wood bine that crept up the door & peepd in
May with them of its bloom & its home be bereft
That clung to the cot with its inmates akin
& they felt that it viewd them as such when they left
When they left birds & flowers all their neighbours behind
In the nise & the strife of a village to dwell
They seemd to have borrowd the voice of the wind
& to sigh when their last look turnd on them “farewell”

Pet MS A21 p25-9
Pet MS A30 p141-6
MP II 55

To the Nightingale



Ah eve lov'd bird how sweet thy music floats
E'en hodge fine musics vulgar tasteles foe
Entirely thoughtless where's he's got to go
Stands struck with wonder at thy varied notes
Untill a pause ensuing brings to mind
His work at which he starts but touch'd so strong
Rememb'rance makes him as he plods along
Sing ‘Sweet jug, jug,’ and often look behind
To where they first begun—then such as these
O bird again repeat and let me know
If they (which do so much with others please)
Can sooth in me this anguish more than woe
For sure no anguish more tormenting stings
Then that which vexing dissapointment brings

EP I 456 (unpublished elsewhere)

Bean Blossoms


I love the black e'en o' the scented bean blossom
And think o the dark eye of somebody

Its whiteness is just like the hue o her bosom

And thats my ain beautiful somebody


I luik on the flowers as I think on her face

They remind me o' sweet somebody

I long then to meet her in just such a place

A loving kiss I'd gie to somebody


How sweet the bean blossoms how rich the hedge rose

They seem like the presence of somebody

There's some like her features some hued like her clothes

They make me keep thinking o' somebody


In the west white and red clouds of even

Still bring me the image o' somebody

The fairest of all under Heaven

Is my beautiful lovely Miss somebody


Bean blossoms from furrow to ridge

Scenting sweetly remind me o somebody

The roses in bloom on the hedge

Are just like the image o somebody


I loo the black e'e o bean blossoms

Theyre like the sweet eyes o somebody

The lily reminds me of bosoms

And that is the bosom o somebody

The Later Poems of John Clare 1837-1864
ed. Eric Robinson and David Powell
(Oxford, 2 volumes, I-II, 1984)
Unpublished elsewhere

COY MAIDENS O' DRYSAIL


Here is final poem in the story of Roger’s romantic adventures - sorry it's a bit late, but I got distracted by other things, as one does.

In the end Roger meets a visiting Scot (a drover’s daughter?) and finds in her something he seemed not to be able to find in the local Northamptonshire lasses.  The Kirk at Upton, incidentally is very much worth a visit.  The church (photo above) is virtually unchanged from Clare’s time, and the little village a reminder of how much of the county used to be.

Coy Maidens o' Drysail bonny Girls o' Buckhiven
Young beauty's o' Largo bonny Lasses o' Leven
I loved them the gether I loved one alone
And the rest followed with her Else I'd made her my own

Nay stop there auld Sodger Yo're nae kin o' her kind
She belongs to young Rodger our Shepherd—sae mind
Her voice shouted Rodger like throwing a stone
Sae gae on oud Sodger and let her alane

The voice it gaed through me like throwing a stone
And sair did it rue me knocking at my breast bone
Gae awa' wi' yer Rodger young Man do I see
If you'r then auld Sodger you may march on wi' me

Sae I went with the Maiden over heath and o'er plain
And when Sunday was come too I saw her again
I saw her and courted the sun from the West
And left my last kiss on the mole of her breast

I kissed and were married and bedded and a'
And the auld Kirk at Upton the green Wedding saw
For the grass it was green and our years was the same
And frae morning to E'en Nane ca'd us to blame

LP II 843

“Her voice shouted Rodger like throwing a stone” – as I child my mother, now in her 93rd year, often in the late afternoon would call me in for tea.  I could have been anywhere as we lived in the country, so she shouted my name at the top of her voice – I have experience of what ‘the voice it gaed through me’ sounds like.  The volume, the inflection… even the memory makes shudder just a little!

The Nightingales Nest

Of the many notable examples of Clare’s ability to grasp the unique particularity of the wild world, his poem ‘The Nightingale’s Nest’ is arguably the greatest.  Here the rural epiphany figured in Clare’s poem is so persuasively delivered that we cannot evade the implications of our dual potential: as ‘rude’ desecrators or privileged caretakers.  Clare’s use of the inclusive ‘we’ positions us within a drama of whispered complicity, even culpability, as we ‘trample’ nearer to witness the fugitive showing forth of the nightingale’s nest.

The exactitude of his gaze, Clare’s attentive regard of and for all natural objects is now, more than ever, essential to our humanity.  If poetry lives in the ear, before taking root in mind and heart, there can be no better way to connect with the lyrical specificity of John Clare’s world than this.

 (Kaye Kossick – 2012)

Aye as I live her secret nest is here
upon this white thorn stump––I’ve  searched about
for hours in vain––there! put that bramble bye
Nay trample on its branches and get near
How subtle is the bird! she started out
And raised a plaintive note of danger nigh
Ere we were past the brambles and now near
Her nest she sudden stops––as choking fear
That might betray her home so even now
We’ll leave it as we found it… our presence doth retard

Her joys, and doubt turns every rapture chill.
Sing on sweet bird may no worse hap befall
Thy visions than the fear that now deceives
We will not plunder music of its dower
Nor turn this spot of happiness to thrall

(lines  53-70)

John Clare - Major Works (OUP) 1984