Signs of Winter

The cat runs races with her tail. The dog
Leaps oer the orchard hedge and knarls the grass.
The swine run round and grunt and play with straw,
Snatching out hasty mouthfuls from the stack.
Sudden upon the elmtree tops the crow
Unceremonious visit pays and croaks,
Then swops away. From mossy barn the owl
Bobs hasty out--wheels round and, scared as soon,
As hastily retires. The ducks grow wild
And from the muddy pond fly up and wheel
A circle round the village and soon, tired,
Plunge in the pond again. The maids in haste
Snatch from the orchard hedge the mizzled clothes
And laughing hurry in to keep them dry.

Review of 'The Lovers Meeting

From the moment that my copy of 'The Lovers Meeting' landed on the doormat, to reading its pages (several times), I am constantly taken aback by how insightful, knowledgeable, and masterfully illustrated this piece of work really is, by Roger Rowe and Anne Lee.  If one thought pervades my mind whilst absorbing each painstakingly, crafted page (for this book was certainly a labour of love in itself), it is of a quote from Aristotle: ‘Pleasure’ in poetry, Aristotle has said, ‘is the image of man and nature … there is no object standing between the Poet and the image of things.’ It is within this ‘image of man and nature’ that we truly begin to understand the ‘pleasure[s]’ John Clare, not only derives from non-human Nature, but also that of human nature; perfectly bound and brought to the public in this limited edition book.
Rowe provides an historical introduction to Clare’s work that underpins the poem’s creation and the struggles faced in its exposition (from Ovid to Richard Duke).  As Rowe so rightly suggests, work of such an erotic nature was often bound by circumstance and censored by the adolescent ideology that supported Victorian and Edwardian sensibilities of the middle and upper-classes and, as he continues, ‘[t]he cold hand of Evangelical piety.’ Nonetheless, Rowe has unearthed this significant text from its censorship, for readers whom he believes are mature enough to ‘cope with Clare’s explicit erotic imagery.’ I believe it is so important in fact, that it serves to educate Clare enthusiasts and academics alike.  ‘The Lovers Meeting’ provides anthropological linguistic insight behind what drives basic human instinct - what man aspires to be – to be unafraid of confronting the carnal nature inherent within all humanity.  Clare achieves this through the relationship of man, cognition and language.  For him, the feelings associated with sex are nothing to be ashamed of.  They are a natural portion of our being: ‘burning’ and ‘scorching’ says the speaker in stanza one and, it is in his beloved Nature which provides the blanket to lie down upon.
But Clare always remains the gentleman:
Here rest fond muse – For these thy powers excel
& if thou hadst not thou must cease to tell
Nor try nor venture secrets to reveal
Which she sweet girl could wish thee to consceal 

The speaker's notion is never to be vulgar and never to exploit his muse.  Rowe, a Clare enthusiast for many years, has expertly captured another chapter of Clare's art; as he would wish his work to be shown – unedited and truthfully profound in its simplicity.

The photographic images captured by Anne Lee, flawlessly mirror Clare’s poetry in ‘The Lovers Meeting’.  Stanza by stanza, the model of the near-naked man is framed by silver birch trees and staged at Holme Fen.  This is the perfect setting for an alternative art-form and expression of Clare’s natural poetry.  Like Clare, Lee is never fully revealing; always allowing for the partial concealment by Nature.  The juxtaposition of the photographs, along with the poem, enhances the truth behind the speaker’s carnal urges.  The images (as the poem does), invoke a ‘flush’ of expectancy:

Her lilly hand I prest which fondly burn’d
& soon the fondling taken was return’d
O with what softness heav’d each swelling breast
“Courting the hand & sueing to be prest” 

The example I use here appear to reveal the feelings of human passion, symbolised by the muse clinging onto the silver birch with an outstretched hand.  He is grasping at nature and appears as grounded in his resolution (I’m guessing human desire), just as the tree is grounded within its natural surroundings.  The picture is further embossed with inscriptions (as are all of the pictures), which textualises the image.  It is as if these embellishments amplify the spoken sounds that echo that of the poems speaker.  Lee’s images remain strong, sensual and caressing throughout the entire book; adding another sensory layer to the passion that surrounds ‘The Lovers Meeting’.
Romanticism goes beyond a deep expression of intense feeling and deep emotion.  Rather, it deals with staunch individualistic beliefs that are often concerned with the rights of individuals and the world in which they inhabit.  Romantic poets generate a truculent voice trying to improve the social and political conditions in which they live.  These poets became prophets of a new Romantic spirituality.  John Clare was an outcast amongst many of the elitist readerships and he brought a truculent voice to magnify the inhumanity of staunch beliefs.  

By promoting Clare’s voice, Roger Rowe and Ann Lee not only validate Aristotle’s concept of the ‘pleasure’ of ‘man and nature’, but together, they demonstrate (through John Clare’s work) that there is no ‘object standing between the Poet and the image of things.’ It is the image contained within Clare’s work that is the truth, whether literary or visually.  No-one can truly censor it.  It is a part of humanity.  ‘The Lovers Meeting’ marks a simple truth of the natural force of human desire.  It cannot be quashed.

(Jacqueline Cosby)

O Woman Sweet Witchingly Woman

January 2020 will be the 200th anniversary of the publication of 'Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery' Clare's first book.  There will be more about that from me in the next edition of the Clare SocietyNewsletter in February.  

Additionally, the 16th of March 2020 marks the 200th Anniversary of John Clare's hasty marriage to Martha (Patty) Turner, she was, of course, six months pregnant at the time.  Patty was 20 on the 3rd March and John 27 years of age.   I have been planning for some years to mark the anniversary of their marriage in an appropriate way and Chapbook Number 15 is the result.
In 1992 Eric Robinson met together with several other notable Clareans – foremost among them Pete Shaw and Noël Staples – to create what became entitled ‘Woman, Sweet Witchingly Woman - An Entertainment’.  At about the same time Professor Robinson had discussions with Nicholas Parry of Tern Press to produce one of their beautiful handmade books to mark Clare’s bicentenary.  Consequently, in 1993, Tern Press published ‘Woman, Sweet Witchingly Woman’ to much acclaim, and ‘An Entertainment’ was duly performed in Peterborough Cathedral to mark the 200th anniversary of Clare’s birth.

Here is an extract from the introduction to the musical entertainment in the Cathedral :

“The wonder of John Clare is that his work stands up to examination from so many different directions.  The keen naturalist will be fascinated by Clare’s powers of observation in his poems and prose on the birds and animals around Helpston.  The social historian will be delighted by Clare’s equally acute observations of the people of the village, their festivals, their courtships and their business dealings.  Clare is above all the poet of popular culture, and he rejoiced in the songs, the stories, the ceremonies and the customs of his native place. In this role he was also the first collector of song - words and dance tunes in Northamptonshire.

This short entertainment is based on some of his songs about women.  Some are romantic, others are realistic, some are sweet, others are sour – but all of them have their own special authenticity.”

In this Chapbook, I have collected together some of the items from the programme that day, plus poems from the Tern Press publication and several poems from our Handmade trilogy of books.  Included too, are some of those which have not seen the light of day largely because of their sensuous content.

In Clare’s early work, in particular, we find fine poems on subjects that he was ‘encouraged’ to repress to make acceptable to a largely urban book-buying public – the middle and upper classes.  There is little doubt in my mind that Clare’s poetic vision was somewhat more carnal than his publisher thought fitting, as Professor Robinson remarked: “To survey the whole range of his poetry about Woman is to encounter a many-faceted, exhilarating, and erotic sensibility.” 

The book is now ready and is priced at £4 plus £1 (P&P). Just drop me an email to OR drop me a message via facebook, and I will do the rest.

Roger R.

January Birthdays

On the 4th January 1833 Charles was born to Patty and John, two days later on the 7th Frederick was 9 years old - he was born in 1824.
So just some lines from 'The Holiday Walk' in celebration:

Come Eliza & Anna lay bye top & ball
& Freddy boy throw away cart & toys all
Look about for your hats & dispence with your play
We'll seek for the fields & be happy to day
Do but hark at the shouts of the boys by the school
As noisey & merry as geese in a pool
While the master himself is so sick of his thrall
That he laughs like the merriest child of them all
While they race with their shadows he joins in the fray
& leaps oer the “cat gallows” nimble as they
As glad to get out of his school in the sun
As a captive would be from his prison to run
The morning invites us to walk come along
Tis so sweet that the sparrow een tries at a song
The dews are all gone save amid the dark glooms
Neath the woods crowded leaves were the sun never comes
Nor need we regret that the dews linger there
For brambles defye us to come if we dare

Advice to 'Government'...

A lesson for our, and successive Governments from John Clare, written on the 1st February 1830 :

" (...) I cannot help thinking that a paper currency founded upon just principles would still be a very commodious way of traffic much better then gold — but I would have every bank issuing one pound notes (which is but a shadow of a promise for a substance which the promiser has pocketed) dependant as branch banks on the Bank of England (many of the other banks are not worth a capital letter) nay every bank issuing paper at all ought to have that check upon them as I think to prosper the general good of the community rather then to encourage the knavery of individuals (...)

PRESCIENT!  (And they call Clare a simple peasant - what an irony too).

As Stubborn as the Oak

I am starting to create a second volume, after ‘Hidden Treasures’, of Clare obscurities and fragments, no idea as yet what the title might be (I’m open to suggestions).  There are many such ‘fragments’ in the archives, some just a line or two, but many complete poems/prose too.  Here is just one of them.

As stubborn as the oak

As stubborn as the oak that cannot bend
He seeks no master & he has no friend
& round the ground & bawling often goes
& makes a merry feast of roasted sloes
Bawling together all the live long day
A loud & drawling song had all [astray]      

& all is joyous music save that noise
That comes in summered oaths from garden boys
Who run & shout yet cannot drive away
The restless sheep from trespass in the hay
Nor make the crops the shallow fold again
So there the stubborn trespassers remain

Altho the water is so shallow       

That larger pebbles          even lye
Half out of water & their surface dry

Pet MS A61 p54

Two complete verses and a few odd lines, yet this has been ignored as a ‘fragment’.  I think it’s rather beautiful.

A Cag of Small Swipes (Chapbook No.14)

From the Introduction:

I have had it in the back of my mind for some while to produce a book, in the Chapbook series, that concentrates on Clare’s sometimes odd-seeming, or unusual use of language. ‘A Cag of Small Swipes’ if you will.  After all, Clare has a wide acquaintance with specialised vocabularies of all kinds.

Clare’s passion for words was founded on his knowledge of Chapbook nursery-rhymes and fairy-stories, and the games of his childhood.  He was also intimate with the language of the hedger, the ditcher, the thatcher, the ploughman, the shepherd and the cowman - paralleled by the language of the ‘ranter-preacher’, the village school-master and the pretentious local lawyer.  Plus all those words used in the many traditional songs he knew so well.  His language was that of village streets, fairs and fields.  It is the language of proverb and of popular, often vulgar rhyme.  So it is clear that Clare is an important source, one of very few, for finding words that were commonly used in Eastern and Northern England, as well as in Scotland, during his lifetime.

Clare often used words that he employed in his own speech and that he heard every day in the village street, and having great fun writing this way.   He is not looking down at his fellow-villagers for their speech-habits but enjoying, as we should, its vigour and variety.  

So, this as a book full of strange words and phrases, sometimes hiding sexual imagery, yet full of laughter and an ebullient sense of humour. Most especially when describing the love lives of the young people living all around him in Helpston, and the advice they are proffered or choose to reject:

Peggy ye might bin my death wi yer scorning 

Im sure tis yer pleasure to do as ye may 

For ere sin I helpd ye to milk in the morning 

Yeve 'ployd all my thoughts for the rest of the day 

Yer sweet slender body so light & so jimping 

Yer arms so well shapd & yer brown curley hair 

Yer gait so belady like spoilt wi no limping 

Left ye the power to gi joy or despair 

(from Hodges Confession)

A Cag of Small Swipes will be available from me from 1st September 2019 at £5 plus £1 postage and packing.

Poetry and Politics (under development)

Sometime in the Spring of 2020 I have been asked to take part in an evening at the South Bank  in London speaking to the title "Poetry and Politics" with particular emphasis on what Clare wrote 200 years ago.

Thinking about this, I feel that I should concentrate on the Enclosures and its effect on the poor, but how to illustrate this best so the 21st Century mind can grasp its enormity?    If for ‘Enclosure’ one substitutes ‘Brexit’, the true shocking nature of the enclosures are magnified to modern eyes, and the real nature of brexit is laid bare. 

I will be saying at the outset of my talk is that nothing has really changed.    I am reminded of Tony Benn's famous quote, "I don't think people realise how the establishment became established.  They simply stole land and property from the poor, surrounded themselves with weak minded sycophants for protection, gave themselves titles and have been wielding power ever since."

What Clare called "The Norman Yoke":

The Norman Yoke

            Men make a boast of pedigree     as well might the descendants of Richard Turpin boast of theirs for both honours spring from robbery & spoilation – what was William the Conqueror but a robber by wholesale & what were his followers but high way men     by his authority receiving tithes by their expertness at plunder    for which Turpin (a more noble plunderer if absence from fear or dareing achievements make one) received a halter because he dared to rob & could show only his courage for the liscence – the ancestors of a Newton have some thing to boast of    but pedigree belongs to a race horse & confers nothing to the mind or the man

I don't know whether Tony knew Clare's work, but he certainly did not know this poem that I uncovered in the Clare Archives a few years ago:

Content thy home be mine

Content thy home be mine
Do not my suit disdain
They who prefer the worlds to thine
Shall find it false & vain
From broken hopes & storms I flye
To hide me in thy peaceful sky

The flatterers meet with smiles
The cunning find their friends
Without I made my pilgrimage         
& so met small amends
I looked on fame as merits plea
Twas spring but winter frowned on me

To cringe to menial slaves
To worship titled power
To bend the knee to knaves
The price of earthly dower
Is what I neer was taught to pay
So empty [that] Ive turned away

Where pleasing is to flatter
Where loving is to hate
To praise what we at heart abuse
In love & church & state
This is the worlds but not my game
So poor I am without the shame

Tho flattery findeth friends
In every grade & state
& telling truth offends
The lowly & the great
Truth when the worst is bye shall rise
When follys vapour stinks & flyes

Prides pomps are shadows all
& Titles honours toys
Great births in merits oft are small
& all their praise but noise
Rainbows upon the skyes of May
Fade soon but scarce so soon as they

Then sweet content be thine to call
My sorrows as thy due
For grief is natural to all
As is to night the dew
As disappointed hopes decay
My heart shall struggle & be gay

As hopes from earth shall disappear
With thee Ill not despair
For thou canst look at heaven & see
The vagrant waiting there
& while thou smilest I shall see
 Thy lives last gift the best shall be

Here is Clare writing in the late 1820s - prose this time:

The whigs & torys may be better classified
perhaps by the terms of outs & ins for
be they whigs or torys in those situations the
outsare always vociverators of “liberty”
“cruelty of taxation” & “good of the people”
while the insare inflexible tyrants
& determined supporters of all that is
oppressing & annoying to the people &
benefitting to themselves & their connections
(Pet MS A42, p94)

This is how another writer put it:

Several centuries of enclosure were crucial in creating a working class, initially rural but increasingly urban.   Families who previously would have been able to eke a living with the use of the Commons were forced off the land they had used for centuries.  So the common folk became unable to provide for themselves and so were forced to work for a pitiful wage from their ‘masters’.

The law itself now became the instrument by which the theft of the people’s land was achieved, although the great farmers continued to use their petty private methods in addition.  The parliamentary form of this robbery was to pass Acts for the enclosure of commons; in other words, decrees whereby the great landowners made a present to themselves of the people’s land, which thus became their own private property.  A systematic seizure of communal landed property helped to swell the size of those great farms which, in the eighteenth century, were called “capital farms” or “merchant farms” 
(Karl Marx – Das Kapital

Here is a 20thCentury English Historian on the subject... 

Enclosure was a plain enough case of class robbery, played according to rules of property and law laid down by a parliament of property-owners and lawyers.  But what might be “perfectly legal” involved a rupture of the traditional village rights and customs.  The social violence of enclosure consisted precisely in the drastic, total imposition upon the village of capitalist property-definitions.  A monumental piece of rural theft.

Those petty rights of the villagers, such as gleaning, access to fuel, and the tethering of stock in the lanes or on the stubble, which are irrelevant to the historian of economic growth, were of critical importance to the subsistence of the poor.
(E. P. Thompson- The Making of the English Working Class,) 

On the 16th July 2017,  Jeremy Corbyn quoted John Clare at Tolpuddle festival:

     "Inclosure came and trampled on the grave  
     Of labour's rights and left the poor a slave … 
     And birds and trees and flowers without a name 
     All sighed when lawless law's enclosure came."

Even 200 years later,  without any doubt Clare is as relevant as ever.  Here are the lines from his 1820 collection "Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery" that his publisher had expunged from the book in the Second and subsequent editions, much to Clare's annoyance:

     "Accursed wealth oer bounding human laws
     Of every evil thou remains the cause
     Victims of want those wretches such as me
     Too truly lay their wretchedness to thee
     Thou art the bar that keeps from being fed
     & thine our loss of labour & of bread
     Thou art the cause that levels every tree
     & woods bow down to clear a way for thee "

‘Accursed Wealth’ – those two words echo down the generations for any student of Clare, whether scholar or simply a reader of the great poet’s work.  Right from the early poems that have come down to us, we find in Clare an honesty that is often painful to observe.  We all know that here was a man born in grinding poverty, like other labourers of his time subjected to the Speenhamland system:

The authorities at Speenhamland in Berkshire approved a means-tested sliding-scale of wage supplements in order to mitigate the worst effects of rural poverty. Families were paid extra to top up wages to a set level.  The immediate impact of paying the poor rate fell on the landowners of the parish concerned. They then sought other (cheaper) means of dealing with the poor, the workhouse.

For us, who have observed the vast expansion of the so-called 'gig' economy of the past 10 years, all this is very familiar.  We don't yet have the Workhouse, but it has been suggested.  Here is Clare on the subject, again a poem I uncovered in the Archives:


They give me eight pence by the day
& make it up at night
With six pence worth of parish pay
& can ye call it right

Im going to justice just to see
What she will have to say
& faith I doubt I shall not see
Yer honour there today

No friend I am a faithful mate
To justice but ye mean
What may be named a magistrate
& there Im never seen

Nay they have stopt me when Ive gone
To take that weight away
& backed deceptions wrong         
To take your gains away

Apology for the Poor

            Every restraint now adays is laid on poverty & every liberty is given to luxury          burthens are constantly laid upon the weak & the strong are left without them – with the weak they are called useful & nessesary laws & with the rich they are considered as mean & incommod{i}ous matters never intended for them

            Thus every nessesary article with the poor is taxed & every luxury with the rich goes riot free as far as possible with the descency of parsiality to participate


but perhaps because of naivety, roundly cheated by those he regarded as 'his betters' -- his publishers -- out of most of his earnings:

"& tho I know I am cheated   such is the cunning of avarice [that] like the tricks of a conjuror   it defies detection"

(...) The piece will 'grow' as I continue to compose it.  Hope readers will find it interesting and enlightening.

Roger R.