Ronnie Blythe on the John Clare Festival

(from 2014, but still worth a read)
See YOU at the 2017 Festival?
Sultry July days. Twin calendars rule them: the lectionary, and a writer's. Thus our trip to Helpston, the birthplace of the great rural poet John Clare. It is exactly as we left it last year, except that a strange additional memorial rises over his grave. Dear once-a-year friends walk along the broad village street, with its handsome Barnack stone houses and towering hollyhocks.
Ringing the changes, my lecture is on Thomas Hardy, whose hands did not touch the soil; and Clare, whose hands drove the plough. Their days slightly overlapped - had they heard of each other? Neither could really operate, as it were, outside their own country-side. In their time, the "peasant" would become a "farm labourer", and the bottom of the rural population.
And towards the end of the 19th century the British countryside would fall into a depression that would last until the opening of the Second World War, when food needs, and today's non-traditional farming methods, would rescue it from decline.
I looked up Clare's activities in July from his wonderfully useful The Shepherd's Calendar. So far as I can tell, virtually nothing happens in Wormingford in July. You might have to squeeze past a hay lorry whose dizzy oblong load totters ahead, and whose driver waves his sunburnt hand. No women semi-dressed in the hay-making fields which so tantalised the young poet. What work does he list for July? Well, mostly anything which meant using a scythe.
I keep my scythe in cutting order with a whet-stone. I bought it in Stowmarket a long time ago, and I am enchanted this moment to see Adrian wielding it in the orchard. Softly, it lays the summer growth down in rhythmic folds. Greengages will tumble down on to them without bruising. You have to beat the birds where there are greengages. A week late, and they will be the debris of a feast.
Clare's July village is noisy with "singing, shouting herding boys", and bagpipes, as young Scots tramp down the Great North Road to seek their fortunes in London. Our car makes its journey through ancient lanes and motorways to the church at Helpston, where I sit on the chancel step to talk on England's most eloquent village voice, and a prolific one, so that the John Clare Society need never run out of subjects.
We come home to matins and evensong in two different churches, and to the lasting heat wave. Now, with the house empty, and the white cat thanking her god for summer's torpor as she sleeps in the window ledge above what was the copper, I get back to routine, breaking into it now and then to pull up some giant weed. By far my most wondrous July achievement this year is the sweet-pea wigwam: a score of bamboo rods that carry the flowers to heaven. A vase of them locked into a room overnight is the best welcome to a July breakfast.
Clare sees "the gardener sprinkling showers from watering cans on drooping flowers" as he tended both wild and cultivated plants behind his cottage. It could have been a statement on his own genius. His natural history was marvellously inclusive. It began when he was a boy, lying low in the summer grass, watching climbing insects; and it ended as the beautiful sane region to which he could escape from the "madhouse".

First published in the Church Times, 25th July 2014 

from "The Dream"

When nights last hours like haunting spirits creep
With listning terrors round the couch of sleep
& midnight brooding with its deepest dye
Seizes on fear with dismal sympathy

I dreamd a dream of somthing kin to fate
Which superst[it]ions blackest thoughts create
Something half natural to the grave that seems
Which deaths long trance of slumber aptly dreams

A dream of staggering horrors & of dread
Whose shadows lingerd when the dream had fled
Clinging to memory with their gloomy view
Till doubt & fancy half believd it true

That time was come or seemd as it was come
When death no longer makes the grave its home
When waking spirits leave their earthly rest
To mix forever with the damnd or blest

When years in drowsey thousands counted bye
Then hung on minutes with their destiny
When life in terror drops its draining glass
& all thats mortal like to shadows pass

As neath approaching tempests sinks the sun
When time shall leave eternity begun
Life swoond in terror at that hours dread birth
& as in ague shook the fearful earth

MP I 325

from "The Night Mare"

'Her steps take hold of hell' (Proverbs 5:5)

My dream began in bliss & lifted high
My sleeping feelings into fancys joy
Though like one wandering in a sweet far land
I seemd to hear & coud not understand
Among the many voices hurring bye
Nor knew one face were many met my eye

That dim seen mystery which in dreams appears
Was mine a feeling of joy hopes and fears,
Mingld together yet I knew not why
Where all was beauty trouble shoud be bye
The place was light & yet no sun was there
To cause itpale & beautifully fair,

Nor glare nor gloom but like eternity
Mild like what spirits may expect to see
But there was earth & sky & trees & flowers,
Different in kind & yet resembling ours
& mightiest objects that the eye surveyd
No light they clouded & they cast no shade;


& in that sky no cloud crossd east or west
No storm crept frowning oer its chrystal rest
At length a mighty mansion gatherd high
Whose bounds seemd almost boundless to the eye
A place that wakend fancys wonders there
As mysterys mask left half her shadow bare

MP I 332

John Clare and Footpath Walking

John Clare is the genius of the footpath. So poignant is his statement on the road that it tends to overlay his many and various statements on the footpaths. That wretched road journey, in July 1841, just after his forty-sixth birthday, when he was alone, weakening and penniless, and when he had to, as he said, “lay down with my head towards the north to show myself the steering point in the morning”, was a walk entirely isolated from every other walk he had made, or would ever make.

Clare was more than acquainted with the way, that simplest, purest, most eloquent of ways, the footpath. And life only went wrong when he was diverted from it. He knew where he stood. He knew where he should walk. He knew when he should drop down. He knew what no other English writer knew or knows, which is what the English countryman's eyes saw, or sees, in its purity … we know that countless people, whilst on the way to work, or at work itself, are unwittingly visionary, and that they do not pass through these scenes on earth without taking them in, and wondering at them sometimes. What they -- or few of us do, is to drop down in our tracks to write because the need to write is overwhelming, as it is with writers. There were days when Clare could not follow the footpaths. On Thursday 23 September 1824 he writes:

“A wet day did nothing but nurse my illness Coud not have walkd out had it been fine very disturbd in conscience about the troubles of being forcd to endure life & dye by inches & the anguish of leaving my childern & the dark porch of eternity whence none returns to tell the tale of their reception” (Natural History, p. 181)

But a few weeks later - what a change?

Sunday 31 October 1824
“Took a walk got some branches of fee spindle tree with its pink colord berys that shine beautifully in the pale sun - found for fee first time 'fee herb true love' or 'one berry' [Paris quatrifollia} in Oxey Wood brought a root home to set in my garden” (Natural History, p. 197)

Did we but comprehend it, a great amount of our best poetry, novels and essays smell, not of the lamp, but of dust, mud, grit, pollen, and, I expect, sweat.

Ronald Blythe ~ John Clare Society Journal, 14, 1995

And then there were three... or is that eight?

The publication of “With the Gipsies” today [22nd May] sees the third Clare Arbour Chapbook added to the list.  At the risk of repeating myself, this effort is to put Clare texts into the hands of those who cannot easily afford current paperback prices.  At £3-50 per copy, these will not be listed on Amazon as the minimum they charge for postage and packing is £2-80 – but they ARE available from me for £4-50 inclusive.

How can I afford to do this?  All I seek to do is simply to break-even on all my Arbour Editions titles, to ensure that folk do not have to take a financial punt simply to buy a book!

All my titles are still available (prices maked include P&P):

Hidden Treasures - £7.50
The Memoirs of Uncle Barnaby - £14.00
Drinking with John Clare - £4.50
Helpstons Fountains - £4.50
With the Gipsies - £4.50

I also have a few of my (with Anne Lee) Limited edition, handmade books still available:

The Lovers Meeting - £32.50
The Poet in Love - £37.50
In the Shadows -  £37.50

All will of course be available at the John Clare Society Festival in July.

Roger R.



The Death of Dobbin (excerpt)

The summers heat & winters cutting cold
Have stood with the[e] with the[e] as partners shar'd
The toiling slaves to those that better far'd
These where thy friends & these thy friends well knew
A horses worth that might be trusted too
And this they every day could prove & see
The value dobbin of a horse like thee
They by expirience taught knew how to prize
That worth which unexpirienc'd fools despise
And treat thy Memory with that due respect
Which thy self loving master does neglect
Never through him by hardy work's attain'd
And lasts no longer then his ends are gain'd
Sway'd by self interest—when thy best was o'er
As he could profit by thy strength no more
When courage left thee & old age came on
And all the hopes of an amendment gone
When willing still weak efforts provd too true
That thou hadst done the utmost thou cou'dst do
Then merits past and praises all adieu
His profits vanishd and his praises too
On merits past he could'n't tent to call
Nor spare a praise where merits past was all
But turnd the[e] out in yon bare grounds to feed
To pine or die as future fate decreed
And happy future fate did so ordain
To see thy sufferance and to ease thy pain


EP I 84 (lines 32-58)

Tim Dee takes about John Clare

In a short 9-minute film by James Murray-White, author and birdwatcher Tim Dee speaks of why John Clare is so important to the bird watching community.  Music by Mike Hobson.   A 'must see' film: https://vimeo.com/89252484