The Ants

What wonder strikes the curious, while he views
The black ant's city, by a rotten tree,
Or woodland bank! In ignorance we muse:
Pausing, annoyed, -- we know not what we see,
Such government and thought there seem to be;
Some looking on, and urging some to toil,
Dragging their loads of bent-stalks slavishly:
And what's more wonderful, when big loads foil
One ant or two to carry, quickly then
A swarm flock round to help their fellow-men.
Surely they speak a language whisperingly,
Too fine for us to hear; and sure their ways
Prove they have kings and laws, and that they be
Deformed remnants of the Fairy-days.

A PS for today...

... from Ronald Blythe:

At Helpston … I tried to make out the names of John Clare’s contemporaries; but lichens had drawn a veil over them for the most part. Jean de Santeuil, the hymn-writer, in the third verse of his "Disposer supreme" turns "frail earthen vessels and things of no worth", as Clare often thought of himself, into beings "Like clouds" that are borne about the universe to do God’s will. "They thunder, they lighten, the waters o’erflow."

We strolled around Helpston with umbrellas. A house agent’s board flagged Clare’s birthplace. The price? Near on half a million. And to think that his father relied on a good crop of apples to pay the Michaelmas rent. Next to the sign-board there was a plaque that Edmund Blunden unveiled in 1921. The whole village rocked with hollyhocks.

(Word from Wormingford : Church Times - 30 July 2004)

The Shepherd's Tree

From one tree to another.  I'm sure we all know such wonderful trees as the elm that Clare here immortalises in verse in this early poem:
Huge elm, with rifted trunk all notched and scarred,
  Like to a warrior's destiny! I love
To stretch me often on thy shadowed sward,
  And hear the laugh of summer leaves above;
Or on thy buttressed roots to sit, and lean
  In careless attitude, and there reflect
On times, and deeds, and darings that have been --
  Old castaways, now swallowed in neglect;
While thou art towering in thy strength of heart,
  Stirring the soul to vain imaginings,
In which life's sordid being hath no part.
  The wind of that eternal ditty sings,
Humming of future things, that burn the mind
  To leave some fragment of itself behind.


An indolent youth?

"After I had done with going to school it was proposed that I should be bound apprentice to a shoemaker, but I ratherdisliked this bondage.  I whimpered and turned a sullen eye on every persuasion, till they gave me my will.  A neighbour then offered tolearn me his trade -- to be a stone mason, but I disliked this too... I was then sent for to drive the plough at Woodcroft Castle of Oliver Cromwell memory; though Mrs. Bellairs the mistress was a kind-hearted woman, and though the place was a very good one for living, my mind was set against it from the first; ... one of the disagreeable things was getting up so early in the morning ... and another was getting wetshod ... every morning and night -- for in wet weather the moat used to overflow the cause-way that led to the porch, and as there was but one way to the house we were obliged to wade up to the knees to get in and out... I staid here one month, and then on coming home to my parents they could not persuade me to return.  They now gave up all hopes of doing any good with me and fancied that I should make nothing but a soldier; but luckily in this dilemma a next-door neighbour at the Blue Bell, Francis Gregory, wanted me to drive plough, and as I suited him, he made proposals to hire me for a year--which as it had my consent my parents readily agreed to."


The dewdrops on every blade of grass are so much like silver drops that I am obliged to stoop down as I walk to see if they are pearls, and those sprinkled on the ivy-woven beds of primroses underneath the hazels, whitethorns and maples are so like gold beads that I stooped down to feel if they were hard, but they melted from my finger.  And where the dew lies on the primrose, the violet and whitethorn leaves they are emerald and beryl, yet nothing more than the dews of the morning on the budding leaves; nay, the road grasses are covered with gold and silver beads, and the further we go the brighter they seem to shine, like solid gold and silver.  It is nothing more than the sun's light and shade upon them in the dewy morning; every thorn-point and every bramble-spear has its trembling ornament: till the wind gets a little brisker, and then all is shaken off, and all the shining jewelry passes away into a common spring morning full of budding leaves, primroses, violets, vernal speedwell, bluebell and orchis, and commonplace objects.

The Skylark

Above the russet clods the corn is seen
Sprouting its spiry points of tender green,
Where squats the hare, to terrors wide awake,
Like some brown clod the harrows failed to break.
Opening their golden caskets to the sun,
The buttercups make schoolboys eager run,
To see who shall be first to pluck the prize--
Up from their hurry see the Skylark flies,
And oer her half-formed nest, with happy wings,
Winnows the air till in the cloud she sings,
Then hangs a dust spot in the sunny skies,
And drops and drops till in her nest she lies,
Which they unheeded passed--not dreaming then
That birds, which flew so high, would drop again
To nests upon the ground, which anything
May come at to destroy. Had they the wing
Like such a bird, themselves would be too proud
And build on nothing but a passing cloud!
As free from danger as the heavens are free
From pain and toil, there would they build and be,
And sail about the world to scenes unheard
Of and unseen,--O were they but a bird!
So think they, while they listen to its song,
And smile and fancy and so pass along;
While its low nest, moist with the dews of morn,
Lies safely, with the leveret, in the corn.

Little Trotty Wagtail

Helpston, 10th July 2004
At the Festival, George and Arlene Van Deventer (Maine, USA) brought the poetry evening to a close with three Clare poems set to music by Terrance Deadman (Brighton).  Most intriguing and satisfying.  One of these short pieces was the Clare favourite Little Trotty Wagtail:

Little Trotty Wagtail
Little trotty wagtail he went in the rain,
And tittering, tottering sideways he neer got straight again,
He stooped to get a worm, and looked up to get a fly,
And then he flew away ere his feathers they were dry.

Little trotty wagtail, he waddled in the mud,
And left his little footmarks, trample where he would.
He waddled in the water-pudge, and waggle went his tail,
And chirrupt up his wings to dry upon the garden rail.

Little trotty wagtail, you nimble all about,
And in the dimpling water-pudge you waddle in and out;
Your home is nigh at hand, and in the warm pig-stye,
So, little Master Wagtail, I'll bid you a good-bye.

Helpstone Green

O'er its green hills I've often stray'd
In childhood's happy hour,
Oft sought the nest along the shade
And gather'd many a flower;
And there, with playmates often join'd
In fresher sports to plan;
But now increasing years have coin'd
Those children into man.
The green’s gone too - ah, lovely scene!
No more the kingcup gay
Shall shine in yellow o'er the green,
And shed its golden ray;
No more the herdsman's early call
Shall bring the cows to feed,
No more the milkmaid's evening bawl
In "Come mull" tones succeed.
Both milkmaid's shouts and herdsman's call
Have vanish'd with the green,
The kingcups yellow, shades and all,
Shall never more be seen;
But the thick-cultur'd tribes that grow
Will so efface the scene,
That after-times will hardly know
It ever was a green.
Farewel, thou favourite spot, farewel!
Since every effort's vain,
All I can do is still to tell
Of thy delightful plain;
But that joy's short; increasing years,
That did my youth presage,
Will now, as each new day appears,
Bring on declining age.
Reflection pierces deadly keen,
While I the moral scan, -
As are the change of the green
So is the life of man:
Youth brings age with faultering tongue,
That does the exit crave;
There's one short scene presents the throng,
Another shows the grave.


Helpston, 9th July 2004

On the evening before the Festival, Peter Moyse led a small party of ‘Clare’ friends around behind Clare’s cottage along a path, called by Clare Crossberry Way.  Safe at the moment from developers, I did notice two ‘access roads’ from the new housing development to the west of the path; no doubt ‘just in case’ the planners relent and allow the Crossberry Way strip to be entirely despoiled.  I know folk have to live somewhere, but should we not seek to protect the path and its environs from further concrete?  Preventing even more “detached, link-detached and mews-style three and four-bedroomed houses in Twigden Homes’s brand new Cambridge range of house style”.  Mmmmm... few of these on closer inspection later in the weekend, seemed to me to be in keeping with the vernacular architecture of the village.
It put me in mind of Clare’s poem Helpstone (sic) Green from 1821, and my oft-repeated thought, “nothing changes”; what was it Clare wrote of politicians? 
Helpstone Green

Ye injur'd fields, ye once were gay,
When nature's hand display'd
Long waving rows of willows grey,
And clumps of hawthorn shade;
But now, alas! your hawthorn bowers
All desolate we see,
The spoilers' axe their shade devours,
And cuts down every tree.
Not trees alone have own'd their force,
Whole woods beneath them bow'd;
They turn'd the winding rivulet's course,
And all thy pastures plough'd;
To shrub or tree throughout thy fields
They no compassion show;
The uplifted axe no mercy yields,
But strikes a fatal blow.
Whene'er I muse along the plain,
And mark where once they grew,
Remembrance wakes her busy train
And brings past scenes to view:
The well-known brook, the favourite tree,
In fancy's eye appear,
And next, that pleasant green I see,
That green for ever dear.

(final part tomorrow)

Summer Evening (Last)

The night-wind now, with sooty wings,
In the cotter's chimney sings;
Now, as stretching oer the bed,
Soft I raise my drowsy head,
Listening to the ushering charms,
That shake the elm tree's mossy arms:
Till sweet slumbers stronger creep,
  Deeper darkness stealing round,
Then, as rocked, I sink to sleep,
  Mid the wild wind's lulling sound.

(Something new tomorrow)

Summer Evening (VIII)

Dark and darker glooms the sky;
Sleep gins close the labourer's eye:
Dobson leaves his greensward seat,
Neighbours where they neighbours meet
Crops to praise, and work in hand,
And battles tell from foreign land.
While his pipe is puffing out,
Sue he's putting to the rout,
Gossiping, who takes delight
To shool her knitting out at night,
And back-bite neighbours bout the town--
Who's got new caps, and who a gown,
And many a thing, her evil eye
Can see they don't come honest by.
Chattering at a neighbour's house,
She hears call out her frowning spouse;
Prepared to start, she soodles home,
Her knitting twisting oer her thumb,
As, both to leave, afraid to stay,
She bawls her story all the way;
The tale so fraught with 'ticing charms,
Her apron folded oer her arms.
She leaves the unfinished tale, in pain,
To end as evening comes again:
And in the cottage gangs with dread,
  To meet old Dobson's timely frown,
Who grumbling sits, prepared for bed,
  While she stands chelping bout the town.
(final part of the poem tomorrow)

Summer Evening (VII)

Come, poor birds, from foes severe
Fearless come, you're welcome here;
My heart yearns at fate like yours,
A sparrow's life's as sweet as ours.
Hardy clowns! grudge not the wheat
Which hunger forces birds to eat:
Your blinded eyes, worst foes to you,
Can't see the good which sparrows do.
Did not poor birds with watching rounds
Pick up the insects from your grounds,
Did they not tend your rising grain,
You then might sow to reap in vain.
Thus Providence, right understood,
Whose end and aim is doing good,
Sends nothing here without its use;
Though ignorance loads it with abuse,
And fools despise the blessing sent,
And mock the Giver's good intent.--
O God, let me what's good pursue,
Let me the same to others do
As I'd have others do to me,
And learn at least humanity.

Summer Evening (VI)

Now the cat has ta'en her seat,
With her tail curled round her feet;
Patiently she sits to watch
Sparrows fighting on the thatch.
Now Doll brings the expected pails,
And dogs begin to wag their tails;
With strokes and pats they're welcomed in,
And they with looking wants begin;
Slove in the milk-pail brimming o'er,
She pops their dish behind the door.
Prone to mischief boys are met,
Neath the eaves the ladder's set,
Sly they climb in softest tread,
To catch the sparrow on his bed;
Massacred, O cruel pride!
Dashed against the ladder's side.
Curst barbarians! pass me by;
Come not, Turks, my cottage nigh;
Sure my sparrows are my own,
Let ye then my birds alone.

Summer Evening (V)

To loose the door its fastening pin,
And let him with his corn begin.
Round the yard, a thousand ways,
Beasts in expectation gaze,
Catching at the loads of hay
Passing fodderers tug away.
Hogs with grumbling, deafening noise,
Bother round the server boys;
And, far and near, the motley group
Anxious claim their suppering-up.
From the rest, a blest release,
Gabbling home, the quarreling geese
Seek their warm straw-littered shed,
And, waddling, prate away to bed.
Nighted by unseen delay,
Poking hens, that lose their way,
On the hovel's rafters rise,
Slumbering there, the fox's prize.


From Ronnie Blythe in today's Church Times:
"THE FIELD EDGES are being cut for the combine to go in.  People declare en passant that there are no skylarks (or martins or thrushes) this year, or that they have never seen so many; and I agree, for the return or vanishing of birds is now akin to weather as a form of salutation.  I pick raspberries, holding up the laden canes, getting in before the rain.  Chagall horses stand on the sloping grass and whisk away each other’s flies." 

Summer Evening (IV)

Neath the willow's wavy boughs,
Dolly, singing, milks her cows;
While the brook, as bubbling by,
Joins in murmuring melody.
Dick and Dob, with jostling joll,
Homeward drag the rumbling roll;
Whilom Ralph, for Doll to wait,
Lolls him o'er the pasture gate.
Swains to fold their sheep begin;
Dogs loud barking drive them in.
Hedgers now along the road
Homeward bend beneath their load;
And from the long furrowed seams,
Ploughmen loose their weary teams:
Ball, with urging lashes wealed,
Still so slow to drive a-field,
Eager blundering from the plough,
Wants no whip to drive him now;
At the stable-door he stands,
Looking round for friendly hands

Summer Evening (III)

In tall grass, by fountain head,
Weary then he drops to bed.
From the hay-cock's moistened heaps,
Startled frogs take vaunting leaps;
And along the shaven mead,
Jumping travellers, they proceed:
Quick the dewy grass divides,
Moistening sweet their speckled sides;
From the grass or flowret's cup,
Quick the dew-drop bounces up.
Now the blue fog creeps along,
And the bird's forgot his song:
Flowers now sleep within their hoods;
Daisies button into buds;
From soiling dew the butter-cup
Shuts his golden jewels up;
And the rose and woodbine they
Wait again the smiles of day.

Summer Evening (II)

Bats flit by in hood and cowl;
Through the barn-hole pops the owl;
From the hedge, in drowsy hum,
Heedless buzzing beetles bum,
Haunting every bushy place,
Flopping in the labourer's face.
Now the snail hath made its ring;
And the moth with snowy wing
Circles round in winding whirls,
Through sweet evening's sprinkled pearls,
On each nodding rush besprent;
Dancing on from bent to bent;
Now to downy grasses clung,
Resting for a while he's hung;
Then, to ferry oer the stream,
Vanishing as flies a dream;
Playful still his hours to keep,
Till his time has come to sleep;

Summer Evening

The sinking sun is taking leave,
And sweetly gilds the edge of Eve,
While huddling clouds of purple dye
Gloomy hang the western sky.
Crows crowd croaking over head,
Hastening to the woods to bed.
Cooing sits the lonely dove,
Calling home her absent love.
With "Kirchup! Kirchup!" mong the wheats
Partridge distant partridge greets;
Beckoning hints to those that roam,
That guide the squandered covey home.
Swallows check their winding flight,
And twittering on the chimney light.
Round the pond the martins flirt,
Their snowy breasts bedaubed with dirt,
While the mason, neath the slates,
Each mortar-bearing bird awaits:
By art untaught, each labouring spouse
Curious daubs his hanging house.



Without doubt, all readers of this blog will appreciate the work of long-time President of the JC Society, Ronald Blythe. Just in case you didn't know, Ronald's wonderful "Word from Wormingford" may be read each week on the Church Times website: (click on Comment) and then Wormingford. Required reading, thank you Ronnie...