Crazy Nell (II of III)

At length, as in fear, slowly tapp’d the wood-gate;
‘Twas Ben! – she complain’d so long painful to wait:
Deep design hung his looks, he but mumbled “Tis Late,”
And pass’d her, and bid her come on.
The mind plainly pictures that night-hour of dread,
In the midst of a wood! Where the trees over head
The darkness increased – a dungeon they spread,
And the clock at the moment toll’d one!

Nell fain would have forc’d, as she follow’d, some chat;
And trifled, on purpose, with this thing and that;
And complain’d of the dew-droppings spoiling her hat;
But nothing Ben’s silence would break.
Extensive the forest, the roads to and fro,
And this way that that way, above and below,
As crossing the ridings, as winding they go –
“Ah! What road or way can he seek?”

Her eye, ever watchful, now caught an alarm;
Lights gleam, and tools tinkle, as if nigh a farm:
“O don’t walk so fast, Ben – I’m fearful of harm!
She said, and shrugg’d closer behind.
“That light’s from my house!” ‘twas the first word she caught
From his lips, since he through the dark wood had her brought.
A house in a wood! Oh, good God! What a thought;
What sensations then rush’d on her mind!

The things, which her friends and her neighbours had said,
Afresh at that moment all jump’d in her head;
And mistrust, for the first time, now fill’d her with dread:
And as she approach’d, she could see
How better, for her, their advice to have ta’en;
And she wish’d to herself then she had – but in vain:
A heap of fresh mould, and a spade, she was plain,
And a lantern tied up to a tree.

“Here they come!” a voice whispers; - “Haste! put out the light.”
“No: dig the grave deeper!” – “Very dark is the night.”
Slow mitterings mingled. – Oh, dismal the sight!
The fate of poor Nelly was plain.
Fear chill’d through her heart – but Hope whisper’d her – Fly!
Chance seiz’d on the moment, a wind-gust blew high,
She slipt in the thicket – he turn’d not his eye,
And the grave-diggers waited in vain.

Crazy Nell (I of III)

A True Story

The sun was low sinking behind the far trees,
And, crossing the path, humming home were the bees;
And darker and. darker it grew by degrees,
And crows they flock’d quawking to rest:
When, unknown to her parents, Nell slove on her hat,
And o’er the fields hurried - scarce knew she for what;
But her sweetheart, in taking advantage and that,
Had kiss’d, and had promis’d the best.

Poor maidens! Of husbands so much they conceit,
The daisy scarce touch’d rose unhurt from her feet,
So eager she hasten’d her lover to meet,
As to make him to wait was unjust;
On the wood, dim discover’d, she fixed her eyes -
Such a queer spot to meet in – suspicions might rise;
But the fond word “a sweetheart” such goodness implies
Ah, who would a lover distrust!

More gloomy and darker – black clouds hung the wind,
Far objects diminish’d before and behind,
More narrow and narrow the circle declin’d,
And silence reign’d awfully round,
When Nelly within the wood-riding sat down;
She listen’d, and lapp’d up her arms in her gown;
Far, far from her cottage, and far from the town,
And her sweetheart not yet to be found.

The minutes seem’d hours – with impatience she heard
The flap of a leaf, and the twit of a bird;
The least little trifle that whisper’d or stirr’d,
Hope pictur’d her lover as nigh:
When wearied with sitting, she wander’d about,
And open’d the wood-gate, and gave a look out;
And fain would have halloo’d, but Fear had a doubt
That thieves might be lurking hard by.

Far clocks count eleven – “He won’t be long now,”
Her anxious hopes whisper’d – hoarse wav’d the wood bough;
“He heeds not my fears, or he’s false to his vow!”
Poor Nelly sat doubtful, and sigh’d:
The man who had promis’d her husband to be,
And to wed on the morrow – her friends all could see
That a good-for-nought sort of a fellow was he,
And they hoped nothing worse might betide.

Peterborough MS A61

John Clare was an assiduous practitioner of the sonnet form at all periods of his poetic career. The sonnets he produced in the last few years before his institutionalisation in 1837, first at High Beech and then in Northampton General Asylum, are of particular interest, since he exploited the inherent brevity of the form to express a simultaneous precision of observation and starkness of vision that he rarely achieved either before or after.

The present volume prints all the sonnets that Clare wrote at Northborough between 1832 and 1837 with the exception of those included in The Midsummer Cushion and The Rural Muse, both available from Carcanet. Northborough Sonnets allows the reader to trace the development of Clare's handling of the form in this period. They constitute fascinating vignettes of rural life in the early nineteenth century and the record of a unique poetic sensibility. They are accompanied by an introduction informative notes, and a glossary of dialect and unfamiliar words.

Sleevenotes to
Northborough Sonnets – (Carcanet 1995)

Lapt up in sacks to shun the rain & wind
& shoes thick clouted with the sticking soil
& sidelings on his horse the careless hind
Rides litherly & singIng to his toil
The boy rides foremost where the sack is gone
& holds [it] with his hands to keep it on
Then splashing down the road in journey slow
Through mire & sludge with cracking whips they go
He lays his jacket with his lunchen bye
& drinks from horses footings when adry
They pass the maiden singing at her cow
& start the lark that roosted by the plough
That sings above them all the live long day
& on they drive & hollow care away

Northborough Sonnets, Page 71

Pleasures of Fancy

A path, old tree, goes by thee crooking on,
And through this little gate that claps and bangs
Against thy rifted trunk, what steps hath gone?
Though but a lonely way, yet mystery hangs
O'er crowds of pastoral scenes recordless here.
The boy might climb the nest in thy young boughs
That's slept half an eternity; in fear
The herdsman may have left his startled cows
For shelter when heaven's thunder voice was near;
Here too the woodman on his wallet laid
For pillow may have slept an hour away;
And poet pastoral, lover of the shade,
Here sat and mused half some long summer day
While some old shepherd listened to the lay.

A 'Northborough' Sonnet

[Image: Carry Akroyd's "Cows on the Watermeadows"]
With hands in pocket hid & buttoned up
The clown goes jogging merrily along
The wind blows in his face & makes him stoop
& rain beats hard & stops his merry song
His shaggy coat is buttoned with a loop
With whip held up for stroke robust & strong
& hat half stuffed with straw to keep it up
He gruffly hollos whop & lobs along
He never turns but with a carless switch
Whoots up his tean that answers with a jerk
When friends are met he gives his coat a hitch
& cocks his beaver up & talks of work
To loose no time he trails his whip along
& bends it neath his arm to tie the thong

Clare did not give titles to the Northborough Sonnets, but I guess you could call this one "With hands in pocket"

I was born in Helpstone

[Clare's Cottage - Helpston]

I was born July 13, 1793, at Helpstone, a gloomy village in Northamptonshire, on the brink of the Lincolnshire fens; my mother’s maiden name was Stimson, a native of Caistor, a neighboring village, whose father was a town shepherd as they are called, who has the care of all the flocks of the village; my father was one of fate’s chancelings, who drop into the world without the honour of matrimony. HE took the surname of his mother, who to commemorate the memory of a worthless father with more tenderness of lovelorn feeling than he doubtless deserv’d, gave him his surname at his christening, who was a Scotchman by birth, and a schoolmaster by profession, and in this stay at this, and the neighboring villages, went by the name of John Donald Parker. This I had from John Cue of Ufford, an old man who in his young days was a companion and confidential to my run-a-gate of a grandfather; for he left the village and my grandmother, soon after the deplorable accident of misplaced love was revealed to him; but her love was not that frenzy which shortens the days of the victim.

The old table, which, old as it was, doubtless never was honoured with higher employment all its days then the convenience of bearing at meal times the luxury of a barley loaf, or dish of potatoes, was now covered with the rude beggings of scientifical requisitions, pens, ink, and paper, — out hour, hobbling the pen at sheephooks and tarbottles, and another, trying on a slate a knotty question in Numeration, or Pounds, Shillings and Pence; at which times my parents’ triumphant anxiety was pleasingly experienced; for my mother woud often stop her wheel, or look off from her work, to urge with a smile of the warmest rapture in my father’s face her prophesy of my success, saying ‘she’d be bound I shoud one day be able to reward them with my pen for the trouble they had taken in giving me schooling.’

And I have to return hearty thanks to a kind providence in bringing her prophesy to pass, and giving me the pleasure of being able to stay the storm of poverty and smoothen their latter days, and as a recompense for the rough beginnings of life, bid their tottering steps decline in peaceful tranquillity to their long home, the grave. Here my highest ambition was gratify’d, for my greatest wish was to let my parents see a printed copy of my poems; that pleasure l have witness’d […]

Composed 1821 First published 1931

King's School, Ottery St. Mary

I had the pleasure today of speaking for an hour to the 6th form of King's School in Ottery St. Mary about Clare and his work. Bit difficult really to cover such a prolific and complex poet in an hour, but we did hit upon the Enclosures... Gipsys... Sex & Love... Longing... and the sheer emotion he imbues into all his work. A treat for me, hope it was helpful for such a great group. Thanks SJ for the invitation.

A special excerpt just for them:

From covert hedge, on either side,
The blackbirds flutter'd terrified,
Mistaking me for pilfering boy
That doth too oft their nests destroy;
And "prink, prink, prink," they took to wing,
In snugger shades to build and sing.
From tufted grass or bush, the hare
Oft sprung from her endanger'd lair;
Surprise was startled on her rout,
So near one's feet she bolted out.
The sun each tree-top mounted o'er,
And got church-steeple height or more:
And as I soodled on and on,
The ground was warm to look upon,
it e'en invited one to rest,
And have a nap upon its breast;
But thought upon my journey's end,
Where doubtful fancies did depend,
Urg'd on my lazy feet to roam,
Like truant school-boy kept from home.

From "Holywell" by John Clare

From "The Moorhens Nest"

I hate the plough that comes to disarray
Her holiday delights—and labours toil
Seems vulgar curses on the sunny soil
And man the only object that distrains
Earths garden into deserts for his gains
Leave him his schemes of gain—tis wealth to me
Wild heaths to trace—and note their broken tree
Which lightening shivered—and which nature tries
To keep alive for poetry to prize
Upon whose mossy roots my leisure sits
To hear the birds pipe oer their amorous fits.

The Banks of Ivory (II)

"In sooth, fair maid, you mock at me, for truth ne'er harboured
I will not wrong your purity; to love is all my will:
My hall looks over yonder groves; its lady you shall be,
For on the banks of Ivory I'm glad I met with thee."

He put his hands unto his lips, and whistled loud and shrill,
And thirty six well-armed men came at their master's will,
Said he "I've flattered maids full long, but now the time is past,
And the bonny hills of Ivory a lady own at last.

My steed's back ne'er was graced for a lady's seat before;
Fear not his speed; I'll guard thee, love, till we ride o'er the
To seek the priest, and wed, and love until the day we die."
So she that was but poor before is Lady Ivory.

The Banks of Ivory (I)

'T was on the banks of Ivory, 'neath the hawthorn-scented shade,
Early one summer's morning, I met a lovely maid;
Her hair hung o'er her shoulders broad, her eyes like suns did
And on the banks of Ivory, O I wished the maid was mine.

Her face it wore the beauty of heaven's own broken mould;
The world's first charm seemed living still; her curls like hanks
of gold
Hung waving, and her eyes glittered timid as the dew,
When by the banks of Ivory I swore I loved her true.

"Kind sir," she said, "forsake me, while it is no pain to go,
For often after kissing and such wooing there comes woe;
And woman's heart is feeble; O I wish it were a stone;
So by the banks of Ivory I'd rather walk alone.

For learned seems your gallant speech, and noble is your trim,
And thus to court an humble maid is just to please your whim;
So go and seek some lady fair, as high in pedigree,
Nor stoop so low by Ivory to flatter one like me."


She hastens out and scarcely pins her clothes
To hear the news and tell the news she knows;
She talks of sluts, marks each unmended gown,
Her self the dirtiest slut in all the town.
She stands with eager haste at slander's tale,
And drinks the news as drunkards drink their ale.
Excuse is ready at the biggest lie --
She only heard it and it passes bye.
The very cat looks up and knows her face
And hastens to the chair to get the place;
When once set down she never goes away,
Till tales are done and talk has nought to say.
She goes from house to house the village oer,
Her slander bothers everybody's door.