Gleaners or thieves?

Blackberrying may appear to be a trivial subject in John Clare's poetry, generally referred to in passing as a characteristic autumnal activity, along with collecting elderberries to make wine, or hazel nuts, or mushrooms, or water-cress, or gathering rotten wood for the cottage-fire. Essentially, it is not different from those other rural activities, which formed part of the cottager's economy in every part of Europe.

In Helpston, too, "it was highly dangerous, to say the least of it, to walk or ride on any of the highroads... at dusk, and... during the night." In the English fens, the inhabitants believed that the produce of the wasteland came to them by right. Also in the fens: "At dusk, the passer-by might be confronted by silently-moving lines of shadowy figures, their backs bent under the weight of trunks and piled-up wood, as they headed for home". Clare referred to this wood as "rotten," omitting the word "wood" occasionally.

Where stickers stroll from day to day
And gather loads of rotten wood
And poachers left in safety stray
When midnight wears its deepest mood.
(from Walks in the Woods)

Clare's natural sympathies are with the "stickers," as he calls them: the "wood-men," on the other hand, the agents of the landowners, are "terrifying rascals" who "make a prison of the forrests and are its joalers." (sic) Just as the fallen wood belonged by right to the local inhabitants in the forests in all parts of Europe, so, according to popular belief, did the fallen wood belong to the locals near the oak woods of Stamford, and, in both regions, led to conflict between landowners and peasants, between the lord's steward and gypsies, or the woodman and villagers.

The conflict over wood extended to other products of the waste -- rabbits, hares, birds, withies, reeds, cresses, sloes, dewberries, nuts, mushrooms, elderberries, wild strawberries and blackberries, not to mention eggs, snakes, deer, eels, fish, and other edibles. The custom of nutting, which Clare celebrates, was particularly disliked by the landowners, their servants and the tenant-farmers. The pages of the Stamford Mercury and Drakard's Stamford News are filled with advertisements and articles regarding the practice; the Mercury, upholding the rights of the landowners, the News those of the rural population.

From a essay by Eric Robinson ~ Wordsworth Circle (2007)

Song: 'By A Cottage Near A Wood'

By A Cottage Near A Wood
Where The Small Birds Build & Sing
In My Dreaming Hours I've Stood
To Review The Lovely Spring
There Once Dwelt A Lovely Maiden
Whose Name I Sought In Vain
Some Called Her Lovely Lucey
& Others Honest Jane

Bye That Cottage Near A Wood
I Have Often Stood Alone
In A Sad Or Happy Mood
& Wished She Was My Own
The Small Birds Flitted Round Me
But Nature Pleased in Vain
For The Dark & Lovely Maiden
I Never Saw Again

Bye The Cottage Near The Wood
I Wished With Peace To Be
& The Blossoms Where She Stood
They Were More Then Gems To Me
More Fair Or Sweeter Blossoms
My Rambles Sought In Vain
& The Dark & Lovely Maiden
I Never Found Again

Bye That Cottage Near A Wood
The Childern Held Her Gown
& On The Turf Before It
Ran Laughing Up & Down
They Played Around Her Beauty
While I Sought Joys In Vain
But The Dark Haired Lovely Maiden
I Ne'er Could Find Again

Bye That Cottage Near A Wood
Where The Childern Used To Play
Spring Has Often Burst The Bud
& As Often Passed Away
But My Spring Joys Will Ne'er Return
Nought Can Their Shade Restore
Though She Left Her Image In My Heart
& I Love Her Evermore

Bye That Cottage Near A Wood
Though The Summer Flowers Appear
They Charm Not Me—& Where She Stood
Tis Winter All The Year
They Charm Me Not Now Loves Away
& Beauty Blooms In Vain
For The Dark & Lovely Maiden
I Never Found Again

[Clare’s capitalising of every word points to a composition of 1840/41 whilst in High Beech, Epping. Certainly in keeping with the subject].
Especially for the students of City College Plymouth who are studying Clare for their exams in June '07 -- Looking forward to meeting you all next month.

Word from Wormingford

[Helpston after the Enclosure Acts]

I am writing about the more or less penniless John Clare, whose publishers have sent him a dateless “Student’s Journal” in which they hope he will make notes for a natural history book rather like that written by Gilbert White. It has no printed dates; so Clare can start it in September.

He is ravished by its paper. Being prolific, he has never possessed nearly enough paper for his needs. Those who could well afford to do so never think of giving him a ream or two. Instead, they give him ad­vice. And when finally he collapsed, the Lunacy Board put it down to covering too much paper.

Before this tragedy, Clare got out. He walked the fields and woods. He socialised in the pub. He would, on a fine day, lie low, and, out of the eye of the labouring world, would be out sensuously watching butter­flies, or sniffing wild flowers. Sometimes with a girl.

Those who understood money doled out his slender royalties in case he blued them all at once. The seasons passed; the Glinton bells rang; the new profitable farming wrecked his village; the boardrooms had him in mind. Having read and met Hazlitt, he refused to stick to poetry, and now and then went into the economy-protest business, showing more knowledge of money than he was entitled to — not to say nerve.

The clear white pages of the “Student’s Journal” grew dark with ink. Sometime or other, feeling low, he also felt like someone else. Some­one who had a great deal more to say about money than about sex. Finding a sad hymn by another author, he wound himself in it:

A stranger did once bless the earth
Who never caused a heart to mourn,
Whose very voice gave sorrow mirth,
And how did earth his worth return?
It spurned him from his lowliest lot:
The meanest station owned him not.

To be sung to Surrey. And sung by Ted Hughes and myself, and crowds of other people, when we placed a memorial to this “tenant of the fields” in Poets’ Corner.

Ronald Blythe ~ Church Times
20 February 2009

Flowers shall hang upon the pawls

Flowers shall hang upon the pawls
Brighter than patterns upon shawls
And blossoms shall be in the coffin lids
Sadder than tears on grief’s eyelids
Garlands shall hide pale corps faces
When beauty shall rot in charnel places
Spring flowers shall come in dews of sorrow
For the maiden goes down to her grave tomorrow

Last week she went walking and stepping along
Gay as first flowers of spring or the tune of a song
Her eye was as bright as the sun in its calm
Her lips they were rubies her bosom was warm
And white as the snowdrop that lies on her breast
Now death like a dream is her bedfellow guest
And white as the sheets—aye and paler than they
Now her face in its beauty has perished to clay

Spring flowers they shall hang on her pawl
More bright than the pattern that bloom'd on her shawl
And blooms shall be strewn where the corps lies hid
More sad than the tears upon grief’s eyelid
And ere the return of another sweet May
Shall be rotting to dust in the coffined clay
And the grave whereon the bright snowdrops grow
Shall be the same soil as the beauty below

11th Feb 1847

To a Friend

[The light of the sun - Lesser Celandines (ranunculus ficaria, aka pilewort) in bloom in woodland in Co. Clare. How very apt]

Under hedges the violets are coming in bloom
& the Pilewort it shines like the Sun
The Spring it is bursting from the winters cold Tomb
& the sun of Life's smiles has begun

Tis Valentine's Day tomorrow fair maid
& the Snowdrops are looking for thee
The Crocus has got his gold suit ready made
& hopes thy companion to be

So out of two sweethearts be sure & choose one
While choosing is left to thy choice
For Valentine day only comes to be gone
And then true love will be left without voice

King's School, Ottery St. Mary.

[St. Mary's Church in Ottery St. Mary]

I have had the pleasure over the past week of speaking over three separate sessions to the 6th form of King's School in Ottery St. Mary about Clare and his work. Bit difficult to adequately deal with such a prolific and complex poet in that time, but we did cover Clare’s “Life and Language”, “Love and Sex”, and “Enclosures and Madness”, touching upon Gypsies, Fame, Social Change, Natural History, Folk Song, Wildness, and the sense of Longing found in many Clare poems.

A treat for me; I hope it was helpful for such a great group. Thanks Sandra for the invitation.

Two of Clare’s poems, especially for them. The first a little known bit of Clare fun, and the second, as befits the season, one of Clare’s lovely ‘Valentine’ poems.

A Schoolboys Wit

Go ‘Silly Brains’ the Master said
To one who'd missed a letter
A Dunce’s Cap shall fit your head
If you don’t do no better.

‘Boy instant upward cast his eye
On's masters nodle winking
The Master asked the reason why
Why sir says he I’m thinking:

As yours & my head seem o' kin
To save ye farther trouble
It would when once your hand is in
Be best to make a couple


The morning is up betimes my dear
Each postman is loaded by Cupid
The letters are nothing but lovers and rhymes
Some loving or joking or stupid

'Tis an old fashioned thing to go church to be wed
And then nothing can alter the fashion
But today like the birds many lovers are led
More warmly revealing their passion.

Thy love at the first gave such witching delight
No maiden on earth could be neater
And absence has kept thee so long from my sight
That thy beauty shines sweeter and sweeter.

The flowers of summer are showy and fine
But the blossoms of spring are the dearest
And just so it is with my fair Valentine
The best are the sweet and the sincerest.

There's the cyclamen flower of a delicate hue
There's the snowdrop so drooping of delicate white
There's the violet and crocus all over dark blue
That makes in a nosegay a Valentine quite.

I'll wed thee and love thee, and this is the day
We must call those we love Valentine
And I hope when we see the sweet blossoms of May
Thou'lt be a sweet blossom of mine.


Clare and Morris

[Morris Men at Helpston in July 2008 outside the Blue Bell Inn]

"And when its past a merry crew
Bedeckt in masks and ribbons gay
The 'Morrice danse' their sports renew
And act their winter evening play
The clown-turnd-kings for penny praise
Storm wi the actors strut and swell
And harlequin a laugh to raise
Wears his hump back and tinkling bell."

From "The Shepherds Calendar"

"The Morris Dance is very popular now with us they begin to go round the week before Christmas -- it appears to have been a burlesque parody on some popular story at the time but it has been so mutilated by its different performers that I could not make sense of it though I tried to transcribe from the mouths [of] 3 or 4 persons who had all been actors in it. There are [the] characters 2 of them the Kean & Young of the piece [are] finely dressed their hats are decorated with carpenters[?] shavings & cut paper & without side their clothes they wear [a] white shirt hung with different colours. A silk handkerchief serves them for a sash & another slung over their shoulders is a belt for their swords which are some-times real & sometimes wooden ones. The third actor is a sort of Buffoon grotesquely dressed with a hunch back & a bell between [his] legs together with a tail trailing behind. His face [is] blacked & he generally carries in his hand a huge club. The 4th is a doctor dressed as much in character as their taste or circumstances allows.

The plot of the thing is some thing as follows - the King of the Drama steps in first & on [making] a sort of prologue describes himself to be a no less personage then the king of Egypt. His errand appears to be to demand his lost son who seems to have married a lady not worthy [of the] heir of Egypt or to be confined in prison, for it is so destitute [of] common sense that you can not tell which. If as they refuse [his] enquiries his champion Prince George is called on who after talking a great deal of his wonderful feats in slaying dragons & kicking his enemies as small as flies, begins [a] dialogue with his majesty then the fool is introduced with his bell who gives a humorous description of himself [&] his abilities. All three join in the dialogue & instantly [a] quarrel is created between the King & Young from what [cause] I know not & they draw their swords & fight the fool [gets] between them to part them & pretending to be wounded falls down as dead. When the other confesses that the wounded [clown] is the Kings own son in disguise whose rage is instantly turned to sorrow & the doctor is called in & a large reward is offered him if he can restore him to life. Who after enumerating [his] vast powers in medical skill & knowledge declares the [person] to be only in a trance & on the doctors touching him he rises & they all join hands & end the Drama with a dance & song -"

Quotation from John Clare's letter to William Hone's Every-day Book, April 1825

The Forest Maid

I love to see the forest maid
Go in the pleasant day,
And jump to break an idle bough,
To drive the flies away.

Her face is brown with open air,
And like the lily blooming;
But beauty, whether brown or fair,
Is always found with women!

She stoop'd to tie her pattens up,
And show'd a cleanly stocking;
The flowers made curtsies all the way,
Against her ankles knocking.

She stoop'd to get the foxglove bells
That grew among the bushes,
And, careless, set her basket down,
And tied them up with rushes.

Her face was ever in a smile,
And brown, and softly blooming;—
I often met the scorn of man,
But welcome lives with woman!

The Courtship (II)

I wrote my better poems there
To beauty’s praise I owe it
The muses they get all the praise
But woman makes the poet

A woman’s is the dearest love
There’s nought on earth sincerer
The leisure upon beauty’s breast
Can any thing be dearer

The muses they are living things
& beauty ever dear
& though I worshiped stocks & stones
T’was woman every where

In loves delight my steps was led
I sung of beauty’s choice
I saw her in the books I read
& all was Mary Joyce

I saw her love in beauty’s face
I saw her in the rose
I saw her in the fairest flowers
In every weed that grows

Till Patty fell in beauty’s way
That dearer loves recall
& stood a flower in beauty’s way
The lily of them all