The reunitying of two poets

On a day of quite exceptional political shenanigans came the quiet statement that Ted Hughes is to be memorialised in Poets’ Corner. He and I took part in a wonderful event there: the inclusion of John Clare, this country’s finest rural voice.

It was in 1989, and the Abbey was filled with writers. Ted read Clare’s “The Nightingale’s Nest”, and I described his life. The stone was next to that of Matthew Arnold.

In March 1820, Clare had stood there on his first visit to London. His first book of poems had been published and he was fêted. Never again. A marvellous range of poetry would succeed it, but he himself would be out of sight. The tragi-triumph of his existence makes a famous story.

But at this moment in 1989, Ted and I are with Dean Mayne, and full of gratitude for his making this event possible.

Michael Mayne and I had met in Cambridge when he was Vicar of Great St Mary’s and liked to have writers preach at evensong. And Ted and I had met at the Roundhouse when we gave readings, I of Thomas Hardy and he of his own work. We used to have coffee at the ice-cream shop afterwards.

When Michael left Cambridge for Westminster Abbey, I would sometimes stay with him and Alison, and he would use the ancient Jerusalem Chamber for poetry readings. He was a genius who brought a fresh “literary” spirituality into the Abbey, both with his own writing and with George Herbert, etc.

On the day we celebrated Clare’s entrance to Poets’ Corner, I made what the children of Helpston, his Northamptonshire village, called a Midsummer Cushion. This was a square of turf stuck with wild flowers. I took it from the Stour Valley to Westminster Deanery in a carrier bag. It weighed a ton.

The Helpston schoolchildren brought flowers that had descended from those the great poet would have seen. And Ted drew the veil from the carved stone. And we all sang Clare’s sad hymn, “A stranger once did bless the Earth”. It would seem to speak of the vagabondage of Christ. Clare was homeless in “homes” for the mad.

Ted’s work is infused with natural history, and when he read Clare’s “The Nightingale’s Nest”, a poem in which a correct ornithology is fed into his own youthful experience on nesting, and the abandonment of such unkindness, he did so quite unforgettably. No one ever forgot a Ted Hughes reading — the rich voice, the perfect inflection.

And now his name calls out near Clare’s. Or soon will do. When I was with Michael, all the wall and floor-space had been used up by writers, and they had taken to the windows, where some missed-out poets, Oscar Wilde and Robert Herrick, were engraved.

This corner in the south transept is probably the most popular in the Abbey. A Tudor undergraduate started it. Wandering around, he had come across a pile of bones, dust, and armorials, all in a heap, and was shocked to find that they were Geoffrey Chaucer’s. So he reinterred them in the beautiful Purbeck marble altar-tomb, paying for it himself. Edmund Spenser would soon follow, and then nearly all Eng. Lit.

Clare’s body lies in Helpston churchyard. On 13 July, his birthday, it is carpeted with Midsummer Cushions. Once, when asked where he got his poetry, he said he kicked it out of the fields.

Ronald Blythe
Word from Wormingford
Church Times ~ 1st April 2010

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