"I Am" and the unveiling of the new Clare display...

A Message from the President of the John Clare Society

This was John Clare’s church.  He was baptised in it and buried beside it.  He wrote of its “wholesome and reasonable admonitions” but its message reached him via its bells as it did so many countrymen.

The shepherds and the herding swains
Keep their Sabbath on the plains ..
For them the church bells vainly call
Fields are their church and house and all

Amongst so many things, Clare was also an archaeologist and his wandering gaze would have travelled round this ancient building, settling maybe on the carved stone leaves.  It is a moving experience to see what a great writer saw, to hear the music which he heard.  Most of those who Clare put into his poetry sat here, were wed here, played around here.  Charles Mossop the Vicar was good to him here, extraordinary parishioner that he was.  Clare’s God would break all parochial bounds in the majestic statement ‘I Am’.

Ronald Blythe

The above text appears on the new new display about John Clare and St. Botolph's Church Helpston - to be dedicated at the John Clare Society Festival Service on the 14th July 2013.

'I AM'

I am: yet what I am none cares or knows,
My friends forsake me like a memory lost;
I am the self-consumer of my woes,
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shades in love and death's oblivion lost;
And yet I am! and live with shadows tost

Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life nor joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life's esteems;
And e'en the dearest--that I loved the best--
Are strange--nay, rather stranger than the rest.

I long for scenes where man has never trod;
A place where woman never smil'd or wept;
There to abide with my creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept:
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie;
The grass below--above the vaulted sky. 

To His Wife

In my young days, I pluck't a rose;
It grew upon a pleasant tree,—
No prickles on its stem arose,—
It never wounded me.

It grew upon a pleasant spot;
On mountain heath so fair,
And pleasant was the little cot;
Near which it flourished there.

I knew it when a blooming bud,
Nursed by the morning dew,
I knew the cottage where it stood,
And beautiful it grew.

Flowers on the hills had grown,
The woods were all in tune,
The bud became full blown;
The sweetest rose of June.

I saw it every day,
A hue that health will seek;
There's such a rose in May,
Comes on the maidens cheek.

I went again in spring;
'Twas somewere near the may,
Birds had begun to sing,—
When I took the rose away.

I planted it with care,
I watched it bloom from ill,
It scented all the air,
And blossoms sweeter still.

The Later Poems of John Clare 1837-1864
ed. Eric Robinson and David Powell
(Oxford, 2 volumes, I-II, 1984)

Come away come away to the wild wood

[Photo : Anne Lee]

[Really not a complete poem, but a series of jottings later to be worked up.  Clare never came back to them again - I feel some memorable images that I am glad were not lost]

Come away come away to the wild wood
Where the bramble o'erhangs the footway
The scenes o' my love youth and childhood
Where I with young Hannah did stray
The bits of wood hang on the briar
Which small birds seek for nests
The pettichap that sings so quere
And robins riddle brests—

Come away come away to the scenes of our childhood
And we'll find out the red robins nest
The bramble bush grows in the wild wood
That owns the song thrush for a guest

Come away come away to the bramble
Come away to the hazle and thorn
To the scenes o' our youth let us ramble
And be happy as sunshine just born

Come away to the oak and the ivy
To the fox earths that hides i' the thorn
Where the oak trunks look whiter than smoke in the morn

Come away come away at the burst of the sun
There is flowers to be gathered and joy to be won
So come on my sweet one—and let us be there
Where hyacinth and primroses blossom so fair

Come away to the haunts o' the bird and the bee
And listen to music o' natures grand art
Where the flowers beat all painting do come now with me
For music and beauty must never more part

Come away to the woods where the oaks glitter green
And brown lie in heaps where last winter has been
Where the bloom o' the thorn is as white as a sheet
And the moss like green velvet flowers under your feet

Come away my sweet one my choice come away
And we'll spend a sweet hour in the woodlands today

The Later Poems of John Clare 1837-1864
ed. Eric Robinson and David Powell

(Oxford, 2 volumes, I-II, 1984)


A shattering poem, written 7 years after his incarceration in Northampton.  Clare's mind is ranging back to the death of his muse, Mary Joyce.

To come upon in line 9 the line “Lord how young bonny Mary burnt”, even if he is speaking of her blushes at their first meeting, is an astonishing shock for readers of Clare’s work.  Clare, possibly unconsciously, recording the manner of her death in the most shocking way imaginable.

Mary had, as Clare had been avoiding for so long, perished in the fire at her parent’s farm-house in Glinton on the 14th of July 1838.  Her grave in the churchyard of St. Benedict’s Church, Glinton was, and is, clear for all to see.

A Ballad
Love is past and all the rest
Thereto belonging fled away
The most esteemed and valued best
Are faded all and gone away

How beautiful was Mary's dress
While dancing at the meadow ball
—'Tis twenty years or more at least
Since Mary seemed the first of all

Lord how young bonny Mary burnt
With blushes like the roses hue
My face like water thrown upon't
Turned white as lilies i' the dew

When grown a man I went to see
The school where Mary's name was known
I looked to find it on a Tree
But found it on a low grave stone

Now is past—was this the now
In fine straw-hat and ribbons gay
I'd court her neath the white thorn bough
And tell her all I had to say

But all is gone—and now is past
And still my spirits chill alone
Loves name that perished in the blast
Grows mossy on a church-yard stone

(11th November 1848)

from : ‘O for one real imaginary blessing’

[Image: Eddie Bairstow]

I wooed a Gipsy wench on Sunday e'ens
& worshiped beggar girls & courted Queens
Love is the fire that burns the heart to cinders
Love is the thought that makes the poets sigh
Sweet as Queen’s portraits stuck in London windows
For loyal subjects in their love to buy

Love is of every heart the painted toy
The idol of man’s worship — faces fair
Were my enchanted magic from a boy
The pouting lip, the colour of the hair
Left me in raptures, next of kin to care
I loved & wooed them in the field like gems

Of too much value for the clown who sung
The azure bluebells in their sapphire stems
Among green bushes low their mute bells hung
These seemed love's modest maidens, dew bestrung
With blebs o' mornings glittering pearls
I loved them in the valleys where I sung

With their green drapery & crispy curls
I loved them as a crowd of blooming girls
With bonny bosom white as is the May
The wild brere blushes wi' the break o' day
Sweet as the cowslip fields that spread before thee
Sweet are the dusky clouds that sprinkle oer thee

(lines 17 to 37, 39-41)

The Later Poems of John Clare 1837-1864
ed. Eric Robinson and David Powell
(Oxford, 2 volumes, I-II, 1984)

The line I’ve removed for this post (line 38 of the poem) reads :
‘Sweet milkmaid o' May mornings — Queen Victoria’

Song, from Child Harold

In this cold world without a home
Disconsolate I go
The summer looks as cold to me
As winters frost & snow
Though winters scenes are dull & drear
A colder lot I prove
No home had I through all the year
But Marys honest love

But Love inconstant as the wind
Soon shifts another way
No other home my heart can find
Life wasting day by day

I sigh & sit & sit & sigh
For better days to come
For Mary was my hope & joy
Her truth & heart my home

Her truth & heart was once my home
& May was all the year
But now through seasons as I roam
Tis winter everywhere
Hopeless I go through care & toil
No friend I e'er possest
To reccompence for Marys smile
& the love within her breast

My love was ne'er so blest as when
It mingled with her own
Told often to be told agen
& every feeling known
But now loves hopes are all bereft
A lonely man I roam
& abscent Mary long hath left
My heart without a home

Poems of John Clare's Madness
ed. Geoffrey Grigson (RKP, 1949)

The Firetail*

Around the old and ruined wall,
About the dead and hollow tree,
The firetail's ‘tweet-tut’ fretting call
Keeps up a teasing melody.
It starts at every passer-by,
And boys that by its dwelling roam
Well know its danger-daunting cry
And watch it till its ventures home.
Its nest is made of hair and moss
And down and cobwebs very fine;
Its eggs are blue withouten gloss,
I've found as many oft as nine.
The female has a fiery tail,
And is a dull and sandy brown,
But beautiful appears the male
With crimson breast and jetty crown.

* ( Clare's 'Firetail' is the Redstart)

John Clare, Bird Poems
introduced by Peter Levi (London: Folio Society, 1980)

Read by Chris Packham on BBC TV's "Spring Watch' in early June 2013

The Fen

[Photo  : Anne Lee]

The dreary fen a waste of water goes,
With nothing to be seen but Royston crows;
The traveller journeying on the road for hours
Sees nothing but the dykes and water-flowers.
The lonely lodges scattered miles away
Lock up from fear and robbers all the day;
The merry maiden that no place dislikes
Runs out and fills her kettle from the dykes.
She hurries wildly from the face of men
And knows no company but cock and hen.
Here highland maiden sees in Sunday's hour
The glorious sight of sainfoin grounds in flower,
And meets the savoury smells that wake the morn,
The woodbine hedges and the poppied corn.

The Oxford Authors: John Clare
ed. Eric Robinson and David Powell (Oxford, 1984)

Sonnet: "O night o silent night..."

O night o silent night how sweet thy boon
That gilds so tremblingly the skyes blue vest
In its unclouded charms—the silver moon
Fair as a jewel on a virgins breast
O happiest light by lovers ever blest
How much the maiden joys thy face to see
When meeting him where all her wishes rest
She wanders tremblingly oft blessing thee
The shepherd from his folding task set free
Speaks in thy praise & welcomes thy sweet light
To find the cot where all his hopes may be
There resting rapturd on some maidens charms
Blessing the while the dingy stair of night
Left undetected in his maggys arms

The Early Poems of John Clare 1804-1822
ed. Eric Robinson, David Powell and Margaret Grainger
(Oxford, 2 volumes, I-II, 1989)