Clare... and Faith

From Ronnie Blythe
(Church Times -- 28th July 2006)

OBSERVING the white night at 3 p.m., I can see the heat resting, as it were. The corn is solid gold, huge, still wedges of it fitted between the headlands; and the garden flowers remain open. There is no dawn chorus, but here and there I can hear a listless soloist. Two horses talk to each other beneath a may-tree. 

Should I get up and write? Should I lie back in the cool, ancient room? Should I listen to horrors on the bedside radio? If I make a sound, the cat will dash in for breakfast.

My oldest friend has died: should I mourn her? At 91? Come, come! I can hear her say. "Try not to be silly, dear." I will read John Donne's soliloquy at her committal, the one about "coming to that holy room, Where . . . I shall be made thy music". But fancy dying during such a summer!

To Helpston for the 25th John Clare Festival. The handsome stone village burns in the sunshine, his cornfields, too. The bar in whose threshing-dust the poet wrote a little algebra with his finger is like an oven. His birthplace would be unrecognisable to him, so white and smart -- his pub, too, with its lavish ploughman's lunch and crowd of authors.

But here is his great -- (several greats) grandson, and here are his readers come to do him honour. Homage-paying literary societies must have begun in the Mermaid Tavern after Shakespeare had departed. Or possibly in Athens, when Sappho had gone to Olympus.

I had to write about John Clare's faith. His church was out of doors. He describes it constantly. Like William Wordsworth, he drew his beliefs from "Nature and her overflowing soul". Clare was the outside worshipper, and poem after poem by him delights in the freedom of the sabbath fields and hearing distant bells. His creed began: "Nature, thou truth from Heaven".

His fellow worshippers were shepherds, gypsies, and herdboys, though mostly he preferred to sing alone amid birds and flowers. The annual cycle of growth, the seasonal weather, and the continuity of creatures and plants in more or less the same few acres, witnessed to him the eternal. In fact, he summed up his religion in a long statement, "The Eternity of Nature", and in a perfect epigram for himself:

He loved the brook's soft sound,
The swallow swimming by;
He loved the daisy covered round,
The cloud bedappled sky;
To him the dismal appeared
The very voice of God. . . 
A silent man in life's affairs,
A thinker from a Boy,
A Peasant in his daily cares --
The Poet in his joy.

In a tender hymn, "A Stranger once did bless the earth", he saw Christ as "An outcast thrown in sorrow's way", and this tragic figure contrasts with his magnificent God, "creator of Nature". Even when cast into the very depths of this world's suffering, in Northampton Asylum, Clare was kept sane by the huge truth of "my Creator God". He and "the insects in the brake" were brothers.

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