Did Clare write nonsense?

[Image: Nicholas Parry]

An amusing example of how dangerous it is to think that Clare ever wrote nonsense is the following quotation from P.M.S. Dawson’s edition of the prose:

“… you live in the midst of delicaseys have you got to add on corpulency”

We pondered this nonsense, in a very faint manuscript, for some time but could not see how to read it any differently.  

First, should there be a sentence after ‘delicaseys’?  

Second, we began to think about the words ‘on corpulency’ which suggested to us a medical title?

If the latter was so, then the problem is in the reading ‘to add’ which could be a mis-reading of an author’s name?  Much examination of the manuscript and thought ensued.  Instead of ‘to add’, was it possible to read ‘Wadd’ or ‘wadd’ ?  Was there an author of that name?

Don’t you know it there was!  William Wadd was surgeon to the Prince Regent and published a book in 1829 with the title, “On Corpulency”.  Considering how fat the Prince Regent was, corpulency might well have been of interest to his medical adviser!  

But could it also have been of great interest to Clare, since the most famous man in Stamford at the time was Daniel Lambert, who was also the fattest man in England. Wadd discusses Lambert’s case, thus what at first appears to be nonsense, turns out to be very meaningful indeed.

Clare also comments to Alan Cunningham living in Edinburgh at the time of the Burke and Hare murders, as his being “in the midst of delicaseys”.  These murders were fully reported in all British newspapers at the time that Clare was writing to AC.

(Eric R & Roger R)


Ah thou poor neglected hound
Now thourt done wi catching hares
Thou mayst lye upon the ground
Lost for what thy master cares
To see thee lye it makes me sigh
A proud hard hearted man
But men we know like dogs may go
When theyve done all they can

& thus from witnesing thy fate
Thoughtfull reflection wakes
Tho thourt a dog (with grief I sayt)
Poor men thy fare partakes
Like thee lost whelp the poor mans help
Ere while so much desird
Now harvests got is wanted not
Or little is requird

So now the over plus will be
As useles negros all
Turnd in the bitter blast like thee
Meer cumber grounds to fall
But this reward for toil so hard
Is sure to meet return
From him whose ear is always near
When the oppressed mourn

For dogs as men are equally
A link in natures chain
Formd by the hand that formed me
Which formeth naught in vain
All life contains as't were by chains
From him still perfect are
Nor does he think the meanest link
Unworthy of his Care

So let us both on him relye
& he'll for us provide
Find us a shelter warm and drye
With every thing beside
& while fools void of sense deride
My tenderness to thee
Ill take thee home from whence Ive come
So rise and gang wi me

Poor patient thing he seems to hear
& know what I have said
He wags his tale and ventures near
& bows his mournful head
Thourt welcome—come and tho thourt dumb
Thy silence tells thy pains
So wi me start to share a part
While I have aught remains

EP I 202

Ronnie Blythe on the Festival

With the John Clare Society Festival now only just over a week away, you might like to read Ronnie's 'report' of a previous Festival and be persuaded to attend?!

"Back once more from the John Clare Festival at Helpston. Our Society has outgrown the school named after him, and has to fill a marquee. Rows and rows of familiar faces. The village has wide Enclosure roads and handsome Barnack-stone houses, toppling hollyhocks, and bird-filled skies. As always, I see the poet running over the fields to Glinton, to be taught to read and write for a penny a week, and to do his arithmetic in the dust of the threshing barn, and to lie hidden with a book in a deserted quarry.

What a good education he got, one that was perfect for our greatest rural voice. Clare, too, had a violin. The gypsies showed him how to play it. We had lunch in the Blue Bell, where he would be found with his beer and his finds — wild flowers. They would straggle from his velvet pockets. Have you read John Clare? If not, do so at once. His life was bitter-sweet with a vengeance. Poor Clare. Great Clare."

Hail, humble Helpstone ! where thy vallies spread,
And thy mean village lifts its lowly head ;
Unknown to grandeur, and unknown to fame;
No minstrel boasting to advance thy name :

Unletter'd spot! unheard in poets' song;
Where bustling labour drives the hours along ;
Where dawning genius never met the day;
Where useless ignorance slumbers life away.

Ronald Blythe muses on the joy of each and every sound

I never quite get used to it, the static nature of today’s countryside. Villagers such as John Clare were elaborately seasonal. Every month, every day almost, brought its special tasks, and he could describe them, as the seasons followed each other in their traditional order. But now they’ll be sowing and reaping; certainly, one would have to be alert to catch them. Otherwise, there’s no sound other than that of birds or traffic. Wonderfully, there’s not ever this at Bottengoms Farm.
Today was a great event: the oil tanker found its way down the lane at seven in the morning, managing to turn on the mud equivalent of a ha’penny. The youthful driver was sanguine. I wasn’t to worry. He could turn the vehicle on anything. I could smell the winter fuel in the summer air, and crushed wild flowers, and the enormous hap­piness of a full supply.
Not all that long ago, various walking women would call to me through the hedges: “Was I well? Wasn’t it cold for June?” They ex­­pected I had heard of some drama. But, usually, I had not.
For hundreds of years, this out­lying farm has heard very little of what went on a couple of miles away. I had put the postman himself quite a trek from the front door; to save him the tramp, I put the letters in the box. I was working in the orchard when we exchanged joyful good-mornings the other day, and he would say, “You have to sign for something.” Long ago, there was a postman who, when holding on to a parcel would say, “Somebody loves you.”
Even the Stansted planes seem to have changed route. But my neighbour’s low-flying aircraft skims me, and the horses look up at me. All the roses are in flower, and they scent my small world.
A friend from Berlin is sprawled in a chair with the cats. I may look asleep, but I am wide awake inside my head; a chapter of a new book I should be writing is taking place. But, more importantly at this moment, I should be thinking of St Paul’s voyage, for matins. It was Paul who took Christ’s revolu­tion­ary teaching into the wide world, where they were soon suppressed. That world possessed a plethora of deities, but not one who was pro­claimed the only god. It was why Caesar struck out.
I am often puzzled why people don’t go to church. It is so beautiful — the music, the language. And, if I may say so, so caring. And, indeed, thinking of the bell-ringers, so skilful and so poetic. I’m thinking at this moment of a Suffolk bell which is inscribed “Box of sweet honey, I am Michael’s bell.” Who was Michael? The man who left his bell to “talk” when he himself was silent.
Lately, the marsh nightingales have raised their voices, not in chorus, but in a kind of wild solo. Nightingales prefer thickets to woods, and quite enjoy a push lawnmower.
I hope that Jesus and his friends were able to sit in gardens, even Gethsemane before that immense tragedy, to listen to birdsongs and the wind in the fields. One listens more as one grows older and the sound of nature fills one’s head.
My stream provides continuity. So everlasting is it that I have to remind myself to listen. It pursues the route through chalk and gravel, tree roots and London clay, until it finds the river and finally the sea. It is deep and solemn under our bridge where the Suffolk-Essex travellers splash through it and where we tied up our boats near the kingfishers.
Ronald Blythe

John (Jack) Clare

[Barmouth Bridge]

On the 16th June 1826 Patty was safely delivered of her son John - the family consisted then of 4 children, Anna (6), Eliza (4), Freddy (2) and little John, whom for most of his life was known as 'Jack'.

The 1851 Census shows that Jack was living at home in the Northborough cottage and that he was a carpenter, but in 1859 he married (in his case a 2nd marriage) Margaret Morris in Llanymynech, Mid-Wales, and they had a large family.  How did he get to Wales?  The railway.  Like many young people from this period whose families had worked on the land for generations, when the railways came he got a much better job (my own Great Grandfather did exactly this).  

He had by his death worked as a carpenter for the Cambrian Railway Company for many years,  as a bridge foreman.  His many Welsh descendants - a few members of the Clare Society - are very proud of the fact that he was foreman carpenter on the Barmouth Estuary Bridge.

But just who was his first wife?  Well,  it is known that he worked as a foreman carpenter as far south as Somerset/Dorset for the Great Western Railway.  His first son Charles having been born in Yetminister, Dorset in September 1855 when Jack was 29.  The baby's mother died during the delivery of Charles (sadly a common occurrence at the time).  She was Sarah Bartlett, and Jack and Sarah had been married in February 1855 in Misterton, Somerset (near Crewkerne), just like Jack's mother Patty, Sarah was pregnant at the time of her marriage.   

Baby Charles was taken to live with his grandmother Patty and is mentioned in the Northborough Census of 1861!  Lots of folk over the years have been rather dismissive of Patty, but she grows monthly in my estimation.  A totally wonderful and caring lady.

Jack settled in Llandysilio in 1870, moving to Welshpool in 1895 after the death of his second wife Margaret.
  1. Young Jack* was a peasant from his birth
  2. His sire a hind born to the frail & plough
  3. To thump the corn out & to till the earth
  4. The coarsest chance which natures laws alow
  5. To earn his living by a sweating brow
  6. Thus Jack's* early days did rugged roll
  7. & mixt in timley toil—but een as now
  8. Ambitions prospects fird his little soul
  9. & fancy soard & sung bove povertys controul

    *(Clare, of course, has 'lubin')
      from 'The Village Minstrel

To an infant daughter

On the 13th June 1822 Patty and John had a second daughter, Eliza Louisa, but in that two years his world had been turned upside down, he was famous.  But there was sorrow too, as they lost a still-born baby son in June of 1821.

The photo shows a Christening Cup given to Eliza Louisa by her Godmother, Eliza Louisa Emmerson for whom she of course was named.  John and Mrs Emmerson carried on a regular correspondence for many years and become firm friends.

After her sister Anna Maria's death in 1844, Eliza Louise was to marry the widowed husband, and her brother-in-law, John Sefton.  They had eight children, and a number of the 'Sefton-Clare' clan are active members of the John Clare Society to this day.

Sweet gem of infant fairy flowers
Thy smiles on lifes unclosing hours
Like sun beams lost in summer showers
     They wake my fears
When reason knows its sweets & sours
     Theyll change to tears

God help thee little sensless thing
Thou daisey like of early spring
Of ambushd winters hornet sting
     Hast yet to tell
Thou knowst not what tomorrows bring—
     I wish thee well

But thou art come & soon or late
Tis thine to meet the frowns of fate
The harpy grin of envys hate
     & mermaid smiles
Of worldly follys luring bait
     That youth beguiles

& much I wish what ere may be
The lot my child that falls to thee
Nature neer may let thee see
     Her glass betimes
But keep thee from my failings free
     No itch at ryhmes

L---d help thee in thy coming years
If thy mad fathers picture 'pears
Predominant—his feeling fears
     & gingling starts
Id freely now gi vent to tears
     To ease my heart

May thou unknown to ryhming bother
Be ignorant as is thy mother
& in thy manners such another
     Save sins nigh guest
& then wi scaping this & tother
     Thou mayst be blest

L---d knows my heart I wish thee much
& may my feeling ach[e]s & such
The pains I meet in follys clutch
     Be never thine—
Child its a tender string to touch
     That sounds ‘thourt mine’

The Village Minstrel, and Other Poems (2 volumes, 1821)

Anna Maria, born 2nd June 1820


My Anna, summer laughs in mirth, 

And we will of the party be, 

And leave the crickets in the hearth 

For green fields' merry minstrelsy. 

I see thee now with little hand 

Catch at each object passing by, 

The happiest thing in all the land 

Except the bee and butterfly. 

The weed-based arches' walls that stride 

O'er where the meadow water falls 

Will turn thee from thy path aside 

To gaze upon the mossy walls. 

And limpid brook that leaps along, 

Gilt with the summer's burnished gleam, 

Will stop thy little tale or song 

To gaze upon its crimping stream. 

Thou'lt leave my hand with eager speed 

The new-discovered things to see— 

The old pond with its water-weed 

And danger-daring willow-tree, 

Who leans, an ancient invalid, 

O'er spots where deepest waters be. 

In sudden shout and wild surprise 

I hear thy simple wonderment, 

As new things meet thy childish eyes 

And wake some innocent intent; 

As bird or bee or butterfly 

Bounds through the crowd of merry leaves 

And starts the rapture of thine eye 

To run for what it ne'er achieves; 

The simple reasoning arguments 

Shaped to thy fancy's little view, 

The joys and rapturous intents 

That everywhere pursue. 

So dreamed I over hope's young boon, 

When merry summer was returning, 

And little thought that time so soon 

Would change my early hope to mourning. 

I thought to have heard thee mid the bowers 

To mock the cuckoo's merry song, 

And see thee seek thy daisy flowers 

That's been thy anxious choice so long. 

But thou art on the bed of pain, 

So tells each poor forsaken toy. 

Ah, could I see that happy hour 

When these shall be thy heart's employ, 

And see thee toddle o'er the plain, 

And stoop for flowers, and shout for joy. 


Clare grew up during a period of massive changes in both town and countryside.  The Industrial Revolution blackened urban areas.  Many former agricultural workers, including children, went to work in factories because of the rural poverty caused by the Napoleonic wars, which kept wages down but forced prices up.  The Agricultural Revolution (the enclosures) saw pastures ploughed up, trees and hedges uprooted, the nearby fens drained and the common land enclosed.  This destruction of a centuries-old way of life distressed Clare deeply.

John Clare identified this loss of common land as a loss of wildness.  He describes common land as “wilderness”, in Clare’s eyes the “wild” and “wild pasture” were a “common right”.  For Clare, the loss of wild lands was a loss of freedom.  He speaks of England as the land of liberty but now, “Like emigrating bird thy freedom’s flown”, “Enclosure came, and all your glories fell”.

How to illustrate this?  Have you been blackberrying?  Blackberrying may appear to be a trivial subject, yes it does appear in Clare's poetry. So does lots of other ‘country activities’… collecting elderberries to make wine, or hazel nuts, or mushrooms, or water-cress, or gathering rotten wood for the cottage-fire.  All these were really important to the common people of the parish.

In Helpston, like all parts of England – indeed all of Europe –the inhabitants had always used the produce of the Commons, the wild land all around them. Even gathering rotten wood.

At dusk right across rural areas, you might be see silently-moving lines of shadowy figures, their backs bent under the weight of trunks and piled-up wood, as they headed for their cottages.

Here’s Clare on the subject… (he called them ‘stickers’)
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".  Just as the fallen wood belonged by right to the local inhabitants in the forests in all parts of Europe, so, ‘everyone’ knew (didn’t they) that fallen wood belongs to the locals right across the country – in fact, is was crucial in keeping the common people warm in winter.

This conflict over rotten wood extended to other products of the wild lands -- the Commons -- rabbits, hares, birds, willow, reeds, cresses, sloes, dewberries, nuts, mushrooms, elderberries, wild strawberries and blackberries - and eggs, snakes, deer, eels, fish, and other edibles.

Clare writes about all these… sometimes in minute detail.

But when the Enclosure came, the villagers were being legally pauperised by squire, lord and government.  What grows on my fenced land… is mine!  You are a poacher, or a thief.

Here is Clare in 'The Village Minstrel' :

But who can tell the anguish of his mind 

When reformations formidable foes 

Wi civil wars on natures peace combind 

& desolation struck her deadly blows 

As curst improvment gan his fields inclose 

O greens & fields & trees farwell farwell 

His heart wrung pains his unavailing woes 

No words can utter & no tongue can tell 

When ploughs destroyd the green when groves of willows fell 

There once was springs when daises silver studs 

Like sheets of snow on every pasture spread 

There once was summers when the crow flower buds 

Like golden sunbeams brightest lustre shed 

& trees grew once that shelterd lubins head 

There once was brooks sweet wimpering down the vale 

The brooks no more—king cup & daiseys fled 

Their last falln tree the naked moors bewail 

& scarce a bush is left around to tell the mournful tale 

(lines 1048-1065)

Birds Nesting - Chapbook No.13

Here is part of my introduction to Chapbook number 13 - 'Birds Nesting' which will be ready by July. 

From my 'introduction':
"The John Clare Peterborough Manuscript MS A47 contained the original text of Clare’s long poem ‘Birds Nesting’.  We owe Eric Robinson a great debt, as if he had not struggled to copy this manuscript 50 years ago, it would only have survived in fragments and in unsatisfactory copies by earlier hands. Of course, it is possible that Eric made mistakes but comparisons can easily be made with readings made by the Tibbles in the 1930s, so readers can judge for themselves.  Perhaps one day the original manuscript will surface again, but in the meantime, it is a real privilege to bring Eric’s transcription to the public eye in this little volume: 'Birds Nesting'.

What happened to the manuscript?  We do not know, nor when exactly it disappeared.  What we do know, however, is that it was loaned to an unnamed scholar by a senior member of the Peterborough Museum Society, and left in a railway compartment between Peterborough and Cambridge.  Was it swept away as waste-paper or is it still being hoarded by some miserly soul?  If the latter, we plead for its restoration to the Peterborough Central Library Clare archive, where it can be properly conserved for future generations.

A spirit of young adventure permeates the texture of Clare’s verse as the reader is brought to join hands with the eager schoolboys scouring the fields around Helpston in the search for birds and their nests.  Clare came to denounce bird-nesting as a hobby, but the excitement of this early pursuit filled his mind and heart with the recollection of those heady days at the turn of the Nineteenth Century."

Birds Nesting (Arbour Chapbook No. 13) is available from me at £4.00 + £1.00 postage and packing (UK).  It is dedicated to Professor Eric and includes a photograph of the great man and one of his poems on the subject of Clare's words.

--- oOo ---

A cag of swipes?

[Image: A product of the thackers art in West Deeping]
I've been working on a Chapbook to be published in the early autumn of 2019.  'A cag of swipes' will be a collection of Clare's poems that contain, well shall we say, unusual words.  Here is a flavour from my draft 'introduction':

"Quite apart from that, Clare is having great fun writing this way.   He is not looking down at his fellow-villagers for their speech-habits but enjoying, as we should, its vigour and variety.   So Clare does often use a word in its dialect or obsolete form.  Not only does this alter the ‘smell’ of the poem but it also intensifies its meaning.  Clare often used words that he employs in his own speech and that he heard every day in the village street. For instance, the man who repairs a roof-covering made from straw or reeds is a ‘thacker’, not a ‘thatcher’.  Such a man uses a variety of ‘thacking’ tools, known today only to a specialist in such work, but common knowledge to every agricultural labourer of Clare’s time."

The photo was given to me by Peter Moyse, who sought out Clare 'locations' for his camera.

Childhood's Glory - Chapbook No.12

The innocence and freshness of Clare’s early years are grounded in the specific places and occasions in which his early sense of ‘glory’ was first experienced.  The landscape of his childhood, therefore, is not only a particular physical landscape – where certain kinds of fields, trees, flowers, birds and animals may be found and where even the names of places become incantations – but it is also a cultural landscape of infant affections and pastimes. 

His childhood innocence may have been sometimes darkened by a sense of loss and of guilt, or of fear and foreboding, but it certainly was a time of his life when his perceptions were particularly vivid, more direct, more natural than the time of  “knowledge of good and evil” — of disillusionment, and the sickness that accompanied his later years.

I look behind & like to eden find
Too late the Eden I have left behind

To lose this extacy, this rapture, is to be excluded from a direct relationship with the unsullied glory of creation, and to have to live one’s life with a sense of loss.

Childhood's Glory (Arbour Chapbook No. 12) is available from me at £4.00 + £1.00 postage and packing (UK). 

--- oOo ---

John Clare facebook group

In December 2012, poet Angela Topping and I decided it was time to start a proper John Clare Facebook page. In the 6 years since then, my how we have grown, with today no fewer than 1,000 members. In August 2013 we held our inaugural 'group' weekend in Helpston, and over 19/20th May 2014 we gathered to remember our great poet by his graveside, and the gravesides of his wife Patty and muse Mary Joyce.
We have writers, musicians, painters, photographers & illustrators, film-makers, poets, sculptors, several descendants of Clare, academics, and plain old fans of his work. We have a rolling virtual exhibition of work "John Clare 150" dedicated to Clare (more contributions would be welcomed), and several books have been published from members of the group who met via these pages, as well as other collaborations.

We plan a fourth (or is that fifth) gathering over a weekend in September 2019 (mark your diaries now), again in the Helpston area, but with the possibility of visits a bit further afield to Holme Fen and Woodwalton Fen, weather depending of course.

And to add to all that, the weekend of the 12th to 14th July are the dates of the 2019 John Clare Society  Festival in the village (many of us are, of course, members of that organisation - one of the largest literary societies in the country).
Our cup runneth over...
Click here to go to the facebook page.

The Lovers Meeting

This is the first time John Clare's "The Lovers Meeting" - a reworking of Ovid's Fifth Elegy, has been published outside the Oxford University Press ‘Clarendon’ edition.  Authenticity has been at the heart of our volume.  The poem is presented exactly as Clare wrote it and has been typeset in a font designed in Northamptonshire in Clare's time (the Founder's Caslon type of Justin Howes).  A beautiful calligraphic ampersand has been specially created by Patrick Roe of The Logan Press to acknowledge its characteristic use by Clare.  Background information about the poem and its context is included. The book is bound by hand in two cloths of complimentary colours with gold blocked titles and has hand printed end papers designed by Anne Lee.


"The Lovers Meeting"

Clare's version of the Fifth Elegy of the First Book of Ovid

Our hand-made book was originally launched at John Clare Cottage, Helpston on Saturday, 9th November 2013 all now sold.

However, following a meeting with Patrick Roe of The Fine Book Bindery just two days before the launch of that edition,  it was agreed that he will produce the book for us, in an edition limited to 200 copies.  

So... the book has been produced in two versions - the initial one sold out, but The Fine Book Bindery edition still available at £20. 

Whilst we would have been able to continue to produce the books ourselves, being offered this opportunity to have our book printed and hand bound by a leading Fine Press maker of limited edition books is too important for us to ignore.  The level of quality in this artisan field of letterpress printed and hand bound books will be higher than we can possibly produce, yet we will still retain control of the book’s design and content.

Photos taken in the Cottage cafe on launch day, Friday 7th February 2014


Hot was the noon in summers sultry hour
The sun then raging with meridian power
When I more burning with the scorching heat
Of hot desire—lay hid in close retreat
Beneath the covert of a secret shade
Flush'd “with expectance of the lovley maid”
Sweet was the spot no one throughout the grove
Was better suited to the sports of Love

There is little doubt in our minds that Clare’s poetic vision was somewhat more carnal, fleshy, voluptuous than his advisers thought fitting, and of course, as a mere peasant what did he know about such sensibilities?

As Professor Robinson says in his introduction to Early Poems of John Clare (OUP) : “To survey the whole range of his poetry about Woman is to encounter a many-faceted, exhilarating, and erotic sensibility.”  This Clare certainly explored in his reworking of the Fifth Elegy of the First Book of Ovid, dating from 16 - 15 B.C. 

'The Lovers Meeting' as published by John Clare Cottage Press