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)

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