Coleridge or Clare?

Fairly amused to find this in an email from a friend (I live in Ottery St. Mary the birthplace of Coleridge):

"Entry on Samuel Taylor Coleridge fot the 3 volume 'Thoemmes Dictionary of British Classicists' (Bloomsbury / Thoemmes 2004). The entry focuses on Coleridge's classical scholarship as influenced by his wider metaphysical views of the importance of language and philological research as the keys to understanding western culture. Particular attention is given to the ways in which Coleridge's philosophy of language mediated his theological views and his understanding of both myth and race."

Clare? He was dragged up but wrote the most sublime poetry. One of the main reasons I love his work is precisely because you don't need a Classical, elitist education to understand it. Clare tears your heart apart, producing bright shattered pieces of glass which dazzle the mind lost in poetic darkness and fills it with a kaleidoscope of rainbow colours. Oh! and he wrote the most prescient prophetical poetic words, and he shares my understanding of race too.

Swamps of wild rush beds...

There are few places in England today that are remotely like the 'pre-enclosure' heaths that just 200 years ago would have been common. I am fortunate to live within a mile or so of one such surviving heath ~ Woodbury Commons ~ and yesterday spent a happy morning wandering through its "wild rush beds and sloughs squashy traces". Clare's poem describes almost exactly what I walked through. A stunning landscape, never cultivated, that Clare would instantly recognise as akin to his own 'Helpston' Commons.

~~ Double Click on my photo for the full effect ~~

Swamps of wild rush beds & sloughs squashy traces
Grounds of rough fallows wi thistle & weed
Flats & low vallies of king cups & daiseys
Sweetest of subjects are ye for my reed

Ye commons left free in the rude rags of nature
Ye brown heaths be cloathed in furze as ye be
My wild eye in rapture adores e'ery feature
Yere as dear as this heart in my bosom to me

O native endearments I woud not forsake ye
I woud not forsake ye for sweetest of scenes
For sweetest of gardens that nature coud make me
I woud not forsake ye dear vallies & greens

Tho nature neer dropt thee a cloud resting mountain
Nor water falls tumble their music to thee
Had nature denyd thee a bush tree or fountain
Thou still woud bin lovd as an eden by me

& long my dear vallies long long may ye flourish
Tho rush beds & thistles make most of your pride
May showers never fail the greens daiseys to nourish
Nor suns dry the fountain that rills by its side

Yer skies may be gloomy & misty yer mornings
Yer flat swampy vallies unholsome may be
Still refuse of nature wi out her adorning[s]
Yere as dear as this heart in my bosom to me

... from October

Like to a painted map the landscape lies
And wild above shine the cloud thronged skies
The flying clouds urged on in swiftest pace
Like living things as if they runned a race
The winds that oer each coming tempest broods
Waking like spirits in their startling moods
Fluttering the sear leaves on the blackning lea
That litters under every fading tree
And pausing oft as falls the patting rain
Then gathering strength and twirling them again
Till drops the sudden calm—the hurried mill
Is stopt at once and every noise is still
The startld stockdove hurried wizzing bye
As the still hawk hangs oer him in the sky
Crows from the oak trees quawking as they spring
Dashing the acorns down wi beating wing

The Shepherd's Calendar, with Village Stories, and Other Poems (1827)


I was out on the bike this morning, and I saw what I always consider the first fruits of autumn... blackberries.  My mind immediately went to Clare 200 years ago.

Blackberrying may appear to be a trivial subject in John Clare's poetry, generally referred to in passing as a characteristic autumnal activity, along with collecting elderberries to make wine, or hazel nuts, or mushrooms, or water-cress, or gathering rotten wood for the cottage-fire.  Essentially, it is not different from those other rural activities, which formed part of the cottager's economy in every part of Europe.


In the English fens, the inhabitants believed that the produce of the wasteland came to them by right.  Also in the fens: "At dusk, the passer-by might be confronted by silently-moving lines of shadowy figures, their backs bent under the weight of trunks and piled-up wood, as they headed for home". Clare referred to this wood as "rotten," omitting the word "wood" occasionally.


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," as he calls them: the "wood-men," on the other hand, the agents of the landowners, are "terrifying rascals" who "make a prison of the forrests and are its joalers." (sic) Just as the fallen wood belonged by right to the local inhabitants in the forests in all parts of Europe, so, according to popular belief, did the fallen wood belong to the locals near the oak woods of Stamford, and, in both regions, led to conflict between landowners and peasants, between the lord's steward and gypsies, or the woodman and villagers.


The conflict over wood extended to other products of the waste -- rabbits, hares, birds, withies, reeds, cresses, sloes, dewberries, nuts, mushrooms, elderberries, wild strawberries and blackberries, not to mention eggs, snakes, deer, eels, fish, and other edibles.  The custom of nutting, which Clare celebrates, was particularly disliked by the landowners, their servants and the tenant-farmers.  The pages of the Stamford Mercury and Drakard's Stamford News are filled with advertisements and articles regarding the practice; the Mercury, upholding the rights of the landowners, the News those of the rural population.

(Robinson & Rowe)


Clare's political comments (again)

Clare's comments aways seem fresh and topical whenever I read them... here are two, both of which are not too well known.

"I fear these tory radicals these out of place patriots (or parrots) who are so loud in their [complaints] against the present ministry       [They] only want to make paddles of the people to sail into their harbours of old sinecures    & then to be again themselves      they will be as silent of suffering people and all such alusions - as an old maid of her age or an old borough monger of common honesty"

"The wigs & torys may be better classified perhaps by the terms of outs & ins    for be they wigs or torys in those situations    the outs are always vociverators of “liberty” “cruelty of taxation” & “good of the people”    while the ins are inflexible tyrants & determined supporters of all that is oppressing & annoying to the people   & benefitting to themselves & their connections"

Likely written in the mid-1820s.

Not the 2021 Festival... BUT

Not the 2021 Festival

Some idea of what some of us be doing on the 9th and 10th July @ Helpston


There being no John Clare Society Festival this year, a few of us will still be meeting to honour the great man this year at Helpston.  Not ‘official’ of course, but I wanted to attract everyone’s attention!  Anyone who would like to join us will be very welcome indeed, for any of the days.


Friday 9th

Helpston 2021. Folk I guess will be travelling on the 9th or 10th so several of us thought it might be good to start to gather in the Bluebell, after 7pm on the 9th for a convivial chat over a drink. It has already been announced that there will be the usual ‘Folk Evening’ at the Bluebell that evening, always a treat.

Saturday 10th

We will be meeting at 10:00am – 10:15am at Butter Cross in the centre of Helpston.  From there we will walk across the road to St. Botolph’s Church and Clare’s grave.  New Rector Gary (a Clare fan of course) is conducting a ‘Clare BCP Service' at 11am.  Only 30 places available however.


After which can either have a bite at the BBell and then stroll around the village, OR...go by car to St. Andrew’s Church, Northborough (via Maxey) and Patty’s grave (and other members of the family) – and finally to St. Benedict’s Church, Glinton and Mary’s grave.  Be armed with something of Clare’s poems/prose to read by each graveside. We do not intend to lay wreaths just honour each individual in our own way.


I am informed that the Cottage will be open for drinks (according to their website).


That evening we will certainly will return to the Bluebell for dinner as many of us have in earlier years.


Well... something like that anyway.  I’ll being a few books for those wishing to catch up with the Chapbook series and would be happy to give a talk, or conduct the walk, if required!  Very open to suggestions.


Roger R.

There's something in the air...

180 years ago, a once famous poet decided to leave the asylum he lad lived in for three years, and walk the 80-odd miles up the Great North Road to his home in Northborough on the very fringe of the fens, just a few miles north of Peterborough.  The poet was of course, John Clare, and very troubled of mind he trekked the route virtually feeling his way, mile after mile.  In 2020/21 there must be something in the air, for there are four new books that explore his famous walk.  

The first, 'The Descending Spiral' (Roger Rowe : Arbour Editions Chapbook No.16), seeks to examine Clare's state of mind during that fateful year.  A year that saw him escape from one asylum in the Summer of 1841 only to be committed to another just after Christmas.  The evidence for this exploration of the confused mind of the poet was and is his vast output of verse and prose written during the year.

The second book, 'Love's Cold Returning' (Ellis Hall & Bridget Somekh' : Thirteen Eighty One Press), is an exploration in prose and poetry, with numerous colour photographs, seeking out the remains of Clare's world in the twenty-first century, of the route he took and the folk he met.  Moving from canals and aqueducts to gridlocked roads, from common land and open heath to land banks and intensive agriculture. Truly a detective story, a historical adventure and a meditation on love and loss.

The third book, 'Child Harold' (Roger Rowe : Arbour Editions Chapbook No.20), contains the actual text of Child Harold, it is believed for the first time in a dedicated volume.  The text is fairly well known, but it is ordered in the way outlined briefly by Clare scholar Salman Al Wasiti in an appendix to his PhD thesis in the 1970s.  The order of Clare's Child Harold poems has been debated for 50 years, but not published in this form until now.

The fourth book, to be published in June 2021, 'A Length of Road' (Robert Hamberger : John Murray Press), is a part memoir, part travel-writing, part literary criticism, it is a deeply profound and poetic exploration of class, gender, grief and sexuality through the author's own experiences and through the autobiographical writing of poet John Clare. Clare attempting to return to his idealized first love, Mary, unaware that she had died three years earlier.