Footpaths - from 'The Flitting'

I walk adown the narrow lane,
The nightingale is singing now,
But like to me she seems at loss
For Royce Wood and its shielding bough.
I lean upon the window sill,
The trees and summer happy seem;
Green, sunny green they shine, but still
My heart goes far away to dream.

Of happiness, and thoughts arise
With home-bred pictures many a one,
Green lanes that shut out burning skies
And old crooked stiles to rest upon;
Above them hangs the maple tree,
Below grass swells a velvet hill,
And little footpaths sweet to see
Go seeking sweeter places still,

With bye and bye a brook to cross
Oer which a little arch is thrown:
No brook is here, I feel the loss
From home and friends and all alone.
--The stone pit with its shelvy sides
Seemed hanging rocks in my esteem;
I miss the prospect far and wide
From Langley Bush, and so I seem

John Clare and Footpath Walking

John Clare is the genius of the footpath. So poignant is his statement on the road that it tends to overlay his many and various statements on the footpaths. That wretched road journey, in July 1841, just after his forty-sixth birthday, when he was alone, weakening and penniless, and when he had to, as he said, “lay down with my head towards the north to show myself the steering point in the morning”, was a walk entirely isolated from every other walk he had made, or would ever make.

Clare was more than acquainted with the way, that simplest, purest, most eloquent of ways, the footpath. And life only went wrong when he was diverted from it. He knew where he stood. He knew where he should walk. He knew when he should drop down. He knew what no other English writer knew or knows, which is what the English countryman's eyes saw, or sees, in its purity … we know that countless people, whilst on the way to work, or at work itself, are unwittingly visionary, and that they do not pass through these scenes on earth without taking them in, and wondering at them sometimes. What they -- or few of us do, is to drop down in our tracks to write because the need to write is overwhelming, as it is with writers. There were days when Clare could not follow the footpaths. On Thursday 23 September 1824 he writes:

“A wet day did nothing but nurse my illness Coud not have walkd out had it been fine very disturbd in conscience about the troubles of being forcd to endure life & dye by inches & the anguish of leaving my childern & the dark porch of eternity whence none returns to tell the tale of their reception” (Natural History, p. 181)

But a few weeks later - what a change?

Sunday 31 October 1824

“Took a walk got some branches of fee spindle tree with its pink colord berys that shine beautifully in the pale sun - found for fee first time 'fee herb true love' or 'one berry' [Paris quatrifollia} in Oxey Wood brought a root home to set in my garden” (Natural History, p. 197)

Did we but comprehend it, a great amount of our best poetry, novels and essays smell, not of the lamp, but of dust, mud, grit, pollen, and, I expect, sweat.

Ronald Blythe ~ John Clare Society Journal, 14, 1995

[Over the next week or so I will posting excerpts from some of Clare’s ‘footpath’ poems… the first, next time, being a short excerpt from 'The Flitting']

The Lament of Swordy Well

[Swaddywell -- Swordywell -- in July 2007]
I'm Swordy Well, a piece of land
That's fell upon the town,
Who worked me till I couldn't stand
And crush me now I'm down.
There was a time my bit of ground
Made freeman of the slave,
The ass no pounder'd dare to pound
When I his supper gave.

The gipsy's camp was not afraid,
I made his dwelling free,
Till vile enclosure came, and made
A parish slave of me.
Alas, dependence, thou'rt a brute
Want only understands;
His feelings wither branch and root
Who falls in parish hands.

The muck that clouts the ploughman's shoe,
The moss that hides the stone,
Now I'm become the parish due,
Is more than I can own.
The silver springs are naked dykes,
With scarce a clump of rushes;
When grain got nigh, the tasteless tykes
Grubbed up trees, banks, and bushes.

Though I'm no man, yet any wrong
Some sort of right may seek,
And I am glad if e'en a song
Give me the room to speak.
I've got among such grubbling gear
And such a hungry pack,
If I brought harvests twice a year,
They'd bring me nothing back.

And should the price of grain get high
—Lord help and keep it low!—
I shan't possess a butterfly
Nor get a weed to grow,
I shan't possess a yard of ground
To bid a mouse to thrive;
For gain has put me in a pound,
I scarce can keep alive.

Ah me!—they turned me inside out
For sand and grit and stones,
And turned my old green hills about
And picked my very bones.
The bees fly round in feeble rings
And find no blossom by,
Then thrum their almost weary wings
Upon the moss, and die.

Rabbits that find my hills turned o'er
Forsake my poor abode;
They dread a workhouse like the poor,
And nibble on the road.
If with a clover bottle now
Spring dares to lift her head,
The next day brings the hasty plough
And makes me misery's bed.

I've scarce a nook to call my own
For things that creep or fly;
The beetle hiding 'neath a stone
Does well to hurry by.
And if I could but find a friend
With no deceit to sham,
Who'd send me some few sheep to tend,
And leave me as I am.

To keep my hills from cart and plough
And strife of mongrel men,
And as spring found me find me now,
I should look up agen.
And save his Lordship's woods, that past
The day of danger dwell,

Of all the fields I am the last
That my own face can tell,
Yet what with stone-pits' delving holes,
And strife to buy and sell,
My name will quickly be the whole
That's left of Swordy Well.


Far spread the moory ground, a level scene
Bespread with rush and one eternal green,
That never felt the rage of blundering plough,
Though centuries wreathed spring blossoms on its brow.
Autumn met plains that stretched them far away
In unchecked shadows of green, brown, and grey.

Unbounded freedom ruled the wandering scene;
No fence of ownership crept in between
To hide the prospect from the gazing eye;
Its only bondage was the circling sky.
A mighty flat, undwarfed by bush and tree,
Spread its faint shadow of immensity.

And lost itself, which seemed to eke its bounds,
In the blue mist the horizon's edge surrounds.
Now this sweet vision of my boyish hours,
Free as spring clouds and wild as forest flowers,
Is faded all—a hope that blossomed free,
And hath been once as it no more shall be.

Enclosure came, and trampled on the grave
Of labour's rights, and left the poor a slave;
And memory's pride, ere want to wealth did bow,
Is both the shadow and the substance now.
The sheep and cows were free to range as then
Where change might prompt, nor felt the bonds of men.

Cows went and came with every morn and night
To the wild pasture as their common right;
And sheep, unfolded with the rising sun,
Heard the swains shout and felt their freedom won,
Tracked the red fallow field and heath and plain,
Or sought the brook to drink, and roamed again.

While the glad shepherd traced their tracks along,
Free as the lark and happy as her song.
But now all's fled, and flats of many a dye
That seemed to lengthen with the following eye,
Moors losing from the sight, far, smooth, and blea,
Where swopt the plover in its pleasure free.

Are banished now with heaths once wild and gay
As poet's visions of life's early day.
Like mighty giants of their limbs bereft,
The skybound wastes in mangled garbs are left,
Fence meeting fence in owner's little bounds
Of field and meadow, large as garden-grounds.

In little parcels little minds to please,
With men and flocks imprisoned, ill at ease.
For with the poor scared freedom bade farewell,
And fortune-hunters totter where they fell;
They dreamed of riches in the rebel scheme
And find too truly that they did but dream.

The Toper's Rant

Give me an old crone of a fellow
Who loves to drink ale in a horn,
And sing racy songs when he's mellow,
Which topers sung ere he was born.

For such a friend fate shall be thank├Ęd,
And, line but our pockets with brass,
We'd sooner suck ale through a blanket
Than thimbles of wine from a glass.

Away with your proud thimble-glasses
Of wine foreign nations supply,
A toper ne'er drinks to the lasses
O'er a draught scarce enough for a fly.

Club me with the hedger and ditcher
Or beggar that makes his own horn,
To join o'er an old gallon pitcher
Foaming o'er with the essence of corn.

I care not with whom I get tipsy
Or where with brown stout I regale,
I'll weather the storm with a gipsy
If he be a lover of ale.

I'll weather the toughest storm weary
Altho' I get wet to the skin,
For my outside I never need fear me
While warm with real stingo within.

We'll sit till the bushes are dropping
Like the spout of a watering pan,
And till the cag's drained there's no stopping,
We'll keep up the ring to a man.

We'll sit till Dame Nature is feeling
The breath of our stingo so warm,
And bushes and trees begin reeling
In our eyes like to ships in a storm.

We'll start it three hours before seven,
When larks wake the morning to dance,
And we'll stand it till night's black eleven,
When witches ride over to France.

And we'll sit it in spite of the weather
Till we tumble dead drunk on the plain,
When the morning shall find us together,
All willing to stand it again.


White flowering o’er the tankard’s crown
Thou boast of every British town
Nicknamed ‘old stout’ & ‘nock em down’—
Old England’s glory:
All hail thou stingo of renown
Ale, I adore thee.

Thou down right death to pain & care
Of them I know I’ve had my share
And most been drove to hell’s despair—
When they’ve distressed me:
But thee I’ve sought at feast & fair
And thou hast blest me.

And though I love thee best of juices
I’ll ne’er go make no vile excuses
For drunkards who thy name abuses—
They’re worse then hogs:
When friend with friend each other bruises
Like lugging dogs.

In public house such brutes of men
When e’re I chance drop down again
I’ll never care to join them then—
Curse on their spite:
I call for half pint to my sen
And let ‘em fight.

O ale, O ale, what soul can ken
The wonders thou performs on men
How thou drivst perking up agen—
The drowking heart:
Like majic spell to grief & pain
Is a full quart.

(Lines 1-24 & 61-66 of Clare’s ‘Ale’)
The poem actually has 174 lines

Anyone know a good rousing tune to which this might be sung?


[Image from Carry Akroyd’s linocut illustrating ‘May’ from ‘The Shepherd’s Calendar 2007’ published by Carcanet Publications]

Come Queen of months in company
Wi all thy merry minstrelsy
The restless cuckoo absent long
And twittering swallows chimney song
And hedgerow crickets notes that run
From every bank that fronts the sun
And swathy bees about the grass
That stops wi every bloom they pass
And every minute every hour
Keep teazing weeds that wear a flower
And toil and childhoods humming joys
For there is music in the noise

The first 12 lines from ‘May’ from ‘The Shepherd’s Calendar’.

Three Fragments...

Three of the many Clare ‘fragments’ – poems with very few lines or those started and forgotten.

Sweeter than roses was the face
Sweeter than roses was the face
For whom I pluck'd the flower;
Sweeter than heaven was the place
In that delightful hour.

Beautiful woman, visions dwell
Beautiful woman, visions dwell
Of heaven's joy about thee,
And every step I take is hell
That walks thro' life without thee.

Love's memories haunt my footsteps still
Love's memories haunt my footsteps still
Like ceaseless flowings of the river.
Its mystic depths say what can fill?
Sad disappointment waits for ever