from "The Shepherd's Calendar - January"

[Image : Carry Akroyd]

The schoolboy still in dithering joys
Pastime in leisure hours employs
And be the weather as it may
Is never at a loss for play
Rolling up jiant heaps of snow
As noontide frets its little thaw

Making rude things of various names
Snow men or aught their fancy frames
Till numbd wi cold they quake away
And join at hotter sports to play
Kicking wi many a flying bound
The foot ball oer the frozen ground

Or seeking bright glib ice to play
To sailing slide the hours away
As smooth and quick as shadows run
When clouds in autumn pass the sun
Some hurrying rambles eager take
To skait upon the meadow lake

Scaring the snipe from her retreat
From shelving banks unfrozen seat
Or running brook where icy spars
Which the pale sunlight specks wi stars
Shoots crizzling oer the restless tide
To many a likness petrified

Where fancy often stoops to pore
And turns again to wonder more
The more hen too wi fear opprest
Starts from her reedy shelterd nest
Bustling to get from foes away
And scarcly flies more fast then they

To Religion

Thou sacred light, that right from wrong discerns ;
Thou safeguard of the soul, thou heaven on earth ;
Thou undervaluer of the world's concerns,
Thou disregarder of its joys and mirth;
Thou only home the houseless wanderers have ;
Thou prop by which the pilgrim's woes are borne ;
Thou solace of the lonely hermit's cave,
That beds him down to rest on fate's sharp thorn;
Thou only hope to sorrow's bosom given ;
Thou voice of mercy when the weary call ;
Thou faith extending to thy home in heaven ;
Thou peace, thou rest, thou comfort, all in all :
O sovereign good ! on thee all hopes depend.
Till thy grand source unfolds its realizing end.

Sonnets 205
from 'Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery'

Christmas (3)

While snows the window-panes bedim,
The fire curls up a sunny charm,
Where, creaming o'er the pitcher's rim,
The flowering ale is set to warm;
Mirth, full of joy as summer bees,
Sits there, its pleasures to impart,
And children, 'tween their parents' knees,
Sing scraps of carols o'er by heart.

And some, to view the winter weathers,
Climb up the window-seat with glee,
Likening the snow to falling feathers,
In fancy's infant ecstasy;
Laughing, with superstitious love,
O'er visions wild that youth supplies,
Of people pulling geese above,
And keeping Christmas in the skies.

As tho' the homestead trees were drest,
In lieu of snow, with dancing leaves,
As tho' the sun-dried martin's nest,
Instead of ickles, hung the eaves,
The children hail the happy day—
As if the snow were April's grass,
And pleas'd, as 'neath the warmth of May,
Sport o'er the water froze to glass.

Thou day of happy sound and mirth,
That long with childish memory stays,
How blest around the cottage hearth
I met thee in my younger days!
Harping, with rapture's dreaming joys,
On presents which thy coming found,
The welcome sight of little toys,
The Christmas gift of cousins round.

The Shepherd's Calendar
December (lines 65 - 96)

Christmas (2)

The singing waits, a merry throng,
At early morn, with simple skill,
Yet imitate the angels' song,
And chant their Christmas ditty still;
And, mid the storm that dies and swells
By fits, in hummings softly steals
The music of the village bells,
Ringing round their merry peals.

When this is past, a merry crew,
Bedeck'd in masks and ribbons gay,
The ‘Morris-dance,’ their sports renew,
And act their winter evening play.
The clown turn'd king, for penny-praise,
Storms with the actor's strut and swell;
And Harlequin, a laugh to raise,
Wears his hunchback and tinkling bell.

And oft for pence and spicy ale,
With winter nosegays pinn'd before,
The wassail-singer tells her tale,
And drawls her Christmas carols o'er.
While prentice boy, with ruddy face,
And rime-bepowder'd, dancing locks,
From door to door with happy pace,
Runs round to claim his ‘Christmas box.’

The block upon the fire is put,
To sanction custom's old desires;
And many a faggot's bands are cut,
For the old farmers' Christmas fires;
Where loud-tongued Gladness joins the throng,
And Winter meets the warmth of May,
Till feeling soon the heat too strong,
He rubs his shins, and draws away.

The Shepherd's Calendar
December (lines 33 - 64)

Christmas (1)

Glad Christmas comes, and every hearth
Makes room to give him welcome now,
E'en want will dry its tears in mirth,
And crown him with a holly bough;
Though tramping 'neath a winter sky,
O'er snowy paths and rimy stiles,
The housewife sets her spinning by
To bid him welcome with her smiles.

Each house is swept the day before,
And windows stuck with evergreens,
The snow is besom'd from the door,
And comfort crowns the cottage scenes.
Gilt holly, with its thorny pricks,
And yew and box, with berries small,
These deck the unused candlesticks,
And pictures hanging by the wall.

Neighbours resume their annual cheer,
Wishing, with smiles and spirits high,
Glad Christmas and a happy year
To every morning passer-by;
Milkmaids their Christmas journeys go,
Accompanied with favour'd swain;
And children pace the crumping snow,
To taste their granny's cake again.

The shepherd, now no more afraid,
Since custom doth the chance bestow,
Starts up to kiss the giggling maid
Beneath the branch of misletoe
That 'neath each cottage beam is seen,
With pearl-like berries shining gay;
The shadow still of what hath been,
Which fashion yearly fades away.

The Shepherd's Calendar
December (lines 1 - 32)

A poet's entry into 'heaven' by Ronnie Blythe

Published in the Church Times on Friday, 16th December, 2011
THE entrance of Ted Hughes to Poets’ Corner last week took me back to when he and I, and that remarkable Dean, Michael Mayne, himself a good writer, placed a memorial to John Clare in that crowded spot. After Clare, authors went up on the windows above it: Wilde, Herrick. But Hughes’s Welsh tablet found floor space at the feet of T. S. Eliot.

It is an amazing concept, our low Olympus, where visitors are brought to a halt by the sheer splendour of its dust. Poets’ Corner began when a young 16th-century scholar found the bones of Geoffrey Chaucer scattered about, and housed them at his own expense in a fine tomb in this aisle. Edmund Spenser’s lovely monument soon followed it.

Poets’ Corner was pretty full when our greatest rural voice, Clare, went to see it. That he should be in it by what he called his “right to song” would have been unimaginable.

But there he is, up on the wall by Matthew Arnold. Mayne, Hughes, and I put him there on a summer’s evening in 1989. The abbey sculptor carved the returning raven with the olive leaf in its beak over Clare’s name. Edward Storey wrote:

You were there again,
no longer the shy ploughboy
wondering how you had escaped
from the fields of Northamptonshire,
but as an equal with those man
who had been treated better by posterity —
Wordsworth, Byron, Keats and Tennyson.

Hughes read Clare’s “The Nightingale’s Nest”, one of the greatest bird poems in the language, and we sang Clare’s tragic hymn “A stranger once did bless the earth”, to Surrey. There was a tradition in Clare’s village, Helpston, of cutting a summer turf and sticking it with wild flowers and calling it a Midsummer Cushion. So, early in the morning, I cut a turf in my farmhouse garden, and covered it with July flowers, and carried it to Westminster Abbey on the train. It weighed a ton.

The Maynes returned to the Deanery to find it on their draining-board. They carried it to the foot of Clare’s memorial. Hughes and his wife, Carol, arrived in the afternoon, and we all had tea.

Hughes and I had met some years before at the Roundhouse, where we gave readings to raise money for Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage. Hughes read his own poetry, and I read Thomas Hardy’s. Afterwards, he and I had a snack in the ice-cream shop near by. Now he drew the curtain from Clare’s memorial, and we all applauded.

I suppose that being admitted to Poets’ Corner is the literary equivalent of entering heaven. Only the Dean of Westminster can let a writer in, and he can be plagued with applicants. I was staying at the Deanery with the Maynes when Michael said: “How about putting Clare in Poets’ Corner?”, overwhelming me. For I had only recently been made president of the John Clare Society, and this recognition of him was beyond my hopes and dreams.

But thus it was, Hughes, Mayne, and I, hundreds of people, and the fat Midsummer Cushion, and, as with Hughes’s own deserved admission, standing there, marvelling at what we had done. (7761)

A longer account of Clare's induction into Poets' Corner, also by Ronald Blythe, may be found on the Clare Essay site :

Idle Fame

I would not wish the burning blaze
     Of fame around a restless world,
The thunder and the storm of praise
     In crowded tumults heard and hurled.
I would not be a flower to stand
     The stare of every passer-bye;
But in some nook of fairyland,
     Seen in the praise of beauty's eye.

Clare's malady slowly increased. The exact history of this decline is almost lost, yet we may well believe that the death of his mother on the 18th of December, 1835, was a day of double blackness for him... Patty made a great fight for his reason, and at last persuaded him to go out for walks, which checked the decline. Now he became so passionately fond of being out-of-doors that "he could not be made to stop a single day at home." 

In one of these roving walks he met his old friend Mrs. Marsh, the wife of the Bishop of Peterborough. A few nights later as her guest he sat in the Peterborough theatre watching the "Merchant of Venice." So vivid was his imagination - for doubtless the strolling players were not in themselves convincing - that he at last began to shout at Shylock and try to attack him on the stage.

When Clare returned to Helpston, the change in him terrified his wife. And yet, he rallied and walked the fields, and sitting on the window-seat taught his sons to trim the two yew-trees in his garden into old-fashioned circles and cones.

From "Poems Chiefly From Manuscript"

Opening of the Pasture—Love & Flattery (excerpt)

Within a closes nook beneath a shed
Nigh to the stack where stock in winter fed
Where black thorn thickets crowded close behind
& shielded cows & maidens from the wind
Two maidens sat free from the pasture sloughs
& told each other as they milked their cows
Their evening thoughts of love—while over head
The little Wren from its new dwelling fled
Who neath the hovels thatch with spring-hopes blest
Began to hang & build its curious nest
Of hair & feathers & root mosses green
It watched about & pickt its feathers clean
& cocked its tail & sung its evening strain
Then fluttering ventured to its nest again
While bluecaps blest the swelling buds to see
Repeated their two notes from tree to tree
The ass untethered rambling at his ease
Knapt the black budding twigs of ashen trees
& sheep the green grass champt with greedy bite
A certain sign of sudden showers at night
The mavis sung aloud & seemed to say
Arise my timid love & come away
Fear not the cold the winters gone & past
& green leaves come to hide our homes at last

Cottage Tales
Carcenet Press (1993)

Remember, Dear Mary

Remember, dear Mary, love cannot deceive
Loves truth cannot vary, dear Mary, believe.
You may hear and believe it, believe it and hear--
Love could not deceive it those features so dear

Believe me dear Mary to press thy soft hand
Is sweeter than riches, in houses and Land;
Where I pressed thy soft hand at the dew fall o' eve--
I felt the sweet tremble that cannot deceive

If love you believe in, Belief is my love
As it lived once in Eden ere we fell from above
To this heartless, this friendless, this desolate earth--
And kept in first love Immortality's birth

T'is there we last met I adore thee and love thee
There's nothing beneath thee around thee above thee
I feel it and know it, I know so and feel
If your love cannot show it mine cannot conceal

But knowing I love, I feel, and adore
And the more I behold — only love thee the more

Love Poems -- ed. Simon Kovesi (1999)


[Image: The Shepherd’s Calendar (December) – Carry Akroyd]

Christmass is come and every hearth
Makes room to give him welcome now
Een want will dry its tears in mirth
And crown him wi a holly bough
Tho tramping neath a winter sky
Oer snow track paths and ryhmey stiles
The hus wife sets her spining bye
And bids him welcome wi her smiles
Each house is swept the day before
And windows stuck wi evergreens
The snow is beesomd from the door
And comfort crowns the cottage scenes
Gilt holly wi its thorny pricks
And yew and box wi berrys small
These deck the unusd candlesticks
And pictures hanging by the wall

John Clare – The Shepherd’s Calendar (December - excerpt)

It was at three o'clock on the afternoon of Christmas Eve that Farmer Joyce's haywain trundled through the streets of Peterborough towards the Minster Gate. Sam Billings, Doctor's coat and hat, held the reins and Joyce's two shires lifted their feathered feet and snorted into the frozen air. Huddled in the back, horse blankets drawn about themselves their faces dark as blackamores, the rest of the Helpston players, musicians and guisers, watched the thronging shops and stalls with pink-rimmed eyes.

When they came to the market Sam reined in the horses and tied them to a rail. He threw blankets across their backs.

"There my sweet-hearts, we won't be gone for long."

The company crossed the market place, that was teeming with revellers, and stationed themselves in the archway of the Minster Gate. Straight away the musicians began to play ‘The Devil among the Tailors’ with Dick blowing his flute, John and Old Otter sawing with their bows as though they could make fire with them. Soon a crowd began to gather, drawn by the music and the four guisers standing behind in their solemn row, bright with ribbons, barely blinking. On and on they played until the crowd stood fifteen deep in a curve before them, children pushing forward to the front so that they could see.

Hugh Lupton – The Ballad of John Clare (Chapter 12 – Christmas)