A Ballad

Upon the plain there liv’d a swain
A Flock his whole employ
Unknown loves cares & all its snares
To damp his humble joy
Industry toils while Fortune smiles
To bless him with increase
Contentment made his humble trade
A Scene of Health & Peace

But Cupid sly whose jealous eye
Envied his happiness
With pointed darts & subtle arts
Resolved on his distress
Tho’ first in vain he Worked his brain
But practised in deceit
Fresh schemes & plans where nigh at hand
& some was sure to hit

In fatal hour he proved his power
A Shepherds form he ‘tain
With hook & song he hums along
& thus acosts the swain
Go friend he cried to yonder side
The hedge that bounds the plain
For there a lamb has lost his dam
& calls for help in vain

He instant starts his tender heart
O’erlooks the subtle snare
The swain’s beguiled pleased Cupid smiled
Fair Florimel was there
The Rosys red her cheeks bespread
Her bosom lily white
To view her charms each bosom warms
Enraptured at the sight

Her heaving breast her slender waist
Her shape genteel & tall
Her charms divine Unrivaled shine
Alike confessed by all
Beneath the shade the lovely maid
Was sheltered from the sun
O luckless swain go fly the plain
Or stay & be undone

For ah t’was proved by them that loved
She had a scornful eye
Her pride was vain no way to gain
Her pity but to dye
—Stretched on the Green—her beauty seen
To all advantage there
To meet the breeze that fanned the trees
Her snowy breast was bare

She meets his view, Sweet Peace adieu!
And Pleasures known before
He sighs—Approves—Admires & loves
His heart's his own no more

Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery (1820)
Recorded in 2009 by David Rowe as 'Cupid Sly'

My dream began...

[Image: Anne Lee]

Anxiety turnd on her quiet face
& reccolections woud old memorys trace
She seemd at first as living beauty seems
Then changd more lovly in the shade of dreams
Then faded dim confusd & hurring bye
Like memory wearing into vacancy
I coud not move nor speak yet reasons power
Seemd wide awake in that spell prisoning hour
I felt as tried what ere the lot might be
& strove & struggled oer my destiny
& then my eyes in hopless wandering spied
That lovly shadow that had been my guide

Her face grew pale & awful yet a shade
Of beauty hung in every change it made

from "The Nightmare"
The Poems of John Clare
ed. J. W. Tibble (2 volumes, Dent, 1935)

We believe that this poem formed an important part of the story of John Clare and Mary Joyce's relationship, which Anne Lee and I published in 2014 under the title "In the Shadows".  A few copies are still available.

The Lovers Meeting

Charms form'd by nature pleasing to excess
Delightfull heighten'd by the charms of dress
Adorning tortoise crown'd her lovley head
Her snowy neck with little curls bespread
While wilder ringlets did her forhead grace
Readding beauties to her beautious face
Around her shoulders negligently flung
Rich silks of Indias produce loosely hung

That kindly carless of loves glances there
Left the sweet beauties of her bosom bare
Those swelling charms such throbbing bosoms prove
All blooming beauties ripn'd into love
Her gown short-sleeved to set off her charms
Display'd the fineness of her well turnd arms
Her careless robes loose floating in the air
(As negligence in dress becomes the fair)

For scorching summer suited—light & thin
Improvd the beauties they conceald within
No dress compleater throughout fashions sphere
Could set her charms off better then they were
Queens (tho more costly) in a dress neer mov'd
Half so enticeing as my charmers 
Soon as she enter'd—‘O my lovley bride
‘Welcome thrice welcome to my arms’ I cry'd

The Lovers Meeting
John Clare Cottage Press 2014
(Lines 25-48)

(Handmade, numbered, limited edition copies still available from me - send me a message on facebook)

The Holiday Walk

Aye now it delights ye to look at the sky
Those are hawks sailing proud as the clouds & as high
See there ones at rest hanging still even now
As fixed in the air as a bird on a bough
These are sweet sights in sooth but the milking maid sees
The sky every morning wear sweeter than these
When she hies to her cows while the sun large & round
Starts up like a table of fire from the ground
& she sees it so often she gives it no praise
Though some never saw it not once all their days
This morning I marked in what splendour he rose
Like a king of the east ere his journey he goes
His bed in the skys any fancy might trace
With a curtain of scarlet half hiding his face
Then as he rose up to his throne for a seat
It changed to a carpet of gold at his feet
Then as a majicians wand touched it there came
A dye oer the east of all hues ye can name
A dappled profusion of gold blue & red
Like pavements of rubies where angels may tread
A shadow een now of its splendour remains
Like an old ruined tapestry all blotches & stains
Giving lessons of grandeur & earthly parade
To think even heaven hath glories that fade
Nay sigh not at all you shall see bye & bye
The sun rise as oft as the milkmaid & I

(lines 47-72)

The Midsummer Cushion
ed. Kelsey Thornton and Anne Tibble (1979)

John Clare: Nature's Hidden Poet

On 20 May the anniversary of John Clare's death in "the madhouse" - Northampton Asylum - we went to Westminster Abbey to lay flowers in Poets' Corner.  I first did this with Ted Hughes, who read "The Nightingale's Nest". He unveiled a plaque next to Matthew Arnold's. 

On 13 July, Clare's birthday, we will be in Helpston, the epicentre of his life, to walk the fields he ploughed and to drink in the pub where he helped out. His slow emergence as the distinctive voice of the English countryside is a drama in itself. Born in Northamptonshire (now Cambridgeshire) to a father who ended up smashing stones to mend the lane, and a mother who would have liked to make him a valet, Clare read a fragment of James Thomson's The Seasons when he was 12, and wrote his first poem.
His life was tragic and triumphant. He was slight and good-looking in a Scottish way, fond of girls, taught the fiddle by gypsies, an acquaintance of the village intellectuals, and a wonderful naturalist. His first and, really, only love was Mary Joyce. His desire for her haunted him all his life. But he married Martha Turner when she became pregnant. Often penniless, they would sometimes pay the rent with apples.

From his teens on, poetry would pour from him. His discipline was to mutter it when ploughing, and write it down in the evening. He liked the freedom of the open field, and the secrecy of the waste land, where he could read and write unobserved. His was the traditional village society that witnessed everything - particularly a young man reading and writing in the daytime.

As well as having fieldworkers and servants, parsons and aristocrats, farmers and gypsies, Helpston was just off the Great North Road, and so Scots en route to London were visitors. One of them was Clare's grandfather.

Although Clare once apologised for its dullness, Helpston possessed advantages that were to benefit him. But he also witnessed its enclosure, and the destruction of its wilds, the coming of the railway, and what he saw as the disinheritance of its inhabitants.
No one knows what drove Clare into the asylum. He seemed both robust and fragile. His creativity was prodigious. At the end, all he could say was "I am." And that God had decreed it. His was the God of the Old Testament: he rarely mentions the Gospels.
Much of his religious apology was for not attending church, or for leaving Helpston on the sabbath, so that he could join those on the edges of society, or botanise, or write, listening to its distant bells as he did so. When the asylum caught up with him, the report said that his breakdown was brought about "after years addicted to poetical prosing".
IT WAS the young Edmund Blunden who, after the First World War, went to Peterborough to release Clare's long-imprisoned poems to the world. Blunden had published Sketches in the Life of John Clare by Himself in 1931, in which the poet gives a typically cool Georgian account of his religious beliefs. A non-judgemental description of Helpston's Christianity is included.
"About this time, I began to wean off from my companions, and stroll about the woods and fields on Sundays alone; conjectures filled the village about my future destination on the stage of life, some fancying it symptoms of lunacy, and that my mother's prophesies would be verified to her sorrow, and that my reading of books (they would jeeringly say) was for no other improvement than qualifying an idiot for a workhouse.
"For at this time my taste and passion for reading began to be furious, and I never strolled out on a sabbath day but some scrap or other was pocketed for my amusement. I deeply regret useful books was out of my reach; for as I was always shy and reserved, I would never own to my more learned neighbours that I was fond of books, otherwise than the Bible and Prayer Book - the prophetical parts of the former, with the fine Hebrew Poem of Job.
"And the prayers, and the simple translation of the Psalms, in the latter, was such favourite readings with me that I could recite abundance of passages by heart. . . But as it is common in villages to pass judgement on a lover of books as sure indication of laziness, I was drove to the narrow necessity of stinted opportunitys to hide in woods and dingles of thorns in the fields on Sundays to read. . .
"I have often absented myself the whole Sunday at this time, nor could the chiming bells draw me from my hiding place to go to church."
He Learnt to write and do sums in the dust of the great stone barn opposite his cottage, just as Thomas Bewick the wood engraver was permitted to teach himself art by drawing on the church flagstones. Paper was at a premium. Clare wrote his first poems on pressed-out sugar-bags. His friend John Turnill wrote the epitaphs for gravestones. Behind all this lay the terror of the illiterate.

Music had no part in this fear. Clare could pay the fiddle, and his father was a ballad singer with a fine voice. Clare could set words to music. His fine hymn "A stranger once did bless the earth" hints at his own desolation. Jesus is the outsider, the poverty-stricken fugitive. He could be the broken Clare who escaped from Allen's dubious assistance to walk home with bleeding feet.
One way and another, the Great North Road would play a crucial part in his life. His Christ was:
An outcast thrown in sorrow's way,
A fugitive that knew no sin,
Yet in lone places forced to stray;
Men would not take the stranger in.

But both his purpose and his fate was not to go anywhere, to lie low. Hiding away in Barnack's hills and holes, he levelled with limestone flowers. Watching birds, he shared their peace and their terror. His poetry is the best of all natural-history observance lessons. His worship, accompanied by bells, was a private inventory of his wild sabbaths, which would make him a free writer when they locked him up.
It was paper that was to fail him, not words. No one brought him flowers. But an entire library of books crept through the gates.  
(Church Times - 13th June 2014)
Dr Ronald Blythe is ex-President of the John Clare Society.

A Shadow of Life Death & Eternity

[Image: Anne Lee]

A shadow moving by ones side
That would a substance seem
That is yet is not—though descried
Like skyes beneath the stream
A thing thats ever on the bloom,
Whose fruit is never rife
A wish for joys that never come
Such are the hopes of Life

A dark & unavoided night
A blank that will remain
A waiting for the morning light
Were waiting is in vain
A gulph were path way never led
To show the depth beneath
A thing we know not yet we dread
The horrid sound—tis death

The vaulted void of purple skye
That every were extends
That stretches from the dazzld eye
In space that never ends
Wave chasing wave unceasing never
Along the mighty sea
That rolls in majesty for ever
Such is Eternity

Arthur Symons, 
Poems by John Clare
(London: Henry Frowde, 1908)

Behind the far woods lowly sunk was the sun

Behind the far woods lowly sunk was the sun
Scarce a streak could be seen in the west
All the horison round was encircl'd wi' dun
And Owls ere and there with their hoping begun
And Crows where all flocking to rest
When Ralph on the road from the fair once again
Had seven long miles for to go
And now these sad omens appeard but too plain
And this way & that way he turnd & again
He hopd that it couldnt be so

Early Poems of John Clare 1804-1822
ed. Eric Robinson, David Powell and Margaret Grainger
(Oxford, 2 volumes, I-II, 1989)

A Scene

[Image : Walkerd Lodge - Mike Hobson]

The landscapes stretching view that opens wide
With dribbling brooks & rivers wider floods
& hills & vales & darksome lowering woods
With grains of varied hues & grasses pied
The low brown cottage in the shelterd nook
The steeple sprouting just above the trees
Whose dangling leaves keep rustling in the breeze—

& thoughtful shepherd bending oer his hook
& maidens stript haymaking too apear
& hodge a wistling at his fallow plough
& herdsman hallooing to intruding cow
All these with hundreds more far off & near
Approach my sight—& please to such excess
That Language fails the pleasure to express

'The Poet in Love' - Rowe & Lee
Arbour Editions 2014