Dancing oak trees round & round

[Image: Anne Lee]

The wood is sweet - I love it well
In spending there my leisure hours
To seek the snail its painted shell
& look about for curious flowers
Or neath the hazels leafy thatch
On a stulp or mossy ground
Little squirrels gambols watch
Dancing oak trees round & round

Green was the shade - I love the woods
When autumns wind is mourning loud
To see the leaves float on the floods
Dead within their yellow shroud
The wood was then in glory spread -
I love the browning bough to see
That litters autumns dying bed -
Her latest sigh is dear to me

Neath a spreading shady oak
For awhile to muse I lay
From its grains a bough I broke
To fan the teasing flies away
Then I sought the woodland side
Cool the breeze my face did meet
& the shade the sun did hide
Though twas hot it seemed sweet

Leonard Clark (ed)
John Clare (Longman's Poetry Library, 1969)

You owe it to yourself to visit John Clare country

Clare’s poetry is strange, intense, wonderfully sensuous – and magical
by James Delingpole
This has been a terrible year for horseflies. It’s bad enough if you’re human: often by the time you swat them off the damage has already been wrought by their revolting, cutting mandibles and it’s not till 24 hours later, I find, that the bite reaches peak unpleasantness, swelling into a huge itchy dome which somehow never quite generates the massive sympathy you feel you deserve. But obviously it’s worse if you’ve no hands to swat them with, as Girl and I were reminded when we went out for a summer ride.
Every few yards our mounts shuddered and twitched and twisted their heads back under sustained and vicious assault from the evil clegs. Sometimes, you could see the blood. ‘Kill them! Keep killing them!’ commanded our teacher, Jane, explaining how you had constantly to watch each other’s horses and squash all the biters that their own riders couldn’t reach. It struck me that the horse’s tail is a perfect example of Darwinian natural selection: any proto-horse that lacked such a vital anti-cleg device would soon have been driven by madness to early extinction. (Lessons there for the Conservative party, surely?)
Anyway, days later, I was reading the July entry from my monthly literary treat The Shepherd’s Calendar and I came upon this couplet about horses: ‘Switching their tails and turning round/ To knap the gadflys teazing wound’. And as I often do with John Clare I felt that thrill of delighted recognition at yet another instance of rural life so acutely observed and perfectly expressed. Truly if you love the country there is no finer poet than Clare.
At first, like Betjeman, he feels a bit of a guilty pleasure. The simple, mind-numbingly repetitive, ti-tum-ti-tum-ti-tum metre, the lack of punctuation, the way he’ll rhyme ‘grass’ and ‘lass’ twice within 20 lines, the rustic archaisms, the hints of tweeness — you worry that you might be enjoying something dangerously close to doggerel.
Get over it. (And you will.) The man (same applies to Betjeman, of course) is a genius and right up with the greats. It’s just that his approach is different: untutored, unfiltered, hallucinatory in its intensity, strangeness and immediacy. You need to read him in small doses because otherwise it’s just too much, like tasting a ladleful of honey rather than a teaspoon. (‘Which bees so long were toiling home/ And rifled from so many flowers/ And carried thro so many hours.’)
Even in his heyday, Clare was recognised as a nostalgic curiosity. The Shepherd’s Calendar was published in 1827 — nearly 30 years after Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads — by which time the Industrial Revolution had made Clare’s pastoral idyll look almost as achingly remote as, say, Laurie Lee’s Gloucestershire does today.
Then as now the educated classes yearned to recapture this vanished Eden and for a period Clare — an echt Northamptonshire farm labourer’s son who had variously toiled as a farm hand, a pot boy, in a gipsy camp, as a militiaman and as a lime burner — became the darling of literary London. Reading Clare is probably as close as we’ll ever get to knowing how it really felt to work the land in the pre-industrial age. Unlike lefty, middle-class ponces like Wordsworth, he’d actually lived the life.
He can be wonderfully sensuous. There’s a passage in July where a swain is trying to seduce a pretty maid by plying her with alcohol and solicitousness. ‘And in her hand will oft contrive/ From out his pocket pulld to slive/ Stole fruit when no one turns his eye/ To wet her mouth when she’s adry.’ You wonder how much longer the poor girl is going to be able to hold out against the randy yokel’s twin-pronged assault.
Clare’s priggish publisher John Taylor was discomfited by this kind of detail and insisted he do a bowdlerised version of July with all the smut (‘And snow white bosoms nearly bare/ That charms ones sight amid the hay/ Like lingering blossoms of the may’) and rusticities excised.
‘Editors are troubled with nice amendings & if Doctors were as fond of amputation as they are of altering & correcting the world would have nothing but cripples,’ Clare commented sourly. And he was dead right: the original is far stronger.
Sadly, it wasn’t until Clare’s rehabilitation in the 20th century (by Arthur Symons, Edmund Blunden, and also Britten in his ‘Spring Symphony’) that people began properly to appreciate his talents. In its day, The Shepherd’s Calendar sold quite poorly. When Clare died, aged 71, in the madhouse, he was impoverished and largely forgotten.
But such is so often the lot of great artists. At least we can make amends by appreciating Clare properly today — and I promise, if you haven’t discovered him already, you’ll thank me for the tip. Apart from being a delightful poet, he teaches you to see the English countryside with completely new eyes: the eyes of someone who has spent day after day, year after year, observing those tiny nuances of nature that we’re far too busy these days to notice.
Here he is, writing possibly the best description ever of an intensely hot, summer’s day:
The breeze is stopt the lazy bough
Hath not a leaf that dances now
The totter grass upon the hill

And spiders threads is hanging still

The feathers dropt from morehens wings

Upon the waters surface clings
As stedfast and as heavy seem

As stones beneath them in the stream.
And here is a couplet that I’m sure a sophisticated editor would have excised on the grounds that its too folksy and cute and bathetic, but which for me contains the essence of Clare’s charm:
   A horse thats past his toiling day
   Yet still a favorite in his way.
John Clare: you’re magical and we love you just the way you are.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 2 August 2014

Ronnie Blythe on the 2014 Festival

Sultry July days. Twin calendars rule them: the lectionary, and a writer's. Thus our trip to Helpston, the birthplace of the great rural poet John Clare. It is exactly as we left it last year, except that a strange additional memorial rises over his grave. Dear once-a-year friends walk along the broad village street, with its handsome Barnack stone houses and towering hollyhocks.
Ringing the changes, my lecture is on Thomas Hardy, whose hands did not touch the soil; and Clare, whose hands drove the plough. Their days slightly overlapped - had they heard of each other? Neither could really operate, as it were, outside their own country-side. In their time, the "peasant" would become a "farm labourer", and the bottom of the rural population.
And towards the end of the 19th century the British countryside would fall into a depression that would last until the opening of the Second World War, when food needs, and today's non-traditional farming methods, would rescue it from decline.
I looked up Clare's activities in July from his wonderfully useful The Shepherd's Calendar. So far as I can tell, virtually nothing happens in Wormingford in July. You might have to squeeze past a hay lorry whose dizzy oblong load totters ahead, and whose driver waves his sunburnt hand. No women semi-dressed in the hay-making fields which so tantalised the young poet. What work does he list for July? Well, mostly anything which meant using a scythe.
I keep my scythe in cutting order with a whet-stone. I bought it in Stowmarket a long time ago, and I am enchanted this moment to see Adrian wielding it in the orchard. Softly, it lays the summer growth down in rhythmic folds. Greengages will tumble down on to them without bruising. You have to beat the birds where there are greengages. A week late, and they will be the debris of a feast.
Clare's July village is noisy with "singing, shouting herding boys", and bagpipes, as young Scots tramp down the Great North Road to seek their fortunes in London. Our car makes its journey through ancient lanes and motorways to the church at Helpston, where I sit on the chancel step to talk on England's most eloquent village voice, and a prolific one, so that the John Clare Society need never run out of subjects.
We come home to matins and evensong in two different churches, and to the lasting heat wave. Now, with the house empty, and the white cat thanking her god for summer's torpor as she sleeps in the window ledge above what was the copper, I get back to routine, breaking into it now and then to pull up some giant weed. By far my most wondrous July achievement this year is the sweet-pea wigwam: a score of bamboo rods that carry the flowers to heaven. A vase of them locked into a room overnight is the best welcome to a July breakfast.
Clare sees "the gardener sprinkling showers from watering cans on drooping flowers" as he tended both wild and cultivated plants behind his cottage. It could have been a statement on his own genius. His natural history was marvellously inclusive. It began when he was a boy, lying low in the summer grass, watching climbing insects; and it ended as the beautiful sane region to which he could escape from the "madhouse".

First published in the Church Times, 25th July 2014 

Some 'gleanings'... from the archives

The new spring grass was high
The new pinks nest was seen
Where little padded lanes went bye
In hedges warm & green

When the golden evening came
& the tree tops like a flame
Glittered on the gazing eye
Like golden groves in a golden sky

The shepherd seeks the field
Where the awthorn hedges shield
The lane way to the open plain
& sets his fold of trays again

Some fragments from the 1830s

The Country Girl

O dear what fine thinkings beset me
Sin' the young Farmer yesterday met me
To tell me for truth he wou'd get me
Some service more fitting in town
For he said 'twas a shame & he swore too
That I should be serv'd so & more too
& that he was vex'd oer & oer too
To see me so sadly run down

When to thank him—for curtsy'ng I dropt me
He said twas all foolish & stopt me—
& into his arms Oh he popt me!
And crumpl'd my bonnet awry
The tray sav'd the fall till he mov'd it
& this way & that way he shov'd it
Good behaviour he said how he lov'd it
When maids wa'n't so foolish & shy

O dear what fine thinkings beset me
Since the young Farmer promis'd & met me
Of what he would do & would get me
How my heart pittapatters about
Tho Fear—none but fools make a trade on—
He swore when he saw what I play'd on
‘My word is my bond pretty maiden’
Then why need I harbour a doubt

Tho the tell clacking grass's foul staining
In my holiday clothes is remaining

I ne'er shall go make no complaining
I've promise o' better in Town
So Chub needn't come no more croaking
To maul one about so provoking
I know what is what—wi'out Joking
Theres nought got by pleasing a Clown

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

Come maiden dear maiden...

[Image : Anne Lee]

On Friday, 11th July working in the Clare Archives in Peterborough I had a spare 10 minutes at the end of the day.  I had been checking for errors in my transcription of a poem that will be published for the first time in Anne Lee and my future volume "In the Shadows".  I idly turned over a few pages and encountered this, also unpublished poem outside of the Clarendon Editions (see comment below) of nine verses.  The day afterward I read the first three verses - the only ones I had transcribed by then - at the public reading of Clare's work at the John Clare Festival.  Here are those verses...

Come maiden dear maiden a beautiful troop
Of images now the young morning doth wear
The lark leaves her nest & the dew splashes up
As she flies through the clover & sings in the air

The bushes that rustle & catch at thy gown
The trees that thy pathway envelopes in leaves
The grass smooth as velvet runs green up and down
& from the young morning a rapture receives

& from the green hedge that the path brushes nigh
The flight of a bird shakes the rain in the place
& the blackbird frit off from her nest rushing bye
Shakes a shower on the path that will sprinkle thy face

Unpublished Sonnet

OK... going to be away at the Festival from Thursday until Sunday, so for those who cannot make it to Helpston this year (you must have a good excuse) here is another of Lady Clementina Hawarden's delicious daughters (whoops, sorry... but they are all so beautiful) coupled with a Clare sonnet as yet unpublished, but WILL figure in our next volume "In the Shadows" which Anne Lee and I are working upon at present.

Hopes sun shines sweet but who of hopes are proud
To see how soon it meeteth with a cloud
How many hopes & memorys went with thee
That forwerd looked to better destiny
Song seems not worth the muses care
Unless to grace it womans love be there
& fame is but a shadow crowned with bays
Without the cheering sun of womans grace
When thy young bosom at the tales it heard
Heavd up & panted like a timid bird
Thy splendid beauty blushed upon the sight
Like sudden frenzy of unlooked for flight
Thou haven of my trouble when I see
That lovely face the show is past with me

A discovery from the Clare Archive in Peterborough by Professor Eric Robinson and Roger Rowe

To Innoscence

[Taken around 1860 this is one of Lady Clementina Hawarden's famous photos of one of her daughters.  Such an early photo and so stunning a composition.  A large collection can be viewed in the V&A.]

O Innoscence thou captivating charm
Thou beauty's gem pure, heavenly, & divine
The Virgins cheek—when thy soft flushes warm
What 'witching sweetness & what powers are thine
Coy bashfull looks turn'd from admiring eyes
Chill'd trembling paleness aw'd by fancied fear
Short timid Answers blushing sweet suprise
When Loves soft sighs are wisper'd in her ear
These charms! The very soul's recesses thrills
These sweet confusions every bosom feels
In every heart the magic sweet Instills
Which each coy lover painfully consceals—
The rose & rubys charms—frail beautys pride
But vainly please the wise—devoid of thine
A dazzling toy by fools & younkers ey'd
Like brazen lure that daubs inviting sign
Tho tempted Eve thy sweet origin lost
A 'zembling shade the virtues still retain—
Still Emmas Face thy sweetest charm can boast
& heaven it self more sweetness boasts in vain

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