A Cag of Small Swipes (Chapbook No.14)

From the Introduction:

I have had it in the back of my mind for some while to produce a book, in the Chapbook series, that concentrates on Clare’s sometimes odd-seeming, or unusual use of language. ‘A Cag of Small Swipes’ if you will.  After all, Clare has a wide acquaintance with specialised vocabularies of all kinds.

Clare’s passion for words was founded on his knowledge of Chapbook nursery-rhymes and fairy-stories, and the games of his childhood.  He was also intimate with the language of the hedger, the ditcher, the thatcher, the ploughman, the shepherd and the cowman - paralleled by the language of the ‘ranter-preacher’, the village school-master and the pretentious local lawyer.  Plus all those words used in the many traditional songs he knew so well.  His language was that of village streets, fairs and fields.  It is the language of proverb and of popular, often vulgar rhyme.  So it is clear that Clare is an important source, one of very few, for finding words that were commonly used in Eastern and Northern England, as well as in Scotland, during his lifetime.

Clare often used words that he employed in his own speech and that he heard every day in the village street, and having great fun writing this way.   He is not looking down at his fellow-villagers for their speech-habits but enjoying, as we should, its vigour and variety.  

So, this as a book full of strange words and phrases, sometimes hiding sexual imagery, yet full of laughter and an ebullient sense of humour. Most especially when describing the love lives of the young people living all around him in Helpston, and the advice they are proffered or choose to reject:

Peggy ye might bin my death wi yer scorning 

Im sure tis yer pleasure to do as ye may 

For ere sin I helpd ye to milk in the morning 

Yeve 'ployd all my thoughts for the rest of the day 

Yer sweet slender body so light & so jimping 

Yer arms so well shapd & yer brown curley hair 

Yer gait so belady like spoilt wi no limping 

Left ye the power to gi joy or despair 

(from Hodges Confession)

A Cag of Small Swipes will be available from me from 1st September 2019 at £5 plus £1 postage and packing.

Poetry and Politics (under development)

Obviously overtaken now by Covid-19 events, but I am still working on it, just in case 2021 makes it possible.

Sometime in the Spring of 2020 I was asked to take part in an evening at the South Bank  in London speaking to the title "Poetry and Politics" with particular emphasis on what Clare wrote 200 years ago.

John Clare’s fame as a poet of nature and the English countryside grows every day; without question, the greatest working-class poet ever born in England.  He speaks always about the essential bond between human-kind and nature, a vision that is ever green.

Clare’s poetic response to the dramatic transformations in society of the time provides a unique, eye-witness account of the impact these changes had on the people who were the victims, ordinary working people.

What was happening in the countryside during Clare’s lifetime that caught his critical attention, both poetically and politically?

What were the changes that were transforming the face of rural Britian, changes that Clare himself saw had such a decisive effect on both nature and the people living close to it?  Thinking about this, I feel that I should concentrate on the Enclosures and its effect on the poor, but how to illustrate this best so the 21st Century mind can grasp its enormity?    If for ‘Enclosure’ one substitutes ‘Brexit’, the true shocking nature of the enclosures are magnified to modern eyes, and the real nature of brexit is laid bare.   In the first, we see the 'privatisation' of commonly owned land, in the second a 'privatisation' of the very country itself, with the benefactors in both cases being the rich and powerful, the establishment.

I will be saying at the outset of my talk is that nothing has really changed.    I am reminded of Tony Benn's famous quote, "I don't think people realise how the establishment became established.  They simply stole land and property from the poor, surrounded themselves with weak minded sycophants for protection, gave themselves titles and have been wielding power ever since."

What Clare called "The Norman Yoke":

The Norman Yoke

            Men make a boast of pedigree     as well might the descendants of Richard Turpin boast of theirs for both honours spring from robbery & spoilation – what was William the Conqueror but a robber by wholesale & what were his followers but high way men     by his authority receiving tithes by their expertness at plunder    for which Turpin (a more noble plunderer if absence from fear or dareing achievements make one) received a halter because he dared to rob & could show only his courage for the liscence – the ancestors of a Newton have some thing to boast of    but pedigree belongs to a race horse & confers nothing to the mind or the man

I don't know whether Tony knew Clare's work, but he certainly did not know this poem that I uncovered in the Clare Archives a few years ago:

Content thy home be mine

Content thy home be mine
Do not my suit disdain
They who prefer the worlds to thine
Shall find it false & vain
From broken hopes & storms I flye
To hide me in thy peaceful sky

The flatterers meet with smiles
The cunning find their friends
Without I made my pilgrimage         
& so met small amends
I looked on fame as merits plea
Twas spring but winter frowned on me

To cringe to menial slaves
To worship titled power
To bend the knee to knaves
The price of earthly dower
Is what I neer was taught to pay
So empty [that] Ive turned away

Where pleasing is to flatter
Where loving is to hate
To praise what we at heart abuse
In love & church & state
This is the worlds but not my game
So poor I am without the shame

Tho flattery findeth friends
In every grade & state
& telling truth offends
The lowly & the great
Truth when the worst is bye shall rise
When follys vapour stinks & flyes

Prides pomps are shadows all
& Titles honours toys
Great births in merits oft are small
& all their praise but noise
Rainbows upon the skyes of May
Fade soon but scarce so soon as they

Then sweet content be thine to call
My sorrows as thy due
For grief is natural to all
As is to night the dew
As disappointed hopes decay
My heart shall struggle & be gay

As hopes from earth shall disappear
With thee Ill not despair
For thou canst look at heaven & see
The vagrant waiting there
& while thou smilest I shall see
 Thy lives last gift the best shall be

Here is Clare writing in the late 1820s - prose this time:

The whigs & torys may be better classified
perhaps by the terms of outs & ins for
be they whigs or torys in those situations the
outsare always vociverators of “liberty”
“cruelty of taxation” & “good of the people”
while the insare inflexible tyrants
& determined supporters of all that is
oppressing & annoying to the people &
benefitting to themselves & their connections
(Pet MS A42, p94)

This is how another writer put it:

Several centuries of enclosure were crucial in creating a working class, initially rural but increasingly urban.   Families who previously would have been able to eke a living with the use of the Commons were forced off the land they had used for centuries.  So the common folk became unable to provide for themselves and so were forced to work for a pitiful wage from their ‘masters’.

The law itself now became the instrument by which the theft of the people’s land was achieved, although the great farmers continued to use their petty private methods in addition.  The parliamentary form of this robbery was to pass Acts for the enclosure of commons; in other words, decrees whereby the great landowners made a present to themselves of the people’s land, which thus became their own private property.  A systematic seizure of communal landed property helped to swell the size of those great farms which, in the eighteenth century, were called “capital farms” or “merchant farms” 
(Karl Marx – Das Kapital

Here is a 20thCentury English Historian on the subject... 

Enclosure was a plain enough case of class robbery, played according to rules of property and law laid down by a parliament of property-owners and lawyers.  But what might be “perfectly legal” involved a rupture of the traditional village rights and customs.  The social violence of enclosure consisted precisely in the drastic, total imposition upon the village of capitalist property-definitions.  A monumental piece of rural theft.

Those petty rights of the villagers, such as gleaning, access to fuel, and the tethering of stock in the lanes or on the stubble, which are irrelevant to the historian of economic growth, were of critical importance to the subsistence of the poor.
(E. P. Thompson- The Making of the English Working Class,) 

On the 16th July 2017,  Jeremy Corbyn quoted John Clare at Tolpuddle festival:

     "Inclosure came and trampled on the grave  
     Of labour's rights and left the poor a slave … 
     And birds and trees and flowers without a name 
     All sighed when lawless law's enclosure came."

Even 200 years later,  without any doubt Clare is as relevant as ever.  Here are the lines from his 1820 collection "Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery" that his publisher had expunged from the book in the Second and subsequent editions, much to Clare's annoyance:

     "Accursed wealth oer bounding human laws
     Of every evil thou remains the cause
     Victims of want those wretches such as me
     Too truly lay their wretchedness to thee
     Thou art the bar that keeps from being fed
     & thine our loss of labour & of bread
     Thou art the cause that levels every tree
     & woods bow down to clear a way for thee "

‘Accursed Wealth’ – those two words echo down the generations for any student of Clare, whether scholar or simply a reader of the great poet’s work.  Right from the early poems that have come down to us, we find in Clare an honesty that is often painful to observe.  We all know that here was a man born in grinding poverty, like other labourers of his time subjected to the Speenhamland system:

The authorities at Speenhamland in Berkshire approved a means-tested sliding-scale of wage supplements in order to mitigate the worst effects of rural poverty. Families were paid extra to top up wages to a set level.  The immediate impact of paying the poor rate fell on the landowners of the parish concerned. They then sought other (cheaper) means of dealing with the poor, the workhouse.

For us, who have observed the vast expansion of the so-called 'gig' economy of the past 10 years, all this is very familiar.  We don't yet have the Workhouse, but it has been suggested.  Here is Clare on the subject, again a poem I uncovered in the Archives:


They give me eight pence by the day
& make it up at night
With six pence worth of parish pay
& can ye call it right

Im going to justice just to see
What she will have to say
& faith I doubt I shall not see
Yer honour there today

No friend I am a faithful mate
To justice but ye mean
What may be named a magistrate
& there Im never seen

Nay they have stopt me when Ive gone
To take that weight away
& backed deceptions wrong         
To take your gains away

Apology for the Poor

            Every restraint now adays is laid on poverty & every liberty is given to luxury          burthens are constantly laid upon the weak & the strong are left without them – with the weak they are called useful & nessesary laws & with the rich they are considered as mean & incommod{i}ous matters never intended for them

            Thus every nessesary article with the poor is taxed & every luxury with the rich goes riot free as far as possible with the descency of parsiality to participate


but perhaps because of naivety, roundly cheated by those he regarded as 'his betters' -- his publishers -- out of most of his earnings:

"& tho I know I am cheated   such is the cunning of avarice [that] like the tricks of a conjuror   it defies detection"

(...) The piece will 'grow' as I continue to compose it.  Hope readers will find it interesting and enlightening.

Roger R.

Did Clare write nonsense?

[Image: Nicholas Parry]

An amusing example of how dangerous it is to think that Clare ever wrote nonsense is the following quotation from P.M.S. Dawson’s edition of the prose:

“… you live in the midst of delicaseys have you got to add on corpulency”

We pondered this nonsense, in a very faint manuscript, for some time but could not see how to read it any differently.  

First, should there be a sentence after ‘delicaseys’?  

Second, we began to think about the words ‘on corpulency’ which suggested to us a medical title?

If the latter was so, then the problem is in the reading ‘to add’ which could be a mis-reading of an author’s name?  Much examination of the manuscript and thought ensued.  Instead of ‘to add’, was it possible to read ‘Wadd’ or ‘wadd’ ?  Was there an author of that name?

Don’t you know it there was!  William Wadd was surgeon to the Prince Regent and published a book in 1829 with the title, “On Corpulency”.  Considering how fat the Prince Regent was, corpulency might well have been of interest to his medical adviser!  

But could it also have been of great interest to Clare, since the most famous man in Stamford at the time was Daniel Lambert, who was also the fattest man in England. Wadd discusses Lambert’s case, thus what at first appears to be nonsense, turns out to be very meaningful indeed.

Clare also comments to Alan Cunningham living in Edinburgh at the time of the Burke and Hare murders, as his being “in the midst of delicaseys”.  These murders were fully reported in all British newspapers at the time that Clare was writing to AC.

(Eric R & Roger R)