Christmas (7)

Now tis Winter plainly shown by the icicles which hang pendant from the low mossy eaves of the woodmans cottage -- who now with his mattocks and leather doublet is ready to begin his winters labour to cut down the wood in the still forrest and plash [shape] the hedge to stand as a fence against intruding cattle -- He and he only knows & sees the beauties & horrors of winter mingled together tho the short day – 


 For the shepherd cuts his journeys short & now only visits his flock on nescessity – Croodling with his hands in his pockets and his crook under his arms he tramples the frosty plain with dithering haste glad and eager to return to the warm corner of his cottage fire -- His favorite tree (where he was wont in summer to stretch his limbs in idle dalliance on the flowrey turf beneath its cooling shade) is now left desolate robbed both of its idle shepherd & the green foliage that clothd its summer boughs – 


 The Milk-boy too in his morning rambles no longer saunters to the pasture as he had used to do in summer (pausing on every pathway flower & swanking idly along; often staring with open mouth thoughtlessly musing on the heavens as if he could wish for somthing in the passing clouds leaning his lazy sides gainst everystile he come{s} to and can never get his heavy cloutred shoon over the lowest without resting      sighing as he retires with the deepest regret to leave such easy chairs) – 


But now in hasty claumping tried finding nothing but cold & snow to pause on he never stops to cawm his thoughtless head about – but shuffling along he make{s} the frosty plain reecho with his hasty bruzzing foot-steps – the stiles which where (were) so hard to climb over in summer are now scald (scaled) with the greatest ease and he wishes for nothing but his journey's end – prefering the sheltering warm confines of the farm yard and stables before the frozen plain – 


 But tis not so with the woodman no He glories in the weather & rising early in the dark morning ere the copper colored streaks appear to spread over the eastern skie – he pursues his journey over many new made hills and valleys of new fallen snow with “heart felt glee” cheering his rugged way with the oft repeated scrap of an harmless old song making the rihmy feathered thickets rezound in rural melody      Thus he cheerfully sallutes the winter morning till at length [he] enters the wild forrest – Here he brushes along his well known winding pad and the many intricating turns that leads to its deepest recesses – and then the beauties of witherd nature “surround him on every side”


Beauties of a winter Forrest (excerpt)

Hidden Treasures (Arbour Editions) 2016/9

Christmas (6)

The holly bush a sober lump of green
Shines through the leafless shrubs all brown & grey
& smiles at winter be it eer so keen
With all the leafy luxury of May
& O it is delicious when the day
In winters loaded garment keenly blows
& turns her back on sudden falling snows
To go where gravel pathways creep between
Arches of evergreen that scarce let through
A single feather of the driving storm
& in the bitterest day that ever blew
The walk will find some places still and warm
Where dead leaves rustle sweet & give alarm
To little birds that flirt & start away

(Winter Walk - MP V 225)

Christmas (5)

Image: Carry Akroyd

From: The Winter Canto: Northborough

Tis winter & the fields are bare & waste
The air one mass of ‘vapour clouds & storms’
The suns broad beams are buried & overcast
& chilly glooms the midday light deforms
Yet comfort now the social bosom warms
Friendship of nature which I hourly prove
Even in this winter scene of frost & storms
Bare fields the frozen lake & leafless grove
Are natures grand religion & true love

('Child Harold - lines 901 to 909)

Christmas (4)

The final part of 'Christmas' from The Shepherd's Calendar.  Typical of Clare that there is a barbed sting in the last 4 verses: the flight of those of privilege to poetry as their only real 'authentic' celebration of Christmas?  Finding for me an echo in 2021 in the popular celebration of 'the holidays' in warm and secure 'tradition', but without the content.

The wooden horse with arching head,
Drawn upon wheels around the room,
The gilded coach of gingerbread,
And many-colour'd sugar-plum,
Gilt-cover'd books for pictures sought,
Or stories childhood loves to tell,
With many an urgent promise bought,
To get to-morrow's lesson well.

And many a thing, a minute's sport,
Left broken on the sanded floor,
When we would leave our play, and court
Our parents' promises for more.
Tho' manhood bids such raptures die,
And throws such toys aside as vain,
Yet memory loves to turn her eye,
And count past pleasures o'er again.

Around the glowing hearth at night,
The harmless laugh and winter tale
Go round, while parting friends delight
To toast each other o'er their ale;
The cotter oft with quiet zeal
Will musing o'er his Bible lean;
While in the dark the lovers steal
To kiss and toy behind the screen.

Old customs! Oh! I love the sound,
However simple they may be:
Whate'er with time hath sanction found,
Is welcome and is dear to me.
Pride grows above simplicity,
And spurns them from her haughty mind,
And soon the poet's song will be
The only refuge they can find.

The Shepherd's Calendar

December (lines 97 - 128)

Coleridge or Clare?

Fairly amused to find this in an email from a friend (I live in Ottery St. Mary the birthplace of Coleridge):

"Entry on Samuel Taylor Coleridge fot the 3 volume 'Thoemmes Dictionary of British Classicists' (Bloomsbury / Thoemmes 2004). The entry focuses on Coleridge's classical scholarship as influenced by his wider metaphysical views of the importance of language and philological research as the keys to understanding western culture. Particular attention is given to the ways in which Coleridge's philosophy of language mediated his theological views and his understanding of both myth and race."

Clare? He was dragged up but wrote the most sublime poetry. One of the main reasons I love his work is precisely because you don't need a Classical, elitist education to understand it. Clare tears your heart apart, producing bright shattered pieces of glass which dazzle the mind lost in poetic darkness and fills it with a kaleidoscope of rainbow colours. Oh! and he wrote the most prescient prophetical poetic words, and he shares my understanding of race too.

Swamps of wild rush beds...

There are few places in England today that are remotely like the 'pre-enclosure' heaths that just 200 years ago would have been common. I am fortunate to live within a mile or so of one such surviving heath ~ Woodbury Commons ~ and yesterday spent a happy morning wandering through its "wild rush beds and sloughs squashy traces". Clare's poem describes almost exactly what I walked through. A stunning landscape, never cultivated, that Clare would instantly recognise as akin to his own 'Helpston' Commons.

~~ Double Click on my photo for the full effect ~~

Swamps of wild rush beds & sloughs squashy traces
Grounds of rough fallows wi thistle & weed
Flats & low vallies of king cups & daiseys
Sweetest of subjects are ye for my reed

Ye commons left free in the rude rags of nature
Ye brown heaths be cloathed in furze as ye be
My wild eye in rapture adores e'ery feature
Yere as dear as this heart in my bosom to me

O native endearments I woud not forsake ye
I woud not forsake ye for sweetest of scenes
For sweetest of gardens that nature coud make me
I woud not forsake ye dear vallies & greens

Tho nature neer dropt thee a cloud resting mountain
Nor water falls tumble their music to thee
Had nature denyd thee a bush tree or fountain
Thou still woud bin lovd as an eden by me

& long my dear vallies long long may ye flourish
Tho rush beds & thistles make most of your pride
May showers never fail the greens daiseys to nourish
Nor suns dry the fountain that rills by its side

Yer skies may be gloomy & misty yer mornings
Yer flat swampy vallies unholsome may be
Still refuse of nature wi out her adorning[s]
Yere as dear as this heart in my bosom to me

... from October

Like to a painted map the landscape lies
And wild above shine the cloud thronged skies
The flying clouds urged on in swiftest pace
Like living things as if they runned a race
The winds that oer each coming tempest broods
Waking like spirits in their startling moods
Fluttering the sear leaves on the blackning lea
That litters under every fading tree
And pausing oft as falls the patting rain
Then gathering strength and twirling them again
Till drops the sudden calm—the hurried mill
Is stopt at once and every noise is still
The startld stockdove hurried wizzing bye
As the still hawk hangs oer him in the sky
Crows from the oak trees quawking as they spring
Dashing the acorns down wi beating wing

The Shepherd's Calendar, with Village Stories, and Other Poems (1827)


I was out on the bike this morning, and I saw what I always consider the first fruits of autumn... blackberries.  My mind immediately went to Clare 200 years ago.

Blackberrying may appear to be a trivial subject in John Clare's poetry, generally referred to in passing as a characteristic autumnal activity, along with collecting elderberries to make wine, or hazel nuts, or mushrooms, or water-cress, or gathering rotten wood for the cottage-fire.  Essentially, it is not different from those other rural activities, which formed part of the cottager's economy in every part of Europe.


In the English fens, the inhabitants believed that the produce of the wasteland came to them by right.  Also in the fens: "At dusk, the passer-by might be confronted by silently-moving lines of shadowy figures, their backs bent under the weight of trunks and piled-up wood, as they headed for home". Clare referred to this wood as "rotten," omitting the word "wood" occasionally.


Where stickers stroll from day to day

And gather loads of rotten wood

And poachers left in safety stray

When midnight wears its deepest mood.

(from Walks in the Woods)


Clare's natural sympathies are with the "stickers," as he calls them: the "wood-men," on the other hand, the agents of the landowners, are "terrifying rascals" who "make a prison of the forrests and are its joalers." (sic) Just as the fallen wood belonged by right to the local inhabitants in the forests in all parts of Europe, so, according to popular belief, did the fallen wood belong to the locals near the oak woods of Stamford, and, in both regions, led to conflict between landowners and peasants, between the lord's steward and gypsies, or the woodman and villagers.


The conflict over wood extended to other products of the waste -- rabbits, hares, birds, withies, reeds, cresses, sloes, dewberries, nuts, mushrooms, elderberries, wild strawberries and blackberries, not to mention eggs, snakes, deer, eels, fish, and other edibles.  The custom of nutting, which Clare celebrates, was particularly disliked by the landowners, their servants and the tenant-farmers.  The pages of the Stamford Mercury and Drakard's Stamford News are filled with advertisements and articles regarding the practice; the Mercury, upholding the rights of the landowners, the News those of the rural population.

(Robinson & Rowe)


Clare's political comments (again)

Clare's comments aways seem fresh and topical whenever I read them... here are two, both of which are not too well known.

"I fear these tory radicals these out of place patriots (or parrots) who are so loud in their [complaints] against the present ministry       [They] only want to make paddles of the people to sail into their harbours of old sinecures    & then to be again themselves      they will be as silent of suffering people and all such alusions - as an old maid of her age or an old borough monger of common honesty"

"The wigs & torys may be better classified perhaps by the terms of outs & ins    for be they wigs or torys in those situations    the outs are always vociverators of “liberty” “cruelty of taxation” & “good of the people”    while the ins are inflexible tyrants & determined supporters of all that is oppressing & annoying to the people   & benefitting to themselves & their connections"

Likely written in the mid-1820s.

Not the 2021 Festival... BUT

Not the 2021 Festival

Some idea of what some of us be doing on the 9th and 10th July @ Helpston


There being no John Clare Society Festival this year, a few of us will still be meeting to honour the great man this year at Helpston.  Not ‘official’ of course, but I wanted to attract everyone’s attention!  Anyone who would like to join us will be very welcome indeed, for any of the days.


Friday 9th

Helpston 2021. Folk I guess will be travelling on the 9th or 10th so several of us thought it might be good to start to gather in the Bluebell, after 7pm on the 9th for a convivial chat over a drink. It has already been announced that there will be the usual ‘Folk Evening’ at the Bluebell that evening, always a treat.

Saturday 10th

We will be meeting at 10:00am – 10:15am at Butter Cross in the centre of Helpston.  From there we will walk across the road to St. Botolph’s Church and Clare’s grave.  New Rector Gary (a Clare fan of course) is conducting a ‘Clare BCP Service' at 11am.  Only 30 places available however.


After which can either have a bite at the BBell and then stroll around the village, OR...go by car to St. Andrew’s Church, Northborough (via Maxey) and Patty’s grave (and other members of the family) – and finally to St. Benedict’s Church, Glinton and Mary’s grave.  Be armed with something of Clare’s poems/prose to read by each graveside. We do not intend to lay wreaths just honour each individual in our own way.


I am informed that the Cottage will be open for drinks (according to their website).


That evening we will certainly will return to the Bluebell for dinner as many of us have in earlier years.


Well... something like that anyway.  I’ll being a few books for those wishing to catch up with the Chapbook series and would be happy to give a talk, or conduct the walk, if required!  Very open to suggestions.


Roger R.

There's something in the air...

180 years ago, a once famous poet decided to leave the asylum he lad lived in for three years, and walk the 80-odd miles up the Great North Road to his home in Northborough on the very fringe of the fens, just a few miles north of Peterborough.  The poet was of course, John Clare, and very troubled of mind he trekked the route virtually feeling his way, mile after mile.  In 2020/21 there must be something in the air, for there are four new books that explore his famous walk.  

The first, 'The Descending Spiral' (Roger Rowe : Arbour Editions Chapbook No.16), seeks to examine Clare's state of mind during that fateful year.  A year that saw him escape from one asylum in the Summer of 1841 only to be committed to another just after Christmas.  The evidence for this exploration of the confused mind of the poet was and is his vast output of verse and prose written during the year.

The second book, 'Love's Cold Returning' (Ellis Hall & Bridget Somekh' : Thirteen Eighty One Press), is an exploration in prose and poetry, with numerous colour photographs, seeking out the remains of Clare's world in the twenty-first century, of the route he took and the folk he met.  Moving from canals and aqueducts to gridlocked roads, from common land and open heath to land banks and intensive agriculture. Truly a detective story, a historical adventure and a meditation on love and loss.

The third book, 'Child Harold' (Roger Rowe : Arbour Editions Chapbook No.20), contains the actual text of Child Harold, it is believed for the first time in a dedicated volume.  The text is fairly well known, but it is ordered in the way outlined briefly by Clare scholar Salman Al Wasiti in an appendix to his PhD thesis in the 1970s.  The order of Clare's Child Harold poems has been debated for 50 years, but not published in this form until now.

The fourth book, to be published in June 2021, 'A Length of Road' (Robert Hamberger : John Murray Press), is a part memoir, part travel-writing, part literary criticism, it is a deeply profound and poetic exploration of class, gender, grief and sexuality through the author's own experiences and through the autobiographical writing of poet John Clare. Clare attempting to return to his idealized first love, Mary, unaware that she had died three years earlier.

Three Springs

[Image:  Glinton Church and graveyard]

For some while Clare found the reports of Mary Joyce's hard to believe, but then in late 1841 he wrote this... 


O Mary dear, three Springs have been

Three Summers too have blossomed here

Three blasting Winters crept between

Though absence is the most severe

Another Summer blooms in green

But Mary never once was seen

I've sought her in the fields & flowers

I've sought her in the forest groves

In avenues & shaded bowers

& every scene that Mary loves

E'en round her home I seek her here

But Mary’s absent every-where

‘Tis autumn & the rustling corn

Goes loaded on the creaking wain

I seek her in the early morn

But cannot meet her face again

Sweet Mary she is absent still

& much I fear she ever will

She died three years before, the day after Clare's birthday.

The Dream (excerpt)

Clare in a dark, dark mood...

Red lightning shot its flashes as they came

& passing clouds seemed kindling into flame 

& strong & stronger came the sulphury smell

With demons following in the breath of hell 

Laughing in mockery as the doomed complained 

Losing their pains in seeing others pained 

Fierce raged destruction sweeping oer the land 

& the last counted moment seemed at hand 

As scales near equal hang the earnest eyes 

In doubtful balance which shall fall or rise

So in the moment of that crashing blast 

Eyes hearts & hopes paused trembling for the last 

Loud burst the thunders clap & yawning rents 

Gashed the frail garments of the elements 

Then sudden whirlwinds winged with purple flame 

& lightnings flash in stronger terrors came 

Burning all life & nature where they fell 

& leaving earth as desolate as hell 

(lines 43-60)

The Ladybird

Ladybird ladybird where art thou gone
Ere the daisy was open or the rose it was spread 

On the cabbage flower early thy scarlet wings shone 

I saw thee creep off to the tulip bed


Ladybird ladybird where art thou flown 

Thou wert here in the morning before the sun shone 

Just now up the bowl o' the damson tree 

You passed the gold lichen & got to the grey 

Ladybird ladybird where can you be 

You climb up the tulips & then fly away 


You crept up the flowers while I plucked them just now 

& crept to the top & then flew from the flowers 

O sleep not so high as the damson tree bough 

But come from the dew i' the eldern tree bowers 


Here's lavender trees that would hide a lone mouse 

& lavender cotton wi' buttons o' gold 

& bushes o' lads love as dry as a house 

Here's red pinks & daisies so sweet to behold 


Ladybird ladybird come to thy nest 

The gold beds i' the rose o the sweet brier tree 

Wi rose coloured curtains to pleasure thee best 

Come Ladybird back to thy Garden & Me 

Pet MS C3 p189

The Moorhen and the Coot

Water Hen (Moorhen)

They are very common with us they make a nest of flags & bull rushes lines with grass & place it on a branch of thorn or willow that hangs over the stream & sometimes they make it on a clump of bull rushes in the middle of the stream they lay 9 eggs of a pale ash color spotted with lilac & jocculate colored spots the young ones are coveverd with brown down & take the water as soon as they get out of the shell They build in old pits in the meadows & in lone ponds about the closes if undisturbed…

The coot is like the more hen in its habits but larger it haunts lakes in meadows & solitary marshes but never builds its nest in branches that overhand the stream – it beats down a place in the midst of a reed bed or flag clump & rests its nest on them that touches the water it lays a great number of eggs as many as 12 or 14 larger then the more hens of a dirty white color spotted with dull spots the nest is made of flags bulrushes & grass like the more hens but it is wove together so stout as to resist the floods that happen to rise while she sits on her eggs & if the nest looses its hold of the rushes it floats on the top of the water like a boat & the old one is said to sit on it unconserned but I have not seen this tho I have found the nest landed on dry land as left by the floods with the eggs in it unmolested – the young ones take to the water as soon as they leave the shells & return to it at night like the more hen These birds are subject to lice which is so common to them that it has grown into a saying that any thing filthy is ‘as lousey as a coot’

Published in 'The Naked Fen' (Arbour Editions - 2021)