January 9, 2020

Can someone be so much of a Somewhere — so rooted in a place — that the loss of that home could drive them mad? The tragic story of the poet John Clare (1793-1864) would suggest so. A contemporary of the Romantics, Clare was neither an aristocrat like Byron nor a grammar school boy like Wordsworth and Keats, but a farm labourer. And when the Enclosure Acts transformed his birthplace, he was so devastated by the loss of his familiar landscape and way of life that he fell gradually into depression, panic attacks, alcohol abuse and finally psychosis.

Born in 1793 in Helpston, a rural hamlet north of Peterborough, to a barely literate farm labourer father and an illiterate mother, Clare spent most of his working life as a labourer, despite at one point during his lifetime outselling John Keats. Only haphazardly educated, he fell wildly in love with the written word after encountering James Thomson’s The Seasons. He began writing his own verse — at first mainly about the natural world — on whatever scraps of paper he could find, or on his hat when he had no paper.

Clare first sought a publisher in the hope of raising money to stop his parents being evicted from their tenement. When a lucky contact brought him to Taylor & Hessey, his first collection, Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery, was published in 1820 to wild acclaim.

Clare stands out among the poets of the Romantic era for his understanding of and communion with the natural world he describes. Contemporaries treated the natural world more as emotional stimulus: in Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey, for example, landscape is observed, but with little knowledge. Wordsworth’s “plots of cottage-grounds” are “clad in one green hue”, and this is chiefly an anchor for moral reflection, a means of “hearing oftentimes/The still sad music of humanity”.

Clare, on the other hand, was critical of this mix of ignorance and sentimentality, saying of Keats that “his descriptions of scenery are often very fine but as it is the case with other inhabitants of great cities he often described nature as she appeared to his fancies, and not as he would have described her had he witnessed the things he described”.

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Landscape, to Clare, was not a source of high emotion but home, livelihood, work, family and the richness of plant and animal life. His vistas brim with too much knowledge to seem painterly, or to be turned easily into moral metaphor. Colour is shorthand for a natural and farmed landscape intimately known, as these fields in “A Sunday With Shepherds and Herdboys”:

Square plats of clover red and white
Scented wi’ summer’s warm delight
And sinkfoil of a fresher stain
And different greens of varied grain

In Keats’s famous “Ode to a Nightingale” the bird herself is not even described, serving instead as the focus for reflections on death, history and emotional rapture by a poet “half in love with easeful death”; Clare’s hushed, intimate “The Nightingale’s Nest” is both more prosaic and, in a sense, more faithful to the bird. For Keats, she is a “light-winged Dryad of the trees”. In contrast, Clare describes the materials used to build her nest and, with hushed empathy, the terrified bird:

How subtle is the bird she started out
And raised a plaintive note of danger nigh
Ere we were past the brambles and now near
Her nest she sudden stops — as choaking fear
That might betray her home

There is no need for a moral. For Clare it is enough to observe, then tiptoe away leaving the bird to find her voice again:

We’ll leave it as we found it — safety’s guard
Of pathless solitudes shall keep it still
See there she’s sitting on the old oak bough
Mute in her fears – our presence doth retard
Her joys and doubt turns every rapture chill
Sing on sweet bird may no worse hap befall
Thy visions then the fear that now deceives
We will not plunder music of its dower
Nor turn this spot of happiness to thrall
For melody seems hid in every flower
That blossoms near thy home

Yet Clare’s lack of moralising does not strip his work of emotion. He is as unflinching in his descriptions of the brutality of his world as of its beauty. “The Badger” begins with a description of the animal’s habitat “A great hugh burrow in the ferns and brakes” and ends with its death at the hands of a village crowd:

He turns agen and drives the noisey crowd
And beats the many dogs in noises loud
He drives away and beats them every one
And then they loose them all and set them on
He falls as dead and kicked by boys and men
Then starts and grins and drives the crowd again
Till kicked and torn and beaten out he lies
And leaves his hold and cackles groans and dies

His ever-present empathy is with the birds and beasts besieged by humanity, as in “Summer Evening” when he curses the boys who creep into lofts to catch and kill sparrows. He calls on the birds to nest in his house where they will be safe:

My heart yearns for fates like thine
A sparrow’s life’s as sweet as mine

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If Clare rises to moralise from his observation of the natural world, it is done without ornament. The last two verses of “To The Snipe” give a reflection at once uplifting and humble:

I see the sky
Smile on the meanest spot
Giving to all that creep or walk or flye
A calm and cordial lot
Thine teaches me
Right feeling to employ
That in the dreariest places peace will be
A dweller and a joy

Clare’s modesty was out-of-step with the mood of the times: Keats wrote of Clare’s poetry that “Images from Nature are too much introduced without being called for by a particular Sentiment”. Romantic poetry often seems as indifferent to the minutiae of the natural world as it is enthralled by the poet’s ability to overlay it with “Sentiment”. This aesthetic was well suited to the political and technological shifts of that age. Whether in poetry or landscape, the movement was away from coexistence with the natural world toward subordinating it to human desires.

In the Middle Ages, much of the arable land in central England was “commons”, which was farmed on a communal basis for a subsistence livelihood. This was the landscape of John Clare’s childhood. But between the 13th and 19th centuries, and accelerating from the Georgian era onward, the land was ‘“enclosed” — that is, turned from common to private property — either by buying the land rights or else forcing enclosure through an Act of Parliament.

Between 1809 and 1820 Enclosure Acts transformed the landscape around John Clare’s birthplace, draining ditches, felling ancient trees and displacing subsistence farmers from once common land. Clare’s 1830s poem “The Lament of Swordy Well” expresses his horror at the process, in the voice of the land itself:

The silver springs grown naked dykes
Scarce own a bunch of rushes
When grain got high the tasteless tykes
Grubbed up trees, banks, and bushes
And me, they turned me inside out
For sand and grit and stones
And turned my old green hills about
And pickt my very bones.

The natural world, that seemed so numinous and eternal in Clare’s early work, is depicted homeless and starving as a consequence of this exploitation:

The bees flye round in feeble rings
And find no blossom bye
Then thrum their almost weary wings
Upon the moss and die
Rabbits that find my hills turned o’er
Forsake my poor abode
They dread a workhouse like the poor
And nibble on the road

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By the age of 30, Clare had six children to feed and his brief fame had dissipated. Displaced from his way of life by enclosures and disturbed by the changing landscape, Clare fell into depression and alcohol abuse. Friends and admirers clubbed together to buy him a cottage three miles from Helpston, with a smallholding, but even this slight move from his birthplace only increased his distress. The Flitting captures his desolation. Even the sun, he says, seems lost:

Alone and in a stranger scene
Far far from spots my heart esteems
The closen with their ancient green
Heaths woods and pastures’ sunny streams
The awthorns here were hung with may
But still they seem in deader green
The sun e’en seems to loose its way
Nor knows the quarter it is in

Not long after moving he began to experience hallucinations and was sent to an asylum near London. So desperate was he to return home that four years later he escaped and walked the 70 miles back to his cottage. But he found no solace there, and shortly afterwards he was sent to the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum, where he lived the last 24 years of his life. He died aged 71 in 1864.

John Clare speaks to us from the other side of an unimaginable gulf. He was so profoundly Somewhere that even David Goodhart’s Somewheres would, to him, seem like Anywheres. His voice, almost modern-sounding, nonetheless hails from an ancient England where the normal livelihood was subsistence farming on land held in common, culture and history were mainly oral and the natural world held a richness of allusion Wordsworth and Keats found in classical mythology.

Yet his politics feel fresh and increasingly urgent, while his empathy for the living world making him a compelling advocate for change in how we relate to the land that nourishes us — whether via conservation, sustainable farming or land reform.

Clare is both protester and casualty of the Enclosure Acts, as well as a meticulous recorder of what was lost in that founding act of modernity. Enclosure spurred the phenomenal productivity gains of the agricultural revolution, created a labour force for industry — and devastated an entire way of life. His grief and anger at the costs of enclosure, an event largely seen from the perspective of its beneficiaries, reminds us that the growing power of individual property rights in the modern era displaced premodern subsistence lifestyles in the United Kingdom as well as in the colonies founded by English explorers overseas.

Clare’s descent into depression and alcoholism is echoed in the shockingly high prevalence of mental health issues and substance abuse in indigenous populations across the world who have been dislocated from their ways of living by modern property-owning relations to the landscape.

UK land ownership today is ever more carefully obfuscated and ever more critical to social and — perhaps — ecological renewal. The industrial capitalist economic model that took root in Clare’s lifetime is now cracking in earnest, along with the ecologies “grubbed up” (like Swordy Well) for “gain”. The “peasant poet” of Northamptonshire has lessons for us today.

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