I imagine John Clare as a young man walking around the Northamptonshire countryside letting his mind wander and wonder at the same time. He sees the untidiness (what today we might call ‘fractal’) and beauty of nature on the one hand. On the other, seeing a field full of poppies, seeded by nature not by a human farmer, he imagines an army marching “in all the grand array of pomp and power”. He associates the red poppies with the colour of the uniform of the British army. These days I have a different association with red poppies. For all their beauty, it is not with the marching soldiers but toward the fallen ones that my mind leans.
There is a wild and beautiful neglect
About the fields that so delights and cheers
Where nature her own feelings to effect
Is left at her own silent work for years
The simplest thing thrown in our way delights
From the wild careless feature that it wears
The very road that wanders out of sight
Crooked and free is pleasant to behold
And such the very weeds left free to flower
Corn poppys red and carlock gleaming gold
That makes the cornfields shine in summer’s hour
Like painted skys – and fancy’s distant eye
May well imagine armys marching bye
In all the grand array of pomp and power
John Clare (1793-1864)
PS a note on the spelling. I have left it as I found it in “John Clare, selected poems”. Mr Clare was not conventional in either spelling, punctuation or grammar. Great sport is to be had by academics in deciding what to “correct” or not.
“Love lives beyond, the tomb, the earth, the flowers, and dew”
These are lines from one of John Clare’s poems and one of my favourites. He lived the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the anniversary of his birth is 13th July.
There are not many people who can get away with writing “After weeks of agonising indecision, I have firmly decided that I am unequivocally ambivalent” but Roy Hattersley does in his book “In search of England” with reference to the Globe theatre in London. The book is a collection of articles drawn from several decades of writing in newspapers and magazines. To a certain generation in Britain, he is associated with Labour Party governments in the latter part of the 20th century and he served as a minister in them. There will be at least as many people who dislike or disapprove of their policies as those who would endorse them. Fear not, this is not a political memoir, not a rewriting of political history, but a series of pieces reflecting on various aspects of England and English life.
Roy Hattersley is not one who ever “believed in the unique virtue of the Anglo-Saxon race” but he enjoys and relishes being English and having England as the home to which he returns after a holiday abroad. “My allegiance is cultural (which means William Shakespeare and cricket) and geographical (which means the Peak District and the Pennines) and usually I do not make a fuss about it.”
One theme he returns to is poetry including an article which features one of my favourites: John Clare. He observes that “much of John Clare’s poetry, like his life and death, is sad.” However, it is “like the English countryside itself, almost always gentle”. I am not sure that he is right about the countryside, but it is fair to say that the landscape of Northamptonshire appeals to me more than the sharp peaks of northern English counties.
Meanwhile, here is a poem I chanced upon when browsing through John Clare’s poems:
Hesperus, the day is gone
Soft falls the silent dew
A tear is now on many a flower
And heaven lives in you.
Hesperus, the evening mild
Falls round us soft and sweet
‘Tis like the breathing of a child
When day and evening meet
Hesperus, the closing flower
Sleeps on the dewy ground
While dews fall in a silent shower
And heaven breathes around
Hesperus, thy twinkling ray
Beams in the blue heaven
And tells the traveller on his way
That earth shall be forgiven
John Clare 1793-1864
I am enjoying “In search of England”. It is not a defence or promotion of my home country – more the musings of a traveller remarking upon what he has seen, conversations he has had, ideas floating around at the time. It is an easy read – and that is not faint praise but a compliment. The prose flows easily and the topics are the sort that can be read as comfortably at bed time as in a spare moment on a quiet afternoon. In my quest for resilience, a sensible evening routine is one of my goals. Late night TV often works against untroubled sleep but a book like this provides a positive note to end the day on.
I am reading the library copy, I may yet purchase one. Three or four stars, I think, or 7 and 1/2 out of 10.
P.S. Hesperus means the planet Venus when visible in the evening sky, so you could also call it the “Evening Star”.
In the middle of nowhere? That might seem a bit unfair to describe a place that is minutes away from the nearest city (Peterborough) but I have not found it straightforward getting to Helpston. To be sure it is on a B road and it is more than a hamlet. There are pubs, village shop, garden centre, school, as well as a church and, the reason why I went, John Clare’s cottage.
I found the village quite noisy. Not the villagers and visitors themselves, you understand, but Helpston is in the middle of the working countryside so there was the sound of harvest machines in the distance. Then there is the occasional military jet and while there was not much heavy traffic on the roads, there was a constant trickle of cars and trucks while I was there. With the wind in the right direction I think you could hear the sound of the intercity express trains along the East Coast mainline a few hundred yards away.
As well as the chance of a cuppa at the cafe at the John Clare cottage, going to Helpston did provide a pleasant break on my journey to Lincolnshire. It was not the AA recommended route but only added a handful miles to the total overall. There is only so much motorway and trunk road driving I can take, especially if I’m on my own. So, having a place of interest to stop at en route helps make the journey more tolerable.
We came back by another route but then I had company and we found a different place of interest to break the journey.
If you’re interested in the connection with John Clare and Helpston I have included some photos on this page: Helpston.