Tag Archive: John Clare

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.

Pleasant Spots

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 …

“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.

In search of England

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.

A Northamptonshire Peasant

Condescending at best and derogatory at worst but that is how he was described as a marketing ploy. No wonder John Clare did not fit in with “society” in the 19th century. I mention him because I like some of his poetry. I’m glad to say that I made up my mind about the poems I read before finding out about him – I was able to judge them on their merits and on their personal appeal without being clouded by my opinion of their author. It turns out that I don’t have much in common with him. Two centuries separate us, he was a country lad and I’m very much the townie. He loved the countryside, its wonder, its beauty, and the freedom to roam its fields. For myself, I don’t mind the countryside, understand its importance somewhat, respect it even, but I would hardly claim to love it in the way that others do.

And it came as a bit of a surprise to discover that much of John Clare’s poetry was written while he was a patient in an asylum. However, that is not what I wanted to tell you about. In one of his poems, Song 4, he uses the phrase “the mirrors change and flye”. I like that metaphor of time passing rapidly. Perhaps you have seen the 1960’s film of H G Wells “The Time Machine”? In it the hero watches a shop window as the display changes from season to season in rapid succession.  The faster his machine goes, the more the display becomes a blur while the shop and its surroundings shimmer as the light changes with the speeded up weather and the passing of days and nights in seconds rather than hours. That scene conveys an air of melancholy and alludes to the peril that is to come later on in the story. Or perhaps you have seen a scene in some TV programme where the character is looking at a bathroom mirror and sees his or her face as it changes in quick succession from their younger to their present face. The mirror and the person stay the same but the reflection shimmers as the years pass.

That shimmering effect from the rapid succession of small changes is reminiscent of ripples on the surface of a pool of water stirred by the wind. It might remind you of that phrase of looking “through a glass darkly” (which can also be translated as “puzzling reflections in a mirror”). I wonder weather John Clare had heard the apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians which is what where that phrase came from.

John Clare’s poem caught my imagination many years ago: the idea that time passing was like looking at your reflection in a clear pool of water and then a breath of wind stirs that water ever so slightly causing it to ripple gently and shimmer your reflection through time.

“As the wind the waters stir, the mirrors change and flye”.

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