Today is the birthday of one of England’s greatest rural poets. Forget William Wordsworth (for the time being, at least) and remember John Clare, who “found the poems in the fields, And only wrote them down.”
The son of humble and almost illiterate parents, John Clare (1793-1864) was born in the Northamptonshire village of Helpston, England, and made the surrounding countryside his life and world. In 1820, at the age of 26, Clare’s Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery were published by the London bookseller John Taylor. The book was an immediate success and Clare quickly became known as the “peasant poet”. However, his subsequent collections The Village Minstrel (1821), The Shepherd’s Calendar (1827) and The Rural Muse (1835) sold badly and he spent the rest of his life in relative obscurity.
Clare grew up during a period of rapid change in both town and country as the Industrial Revolution swept Europe. Many agricultural workers, including children, moved to over-crowded cities, seeking factory work. The countryside saw pastures ploughed up, trees and hedges uprooted, the fens drained and the common land enclosed. Clare’s political and social views were predominantly conservative and the destruction of a centuries-old way of life distressed him deeply.
Forgotten during the later 19th century, interest in his work was revived by the poet and writer Edmund Blunden and in several books by John and Anne Tibble. The composer Benjamin Britten set some of “May” from A Shepherd’s Calendar in his Spring Symphony (1948), and included a setting of “The Evening Primrose” in his Five Flower Songs. In his biography of the poet, A Right to Song (1982), Edward Storey wrote:
“Clare’s life was always a search – a search for his own identity, for the truth in nature, for the reality of love and for the existence of immortality. To gain a deeper understanding of his work we have to forget the romantic image of him as ‘poor, sad John Clare’. We even have to forget that he was ever a peasant – real or unreal. We have to see him as the man he became – refined, independent of mind, a man out of his time and as solitary in his vision as Van Gogh or William Blake. There has been no poet like him, nor can there be again.”
In 1837 Clare was admitted to an asylum in Epping, Essex. However, in 1841 he escaped and walked all the way back to the town of Northborough in the hope that he would be reunited with his childhood sweetheart Mary Joyce. Shortly afterwards he was incarcerated in Northampton General Lunatic Asylum, where he was to spend the last 23 years of his life.
When he died, he was buried in his native village of Helpston, next to his parents, asking for the inscription on his tombstone to read “Here rest the Hopes and Ashes of John Clare” with no date or quotations. A sonnet Called “Memory” published in The Rural Muse (1835) expressed what he really wanted:
“I would not that my being all should die,
And pass away with every common lot;
I would not that my humble dust should lie
In quite a strange and unfrequented spot,
By all unheeded and by all forgot;
With nothing save the heedless winds to sigh,
And nothing but the dewy morn to weep
About my grave, far hid from the world’s eye :
I fain would have some friend to wander nigh,
And find a path to where my ashes sleep—
Not the cold heart that merely passes by,
To read who lies beneath : but such that keep
Past memories warm with deeds of other years,
And pay to Friendship some few friendly tears.”