Week 397: ‘I often pulled my hat over my eyes…’ by John Clare

This week’s offering is from the writings of the peasant poet John Clare (1793-1864). Edward Thomas famously said of Robert Frost’s work ‘It is poetry because it is better than prose’; I suppose one might say of this passage that it is prose because it is not quite as good as poetry, yet surely it runs it pretty close, and I am not sure that the distinction is even a useful one in cases like this. It is interesting to set it against the famous passage from Thomas Traherne (see week 390), and to consider how much more (literally) down to earth Clare is. Personally I prefer the Clare.

‘I often pulled my hat over my eyes to watch the rising of the lark, or to see the hawk hang in the summer sky and the kite take its circles round the wood. I often lingered a minute on the woodland stile to hear the woodpigeons clapping their wings among the dark oaks.  I hunted curious flowers in rapture and muttered thoughts in their praise. I loved the pasture with its rushes and thistles and sheep-tracks. I adored the wild, marshy fen with its solitary heronshaw sweeing along in its melancholy sky. I wandered the heath in raptures among the rabbit burrows and golden-blossomed firze. I dropt down on a thymy mole-hill or mossy eminence to survey the summer landscape….I marked the various colours in flat, spreading fields, checkered into closes of different-tinctured grain like the colours of a map; the copper-tinted clover in blossom; the sun-tanned green of the ripening hay; the lighter charlock and the sunset imitation of the scarlet headaches; the blue corn-bottles crowding their splendid colours in large sheets over the land and troubling the cornfields with destroying beauty; the different greens of the woodland trees, the dark oak, the paler ash, the mellow lime, the white poplars peeping above the rest like leafy steeples, the grey willow shining in the sun, as if the morning mist still lingered on its cool green.  .  . I observed all this with the same rapture as l have done since. But I knew nothing of poetry. It was felt and not uttered.’

John Clare

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