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

Week 52: From ‘Remembrances’ by John Clare

In this great lament Clare mourns a countryside transfigured by the Enclosure Acts of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, that enclosed much of what had previously been open fields or common land and removed the rights of local people to carry out their accustomed activities on these. Jay Griffiths in her book ‘Kith’, which has a fine section on Clare, blames the Enclosure Acts for beginning that exile from the natural world that she sees as the tragedy of modern childhood, but I am not so sure: in the nineteen-fifties my friends and I still roamed the countryside of small fields and hedgerows that the Acts had created, making no great distinction in our minds between private and public land except when it came to people’s gardens, and if we were the last generation to do so I think television, computers and parental paranoia are more immediate causes than an ancient legislation. But there is no arguing with Clare’s rush of passionate regret for what he had known, and if his verse can sometimes seem a little gauche it is the gaucheness of a transcendent integrity.

From ‘Remembrances’

O I never call to mind
These pleasant names of places but I leave a sigh behind
While I see the little mouldiwarps hang sweeing to the wind
On the only aged willow that in all the field remains
And nature hides her face where they’re sweeing in their chains
And in a silent murmuring complains

Here was commons for their hills where they seek for freedom still
Though every common’s gone and though traps are set to kill
The little homeless miners – O it turns my bosom chill
When I think of old Sneap Green, Puddocks Nook and Hilly Snow
Where bramble bushes grew and the daisy gemmed in dew
And the hills of silken grass like to cushions to the view
When we threw the pismire crumbs when we’d nothing else to do
All levelled like a desert by the never weary plough
All vanished like the sun where that cloud is passing now
All settled here for ever on its brow

I never thought that joys would run away from boys
Or that boys would change their minds and forsake such summer joys
But alack I never dreamed that the world had other toys
To petrify first feelings like the fable into stone
Till I found the pleasure past and a winter come at last
Then the fields were sudden bare and the sky got overcast
And boyhood’s pleasing haunt like a blossom in the blast
Was shrivelled to a withered weed and trampled down and done
Till vanished was the morning spring and set that summer sun
And winter fought her battle strife and won

By Langley Bush I roam but the bush hath left its hill
On Cowper Green I stray tis a desert strange and chill
And Spreading Lea, Close Oak ere decay had penned its will
To the axe of the spoiler and self interest fell a prey
And Crossberry Way and old Round Oak’s narrow lane
With its hollow trees like pulpits I shall never see again
Enclosure like a Buonaparte let not a thing remain
It levelled every bush and tree and levelled every hill
And hung the moles for traitors – though the brook is running still
It runs a naked brook cold and chill.

John Clare