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Clare Was Right

To the Editors:

In a recent article on John Clare [“John Clare’s Genius,” NYR, September 23, 2004], I referred to a verse in the early poem “Home”:

How oft I’ve stood to see the chimney pour

Thick clouds of smoke in columns lightly blue

And, close beneath, the houseleek’s yellow flower

As fast appearing in a nearer view.

I suggested that the houseleek here mentioned was Sempervivum tectorum, but that Clare had untypically got the wrong color for the flower. A reader has kindly pointed out that according to Geoffrey Grigson’s The Englishman’s Flora (1958), the local name in Northamptonshire (where Clare lived) for Sedum acre was or is “Little Houseleak” [sic]. This stonecrop grows on walls and roofs and is notable for its yellow flowers.

I have since bought a copy of George Claridge Druce’s The Flora of Northamptonshire (1930), and find that Clare’s line, as first published in The Village Minstrel (1821), stands as the first county record of Sedum acre. Druce went very carefully through all of Clare’s references to flowers, and looked for them around Helpstone in the places Clare mentions. He found Clare to have been an accurate botanist, and I’m sorry to have implied that on this occasion he made a slip, when he obviously didn’t.

It is interesting that Clare instances the stonecrop as a welcoming sight. Another of its several local names, according to Grigson, was Welcome-Home-Husband-Though-Never-So-Drunk, “the longest and most cheerful, of English plant-names.”

James Fenton

Oxford, England

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