John Clare
John Clare; drawing by David Levine


There are certain poets—Spenser is one—with whom other poets, whatever the prejudices or inattention of the critics, have conspicuously kept faith. After his death in 1599 (when, according to Camden, contemporary writers symbolically threw not only verses but their pens into the grave), Spenser’s general reputation slowly declined. It was with the practitioners that he continued to be important:Milton and Dryden, the young Keats, who was so transfixed by epithets like “sea-shouldring Whales” in The Faerie Queene that he suddenly began to compose verse himself, and Yeats, for whom Spenser’s lines were “like bars of gold thrown ringing one upon another.”

During the twentieth century, John Clare (1793-1864) has established himself in his own way as a poet’s poet. John Ashbery, Edmund Blunden, Donald Davie, Geoffrey Grigson, Seamus Heaney, Sidney Keyes, Michael Longley, and Theodore Roethke (among others) have all paid tribute to him, sometimes in essays, more often in their own verse. Clare is never going to achieve anything like the centrality of Spenser (although his finest volume, The Shepherd’s Calendar, need not blush at duplicating one of Spenser’s titles), but it is gradually becoming clear, even to academics, that this “Northamptonshire peasant,” as he was styled in 1820 on the title page of Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery, can no longer be relegated to the class of “minor Romantic poet.”

Although Spenser’s last years were spectacularly miserable, his personal circumstances have always, to a large extent, been separable from his poetry. With Clare, on the other hand, as with Byron, it is impossible to lose sight of the life. The son of an impoverished, barely literate agricultural worker and a mother who could neither read nor write, he was born and lived until he was almost forty in the village of Helpston, on the edge of the Lincolnshire fens. Although a rich, essentially oral, folk culture surrounded him (his father could apparently sing or recite over a hundred ballads), his formal education, which ended when he was about twelve, consisted at most of three snatched months a year, when he could be spared from threshing, or labor in the fields.

Neither ballads and chapbooks, however, nor Glinton church school turned Clare into a poet. For that, the Scottish lowlands poet James Thomson was responsible, much as Spenser was to be for Keats. When he was about thirteen, Clare was shown a mutilated copy of Thomson’s The Seasons (1730) by a weaver in the village. The weaver thought little of it. (A Methodist, he much preferred Wesley’s hymns.) But the effect of “Spring” upon Clare, for whom poetry at this point meant ballads only, and who had never heard of blank verse, was electrifying. His parents had no peace until they scraped together a few coins, and he had walked several miles to Stamford and acquired the whole work. Passing Burghley Park on the road home, he impulsively climbed over the wall and, in a setting not unlike Hagley Park in The Seasons, explored his purchase. Clare’s breach of this wall—a barrier intended to exclude the likes of him—turned out to be symbolic. A few hours later, he had written down his first poem. He had also set the seal on something already in the making: isolation, an apartness from most of the other inhabitants of Helpston. The consequences were not entirely happy.

Over the next few years, Clare moved about restlessly from one casual job to another—as horse-boy, plowboy, gardener’s assistant, lime-burner, and (briefly) soldier. During this time, he managed to borrow, or save enough from his wages to buy, other books of poetry: Milton, Pope, Cowper, Collins, Shakespeare and some of the other Elizabethans among them. He also continued in secret to pencil verse on whatever scraps of paper he could find. (Sometimes, in the fields, he had recourse to the crown of his hat.) Eventually, he had more than enough for a small volume and, indirectly, his desire to publish came to the attention of Edward Drury, an intelligent bookseller in Stamford.

“Peasant poets” were scarcely new in England at this time, let alone in the Scotland of Burns and James Hogg. The Wiltshire farm laborer Stephen Duck (1705-1756) had even attracted royal patronage—only to end by killing himself. Later, Robert Bloomfield (1766-1823), a Suffolk laborer turned London shoemaker, also enjoyed a momentary celebrity, but died wretchedly poor. Drury, however, saw something fresh and distinctive in Clare’s poems, and passed them on to a more important contact in London: his cousin John Taylor, the publisher of Keats, Hazlitt, De Quincey, Coleridge, and Lamb. Taylor was impressed, and in 1820 he brought out a selection, Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery, with a sympathetic preface and a glossary of Northamptonshire dialect words. The volume ran through four editions in one year and Clare—like Duck and Bloomfield—briefly became famous.


Clare’s first volume is his weakest, partly because the poems Taylor chose reflected his own taste—which became increasingly conservative. (The subject of Clare’s “My Mary,” an earthy farmyard wench, “low in stature, thick & fat,” with a ducklike waddle and pig-bristle hair, “Who, when the baby’s all besh-t,/To please its mamma kisses it,” was obliged in the second edition to confront an infant euphemistically “all unfit,” and then banished from the collection herself, as objectionably vulgar.) But Clare also had still to come into full possession of his own talent. There are hints in such poems as “Summer Evening”—“Now the blue fog creeps along,/And the bird’s forgot his song:/Flowers now sleep within their hoods;/Daisies button into buds”—of the acute eye of the nature poet Clare was to be, but little to suggest that only a few years later, in The Shepherd’s Calendar, he would be capable of writing,

Noon gathers wi its blistering breath
Around & day dyes still as death
The breeze is stopt the lazy bough
Hath not a leaf that dances now
The totter grass upon the hill
& spiders threads is hanging still
The feathers dropt from morehens wings
Upon the waters surface clings
As stedfast & as heavy seem
As stones beneath them in the stream
Hawkweed & groundsels fairey downs
Unruffld keep their seeding crowns
& in the oven heated air
Not one light thing is floating there
Save that to the earnest eye
The restless heat swims twittering bye

(“Totter grass” is Northamptonshire for Briza media, or “quaking grass,” and “twittering” means “flickering”—the sort of shimmmering heat you can actually see on a broiling summer afternoon.)

Although Clare’s career, like that of Bloomfield and Duck, was destined to end tragically, things went comparatively well for a time after the publication of his first volume. He did not enjoy being dragged away without warning from work in the fields (he had now married, and remained dependent upon manual labor to support his growing family) in order to satisfy the curiosity of dandified gentlemen who came to inspect the rustic prodigy and promise him books for his library that he never received. (One even asked him if he and his wife Patty had conducted their courtship in a barn or pigsty, as he believed the lower orders often did.) But he was exhilarated (if rather terrified) by being taken up to London, where he met, and later commented astutely about, some of Taylor’s other distinguished authors. He acquired some well-meaning patrons there and, in the form of Earl Fitzwilliam and his son Lord Milton, in Northamptonshire as well.

The Village Minstrel, however, Clare’s second collection of poems, in 1821, was nothing like as successful as his first. The Shepherd’s Calendar, finally published in 1827, was a disaster. Readers, as Taylor informed Clare, were now turning away not just from peasant poetry but from poetry in general, in favor of novels and “useful” books. Clare’s outspoken treatment, moreover, of sexual matters and the rapacity and injustices of the rich, his Northamptonshire dialect, disregard of grammar and punctuation, and preference for meticulous description of the natural world over elevatedsentiment—all stumbling blocks from the start—were now rendering him virtually unsaleable in a newly conservative and “polite” England. There was to be only one other volume of Clare’s poems published in his lifetime: The Rural Muse of 1835, a sadly diminished version of The Midsummer Cushion, the volume he had put together himself—which waited until 1979 to appear.

A small, frail man, no taller than Keats, Clare had always been of a nervous disposition, a tendency exacerbated in childhood when he saw a laborer fall from a hay wain and break his neck. He was subject to supernatural terrors, not only in nocturnal country lanes but in London, beneath whose streets he imagined all sorts of demonic creatures lying in wait. After the failure of The Shepherd’s Calendar, financial stress and humiliating altercations with his publisher were compounded by the well-intentioned decision of Earl Fitzwilliam to install the Clare family in a larger and more comfortable cottage at Northborough. (At Helpston, where they were all packed into two rooms of the cottage in which Clare had been born, he now had to shift his chair strategically about the room whenever it rained, to keep the book he was reading from being soaked.)

The village of Northborough was only three miles from Helpston, but for Clare, already distressed by the transformations that parliamentary enclosure had gradually imposed upon the common pasture and once-open fields, woods, and streams of his childhood, this further obliteration of the familiar was intolerable. He began to have severe fits of depressive illness and, in 1837, he was admitted to Dr. Allen’s asylum at High Beech, on the edge of Epping Forest. In July 1841, he escaped, and walked the eighty miles home to Northborough.


Clare’s prose account of this experience, The Journey Out of Essex, is a remarkable and moving document, at once searingly lucid and deranged: “The man whose daughter is the queen of England,” he scribbled at one point in the little notebook he carried with him, “is now sitting on a stone heap on the high way to bugden [Buckden] without a farthing in his pocket and without tasting a bit of food since yesterday morning—when he was offered a bit of Bread and cheese at Enfield.”1 He was even driven, in desperation, to eat grass. Patty tried for a time to cope, once her husband was back at Northborough, but in December Clare was (forcibly) committed to the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum, where he spent the rest of his life.

Here, as at High Beech, although separated from what he intermittently believed to be his two wives (Patty, and his childhood love Mary Joyce, long lost, and by 1838 actually dead), Clare was treated with a leniency and kindness that would shame most mental hospitals today. He continued to write verse, some of it negligible, some superb. Only occasionally did it suggest madness. Visitors subjected to his claims to be Byron, Shakespeare, Burns, Admiral Nelson, or a series of celebrated contemporary prizefighters often remarked with surprise that when writing or talking about poetry, he was entirely rational.


With an output of over two thousand surviving poems, Clare is probably the most prolific of all English poets. He wrote compulsively, out of a deep psychological need—unable, one friend observed in 1820, “to pass five minutes without jingling his poetic bells”—and the results, inevitably, are uneven. The last three of the projected nine volumes in the Oxford edition have still to appear. Of the others, the Eric Robinson, David Powell, and Margaret Grainger two-volume edition of The Later Poems of John Clare 1837-1864 was completed in 1984, their Early Poems of John Clare 1804-1822 (again in two volumes) in 1989, and the first two installments of the five-volume John Clare: Poems of the Middle Period 1822-1837, edited by Robinson, Powell, and P.M.S. Dawson, in 1996.

The magnitude and complexity of this editorial labor can scarcely be exaggerated. Sheer bulk is only one of the problems. Single poems, or variant parts of them, may exist in a number of authorial manuscripts now housed in different places. In some cases—as with Clare’s “Child Harold”—editors must try to reconstruct a whole poem not only composed in several notebooks but interlaced there with other, separate poems. Deciphering Clare’s handwriting, which can be diabolically difficult, is not made easier by the fact that he often wrote on cheap paper, using his own corrosive homemade ink, or else pencil, which (in order to reuse the paper) he might subsequently erase with bread, to make room for other poems. He also layered poems in ink over those in pencil, and vice versa, sometimes used the same notebook from back to front as well as front to back, crammed poems in sideways along the margins, and was inclined to press almost any material at hand (including the edges of newspapers) into service. Earlier twentieth-century selections, including those of Grigson, or the pioneering Clare scholars J.W. and Anne Tibble, are littered with mistranscriptions.

The so-called “Knight transcripts” present another problem. At North-ampton Asylum, Clare was fortunate to encounter a house steward who took an interest in his work. W.F. Knight transcribed and preserved many poems written there which would otherwise have been lost. He says that he often appealed to the poet when he was baffled by a word. Sometimes, however, he simply guessed. He was also inclined automatically to tidy up Clare’s spelling and punctuation.

Nor does the editorial nightmare abate when it comes to work Clare saw published in his lifetime. Some of this has painstakingly to be recovered from newspapers, or the glossy “annuals” upon which Clare relied (often vainly) to supplement his scanty income. Even the poems brought out by Taylor cannot simply be reprinted. Taylor edited Clare in a sense very different from that of Robinson and Powell: he removed many dialect words and “vulgarities,” whether political or social, introducing orthodox spelling and punctuation, and altered the shape and scope of all four volumes in ways the poet was pressured to accept. It is necessary, in all fairness to Clare, to return wherever possible to his original manuscripts and intent.

Robinson and Powell themselves have not been immune from publishers’ imperatives: the Oxford edition (somewhat ironically, given Clare’s own poverty) is prohibitively priced. Most of Clare’s growing body of admirers will continue to rely on the same editors’ one-volume paperback selection (1984) in the Oxford Authors series. Both untold poetic riches and a good deal of dross are missed out in that selection. But readers consulting the complete edition, usually in the few libraries able to afford it, will find that its explanatory notes, where they exist at all, are only slightly more informative than those in the selected Clare, and meager by comparison with those in (for instance) Jerome McGann’s seven-volume Oxford edition of Byron. Space, and market forces, have clearly been inhibiting factors here.

The appended glossaries of Clare’s dialect words do provide crucial help. Readers needing to know just what a “clock a clay” might be, for instance, can discover there that it is a “lady-bird” (“ladybug” for Americans), and that the “peeps” invoked in the first line of its extraordinary soliloquy are single blossom heads among a cluster of flowers:



In the cowslips peeps I lye
Hidden from the buzzing fly
While green grass beneath me lies
Pearled wi’ dew like fishes eyes
Here Ilye a Clock a clay
Waiting for the time o’day

While grassy forests quake surprise
And the wild wind sobs and sighs
My gold home rocks as like to fall
On its pillars green and tall
When the pattering rain drives bye
Clock a Clay keeps warm and dry

Day by day and night by night
All the week I hide from sight
In the cowslips peeps Ilye
In rain and dew still warm and dry
Day and night and night and day
Red black spotted clock a clay

My home it shakes in wind and showers
Pale green pillar top’t wi’ flowers
Bending at the wild winds breath
Till I touch the grass beneath
Here still I live lone clock a clay
Watching for the time of day

As well as locating the poem among the Knight transcripts, the full Oxford edition lists two early printed versions, signals minor variants and emendations, and directs the reader to echoes of two of Ariel’s songs from The Tempest. What it does not do—and ideally should—is indicate that “clock a clay” (also called “lady cow” or “lady fly”) is a Northamptonshire children’s name for a beetle of the species coccinellidae, found throughout Europe and as far away as India, that Clare wrote several early poems about it,2 and commented on its habits in his natural history notes,3 and that the reason for its vigil, apart from the fact that it watches out for “the help the puffing zepher brings” to climb to the top of its flowery “home,” spread its two pairs of wings, and become airborne, is that it is supposed (like dandelion heads) to tell children the time: “Click clock a clay/ Whats the time o day/One o clock two o clock/Time to flye away.”

Clare was not the first English poet to give an insect human speech: Spenser had done it in Virgils Gnat, and Thomas Gray (as Clare would have known) in his “Ode on the Spring” (1742). But there is a world of difference between those rather archly literary jokes and Clare’s combination of a naturalist’s precise observation with an astonishing ability to think himself into the world of a creature at once so tiny and so fiercely alive. Although he often writes about Northamptonshire birds and animals, both domestic and wild, as well as other insects, Clare rarely sentimentalizes them. With clinical detachment, and evincing not the slightest desire to interfere, he can describe in his nature notes the painful assassination by a tiger beetle of a large moth entangled in the weeds, its dismemberment, and its disappearance into the beetle’s larder. He was even capable, in his early “Elegy to Pity,” of mocking excesses of sensibility:

And if we’re nigh when granny shells the peas
With joy I’ll snatch the maggot from her sight
And slyley shakeing of her rotten cheese
With equal joy I’ll save the fellons mite.

It is with a steady eye then, making the indictment all the more deadly, that he records gross examples of human cruelty: the powerful but gentle Helpston cart horse abandoned by its owner to starve in a barren field, once its working life was done, or (unforgettably) the trapped badger stoned and baited all day in the street by men and dogs, fighting back indomitably against overwhelming odds, “Till kicked and torn and beaten out he lies/And leaves his hold and cackles groans and dies.”

Clare is slow, on the whole, to censure. Although he himself abandoned, quite early, the habit of seeking out birds’ nests to rob them of their eggs (a decision reinforcing opinion in Helpston that Parker Clare’s bookish son was soft in the head), he was too honest not to remember the pleasure he had once taken in this activity, and he could write sympathetically about the joyous depredations of other boys. Nor did the fact that he himself vastly preferred butterflies in flight rather than impaled on a pin prevent him from collecting specimens for his friend Joseph Henderson, head gardener (and amateur lepidopterist) at Milton Hall. He reserved his anger, on the whole, for those who had the trees cut down, stopped up the springs, systematically persecuted the wildlife, and planted “No Trespassing” signs all over the East Anglian landscape he loved. His satire The Parish, unpublishable in his own time, mounts a scathing attack on the new breed of farmer generated by enclosure: men aping the manners of the gentry, and looking down their noses at the rural poor, with whom it was impossible that they should any longer mingle, even at a harvest feast.

Enclosure, the agricultural legislation by which land in England was redistributed and fenced in, so as to make it more profitable, and woods and pastures in which for centuries villagers had enjoyed the right to collect fuel or graze their cows were privatized and plowed up, was something to which Clare never became reconciled:

Dire nakedness oer all prevails Yon fallows bare and brown
Is all beset wi’ posts & rails And turned upside down

‘The gentley curving darksom bawks
That stript the Cornfields o’er
And prov’d the Shepherds daily walks
Now prove his walks no more
The plough has had them under hand
And over turnd ’em all
And now along the elting Land
Poor swains are forc’d to maul

“Bawks” were the narrow strips of grass once dividing the large village fields (usually three in number) into furlongs or sections. Not only did anyone, before enclosure, have the right to walk along them, they lightened the labor of those who actually worked in the field by providing firm ground as a relief from the moist, clinging soil (“elting”) of the plowed land. Getting rid of the “bawks,” of course, increased the amount of wheat that could be planted, but at the price of making the laborer’s task more tiring, and the countryside more uniform in appearance, while severely restricting the number of places where villagers might enjoy a Sunday evening stroll.

Clare hated all of this, yet (somewhat paradoxically) he was drawn all his life to enclosed spaces of a different kind: not only cowslip “peeps,” but birds’ nests, beehives, hollow trees, and those “close shut rooms” to which country people retreated (if they were lucky) in winter, and watched “the snow in feathers pass/Winnowing by the window glass.” Seamus Heaney has written splendidly, in his bicentenary lecture on Clare, about the utter rightness, in his sonnet “The Mouse’s Nest,” of the preposition “at”—instead of the expected “from” or “on”—in the couplet “When out an old mouse bolted in the wheat/With all her young ones hanging at her teats.” As Heaney says,

“Hanging on” would have had certain pathetic, anthropomorphic associations that would have weakened the objective clarity of the whole presentation; “hanging from” would have rendered the baby mice far too passive; “hanging at” suggests “catching at” and itself catches the sudden desperate tiny tightening of the mouse-jaws, and so conveys a reaction that is both biologically automatic and instinctively affectionate.4

“The Mouse’s Nest,” about a small, enclosed (and momentarily threatened) home, is remarkable too for its unmediated shift at the end from the minute observation of “a ball of grass” and its displaced occupants to a very different kind of seeing:

The young ones squeaked and when I went away
She found her nest again among the hay
The water oer the pebbles scarce could run
And broad old cesspools glittered in the sun

Relaxing his intense concentration upon the field mice, Clare has looked up, across the parched midsummer flatlands of Northamptonshire, to record an almost Wordsworthian epiphany: a sudden, and piercing, clarity of vision. Wordsworth, however, for all his talk about “a selection of the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation,” would have been incapable of admitting “cesspools” into a poem—let alone implying that they might be beautiful.


Apart from having its grammar, spelling, and punctuation tidied up (as usual) in London, Clare’s The Shepherd’s Calendar, when first published in 1827, was not at all the volume he had envisaged. Not only did Taylor ruthlessly cut what he stigmatized as “the language of common everyday Description” in the poem, he pared away many of the narrative tales Clare had wanted to combine with his account of the twelve months of a Northamptonshire village year. Eric Robinson and the late Geoffrey Summerfield made a partial reparation in 1964, when they brought out its fourteen descriptive poems (there are two for the month of January, and two versions of “July”) as Clare had written them.

Only now, however, in Volume One of John Clare:Poems of The Middle Period, do they appear as Clare intended they should, accompanied by eight “Village Stories” in which some of the anonymous country folk who trudge wordlessly through their labors in the calendar itself are given names, and allowed to tell tales—usually of rural love either frustrated or fulfilled. Clare knew what he was about. Although a few family and social scenes enliven the calendar—notably at Christmas, in “A Cottage Evening,” the second January poem, and “The Village Evening” from July—for the most part the world described there, except for the children one of almost unremitting toil, is filled with people as faceless, as much characterized by the tasks in which they are engaged, as those in a landscape painted by the elder Breughel. It is in the complementary narrative poems that they become individuals, possessed of private hopes and jealousies, fears and regrets.

Clare was never overly scrupulous about noun/verb agreement: a construction such as “When glowworms found in lanes remote/Is murderd for its shining coat” troubles him not at all. In The Shepherd’s Calendar, however, a tendency for the collective abruptly to sharpen into the singular, or the particular to fade and disappear into the plural, produces a curious effect: as of a restless eye discerning (say) a group of “foddering boys,” being transiently arrested by the activity of one of them, then losing him again in the throng—and the sentence. But it is only Clare (and through him the reader)who has time and the ability to take in the total picture. Although weatherwise, the shepherd boy is unaware of the icy clouds of March gathering behind him,

Thinking the struggling winter hourly bye
As down the edges of the distant sky
The hail storm sweeps—& while he stops to strip
The stooping hedgebriar of its lingering hip
He hears the wild geese gabble oer his head
& pleasd wi fancys in his musings bred
He marks the figurd forms in which they flye
& pausing follows wi a wondering eye
Likening their curious march in curves or rows
To every letter which his memory knows
While far above the solitary crane
Swings lonly to unfrozen dykes again
Cranking a jarring mellancholy cry
Thro the wild journey of the cheerless sky.

Not all, however, of what Clare saw and described so superbly was still actually there. In what remains one of the best books on Clare, The Idea of Landscape and the Sense of Place, John Barrell has observed that, although by 1827 the enclosure of Helpston—which began in 1809—was complete, Clare writes in The Shepherd’s Calendar as though the old open field system were still in place.5 It is true that he mourns the passing of old customs and fairy lore, just as he does of his own childhood joys, but everyone in the village seems to be laboring in the same big field at the same time.

It was, moreover, one of the consequences of enclosure that villages like Helpston tended to become places on the way to somewhere else, as straight, connecting roads were driven through them, and the old, mysterious, and illogical internal geography was lost. The village in The Shepherd’s Calendar, however, is remarkably self-contained: penetrated only by the occasional itinerant beggar or fiddler (such as Clare’s own grandfather was), Scots drovers taking their sturdy little cattle south to fatten for the London market, or gypsies, that “quiet, pilfering, unprotected race,” as Clare called them in one of his finest sonnets, “The snow falls deep; the Forest lies alone….” Only Clare, perhaps, who spent a good deal of time with them, could have managed to place that adjective “pilfering” in such a way as to render its meaning clear, but quite unjudgmental.

As a poet (and as a prose writer) John Clare was unique. He shares, however, not only some of the same concerns as Robert Frost, but Frost’s quality of being complex yet not “difficult” or obscure. At a time when the audience for contemporary poetry sometimes seems to be shrinking to a few academics, or the friends and disciples of the poets themselves, the number of people who continue to discover and avidly read Clare is remarkable. Both in England and America, the John Clare Society thrives. When the idea was launched, recently, of displaying short poems for the benefit of passengers on the London Underground system, Clare’s late asylum poem, “I am—yet what I am, none cares or knows;/My friends forsake me like a memory lost,” was one of the first to be chosen. It may not have greatly cheered harassed commuters, but they will have recognized all too clearly what it was about. Clare’s best poems are written (to use his own phrase) in “a language that is ever green”—both in the sense that it remains as miraculously fresh now as a century and a half ago, and because of its links with our own pressing ecological worries.

In England, from early January until April 3, 1996, some two thousand protesters, of all ages, at different times, kept bulldozers, chain saws, and the police at bay while they tried to prevent ancient oaks from being felled and a wildlife habitat destroyed in the interests of a new motorway bypass around the town of Newbury. They lost, of course, in the end, the authorities finally cutting down about ten thousand trees and leaving—as if in derision—only a single oak standing. It would be interesting to know how many of the people who kept this vigil in the woods night and day had a paperback Clare in their pockets. He would certainly have sympathized with their endeavor. At the end of his own Shepheardes Calender, while disclaiming any rivalry with his great predecessors Virgil and Langland, Spenser could nonetheless announce with quiet confidence,

Loe I have made a Calender for every yeare,
That steele in strength, and time in durance shall outweare.

John Clare made one too. And it seems entirely fitting that, while continuing to speak to readers about to enter the third millennium, across the centuries in the other direction he and Edmund Spenser should also join hands.

This Issue

December 19, 1996