John Clare
John Clare; drawing by David Levine


In heaven, too,
You’d be institutionalised.
But that’s all right—
If they let you eat and swear
With the likes of Blake,
And Christopher Smart,
And that sweet man, John Clare.

—“Heard in a Violent Ward,” Theodore Roethke

Roethke’s “sweet man,” John Clare (1793–1864)—loved, like Blake and Smart, for a perceived wisdom in his madness—has long been an honored presence among the poets of the English language. Of the English, Edmund Blunden, Geoffrey Grigson, and James Reeves were among his editors, and Auden (who borrowed words from John Clare in his “Letter to Lord Byron”) put him into at least three anthologies. Of the Irish, Patrick Kava-nagh and Michael Longley wrote poems about him, while Tom Paulin and Seamus Heaney (as we shall see) turned him into a quasi-political figurehead.

As to America, the examples are numerous. After Roethke, there was a hippie Clare (as there was a hippie Blake) in the American Sixties. Yvor Winters loved Clare and it was presumably under his influence that Robert Pinsky and Robert Hass came to read and admire him. Then there is a New York School Clare to be encountered in John Ashbery’s poem “For John Clare” (the inspirer of many other poems with similar dedications1 ) and in his charming, more recent Norton lectures.2

There we learn that it was Clare’s prose fragment “House or Window Flies” that started Ashbery examining the possibilities of what he calls “prosaic poetry” (I would have assumed that the models were French). Since the prose poem is so popular a form in the States today, it is worth examining this influential fragment in full:

These little indoor dwellers, in cottages and halls, were always entertaining to me; after dancing in the window all day from sunrise to sunset they would sip of the tea, drink of the beer, and eat of the sugar, and be welcome all the summer long. They look like things of mind or fairies, and seem pleased or dull as the weather permits. In many clean cottages and genteel houses, they are allowed every liberty to creep, fly, or do as they like; and seldom or ever do wrong. In fact they are the small or dwarfish portion of our own family, and so many fairy familiars that we know and treat as one of ourselves.

The strangeness of this description might be attributed by some to the fact that it was transcribed in the madhouse to which Clare was confined. But for Ashbery, madness does not come into it. Rather it is a case of

a kind of nakedness of vision that we are accustomed to, at least in America, from the time of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, down to Robert Lowell and Allen Ginsberg. Like these poets, Clare grabs hold of you—no, he doesn’t grab hold of you, he is already there, talking to you before you’ve arrived on the scene, telling you about himself, about the things that are closest and dearest to him, and it would no more occur to him to do otherwise than it would occur to Whitman to stop singing you his song of himself. It is like that “instant intimacy” for which we Americans are so notorious in foreign climes. Clare bears you no ill will and doesn’t want to shock or pain you, but that isn’t going to make him change his tale one whit; if you suddenly burst into tears, that will seem to him another natural phenomenon, like the rain or the squeal of a badger.

And, in a marvelous image, Ashbery tells us that Clare “often starts up for no reason, like a beetle thrashing around in a weed patch, and stops as suddenly.”

Clare, Whitman, Ashbery: there is a book recently out from Harvard, A New Theory for American Poetry by Angus Fletcher, which takes this trio as exemplifying “environmental poetry.” Clare here is seen as “a naive philosopher,” one who writes in the language of “naive scientific astonishment,” but is also in some sense a pre-Socratic in his metaphysics and one of those whose sense of space might be usefully examined by way of Jacques Derrida’s reading of what turns out to be an obscure and possibly incoherent passage in Plato’s Timaeus. I cannot follow this book’s argument, but only mention it here as the latest version of the American Clare, whose poetry, according to Fletcher, “is a lesson in the paradox of the nondescript, since in describing the nondescript, he reaches out to some of the most teasing questions we may propose in relation to Being.”

John Clare left at his death some three and a half thousand poems and a much smaller body of prose works—a journal, an autobiography that survives only in fragments, some letters, and some writings on natural history. In his life he was known as a peasant poet, and is still described thus, although in the strict and useful sense he was not a peasant. There was no peasant class in the England of his day. Clare was a landless agricultural laborer. He was not a dialect poet in the sense that, say, William Barnes or Paul Laurence Dunbar were dialect poets, but he used some dialect words and sometimes a nonstandard grammar.


He also—and here the difficulties begin—used standard words in ways that can mislead modern readers. The word “molehill” can mean (what it means to us in England today) the pile of earth thrown up by a mole, but also any small hillock or hummock: if he sits on a “thymey molehill,” that is a hummock in the second sense. In the entry for January 11, 1825, in his journal, he records that he “began to fetch maiden earth from molehills for my flower beds,” that is in the first sense of the word. To modern English ears, when he says he sat on a molehill, that sounds daft because a molehill in the first sense would not support a person’s weight. Clare went mad, but he was never daft.

Seamus Heaney, in his centenary lecture “John Clare’s Prog,” pays particular attention to a sonnet of Clare’s about finding a mouse’s nest. The poem begins:

I found a ball of grass among the hay
And progged it as I passed and went away.

Heaney loves this use of the word “prog,” which seems to him to convey the essential “here-and-nowness, or then-and-thereness, of what happened.” Such stubby, rural-sounding vocabulary has indeed been many a modern poet’s friend. But Heaney also extols Clare’s use of “at” and “and” and “when” in ways that make one think he should be congratulating the English language rather than the individual poet.

Heaney comes to the final couplet of the poem, with its sudden evocation of the landscape:

The water oer the pebbles scarce could run
And broad old cesspools glittered in the sun.

Here, in a resounding rhetorical flourish, a smiting of the harp, Heaney finds that

the eye of the writing is concentrated utterly upon what is before it, but also allows what is before it deep access to what is behind it. The eye, at any rate, does not lift to see what effect it is having upon the reader; and this typical combination of deep-dreaming in-placedness and wide-lens attentiveness in the writing is mirrored by the cesspools as they glitter within the sun. They too combine a deep-lodged, hydraulic locatedness within the district with a totally receptive adjustment to the light and heat of solar distances.3

I wonder, though, what Heaney had in mind when contemplating these deep-lodged, hydraulically located cess-pools. What precisely (since precision is the theme) are we looking at in Clare? And what was Heaney’s audience, what are his readers, imagining?

My guess is that people dimly suppose that we are, as the now famous poem implies, standing in a hay field, and that somewhere in the middle distance, far enough off to be not too offensive, there is the nineteenth-century equivalent of the sort of small sewage farm one finds tucked away in today’s landscape. This is clearly what Anne Barton, applauding this passage in Heaney and Clare, understands:

Relaxing his intense concentration upon the field mice, Clare had looked up, across the parched midsummer flatlands of Northamptonshire, to record an almost Words-worthian epiphany: a sudden, and piercing, clarity of vision. Words-worth, 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.4

And here is Ashbery, in his lecture on Thomas Lovell Beddoes, applying himself appreciatively to the same couplet:

[Clare’s] attention turns, as the poem is signing off, to the undistinguished landscape. The water is having difficulty making its way over the pebbles. It must be a dry summer. The only hint of grandeur in the closure is the appearance of the cesspools—broad, old, glittering, they have their dignity under the sun, even though most travelers would hurriedly pass them by with pinched noses.

And so on.

What we hear ringing from the collective handbag, in such passages, is the mobile phone of inadvertent anachronism. There were no such cloacal arrangements in Clare’s day, as a moment’s thought should have told these clever readers. The cesspits of the villages served each individual cottage, and were not connected to some distant works. If only they had been. They were at each back door. They were small, of a cubic capacity of some eighteen to twenty feet, surmounted by an outhouse or shed. They glittered not. They were underground chambers, emptied two or three times a year. They disgusted Florence Nightingale and they probably held no charm for Clare.


The text should anyway probably read, as in Jonathan Bate’s admirable new selection:

The water o’er the pebbles scarce could run>
And broad old sexpools glittered in the sun.

Sexpools is only a dialect variant on cesspools, but at least it warns us not to think of shit. The Oxford edition of Clare tells us that “cesspools” “refers to water which gathers on the ‘cess’ or land between a river and its bank when the river is low.”5 Bate, with equal conviction, speaks of “sexpools” as “rainwater pools in areas where peat has been dug out.” I prefer Bate’s reading, (a) because such cuttings might well be both “broad” and “old,” and (b) because the resultant image is so like something out of Heaney (“My father progged the flaxdam in the sexpool,/Now I prog after him”). Wordsworth’s leech-gatherer (“From pond to pond he roamed, from moor to moor”) undoubtedly peered into many sexpools, in the course of a day’s work.

The problem lies in the familiar, not just the unfamiliar, words. And the problem comes, in part, from the reader expecting a rustic daftness. Bate, in his new biography, tells us that Clare, in an early sonnet, “remembered how he would stand watching the light-blue smoke pour from the chimney and think of his family gathered round the fire within. His eye would be drawn to the yellow flowers of the leeks grown in the thatch as a charm against lightning.” But Clare no more had leeks growing from his thatch than he had carrots coming out of his ears. Leeks wouldn’t grow in thatch. Turning to the source of Bate’s misunderstanding, however, we find:

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.6

Houseleek (Sempervivum tectorum) is the plant Bate was thinking of, which was indeed grown on roofs as a charm against lightning (although, quite untypically, Clare has the wrong color for its flower).

Comparing the various glossaries that have appeared over the years in editions of Clare, we find a curious lack of interest in the subjects that interested the poet himself: birds, for instance, or flowers. There is a widespread reluctance on the part of editors to pin down a species with its scientific name, although this must usually be possible. Bate’s glossary to his admirable selection could easily be revised and improved in a second edition. The entries are too short and sometimes inaccurate. If a “puddock” is a kite, it is not also a “small bird of prey”—the red kite Clare would be talking about (Milvus milvus) has a six-foot wingspan. If pellitory is a “plant of the nettle family,” surely we can be told which (it is pellitory-of-the-wall, Parietaria judaica). “Flags” are defined by Bate as “rushes, reeds,” but the Oxford edition has them as “water or yellow iris, Iris pseudacorus.” “Jinny-Burnt-Arse” in Bate is a “Jack-o’-lantern”; baffled, one has to turn to the Oxford glossary to find that this, in turn, is an “ignis fatuus, will-o’-the-wisp.” And so on.

You may think this is the wrong way to approach Clare, beginning with the glossary. But it is not wrong to assume, as a working hypothesis, that when Clare used a word he meant something specific by it. He was not some illiterate yokel, crawling aimlessly through the hedgerow. When he found a “pooty,” a snail shell, he could tell at once that this was not a species represented in the British Museum (which in that period was still collecting natural history specimens). He had an aptitude for taxonomy. From one ornithologist we learn that “the poet knew from personal observation about 145 wild birds, of which 119 can be identified with reasonable certainty as county records—65 of them ‘first records.'”7 And a historian of Northamptonshire flora, we gather, “was able to identify 135 plant species from Clare’s poems and found that no fewer than forty had not been recorded by earlier botanists.”

In other words, as the editors of John Clare’s Birds put it,

Clare’s vision is varied and embraces many ways of seeing. He is much more complex than at first sight he seems to be. When Raymond Williams in The Country and the City distinguishes between the writing of [the English naturalist] Gilbert White, on the one hand, and Clare and Wordsworth on the other, the distinction confuses rather than illuminates. It is not true, for example…that White’s remark that “The ousel is larger than a blackbird, and feeds on haws…” represents a different viewpoint from Clare’s or a separate style of writing. Much of Clare sounds exactly like this….

Clare read and admired Gilbert White, and if things had gone better for him, he would have written a Natural History of Helpston, his native parish, as White did for Selbourne.

When we try to define a dialect word often used by Clare, such as “swee,” it is not enough to content ourselves with one standard equivalent. “Swee” is used to mean “sway” or “swing,” as in “Remembrances”:

While I see the little mouldywarps hang sweeing to the wind
On the only aged willow that in all the field remains,
And nature hides her face while they’re sweeing in their chains
And in a silent murmuring complains.

The mouldywarps, the moles, are seen displayed on a farmer’s gibbet, hung up on land that was once a familiar playground of the poet’s youth but has since been “enclosed” (converted by Act of Parliament from common land to private property, and in the process hedged in). The animals are depicted metaphorically as criminals hanged in chains, workers who have lost their liberty:

Here was commons for their hills where they seek for freedom still,
Though every common’s gone and though the traps are set to kill
The little homeless miners—O it turns my bosom chill….

The moles “swee” in the wind, but the flight of the woodpecker is also described as “sweeing.” Here is what Clare says about it in prose: “Its flight is an easy motion of ups and downs, fluttering its wings at every rise and closing them motionless at every fall.” This is a precise, diagnostic account of a woodpecker’s undulating flight. So the word “swee” must somehow cover this meaning too, and more besides.


A good way of thinking about Clare—but again this can be counterintuitive—is to remember that he lived during the Industrial Revolution, and in the early age of mass communications. Here is part of an autobiographical fragment:

My mother brought me a pictured pocket handkerchief from Deeping May Fair, as a fairing, on which was a picture of Chatterton and his verses on resignation. She was mentioning the singular circumstance to me yesterday, [by] asking me whether I remembered it and saying that she little thought I should be a poet then. For Chatterton’s name was clouded in melancholy memories, which his extraordinary genius was scarcely known. The common people knew he was a poet and that was all. They know the name of Shakespeare as one, but the ballad-monger who prints and supplies hawkers with their ware[s] are poets with them, and they imagine one as great as the other.8

Bate in his biography takes this to mean that the handkerchief was embroidered with a picture of Chatterton, and with the text of one of his poems. But a moment’s reflection tells us that this cheap souvenir of the fair, this “fairing,” would have been a printed handkerchief (embroidery would have been expensive). It would have been printed in Lancashire no doubt, using a technique of copperplate engraving printed on calico, invented in France in the 1770s.

This kind of commemorative handkerchief (the forerunner of the American political bandanna) belongs to the era of mass production, and surely an example of the object precisely described by Clare must somewhere, in some collection of ephemera, survive. I wish I was able to produce it. What I have been able to examine is a very similar Chatterton handkerchief in the British Museum, printed in blue ink on linen, with the title “The Distressed Poet,” imitating the title of one of Hogarth’s prints. The illustration had been engraved for the Westminster Magazine of July 1782, but something similar could no doubt have been still in use around 1809, which is when Clare’s mother would have bought it for her sixteen-year-old boy.

It proved a most significant encounter. Only seven years earlier Wordsworth, in “Resolution and Independence” (the poem inspired by meeting the leech-gatherer among the sexpools), had bemoaned the lot of poets:

I thought of Chatterton, the marvellous Boy,
The sleepless Soul that perished in its pride;
Of Him who walked in glory and in joy
Following his plough, along the mountain-side:
By our own spirits are we deified:
We Poets in our youth begin in gladness;
But thereof come in the end despondency and madness.

Chatterton, a suicide at seventeen, Keats’s model for purity in the English language, had written poems in the idiom of a different era, and passed them off as another’s work—just as Clare would do. Robert Burns, the ploughman evoked in lines 3–4, was the most distinguished example yet of rustic-turned-poet (there had been many others). Clare’s grandfather had been Scottish, and Clare also turned his hand to Scots dialect poems. Wordsworth thinks of Chatterton and Burns dying young, in poverty; no doubt he also had in mind William Cowper and Christopher Smart, who suffered madness, and in whose work he took a particular interest.

To examine the British Library’s Chatterton handkerchief, pasted into an album of press cuttings, is to be struck by the amount of text that can be crammed onto a square of cloth. The left column tells us that the engraving was based on a painting by a friend of Chatterton, and that the details (“the folded bed, the broken utensil below it, the bottle, the farthing candle, and the disorderly raiment of the bard”) are not imaginary. They are a “satire” upon the nation and the age. In the right-hand column, we find a thirty-eight-line poem in heroic couplets, also meditating upon the portrait and the lesson it teaches us about the neglect of genius by society. Clare’s mother, supposedly illiterate, knew the story of Chatterton: no doubt her son read the poem, “The Resignation,” to her. It stayed in her mind, and it must have haunted Clare in his years of neglect.

What is very difficult to gauge, when we consider Clare, is the impact of ephemeral publishing such as these handkerchiefs, and broadsides, chapbooks, newspapers, and magazines. Clare read a great deal, and much of his reading can be traced. Bate tells us, for instance, that John Taylor, who published both poets, lent Clare no less an object than Keats’s copy of Chaucer’s poems, which Clare read with pleasure, noting that some of Chaucer’s vernacular was still in use among his own people. This in itself is a moving enough detail. But I was shaken to learn recently that all of the Canterbury Tales were published in chapbook editions—implying that they would have sold in very large numbers indeed. Such a fact should make one cautious about judging which authors were well known, and which obscure, in the early nineteenth century. It may be that cheap editions do not always turn up in the bibliographies.

Clare not only shared Keats’s interest in Chaucer. He also took great delight in Elizabethan poetry, including Shakespeare’s sonnets. He wanted to write the lives of the Elizabethan and Jacobean poets. Just consider this passage from his journal, dated October 10, 1824:

A wet day. Have finished the life of Savage in Johnson’s Lives of the Poets. It is a very interesting piece of biography, but the criticisms are dictated by friendship that too often forgets judgment ought to be one of the company. To leave this and turn to the life of Gray—what a contrast. It almost makes the mind disbelieve criticism and to fancy itself led astray by even the wisest of men. I never take up Johnson’s Lives but I regret his beginning at the wrong end first and leaving out those beautiful minstrels of Elizabeth. Had he forgot that there had been such poets as Spenser, Drayton, Suckling, etc, etc? But it was the booksellers’ judgment that employed his pen, and we know by experience that most of their judgments lie in their pockets. So the poets of Elizabeth are still in cobwebs and mystery.9

Clare admires Johnson, but is shocked by his credulity in the life of Savage, and frustrated by the lack of interest shown in the early poets. He comes across as a perceptive judge of Johnson, and as a man of strong independent taste.

“Many books are written to make people read. The best are written to force them to think.” Who wrote these confident words? Clare did. He wrote: “Blake was brave by instinct and honest by choice.” The marvelous distinction here between instinct and choice is the sort that Blake himself might have made. “An honest man finds no enemies, because he fears none. A bad man makes enemies where he has none, because he fears them.” And: “Deception is universal, and a weed in every climate.” All these come from one page of The Prose of John Clare, as edited by J.W. and Anne Tibble. I think they carry more authority the way I have set them out, because I have punctuated them, which allows one to forget for a moment that their author was uneducated.

Formally uneducated, that is, but profoundly well read, a shining example of an English provincial intellectual. As we have already noted, Clare was a botanist whose local observations have entered the records for his county. He was an ornithologist with a similar claim to scientific attention. He was a “florist,” in the sense common in the period, which had nothing to do with selling cut flowers, but referred to one who collected and cultivated a particular range of flowers that bred well in interesting varieties: the auricula, the polyanthus, the hyacinth, the anemone, the ranunculus, the tulip, the pink, and the carnation. Florists’ societies were typical of the Midlands and the North of England, and their members were and still are for the most part working men.10


We will not understand the way in which Clare was outstanding and unusual unless we also appreciate the way in which he was typical of his place and time. His place was Protestant Northern Europe. He reminds me in some ways of Ulrich Bräker (1735–1798), the Swiss goatherd turned yarn merchant, who read Shakespeare and published a (naive) book on his plays, but whose chief glory is in his wonderful autobiography, The Poor Man of Toggenburg.11 Bräker, the son of a saltpeter burner, was a Pietist, and owed some- thing of his habit of self-examination to his religious upbringing (about which he is, however, able to write amusingly).

Clare came from the same class, and worked as a lime burner, a gardener, and an agricultural laborer. His reading included the Bible, Paradise Lost, and Pilgrim’s Progress as staples. He became at one stage a Primitive Methodist or Ranter. On the same wet Sunday when he finished Johnson’s life of Savage, he spent the afternoon with Thomas Erskine’s Remarks on the Internal Evidence of Revealed Religion. “I think a doubting Christian may be set aright at a first perusal,” he wrote, “and a reasoning Deist lose doubts sufficient to be half a Christian in some of the originals, and a whole one ere he get to the end.”

Bräker had the luck to be elected in 1776 to the local learned society in Toggenburg, the Societas Moralis Toggica, and this gave him access to a library which he could not otherwise afford. Clare was given books, and was lent them. An attempt was made to set him up with an endowment. He also made his own informal society with local people, including the servants at nearby Milton Hall. Here the household steward was Edmund Tyrell Artis, who not only found time and freedom to excavate Roman remains around Peterborough, but also, as Bate informs us, managed to publish a part-work illustrating his discoveries with magnificent plates. Artis became a fellow of two learned societies.

Joseph Henderson, also at Milton Hall, was one of those highly educated Scottish gardeners who feature in the period, in Britain and in Europe. He, as Clare tells us, “never wearied with hunting after the Emperor Butterfly and the Hornet Sphinx in the Hanglands wood and the Orchises on the Heath.” Henderson is credited with a fair knowledge of Latin and French, botany, ornithology, and entomology, as well as being an admirable draftsman, and Clare went to him for help and advice on grammar and spelling.

In addition to his botanizing and his ornithology, Clare was a collector of folk music and ballads. George Deacon, whose study of this important aspect of Clare’s achievement was first published in 1983, tells us that Clare is probably the earliest collector of the songs people actually sang in southern England. One has to remember that the great ballad collection of the eighteenth century, Percy’s Reliques of Ancient Poetry, was based on printed material—chapbooks and broadsides such as had been collected for a long time (since Pepys at least).

Clare, by contrast, was a field-worker in his own parish, and what he set out to record was the oral tradition, not of his own county but of his own village only. It would stand beside his botanical and ornithological observations as being a cultural record of a very small world indeed. Clare had a good enough musical ear and knowledge of notation to be able to take down a fiddle tune (he had been taught the fiddle by gypsies he befriended). He collected around 260 tunes, mostly for his own pleasure. It is interesting to see that, among these, Papageno’s song from The Magic Flute has slipped into the rural repertoire.

What Clare regretted being unable to do was to record—“prick down”—a song as sung. Deacon suggests that the difference between collecting a fiddle tune and a song may be partly because Clare could watch the fiddler at work and take note of the fingering: a note in the journal records: “…got the tune of Highland Mary from Wisdom Smith, a gipsy, and pricked another sweet tune without name as he fiddled it.”12 And it may also have been because the task of recording a folk song as sung is in itself very complex, if one is to pay attention to variations in speed and rhythm, and to the decorations the singer introduces.

Deacon himself approached the subject of Clare from the point of view of a folk singer. He tells us that until the publication of William Chappell’s The Ballad Literature and Popular Music of the Olden Times (1859), “we know little about either song tunes or performance until the late nineteenth century.” And even then we are indebted primarily to Percy Grainger, for recording singers on wax cylinder. This was a radical departure:

At the time that [Grainger] was collecting, others in the same field preferred to take both tune and words by ear. This often necessitated visiting a singer more than once to clear up problems and inevitably required more than one performance of a song to get even the basic tune. Grainger, aware of the need to record dialect, pitch, variations in speed and rhythm and the decoration of the basic tune, advocated…the use of the phonograph. His fellow collectors were, however, far from convinced, and regrettably continued to collect songs almost entirely by ear. That this method of collection required great skill is beyond doubt, but it can rarely have achieved the noting down of more than an average of the basic tune the singer sang, with perhaps one or two appended variations. Thus any record of the skill of the folk singer to improvise and decorate would be lost.

In other words, the technology for recording what Clare would have liked to record was only put to work by Grainger in the early 1900s, in the face of criticism by rival luminaries such as Cecil Sharp and Lucy Broadwood. Deacon’s study gathers the tunes and songs that Clare collected, and is well worth having.


p align=”right”>—This is the first of two articles on John Clare.

This Issue

September 23, 2004