The poor people's poet

 

 

The life and work of John Clare (1793-1864), reviewed by Cathy Nugent


 

John Clare was born 1793 in Helpstone, a small village once part of Northamptonshire, now Cambridgeshire. Known as the Peasant Poet he was also, marginally, one of the group of artists who became known as the Romantics. Clare was the son of a labourer, and also worked as a labourer, even as he attempted to make his living as a poet.

The great story of Clare's life and times was the effects of enclosure, highlighted in the poem we print here. By the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries, vast tracts of what had been common land - for use by all in a parish - had been "enclosed" by well-off landowners and made into fields suitable for more intensive cultivation.

Many families with little or no land of their own, who were employed as agricultural labourers, and relied on the use of common land, were left destitute. The labour that came with enclosure - farm work, the building of hedgerow and so on - was often itinerant in nature. Once again the lives of poor people were disrupted. Some flocked to new towns to find work only to experience different kinds of destitution and to become the victims of the 1834 Poor Law. They ended up in the workhouse.

The tragedy of enclosure - the damage to the landscape and to the social and emotional life of the people Clare knows - are touched upon to one degree or another in all of his work.

Writers from humble backgrounds, such as Clare, were fairly rare, although not unique, at this time. However, unlike, say, Robert Burns, Clare was never promoted in any way - invited to London, or given a job by a benefactor. Clare was always, therefore, considered as someone with "ideas above his station" - not least, unfortunately, in Clare's case, by the people of his own class. "I live here among the ignorant like a lost man," he said, "in fact like one whom the rest seems careless of having anything to do with - they hardly dare talk in my company for fear I should mention them in my writings..."

Clare's poetry was equally unappreciated by the so-called educated classes.

Despite early success - the London literati fawned over the Northamptonshire poet's first book of poems - Clare never won fame and fortune. Why is he not as well known as, say Wordsworth, who also wrote (extensively) about nature? Simply because Wordsworth, as a respectable middle-class man (for whom with maturity came political conservatism), was more able to take a place as a troubadour of the bourgeois establishment.

Clare just did not fit in. His style of writing, which used dialect, everyday speech patterns and language, was deemed "vulgar". His publisher eliminated dialect words and made the poems grammatical, according to the rather pretentious taste of the time. This incensed Clare, but he was not able to do anything about it, relying as he did on the patronage of the publisher.

Troubles followed Clare - poverty, personal loss and lack of success - and ground him down. After the failure of his fourth book, in 1835, he turned his back on reality - and lived more and more in the world of a lost boyhood. Some of his best poems date from this period. His friends, perhaps not understanding his sadness, decided to send him to a private mental home in Epping Forest, from which he ran away in 1841. Six months later, after lampooning the local gentry in The Parish, Clare was confined to Northampton General Lunatic Asylum, where he remained until his death in 1864.

Enclosure

by John Clare

There once were lanes in nature's freedom dropt,
There once were paths that every valley wound-
Enclosure came, and every path was stopt;
Each tyrant fixed his sign where paths were found,
To hint a trespass now who crossed the ground:
Justice is made to speak as they command;
The high road now must be each stinted bound:
Enclosure, thou'rt curse upon the land,
And tasteless was the wretch who thy existence planned.
O England, boasted land of liberty,
With strangers still thou mayst thy title own,
But thy poor slaves the alteration see,
With many a loss to them the truth is known:
Like emigrating bird thy freedom's flown,
While mongrel clowns, low as their rooting plough,
Disdain thy laws to put in force their own;
And every village owns its tyrants now,
And parish-slaves must live as parish-kings allow.
Ye fields, ye scenes so dear to Lubin's1 eye,
Ye meadow-blooms, ye pasture-flowers, farewell!
Ye banished trees, ye make me deeply sigh-
Enclosure came, and all your glories fell:
E'en the old oak that crowned your rifled dell,
Whose age had made it sacred to the view,
Not long was left his children's fate to tell.
Where ignorance and wealth their course pursue,
Each tree must tumble down - old Lea-close Oak, adieu!
Lubin beheld it all, and deeply pained
Along the paled road would muse and sigh,
The only path that freedom's rights maintained;
The naked scenes drew pity from his eye,
Tears dropt to memory of delights gone by
The haunts of freedom, cowherd's wattled bower,
And shepherds' huts, and trees that towered high
And spreading thorns that turned a summer shower,
All captives lost, and fast to sad oppression's power.

  1. Lubin is a peasant, invented by Spenser, to depict someone with honest values, the son-of-the-soil etc. Clare sometimes likened himself to Lubin, although apparently he also disliked being dubbed the "Peasant Poet".