Transcript for Sh 34

Now, this is something of an experiment and a departure. First of all, shedcast biographies so far have by and large been in the same chronological phase as I was at on the History of England at the time; this one is not. It is about a man who lived from 1793 to 1864, so very much not in phase. Secondly it is not entirely about history – I mean it is, but John Clare was a poet, the so called Northamptonshire Peasant Poet, and I have to tell you that I have an ear for poetry so completely made of tin that you could make an entire pewter dinner set from my lugs alone. As far as I am concerned, if the owl for all his feathers is a-cold he should go and put a coat on and stop moaning about it.

With such an introduction why then, am I inflicting the lad and his poetry on you? Well, first of all because I am well aware that to be a shedcast member you must be a person of finer feeling and sensitivity, with poetry in your souls. So you lot will understand about the poetry, even if I don’t. And then I have to tell you because a peasant poet of the Romantic period is a rather attractive thought – rather than all those over privileged sexual predators with puffy white linen shirts. With apologues to Wordsworth. And Keats. But none to Byron. Thirdly because I have a personal connection with the village cross at the village where Clare was born and where his heart lived throughout his life and death which I’ll tell you about in a minute. But mainly it is for the historical angle, about the light that Clare’s life and poetry sheds on a topic we have covered during Tudor times – enclosure and the monarchical republic of the parish. OK, Clare is over 200 years later, but what he has to say would be recognisable to those living in 1600 under the Poor relief system, which although rather outstandingly generous for Renaissance Europe, laid a yoke that was neither easy, nor a burden that was light on the rural poor. That is what I’d like to talk to you about mainly, but hey, let us talk of Clare’s life too.

Right, back to that village cross in Helpston. Helpston is a rather lovely village in Northamptonshire; it stands on a ridge between the low lying marshy land of the fens, land which makes a pancake look alpine, and the limestone wolds to the north; Helpston itself is set in rather flat and not particularly attractive land, being so flat. Also, these days it’s in Cambridgeshire, but everyone knows how light fingered Cambridgeshire is, really it’s Northamptonshire as it was in John Clare’s day.

Anyway I was telling you an anecdote, you poor things. Helpston also has the unlooked for privilege of being roughly half way between Loughborough and the North Norfolk coast, famed holiday destination for Leicestershire during the factory fortnight, to where a child prodigy David was dragged to a caravan every year alongside frankly snotty siblings, driven by a laissez faire mother who favoured the most direct, but rather hilly twisty turny back route rather than the health of her smallest child’s stomach. And so it was about Helpston where the smallest child, the prodigious and precocious one I mentioned, finally gave up the struggle, and offered up the contents of his stomach to the local hero and figure of fame – the Peasant Poet John Clare. I must say that as I made my offering, I gave no thought to the poet named on a memorial in the village, and yet I have remembered his name all these years. So maybe this shedcast is by way of an apology; or no, maybe more of an homage. Dear John, thanks for the poetry, love your work, darling. Sorry about the vomit.

Helpston is an old village; it’s name means the Farm of Helpa in Old English, and the village cross is 14th century, the church is that ubiquitous classic of the English village, a record of history that stretches from Norman or Saxon Tower, to the modern Francis Skeat stained windows. It’s favourite son, John Clare, is buried in the graveyard, and is the kind of person for whom this evidence of age and continuity would have been very important. I personally have never understood the person who declares themselves a citizen of the world, that write popular songs declaring that wherever they lay their hat, that’s their home; for John Clare, Helpston was an essential part of who he was, and if you took the poet Clare out of Helpston, the Helpston could never be taken from the poet. To do so might threaten his sanity. And in fact it probably did.

Clare was born in 1793, son of Ann Clare, daughter of the Town Shepherd of Castor, and Parker Clare an agricultural labourer. He was born in Helpston, and had a twin sister – who almost immediately died. Clare had a strong sense of belonging as I say, and always felt his twin sister as an absence, something missing in his life – she pops up from time to time in his poems. So the first thing to note about Clare is that he is poor, really poor. This is not just the normal ‘well he was only a yeoman, not a member of the nobility’ poor, this family didn’t have two pennies to rub together. The agricultural labourer had no land to speak of – maybe a small kitchen garden – and was therefore entirely dependant on earning wages; though the Helpston of Clare’s birth was also based on the old medieval open field system. So, the villagers would have some rights of commons, pretty limited for lowly cottagers though. That meant that although they owned no land, they did have rights upon some of it – rights to graze a cow or a pig, or take the wood they could reach from the woods.

But for the likes of Parker Clare and family, you lived life always on the edge of disaster. Work was anyway seasonal, and so you were subject to periodic poverty – maybe you could get no work during the winter months for example. Harvest time was a time of plenty of course, but even then when the harvest was bad, people went without – or almost as bad, were forced to throw themselves on the mercy of the Parish for support. Underemployment rather than unemployment was often the problem for the agricultural labourer. Incidentally, the agricultural labourer of pre industrial England also suffered from life cycle poverty; while you were young you could seek alternative employment, make do and mend, and get by well enough; when you were old, you faced the very real prospect of the parish poor relief, or in extremis, the workhouse.

The world into which Clare was born was deeply traditional and would have been recognised by a labourer several hundreds of years before. And not just for the farming system, but the very fabric of society and the community; folk games might often have derived from the pre-reformation church, or even further back, from pagan times; the pub was the centre of the community, and Clare’s father was a central part of that; because Parker Clare was a fiddler, and loved ballads and music, and would often play for the people of Helpston.

All of this John Clare breathed in and out, and felt the fabric of the life in his very soul during his formative years; and it is clear than he loved this aspect of Helpston life. He wrote later of Granny Mary Bains, ‘the cow-keeper famous for the memory of old customs’[1], and later in life he would be an energetic collector of folk tales and music; they were part of the very fabric of his education and later life. Many of these games and customs tied into the agricultural life; so every year, the whole village would go to the common fields to clear and prepare them, clearing the obvious stones, and the children helped. One of the customs was that if they found a stone with a hole, they’d try to hang it from the Master’s coat before they were caught. While not all of the games and rituals by any means relied on the form of agricultural practice – many did. Clare was also brought up in the Anglican church and was a firm believer, and a lover of the KJV bible.

Clare’s parents lacked much education at all; Parker could read parts of the Bible, but Ann could read nothing. There’s a much repeated tale that when John started to write his poetry on scraps of paper, many of them ended up being burned – because his mother screwed them up and used them as spills to light candles; John was too embarrassed to tell her what she’d done, and that he was writing poetry. So you might therefore think right, his folks were not supportive of their lad in his poetry and education, and in the idiom of the Yorkshire gentlemen of Monty P fame, they should get up before they went to bed and lick road clean wi’tongue rather than messing about with poetry. But nothing could be further from the truth; they appear to have been proud; and they did what they could for him – which basically meant sending him to the local Dame school to learn his 3 R’s.

For the meantime though, John indulged in the habit that would be at the heart of his poetry and life – the nature in the countryside around him. The open field system gave him access everywhere, complete freedom to wander everywhere, to observe everything, and wander he did, and observe he did; as he became old enough around 8, he took part in the jobs of rural life – tending sheep and cows, scaring crows from the arable fields and so on. And when released from these responsibilities, he wandered, and played, as you do.

At 14, he was ready for work, and his parents tried to get him a good position as an apprentice; first to a cobbler and then to a stonemason, but Clare didn’t take to it, and so became a ploughboy for a while; in fact although non agricultural avenues were tried by Clare, they never stuck – such as an attempt to be a lawyers Clerk in Wisbech, which crashed and burned as you could imagine it would; excellent places though they are, no doubt, it’s difficult to watch a Nightingale sing in a lawyer’s office. Instead Clare remained a part of the village world of casual labour – variously ploughing, or a lime burner, gardener, casual labourer. The thing about this was that poetry would not be a route out of the world he was born into – and its very unlikely Clare would have wanted such a thing, that’s not the story. But his relationship with the life of labour was realistic, and hard too; it was no rural idyll, Clare was always poor and he knew it. He kicked a little against the injustices of life, but not really against the hierarchical society into which he was born – he objected deeply to the changes that so called progress made..

At some point then, a match was applied to the blue touch paper of Clare’s love of and talent for poetry. At some point, someone read poetry to him; he had become friends with some locals in the village, the Turnills, and they read poetry from David Mallet, but it seems to the poetry of James Thomson, the Seasons, which really set him off, and he walked all the way to Stamford to the bookshop there and bought himself a copy and read it avidly – though his own poetry would be considerably more less florid in style. Clare started by reading his poetry to his mother. Who presumably muttered absently ‘very nice dear’ as she did the chores, but he wrote prodigiously and by 1817, when he was 24 years of age he was looking to try and publish in local outlets; local papers and small publishers had a strong tradition at the time. But he was a labourer – which meant he was occupied in agricultural work as often as he could be to keep body and soul together, and so it was difficult, and the project foundered. However, in his search he came to the notice of a titchy local publisher in Stamford, one Edward Drury. And Drury had a Cousin in the Big Smoke, called John Taylor. Stamford by the way, if you are thinking of holidaying, is as perfect a town as you will see anywhere in the world. The historian W G Hoskins, who knew a thing or two, wrote ‘If there is a more beautiful town in the whole of England I have yet to see it.’ Jus’ sayin’.

Back to John Taylor in the Big Smoke. He was a son of Nottinghamshire who moved to London and set up a publishing firm with a pal in 1806. Taylor had a nose for his audience in much of what he did to make a few quid – a diet of ‘sermons, domestic homilies, and moral tracts’ which doesn’t sound like a recipe for success these days, but hey, things change. However, his passion was Romantic poetry. From 1821-5, Taylor was the driving force behind the London Magazine, a successful and famous artistic publication; and from 1827 became publisher under his own name only to the University of London. The 1820s were his hey day, just as my personal hey day as a publisher was the publication of Design and Performance of Road Pavements – yes, that was me. Taylor made himself a name, throwing famous literary dinners for his friends and contributors including folks such as William Hazlitt, John Keats, Charles Lamb and others; Taylor was passionate and often very friendly with his authors – though many of them proved not terribly profitable.

Taylor was looking for the new Robert Burns, who had become enormously successful; and he liked what he read in Clare, here he felt was the perfect candidate, for the English Burns. By this point, poets like Wordsworth, whom Taylor had also published, had established the popularity of writing about nature, and so in 1820 Taylor therefore published Clare’s first collection, Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery. It was popular, and by 1821 had reached a 4th impression; in that same year Taylor published another collection from Clare, his Village Minstrel and Other Poems. This was the high point of Clare’s literary fame; he was widely acclaimed as the peasant Poet and was lionized on his visits to London, meeting with luminaries at Taylor’s soirees such as Coleridge, Hazlitt, Cunningham, Lamb, Cary, and others. He had become the drinking companion painters and visited several of the great artists of the day, he corresponded with George Darley, Thomas Pringle, James Montgomery, Sir Charles Elton, and others. These, I am told, are definitely people with whom you would like to correspond, though at least a couple of them have never crossed the shed threshold in any sense I have to tell you. But the point is that John Clare, a poor labourer from the backwoods of Northamptonshire, was rubbing shoulders with the greatest names in Literary London at sophisticated events – before going home to do the roging, or ploughing, or lime burning. A remarkable thing.



Meanwhile Clare’s life had taken off in other ways too. Clare loved the company of women; his poetry includes the joys of female company and love, and he formed deep attachments. The first in an odd way was with his dead twin sister, of who he often thought; and there are poems to women he fell for too. But the love of his life was probably Mary Joyce, the daughter of a local farmer; but in 1819, Mary came under pressure from her family to stop hanging around with Clare – he was just a penniless labourer after all, not a farmer. And under the pressure, Mary broke off relationships. Clare then married Martha Turner, a milkmaid and would remain married to her all his life. Together they would have several children born between 1820 and 1830; 4 of them would die before Clare, 3 would outlive him.

For a short period, Clare was rich – a very short period, and by rich I mean he had £45, a sum of money that the local Lord the Marquis of Exeter probably spent on sweets. But it could not last; the end of the Napoleonic wars led to an agricultural depression which meant employment was hard; income from his writing was always small. And his third publication, the Shepherd’s Calendar in 1827 did not sell well. Furthermore, some literary giants, like notably Charles Dickens, took agin him, and his reputation suffered. So by the mid 1820s, Clare was penniless again.

Clare began to crumble under the pressure of money, and children and fame. His trips to London worried him – he felt out of place, obsessed about the sound of his hobnailed boots on the marble floors of the wealthy, felt lost and out of place in this world. It’s not as though he was without support; so for example, both the Earl Fitzwilliam and the Marquis of Exeter gave him pensions to support him, but money was always a crushing problem. Meanwhile, although the local community at Helpston was perfectly positive, there was just a faint feeling that he was getting above himself what with all this literary shenanigan – again, even in the heart of his world, there was a small worm of doubt eating at his sense of belonging which for someone like Clare was very damaging. Clare also felt as though he was at the centre of a peep show; on the one hand other poets around the country wrote to him, asking how to do what he had done and become noticed; all these letters needed paying for as it happens, since at the time the recipient paid, and a sense of obligation worried Clare. He described himself as being at the centre of a ‘peep show’, especially as the rich and famous also came to visit his tiny cottage and in the nicest and most supportive way possible, came to gawp and wonder at this peasant poet’s poverty.

Clare suffered badly from bouts of depression; his health was so tied up with the place he lived, and all this alienated him from that place of safety and belonging. In 1832, Fitzwilliam tried to help by offering him improved accommodation at the village of Northborough just 3 miles away. It was a bad decision; it’s a sign of just how imbued Clare was to a sense of place that the short move, nobbut spitting distance really, just accentuated his sense of alienation still more. I’m now going to quote poetry at you, so sorry

I’ve left mine old home of homes

Green fields and every pleasant place

The Summer like a stranger comes

I pause and hardly know her place

There’s more, but do you get the point? I mean good lord – he just a few miles away and anyone would think he’d taken up a placement in Dubai or some such. Poets are such sensitive souls, unlike podcasters it must be said.


In 1837 Taylor persuaded his friend to enter what was then known as a lunatic asylum. These were not like the horrifying images we are fed of places like Bedlam in the movies, he was allowed to wander at his leisure in Epping Forest where the asylum was based, and he made a friend of the Warder – William Allen faithful wrote down much of his poetry from this time, a lot of it published while he was in the asylum or after his death. But in 1841, Clare sprung himself from the Asylum and walked the 80 miles home. Before a few months had passed, Clare was back inside, this time at Northampton. He suffered from delusions, imagining himself as other famous characters for example. But still he had a certain amount of freedom; he used to spend time sitting outside the church, for example, watching people come and go, and writing constantly. Sadly though, his wife appears never to have visited him; and in 1864, increasingly forgotten, he died from a stroke. He is buried in Helpston churchyard, so in the end he made it back home.

So as I say I have a tin ear for poetry, and my purpose in talking about Clare is to use his voice to give some rather unique insight into how people must have felt about enclosure and agricultural change, such a feature of English history . But look, since we are here, let me give you just a smattering of Clare’s poetry and themes, and then we can get to the enclosure thing. So obviously, as hopefully you have picked up by now, Clare was full of a love of nature. This love found intellectual expression as well as poetic, a naturalist noted for his sightings of different birds, for studying moths, butterflies and plants with the Burghley house gardener.

But it is for the love of it he is known, and for his intricate and detailed observation of the world in which he lived, worked, wandered and identified from childhood rambles to back breaking agricultural labour. Here are a couple of verses from a poem called ‘Sighing for retirement’ written in 1840 while at Epping

O take me from the busy crowd,

I cannot bear the noise!

For Nature’s voice is never loud;

I seek for quiet joys.

The book I love is everywhere,

And every place the same;

GOD bade me make my dwelling there,

And look for better fame.


I never feared the critic’s pen,

To live by my renown;

I found the poems in the fields,

And only wrote them down.


I found poems in the fields and only wrote them down is a lovely couple of lines, and beautifully reflects my limited knowledge of him; the reference to God is also important, nature embued with divinity. Mina Gorji, in the podcast to which I shall direct you in the web post for this episode, made the point that unlike many of his contemporaries, Clare is informal; he and Keats famously argued, with Keats telling Clare he was too descriptive; and critics have indeed wagged the finger agreeing with Keats, and noting that his poems often lack an organising principle, and he doesn’t really know how to stop. But Clare shot back at Keats that his, Keat’s Ode to a Nightingale gave the strong impression he’d never actually seen one and was describing the idea of  Nightingale rather than the real thing. Not so Clare. In the poem Nightingale’s Nest he paints a story of how he went to see a Nightingale you feel sure he’s had his eye on for a while, in the landscape he knows intimately

Up this green woodland-ride let’s softly rove,

And list the nightingale – she dwells just here.

Hush ! let the wood-gate softly clap, for fear

The noise might drive her from her home of love ;

For here I’ve heard her many a merry year –

At morn, at eve, nay, all the live-long day,

As though she lived on song.


Clare finds what he’s looking for, and in an action of which I am completely impossible, and for which I have limitless admiration for Twitchers, he settles down to watch:


And where those crimping fern-leaves ramp among

The hazel’s under boughs, I’ve nestled down,

And watched her while she sung ; and her renown

Hath made me marvel that so famed a bird

Should have no better dress than russet brown.

Her wings would tremble in her ecstasy,

And feathers stand on end, as ’twere with joy,

And mouth wide open to release her heart

Of its out-sobbing songs.


Look, you came for history and you are getting nature poetry, sorry and all; but I think you can see from those snippets that Clare is beautifully informal and lowfalutin, to coin a phrase; he takes us on a walk with him, and his Nightingale is real; his observation is detailed and minute throughout his poems. His identification with nature is so strong he frequently writes from nature’s perspective, such as his visualisation of life as a ladybird – or a Cock a clay as Clare’s local dialect would have it

In the cowslip pips I lie,

In the rain still warm and dry;

Day and night and night and day,

Red, black-spotted clock-o’-clay.


Ok, so finally I come to the point. In the words of Jonathan Bate, Clare’s poetry is concerned with places and landscape, home and childhood, the seasons, the bond between mood and nature. They are also very often radical and political and shot through with social comment, and bitter criticism too, when those worlds are messed with or destroyed. In his distress, he pays no mind to the demands of social hierarchies, he never bothers to privilege the rich and powerful, despite his frequent dependence on their patronage. So with today’s concerns, you would hope that the quickening interest in Clare would grow ever quicker; because he taps both the themes of the need to live with and defend nature, and how important that is to humankind’s health; and he also reflects the inequalities and greed that did so much in his time to damage the world he loved, both its natural fabric and the lives of the people who lived there, with their customs and lifestyle.

Let’s go back to the beginning then, and talk about enclosure, which we have mentioned a number of times in the History of England, so I don’t intend to go into it in depth. But it’s worth noting that the language around enclosure varies very wildly amongst historians; one tradition is the celebration of enclosure as an important part of the process that liberated England from the cycle of plenty, growth, dearth famine and death; midwife to the agricultural improvements that freed us. Let’s hear it, ladies and Gentlemen, for Enclosure and enclosing landlords. Hip hip…

Another tradition, though, is the outrage of historians who see in the process nothing but the greed of landlords, the exploitation of the working class and the destruction of a communitarian philosophy of life in favour of naked capitalism, red in tooth and claw, blood dripping from every barbed wire fence. As E P Thompson saw it, an act of robbery on a national scale, robbing the common man of their traditional rights. And of course the topic reaches its apogee with fury at the Scottish Landlords who stripped the Scottish highlanders of their rights and banished them from the land where they had lived according to an ancient rhythm. Here then is a quote from George Orwell

Stop to consider how the so-called owners of the land got hold of it. They simply seized it by force, afterwards hiring lawyers to provide them with title-deeds. In the case of the enclosure of the common lands, which was going on from about 1600 to 1850, the land-grabbers did not even have the excuse of being foreign conquerors; they were quite frankly taking the heritage of their own countrymen, upon no sort of pretext except that they had the power to do so

And then the cooler, more professional and detached historian who looks at the process over the centuries, and notes that by the time John Clare came into existence, much of England had already been through the enclosure process; that the process was sometimes indeed dominated by greedy individuals out to make themselves rich at the expense of the powerless; but that very often enclosure was driven by agreement between all the villagers, driven bottom up not just top down.

John Clare lived at a time, though, where the last act of the enclosure story was taking place. Because while in the 15th century for example the state had legislated against enclosure, and saw the process as destructive of the proper rhythm of rural life, in the 18th and 19th centuries the state actively encouraged enclosure as part of a drive to modernization and improvement. How interesting, that enclosure should so neatly demonstrate the changes in attitude between the deeply conservative and structured Medieval world, and the more individualistic, capitalist modern world.

Enclosure accelerated from the 1750s through a stage we refer to as Parliamentary enclosure; if ¾ or more of a village’s landowners agreed to impose enclosure on their village, an inclosure act would be passed through parliament. The village land would have previously been divided into large open fields divided into strips distributed between the villagers; and large parcels of pasture and waste and woods, which were not owned by the villagers, but over which they had rights of access and exploitation; these common rights were particularly important to families like John Clare – who had no rights of their own. Nor did they have a hand in the process – because they held no land. So, with the inclosure act passed, the land of the village was parcelled out to the existing landowners, in the same proportion as they had previously held, while common rights were cancelled. In the latter 18th century the number of enclosure Acts rose from 367 between 1740 and 1750 to 660 between 1770 and 1780. In 1809, this process came to John Clare’s home with a vengeance – a parliamentary act of inclosure was passed for Helpston and the neighbouring parishes. Which just co-incidentally, is the date of Clare’s first dated poem. Between 1809 and 1820, the landscape and village life which had fed Clare through his formative years, and formed the basis of his sense of belonging, were transformed. And not, in Clare’s view for the better.


Parliamentary enclosure transformed the landscape first of all. The land was all parcelled up and usually enclosed by narrow hedges and walls, all in straight lines; sometimes you can still see the old strip structure reflected in the S shape of the fields, S shaped for the traditional movement of the plough in preparing for the turn at the headland. In the process, access and rights of way were blocked, the land now being owned by an individual that did not want any old tom dick and harriet wandering over it. Common land no longer existed usually, and the remaining waste land was also parcelled out.

The argument about enclosure was harsh and emotional. For the improvers, it was obvious that the old open field system was inefficient, maintaining old agricultural practices, restricting specialisation and investment. And as for the poor, here’s Thomas Hale in 1758

The advantage that a poor man has by keeping two or three creatures of cattle of any kind upon the common land, are not nearly equal to what he and his family would find by being sure to know where to get constant employment as labourers. The privilege is indeed a source of idleness: and that can never be to private or public advantage

Ouch. In response, here’s a comment in the local rag of the Windsor and Eton Express

This iniquitous scheme for augmenting the wealth of the rich by the robbery of the poor, so far transcends all former acts of despoilation of a similar kind, in extent and in recklessness of general and individual rights, but it comprehends not merely wild and sterile heaths, but lands which have been rendered productive by the labour of the occupiers[2]

The benefits of enclosure are a matter of debate even now, in terms of productivity. Rents did increase, by 50 to 100 percent. However, not much of the increase came from enclosure; afterall, enclosure often produced very small inefficient farms; often the fields created were small and shady, much of them in the shadow of the new hedges. And meanwhile although the benefit to the natural world was in theory great with all those hedges, they were often quickly grubbed up, and were anyway often poor, thin affairs. In all, it appears the increase in productivity was little more than 10% across the piece.

But we are not here to argue the toss about the long term benefits or damages – what we are here for is to find within Clare’s heart how the process felt to the ordinary labourer, rather than to the privileged. And as far as Clare was concerned, there was no doubt, he hated enclosure from every level; for what it did to village life, the folk tales and games and customs which depended so much on the structure of agricultural life, and were now often eviscerated, never to return; to the impact on villagers’ livelihood and freedoms in the pursuit of what Clare saw as simple greed; and for the impact of Clare’s beloved land. So let me give you a few examples, some quite long quotes here, sorry, from the Moors

Moors, loosing from the sight, far, smooth, and blea

Where swopt the plover in its pleasure free

Are vanished now with commons wild and gay

As poet’s visions of life’s early day

Mulberry-bushes where the boy would run

To fill his hands with fruit are grubbed and done

And hedgrow-briars – flower-lovers overjoyed

Came and got flower-pots – these are all destroyed

And sky-bound mores in mangled garbs are left

Like mighty giants of their limbs bereft

Fence now meets fence in owners’ little bounds

Of field and meadow large as garden grounds

In little parcels little minds to please

With men and flocks imprisoned ill at ease

These paths are stopt – the rude philistine’s thrall

Is laid upon them and destroyed them all

Each little tyrant with his little sign

Shows where man claims earth glows no more divine

But paths to freedom and to childhood dear


And birds and trees and flowers without a name

All sighed when lawless law’s enclosure came

And dreams of plunder in such rebel schemes

Have found too truly that they were but dreams.


One event that hit Clare hard was the felling of an ancient and beloved Elm – because now the land belonged to an individual who decided to improve his land by chopping it down. The loss of the Elm by the landowner struck Clare as a desecration, while the owner claimed he was at liberty to do as he wished:


With axe at root he felled thee to the ground

And barked of freedom – O I hate the sound

Time hears its visions speak, – and age sublime

Hath made thee a disciple unto time.

– It grows the cant term of enslaving tools

To wrong another by the name of right;

Thus came enclosure – ruin was its guide,

But freedom’s cottage soon was thrust aside

And workhouse prisons raised upon the site.

No matter – wrong was right and right was wrong,

And freedom’s bawl was sanction to the song.

– Such was thy ruin, music-making elm;

The right of freedom was to injure thine:

As thou wert served, so would they overwhelm

In freedom’s name the little that is mine.

And there are knaves that brawl for better laws

And cant of tyranny in stronger power

Who glut their vile unsatiated maws

And freedom’s birthright from the weak devour.


This is radical stuff – Clare’s objection is not just the destruction of nature, but what he saw as self serving cant by the ruling classes, that enabled them to be rich and enslaved the people of the village. This bitter complaint is from the Village Minstrel:


O England boasted land of liberty

With strangers still thou mayst thy title own

But thy poor slaves the alteration see

…And every village owns its tyrants now

And parish slaves must live as parish kings allow


The mention of the parish is also interesting; for Clare, as for many the Parish had two faces; the community in which people lived, the people they lived with, the local land, it’s folklore, high ways and by ways. But it was also what Collinson referred to as the monarchical republic – the civil parish, ruled over by the great and the good. For agricultural labourers such as Clare the threat of the workhouse was always near:

But freedom’s cottage soon was thrust aside

And workhouse prisons raised upon the site.

And enclosure to Clare’s mind increased the dependence of ordinary folk on the power of the landowner. We have mentioned the Poor Law I think, from the times of the Tudors. And from one view, the Poor laws are an achievement unique, at the time, in European history; a structured system of local taxation to make support of the poor a responsibility of the state through the local parish officers. But it was also a whip – a method of social control, where the poor must stay in line for fear of being refused relief. And the personal humiliation of being forced to appeal to the mercy of the parish was fierce.  In the poem ‘The Overseer’, Clare’s resentment finds expression:


Art thou a man, thou tyrant o’er distress…

And thou’art a rogue that beggars them of all

They sink in sorrow as a race of slaves

The kindred bond which first our fathers gave

Proves man thy brother still and not thy slave


Let us give the last word to the land itself. Clare identified so closely with the land and its natural inhabitants that he often wrote poems as though he was an animal – fox, or badger for example; or indeed the land. The Lament of Swordy Well was crafted as a complaint from a local piece of land which had sustained generations of local inhabitants; and yet when enclosure came was betrayed and misused in the name of profit. Here’s one verse:


When grain got high the tasteless tykes

Grubbed up trees bank and bushes

And me they turned inside out

For sand and grit and stones

And turned my old green hills about

And pickt my very bones


Right then, well, I think that’s quite enough poetry from one decade. So sorry won’t do it to you again! But I hope John Clare’s words give you a bit of an insight about how these kind of events, which we are used to looking at in a balanced, academic way, realy felt to the ordinary people that had to live through them.

John Clare’s poetry fell in popularity after his death, and languished forgotten by most through the late 19th and early 20th century. Now, I’m not going to lie to you, it’s still a bit unlikely that you’ll hear Clare’s poetry quoted at length in the local, or his name chanted at the Northampton Town crowd on a Saturday, but interest revived very strongly, and in 1989 you could have heard Ted Hughes reciting Clare’s poetry at a memorial at Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey. He is now acknowledged by many to be England’s finest nature poet, but as I say his relevance now is even stronger than that – as a protester against the despoilation of our countryside, but also a radical voice in defence of the importance of people in the process of change. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you John Clare, Northampton’s peasant poet.

[1] Robinson, Eric John Clare ODNB

[2] Wright, J A Natural history of the hedgerow, p88

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