‘I dreaded walking where there was no path’

The Poetry of John Clare (1793-1864)

by James Graham

part 1 of 2


‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’. There’s nuance to this famous line that we may not always discern. Wordsworth was lucky to be able to wander so freely. The opening line of a poem by John Clare offers a different perspective: ‘I dreaded walking where there was no path’.

In contrast to the wilder Lake District, in Clare’s Northamptonshire, land that had been common was being enclosed — as we would say, privatised — and ‘No Road Here’ signs proliferated. Enclosure had already happened in piecemeal fashion in other parts of the country, but now for the first time it arrived by an Act of Parliament of 1809, in Clare’s own locality.

The poem is about trespass. Had Clare come across a host of daffodils his joy would have been qualified by the sure knowledge that they were the property of a landowner and that he could be prosecuted simply for being there to see them.

I dreaded walking where there was no path
And pressed with cautious tread the meadow swath
And always turned to look with wary eye
And always feared the owner coming by...

And when I gained the road where all are free
I fancied every stranger frowned at me
And every kinder look appeared to say
You’ve been on trespass in your walk today.

The trespass poem, with its rhyming couplets and skipping rhythm, seems quite benign, less angry than Clare’s later poems about enclosure, as we shall see. But even here we find more than a hint of the new oppression that had fastened on rural life, something which as time went by was to aggrieve Clare more and more, and drive him at times to despair.

Wordsworth was born into a respectable small-town middle-class family. His father was a lawyer; his most notable client was the Earl of Lonsdale. Clare was the son of a rural labourer. The differences in their social background go some way to explaining the differences we find in their work; but to understand it better, and especially to understand Clare, we need to explore further.

In similar vein as in ‘Daffodils’, Wordsworth tells us in Resolution and Independence: ‘I was a Traveller then upon the moor’. It was on the moors near Ullswater that he met the old leech-gatherer whom he immortalised in that fine poem.

At first sight the old man seems to Wordsworth a very strange creature, ‘like a sea-beast crawled forth... to sun itself’, a creature out of another element. The poet greets him and asks, ‘What occupation do you there pursue?’ He hears the old man’s account of himself in a kind of wide-eyed wonderment — so much so that he seems to lose track of what is being said and has to ask the stranger to go over it all again:

Perplexed, and longing to be comforted,
My question eagerly I did renew.
‘How is it that you live, and what is it you do?’

This strange, awkward meeting gives us an insight into Wordsworth, and perhaps into Romantic poetry in general. Wordsworth is indeed a Traveller, almost in the sense that Richard Burton was a traveller when he sought the source of the Nile: an explorer, a discoverer.

Though he lived at Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount in the heart of the Lake District, he is nevertheless an outsider, making expeditions into the natural world, eloquently reporting on his discoveries, and sharing with us the spiritual nourishment or moral dividend he drew from them. Thus Wordsworth reflects that the leech-gatherer was ‘like a man from some far region sent, / To give me human strength, by apt admonishment’. Nature generally is, as he writes elsewhere, ‘The anchor of my purest thoughts... the guardian of my heart’.

John Clare is different. He may sound like Wordsworth when he writes

I love at eventide to walk alone
Down narrow lanes o’erhung with dewy thorn

but as he walked the public roads of rural Northamptonshire — or occasionally trespassed — he was no Wordsworthian Traveller. He was indigenous. From childhood he had known the mud of the fields and the smell of animals. He was as native to the lanes, fields and woods as the hares and hedgehogs that populate his work — and felt himself to be so.

Clare was centred in rural life and wrote from the heart of it. He could have written about the leech-gatherer, but could not have written Resolution and Independence, because the old man would not have been in the least foreign to him. Clare knew only too well the sort of countryman who, perhaps thrown off his plot of land by some landlord, or no longer wanted as a labourer due to old age and infirmity, had to scrape a living by whatever means he could until he died with his working boots on.

That the leech-gatherer might be ‘a man from some far region’ would never have occurred to Clare. Far from being ‘perplexed’, he would have recognised him at once as a Northants man, struggling to fend off the destitution of old age. His own father, Parker Clare, suffered from arthritis and when he could no longer work in the fields earned a parish pittance by breaking stones.

Clare would have been more aware than Wordsworth of the social and political implications of the leech-gatherer’s plight. He witnessed one of the more painful phases of what is called the Agricultural Revolution — the enclosure of common land and the rise of rural capitalism, which filled the purses of landowners and reduced the peasantry to landless poverty.

This ‘revolution’ impelled Clare to write some of the most trenchant protest poetry in English, poetry in which bitter anger and sweet sorrow are mixed in almost equal proportions. But more of this to follow. Let us first listen to the voice of the ‘indigenous’ poet.

Among the orchard weeds, from every search
Snugly and sure, the old hen’s nest is made,
Who cackles every morning from her perch
To tell the servant girl new eggs are laid.
Who lays her washing by and far and near
Goes seeking all about from day to day
And, stung with nettles, tramples everywhere,
But still the cackling pullet lays away.
The boy on Sundays goes the stack to pull
In hopes to find her there but nought is seen
And takes his hat and thinks to find it full
She’s laid so long, so many might have been;
But nought is found and all is given o’er
Till the young brood come chirping to the door.

Although there is nothing political in this, at once it strikes us as different from the voices of the ‘travelling’ Romantics. There’s nothing wide-eyed about it; there’s no sense of the exotic. This is a countryman telling us from experience what a hassle it can be when a hen lays away.

Clare seems delighted by the episode and engrossed in the act of describing it. He sees no need to justify the writing of this poem, or to make any comment whatsoever. The hen is a hen, not a metaphor. He records the episode like a photographer choosing his subject and composing the picture. Beyond this, he doesn’t intervene between his subject and the reader. In form it’s a Shakespearian sonnet, but its closing couplet offers no artful epigram; instead, it simply finishes the story.

The present tense is significant. If it were written in the past, it would be an anecdote, a telling of something rather odd, even a one-off. But the present tense implies this happens often, in different places, and is a familiar part of ordinary life.

Clare is more genial about the laying away than most farmers would be; many would go about cursing until they found the nest, then lift the poor old hen off her eggs by the scruff of the neck. There’s money in eggs. But Clare sees the funny side of the episode, especially in the way he presents it as a ruse on the part of the hen, who gives detectives the slip day after day, and whose cackling announcements begin to sound like laughter.

There’s usually a signal in a poet’s head when a subject for a poem presents itself — this is meaningful, this is beautiful; I want to save this in a poem, fix it in a structure of words. For Clare, the laying-away is a signal as powerful as the towering mass of Mont Blanc is for Shelley. It’s no less worthy of the poet’s craft than Odysseus’ adventure with the Cyclops. It is, as Clare himself expresses it elsewhere, ‘Some little thing of other days, saved from the wreck of time’.

Clare salvages and collects, and displays for us a living museum of country life, both human:

The foddering boy along the crumping snows
With straw-band-belted legs and folded arm
Hastens and on the blast that keenly blows
Oft turns for breath and beats his fingers warm

and animal:

The hedgehog hides beneath the rotten hedge
And makes a great round nest of grass and sedge...
On the hedge-bottom hunts for crabs and sloes
and whistles like a cricket as he goes.

Chickens — those which are genuinely free-range, as well as those in concentration camps — and hedgehogs too, have survived the Agricultural Revolution. Maybe even somewhere a farmer’s boy still carries feed to the cattle on winter mornings. But Clare believed, at least during the many dark nights of his soul, that even such simple daily occurrences would soon be lost for ever. His pessimism, which could take on almost an end-of-the-world-is-nigh aspect, was rooted in his horror at the rise of capitalist agriculture. In one word, the evil was called Enclosure.

‘Enclosure’ for Clare is both literal and metaphorical. As well as the seizure of common lands and their transmutation into private property, it refers to personal ‘enclosures’ of more than one kind. His confinement in the County Asylum for the last 23 years of his life is an obvious example, though his output of new writing during those years is a thorough vindication of Lovelace’s famous lines ‘Stone walls do not a prison make, Nor iron bars a cage’.

The subtler ‘enclosures’ he suffered, and which contributed to his depression and alcohol dependency, include political censorship of his work and the associated pressure to conform to a stereotype of the unlettered bard, the gifted but humble — above all non-political — peasant poet.

In 1817 Edward Drury, a Stamford bookseller, undertook to send Clare’s poems out to publishers, and in 1819 his work was accepted by the London publisher John Taylor, whose list already included such notables as Hazlitt, Keats and de Quincey. This should have been a great triumph for Clare; but his career as a published poet was to be blighted by the wanton interference and censorship of others.

Taylor found him an aristocratic patron, Lord Radstock, a major landowner and an evangelical who agreed to underwrite the publication of his first two collections but wanted the books thoroughly purged of what he called ‘radical slang’. Thenceforward, the poet of couthy peasant life, the genial observer of hedgehogs and nightingales, was celebrated. Gentlefolks would come out from the town to watch him work in the fields, or peek through the windows of his cottage. But the poet of social justice, the poet angry against the oppression of the rural poor, was virtually silenced.


Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2012 by James Graham

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