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The Poetry of John Clare

by James Graham

Part 1 appears
in this issue.

Two of his greatest poems, ‘The Moors’ and ‘The Fallen Elm’, were never published in his lifetime. In the former, Clare eloquently mourns the loss of the freedom that was enjoyed by country people when the land was theirs, held in common — tracts of unfenced land where cattle and sheep roamed freely and village children played by the brook-side and found wild berries in hedgerows:

Mulberry bushes where the boy would run
To fill his hands with fruit are grubbed and done,
And hedgerow briars — flower-lovers overjoyed
Came and got flower-pots — these are all destroyed.

Now landowners have deprived the people of their heritage, and would arraign the very birds for trespass if they could:

But paths to freedom and to childhood dear
A board sticks up to notice ‘no road here’
And on the tree with ivy overhung
The hated sign by vulgar taste is hung
As tho’ the very birds should learn to know
When they go there they must no further go.

‘The Fallen Elm’ is certainly one of Clare’s greatest poems. It uniquely combines his anger against enclosure with a moving expression of love for the old tree — a profound respect that recalls ‘primitive’ peoples and their animistic reverence for sacred trees:

Old Elm that murmured in our chimney-top
The sweetest anthem Autumn ever made
And into mellow whispering calms would drop
When showers fell on thy many-coloured shade,
And when dark tempests mimic thunder made
While darkness came as it would strangle light
With the black tempest of a Winter night
That rocked thee like a cradle to thy root...

We felt thy kind protection like a friend
And pitched our chairs up closer to the fire
Enjoying comforts that was never penned...

The childern sought thee in thy Summer shade
And made their playhouse rings of sticks and stone;
The mavis sang and felt himself alone
While in thy leaves his early nest was made
And I did feel his happiness mine own.

The elm is a victim not of the storm but of the landowner. The poet mourns its fall as the loss of a ‘friend not inanimate’ which ‘owned a language by which hearts are stirred’ but now knows only the ‘language of pity and the force of wrong’.

As the poem moves into its denunciation of rural capitalism, we begin to meet another word besides ‘enclosure’ that for Clare was charged with meaning. In this poem and in others, ‘freedom’ has turned into its opposite. When he speaks of lost times, Clare extols the freedom of cattle and sheep to roam, the freedom of wild creatures to burrow or nest where they will, the freedom of the wild spaces where stands of trees and berry-bushes could grow unmolested. Now comes the ‘knave’ to sweep all that away, and he too speaks of ‘freedom’.

With axe at root he felled thee to the ground
And barked of freedom — O I hate that sound...

Thus came enclosure — ruin was its guide
But freedom’s clapping hands enjoyed the sight
, Though comfort’s cottage soon was thrust aside
And workhouse prisons raised upon the site.

‘Freedom is slavery’. Orwell’s authoritarian mantra in Nineteen Eighty-Four is anticipated in this poem. Landowners used the word liberally and, no doubt, sincerely; for them it meant economic freedom on a par with burgeoning industry. But for the peasant it meant a new kind of slavery, either as a hired field hand working for a pittance, or — lacking even a labouring job — as a workhouse inmate; or else as a migrant drifting into the city to swell the ranks of the industrial proletariat.

There can be no mistaking the bitterness with which Clare spits out the word ‘freedom’ in The Fallen Elm. The word has been sullied and corrupted; it has been emptied of all its substance.

Sometimes we have to listen in a special way to a poet’s voice. We have to ‘tune in’ and learn to pick up the peculiar force and intonation the poet lends to certain words and images. In Clare’s work the voltage is often much higher than we think. The phrase ‘the road where all are free’ in the trespass poem quoted above has the power to throw us back a step or two if we are fully in touch with it: this is a freedom little better than that of a caged bird on its perch or a zoo animal pacing about its compound.

Everywhere in Clare’s political writings, ‘free’, ‘freedom’ and ‘enclosure’ carry a powerful charge. There’s more fire in them than they would normally contain for readers in our time; we have grown used to the private ownership of land, do not expect to find in most rural areas vast tracts of free, unfenced landscape. But if we ‘tune in’ sensitively to Clare’s voice, we begin to see all this as he saw it, and acknowledge his anger and grief.

Enclosure for Clare was a greater evil than is implied by mere land-grabbing. It was theft not only of land but also of dignity and identity. It was a denial of access to an intimate knowledge of nature and a relationship with living things.

At one point in his long poem The Parish — unpublished, it almost goes without saying — Clare puts his anger into particular words that have come to seem prophetic. In the same tone of sorrow and anger found in so many of his poems, he laments the fate of poor men who may be hanged for the most petty theft,

While wealthy thieves with knavery’s bribes endued
Plunder their millions and are not pursued.

The language is archaic, but the sentiment is perennial. Knowing Clare’s work, we are in no doubt as to the identity of these ‘thieves’. They ‘are not pursued’ because they have made laws for the the poor while remaining above the law themselves.

A century and a half later, there is little difference in kind; the scale is merely greater. In poor countries of the South today, there is an immense flood of the dispossessed into shanty towns. Agribusiness corporations ‘plunder their millions’. Rich-list bankers and corporate moguls in every economic field promote the distribution of wealth from the poor to the rich.

“In the beginning of Time, the great Creator Reason, made the Earth to be a Common Treasury... but not one word was spoken in the beginning, That one branch of mankind should rule over another.” Thus the Leveller Gerrard Winstanley in the midst of the great convulsion of the English Commonwealth.

Is it really so? Our ‘beginning’ is not the same as Winstanley’s: not Eden but Africa, where apes began to walk upright and evolved new brain functions. Can it be that we are programmed, not to husband the living Earth as a common treasury, but instead to arrange ourselves into hierarchies, to go after power and then abuse it, to amass astronomical wealth while others starve? Is this the default human condition?

Efforts to bring about a radically new society have failed, not least the seventy-year Soviet experiment. In 1917, peasants’ committees instilled with a communal political awareness and determination unknown in any country in Clare’s lifetime, compelled landowners to sign over large tracts for peasant cultivation. Within a few years, however, the revolution that had begun by reversing the process of land enclosure had fallen into abuses of power as cruel as any in history.

Is this our evolutionary heritage? Are the protests of Winstanley and John Clare, and of those who try to make revolutions, cries and acts against nature? In our time, it seems that they are: it seems that the knotweed of private property and private wealth has taken root everywhere, as if it is the natural outcome of six million years of human evolution.

If all this seems apocalyptic, it is little more so than Clare’s world must have appeared to him. His horizon was closer than ours; but the small world he knew was becoming, in his own words, ‘a desert strange and chill’. The England he had known seemed to him so altered he could no longer recognise it or find a niche for himself in it. He was an outcast.

Still, through all the years in the County Asylum and through times when he must have felt close to disintegration, he continued to write. His later poems were transcribed as fair copies by one of the asylum staff, including one of the best known and most memorable:

I am — yet what I am, none cares or knows;
My friends forsake me like a memory lost;
I am the self-consumer of my woes;
They rise and vanish in oblivion’s host,
Like shadows in love’s frenzied stifled throes:
And yet I am, and live — like vapours tossed

Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life or joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems.

Like any artist who walks close to the edge, Clare was able to shape his sense of loss and alienation into objects of beauty. In happier times, he gave form to the most intimate moments in the daily life of a rural community. When he wrote

O words are poor receipts for what time hath stole away,

he undervalued his own writings, which have grown in stature over time, and have lost none of their warmth or wisdom.

John Clare online

Copyright © 2012 by James Graham

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