1793-1864: John Clare, poet of the countryside

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From the National Portrait Gallery website: “Promoted as ‘the Northamptonshire Peasant Poet’, Clare spent much of his life as a poor agricultural labourer before mental illness condemned him to an asylum in 1837. His intensely detailed poetry reflects his love of his native countryside. It also movingly describes the hardship suffered by the rural poor living in a landscape being destroyed by enclosure. Clare enjoyed a brief London vogue with his Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery (1820) and The Village Minstrel (1821). In 1827, he published The Shepherd’s Calendar a more political verse in which man shapes the landscape and is defined by it.”

From This Land Is Ours, by Dave Featherstone, reprinted here in full –

John Clare and ‘The Tragedy of the Enclosures’

The Mores

Far spread the moorey ground a level scene
Bespread with rush and one eternal green
That never felt the rage of blundering plough
Though centurys wreathed spring’s blossoms on its brow
Still meeting plains that stretched them far away
In uncheckt shadows of green brown, and grey
Unbounded freedom ruled the wandering scene
Nor fence of ownership crept in between
To hide the prospect of the following eye
Its only bondage was the circling sky
One mighty flat undwarfed by bush and tree
Spread its faint shadow of immensity
And lost itself, which seemed to eke its bounds
In the blue mist the horizon’s edge surrounds
Now this sweet vision of my boyish hours
Free as spring clouds and wild as summer flowers
Is faded all – a hope that blossomed free,
And hath been once, no more shall ever be
Inclosure came and trampled on the grave
Of labour’s rights and left the poor a slave
And memory’s pride ere want to wealth did bow
Is both the shadow and the substance now
The sheep and cows were free to range as then
Where change might prompt nor felt the bonds of men
Cows went and came, with evening morn and night,
To the wild pasture as their common right
And sheep, unfolded with the rising sun
Heard the swains shout and felt their freedom won
Tracked the red fallow field and heath and plain
Then met the brook and drank and roamed again
The brook that dribbled on as clear as glass
Beneath the roots they hid among the grass
While the glad shepherd traced their tracks along
Free as the lark and happy as her song
But now all’s fled and flats of many a dye
That seemed to lengthen with the following eye
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
Each little path that led its pleasant way
As sweet as morning leading night astray
Where little flowers bloomed round a varied host
That travel felt delighted to be lost
Nor grudged the steps that he had ta-en as vain
When right roads traced his journeys and again –
Nay, on a broken tree he’d sit awhile
To see the mores and fields and meadows smile
Sometimes with cowslaps smothered – then all white
With daiseys – then the summer’s splendid sight
Of cornfields crimson o’er the headache bloomd
Like splendid armys for the battle plumed
He gazed upon them with wild fancy’s eye
As fallen landscapes from an evening sky
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
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
Thus, with the poor, scared freedom bade goodbye
And much they feel it in the smothered sigh
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.



Summer pleasures they are gone like to visions every one
And the cloudy days of autumn and of winter cometh on
I tried to call them back but unbidden they are gone
Far away from heart and eye and for ever far away
Dear heart and can it be that such raptures meet decay
I thought them all eternal when by Langley Bush I lay
I thought them joys eternal when I used to shout and play
On its bank at ‘clink and bandy’ ‘chock’ and ‘taw’ and
ducking stone
Where silence sitteth now on the wild heath as her own
Like a ruin of the past all alone
When I used to lie and sing by old eastwells boiling spring
When I used to tie the willow boughs together for a ‘swing’
And fish with crooked pins and thread and never catch a
With heart just like a feather- now as heavy as a stone
When beneath old lea close oak I the bottom branches broke
To make our harvest cart like so many working folk
And then to cut a straw at the brook to have a soak
O I never dreamed of parting or that trouble had a sting
Or that pleasures like a flock of birds would ever take to
Leaving nothing but a little naked spring
When jumping time away on old cross berry way
And eating awes like sugar plumbs ere they had lost the may
And skipping like a leveret before the peep of day
On the rolly polly up and downs of pleasant swordy well
When in round oaks narrow lane as the south got black again
We sought the hollow ash that was shelter from the rai n
With our pockets full of peas we had stolen from the grain
How delicious was the dinner time on such a showry day
O words are poor receipts for what time hath stole away
The ancient pulpit trees and the play
When for school oer ‘little field’ with its brook and wooden
Where I swaggered like a man though I was not half so big
While I held my little plough though twas but a willow twig
And drove my team along made of nothing but a name
‘Gee hep’ and ‘hoit’ and ‘woi’- O I never call to mind
These pleasant names of places but I leave a sigh behind
While I see the little mouldywharps hang sweeing to the wind
On the only aged willow that in all the field remains
And nature hides her face where theyre sweeing in their
And in a silent murmuring complains
Here was commons for the hills where they seek for
freedom still
Though every commons gone and though traps are set to kill
The little homeless miners- O it turns my bosom chill
When I think of old ‘sneap green’ puddocks nook and hilly
Where bramble bushes grew and the daisy gemmed in dew
And the hills of silken grass like to cushions to the view
Whe n we threw the pissmire crumbs when we’s nothing
else to do
All leveled like a desert by the never weary plough
All vanished like the sun where that cloud is passing now
All settled here for ever on its brow
I never thought that joys would run away from boys
Or that boys would change their minds and forsake such
summer joys
But alack I never dreamed that the world had other toys
To petrify first feelings like the fable into stone
Till I found the pleasure past and a winter come at last
Then the fields were sudden bare and the sky got overcast
And boyhoods pleasing haunts like a blossom in the blast
Was shrivelled to a withered weed and trampled down and
Till vanished was the morning spring and set that summer
And winter fought her battle strife and won
By Langley bush I roam but the bush hath left its hill
On cowper green I stray tis a desert strange and chill
And spreading lea close oak ere decay had penned its will
To the axe of the spoiler and self interest fell a prey
And cross berry way and old round oaks narrow lane
With its hollow trees like pulpits I shall never see again
Inclosure like a Buonapar te let not a thing remain
It levelled every bush and tree and levelled every hill
And hung the moles for traitors – though the brook is
running still
It runs a naked brook cold and chill
O had I known as then joy had left the paths of men
I had watched her night and day besure and never slept agen
And when she turned to go O I’d caught her mantle then
And wooed her like a lover by my lonely side to stay
Aye knelt and worshipped on as love in beautys bower
And clung upon her smiles as a bee upon her flower
And gave her heart my poesys all cropt in a sunny hour
As keepsakes and pledges to fade away
But love never heeded to treasure up the may
So it went the comon road with decay
Composed c. 1832 First published 1908

mouldywharps – moles


To a Fallen Elm

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
How did I love to hear the winds upbraid
Thy strength without while all within was mute
It seasoned comfort to our hearts desire
We felt thy kind protection like a friend
And pitched our chairs up closer to the fire
Enjoying comforts that was was never penned

Old favourite tree thoust seen times changes lower
But change till now did never come to thee
For time beheld thee as his sacred dower
And nature claimed thee her domestic tree
Storms came and shook thee with aliving power
Yet stedfast to thy home thy roots hath been
Summers of thirst parched round thy homely bower
Till earth grew iron – still thy leaves was green
The children sought thee in thy summer shade
And made their play house rings of sticks and stone
The mavis sang and felt himself alone
While in they leaves his early nest was made
And I did feel his happiness mine own
Nought heeding that our friendship was betrayed

Friend not inanimate- tho stocks and stones
There are and many cloathed in flesh and bones
Thou ownd a lnaguage by which hearts are stirred
Deeper than by the attribute of words
Thine spoke a feeling known in every tongue
Language of pity and the force of wrong
What cant assumes what hypocrites may dare
Speaks home to truth and shows it what they are

I see a picture that thy fate displays
And learn a lesson from thy destiny
Self interest saw thee stand in freedoms ways
So thy old shadow must a tyrant be
Thoust heard the knave abusing those in power
Bawl freedom loud and then oppress the free
Thoust sheltered hypocrites in many an hour
That when in power would never shelter thee
Thoust heard the knave supply his canting powers
With wrongs illusions when he wanted friends
That bawled for shelter when he lived in showers
And when clouds vanished made thy shade ammends
With axe at root he felled thee to the ground
And barked of freedom – O I hate that sound

It grows the cant terms of enslaving tools
To wrong another by the name of right
It grows a liscence with oer bearing fools
To cheat plain honesty by force of might
Thus came enclosure- ruin was her guide
But freedoms clapping hands enjoyed the sight
Tho comforts cottage soon was thrust aside
And workhouse prisons raised upon the scite
Een natures dwelling far away from men
The common heath became the spoilers prey
The rabbit had not where to make his den
And labours only cow was drove away
No matter- wrong was right and right was wrong
And freedoms brawl was sanction to the song

Such was thy ruin music making Elm
The rights of freedom was to injure thine
As thou wert served so would they overwhelm
In freedoms name the little so would they over whelm
And these are knaves that brawl for better laws
And cant of tyranny in stronger powers
Who glut their vile unsatiated maws
And freedoms birthright from the weak devours

Composed c. 1821 First published 1920


Background to John Clare and Enclosures

John Clare perhaps one of the most overlooked, misrepresented and misunderstood poets in the English language, is an extraordinary fine ‘nature’ poet. He was the most striking of a number of poets who were seized upon by the early nineteenth century literary establishment as illustrating the authentic voice of th e English peasant’ just as that vocation and the landscape that went with it were being banished and razed forever- this representation has startling parallels in the green movements sentimentalised invocation of shifting cultivating tribes in places like Papua New Guinea in a similar epoch of destruction and reinvention of (the idea of) nature. His poems, despite the ways that they have been represented distinctively go beyond the narrow limits of the pastoral, of the idea of the existence of a harmonious uncontested countryside, and show they are much more than the mad incoherent ramblings of a ‘rhyming peasant’ (he ended his life in an asylum).

The poems that made him ‘amusing to Dukes’ in London’s literary scene were generally inferior to his later work – much of which remained unpublished until long after his death. He grew up in the small fenland community of Helpstone in Northamptonshire, and ‘the green language’ running through his poetry forms beautifully sensitive description of that area’s creatures and people. ‘Remembrances’ and ‘To a Fallen Elm’, are two of the finest examples of the elegies he wrote to the fields and woods which he grew up in as they were destroyed and razed by the brutal progress of enclosure. Although the enclosure of ‘common land’ was not a ‘new’ process in early nineteenth century England- it had been going on before Gerrard Winstanley’s time- but the virulency of it was new – and through it the vicious inequality of English rural society acquired a ‘terrible visibility’.

Clare’s poetry gives voice to a ‘tormented customary consciousness’: in his poetry we see the disintegration of a moral economy- an economy which was still held together by a delicate social fabric based and secured by custom, rather than by the vagaries of money and profit: though this ‘moral’ economy could be as brutal and unequal as anything that came after it. What Clare laments is the replacement of this order by ‘new instrumental and exploitative stance, not only towards labour……… but also towards the natural world’. This is important because it shows that the experience of people and nature are not riven and fractured apart, but intertwined. The persistence of fracturing apart people, especially ‘working’ people, from their complex and uneven interrelations with nature is one of the major reasons for the poverty in our understandings of the relationships between people, inequality and ecology. This intertwining of the experience of people and nature is starkly represented in an image like that of the hanging moles in ‘Remembrances’. Here there is a blurring of the distinctive experience of people and nature, since they can stand for each other- the image probably alludes to the labourers hung during the Captain Swing riots and rick burnings that exploded across Southern England during 1830: A period ringing with the echoes of the ‘bloody old Times’ baying for the labourers blood.

The most disabling element that one sees enclosure bringing to the lives of landless labourers in Clare is the way that they were not only dispossesed of ownership, but also of their control of their landscape: they became alienated from it. This new landscape of ‘repression and greed’ that enclosure had stamped upon the land is similarly stamped across the structure of ‘Remembrances’. One feels the fences and exclusions of the new landscape tightening like a torque around the poems beautifully flowing rhythm; particularly in the last line of each stanza which cuts bitterly across the verse’s sprung motion. In ‘To a Fallen Elm’ the fact that Clare no longer has the right to decide the fate of the Elm overshadowing his house becomes an emblem of the erosion of the right to nature- of the right to shape one’s environment. this right is ridden over by a new knavish and empty conception of freedom. Though he sentimentalised the Helpstone of his youth Clare’s writing suggests resources for the emergence of ‘a different kind of freedom’, from this knavish and empty conception- in the r elationships between people and between people and their environments: ‘a different kind of freedom’ which has many resonances for the struggle to prevent the New Right ensuring that we only conceptualise each other and our environments through the grid of financial value and transactions.

Dave Featherstone


E.P. Thompson ‘Custom Law and Common Right’ in his Customs in Common 1991 Penguin esp p. 175- 184.

John Tripp’s fine poem ‘Greetings, John Clare’ in his Selected Poems published by Seren.

Raymond and Merryn Williams’s edition of John Clare: Selected Poetry and Prose which has fine introduction and critical commentary and is published by Methuen.

Raymond Williams ‘The Country and The City’ published by Chatto and Windus/ the Hogarth Press.

The important phrase ‘Tragedy of Enclosures’ is used by the Spanish writer on ecology and inequality- J. Martinez-Alier in an essay on Latin American ecological history:

‘Ecology and the poor: A neglected dimension of Latin American history’. Journal of Latin American Studies 23.


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