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John Clare: Nature’s hidden poet

13 June 2014

To mark the 150th anniversary of Clare's death, Ronald Blythe provides an insight into the tragic and triumphant life of one of Britain's foremost nature poets

National Portrait Gallery, London

A world away: John Clare by William Hilton, 1820

A world away: John Clare by William Hilton, 1820

ON 20 MAY, the 150th anniversary of John Clare's death in "the madhouse" - Northampton Asylum - we went to Westminster Abbey to lay flowers in Poets' Corner.

I first did this with Ted Hughes, who read "The Nightingale's Nest". He unveiled a plaque next to Matthew Arnold's. On 12 July, Clare's birthday, we will be in Helpston, the epicentre of his life, to walk the fields he ploughed and to drink in the pub where he helped out.

His slow emergence as the distinctive voice of the English countryside is a drama in itself. Born in Northamptonshire (now Cambridgeshire) to a father who ended up smashing stones to mend the lane, and a mother who would have liked to make him a valet, Clare read a fragment of James Thomson's The Seasons when he was 12, and wrote his first poem.

His life was tragic and triumphant. He was slight and good-looking in a Scottish way, fond of girls, taught the fiddle by gypsies, an acquaintance of the village intellectuals, and a wonderful naturalist. His first and, really, only love was Mary Joyce. His desire for her haunted him all his life. But he married Martha Turner when she became pregnant. Often penniless, they would sometimes pay the rent with apples.

FROM his teens on, poetry would pour from him. His discipline was to mutter it when ploughing, and write it down in the evening. He liked the freedom of the open field, and the secrecy of the waste land, where he could read and write unobserved. His was the traditional village society that witnessed everything - particularly a young man reading and writing in the daytime.

As well as having fieldworkers and servants, parsons and aristocrats, farmers and gypsies, Helpston was just off the Great North Road, and so Scots en route to London were visitors. One of them was Clare's grandfather.

Although Clare once apologised for its dullness, Helpston possessed advantages that were to benefit him. But he also witnessed its enclosure, and the destruction of its wilds, the coming of the railway, and what he saw as the disinheritance of its inhabitants.

No one knows what drove Clare into the asylum. He seemed both robust and fragile. His creativity was prodigious. At the end, all he could say was "I am." And that God had decreed it. His was the God of the Old Testament: he rarely mentions the Gospels.

Much of his religious apology was for not attending church, or for leaving Helpston on the sabbath, so that he could join those on the edges of society, or botanise, or write, listening to its distant bells as he did so. When the asylum caught up with him, the report said that his breakdown was brought about "after years addicted to poetical prosing".

IT WAS the young Edmund Blunden who, after the First World War, went to Peterborough to release Clare's long-imprisoned poems to the world. Blunden had published Sketches in the Life of John Clare by Himself in 1931, in which the poet gives a typically cool Georgian account of his religious beliefs. A non-judgemental description of Helpston's Christianity is included.

"About this time, I began to wean off from my companions, and stroll about the woods and fields on Sundays alone; conjectures filled the village about my future destination on the stage of life, some fancying it symptoms of lunacy, and that my mother's prophesies would be verified to her sorrow, and that my reading of books (they would jeeringly say) was for no other improvement than qualifying an idiot for a workhouse.

"For at this time my taste and passion for reading began to be furious, and I never strolled out on a sabbath day but some scrap or other was pocketed for my amusement. I deeply regret useful books was out of my reach; for as I was always shy and reserved, I would never own to my more learned neighbours that I was fond of books, otherwise than the Bible and Prayer Book - the prophetical parts of the former, with the fine Hebrew Poem of Job.

"And the prayers, and the simple translation of the Psalms, in the latter, was such favourite readings with me that I could recite abundance of passages by heart. . . But as it is common in villages to pass judgement on a lover of books as sure indication of laziness, I was drove to the narrow necessity of stinted opportunitys to hide in woods and dingles of thorns in the fields on Sundays to read. . .

"I have often absented myself the whole Sunday at this time, nor could the chiming bells draw me from my hiding place to go to church."

HE LEARNT to write and do sums in the dust of the great stone barn opposite his cottage, just as Thomas Bewick the wood engraver was permitted to teach himself art by drawing on the church flagstones. Paper was at a premium. Clare wrote his first poems on pressed-out sugar-bags. His friend John Turnill wrote the epitaphs for gravestones. Behind all this lay the terror of the illiterate.

Music had no part in this fear. Clare could pay the fiddle, and his father was a ballad singer with a fine voice. Clare could set words to music. His fine hymn "A stranger once did bless the earth" hints at his own desolation. Jesus is the outsider, the poverty-stricken fugitive. He could be the broken Clare who escaped from Allen's dubious assistance to walk home with bleeding feet.

One way and another, the Great North Road would play a crucial part in his life. His Christ was:

An outcast thrown in sorrow's way,
A fugitive that knew no sin,
Yet in lone places forced to stray;
Men would not take the stranger in.

But both his purpose and his fate was not to go anywhere, to lie low. Hiding away in Barnack's hills and holes, he levelled with limestone flowers. Watching birds, he shared their peace and their terror. His poetry is the best of all natural-history observance lessons. His worship, accompanied by bells, was a private inventory of his wild sabbaths, which would make him a free writer when they locked him up.

It was paper that was to fail him, not words. No one brought him flowers. But an entire library of books crept through the gates.

Dr Ronald Blythe is President of the John Clare Society.

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