How John Clare’s home defined his life and work.
Nov 29, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 11 • By SARA LODGE
John Clare (1793-1864) oughtn’t to have been a poet. Born to a barely literate farm laborer and his illiterate wife in the village of Helpston, a rural English backwater 80 miles north of London, Clare should have begun and ended his life ploughing, planting, reaping, and threshing. If he had followed the furrow set out for him by his fellow peasants, he would be one of the silent figures in a landscape of the kind painted by his mill-owning contemporary John Constable: a man just visible holding the horse by a hay wagon or bent over a barley stook in an autumn field.
But Clare refused to be bound by the limits of his class, his poverty, his basic education, and his rural dialect. His achievement is extraordinary in the annals of English poetry, not just because he was a brilliant writer but because he recorded scenes and experiences that no town-born or fine-bred poet could truly know. He voiced in print sounds and impressions that previously had existed only in the songs and signs of the land itself.
Clare’s life would make a great movie. He flared into fame in the 1820s with the publication of his first book, Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery by a Northamptonshire Peasant (in some copies, it is spelled “Pheasant”). His work was edited by John Taylor, who also published Keats, and Clare became briefly the toast of literary London, attracting local patrons and distant correspondents. Like Robert Burns before him, Clare tickled the Romantic appetite for authentic, native poetry that spoke of a countryside and its customs that were rapidly being lost to enclosure, industrialization, and urban drift.
But the fashion for peasant poetry was short-lived. After the publication of his second book, although he continued to produce work of astonishing range and ambition, Clare found it difficult to get into print. His mental health had always been fragile, and the rapid transitions of his identity, from yokel to celebrity and back again, didn’t help. Clare spent most of his last 30 years in a lunatic asylum, still writing sporadically wonderful verse, but all but forgotten by history.
Happily, Clare has many modern admirers. They gather each year in Helpston in July to mark Clare’s birthday with a weekend-long festival. I have been a Clare enthusiast for years, moved both by his poetry and by the pathos of his life. But how do you celebrate the birthday of a mad poet who, in 2010, would be 217? Would there be a cake? And was it possible that, of the Clare Society’s six hundred or so members, quite a few were slightly mad themselves? I decided to go and find out.
Helpston is a picture-perfect traditional English village, and I recommend a visit to any American who wishes to be transported into that indefinite period known as Days of Yore. There are neatly thatched cottages with gardens that in July brim with lavender, roses, and hollyhocks. There are three streets: One hosts the Bluebell Inn, one the school and the post office, and one the 12th-century church. They meet in an ancient crossroads, known as the Butter Cross, where Clare played as a child. From Clare’s cottage (by the inn) to his grave, it is only a five-minute walk. The closeness of Helpston is instructive for anyone trying to understand Clare.
One of the things that is startling about his poetry is the intimacy he evokes and draws the reader in to share. Here he is taking us to see a nightingale’s nest, “lost in a wilderness of listening leaves.”
Other poets would give us the nightingale’s bewitching song, the evening star, and rhapsodize about love, and art, and poetry. But Clare is interested in making us experience what it is actually like to disturb a nightingale’s nest. He knows. He is deeply familiar with the materials of birds’ nests, the color of their eggs, their alarm calls. In his poem, the intrusion stops the nightingale from singing. Closeness is both a delight and a problem.