How John Clare’s home defined his life and work.
Nov 29, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 11 • By SARA LODGE
I joined a coach trip to the village of Great Casterton, where Clare was married in a church whose nave bears the monitory legend “Worship God and Obey Ye King.” Then we ate homemade cake, with fresh cream and strawberries, in the Village Hall. The day ended at Helpston church, where individual Clare enthusiasts got up in turn to read their favorite poem. I was unexpectedly moved by this—particularly the sight of a woman suffering from a serious disease, who could barely walk on crutches to the altar, but then recited “Emmonsails Heath in Winter” from memory.
There is something about Clare: the directness of his language; his love of the natural world; his plangent protest against landowners who encroached on common land and denied ordinary people access to its benefits. Some writers have admirers. Clare, one feels, has friends.
I went out into the churchyard and stood by Clare’s tomb—a long horizontal stone inscribed “A Poet Is Born Not Made.” All around it were small baskets of flowers, “Midsummer Cushions,” brought by local children who mark Clare’s birthday by writing and reading out their own nature-inspired poems here. I reflected on whether the epitaph was apt. It seemed to emphasize Clare’s native gift at the expense of his conscious and active struggle to become a poet. Critics continue to struggle over Clare’s legacy—arguing, for example, about whether the (idiosyncratic, often absent) punctuation and grammar of his poems should be edited. Their debate reflects a wider battle over who owns Clare’s manuscripts, where he belongs in the literary canon, and how we should best interpret his work.
None of these questions is straightforward. Yet, one thing was clear to me after spending time at the Helpston Festival: It is where John Clare brings people together, shaking hands with fellow readers who minutes before, were strangers, that his questing, lyrical, sociable spirit survives.
Sara Lodge, a senior lecturer in English at the University of St Andrews, is the author of Thomas Hood and Nineteenth-Century Poetry: Work, Play, and Politics.