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.”
—there put that bramble bye
Nay trample on its branshes and get near
How subtle is the bird she started out
And raised a plaintive note of danger nigh
Ere we were past the brambles and now near
Her nest she sudden stops—as choking fear
That might betray her home so even now
Well leave it as we found it . . .
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.
Being in Helpston, you can see why the limits of the local were both a delight and a problem for Clare. He loved the landscape of gently rolling meadows, heaths, woods, and streams, and no poet conveys the ecology of his place more vividly. But he also yearned for intellectual adventure and a fame that would remove him from the cramping force of pastoral poverty. The cottage where Clare was born and where he returned to live with his parents, his wife, and children has recently been restored and opened to the public as a museum. It is tiny. It is hard to imagine six or more bodies sharing the space, let alone one of them writing.
The festival began with an evening walk on Torpel Manor fields, which border the village. A local trust has taken over the site, which is archaeologically important, harboring the remains of a medieval earthworks as well as a conservation area for rare wild plants, birds, and amphibians. It was a perfect July day, still warm at 7 p.m. (a rarity in Britain), and it was a pleasure to wander across the kind of wild space that Clare enjoyed.
From time to time, a Clare enthusiast came up to me and said, “Can I read you a poem?” This is the only occasion when I have been buttonholed in verse, and once I got used to being poured a sonnet, in the way that at a different kind of party you might be poured a dry martini, I decided I quite liked it. It is not always best to have a bard in hand; sometimes being surprised by two in the bush can be quite entertaining.
Afterwards, I meandered, as Clare might have done, to the Exeter Arms, a pub that hosts a folk music evening in Clare’s honor. There I found a cheery sight. Pete Shaw, the amiable master of ceremonies, was leading an impromptu gathering of singers and players, including two violins, two guitars, a banjo, a double bass, and no fewer than five squeezeboxes. They were drinking a local ale, “Waterford Wherry,” and improvising on traditional tunes that Clare himself, a keen fiddler, is known to have played. One guitarist also performed his own, modern settings of songs that Clare wrote. It was as if Jack Johnson had traveled to the early 19th century to do a jam session.
“I haven’t really read much of Clare’s poetry,” confessed Pete, “but I know him through his music.” During the festival, I came to realize that everyone had come to Clare through a different route—natural history, music, biography, literature, politics, even religion—and that everyone had their own Clare, someone they knew intimately, but who was not the same figure that another enthusiast would recognize.
Saturday dawned sunny and fair as the main celebrations got underway. The Clare Society had its Annual General Meeting in a tent behind the village school. I didn’t observe any mad members, but mild eccentricity was much in evidence. There was a discussion about the increasing costs of printing and posting the society newsletter. “Why don’t you just put it online?” someone suggested. This idea caused great consternation. I have a sense that many members of the Clare Society are better acquainted with Gutenberg than Google. As one of very few people present under the age of 40, I began to feel pleasingly young.
There were bookstalls, where one could buy everything from a Clare postcard to a first edition of Poems Descriptive, talks about Clare, local exhibitions of weaving and woodblock printing, and various kinds of Clare-related performance. At lunch I adjourned to the Bluebell Inn to watch the morris dancers. There is much hilarity at the expense of morris dancing in England, and Sir Thomas Beecham’s adage—“In this life try everything once, except incest and morris dancing”—is widely quoted. You can see why. The spectacle of eight middle-aged men in white smocks, decorated with ribbons, bells and flowers, going through dance routines that involve bumping sticks and waving handkerchiefs has its comic side. But it is a friendly and ancient tradition, which dates back to Shakespeare’s day. And Clare enjoyed it, writing a poem in praise of the men deckt out in ribbons gay and papers cut / Fine as a maidens fancy off they strut / And act the morris dance from door to door / Their highest gains a penny nothing more. The notion of ordinary people practicing an art that is fun, community-based, and available to all seems very much in the spirit of Clare’s writing.
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.