St Martin’s Eve by John Clare

St Martin’s day is the 11th November and taken as the feast day of the saint, Martin of Tours, particularly noted as 11th minute of 11th hour of the eleventh day, eleventh month.  (See Brewers Phrase & Fable)

In England, as well as the Saints day the 11th was pastorally (upto/into 19th Century) known as the first day of winter.

This day would set the change in rural patterns of work, especially agricultural labourers and the poor when they would of necessity do less in the fields regarding crops and livestock and more forestry and work that was tied closer to home.  Though livestock would often be held closer to the barns it would still need close attention to feed and for security (in fact more if shelter not available). Winter would mean less outdoor work, or harder outdoor work very much depending on the weather.

The 11th November is also the Feast day of Bacchus.

Armistice Day (UK) has also been placed at 11, 11, 11, November since the end of the First World War.  This referring back to the St Martin’s action when as a Roman soldier in giving half his cloak, on that cold night, to a poor stranger and in the morning discovering the stranger was Jesus.

Especially in village life the Eve of St Martin would be a celebration as the last ‘Hurrah’ before the expected difficulties of the winter.

John Clare wrote a poem around one of these occasions, as usual full of acute observation:

ST MARTINS EVE                  John Clare

Now that the year grows wearisome with age                                                                                 & days grow short & nights excessive long                                                                                     No outdoor sports the village hinds engage                                                                                Still is the meadow romp and harvest song                                                                               That wont to echo from each merry throng                                                                                   At dinner hours beneath hugh spreading tree
Rude winds hath done the landscape mickle wrong
That nature in her mirth did ill foresee                                                                                       Who clingeth now to hope like shipwrecked folk at sea

The woods are desolate of song – the sky
Is all forsaken of its joyous crowd
Martin & swallow there no longer flye
– Hugh seeming rocks & deserts now enshroud
The sky for aye with shadow shaping cloud
None there of all those busy tribes remain
No song is heard save one that wails aloud
From the all lone & melancholly crane
Who like a traveller lost the right road seeks in vain

The childern hastening in from threatening rain
No longer round the fields for wild fruit run
But at their homes from morn till night remain
& wish in vain to see the welcome sun
Winters imprisonment is all begun
Yet when the wind grows troubleous & high
Pining for freedom like a lovesick nun
Around the gardens little bounds they flye
Beneath the roaring trees fallen apples to espye

But spite of all the melancholly moods                                                                                       That out of doors poor pleasures heart alarms                                                                        Flood bellowing rivers & wind roaring woods
The fireside evening owns increasing charms
What with the tale & eldern wine that warms
In purple bubbles by the blazing fire                                                                                               Of simple cots & rude old fashioned farms                                                                                They feel as blest as joys can well desire                                                                                          & midnight often joins before the guests retire

& such a group on good St Martins eve                                                                                             Was met together upon pleasure bent
Where tales & fun did cares so well deceive
That the old cottage rung with merriment                                                                                      & even the very rafters groaned and bent
Not so much it would seem from tempests din                                                                         That roared without in roaring discontent                                                                                     As from the merry noise & laugh within                                                                                     That seemed as summers sports had never absent bin

Beside the fire large apples lay to roast
& in a hugh brown pitcher creaming ale
Was warming seasoned with a nutmeg toast
The merry group of gossips to regale
Around her feet the glad cat curled her tail
Listening the crickets song with half shut eyes
While in the chimney top loud roared the gale
Its blustering howl of outdoor symphonies
That round the cottage hearth bade happier moods arise

& circling round the fire the merry folks
Brought up all sports their memory could devise
Playing upon each other merry jokes
& now one shuts his hands & archly cries
Come open wide your mouth & shut your eyes
& see what gifts are sent you—foolish thing
He doth as he is bid & quickly rise
The peals of laughter when they up & fling
The ashes in while he goes spitting from the ring

& the old dame tho not in laughing luck
For that same night at one fell sweeping stroke
Mischieving cat that at a mouse had struck
Upon the shelf her best blue china broke
Yet spite of fate so funny was the joke
She laughed until her very sides did shake
& some so tittled were they could not smoke
Laying down their pipes lest they their pipe should break
& laughed & laugh again until their ribs did ache

Then deftly one with cunning in his eyes                                                                                   With out stretched hand walks backward in the dark
Encouraged to the feet with proffered prize
If so he right can touch pretended mark
Made on the wall — & happy as a lark
He chuckles oer success by hopes prepared                                                                            While one with open mouth like greedy shark
Slives in the place & bites his finger hard
He bawls for freedom loud & shames his whole reward

Then came more games of wonderment & fun
Which set poor Hodges wisdom all aghast
Who sought three knives to hide them one by one
While one no conjuror to reveal the past
Blindfold would tell him where he hid the last
Hodge hiding two did for the third enquire
All tittered round & bade him hold it fast
But ah he shook it from his hands in ire
For while he hid the two they warmed it in the fire

Then to appease him with his burning hand
They bade him hide himself & they would tell
The very way in which he chose to stand
Hodge thought the matter most impossible
& on his knees behind the mash tub fell
& muttering said I’ll beat em now or never
Crying out “how stand I” just to prove the spell
They answered “like a fool” & thing so clever
Raised laughter against Hodge more long & loud than ever

Nor can the aged in such boisterous glee
Escape the tricks for laugh & jest designed
The old dame takes the bellows on her knee
& puffs in vain to tricks of rougery blind
Nor heeds the urgin who lets out the wind
With crafty finger & with cunning skill
That for her life the cause she cannot find
Untill the group unable to be still
Laughs out & dame though tricked smiles too against her will

Yet mid this strife of joy — on corner stool
One sits all silent doomed to worst of fate
Who made one slip in love & played the fool
& since condemned to live without a mate
No youth again courts once beguiled Kate
Tho hopes of sweethearts yet perplex her head
& charms to try by gipseys told of late
Beneath her pillow lays an onion red
To dream on this same night with whom she is to wed

& hopes that like to sunshine warming falls                                                                            Being all the solace to her withering mind                                                                               When they for dancing rise old young & all                                                                                 She in her corner musing sits behind                                                                                           Her palid cheek upon her hand reclined                                                                                 Nursing rude melancolly like a child                                                                                            Who sighs its silence to the sobbing wind                                                                                   That in the chimney roars with fury wild                                                                                 While every other heart to joy is reconciled

One thumps the warming pan with merry glee                                                                         That bright as is a mirror decks the cot                                                                                 Another droning as an humble bee                                                                                             Plays on the muffled comb till Piping hot                                                                                   With over strained exertion – yet the lot                                                                                         Is such an happy one that still he plays                                                                                      Fatigue & all its countless ills forgot                                                                                               All that he wants he wins – for rapture pays                                                                                 To his unwearied skill right earnest words of praise

Ah happy hearts how happy cant be told                                                                                        To fancy music in such clamorous noise                                                                                     Like those converting all they touched to gold                                                                       These all they hearken to convert to joys                                                                                      Thrice happy hearts – old men as wild as boys                                                                              –    Old women whom no cares of life destroys                                                                        Dance with girls – true did the bard surmise                                                                        “Where ignorance is bliss tis folly to be wise”

When weary of the dance one reads a tale                                                                                      Tho puzzled oft to spell a lengthy word                                                                                    Storys though often read yet never stale                                                                                      But gaining interest every time theyre heard                                                                            With morts of wonderment that neer occurred                                                                           Yet simple souls their faith it knows no stint                                                                           Things least to be believed are most preferred                                                                              All counterfeits as from truths sacred mint                                                                                 Are readily believed if once put down in print

Bluebeard & all his murders dread parade                                                                                  Are listened to & all mourned for & the tear                                                                           Drops from the blue eye of the listening maid                                                                          Warm as it fell upon her lovers bier                                                                                           None in the circle doubt of what they hear
It were a sin to doubt oer tales so true
So say the old whose wisdom all revere
& unto whom such reverence may be due
For honest good intents praise that belongs to few

& Tib a Tinkers Daughter is the tale
That doth by wonder their rude hearts engage
Oer young & old its witchcraft scenes prevail                                                                                In the rude legends of her pilgrimage
How she in servitude did erst engage                                                                                             To live with an old hag of dreadful fame
Who often fell in freaks of wonderous rage                                                                                     & played with Tib full many a bitter game                                                                                   Till een the children round cried out for very shame

They read how once to thrash her into chaff
The fearful witch tied Tibby in a sack
& hied her to the wood to seek a staff
That might be strong enough her bones to whack
But lucky Tib escaped ere she came back                                                                                     And tied up dog & cat her doom to share                                                                                          & pots & pans – & loud the howl and crack
That rose when the old witch with inky hair                                                                            Began the sack to thrash with no intent to spare

& when she found her unrevenged mistake
Her rage more fearful grew but all in vain
For fear no more caused Tibbys heart to ache
She far away from the old hags domain
Ran hartsomely a better place to gain
& here the younkers tongues grew wonder glib
With gladness & the reader stopt again
Declaring all too true to be a fib
& urged full glasses round to drink success to Tib

& when her sorrows & her pilgrimage
The plot of most new novels & old tales                                                                                     Grew to a close her beauty did presage                                                                                       Luck in the wind – & fortune spread her sails
In favouring bounty to Tibs summer gales                                                                                     All praised her beauty & the lucky day                                                                                            At length its rosey smiling face unveils                                                                                    When Tib of course became a lady gay
& loud the listeners laugh while childern turned to play

Anon the clock counts twelve & mid their joys
The startled blackbird smooths its feathers down
That in its cage grew weary of their noise
—The merry maiden & the noisey clown
Prepare for home & down the straggling town
To seek their cottages they tittering go
Heartened with sports & stout ale berry brown
Beside their dames like chanticleer they crow
While every lanthorn flings long gleams along the snow


Below is a well-known ballad of unknown origins, possibly Scotland where many good ballads seem to have originated, or at least remained to be handed down.  It seems typical of stories that would have circulated round fireplaces at Martinmass and is still a regular in the folk-singers’ songbook.    Clare would have known this ballad as he was an avid collector of ballads and their tunes.  Seems he had a knowledge of some 200 folk tunes for the fiddle though not all would have been with words as dance was a high priority for entertainment.

The Wife of Usher’s Well

There lived a wife at Ushers Well,
And a wealthy wife was she;
She had three stout and stalwart sons,
And sent them o’er the sea.

They hadna been a week from her,
A week but barely ane,
Whan word came to the carline wife
That her three sons were gane.

They hadna been a week from her,
A week but barely three,
Whan word came to the carlin wife
That her sons she’d never see.

“I wish the wind May never cease,
Nor (fashes) in the flood,
Till my three sons come home to me,
In earthly flesh and blood,”

It fell about the Martinmass,
When nights are lang and mirk,
The carlin wife”s three sons came hame,
And their hats were o’ the birk.

It neither grew in syke nor ditch,
Nor yet in ony sheugh;
But at the gates o Paradise,
That birk grew fair enough

“Blow up the fire, my maidens!
Bring water from the well!
For a’ my house hall feast this night,
Since my three sons are well.”

And she has made to them a bed,
She’s made it large and wide
And she’s ta’en her mantle her about,
Sat down at the bed-side.

Up then crew the red, red cock,
And up and crew the gray;
The eldest to the youngest said,
“‘Tis time we were away.”

The cock he hadna craw’d but once,
And clapp’d his wings at a’,
When the youngest to the eldest said,
“Brother, we must awa’.

“The cock doth craw, the day doth daw,
The channerin’ worlm doth chide;
Gin we be mist out o’ our place,
A sair pain we maun bide.

“Fare ye weel, my mother dear!
Fareweel to barn and byre!
And fare ye weel, the bonny lass
That kindles my mother’s fire.

This is a ballad where words are reasonably obvious though older versions seem to have been written in an even more ‘Scottish’ dialect than others.   This version can be read easily and assists with spellings that help with a vaguely original (older! Scottish!) pronunciation.   Though maybe as I am English I do not have a clue!!!

Another ballad/poem I have read is very similar but the sons appear at the door in the state in which they were called back to visit there mother:  somewhat dead and decomposed I seem to recall.  When I come across it I will write it in……



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