John Clare born 13 July 1793: 225 years ago today, 2018


clare painting  It is quite amazing that a poet who was recognised by many of his peers of the day, only briefly by his public at large, sank almost out of sight for a hundred years before climbing in stature to a pre-eminent position amongst poets some of whom surpassed him in his lifetime; and is now studied at A level plus degree level and researched widely.

The likes of Burns (with whom Clare felt a close affinity), Byron, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley and many others of his day may have retained their fame but none have grown in stature over the centuries as has Clare.

Born to an agricultural labourer family in Helpston.  Educated at the local village school, he was a promising child who might have gone further as an apprentice but Clare found the rigour of such indoor work confining and seems to have needed the freedom of an outdoor life.   He became a ploughboy.  He found the poetry of Thompson and the work of Robert Bloomfield and his eye and brain turned to poetry.  Not only that but also taking on his father’s interest in playing the fiddle and folk songs.

As well as roaming the countryside for  between or during working hours, he became a collector of folk songs, learnt to play the fiddle, gained knowledge of gypsy music from visiting their camps.  Taught himself to read and write music by reading music scores of tunes he knew so he could  record the tunes he gathered.   And wrote many poems as ‘songs’ for those tunes.    I haven’t read that he wrote any new music, just collected what he heard.   Travellers he met, drovers too, would have brought music from such as Scotland and other regions, in the way that music travels even today.  Many happy hours seem to have been spent working as a pot-man at the Blue Bell Inn or just whiling away the hours with drinking, fiddling and song.  These seem to have been sunny times for him, maybe helping lift his spirits.

john clare statue

statue of Clare in too-large overcoat for his 4foot6 height. Given to him originally to hide his even poorer clothing.

One reason why he has become so well known may be that there is still so much to be discussed and discovered about the man.       He was not highly educated, at a village school, though recommended as a very able student by the master.  He was and continued to be, an avid reader and self-educating along the way in the wide range of books he could borrow or buy.  At one point he had a whole library to select from where he worked as a gardener for a while.   You may say he was unfortunate in his life for all the hardships he had to endure.  The stress of poverty and physical hardship caused an eventual breakdown in his health and mind.

But we must remember that with a mind as sharp as his, we can see decisions that he made for himself.  They may have been wrong at times, pride, unwillingness to change, and an element of diffidence or inferiority that held him back.  I suspect a serious aspect for him was his (in)ability to support his family within the constraints of the work available to his small stature whilst maintaining his growing believe in himself as a poet.  He had some small success on being published but not in volume or as income.  A degree of fame without income was draining mentally, physically and also financially.

His family was supported to move to Northborough a very few miles from his village of Helpston but this was a difficult move for him personally and may have added to his slipping mental health.  However this move did produce a whole raft of writing recently published as the ‘ Northborough Sonnets’

His years in asylums where his mental health was in difficulty actually produced some of his best poetry.  Poetic form was in his blood and it is thankful that he was allowed pen and paper and that these were collected and kept safe.  This was both in High Beech and again in Northampton Asylum after a brief spell of refusing writing materials.  In these years his physical health was much improved, his stress levels most likely lessened by being away from his family.  Though still to some degree because of his separation from family and especially his beloved Helpston environs; and need to be confined within a different, smaller area of grounds.  (Epping Forest would have been an area he could have wandered but had not the fields and fens he loved.). At Northampton, when more settled, he would be allowed to visit the town and often sat in the precinct of All Saint’s Church.

Becoming frail they used a wheelchair for him, enabling him to sit in the asylum grounds. He had a stroke and died shortly after on 20th May 1864.  He was buried at Helpston on 25th May.

clare midsummer cushion

midsummer cushions for Clare on his anniversary from local schoolchildren

His output is put at thousands of poems, large amounts of natural history prose, a brief autobiography, partly written humorous novel and rewriting of verses of the bible.  His writings have been problematical in their ‘deciphering’ and dating put progress has been made in the last few years.  More study will produce more insights and understanding.  No doubt some deeper meanings will be sought from some verse.  In many cases I believe he wrote what he saw, in minute detail, for us all to see. He was not ‘philosophical’ in his writings on nature, perhaps a little, later, in ‘personal’ verse.   He wrote satire too, in scything detail, read The Parish and Don Juan at least for a sharper side to his tongue.  Some say his stature in literature ranks with Shakespeare.  His was a totally different vein to Shakespeare but it is not an idea I have much argument with.

Perhaps I wrote more than I intended but there is so much more to write!  Clare’s poetry should be his memorial.  I usually include lesser known lines where possible and these  later poems, likely from 1860,   are fitting:

The Peasant Poet

He loved the brook’s soft sound,
The swallow swimming by.
He loved the daisy-covered ground,
The cloud-bedappled sky.
To him the dismal storm appeared
The very voice of God;
And when the evening rack was reared
Stood Moses with his rod.
And everything his eyes surveyed,
The insects in the brake,
Were creatures God Almighty made,
He loved them for His sake–
A silent man in life’s affairs,
A thinker from a boy,
A peasant in his daily cares,
A poet in his joy.


To John Clare

Well, honest John, how fare you now at home?
The spring is come, and birds are building nests;
The old cock-robin to the sty is come,
With olive feathers and its ruddy breast;
And the old cock, with wattles and red comb,
Struts with the hens, and seems to like some best,
Then crows, and looks about for little crumbs,
Swept out by little folks an hour ago;
The pigs sleep in the sty; the bookman comes–
The little boy lets home-close nesting go,
And pockets tops and taws, where daisies blow,
To look at the new number just laid down,
With lots of pictures, and good stories too,
And Jack the Giant-killer’s high renown.


I Am

I am: yet what I am none cares or knows,
My friends forsake me like a memory lost;
I am the self-consumer of my woes,
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shades in love and death’s oblivion lost;
And yet I am! and live with shadows tost

Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life nor joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;
And e’en the dearest- that I loved the best-
Are strange- nay, rather stranger than the rest.

I long for scenes where man has never trod;
A place where woman never smil’d or wept;
There to abide with my creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept:
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie;
The grass below- above the vaulted sky.


John Clare, Birds, Bees and Beasts, notes for a wildlife talk.

Birds, Bees and Beasts                                                

John Clare, born July  1793, died May 1864

There is much to be said about John Clare as a poet but he is probably best known as a highly observational poet and writer of Nature from his world of part-fenland, moorland,  wood and even recently enclosed farm-lands surrounding his home village of Helpston a few miles north-ish of Peterborough.  Even today ornithologists  recommend  new enthusiasts to read his writings for accurate descriptions of birds and their activities.

Perhaps the most known poem from anthologies:

Little Trotty Wagtail

Little trotty wagtail he went in the rain,
And tittering, tottering sideways he neer got straight again,
He stooped to get a worm, and looked up to get a fly,
And then he flew away ere his feathers they were dry.

Little trotty wagtail, he waddled in the mud,
And left his little footmarks, trample where he would.
He waddled in the water-pudge, and waggle went his tail,
And chirrupt up his wings to dry upon the garden rail.

Little trotty wagtail, you nimble all about,
And in the dimpling water-pudge you waddle in and out;
Your home is nigh at hand, and in the warm pig-stye,
So, little Master Wagtail, I’ll bid you a good-bye.

I should say here that Clare was not enthusiastic about punctuation and his spelling was variable plus his use of dialect words to add to the mix.   So that’s my excuse!   I just read the best I can!

In 2016    (Dr). Jeff Ollerton spoke at a ‘Clare and Nature’ event (see his ‘biodiversity blog’.)   and pointed out the value of Clare’s natural history writing and poetry for its highly detailed observations.   In the next poem, written sometime in 1825, Clare describes five bees that were common.   Today, after nearly 200 years, naturalists have established from his descriptions that within Northamptonshire at least, four are still common and one, the red-shanked Carder bee is rare. I am not a naturalist, I recognise two sorts of bees from my garden, both common, it seems:    

The poem:

Wild Bees.

These children of the sun which summer brings

As pastoral minstrels in her Merry train

Pipe rustic ballads upon busy wings

And glad the cotters’ quiet toils again.

The white-nosed bee that bores its little hole

In mortared walls and pipes it’s symphonies,

And never absent cousin, black as coal,

That Indian-like bepaints its little thighs,

With white and red bedight for holiday,

Right earlily a-morn do pipe and play

And with their legs stroke slumber from their eyes.

And aye so fond they of their singing seem

That in their holes abed at close of day

They still keep piping in their honey Dreams,

And larger ones that thrum on ruder pipe

Round the sweet smelling closen and rich woods

Where tawny white and red flush clover buds

Shine bonnily and bean fields blossom ripe,

Shed dainty perfumes and give honey food

To these sweet poets of the summer fields;

Me much delighting as I stroll along

The narrow path that hay laid meadow yields,

Catching the windings of their wandering song,

The black and yellow bumble first on wing

To buzz among the sallow’s early flowers,

Hiding it’s nest in holes from fickle spring

Who stints his rambles with her frequent showers;

And one that may for wiser piper pass,

In livery dress half sables and half red,

Who laps a moss ball in the meadow grass

And hoards her stores when April showers have fled;

And russet commoner who knows the face

Of every blossom that the meadow brings,

Starting the traveller to a quicker pace

By threatening round his head in many rings:

These sweeten summer in their happy glee

By giving for her honey melody.


There aren’t so many poems about bees, maybe a few more about Hares.   This is Clare’s

Hares at Play

The birds are gone to bed the cows are still

And sheep lie panting on each old mole hill

And underneath the willows grey green bough

Like toil a resting  –  lies the fallow plough

The timid hares throw daylights fears away

On the lanes road to dust and dance and play

Then dabble in the grain by nought deterred

To lick the dewfall from the barleys beard

Then out they sturt again and round the hill

Like happy thoughts dance squat and loiter still

Till milking maidens in the early morn

Giggle their yokes and start them in the corn

Through well known beaten paths each nimbling hare

Sturts quick as fear  –  and seeks its heavy lair.


Next we could look at his badgers or foxes:  Lets go for the fox, its less well-known

The Fox

The shepherd on his journey heard when nigh
His dog among the bushes barking high;
The ploughman ran and gave a hearty shout,
He found a weary fox and beat him out.
The ploughman laughed and would have ploughed him in
But the old shepherd took him for the skin.
He lay upon the furrow stretched for dead,
The old dog lay and licked the wounds that bled,
The ploughman beat him till his ribs would crack,
And then the shepherd slung him at his back;
And when he rested, to his dog’s surprise,
The old fox started from his dead disguise;
And while the dog lay panting in the sedge
He up and snapt and bolted through the hedge.

He scampered to the bushes far away;
The shepherd called the ploughman to the fray;
The ploughman wished he had a gun to shoot.
The old dog barked and followed the pursuit.
The shepherd threw his hook and tottered past;
The ploughman ran but none could go so fast;
The woodman threw his faggot from the way
And ceased to chop and wondered at the fray.
But when he saw the dog and heard the cry
He threw his hatchet–but the fox was bye.
The shepherd broke his hook and lost the skin;
He found a badger hole and bolted in.
They tried to dig, but, safe from danger’s way,
He lived to chase the hounds another day.


But now the elusive Pine-marten:   Originally untitled, the editors title is


The martin cat long shaged of courage good

Of weazle shape a dweller in the wood

With badger hair long shagged and darting eyes

And lower then the common cat in size

Small head and running on the stoop

Snuffing the ground and hind parts shouldered up

He keeps one track and hides in lonely shade

Where print of human foot is scarcely made

Save when the woods are cut the beaten track

The woodmans dog will snuff cock tailed and black

Red legged and spotted over either eye

Snuffs barks and scrats the lice and passes bye

The great brown horned owl looks down below

And sees the shaggy martin come and go

The martin hurrys through the woodland gaps

And poachers shoot and make his skin for caps

When any woodman come and pass the place

He looks at dogs and scarcely mends his pace

And gipseys often and birdnesting boys

Look in the hole and hear a hissing noise

They climb the tree such noise they never heard

And think the great owl is a foreign bird

When the grey owl her young ones cloathed in down

Seizes the boldest boy and drives him down

They try agen and pelt to start the fray

The grey owl comes and drives them all away

And leaves the Martin twisting round his den

Left free from boys and dogs and noise and men

(Punctuation and spelling as from JC mss,  text from  ‘Clare, NOES’, published Oxford.  Ed’s: Robinson & Summerfield  )      If available still, a good collection to have.

It does look like wildlife was considered entertainment or a threat in Clare’s day too.

I reckon the owl mentioned is the one known as Eurasian eagle owl from Clare’s note of colour and nesting. Not the white, Arctic Owl.   Pine-Martins are extremely secretive animals and very scarce in most of England.  From this poem we again see Clare’s quality of observation including boys and hunters’ proclivities of the day.    Clare was not averse to egg-collecting in his youth, I doubt he was actively a poacher or into badger hunting and the like but was an observer of detail around him, including the activities of people.   His poem of a ‘Badger’ being cornered by dogs and men can be read as straightforward, vivid, descriptive fact but also as anti-hunting. Though he may not have been able to declare it openly. The poems of Fox and the Vixen have similar sympathies with the animals.

In  Clare’s poem the pine marten the owl is realistically described.   I looked for poems that described the owl rather than just promoting it as a mystical, magical or wise old bird.    Apparently, it is none of those things…..    There are very few that limit themselves to description only, maybe because they are nocturnal. Or I haven’t looked hard enough.

 Here is one observation from life by Jean Whitfield from the edge of Dartmoor:



 Composed by the roadside

he weighed a level branch down

knowing he was beautiful

the clear white sweep of him


tufted ears and round orange head

he blinked his eyes

rested iron claws easy

let us see enough of him


and finding undercurrents

lifted slowly, wafted wide wings

poised in the even air

figure skated on the breeze


allowed himself to fall

a small space gracefully

and rolled the lazy evening

forward and backward

over the hump in the road


he hung on those sunken eyes

swung over the field-hedge

Poured down from that low sky

– was gone.


Charles  Baudelaire offers a more, but not quite, typical poet’s view of the owl

The Owls                   

Under the overhanging yews,

The dark owls sit in solemn state,                                                                                                Like stranger gods; by twos and twos                                                                                        Their red eyes gleam.
They meditate.

Motionless thus they sit and dream                                                                                            Until that melancholy hour                                                                                                      When, with the sun’s last fading gleam,                                                                                        The nightly shades assume their power.

From their still attitude the wise                                                                                                    Will learn with terror to despise                                                                                                    All tumult, movement, and unrest;

For he who follows every shade,                                                                                              Carries the memory in his breast,                                                                                                    Of each unhappy journey made.


Ted Hughes’  writes  The Owl: .  A short poem with the briefest of image, much like sightings can be.     

The Owl

The path was purple in the dusk

I saw an owl perched,

on a branch

And when the owl stirred, a fine dust

fell from its wings.

I was

silent then.

And felt

the owl quaver.

And at dawn, waking,

the path was green in the

May light.


And for any that drive up and down the A1: from j Johnson Smith:

The Owl of Beeston.

Ask a local and they will say it is always there                                                                             in the periphery, on the edge of vision.

Driving fast, you might spot it, silhouetted                                                                                    as black as the night it should be hiding in.

Slow drive, curving right under its beak                                                                                      You might spy a mouse crouching                                                                                                  As if to pounce                                                                                                                                    Or waiting, stoicly

DH Lawrence is recognised as a great fiction writer, set at A level, I believe, still well-known for his travel writing.  Even tried his arm at painting though with less success.   How about his poems?    He was quite prolific but his name as a poet has not stuck.  As happens with many writers who move into novels successfully.  In temperament many poems would fit with the politics of Vernon Scannell or Billy Bragg but he definitely had a sensitive side:

In anthologies you regularly find his poems    Especially ‘Snake’  and   ‘Kangaroo’

Lawrence wrote memorably on other beasts.    Such as  this one:

A Baby Asleep After Pain

As a drenched, drowned bee
Hangs numb and heavy from a bending flower,
So clings to me
My baby, her brown hair brushed with wet tears
And laid against my cheek;
Her soft white legs hanging heavily over my arm
Swinging heavily to my movements as I walk.
My sleeping baby hangs upon my life,
Like a burden she hangs on me.
She has always seemed so light,
But now she is wet with tears and numb with pain
Even her floating hair sinks heavily,
Reaching downwards;
As the wings of a drenched, drowned bee
Are a heaviness, and a weariness.


Yes, the mention of  the bee is what caught my attention!     Another Lawrence:

Bat –   (or  Man and Bat, in another anthology)

At evening, sitting on this terrace,
When the sun from the west, beyond Pisa, beyond the mountains of Carrara
Departs, and the world is taken by surprise …

When the tired flower of Florence is in gloom beneath the glowing
Brown hills surrounding …

When under the arches of the Ponte Vecchio
A green light enters against stream, flush from the west,
Against the current of obscure Arno …

Look up, and you see things flying
Between the day and the night;
Swallows with spools of dark thread sewing the shadows together.

A circle swoop, and a quick parabola under the bridge arches
Where light pushes through;
A sudden turning upon itself of a thing in the air.
A dip to the water.

And you think:
‘The swallows are flying so late!’


Dark air-life looping
Yet missing the pure loop …
A twitch, a twitter, an elastic shudder in flight
And serrated wings against the sky,
Like a glove, a black glove thrown up at the light,
And falling back.

Never swallows!
The swallows are gone.

At a wavering instant the swallows gave way to bats
By the Ponte Vecchio …
Changing guard.

Bats, and an uneasy creeping in one’s scalp
As the bats swoop overhead!
Flying madly.

Pipistrello !
Black piper on an infinitesimal pipe.
Little lumps that fly in air and have voices indefinite, wildly vindictive;

Wings like bits of umbrella.


Creatures that hang themselves up like an old rag, to sleep;
And disgustingly upside down.

Hanging upside down like rows of disgusting old rags
And grinning in their sleep.

Not for me!


Now there’s a man who has been tested but is still able to find his sense of humour.

Dare I finish on this by Ivor Cutler?   from Fly Sandwich, Methuen)

Bison’s Face

A bison’s face is its whole

head –  a rueful head.  It is

not grateful for having been

saved from extinction.  ‘You

the exterminator, and you

the preserver – man – look

much alike to me.  An

uncultured mob.  And you,

Mister Poet, keep your

phoney empathy.  Spending

£25 on a season ticket to pop

In and feel sorry for me.  Be

a pal, next time bring your

rifle.  You tell all your chums

how pragmatic you are’

All these poems have more than one face to nature, nature and man; and offer discussion points as well as clear observation to where and what is ‘Nature Poetry.’ 


tagged as: animals

Pine Martens and John Clare

pine marten card

Pine Martens cover image Whittet Books


Originally untitled; NOES editors title


The martin cat long shaged of courage good
Of weazle shape a dweller in the wood
With badger hair long shagged and darting eyes
And lower then the common cat in size
Small head and running on the stoop
Snuffing the ground and hind parts shouldered up
He keeps one track and hides in lonely shade
Where print of human foot is scarcely made
Save when the woods are cut the beaten track
The woodmans dog will snuff cock tailed and black
Red legged and spotted over either eye
Snuffs barks and scrats the lice and passes bye
The great brown horned owl looks down below
And sees the shaggy martin come and go


The martin hurrys through the woodland gaps
And poachers shoot and make his skin for caps
When any woodman come and pass the place
He looks at dogs and scarcely mends his pace
And gipseys often and birdnesting boys
Look in the hole and hear a hissing noise
They climb the tree such noise they never heard
And think the great owl is a foreign bird
When the grey owl her young ones cloathed in down
Seizes the boldest boy and drives him down
They try agen and pelt to start the fray
The grey owl comes and drives them all away
And leaves the Martin twisting round his den
Left free from boys and dogs and noise and men


John Clare
Punctuation and spelling as from JC mss,  text from
‘Clare’, NOES,  Ed’s: Robinson & Summerfield, published OUP.
 If available now, a good collection to have: includes  some of Clare’s natural history writing
This poem attracted my attention because of the recent title from Whittet Books but also that it had mention of  an owl in ‘reality’, which I was  in search of for an earlier page on ‘owls’ poems.  I am glad to have found something by Clare.
I reckon the owl mentioned is the one known now as Eurasian eagle owl from Clare’s note of colour and nesting.  Not the white, Arctic Owl,  or maybe there was another variety that is now extinct.
(Pine)Martens are extremely secretive animals and now very scarce in most of England.   From this poem we can again see Clare’s quality of observation, including boys and hunters’ proclivities of the day.    Clare was not averse to egg-collecting in his youth, ( note in poem the boy climbing the tree is chased away by the owl).  I doubt he was actively a poacher or into badger hunting and the like but as always was an observer of detail of all around him, including the activities of people.   His poem of ‘Badger’ being cornered by dogs and men can be read as straightforward, vivid, descriptive fact but potentially as anti-hunting though he may not have been able to declare it openly.   It might well have been ‘cruelty’ that concerned him more.


tagged as: animals

Colours of Autumn by John Clare; October by Edward Thomas


Colours of Autumn.             John Clare

Now that the year is drawing to a close

Such mellow tints on trees and bushes lie

So like to sunshine that it brighter glows

As one looks more intently.  On the sky

I turn astonished that no sun is there;

The ribboned strips of orange, blue and red

Streaks through the western sky a gorgeous bed,

Painting day’s end most beautifully fair,

So mild, so quiet breathes the balmy air,

Scenting the perfume of decaying leaves

Such fragrance and such loveliness they wear-

Trees, hedgerows, bushes- that the heart receives

Joys for which language owners words too few

To paint that glowing richness which I view.


October.                                          Edward Thomas

The green elm with the one great bough of gold

Lets leaves into the grass slip, one by one,  –

The short hill grass, the mushrooms small milk-white,

Harebell and scabious and tormentil,

That blackberry and gorse, in dew and sun,

Bow down to; and the wind travels too light

To shake the fallen birch leaves from the fern;

The gossamers wander at their own will,

At heavier steps than bird’s the Squirrels scold.


The rich scene has grown fresh again and new

As Spring and to the touch is not more cool

Than it is warm to the gaze; and now I might

As happy be as earth is beautiful,

Were I some other or with earth could turn

In alteration of violet and rose,

Harebell and snowdrop, at their season due,

And gorse that has no time not to be gay.

But if this be not happiness,  – who knows?

Some day I shall think this is a happy day,

And this mood by the name of melancholy

Shall no more blackened and obscured be.


You could follow reading Clare’s poem, Colours of Autumn immediately with the Thomas’  ‘October‘ first verse through to the line…… ‘as happy be as earth is beautiful’  in the second verse and they might be mistaken as a single voice.  However Thomas’ lines after this begin to slide away into a questioning of his mood and ability to find what his personal ‘peace of mind may be’.  Hopeful, perhaps, but not convinced.

Clare’s poem illustrates his more positive view of life.     His moods may have varied tremendously over the years but overall his personal outlook was positive despite the tremendous difficulties of his life and times.   It seems to me (albeit a terrible over simplification) that Clare was a glass half-full sort of man whilst Edward Thomas a glass half-empty man.  Clare could find a great deal of peace in solitude and observation whereas Thomas could see the beauty but not ‘feel’ it.  It is also interesting to consider that both men lived through periods of social and political turmoil at turns of (different) centuries: not forgetting the differences in their social groups.


John Clare: Nature, Criticism and History: Newly Published

John Clare: Nature, Criticism and History

by  Simon Kovesi         Published  4th Sept 2017

£66.99   hardback only

Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan

ISBN-13: 978-0230277878

  • Size: 8 x 1.8 x 21 cm

This book investigates what it is that makes John Clare’s poetic vision so unique, and asks how we use Clare for contemporary ends. It explores much of the criticism that has appeared in response to his life and work, and asks hard questions about the modes and motivations of critics and editors. Clare is increasingly regarded as having been an environmentalist long before the word appeared; this book investigates whether this ‘green’ rush to place him as a radical proto-ecologist does any disservice to his complex positions in relation to social class, work, agriculture, poverty and women. This book attempts to unlock Clare’s own theorisations and practices of what we might now call an ‘ecological consciousness’, and works out how his ‘ecocentric’ mode might relate to that of other Romantic poets. Finally, this book asks how we might treat Clare as our contemporary while still being attentive to the peculiarities of his unique historical circumstances



  • John Clare and Place              Kövesi, Simon
  • Clare and Ecocentrism           Kövesi, Simon
  • Clare Making Text; Making Text of Clare                  Kövesi, Simon
  • Looking, Painting, Listing, Noting: Clare, Women and Nature        Kövesi, Simon
  • Conclusion: Clare as Our Contemporary; Clare as History                Kovesi, Simon

Simon Kövesi is Professor of English Literature, and Head of the Department of English and Modern Languages, at Oxford Brookes University, UK. 



John Clare, The Trespasser: A Graph Review

John Clare, The Trespasser.  

By John Goodridge and R K R  Thornton

A Graph Review:  high marks to 70s



Published by Five Leaves Publications.      2016.      Paper £6.99

10 pages of notes and 3 on further reading in print and web

Originally an extended essay in ‘ john Clare in context ‘,  Cambridge 1994.   For this current paperback the typescript was extensively revised, corrected and additions of new material. Also with new and updated references, recent and primary included.

Both authors are Vice-Presidents of the John Clare Society, Professors of English and have been authors and academics in literature and poetry, especially of working/labouring-class with particular interest in Clare. (among several others).

A slim volume of 90 pages of which 74 are text.

You may have read one or more of the now several biographies on Clare, perhaps an academic work such as ….. Clare’s Place in Poetry by Mina Gorji (2009).  (Reviewed on this website).  Or the growing number of texts and collections on specific areas of Clare’s life and poetry.   You will certainly be reading his poetry.  Nonetheless, this little book sums up John Clare’s personality and passions.   He placed himself as an ‘outsider’ and many small pointers throughout the text give glimpses to the make-up of Clare: from a Scottish grandfather who abandoned Clare’s pregnant grandmother to his ‘loneliness’ as a scholar in the village and much leading on from these. Other aspects may be brushed upon in this book but here the authors have hit upon Clare’s core strengths of belief that of ‘every man’s need of liberty’ and Enclosure’ was one large corrosive part of his world.

He may have been shy, awkward and diffident in the presence of those in authority though his pride may also have held him back at times. His writings showed strength of belief and a confidence in himself as a poet.  The awareness of the life of poverty he came from made him desperate to support his family but equally to refine his art and be published, ideally to provide some income to ease his family’s struggles.  A path that was too hard eventually as his health had always been problematic.  A life of hard physical work, often periods of poor or no food, hectic times of too much drink, a growing family and the costs of sudden fame followed by its slow dissipation were too much for him.  His first period in a private Essex asylum, a momentous walk home and a brief time with his family still produced much fine poetry, briefly home in Northborough and the many years lodged in Northampton Asylum produced much more.

Throughout his life he was a naturalist, an observer of all things and wrote about his local community whether from  minutely detailed wildlife, most widely known today, to village life, including satire with scorching caricatures especially in ‘The Parish’.

‘John Clare, The Trespasser’,  does indeed focus on the dire effects of Enclosure on Clare and community-life but uses the definition of a trespasser to travel over the wider fields of his life and work.   He defined himself by his locale and his community. Was compelled to be an observer, a collector, a musician with violin who wrote down words and music traditional of his day from travelling musicians and gypsies.  Gypsy music was so different to his tradition that of he was fascinated by it and spent time with them to study their music. He also found their way of life quite convivial.     His interest was also aroused by the Scottish drovers that passed through, likely as a link to his grandfather.  His liking of Burns another connection to Scotland, including the lowly origins of Burns himself and his poetical style and songs.  Clare was a man without a place in his own village for more than his writing and his spent fame that leaving him floundering, but he could assimilate much that caught his passionate nature.

The last section,  Enclosure, gives the strongest description of Clare.    For me it confirms him as a radical, political poet whose passion is shown in his work though frequently undermined by his poor circumstance and his own diffidence (shyness, almost speechlessness) in the presence of  moneyed people.  Some might say he had an inferiority complex, or more likely a class-complex.  Perhaps his behaviour was partly due to his keeping himself in check as angry outbursts to the wrong people would have severely harmed his ability to retain any employment.  The poor-house loomed large at these times for all labourers and Clare’s father would end in one.  It also seems he felt more able with his village peers when enjoying drink and music at the local ale-houses or celebrations.

Whatever his outward manner, his heart and writing were fixed on the damaging effects of enclosure on nature and the labourer and  Community.

Mentioned in this book, these are poems to read with a fresh eye:

The Mores,    The Lament of Swordy Well,   The Cellar Door,    The Progress of Rhyme .                           The Lament of Swordy Well is highlighted as Clare’s depiction of the result of Enclosure leaving nothing but dreams of the past for the labouring poor, among much else.

On the first pages, Goodridge quotes from an early Clare poem:      ‘Narrative Verses Written after an Excursion from Helpston to Burghley Park’  and describes it as a core ‘journey’ (experience) in his development as a poet.

The book in total is a fascinating short study of John Clare.  It may appear to focus on a small aspect but this is a core description of the man and uses choice selections to illustrate his ideals and his skill in writing more than poetic studies in natural history.  The authors explain the realities of Clare’s words and the use of poetical reference and political sub-text in particular poems.  Highlighting his use of counterbalanced language within an analysis of lines of poems, noted above, brings a strength of understanding not only to the meaning of the work but to the fire and sensibilities of Clare himself.

No doubt the ‘Conclusion’ of this work puts it more clearly….. ‘it is no longer enough to read Clare as a simple observer of nature in transparent descriptive verse,……’

And a quote from the back cover, from another reviewer:  ‘At last a label has been found that fits Clare almost perfectly’. : Roger Sales, Literature and History.

For me Clare will now be thought of as a man who dared to trespass, in a multitude of ways, throughout his life and writings.

link to another comment on Clare as labourer and Enclosure:

John Clare, The Trespasser is a ‘must read‘ for Clare enthusiasts and students of the labouring classes and landscape in the 19th century.





Efficiency versus liberty to roam.      Profit and productivity, cost of enclosure and policing.




The cellar door,     Themprogress of rhyme……. in Scottish drovers, gypsies and other clarean trespassers.




Clare: the times of his life

Poems for April

Poems for April.

April may have been overtaken by May and Spring is now sliding into Summer so apologies for being a laggard.  Or maybe I can claim to be presumptious for 2018!   Another small selection for the seasons covering  700 years.

Short extract of beginning of Prologue to Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer.   Modern translation by Ecker and Crook  (online & published by Hodge and Braddock 1993)…. I would highly recommend this translation of the complete Tales for those in study now or for nostalgia of days studied and how it should really be translated!!

When April’s gentle rains have pierced the drought

Of March right to the root, and bathed each sprout

Through every vein with liquid of such power

It brings forth the engendering of the flower;

When Zephyrus too with his sweet breath has blown

Through every field and forest, urging on

The tender shoots, and there’s a youthful sun,

His second half course through the Ram now run,

And little birds are making melody

And sleep all night, eyes open as can be

(So Nature pricks them in each little heart),

On pilgrimage then folks desire to start.

The palmers long to travel foreign strands

To distant shrines renowned in sundry lands;

And specially, from every shire’s end

In England, folks to Canterbury wend:

To seek the blissful martyr is their will,

The one who gave such help when they were ill.


April Showers                              John Clare

Delightful weather for all sorts of moods

& most for him – grey morn and swarthy eye

Found rambling up the little narrow lane

Where primrose banks amid the hazly woods

Peep most delightfully on passers bye

While Aprils little clouds about the sky

Mottle & freak unto fancy lie

Idling and ending travel for the day

Till darker clouds sail up with cumberous heave

South oer the woods & scares them all away

Then comes the rain pelting with pearly drops

The primrose crowds until they stoop & lie

All fragrance to his mind that musing stops

Beneath the awthorn till the shower is bye

This poem taken from Midsummer Cushion, the manuscript that Clare spent a tremendous amount of time preparing for publication but it  never was in his lifetime.   It took 150 years.   Published by MidNAG &Carcanet in 1978, intro.  by Anne Tibble.    A collection of poems we know selected and ordered by himself makes this a particularly special book.


April                                        Jean Whitfield

I saw into the eye of the month with its moist buds

not quite contained on quivering branches

and an embroidered sky beyond white mazes

of yellow-cream green-shining almost-leaves

mere prickings spinning webs with sunlight

and the wild plum tree hazy with dabs of thick leaf.


A crazy Crow clowned an April trick

balancing a leg a wing a hooded beak

on one slender single-budded branch

bending low with him and springing up

against the sheer cliff-top blue

as the carrion trampolines and grinned gleaming.


Sky is all-at-once a whipped and curling ice-cream sea

with wave-tops flashing peaking into one another

and down here grass reflects its silver in these bending blades

that goldfinches skim on the surface light

and carry its message in their joy lifting and flowing.


April’s music laced with wings rejoices in its murmurings

it is all surprises at the heart of it, is a gift for us

an unfolding of the ceaseless year that is happening again.


I tasted April sharp and clear

a spring of a day bubbling out of the gill

it wet my lips filled my cold throats and flowed

like light lapping tree-tops fresh through me

and my toes shot sparks in the icy dew:

in the warming sun my skin became April.


A poem from ‘Moments’, reprinted by permission of Bakery Press.  Another example of the quality of this poet’s work.