John Clare

Mary Russell Mitford, "Peasant Poets. John Clare" Recollections of a Literary Life; or Books, Places, and People (1852) 115-26.

Nearly at the same period when Macaulay and Praed sprang into public life, the world of letters was startled by the announcement of a new poet, a Northamptonshire peasant, whose claims to distinction were vouched for by judges of no ordinary sagacity, little given to mistake, and by no means addicted to enthusiasm. His character was, blameless and amiable. Although of a frame little suited to severity of toil, be had for many years supported his aged parents by manual labor, and in bringing his powers into the light of day, he had undergone more than the ordinary amount of delay, of suspense, of disappointment, and of "the hope deferred that maketh the heart sick."

From the prefaces to his three publications, the "Poems, Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery," "The Village Minstrel," and "The Rural Muse," his early history may be collected. At the age of thirteen, when he could read tolerably, and knew something of writing and arithmetic, he met, accidentally, with "Thomson's Seasons," a book which not only awakened in his mind the love of poetry, but led him at once to the kind of poetry in which, from situation and from natural aptitude, he was most likely to succeed. For another sixteen years his brief leisure was filled with attempts, more or less successful, to clothe, in the language of verse, his own feelings and observations. His chief trial, during this long probation, must have been his entire loneliness of mind-the absence of all companionship or sympathy. At this time he met with the "Patty" whom he afterward married, and, in the hope of improving his circumstances, began to consider seriously about publishing a small volume by subscription; and, having ascertained that the expense of three hundred copies of a prospectus would not be more than a pound, he set himself resolutely to work, and by hard labor, day and night, at length succeeded in accumulating the required sum.

"I distributed my papers," said the poor author, "but as I could get no way of pushing them into higher circles than those with whom I was acquainted, they consequently passed off as quietly as if they had still been in my possession, unprinted and not seen." For a long while the number of subscribers stood at seven. At length, however, a copy of the proposals won their way to London. Messrs. Taylor and Hessey gave twenty pounds for the Poems; and, what was far better for the author, contrived to obtain for them immediate publicity.

The little volume was striking in what it had and in what it wanted. The very struggle between original thought and imperfect expression sometimes resulted in happiness and beauty. One thing was certain: John Clare was no imitator. Persons of taste and generosity in the higher classes took him by the hand. Lord Exeter sent for him to Burleigh, and hearing that he earned thirty pounds per annum by field labor, settled an annuity of fifteen pounds upon him, with a view to his devoting half his time to agricultural occupations, and half to literary pursuits. This benevolent proposal, which sounds so hopefully, proved a notable failure, chiefly in consequence of our national failing of running after every thing and every body that has attained a sufficient portion of notoriety. Poor Clare became as great a lion as if he had committed two or three murders. He was frequently interrupted, as often as three times a day, during his labors in the harvest-field, to gratify the curiosity of admiring visitors; and a plan, excellent in its principle, was abandoned perforce. Other wealthy and liberal noblemen joined in the good work. Lord Spencer gave ten pounds per annum. A subscription was set on foot by Lord Radstock, to which the present King of the Belgians, Lord Fitzwilliam, and Lord John Russell contributed generously, and which, together with the profits of his works — for "The Village Minstrel" had now been published — realized for him altogether an annual income of five-and-forty pounds. This appeared affluence to our poet, and he married.

Praised by the "Quarterly," and befriended by noble patrons and generous booksellers, his prospects seemed more than commonly smiling. His third publication, too, "The Rural Muse," in spite of its unpromising title, more than justified all that had been done for him. The improvement was most remarkable. That he should gain a greater command over language, a choicer selection of words, and the knowledge of grammatical construction, which he had wanted before, was to be expected; but the habit of observation seemed to have increased in fineness and accuracy in proportion as he gained the power of expression, and the delicacy of his sentiment kept pace with the music of his versification. What can be closer to nature than his description of the nightingale's nest?

Up this green woodland ride let's softly rove,
And list the Nightingale; she dwells just here.
Hush! let the wood-gate softly clap, for fear
The noise might drive her from her home of love;
For here I've heard her many a merry year,
At morn, at eve, nay, all the livelong day,
As though she lived on song. This very spot
Just where that old-man's-beard all wildly trails
Rude arbors o'er the road, and stops the way;
And where the child its blue-bell flowers hath got,
Laughing and creeping through the mossy rails;
There have I hunted like a very boy,
Creeping on hands and knees through matted thorn,
To find her nest, and see her feed her young,
And vainly did I many hours employ:
All seemed as hidden as a thought unborn.
And where those crumpling fern-leaves ramp among
The hazel's under boughs, I've nestled down
And watched her while she sang; and her renown
Hath made me marvel that so famed a bird
Should have no better dress than russet brown.
Her wings would tremble in her ecstasy,
And feathers stand on end, as 'twere with joy,
And mouth wide open to release her heart
Of its out-sobbing songs. The happiest part
Of Summer's fame she shared, for so to me
Did happy fancies shapen her employ.
But if I touched a bush, or scarcely stirred,
All in a moment stopt. I watched in vain:
The timid bird had left the hazel bush,
And oft in distance hid to sing again.
Lost in a wilderness of listening leaves,
Rich ecstasy would pour its luscious strain,
'Till envy spurred the emulating Thrush
To start less wild and scarce inferior songs;
For while of half the year Care him bereaves,
To damp the ardor of his speckled breast,
The Nightingale to Summer's life belongs,
And naked trees and Winter's nipping wrongs
Are strangers to her music and her rest.
Her joys are ever green, her world is wide!
Hark! there she is, as usual. Let's be hush;
For in this black-thorn clump, if rightly guessed,
Her curious house is hidden. Part aside
Those hazel branches in a gentle way,
And stoop right cautions 'neath the rustling boughs,
For we will have another search to-day,
And hunt this fern-strewn thorn-clump round and round;
And where this reeded wood-grass idly bows
We'll wade right through; it is a likely nook.
In such like spots, and often on the ground
They'll build where rude boys never think to look;—
Ay, as I live! her secret nest is here
Upon this white-thorn stump! I've searched about
For hours in vain. There, put that bramble by,—
Nay, trample on its branches, and get near.
How subtile 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
We'll leave it as we found it; safety's guard
Of pathless solitudes shall keep it still.
We will not plunder music of its dower,
Nor turn this spot of happiness to thrall,
For melody seem bid in every flower
That blossoms near thy home. These bluebells all
Seem bowing with the beautiful in song;
And gaping cuckoo-flower, with spotted leaves,
Seems blushing of the singing it has heard.
How curious is the nest! No other bird
Uses such loose materials, or weaves
Its dwelling in such spots! Dead oaken leaves
Are placed without, and velvet moss within.
And little scraps of grass, and scant and spare,
What hardly seem materials, down and hair;
For from men's haunts she nothing seems to win.
Snug lie her curious eggs, in number five,
Of deadened green, or rather olive-brown,
And the old prickly thorn bush guards them well.
So here we'll leave them, still unknown to wrong,
As the old woodland's legacy of song.

Is not this nature itself? And again another nest, as true every whit in its difference.

Well! in my many walks I've rarely found
A place less likely for a bird to form
Its nest; close by the rut-gulled wagon-road,
And on the almost bare foot-trodden ground,
With scarce a clump of grass to keep it warm,
Where not a thistle spreads its spears abroad,
Or prickly bush to shield it from harm's way;
And yet so snugly made, that none may spy
It out, save peradventure. You and I
Had surely passed it in our walk to-day,
Had chance not led us by it! Nay, e'en now,
Had not the old bird heard us trampling by,
And fluttered out, we had not seen it lie
Brown as the road-way side. Small bits of hay
Pluckt from the old propt haystack's pleachy brow,
And withered leaves, make up its outward wall,
Which from the gnarled oak-dotterel yearly fall,
And in the old hedge-bottom rot away.
Built like an oven, through a little hole,
Scarcely admitting e'en two figures in,
Hard to discern, the birds snug entrance win.
'Tis lined with feathers, warm as silken stole,
Softer than seats of down for painless ease,
And full of eggs scarce bigger ev'n than peas.
Here's one most delicate, with spots as small
As dust, and of a faint and pinky red.
And they are left to many dangerous ways.
A green grasshopper's jump might break the shells;
Yet lowing oxen pass them morn and night,
And restless sheep around them bonny stray.

I add yet another:—

Just by the wooden bridge a bird flew up,
Seen by the cow-boy as he scrambled down
To reach the misty dewberry. Let us stoop
And seek its nest. The brook we need not dread,—
'Tis scarcely deep enough a bee to drown,
As it sings harmless o'er its pebbly bed.
—Ay, here it is! Stuck close beside the bank,
Beneath the bunch of grass that spindles rank
Its husk-seeds tall and high: 'tis rudely planned
Of bleached stubbles and the withered fare
That last year's harvest left upon the land,
Lined thinly with the horse's sable hair.
Five eggs, pen-scribbled o'er with ink their shells,
Resembling writing scrawls, which Fancy reads
As Nature's poesy and pastoral spells:
They are the Yellowhammer's; and she dwells,
Most poet-like, 'mid brooks and flowery weeds

I question if the great bird-painter, Wilson, or our own Australian ornithologist, Mr. Gould (he is a Berkshire man, I am proud to say), or Audubon, or White of Selborne, or Mr. Waterton himself, — and all those careful inquirers into nature are more or less poets, seldom as they have used the conventional language of poetry, — I question if any of these eminent writers have ever exceeded the minuteness and accuracy of these birds' nests. The Poem called, "Insects" is scarcely less beautiful.

These tiny loiterers on the barley's beard,
And happy units of a numerous herd
Of playfellows, the laughing summer brings;
Mocking the sunshine on their glittering wings,
How merrily they creep, and run, and fly!
No kin they bear to labor's drudgery,
Smoothing the velvet of the pale hedge-rose,
And where they fly for dinner no one knows;
The dew-drops feed them not; they love the shine
Of noon, whose suns may bring them golden wine.
All day they're playing in their Sunday dress;
When night reposes they can do no less!
Then to the heath-bell's purple hood they fly.
And, like to princes in their slumbers, lie
Secure from rain and dropping dews, and all
On silken beds and roomy painted hall.
So merrily they spend their summer day,
Now in the corn-fields, now the new-mown hay.
One almost fancies that such happy things,
With colored hoods and richly-burnished wings,
Are fairy folk in splendid masquerade
Disguised, as if of mortal folk afraid,
Keeping their joyous pranks a mystery still,
Lest glaring day should do their secrets ill.

And as I have said above, other qualities too had supervened. The delicacy of sentiment in the following stanzas bears no touch of the uncultivated peasant.

First love will with the heart remain
When all its hopes are by,
As frail ruse-blossoms still retain
Their fragrance when they die.
And joy's first dreams will haunt the mind
With shades from whence they sprung,
As summer leaves the stems behind
On which spring's blossoms hung.

Mary! I dare not call thee dear,
I've lost that right so long,
Yet once again I vex thine ear
With memory's idle song.
Had time and change not blotted out
The love of former days,
Thou wert the first that I should doubt
Of pleasing with my praise.

When honeyed tokens from each tongue
Told with what truth we loved,
How rapturous to thy lips I clung,
While naught but smiles reproved.
But now, methinks if one kind word
Was whispered in thine ear,
Thouds't startle like an untamed bird,
And blush with wilder fear.

How loth to part, how fond to meet,
Had we two used to be,
At sunset with what eager feet
I hastened unto thee!
Scarce nine days passed us ere we met,
In spring, nay, wintry weather;—
Now nine years' suns have risen and set,
Nor found us once together.

Thy face was so familiar grown,
Thyself so often by,
A moment's memory when alone,
Would bring thee to mine eye.
But now my very dreams forget
That witching look to trace;
And though thy beauty lingers yet,
It wears a stranger's face.

I felt a pride to name thy name,
But now that pride hath flown;
My words e'en seem to blush for shame
That own I love thee on.
I felt I then thy heart did share,
Nor urged a binding vow;
But much I doubt if thou couldst spare
One word of kindness now.

And what is now my name to thee,
Though once naught seemed so dear?
Perhaps a jest in hours of glee,
To please some idle ear.
And yet like counterfeits with me
Impressions linger on,
Though all the gilded finery
That passed for truth is gone.

Ere the world smiled upon my lays,
A sweeter meed was mine;
Thy blushing look of ready praise
Was raised at every line.
But now methinks thy fervent love
Is changed to scorn severe;
And songs that other hearts approve,
Seem discord to thine ear.

When last thy gentle cheek I pressed
And heard thee feign adieu,
I little thought that seeming jest
Would prove a word so true.
A fate like this hath oft befell
E'en loftier hopes than ours;—
Spring bids full many buds to swell,
That ne'er can grow to flowers.

That was John Clare's last volume, published in 1839, and although generously noticed by the press, it did not sell. Perhaps the very imperfections of the earlier works had made a part of their charm. There is a certain pleasure in being called upon to show indulgence to one whose high gifts are indisputable. Besides the complacency always attending a sense of superiority of any kind, it flatters one's self-love most agreeably (I am speaking of readers, not of critics), to be able to detect and to point out beauties under the vail of defects. Still greater was the pride of being among the first discoverers of such endowments. With the novelty that pleasure vanished. Every child boasts the violet of his own finding, and cherishes and caresses it — while it is fresh; then it disappears and is no more thought of. Woe to us if so we treat a still tenderer flower!

However it happened, the popularity diminished as the merit increased. The public, usually so just in its ultimate estimate of authors, failed in this particular instance to recognize the strong and honest claim upon a fair and liberal patronage possessed by one who had been taken from his own humble avocation, from the homely work but the certain reward of the plow, to cultivate the always uncertain, and too often barren and unthankful fields of literature. Such, I fear, poor Clare found them. Improvement had come, but with improvement came sickness and anxiety. The little income had soon been found inadequate to the wants of his aged parents and the demands of an increasing family; for they will marry, these poets! Poverty overwhelmed him, and illness, — and they who still took a kindly interest in one who had crept so close to the heart of nature in coppice and in field, — heard with sorrowful sympathy that the illness was of the mind.

It has been said that pecuniary difficulties were the real cause of the malady, and that the removal of all anxiety as to the means of living would at once cure the delusions under which he labors, and restore him to his home and to his family. I wish it were so, for I think if that were true (and certainly the fact ought to be ascertained, as nearly as any thing of that nature can be ascertained by medical examination), that they who so benevolently lent their aid to lift him from his original obscurity, would, aided by others of a like spirit, step forward to rescue from a still deeper darkness one whose talents had so well justified their former bounty.

In the meanwhile it is an alleviation to the painful feeling excited by such a narrative to know that the poor poet, perfectly gentle and harmless, enjoys in the asylum where he is placed, the wise freedom of person and of action which is the triumph of humanity and of science in the present day.

A few years ago he was visited by a friend of mine, himself a poet of the people, who gave me a most interesting account of the then state of his intellect. His delusions were at that time very singular in their character. Whatever he read, whatever recurred to him from his former reading, or happened to be mentioned in conversation, became impressed on his mind as a thing that he had witnessed and acted in. My friend was struck with a narrative of the execution of Charles the First, recounted by Clare, as a transaction that occurred yesterday and of which he was an eye-witness, — a narrative the most graphic and minute, with an accuracy as to costume and manners far exceeding what would probably have been at his command if sane. It is such a lucidity as the disciples of Mesmer claim for clairvoyance. Or he would relate the battle of the Nile, and the death of Lord Nelson with the same perfect keeping, especially as to seamanship, fancying himself one of the sailors who had been in the action, and dealing out nautical phrases with admirable exactness and accuracy, although it is doubtful if he ever saw the sea in his life.

About three years before my friend's visit, Mr. Cyrus Redding went to see him, and has given a very interesting description of the poet and of his state of mind, in the "English Journal." He says that during his stay he appeared free from all delusion, except once when some allusion was made to prize-fighting, and represents him as regretting the absence of female society, and as continuing to write verse of much merit. I have myself some fragments, written with a pencil, which show all his old power over rhythm.

Mr. Redding gives several examples of these poems. They are distinguished from those of his earlier days by several differences, especially by the change from the rich level meadows of Northamptonshire to the hill and dale of Epping Forest. Here is one which is said to be reminiscent of his Patty:

Maid of Walkherd meet again
By the wilding in the glen;
By the oak against the door,
Where we often met before.
By thy bosom's heaving snow,
By thy fondness love shall know;
Maid of Walkherd meet again
By the wilding in the glen.
By thy hand of slender make,
By thy love I'll ne'er forsake,
By thy heart I'll ne'er betray,
Let me kiss thy tears away.
I will live and love thee ever,
Love thee and forsake thee never,
Though far in other lands to be,
Yet never far from love and thee.

The next specimen has much of his fine observation of natural objects, and his old love of birds breaks through every thing:—

The forest meets the blessings of the spring,
The chestnut throws her sticky buds away,
And shows her pleasant leaves and snow-white flowers.
I've often tried, when tending sheep or cow,
With bits of grass and peels of eaten straw,
To whistle like the birds. The thrush would start
To hear her song of praise, and fly away;
The blackbird never cared, but sang again;
The nightingale's pure song I could not try,
And when the thrush would mock her song, she paused,
And sang another song no bird could do:
She sang when all were done, and beat them all.
I've often sat, and watched them half the day
Behind the hedgerow thorn or bullace-tree;
I thought how nobly I would act in crowds,
The woods and fields were all the books I knew,
And every leisure thought was love or fame.

There is some intention, I believe, of publishing a volume of these poems. It will be interesting on many accounts, and for the sake of the poet and of his family, I heartily wish it every success.

We can not, I repeat, do too much for John Clare; he has a claim to it as a man of genius suffering under the severest visitation of Providence. But let us beware of indulging ourselves by encouraging the class of pseudo-peasant poets who spring up on every side, and are among the most pitiable objects in creation. One knows them by sight upon the pathway, from their appearance of vagrant misery, — an appearance arising from the sense of injustice and of oppression under which they suffer, the powerless feeling that they have claims which the whole world refuses to acknowledge, a perpetual and growing sense of injury. It is worse insanity than John Clare's, and one for which there is no asylum. Victims to their own daydreams are they! They have heard of Burns and of Chatterton; they have a certain knack of rhyming, although that is by no means necessary to such a delusion; they find an audience whom their intense faith in their own power conspires to delude; and their quiet, their content, their every prospect is ruined forever. It is this honest and unconquerable persuasion of their own genius that makes it impossible to reason with or convince them. Their faith in their own powers — the racking sense of the injustice of all about them, makes one's heart ache. It is impossible for the sternest or the sturdiest teller of painful truths to disenchant them, and the consequence is as obvious as it is miserable. For that shadow every substance is foregone. They believe poetry to be their work, and they will do no other. Then comes utter poverty. They haunt the ale-house, they drink, they sicken, they starve. I have known many such.

Happily there is one cure, not for individual cases, but for the entire class; a slow but a sure remedy. Let the sunlight in, and the night-phantoms vanish. Education, wide and general, not mere learning to read, but making discreet and wise use of the power, and the nuisance will be abated at once and forever. Let our peasants become as intelligent as our artisans, and we shall have no more prodigies, no more martyrs.