Wansford, Oct. 12, 1821.
To the Editor of the London Magazine.
I have just returned from visiting your friend Clare at Helpstone, and one of the pleasantest days I ever spent, was passed in wandering with him among the scenes which are the subject of his poems. A flatter country than the immediate neighbourhood can scarcely be imagined, but the grounds rise in the distance clothed with woods, and their gently swelling summits are crowned with village churches; nor can it be called an uninteresting country, even without the poetic spirit which now breathes about the names of many of its most prominent objects, for the ground bears all the traces of having been the residence of some famous people in early days. "The deep sunk moat, the stony mound," are visible in places where modern taste would shrink at erecting a temporary cottage, much less a castellated mansion; fragments of Roman brick are readily found on ridges which still hint the unrecorded history of a far distant period, and the Saxon rampart and the Roman camp are in some places seen mingled together in one common ruin. On the line of a Roman road, which passes within a few hundred yards of the village of Helpstone, I met Clare, about a mile from home. He was going to receive his quarter's salary from the Steward of the Marquis of Exeter. His wife Patty, and her sister were with him, and it was the intention of the party, I learned, to proceed to their father's house at Casterton, there to meet such of the family as were out in service, on their annual re-assembling together at Michaelmas. I was very unwilling to disturb this arrangement, but Clare insisted on remaining with me, and the two chearful girls left their companion with a "good bye, John!" which made the plains echo again, and woke in my old-bachelor heart the reflection "John Clare, thou art a very happy fellow."
As we were within a hundred yards of Lolham Brigs, we first turned our steps there. "Tradition gives these brigs renown," but their antiquity is visible only to the poet's eye — the date of the present structure is 1641; still, the Roman road crossed over on the same foundation, and that is enough; or if more certain evidence or Roman origin were wanted, a fragment of a most ancient wall runs into the road diagonally at this place, leaving the mind in that degree of obscurity, with respect to its age or use, which Burke esteems to be essentially connected with the sublime. Of the Poem, Clare gave me the following account. He was walking in this direction on the last day of March, 1821, when he saw an old acquaintance fishing on the lee side of the bridge. He went to the nearest place for a bottle of ale, and they then sat beneath the screen which the parapet afforded, while a hasty storm passed over, refreshing themselves with the liquor, and moralizing somewhat in the strain of the poem. I question whether Wordsworth's pedlar could have spoken more to the purpose. But all these excitations would, I confess, have spent their artillery in vain against the woolpack of my imagination; and after well considering the scene, I could not help looking at my companion with surprise: to me, the triumph of true genius seemed never more conspicuous, than in the construction of so interesting a poem out of such common-place materials. With your own eyes you see nothing but a dull line of ponds, or rather one continued marsh, over which a succession of arches carries the narrow highway: look again, with the poem in your mind, and the wand of a necromancer seems to have been employed in conjuring up a host of beautiful accompaniments, making the whole waste populous with life, and shedding all around the rich lustre of a grand and appropriate sentiment. Imagination has, in my opinion, done wonders here, and especially in the concluding verse, which contains as lovely a groupe as ever was called into life by the best "makers" of any age or country.
THE LAST 0F MARCH.
Written at Lolham Brigs.
Though o'er the darksome northern hill
Old ambush'd winter frowning flies,
And faintly drifts his threatenings still
In snowy sleet and blackening skies;
Yet where the willow leaning lies
And shields beneath the budding flower,
Where banks to break the wind arise,
'Tis sweet to sit and spend an hour.
Though floods of winter bustling fall
Adown the arches bleak and blea,
Though snow-storms clothe the mossy wall,
And hourly whiten o'er the lea;
Yet when from clouds the sun is free
And warms the learning bird to sing,
'Neath sloping bank and sheltering tree
'Tis sweet to watch the creeping Spring.
Though still so early, one may spy
And track her footsteps every hour;
The daisy with its golden eye,
And primrose bursting into flower;
And snugly, where the thorny bower
Keeps off the nipping frost and wind,
Excluding all but sun and shower,
There, children early violets find.
Here 'neath the shelving bank's retreat
The horse-blob swells its golden ball;
Nor fear the lady-smocks to meet
The snows that round their blossoms fall:
Here by the arch's ancient wall
The antique elder buds anew;
Again the bulrush sprouting tall
The water wrinkles, rippling through.
As spring's warm herald April comes,
As nature's sleep is nearly past,
How sweet to hear the wakening hums
Of aught beside the winter blast!
Of feather'd minstrels first and last,
The robin's song's again begun;
And, as skies clear when overcast,
Larks rise to hail the peeping sun.
The startling peewits, as they pass,
Scream joyous whirring over-head,
Right glad the fields and meadow grass
Will quickly hide their careless shed:
The rooks, where yonder witchens spread,
Quawk clamorous to the Spring's approach;
Here silent, from its watery bed,
To hail her coming, leaps the roach.
White stalking o'er the fields again
In stripp'd defiance to the storms,
The hardy seedsman spreads the grain,
And all his hopeful toil performs,—
In flocks the timid pigeon swarms.
For scatter'd kernels chance may spare;
And as the plough unbeds the worms,
The crows and magpies gather there.
Yon bullocks lowe their liberty,
The young grass cropping to their fill;
And colts, from straw-yards neighing free,
Spring's opening promise 'joy at will:
Along the bank, beside the rill,
The happy lambkins bleat and run,
Then weary, 'neath a sheltering hill
Drop basking in the gleaming sun.
At distance from the water's edge,
On hanging sallow's farthest stretch,
The moor-hen 'gins her nest of sedge
Safe from destroying school-boy's reach.
Fen-sparrows chirp and fly to fetch
The wither'd reed-down rustling nigh,
And, by the sunny side the ditch,
Prepare their dwelling warm and dry.
Again a storm encroaches round,
Thick clouds are darkening deep behind;
And, through the arches, hoarsely sound
The risings of the hollow wind:
Spring's early hopes seem half resign'd,
And silent for a while remain;
Till sunbeams broken clouds can find,
And brighten all to life again.
Ere yet a hailstone pattering comes,
Or dimps the pool the rainy squall,
One hears, in mighty murmuring hums,
The spirit of the tempest call:
Here sheltering 'neath the ancient wall
I still pursue my musing dreams,
And as the hailstones round me fall
I mark their bubbles in the streams.
Reflection here is warm'd to sigh,
Tradition gives these brigs renown,
Though heedless Time long pass'd them by
Nor thought them worthy noting down:
Here in the mouth of every clown
The "Roman road" familiar sounds;
All else, with everlasting frown,
Oblivion's mantling mist surrounds.
These walls the work of Roman hands!
How may conjecturing Fancy pore,
As lonely here one calmly stands
On paths that age has trampled o'er.
The builder's names are known no more;
No spot on earth their memory bears;
And crowds, reflecting thus before,
Have since found graves as dark as theirs.
The storm has ceas'd, — again the sun
The ague-shivering season dries;
Short-winded March, thou'lt soon be done,
Thy fainting tempest mildly dies.
Soon April's flowers and dappled skies
Shall spread a couch for lovely May,
Upon whose bosom Nature lies
And smiles her joyous youth away.
(V. ii. p. 118.)
From Lolham Brigs we turned towards the village of Helpstone, and at a distance I saw "Langley Bush," which Clare regretted was fast hastening to utter decay; and could he have the ear of the noble proprietor, he said, he would beg that it might be fenced round to preserve it from unintentional as well as wanton injury. There is a melancholy cadence, in the construction of the little poem which he addressed to this Bush, that chimes on my ear whenever its name is mentioned, and seems to attach me to it as to a rational object, though I know nothing further of its history than is contained in the following lines.
What truth the story of the swain allows,
That tells of honours which thy young days knew,
Of "Langley Court" being kept beneath thy boughs
I cannot tell — thus much I know is true,
That thou art reverenc'd: even the rude clan
Of lawless gipsies, driven from stage to stage,
Pilfering the hedges of the husbandman,
Spare thee, as sacred, in thy withering age.
Both swains and gipsies seem to love thy name,
Thy spot's a favourite with the sooty crew,
And soon thou must depend on gipsy-fame,
Thy mouldering trunk is nearly rotten through.
My last doubts murmur on the zephyr's swell.
My last look lingers on thy boughs with pain;
To thy declining age I bid farewel,
Like old companions, ne'er to meet again.
(V. i. p. 164.)
The discretion which makes Clare hesitate to receive as canonical all the accounts he has heard of the former honours of Langley Bush, is in singular contrast with the enthusiasm of his poetical faith. As a man, he cannot bear to be imposed upon, — his good sense revolts at the least attempt to abuse it; — but as a poet, he surrenders his imagination with most happy ease to the illusions which crowd upon it from stories of fairies and ghosts. The effect of this distinction is soon felt in a conversation with him. From not considering it, many persons express their surprise that dare should be so weak on some topics and so wise on others. But a willing indulgence of what they deem weakness is the evidence of a strong mind. He feels safe there, and luxuriates in the abandonment of his sober sense for a time, to be the sport of all the tricks and fantasies that have been attributed to preternatural agency. Let them address him on other subjects, and unless they entrench themselves in forms of language to which he is unaccustomed, or take no pains to understand him according to the sense rather than the letter of his speech, they will confess, that to keep fairly on a level with him in the depth and tenour of their remarks, is an exercise requiring more than common effort. He may not have read the books which they are familiar with, but let them try him on such as he has read, (and the number is not few, especially of the modern poets,) and they will find no reason to undervalue his judgment. His language, it is true, is provincial, and his choice of words in ordinary conversation is indifferent, because Clare is an unpretending man, and he speaks in the idiom of his neighbours, who would ridicule and despise him for using more or better terms than they are familiar with. But the philosophic mind will strive to read his thoughts, rather than catch at the manner of their utterance; and will delight to trace the native nobleness, strength, and beauty of his conceptions, under the tattered garb of what may, perhaps, be deemed uncouth and scanty expressions. But why do I plead for his language? We have nothing in our poetry more energetic or appropriate than the affecting little poem of
Each scene of youth to me's a pleasing toy,
Which memory, like a lover, doats upon;
And mix'd with them I am again a boy,
With tears and sighs regretting pleasures gone.
Ah! with enthusiast excesses wild
The scenes of childhood meet my moistening eye,
And with the very weakness of a child
I feel the raptures of delights gone by.
And still! fancy, as around I stroll
Each boyish scene, to mark the sport and game,
Others are living with a self-like soul,
That think, and love such trifles, just the same.
An old familiar spot I witness here,
With young companions where we oft have met:
Tho' since we play'd 'tis bleach'd with many a year,
The sports as warmly thrill my bosom yet.
Here winds the dyke where oft we jump'd across,
'Tis just as if it were but yesternight;
There hangs the gate we call'd our wooden horse,
Where we in see-saw ridings took delight.
And every thing shines round me just as then,
Mole-hills, and trees, and bushes speckling wild,
That freshen all those pastimes up agen—
O grievous day that chang'd me from a child!
To seek the plaything and the pleasing toy,
The painted pooty-shell and summer-flowers,
How blest was I when! was here a boy;
What joys were mine in those delightful hours!
On this same bank I bound my posies up,
And cull'd the sweetest blossoms one by one;
The cowslips still entice me down to stoop,
But all the feelings they inspir'd are gone.
Though in the midst of each endear'd delight,
Where still the cowslips to the breezes bow,
Though all my childish scenes are in my sight,
Sad manhood marks me an intruder now.
Here runs the brook which I have damm'd and stopt
With choking sods, and water-weeds, and stones,
And watch'd with joy till bursting off it plopt,
In rushing gushes of wild murmuring groans.
Here stands the tree with clasping ivy bound,
Which oft I've climb'd, to see the men at plough,
And checquer'd fields for many a furlong round,
Rock'd by the winds upon its topmost bough.
Ah, on this bank how happy have I felt,
When here I sat and mutter'd nameless songs,
And with the shepherd-boy, and neatherd, knelt
Upon you rush-beds, plaiting whips and thongs.
Fond memory warms, as here with gravel-shells
I pil'd my fancied cots and walled rings,
And scoop'd with wooden knife my little wells,
And fill'd them up with water from the springs.
Ah, memory sighs, now hope my heart beguiles
To build as yet snug cots to cheer despair,
While fate at distance mocks with grinning smiles,
And calls my structures "castles in the air."
Now e'en the thistles quaking in the wind,
The very rushes nodding o'er the green,
Hold each expressive language to my mind,
And, like old comrades, tell of what has been.
O "sweet of sweets" from infancy that flow,
When can we witness bliss so sweet as then?
Might I but have my choice of joy below,
I'd only ask to be a boy agen.
Life owns no joy so pleasant as the past,
That banish'd pleasure, wrapt in memory's womb:
It leaves a flavour sweet to every taste,
Like the sweet substance of the honeycomb.
(V. ii. p. 14.)
If elegance and tenderness of expression are required, from that author in our language can we adduce more delightful instances than are found in the following
Winter's gone, the summer breezes
Breathe the shepherd's joys again,
Village scene no longer pleases,
Pleasures meet upon the plain;
Snows are fled that hung the bowers,
Buds to blossoms softly steal,
Winter's rudeness melts in flowers:—
Charmer, leave thy spinning wheel,
And tend the sheep with me.
Careless here shall pleasures lull thee,
From domestic troubles free;
Rashes for thy couch I'll pull thee,
In the shade thy seat shall be;
All the flower-buds will I get
Spring's first sunbeams do unseal,
Primrose, cowslip, violet:—
Charmer, leave thy spinning wheel,
And tend the sheep with me.
Cast away thy "twilly willy,"
Winter's warm protecting gown,
Storms no longer blow to chill thee;
Come with mantle loosely thrown,
Garments, light as gale's embraces,
That thy lovely shape reveal;
Put then on thy airy dresses:—
Charmer, leave thy spinning wheel,
And tend the sheep with me.
Sweet to sit where brooks are flowing,
Pleasant spreads the gentle heat,
On the green's lap thyme is growing,
Every molehill forms a seat:
Fear not suns 'cause thou'rt so fair,
In the thorn-bower we'll conceal;
Ne'er a sunbeam pierces there:—
Charmer, leave thy spinning wheel,
And tend the sheep with me.
(V. ii. p. 34.)
In the following little poem the art of the composition, admirable as it is, and yielding to no other in this respect, is yet exceeded and kept properly under by the easy grace and delicate fancy with which the lover urges his passion.
I love thee, sweet Mary, but love thee in fear;
Were I but the morning breeze, healthy and airy,
As thou goest a walking I'd breathe in thine ear,
And whisper and sigh how I love thee, my Mary!
I wish but to touch thee, but wish it in vain;
Wert thou but a streamlet a winding so clearly,
And I little globules of soft dropping rain,
How fond would I press thy white bosom, my Mary!
I would steal a kiss, but I dare not presume;
Wert thou but a rose in thy garden, sweet fairy,
And I a bold bee for to rifle its bloom,
A whole summer's day would I kiss thee, my Mary!
I long to be with thee, but cannot tell how;
Wert thou but the elder that grows by thy dairy,
And I the blest woodbine to twine on the bough,
I'd embrace thee and cling to thee ever, my Mary!
(V. i. p. 195.)
One more quotation, and I return to my companion. Is it possible, that any mode of education, or any rank in life, could have taught Clare to express, in better language than he has chosen, the lovely images under which he commemorates
Spring's sweets they are not fled, though Summer's blossom
Has met its blight of sadness, drooping low;
Still flowers gone by find beds in memory's bosom,
Life's nursling buds among the weeds of woe.
Each pleasing token of Spring's early morning
Warms with the pleasures which we once did know;
Each little stem the leafy bank adorning,
Reminds of joys from infancy that flow.
Spring's early heralds on the winter smiling,
That often on their errand, meet their doom,
Primrose and daisy, dreary hours beguiling,
Smile o'er my pleasures past whene'er they come;
And the speckt throstle never wakes his song,
But Life's past Spring seems melting from his tongue.
(V. ii. p. 205.)
I have dwelt more at length than may be necessary in a letter to you on the subject of Clare's power of language, but some of his friends object, in my opinion most unreasonably, to his choice of words: one wishes that he would "thresh" and not "thump" the corn, another does not like his eliding the first syllable of some of his words, as "'proaching, &c." Every one seems to think that the words or phrases which are in common use in his native place, or where he happened to pass the greater part of his life, ought to be reckoned the true and entire "world of words" for all Englishmen; and so each disallows by turns almost every expression which has not received the sanction of the court. At this rate, Spenser and Shakspeare ought to be proscribed, and Clare may be well content to endure their fate. But in reality, Clare is highly commendable for not "affecting" a language, and it is a proof of the originality of his genius. Style at second-hand is unfelt, unnatural, and common-place, a parrot-like repetition of words, whose individual weight is never esteemed, — a cluster-language framed and cast into set forms, in the most approved models, and adapted for all occasions, — an expedient, in fact, to give an appearance of thinking, without "the insupportable fatigue of' thought." It suits the age, for we abound with machinery, invented to supersede man's labour; and it is in repute, for it "is adapted to the meanest capacities;" but there never was a real poet, or grand original thinker in prose, who did not compose his phraseology for himself; words must be placed in order with great care, and put into combination which have been unknown before, if the things which he is solicitous to express, have not been discovered and expressed before. In poetry, especially, you may estimate the originality of the thoughts by that of the language; but this is a canon to which our approved critics will not subscribe: they allow of no phrase which has not received the sanction of authority, no expression for which, in the sense used, you cannot plead a precedent. They would fetter the English poet as much as they circumscribe the maker of Latin verses, and yet they complain that our modern poets want originality!
Helpstone consists of two streets, intersecting each other at right angles. In the middle stand the church and a cross, both rather picturesque objects, but neither of them very ancient. Clare lives in the right hand street. I knew the cottage by the elm trees, which overhang it;
—The witchen branches nigh,
O'er my snug box towering high—
and was glad to hear that they are not now likely to be cut down.
On a projecting wall in the inside of the cottage, which is white-washed, are hung some well engraved portraits, in gilt frames, with a neat drawing of Helpstone Church, and a sketch of Clare's Head which Hilton copied in water colours, from the large painting, and sent as a present to Clare's father. I think that no act of kindness ever touched him more than this; and I have remarked, on several occasions, that the thought, of what would be his father's feelings on any fortunate circumstance occurring, has given him more visible satisfaction, than all the commendations which have been bestowed on his genius. I believe we must go into low life to know how very much parents can be beloved by their children. Perhaps it may be that they do more for them, or that the affection of the child is concentrated on them the more, from having no other friend on whom it can fall. I saw Clare's father in the garden: it was a fine day, and his rheumatism allowed him just to move about, but with the aid of two sticks, he could scarcely drag his feet along: he can neither kneel nor stoop. I thought of Clare's lines:
I'll be thy crutch, my father, lean on me;
Weakness knits stubborn while it's bearing thee:
And hard shall fall the shock of fortune's frown,
To eke thy sorrows, ere it breaks me down.
(Vol. i. p. 67.)
The father, though so infirm, is only fifty-six years of age; the mother is about seven years older. While I was talking to the old man, Clare had prepared some refreshment within, and with the appetite of a thresher we went to our luncheon of bread and cheese, and capital beer from the Bell. In the midst of our operations, his little girl awoke, a fine lively pretty creature, with a forehead like her father's, of ample promise. She tottered along the floor, and as her father looked after her with the fondest affection, and with a careful twitch of his eyebrow when she seemed in danger, the last verse of his Address to her came into my mind:
Lord knows my heart, it loves thee much
And may my feelings, aches, and such,
The pains I meet in folly's clutch
Be never thine:
Child, it's a tender string to touch,
That sounds "thou'rt mine."
(V. i. p. 163.)
A few more years, and we shall probably see him advanced to that state of patriarchal felicity, which is so beautifully pourtrayed in his Sunday Walks:
With love's sweet pledges paddling at his heels,
That oft divert him with their childish glee
In fruitless chases after bird and bee;
And, eager gathering every flower they pass,
Of yellow lambtoe and the totter-grass,
Oft whimper round him disappointment's sigh
At sight of blossom that's in bloom too high,
And twitch his sleeve with all their coaxing powers
To urge his hand to reach the tempting flowers:
Then as he climbs, their eager hopes to crown,
On gate or stile to pull the blossoms down
Of pale hedge-roses straggling wild and tall,
And scrambling woodbines that outgrow them all,
He turns to days when he himself would teaze
His tender father for such toys as these,
And smiles with rapture, as he plucks the flowers,
To meet the feelings of those lovely hours,
And blesses Sunday's rest, whose peace at will
Retains a portion of those pleasures still.
(V. ii. p. 107, 8.)
Our meal ended, dare opened an old oak bookcase, and showed me his library. It contains a very good collection of modern poems, chiefly presents made him since the publication of his first volume. Among the works of Burns, Cowper, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Crabbe, and about twenty volumes of Cooke's Poets, I was pleased to see the Nithsdale and Galloway Sang of our friend Allan Cunningham, to whom Clare expresses a great desire to be introduced; he thought, as I did, that only "Auld Lang Syne" could have produced such poems as The Lord's Marie, Bonnie Lady Anne, and the Mermaid of Gallowa'. The Lady of the Bishop of Peterborough had just made him a present of Miss Aikin's Court of Queen Elizabeth. From Sir W. Scott he received (I think) the Lady of the Lake, and Chatterton's Poems of Rowley, in lieu of two guineas which were offered him; he had requested to have the value of the gift enhanced by the autograph of Sir Walter, in one or both the volumes, but his wish was refused. Crabbe's Works were sent him, by Lord Milton, on the day I called at Helpstone. To see so many books handsomely bound, and "flash'd about with golden letters," as he describes it, in so poor a place as Clare's cottage, gave it almost a romantic air, for, except in cleanliness, it is no whit superior to the habitations of the poorest of the peasantry. The hearth has no fire-place on it, which to one accustomed to coal fires looked comfortless, but Clare found it otherwise; and I could readily picture him enjoying, as he describes himself in one of his early Sonnets,
—The happy winter-night,
When the storm pelted down with all his might,
And roar'd and bellow'd the chimney-top,
And patter'd vehement 'gainst the window-light,
And on the threshold fell the quick eaves-drop.
How blest I've listen'd on my corner stool,
Heard the storm rage, and hugg'd my happy spot,
While the fond parent wound her whirring spool,
And spar'd a sigh for the poor wanderer's lot.
In thee, sweet hut, this happiness was prov'd,
And these endear and make thee doubly lov'd.
(V. ii. p. 152.)
Having directed my man to set off in an hour's time, and wait for me at the top of Barnack Hill, I walked with Clare to the lower end of the street, to see the place where "Jenny" drowned herself. It is a large pond, partly overhung with trees; a deep wood backs the field; and in front is an ancient building, which looks like an old manor-house, but it is now in ruins: the scene is, perhaps, the most picturesque of any in the neighbourhood. Here let me refer you at once to the poem of Cross Roads, or the Haymaker's Story. It is so true to nature, so full of minute incidents, all telling the story in the most dramatic way, that any attempt to glance at it otherwise than in the words of the original, would be to destroy some portion of its interest; and altogether it is a most affecting narrative. The following lines are beautifully characteristic of those numberless recollections, which rush upon the memory after an irreparable deed is done, and seem to have been so strikingly prophetic of the fact, that our indifference to them assumes even a culpable taint, and we almost feel as if we might have prevented the mischief. An old woman, who was Jenny's companion, thus narrates the story:
Poor thoughtless wench! it seems but Sunday past
Since we went out together for the last,
And plain enough indeed it was to find
She'd something more than common on her mind;
For she was always fond and full of chat,
In passing harmless jokes 'bout beaus and that,
But nothing then was scarcely talk'd about,
And what there was, I even forc'd it out.
A gloomy wanness spoil'd her rosy cheek,
And doubts hung there it was not mine to seek;
She ne'er so much as mention'd things to come,
But sigh'd o'er pleasures ere she left her home;
And now-and-then a mournful smile would raise
At freaks repeated of our younger days,
Which I brought up, while passing spots of ground
Where we, when children, "burly-burly'd" round,
Or "blindman-buff'd" some morts of hours away—
Two games, poor thing, Jane dearly lov'd to play.
She smil'd at these, but shook her head and sigh'd
Whene'er she thought my look was turn'd aside;
Nor turn'd she round, as was her former way,
To praise the thorn, white over then with May;
Nor stooped once, tho' thousands round her grew,
To pull a cowslip as she us'd to do:
For Jane in flowers delighted from a child—
I like the garden, but she lov'd the wild,
And oft on Sundays young men's gifts declin'd,
Posies from gardens of the sweetest kind,
And eager scrambled the dog-rose to get,
And woodbine-flowers at every bush she met.
The cowslip blossom, with its ruddy streak,
Would tempt her furlongs from the path to seek
And gay long purple, with its tufty spike,
She'd wade o'er shoes to reach it in the dyke;
And oft, while scratching through the briary woods
For tempting cuckoo-flowers and violet buds,
Poor Jane, I've known her crying sneak to town,
Fearing her mother when she'd torn her gown.
Ah, these were days her conscience view'd with pain,
Which all are loth to lose, as well as Jane.
And, what I took more odd than all the rest,
Was, that same night she ne'er a wish exprest
To see the gipsies, so belov'd before,
That lay a stone's-throw from us on the moor;
I hinted it; she just reply'd again—
She once believ'd them, but had doubts since then.
And when we sought our cows, I call'd, "Come mull!"
But she stood silent, for her heart was full.
She lov'd dumb things; and ere she had begun
To milk, caress'd them more than e'er she'd done;
But though her tears stood watering in her eye,
I little took it as her last good-bye;
For she was tender, and I've often known
Her mourn when beetles have been trampled on:
So I ne'er dream'd from this, what soon befel,
Till the next morning rang her passing-bell.
(V. ii. p. 88.)
And how wonderfully natural on these reflections!
That very morning, it affects me still,
Ye know the foot-path sidles down the hill,
Ign'rant as babe unborn I pass'd the pond
To milk as usual in our close beyond,
And cows were drinking at the water's edge,
And horses brows'd among the flags and sedge,
And gnats and midges danc'd the water o'er,
Just as I've mark'd them scores of times before,
And birds sat singing as in mornings gone,
While I as unconcern'd went seedling on,
But little dreaming, as the wakening wind
Flapp'd the broad ash-leaves o'er the pond reclin'd,
And o'er the water crink'd the curdled wave,
That Jane was sleeping in her watery grave.
The neatherd boy that us'd to tend the cows,
While getting whip-sticks from the dangling boughs
Of osiers drooping by the water side,
Her bonnet floating on the top espied;
He knew it well, and hasten'd fearful down
To take the terror of his fears to town,—
A melancholy story, far too true;
And soon the village to the pasture flew,
Where from the deepest hole the pond about,
They dragg'd poor Jenny's lifeless body out,
And took her home, where scarce an hour gone by
She had been living like to you and I.
I went with more, and kiss'd her for the last,
And thought with tears on pleasures that were past;
And, the last kindness left me then to do,
I went, at milking, where the blossoms grew,
And handfuls got of rose and lambtoe sweet,
And put them with her in her winding-sheet.
A wilful murder, jury made the crime;
Nor parson 'low'd to pray, nor bell to chime;
On the cross roads, far from her friends and kin,
The usual law for their ungodly sin
Who violent hands upon themselves have laid,
Poor Jane's last bed un-christian-like was made;
And there, like all whose last thoughts turn to heaven,
She sleeps, and doubtless hop'd to be forgiven.
(V. ii. p. 92.)
The tale is a true one, and in a little village it would doubtless make a deep impression at the time; but Clare received it from tradition, for the circumstance happened long ago: he would learn therefore the mere fact, that such a girl was drowned in such a pond, and all those particulars — which constitute the poetry of the story, would remain to be created by the activity of his own imagination. The true poet alone could so faithfully realize to himself, and few of that class would dare to dwell so intensely upon, the agonizing considerations which pass in the mind of a person, intent on self-destruction: the subsequent reflections of the narrator on her own indifference in passing the pond where Jenny lay drowned, and on the unconcern of the cattle and the insects, may be, perhaps, more easily conceived, but are no less faithfully and eloquently uttered.
In our way to Barnack, we skirted the "Milking pasture," which, as it brought to my mind one of the most delicious descriptions I ever saw of the progress of love, shall be my apology, if any is necessary, for the following quotation.
Now from the pasture milking-maidens come,
With each a swain to bear the burden home,
Who often coax them on their pleasant way
To soodle longer out in love's delay;
While on a mole-hill, or a resting stile,
The simple rustics try their arts the while
With glegging smiles, and hopes and fears between,
Snatching a kiss to open what they mean:
And all the utmost that their tongues can do,
The honey'd words which nature learns to woo,
The wild-flower sweets of language, "love" and "dear,"
With warmest utterings meet each maiden's ear;
Who as by magic smit, she knows not why,
From the warm look that waits a wish'd reply
Droops fearful down in love's delightful swoon,
As slinks the blossom from the suns of noon;
While sighs half-smother'd from the throbbing breast,
And broken words sweet trembling o'er the rest,
And cheeks, in blushes burning, turn'd aside,
Betray the plainer what she strives to hide.
The amorous swain sees through the feign'd disguise,
Discerns the fondness she at first denies,
And with all passions love and truth can move
Urges more strong the simpering maid to love;
More freely using toying ways to win—
Tokens that echo from the soul within—
Her soft hand nipping, that with ardour burns,
And, timid, gentlier presses its returns;
Then stealing pins with innocent deceit,
To loose the 'kerchief from its envied seat;
Then unawares her bonnet he'll untie,
Her dark-brown ringlets wiping gently by,
To steal a kiss in seemly feign'd disguise,
As love yields kinder taken by surprise:
While, nearly conquer'd, she less disapproves,
And owns at last, 'mid tears and sighs, she loves.
With sweetest feelings that this world bestows
Now each to each their inmost souls disclose,
Vow, to be true; and to be truly ta'en,
Repeat their loves, and vow it o'er again:
And pause at loss of language to proclaim
Those purest pleasures, yet without a name:
And while, in highest ecstacy of bliss
The shepherd holds her yielding hand in his,
He turns to heaven to witness what he feels,
And silent shows what want of words conceals:
Then ere the parting moments hustle nigh,
And night in deeper dye his curtain dips,
Till next day's evening glads the anxious eye,
He swears his truth, and seals it on her lips.
(V. ii. p. 78.)
At the end of that same pastoral, "Rural Evening," how perfect in form, character, and colour, is the following sketch of an aged woman in the almshouse.
Now at the parish cottage wall'd with dirt,
Where all the cumber-grounds of life resort,
From the low door that bows two props between,
Some feeble tottering dame, surveys the scene;
By them reminded of the long-lost day
When she herself was young, and went to play;
And, turning to the painful scenes again,
The mournful changes she has met since then,
Her aching heart, the contrast moves so keen,
E'en sighs a wish that life had never been.
Still vainly sinning, while she strives to pray,
Half-smother'd discontent pursues its way
In whispering Providence, how blest she'd been,
If life's last troubles she'd escap'd unseen;
If, ere want sneak'd for grudg'd support from pride,
She had but shar'd of childhood's joys, and died.
And as to talk some passing neighbours stand,
And shove their box within her tottering hand,
She turns from echoes of her younger years.
And nips the portion of her snuff with tears.
(V. ii. p. 112.)
But you are tired, or at least I am, with this long letter. Briefly then, suppose that I parted with my interesting companion, on the top of Barnack Hill, a place which he has celebrated in his poems; that he pursued his way to Casterton; and that after dinner I tried to put these my imperfect recollections of the day on paper for your amusement.