John Clare

Richard Ryan, "John Clare" Poetry and Poets: being a Collection of the choicest Anecdotes relative to the Poets of every Age and Nation (1826) 2:273-76.

This Northamptonshire Peasant, whose poems have recently excited much attention, was born at Helpstone, a village most unpoetically situated at the easternmost point of Northamptonshire, adjoining the Lincolnshire fens. He learnt to spell of the village schoolmistress, and, before he was six years old, was able to read a chapter in the Bible.

At the age of twelve, he assisted in the laborious employment of threshing: the boy, in his father's own words, "was weak but willing," and the good old man made a flail for him somewhat suitable to his strength. When his share of the day's toil was over, he eagerly ran to the village school under the belfry, and in this desultory and casual manner gathered his imperfect knowledge of language, and skill in writing. At the early period of which we are speaking, Clare felt the "poetic fever." He relates, that twice or thrice in the winter weeks, it was his office to fetch a bag of flour from the village of Maxey, and darkness often came on before he could return. The state of his nerves corresponded with his slender frame. The tales of terror with which his mother's memory shortened the long nights, returned freshly to his fancy the next day; and to beguile the way and dissipate his fears, he used to walk back with his eyes fixed immoveably on the ground, revolving in his mind some adventure "without a ghost in it," which he turned into verse; and thus, (he adds,) he reached the village of Helpstone before he was aware of his approach.

The clouds which had hung so heavily over the youth of Clare, far from dispersing, grew denser and darker, as he advanced towards manhood. His father, who had been the constant associate of his labours, became more and more infirm, and he was constrained to toil alone, and far beyond his strength, to obtain a mere subsistence. It was at this cheerless moment he composed "What is Life?" in which he has treated a common subject with much earnestness, solemnity, and originality.

Clare has latterly been patronized with a degree of liberality which does credit to the taste and benevolence of those who have so kindly interested themselves in his behalf. Injudicious friends have placed him by the side of Bloomfield and Burns; but he is many removes from either; although, at the same time, we admit that some of his effusions (of which the following is one) evince great nature, and considerable sweetness of versification.

The cocks have now the morn foretold,
The sun again begins to peep;
The shepherd, whistling to his fold,
Unpens and frees the captive sheep.
O'er pathless plains, at early hours,
The sleepy rustic sloomy goes;
The dews, brush'd off from grass and flowers,
Bemoistening sop his harden'd shoes;

While every leaf that forms a shade,
And every flow'ret's silken top,
And every shivering bent and blade,
Stoops, bowing with a diamond drop.
But soon shall fly those diamond drops,
The red round sun advances higher,
And, stretching o'er the mountain tops,
Is gilding sweet the village-spire.

'Tis sweet to meet the morning breeze,
Or list the gurgling of the brook;
Or, stretch'd beneath the shade of trees,
Peruse and pause on Nature's book,
When Nature every sweet prepares
To entertain our wish'd delay,—
The images which morning wears,
The wakening charms of early day!

Now let me tread the meadow paths
While glitt'ring dew the ground illumes,
As, sprinkled o'er the withering swaths,
Their moisture shrinks in sweet perfumes;
And hear the beetle sound his horn;
And hear the skylark whistling nigh,
Sprung from his bed of tufted corn,
A hailing minstrel in the sky.