Seventeen (originally 25) Spenserians, "The Woodman. Dedicated to the Rev. J. Knowles Holland" was published by John Taylor with several stanzas omitted. The rather grim depiction of the winter landscape is in the tradition of James Thomson's Seasons (note the friendly robin), though it is relieved by the contrasting warmth of the domestic scenes that frame the poem. Since the earlier descriptive poems by Shenstone, Beattie, and Burns, the Spenserian stanza had become traditional in poetry treating "simple" subjects. What differentiates Clare is his artless use of the Spenserian stanza and the absence of literary diction, though the occasional dialect words, as Taylor no doubt realized, accord well enough with the genre.
Ladies' Monthly Museum: "The Woodman is a fine picture, and one from which even Wilkie might copy.... The poetry contained in the two volumes of The Village Minstrel, is almost uniformly good, and often beautiful; the Poems descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery, can bear no comparison with it The first, we should regard our poetical library incomplete if wanting; with the latter we could dispense, and the more willingly, since it contains many pieces which we regret ever to have been published" S3 18 (September 1823) 140.
Octavius Gilchrist: "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 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 great poet, or grand original thinker in prose, who did not compose his phraseology for himself" "A Visit to John Clare" in London Magazine 4 (November 1821) 544.
Earl R. Wasserman: "John Clare, who had more of the divine fire of true poetry in him than any of his predecessors [who imitated Shenstone], at last, in a large number of poems, brought to the tradition what Shenstone had lacked, a sincere feeling for, and a sympathy and direct acquaintance with, the simplicities and commonplaces of rural life" Elizabethan Poetry in the Eighteenth Century (1947) 115.
The beating snow-clad bell, with sounding dead,
Hath clanked four — the woodman's wak'd again;
And, as he leaves his comfortable bed,
Dithers to view the rimy feather'd pane,
And shrugs, and wishes — but 'tis all in vain:
The bed's warm comforts he must now forego;
His family that oft till eight hath lain,
Without his labour's wage could not do so,
And glad to make them blest he shuffles through the snow.
The early winter's morn is dark as pitch,
The wary wife from tinder brought at night,
With flint and steel, and many a sturdy twitch,
Sits up in bed to strike her man a light;
And as the candle shows the rapturous sight,
Aside his wife his rosy sleeping boy,
He smacks his lips with exquisite delight,
With all a father's feelings, father's joy,
Then bids his wife good-bye, and hies to his employ.
His breakfast water-porridge, humble food;
A barley crust he in his wallet flings;
On this he toils and labours in the wood,
And chops his faggot, twists his band, and sings,
As happily as princes and as kings
With all their luxury: — and blest is he,
Can but the little which his labour brings
Make both ends meet, and from long debts keep free,
And neat and clean preserve his numerous family.
Far o'er the dreary fields the woodland lies,
Rough is the journey which be daily goes;
The woolly clouds, that hang the frowning skies,
Keep winnowing down their drifting sleet and snows,
And thro' his doublet keen the north wind blows;
While hard as iron the cemented ground,
And smooth as glass the glibbed pool is froze;
His nailed boots with clenching tread rebound,
And dithering echo starts, and mocks the clamping sound.
The woods how gloomy in a winter's morn!
The crows and ravens even cease to croak,
The little birds sit chittering on the thorn,
The pies scarce chatter when they leave the oak,
Startled from slumber by the woodman's stroke;
The milk-maid's song is drown'd in gloomy care,
And, while the village chimneys curl their smoke,
She milks, and blows, and hastens to be there;
And nature all seems sad, and dying in despair.
The quirking rabbit scarcely leaves her hole,
But rolls in torpid slumbers all the day;
The fox is loth to 'gin a long patrole,
And scouts the woods, content with meaner prey;
The hare so frisking, timid once, and gay,
'Hind the dead thistle hurkles from the view,
Nor scarce is scar'd though in the traveller's way,
Though waffling curs and shepherd-dogs pursue;
So winter's rugged power affects all nature through.
What different changes winter's frowns supply:
The clown no more a loitering hour beguiles,
Nor gaping tracks the clouds along the sky,
As when buds blossom, and the warm sun smiles,
And "Lawrence wages bids" on hills and stiles;
Banks, stiles, and flowers, and skies, no longer charm;
Deep drifting snow each summer-seat defiles;
With hasty blundering step and folded arm
He glad the stable seeks, his frost-nipt nose to warm.
The shepherd haunts no more his spreading oak,
Nor on the sloping pond-head lies at lair;
The arbour he once wattled up is broke,
And left unworthy of his future care;
The ragged plundering stickers have been there,
And pilfers it away: he passes by
His summer dwelling, desolate and bare,
And ne'er so much as turn a conscious eye,
But gladly seeks his fire, and shuns th' inclement sky.
The scene is cloth'd in snow from morn till night,
The woodman's loth his chilly tools to seize:
The crows, unroosting as he comes in sight,
Shake down the feathery burden from the trees;
To look at things around he's fit to freeze:
Scar'd from her perch the fluttering pheasant flies;
His hat and doublet whiten by degrees,
He quakes, looks round, and pats his hands and sighs,
And wishes to himself that the warm sun would rise.
The robin, tamest of the feather'd race,
Soon as he hears the woodman's sounding chops,
With ruddy bosom and a simple face
Around his old companion fearless hops,
And there for hours in pleas'd attention stops:
The woodman's heart is tender and humane,
And at his meals he many a crumble drops.
Thanks to thy generous feelings, gentle swain;
And what thy pity gives, shall not be given in vain.
The woodman gladly views the closing day,
To see the sun drop down behind the wood,
Sinking in clouds deep blue or misty grey,
Round as a foot-ball and as red as blood:
The pleasing prospect does his heart much good,
Though 'tis not his such beauties to admire;
He hastes to fill his bags with billet-wood,
Well-pleas'd from the chill prospect to retire,
To seek his corner chair, and warm snug cottage fire.
And soon as dusky even hovers round,
And the white frost 'gins crizzle pond and brook,
The little family are glimpsing round,
And from the door dart many a wistful look;
The supper's ready stewing on the hook:
And every foot that clampers down the street
Is for the coming father's step mistook;
O'erjoy'd are they when he their eyes does meet,
Bent 'neath his load, snow-clad, as white as any sheet.
I think I see him seated in his chair,
Taking the bellows up the fire to blow;
I think I hear him joke and chatter there,
Telling his children news they wish to know;
With leather leggings on, that stops the snow,
And broad-brimm'd hat uncouthly shapen round:
Nor would he, I'll be bound, if it were so,
Give twopence for the chance, could it be found,
At that same hour to be the king of England crown'd.
The woodman smokes, the brats in mirth and glee,
And artless prattle, even's hours beguile,
While love's last pledge runs scrambling up his knee,
The nightly comfort from his weary toil,
His chuff cheeks dimpling in a fondling smile;
He claims his kiss, and says his scraps of prayer,
Begging his daddy's pretty song the while,
Playing with his jacket-buttons and his hair;—
And thus in wedlock's joys the labourer drowns his care.
And as most labourers knowingly pretend
By certain signs to judge the weather right,
As oft from "Noah's ark" great floods descend,
And "buried moons" foretel great storms at night,
In such-like things the woodman took delight;
And ere he went to bed would always ken
Whether the sky was gloom'd or stars shone bright,
Then went to comfort's arms till morn, and then
As cheery as the sun resum'd his toils agen.
And ere he slept be always breath'd a prayer,
"I thank thee, Lord, that thou to-day didst give
Sufficient strength to toil; and bless thy care,
And thank thee still for what I may receive:
And, O Almighty God! while I still live,
Ere my eyes open on the last day's sun,
Prepare thou me this wicked world to leave,
And fit my passage ere my race is run;
'Tis all I beg, O Lord! thy heavenly will be done."
Holland! to thee this humble ballad's sent,
Who for the poor man's welfare oft hast pray'd;
Whose tongue did ne'er belie its good intent,
Preacher, as well in practice, as in trade—
Alas, too often money's business made!
O may the wretch, that's still in darkness living,
The Bible's comforts hear by thee display'd;
And many a woodman's family, forgiven,
Have cause for blessing thee that led their way to heaven.