A pastoral eclogue. Richard and Simon, taking shelter from wet weather under a bridge, discover that they both love the same maiden, one Mary Fieldflower. The boys compare the sacred portents, and, more to the point, the favors Mary has bestowed on them. The proofs are unambiguous, and an old shepherd declares Richard the successful rival.
John Clare emulates eighteenth-century pastoral as it developed out of John Gay's Shepherd's Week (1714), taking the traditional themes and episodes from Theocritus and re-rendering them with the new nineteenth-century realism of description. While he beats his rivals (among them Stephen Duck, the Thresher Poet) at their own game, one wonders how many nineteenth-century readers would have approved of pastoral eclogue at all.
Ladies' Monthly Museum: "Pastoral poetry, in skilful hands, cannot fail to please; yet it must, of necessity, possess such a sameness, as will, on repetition, divest it of much of its interest; it can never rise into grandeur, nor attract by its novelty. Such is the character of our rural poet. Like the river which glides, in unruffled meandering, through a wide extent of country, and which delights the eye, yet, does not, like the foaming cataract, awe the mind into mute astonishment. Both, however, have their beauties, and so has this volume. Amidst much which the critic may censure, it yet has redeeming qualities of sweetness and simplicity, which cannot fail to conciliate the public opinion and patronage in its favour" S3 25 (May 1827) 288.
Literary Chronicle: "The Village Stories consist of the Sorrows of Love, the Progress of Love, the Memory of Love, and the Rivals. The last is an ingenious pastoral, and all are exquisitely written.... This volume is an additional confirmation of our opinion, long ago expressed, that its author in accurate pictures of rural scenery, in depth of feeling, and originality of observation, is inferior to no poet of the day" 9 (27 October 1827) 675.
Eclectic Review: "We know not whether our Poet is aware that he has been forestalled in his title by Spenser, who has also a Shepherd's Calendar, written in the fantastic style which was then so fashionable. But his amorous shepherds and goatherds, Cuddy and Colin, Hobbinol and Diggon, are mere awkward maskers, while the scenery is all pasteboard. Nothing is more astonishing than the total absence of descriptive beauty, and rural feeling, and observation of nature, from these eclogues, and from almost all the pastorals of the old school.... Clare, however, will stand a comparison with any of our descriptive poets. If we meet with few elevated sentiments or philosophic remarks, which in him could only be affectation, it is high praise, but well deserved, that he is always natural and in character, and never aims at a style above his compass" NS 27 (June 1827) 510-11.
Literary Gazette: " There is a great deal of sweet poetry in this little volume, — snatches of song springing like wild flowers on the heath, or in the green lanes. It makes us votaries to the fine creed which in olden time esteemed the minstrel's gift 'a light from heaven,' — when the young peasant, filled with his own warm feelings, with heart attuned and awakened to the natural loveliness around, pours them out in careless, untutored, but still musical song. With much at which the critic might carp — much to which the general reader will be indifferent, — there is yet in these pages what will interest and please lovers of the gentle art" (31 March 1827) 105.
Literary Magnet: "A collection of simple, natural pictures, which every one will receive pleasure in becoming familiar with. Many of the sketches in this volume are equal to any thing that the author has yet written. The introduction to a poem entitled 'April,' which will be found in another part of the number, has high claims to poetic merit. Clare continues fully to vindicate the opinion which his friends entertain of his talents" NS 4 (1827) 58.
Robert Shelton Mackenzie: "John Clare, the Northamptonshire Peasant and Poet, now , in a lunatic asylum" Noctes Ambrosianae, ed. Mackenzie (1854) 1:224n.
Beneath a meadow bridge, whose arch was dry,
Some swains sought shelter till a shower was by.
Upon its smooth half-circling roof of stone
Rude figured things in different colours shone,
Spread hands and birds, and self-imagined flowers,
Pastimes of boys imprison'd there by showers;
Some made with ruddle, which the shepherd swain
Employs, that he may know his sheep again,
Others with fire-sticks, chance would haply find
About the spot, by gipsies left behind;
And many a deeply-cut two letter name,
Where knives were spoilt to win an inch of fame,
Which linger on for years about the spot,
Brands of oblivion, living yet forgot.
Here the swains shelter'd till the storm was o'er,
Sitting on stones rolled in for seats before:
Some spent the hour in leisure's pleasant toil,
Making their apple-scoops of bone the while;
One crimpt a knitting-sheath upon his knees,
To please a maiden whom he wish'd to please;
An older swain did his wet hours employ
In making whistles for an anxious boy,
Who sat in eager watchings by his side,
Waiting their finish with exulting pride;
While two young swains in love's discoursings fell,
Lapping up love-knot plaits, and many a spell,
With broad green reed-blades, where the shelter'd midge
Danced in their shadows by the mossy bridge.
The swallows, darting through the arch at play,
Heard the rude noise, and popt another way.
My love forgets me never; every spell
Links as I lap it, and betokens well.
When I was young, and went a weeding wheat,
We used to make them on our dinner seat:
We laid two blades across, and lapt them round,
Thinking of those we loved; and if we found
Them linked together when unlapt again,
Our loves were true; if not, the wish was vain:
I've heard old women, who first told it me,
Vow, that a truer token could not be.
Three times I've lapt mine up, and still 'tis out;
A fatal number, had I cause to doubt;
But Mary Fieldflower still is fond and free,
And shows no token to dishearten me:
I care not what this foolish trifling tells,
For I can bring up better proofs than spells.
Produce them, Simon; for if she be true
To lovers vows, she has no room for two.
Ne'er feast on fancy, 'tis a dangerous food
To take as truth, and in a loving mood;
She throws a rosy veil round self-conceit,
Which, like the canker to the heart, will eat,
Till nought is left to cherish her disguise,
Then, like worm-eaten fruit, it drops and dies.
If I judge right, the maid you name is mine;
Nor without proofs will I the maid resign.
These I can give in plenty; though, I own,
I never knew that she had kindness shown
To other shepherds than myself, till now,
Much less that she chain'd follies with a vow.
Last April fair, when I got bold with beer,—
I loved her long before, but had a fear
To speak — as by a stall she chanced to stand,
With kerchief full of fairings in her hand,
I ventured up, and tapt her on the arm:
She seem'd at first to startle with alarm;
But when I begg'd a fairing at the wake,
She loosed her kerchief, and pull'd out a cake;
And in return for her good-natured ways,
I offer'd ribbons which I heard her praise:
These she refused, and said she'd plenty got,
But thank'd me kindly, though she took them not.
Whene'er at Sunday feast, or noisy fair,
I go, and meet with rosy Mary there,
If my dog finds her first he rubs her clothes,
And wags his tail; e'en she to him bestows
A ginger button, and quick turns again,
To wonder why I out of sight remain:
And when she finds me out, in manners free,
She comes unasked to offer things to me;
Never refusing the returns I make,
But meanest trifles condescends to take.
Last Christmas' sports, I join'd the skaiting crew
That yearly race for hats with ribbons blue,
And flew away with young Hope's swiftest pace;
Nor was I cheated, for I won the race:
I took the bunch of ribbons home at night
To Mary, who e'en trembled with delight;
Nor once refused the proffered gift to take,
But said, "Well done! I'll keep it for your sake."
Once we, with others, at a neighbour's met
To play at cards, when she beside me sat;
Although at first she edged her chair away,
She grew more fond as we began to play,
And soon as ever up my cards I took,
She smiled, and o'er my shoulder stole to look;
To make believe, in true Love's fondling way,
She wish'd to know what cards I had to play.
And when, to try her love, I made pretence
To leave off playing for the want of pence,
She from her lap took out the penny fee,
And put it 'neath the candlestick for me.
Although she would not take, when we retired,
My arm, to guide her home, as I desired,
She often turn'd, as wishing I'd pursue,
And said, Good night! and thank'd me kindly too.
Last Michaelmas, at night, we join'd to play
A hand or two, and keep a holiday:
When we chose partners, not as love regards,
But by the fortunes of the lifted cards,
While Mary look'd at one she took in hand,
She smiled at me to make me understand;
Pointing the colour in her flowery dress,
I took the hint, and well knew which to guess.
"The colour'd card," said I, "my wishes seek,
Is something like the rose on Mary's cheek;
A bonny red for me." — She laugh'd outright,
And said, "Then I'm your partner for the night."
Blushing, she edged her chair up close to mine,
Paying, with joy, her kiss for every fine.
When time came on us with the hour to part,
Although 'twas late, she seemed as loath to start;
And, though the full moon shone as bright as day,
She even ask'd me if I'd lead the way,
And took my arm without the least to do
These are my proofs, and I have morts as true.
Once 'neath a huge ash tree she made a stop,
To view a magpie's nest upon the top.
I thought she wish'd the eggs, and up I went,
Nor paused to ask her what her looks had meant;
The grain sway'd like a bulrush in the wind,
But I climb'd on, and left my fears behind.
She praised the spotted eggs, but seem'd in pain,
So up I took them to the nest again.
Poor birds! she sighed, to hear them caw and cry,
And more perhaps to think I climb'd so high.
I was embolden'd, from such shown regard,
To beg and take a kiss as my reward;
Although behind her hands she hid her face,
She only blushed, nor frown'd at my embrace.
Force gives no choice; their own free-will is best:
What we urge earnest, they but take in jest.
One day, while picking sprigs of hillock thyme,
A little pismire in the flowers did climb,
Which to her bosom proved a rebel guest,
And stung her as she placed it in her breast;
Red pimples rose upon her snowy skin,
While sighs bespoke the anguish she was in:
But when she show'd it me with blushing face,
I bent with trembling heart and kiss'd the place,
Urging the charm as cure for all her pain,
She smiled, as wishing to be kiss'd again.
Once in the pasture lane, at evening's hour,
She stoop'd down to reach a water flower,
And sure enough, had I not caught her gown,
Headlong the venturing girl had toppled down!
I held her in my arms till danger's fright
Was calm'd, and then she thank'd me in delight;
And smiling, promised as she walked away,
To dance with me on the next holiday.
Once, from her choice black lamb, I stooped to pull
A bramble, that got tangled in the wool,
And pricked my hand; she seem'd to feel the pain,
While with a pin I pick'd it out again:
Love-sighs the while did her white bosom swell,
And tears e'en started when she wish'd it well.
She seem'd to hope I'd let the wanderer be,
As she had rather it were hurt than me.
Ay, some delight to try a gossip's spell,
And flattery's honey suits some lovers well:
I've took her milk full often o'er a stile,
She always thank'd me, and would often smile;
And when she miss'd a lamb at morn's young light,
Thinking the fox had stole it of at night,
She'd mourn and sigh, and seek it, and inquire,
Then I too search'd; oft pierced with thorn and briar,
And when she sorrow'd, though the lamb was free,
I might think too that she was grieved for me.
Thoughts deal in fancies far away from truth,
And Folly's shadows shine like suns to youth;
But Reason's proofs are never urged in vain,
And what I've witness'd, I'll believe again.
Once 'neath this very bridge, when left alone,
I cut my name in full upon the stone:
'Twas weeding time, and she was toiling nigh,
With others cutting thistles from the rye.
The next day, coming to the place again,
Where they had been for shelter from the rain,
I saw her own name in full letters shine,
Scratch'd with a knife or bodkin close to mine,
And linked together with a true love's knot:
Mine lingers still upon the much-loved spot;
But some rude fool, with envy at his heart,
Has scratch'd hers out, and torn the links apart.
Well! they may hide love's shadows how they will,
The maid that wrote it is my true-love still:
I told her of the proof with anxious pride,
And though she own'd it not, she ne'er denied.
On Plough-witch-Monday, I was in the barn
Tying up bundles there of foddering corn,
To take a-field for sheep, that round the stacks
Lay, with the small snow winnowing on their backs,
When in she ran, with cheeks as pale as death,
And scarce could speak the while for want of breath;
"Keep secrets, Sim," she said, "I need them now,
The witch-chaps come" — then skulk'd behind the mow;
And in they rush'd, and laugh'd and stared about,
Threat'ning rude kisses if they found her out,
While I to screen her, as she wish'd me, swore
That I had seen her bustle by the door:
So off they ran, when she came smiling out,
Saying she hated to be mawled about
With their black faces — but when I began
To urge my claims, she never shrieked, nor ran,
As from a snake or toad — but said the day
Was short, and Labour had no time for play.
But hark ye, Simon, that's in seasons gone,—
On last Plough-Monday I myself was one.
She saw us coming, and prepared to fly,
But me she noticed with a laughing eye,
Hiding like one that wishes to be found;
And while the others search'd the house around,
I heard the creaking of the dairy door.
Knowing such secrets by her ways before,
I instant put her hiding-place to rout,
Nor did she hold the latch to keep me out.
She might my blacken'd face a little dread;
"You'll spoil my Sunday cap," was all she said:
And when I hoped my ways were not unkind,
"Oh no," she laughed, "there's water, never mind."
Some Sundays back, I'd been to fold my sheep,
Just as the red sun down the woods did creep,
And looking back, while wand'ring home again,
I saw a girl come down the pasture lane
I slacken'd pace to pull a wild rose down,
That she might catch me 'ere we met the town;
And turning round again, as near she drew,
'Twas Mary's self, who nodded "How do ye do?"
She kept my pace, and chatted by my side,
Oft turning round my happy dog to chide,
Who chased the hares, that sat on clover knolls
At feed, and rabbits squatting by their holes.
She praised the blackbird at his evening song,
That in the hedgerow ranted all along
His old song "Draw the knave a cup of beer!
Be quick, quick, quick!" in chorus plain and clear.
The path grew narrow as we rambled on,
And through the corn-field made but room for one:
Though she went first, still she would often turn,
The unheard answers of our talk to learn;
Inquiries often urging with a smile,
As if she wish'd to bring up love the while.
I'm sorry since, I tried not ways to woo,
Putting things forward, as a many do.
She let me climb stiles first, then made a stand,
As if she wish'd to offer me her hand;
But I kept backward, wishing still to prove
Yet stronger signals of my Mary's love;
And sure enough, all that have eyes may see,
Through this, the value that she has for me.
They may indeed, and Mary in her mirth
Would say a farthing is of kindred worth.
Last May-day eve she sprained her foot at play;
And when she found she could no longer stay,
She came to me in sorrow, yet in smiles:
And begg'd my aid to help her o'er the stiles:
Some said she feign'd it as excuse to go;
Be as it would, I never sought to know,
But took her arm and went, and on our road
She many a token and a kiss bestow'd.
Once, as she leaned to rest upon a stile,
The pale moon hanging o'er her looks the while,
"Richard," she said, and laugh'd, "the moon is new,
And I will try if that old tale is true,
Which gossips tell, who say, that if as soon
As any one beholds the new May-moon,
They o'er their eyes a silken kerchief fling
That has been slided through a wedding-ring,
As many years as they shall single be,
As many moons they through that veil shall see;
And I for once will try the truth I vow:
For this, that hangs about my bosom now,
Was drawn through one upon a bridal night,
When we were full of gossip and delight.
Old women, if they heard my talk, would call
Me fond, and think I wish'd the number small;
E'en you may think me foolish, or too free
Be as it will, I'll take it off and see.—
Then instant from her snowy neck she threw
It first o'er me, and bade me tell her true;
And sure as I stand here, while that was o'er,
I saw two moons as plain as one before
And when my Mary took it off to try,
Herself saw two, the very same as I,
Although at first she did not like to own,
Saying in blushes she could see but one;
Yet, as her kerchief round her neck she tied,
She smiled, and mutter'd "Now I'm satisfied."
"Mary," I answer'd, "then it rests with you
To suit the tale, and make it false or true."
"Richard," she said, "where I find truth, I find
Nothing to make me of a diff'rent mind."
This was as plain a hint as she could say,
And other proofs were throwing words away;
Yet she made promises that night to me,
That next year's summer may expect to see,
When round our hopes a love-knot shall be twined
As fast as rings and parsons' words can bind.
I'll not believe it, though such manners may
Much more of freedom than I wish betray;
Still her good nature I will keep in mind,
And ne'er believe that Mary is unkind:
She always thanks me, very kind and free,
For help in toil, and that's a proof for me.
Last live-long winter through, for such rewards,
I clean'd the paths from snow about the yards,
And litter'd straw in all the pudgy sloughs
About the hovel, where she milk'd her cows;
Oft milking when I'd any time in hand:
I've from the heath brought many a load of sand,
Whene'er at plough or dung-cart I have been,
Her shining rows of pewter plates to clean;
I've risen up from my dinner many a day,
When master at the market was away,
For her a stolen pear or plumb to reach,
Or gait of water from the pump to fetch;
And she has smiled, and thank'd me o'er and o'er,—
Love proves itself, I need relate no more:
Yet once, while clambering o'er the orchard wall,
I fell, and from my pocket in the fall
My knife was lost, and Mary, ever free,
Found it, and offered it as mine to me;
But I denied it then, that mine was gone,
On purpose that the maid might keep it on;
So she no more inquiries cared to make,
And I'll be bound she keeps it for my sake.
Well, though I had not time to tend her so,
Or milk her cows, or clean her paths from snow,
Love has no out-door charms for winter weather,—
'Twas spring and summer when we met together;
Yet when a chance fell out-at her desire,
I've waited on her at the kitchen fire,
And often made her evening labour light,
Taking the huge pot off the hooks at night
Brimful of milk the fatting calves to feed;
And soon as chances left no eyes to heed,
In whispering ways she'd o'er my shoulder lean.
While I took kisses for my toil unseen.
Whenever she sat up to bake or brew,
I've strove to help her so that no one knew,
While she would of her own accord agree
To hunt the yard, and seek new eggs for me,
Ne'er dreading striding witch, nor sheeted ghost,
Lapping them up in the hot coals to roast:
Though she'd no cellar-key a horn to fill,
I've fill'd a sweet-wort dish, and drank at will:
If she drank nothing at those hours of stealth,
She'd sip, and own it was to drink my health.
When summer's morts of blossoms ceased to bloom,
And time to take the honey up was come,
I would for her the brimstone torch alight
To smother in their hives the bees at night;
Though she would call it cruelty, and sigh,
And often take her apron up to cry,
She thought, while troubled o'er each murder'd bee,
To save the whitest honeycomb for me.
Oft would she from her folded apron take
Gifts, venturing clowns had stolen for her sake,
Bidding me choose whate'er I might prefer;
And oft, to prove, I left the choice to her,
When in a moment she'd begin to seek
A favourite apple with the reddest cheek,
Or plum that seem'd the mellowest, the while
Holding them out with many a sweeter smile:
These are not only proofs of love, but speak
Things as plain as ever one may wish to seek.
As to the knife, there all your hopes must sink,
For knives cut love, not keep it, as you think.
One that she pick'd up once, you soon may see:
Such gifts are dang'rous, so she sold it me;
There, own it: if you can, I'll that resign,
But Mary Fieldflower still I claim as mine.
Ay, Simon, lad, why turn ye from the view,
Play with your watch-chain when you've nought to do?
Look up and answer me, or else refrain,
And own you've lost, and we'll be friends again.
"Ay," said the old man, with a weary smile,
Who sat at rest to listen them awhile,
"Though Love in choosing mates is often blind,
And steers with Folly's whims against the wind,
Poor Simon's baffled hopes have stood too long,
His proofs were seldom right, and often wrong;
His chance is bad, I own, if all be true,
So make it up, and have no more to do;
Throw down the foolish love ye long have nursed,
And cease, or else the rain will finish first."
Simon, who from their gaze had turn'd around,
And with his hook progg'd holes about the ground,
Whistled his resting dog, coil'd up asleep,
And in the rain went seeking for his sheep,
Glad from a rival's triumph to retreat,
Yet ne'er acknowleged that himself was beat;
While Richard turn'd his comrades' talk to join,
And proudly laugh'd to see his foe resign.