Seventeen quatrains, after Gray's Eton College Ode. As was often his habit, John Clare adapts a canonical poem to his own experiences and perceptions. While Clare obviously had no experience of grammar school, his poem underscores the universality of Gray's sentiment that "where ignorance is bliss, 'tis folly to be wise." Clare reflects, "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." There is no catalogue of menacing abstractions here: Clare, as ever, keeps his eye firmly on the objects before him. The measure is that of Gray's Elegy written in a Country Churchyard.
Octavius Gilchrist: "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 Childish Recollections" "A Visit to John Clare" in London Magazine 4 (November 1821) 542.
Oliver Elton: "John Clare (1793-94), who was equally [with Robert Bloomfield] without advantages, lived close to the ground — the flat soil of the Eastern counties — with an eye for its less obtrusive flowers (pilewort, chickweed) and an ear for the noises of its tinier creatures, and a sure hold of the happy local words for the notation of such phenomena. The 'drowking meadow-sweet,' the 'chumbling mouse,' the 'lumping flail,' the 'chirping gossip,' are epithets just as near to the object as the Scots of Burns, and 'The yellow-hammer flutters in short fears' is an unimprovable description. But the pulse of life in Clare, the 'Northamptonshire peasant,' ran low and timid; his life was crazily poised over the pit of penury and madness; his passing success was a cruelty, and he was born in complete disharmony with his peasant life and surroundings, except in so far as his genius lay in describing it. His best verse has a faintness of tone — it is the only just audible harmony of the underbrush, as we lean down and listen. A gentle, playful pleasure in rustic gallantry and beauty — it never rises higher than that in the way of joy; and its sorrow is like thin note, too high for certain ears, of a wounded small creature. Clare's moments of comfort are when he is alone with the winds shut out, and dreams of the well-being he has not" Survey of English Literature 1780-1830 (1912) 2:268.
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.