Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry

by James Graham

'I dreaded walking where there was no path': the poetry of John Clare (1793-1864)

'I wandered lonely as a cloud'. There's nuance to this famous line that we may not always discern. Wordsworth was lucky to be able to wander so freely. The opening line of a poem by John Clare offers a different perspective: 'I dreaded walking where there was no path'.

In contrast to the wilder Lake District, in Clare's Northamptonshire land that had been common was being enclosed - as we would say, privatised - and 'No Road Here' signs proliferated. Enclosure had already happened, in piecemeal fashion, in other parts of the country, but now for the first time it arrived, by an Act of Parliament of 1809, in Clare's own locality.

The poem is about trespass. Had he come across a host of daffodils his joy would have been qualified by the sure knowledge that they were the property of a landowner, and that he could be prosecuted simply for being there to see them.

I dreaded walking where there was no path
And pressed with cautious tread the meadow swath
And always turned to look with wary eye
And always feared the owner coming by...

And when I gained the road where all are free
I fancied every stranger frowned at me
And every kinder look appeared to say
You've been on trespass in your walk today.

The trespass poem, with its rhyming couplets and skipping rhythm, seems quite benign, less angry than Clare's later poems about enclosure - as we shall see. But even here we find more than a hint of the new oppression that had fastened on rural life, something which as time went by was to aggrieve Clare more and more, and drive him at times to despair.

Wordsworth was born into a respectable small-town middle class family. His father was a lawyer, his most notable client the Earl of Lonsdale. Clare was the son of a rural labourer. The differences in their social background go some way to explaining the differences we find in their work; but to understand it better, and especially to understand Clare, we need to explore further.

In similar vein as in 'Daffodils', Wordsworth tells us in Resolution and Independence: 'I was a Traveller then upon the moor'. It was on the moors near Ullswater that he met the old leech-gatherer whom he immortalised in that fine poem. At first sight the old man seems to Wordsworth a very strange creature, 'like a sea-beast crawled sun itself'; almost like a creature from another world. The poet greets him and asks, 'What occupation do you there pursue?' He hears the old man's account of himself in a kind of wide-eyed wonderment - so much so that he seems to lose track of what is being said and has to ask the stranger to go over it all again.

This strange and awkward meeting gives us an insight into Wordsworth, and perhaps into Romantic poetry in general. Wordsworth is indeed a Traveller, almost in the sense that Richard Burton was a traveller when he sought the source of the Nile: an explorer, a discoverer. Though he lived at Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount in the heart of the Lake District, he is nevertheless an outsider, making expeditions into the natural world, eloquently reporting on his discoveries, and sharing with us the spiritual nourishment or moral dividend he drew from them. Thus Wordsworth reflects that the leech-gatherer was 'like a man from some far region sent, / To give me human strength, by apt admonishment'. Nature generally is, as he writes elsewhere, 'The anchor of my purest thoughts...the guardian of my heart'.

John Clare is different. He may sound like Wordsworth when he writes

I love at eventide to walk alone
Down narrow lanes o'erhung with dewy thorn,

but as he walked the public roads of rural Northamptonshire - or occasionally trespassed - he was no Wordsworthian Traveller. He was indigenous. From childhood he had known the mud of the fields and the smell of animals. He was as native to the lanes, fields and woods as the hares and hedgehogs that populate his work - and felt himself to be so. Clare was centred in nature and wrote from the heart of it. He could have written about the leech-gatherer, but could not have written Resolution and Independence, because he knew only too well the sort of countryman who, perhaps thrown off his plot of land by some landlord, or no longer wanted as a labourer due to old age and infirmity, had to scrape a living by whatever means he could until he died with his working boots on. That the leech-gatherer might be 'a man from some far region' would never have occurred to Clare. He would have seen him as a Northants man, struggling to fend off the destitution of old age. His own father, Parker Clare, suffered from arthritis and when he could no longer work in the fields earned a parish pittance by breaking stones.

Had Clare met the leech-gatherer, he would have been aware of the social and political implications. He witnessed one of the more painful phases of what is called the Agricultural Revolution - the enclosure of common land and the rise of rural capitalism, which filled the purses of landowners and reduced the peasantry to landless poverty.
This 'revolution' impelled Clare to write some of the most trenchant protest poetry in English, poetry in which bitter anger and sweet sorrow are mixed in almost equal proportions. But more of this to follow. Let us first listen to the voice of the 'indigenous' poet.

Among the orchard weeds, from every search
Snugly and sure, the old hen's nest is made,
Who cackles every morning from her perch
To tell the servant girl new eggs are laid.
Who lays her washing by and far and near
Goes seeking all about from day to day
And, stung with nettles, tramples everywhere,
But still the cackling pullet lays away.
The boy on Sundays goes the stack to pull
In hopes to find her there but nought is seen
And takes his hat and thinks to find it full
She's laid so long, so many might have been;
But nought is found and all is given o'er
Till the young brood come chirping to the door.

At once this strikes us as different from the voices of the 'travelling' Romantics. There's nothing wide-eyed about this, it's not told with surprise and wonderment. This is a countryman telling us from experience what a hassle it can be when a hen lays away.

Clare seems delighted by the episode and engrossed in the act of describing it. He sees no need to justify the writing of this poem, or to make any comment whatsoever. The hen is a hen, not a metaphor. He records the episode like a photographer choosing his subject and composing the picture. Beyond this, he doesn't intervene between his subject and the reader. In form it's a Shakespearian sonnet, but its closing couplet offers no artful epigram; instead, it simply finishes the story.

The present tense is significant. If it were written in the past, it would be an anecdote, a telling of something rather odd, even a one-off. But the present tense implies this happens often, in different places, and is a familiar part of ordinary life.

Clare is more genial about the laying away than most farmers would be; many would go about cursing until they found the nest, then lift the poor old hen off her eggs by the scruff of the neck. There's money in eggs. But Clare sees the funny side of the episode, especially in the way he presents it as a ruse on the part of the hen, who gives detectives the slip day after day, and whose cackling announcements begin to sound like laughter.

There's usually a signal in a poet's head when a subject for a poem presents itself - this is meaningful, this is beautiful; I want to save this in a poem, fix it in a structure of words. For Clare, the laying-away is a signal as powerful as the towering mass of Mont Blanc is for Shelley. It's no less worthy of the poet's craft than Odysseus' adventure with the Cyclops. It is 'Some little thing of other days, saved from the wreck of time'.

Clare salvages and collects, and displays for us a living museum of country life, both human:

The foddering boy along the crumping snows
With straw-band-belted legs and folded arm
Hastens and on the blast that keenly blows
Oft turns for breath and beats his fingers warm

and animal:

The hedgehog hides beneath the rotten hedge
And makes a great round nest of grass and sedge...
On the hedge-bottom hunts for crabs and sloes
and whistles like a cricket as he goes.

Chickens and hedgehogs, even the farmer's boy taking feed to the cattle on a winter morning, have survived the Agricultural Revolution. But Clare believed, at least during the many dark nights of his soul, that even such simple daily occurrences would soon be lost for ever. His pessimism, which could take on almost an end-of-the-world-is-nigh aspect, was rooted in his horror at the rise of capitalist agriculture. In one word, the evil was called Enclosure.

'Enclosure' for Clare is both literal and metaphorical. As well as the seizure of common lands and their transmutation into private property, it refers to personal 'enclosures' of more than one kind. His confinement in the County Asylum for the last 23 years of his life is an obvious example, though his output of new writing during those years is a thorough vindication of the famous lines 'Stone walls do not a prison make, Nor iron bars a cage'. The subtler 'enclosures' he suffered, and which contributed to his depression and alcohol dependency, include the political censorship of his work and the associated pressure to conform to a stereotype of the unlettered bard, the gifted but humble - above all non-political - peasant poet.
In 1817 Edward Drury, a Stamford bookseller, undertook to send Clare's poems out to publishers, and in 1819 his work was accepted by the London publisher John Taylor, whose list already included such notables as Hazlitt, Keats and de Quincey. This should have been a great triumph for Clare; but his career as a published poet was to be blighted by the wanton interference and censorship of others. Taylor found him an aristocratic patron, Lord Radstock, a major landowner and an evangelical who agreed to underwrite the publication of his first two collections, but wanted the books thoroughly purged of what he called 'radical slang'. Thenceforward, the poet of couthy peasant life, the genial observer of hedgehogs and nightingales, was celebrated. Gentlefolks would come out from the town to watch him work in the fields, or peek through the windows of his cottage. But the poet of social justice, the poet angry against the oppression of the rural poor, was virtually silenced.

Two of his greatest poems, 'The Moors' and 'The Fallen Elm', were never published in his lifetime. In the former, Clare eloquently mourns the loss of the freedom that was enjoyed by country people when the land was theirs, held in common - tracts of unfenced land where cattle and sheep roamed freely and village children played by the brook-side and found wild berries in hedgerows:

Mulberry bushes where the boy would run
To fill his hands with fruit are grubbed and done,
And hedgerow briars - flower-lovers overjoyed
Came and got flower-pots - these are all destroyed.

Now landowners have deprived the people of their heritage, and would arraign the very birds for trespass if they could.

But paths to freedom and to childhood dear
A board sticks up to notice 'no road here'
And on the tree with ivy overhung
The hated sign by vulgar taste is hung
As tho' the very birds should learn to know
When they go there they must no further go.

'The Fallen Elm' is certainly one of Clare's greatest poems. It uniquely combines his anger against enclosure with a moving expression of love for the old tree - a profound respect that recalls 'primitive' peoples and their animistic reverence for sacred trees:

Old Elm that murmured in our chimney-top
The sweetest anthem Autumn ever made
And into mellow whispering calms would drop
When showers fell on thy many-coloured shade,
And when dark tempests mimic thunder made
While darkness came as it would strangle light
With the black tempest of a Winter night
That rocked thee like a cradle to thy root...

We felt thy kind protection like a friend
And pitched our chairs up closer to the fire
Enjoying comforts that was never penned...

The childern sought thee in thy Summer shade
And made their playhouse rings of sticks and stone;
The mavis sang and felt himself alone
While in thy leaves his early nest was made
And I did feel his happiness mine own.

The elm is a victim not of the storm but of the landowner. The poet mourns its fall as the loss of a 'friend not inanimate' which 'owned a language by which hearts are stirred' but now knows only the 'language of pity and the force of wrong'.

As the poem moves into its denunciation of rural capitalism, we begin to meet another word besides 'enclosure' that for Clare was charged with meaning. In this poem and in others, 'freedom' has turned into its opposite. When he speaks of lost times, Clare extols the freedom of cattle and sheep to roam, the freedom of wild creatures to burrow or nest where they will, the freedom of the wild spaces where stands of trees and berry-bushes could grow unmolested. Now comes the 'knave' to sweep all that away, and he too speaks of 'freedom'.

With axe at root he felled thee to the ground
And barked of freedom - O I hate that sound...

Thus came enclosure - ruin was its guide
But freedom's clapping hands enjoyed the sight,
Though comfort's cottage soon was thrust aside
And workhouse prisons raised upon the site.

'Freedom is slavery'. Orwell's authoritarian mantra in Nineteen Eighty Four is anticipated in this poem. Landowners used the word liberally and, no doubt, sincerely; for them it meant economic freedom on a par with burgeoning industry. But for the peasant it meant a new kind of slavery, either as a hired field hand working for a pittance, or - lacking even a labouring job - as a workhouse inmate; or else as a migrant drifting into the city to swell the ranks of the industrial proletariat.

There can be no mistaking the bitterness with which Clare spits out the word 'freedom' in The Fallen Elm. The word has been sullied and corrupted; it has been emptied of all its substance.

Sometimes we have to listen in a special way to a poet's voice. We have to 'tune in' and learn to pick up the peculiar force and intonation the poet lends to certain words and images. In Clare's work the voltage is often much higher than we think. The phrase 'the road where all are free' in the trespass poem quoted above might throw us back a step or two if we were to touch it: this is a freedom little better than that of a caged bird on its perch or a zoo animal pacing about its compound. Everywhere in Clare's political writings, 'free', 'freedom' and 'enclosure' carry a powerful charge. There's more fire in them than they would normally contain for readers in our time; we have grown used to the private ownership of land, do not expect to find in most rural areas vast tracts of free, unfenced landscape. But if we 'tune in' sensitively to Clare's voice, we begin to see all this as he saw it, and acknowledge his anger and grief.

Enclosure for Clare was a greater evil than is implied by mere land-grabbing. It was theft not only of land but also of dignity and identity. It was a denial of access to an intimate knowledge of nature and a relationship with living things.

At one point in his long poem The Parish - unpublished, it almost goes without saying - Clare puts his anger into particular words that have come to seem prophetic. In the same tone of sorrow and anger found in so many of his poems, he laments the fate of poor men who may be hanged for the most petty theft,

While wealthy thieves with knaverys bribes endued
Plunder their millions and are not pursued.

The language is archaic, but the sentiment is perennial. Knowing Clare's work, we are in no doubt as to the identity of these 'thieves'.They 'are not pursued' because they have literally made a law for the rich and a law for the poor. A century and a half later, there is little difference in kind; the scale is merely greater. In poor countries of the South today, there is an immense flood of the dispossessed into shanty towns. Agribusiness corporations 'plunder their millions'. Rich-list bankers and corporate moguls in every economic field promote the distribution of wealth from the poor to the rich.

“In the beginning of Time, the great Creator Reason, made the Earth to be a Common Treasury, ... but not one word was spoken in the beginning, That one branch of mankind should rule over another”. Thus the Leveller Gerrard Winstanley in the midst of the great convulsion of the English Commonwealth.

Is it really so? Our 'beginning' is not the same as Winstanley's: not Eden but Africa, where apes began to walk upright and evolved new brain functions. Can it be that we are programmed, not to husband the living Earth as a common treasury, but instead to arrange ourselves into hierarchies, to go after power and then abuse it, to amass astronomical wealth while others starve? Is this the default human condition? Efforts to bring about a radically new society have failed, not least the seventy-year Soviet experiment. In 1917, peasants' committees charged with a communal political awareness and determination unknown in any country in Clare's lifetime, compelled landowners to sign over large tracts for peasant cultivation. Within a few years, however, the revolution that had begun by reversing the process of land enclosure had fallen into abuses of power as cruel as any in history. Is this our evolutionary heritage? Are the protests of Winstanley and John Clare, and of those who try to make revolutions, cries and acts against nature? In our time, it seems that they are: it seems that the knotweed of private property and private wealth has taken root everywhere, as if it is the natural outcome of six million years of human evolution.

If all this seems apocalyptic, it is little more so than Clare's world must have appeared to him. His horizon was closer than ours; but the small world he knew was becoming, in his own words, 'a desert strange and chill'. The England he had known seemed to him so altered he could no longer recognise it or find a niche for himself in it. He was an outcast.

Still, through all the years in the County Asylum and through times when he must have felt close to disintegration, he continued to write. His later poems were transcribed as fair copies by one of the asylum staff, including one of the best known and most memorable:

I am - yet what I am, none cares or knows;
My friends forsake me like a memory lost;
I am the self-consumer of my woes;
They rise and vanish in oblivion's host,
Like shadows in love's frenzied stifled throes: -
And yet I am, and live - like vapours tossed

Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life or joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life's esteems.

Like any artist who walks close to the edge, Clare was able to shape his sense of loss and alienation into objects of beauty. In happier times, he gave form to the most intimate moments in the daily life of a rural community. When he wrote

O words are poor receipts for what time hath stole away,

he undervalued his own writings, which have grown in stature over time, and have lost none of their warmth or wisdom.

John Clare online:


John Clare: Major Works ed. Eric Robinson and David Powell (Oxford World's Classics)

John Lucas: John Clare Writers and their Work series (Northcote House)