Growing awareness of the climate and ecological crises faced by humanity sometimes allows us to look at writers from a previous age with fresh eyes. One such writer is the 19th-century poet John Clare.
Initially successful, he struggled professionally for much of his later life. And was then largely ignored after his death in 1864. But his work has become significantly more popular in recent decades precisely because he offered a view of nature which was embedded in the world around him.
Development of a unique sensibility
Clare was born into a rural working-class family in 1793 in the small village of Helpston, Northamptonshire. His father was a casual farm labourer, life was precarious and the threat of the workhouse was never far away. But his parents – both virtually illiterate – recognised the value of education and paid for him to receive some limited schooling until the age of 12.
Clare himself worked in the fields from an early age but was fascinated by the written word and soon started writing poetry. Lucky enough to be spotted by the publisher John Taylor (who also published John Keats), his first collection, Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery, came out in 1820.
One of the poems from the collection, ‘The Primrose’, provides an insight into his wonderful imagery and the distinctive level of detail that he brought to his nature poetry:
Welcome, pale Primrose! starting up between
Dead matted leaves of ash and oak, that strew
The every lawn, the wood, and spinney through,
Mid creeping moss and ivy’s darker green;
How much thy presence beautifies the ground:
How sweet thy modest, unaffected pride
Glows on the sunny bank, and wood’s warm side.
But, no dewy eyed mystic, he was acutely conscious of the exhausting nature and sheer physicality of agricultural labour. As he describes in The Harvest Morning:
The loading boy revengeful inly grieves
To find his unmatch’d strength and power decay;
The barley horn his garments interweaves;
Smarting and sweating ‘neath the sultry day,
With muttering curses stung, he mauls the heaps away.
The loss of the commons
He was also seized by the social injustice he saw emerging around him. The Enclosure Act of 1809 (followed by a series of similar acts running through to 1820) had turbo-charged the privatisation of the rural landscape.
The legislation enforced the consolidation of the medieval open field system into larger, unitary landholdings owned by people of wealth. Commons rights were extinguished, much of the remaining pasture commons lost and people who had previously subsisted on the land became part of the new, rapidly growing urban proletariat.
By the early 19th century, the medieval peasant community had been virtually destroyed. As E. P. Thompson noted in The Making of the English Working Class, ‘Enclosure (when all the sophistications are allowed for) was a plain enough case of class robbery.’
But the impact wasn’t just economic. Nature came under a new assault. Woods were felled, rivers canalised, marshes drained. Cultural life was also affected as seasonal customs and village rituals which celebrated their communities were undermined or destroyed. As his biographer Jonathan Bate notes in a wonderful episode of the series In Our Time, Clare saw ‘enclosure as an offence to village customs and nature.’
And he employed some striking imagery about the impact of these changes in a wonderful poem Remembrances:
Inclosure like a Buonaparte let not a thing remain
It levelled every bush and tree and levelled every hill
And hung the moles for traitors – though the brook is running still
It runs a naked brook cold and chill
A disappearing world
Everything Clare loved was disappearing. Rural life was undoubtedly tough. Characterised by back-breaking work and poverty. But there was also a great sense of belonging. Of being part of a close-knit community. Now largely eliminated.
Clare’s life was marred by poor mental health, and he spent his later years in an asylum. He suffered from depression and showed signs of what we now call bipolar disorder. But you can also speculate that the social and economic changes he witnessed contributed to his loss of his sense of self and increasing feelings of alienation from the society around him.
We see elements of this in one of his great poems, The Fallen Elm, where he moves from an emotional expression of love for the old tree to palpable anger at the hypocrisy that accompanied the enclosures:
It seasoned comfort to our hearts’ desire,
We felt thy kind protection like a friend
With axe at root he felled thee to the ground
And barked of freedom. O I hate the sound!
Clare was patronised by the London literary elite who dubbed him the ‘Northamptonshire Peasant Poet’. But one of the interesting things about him was his ability to see the parallel between the exploitation of nature and the exploitation of labour.
Both were victims of an oppressive economic system that cared little for the consequences of its actions. Not least a dramatic transformation of the mental landscape of the rural working class as they grappled with the impact of a rapidly changing world.
Perhaps this is why John Clare resonates with us today. His intuitive understanding of our place in the natural world speaks to us across the years as we witness the destruction of the environment wrought by our economic and political systems.
As Jonathan Bate noted, he was, ‘the greatest labouring-class poet that England has ever produced. No one has ever written more powerfully of nature, of a rural childhood, and of the alienated and unstable self.’ John Clare provides a timely reminder of the impact of our relationship with nature and the imperative to strain every sinew to protect the only world we have.
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