John Clare was born in 1793. With his reputation having grown over the whole of the 20th Century, he is now regarded as one of the most important poets of the natural world. He wrote many poems, essays, journals and letters about love, corruption and politics, environmental and social change, poverty and folk life. A talented fiddler, he became, in effect, one of the first collectors of ‘folk’ tunes.
John Clare’s life spanned one of the great ages of English poetry but, until about fifty years ago, few would have thought of putting his name with those of Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Browning and Tennyson. The son of humble and almost illiterate parents, Clare grew up in the Northamptonshire village of Helpston and made the surrounding countryside his world. His formal education, such as it was, ended when he was eleven years old, but this child of the ‘unwearying eye’ had a thirst for knowledge and became a model example of the self-taught man. As a poet of rural England he has few rivals.
During his long life, Clare observed a period of massive changes in both town and countryside. The Agricultural Revolution – The Enclosures – saw pastures ploughed up, trees and hedges uprooted, marshy land drained and the common land enclosed. This destruction of the countryside he knew as a child and the centuries-old way of life it supported, distressed Clare deeply. Large numbers of agricultural labourers, including their children, went to work in the new factories because of the rural poverty caused by the greed of landowners and farmers, which kept wages down but forced prices up. For them, it was migration to the town, or die. Clare recorded much of this in his poems and prose.
From the moment his first publication – Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery – appeared in 1820, it was clear that England had a new and original poet. Sadly, the public’s enthusiasm did not last long and each new volume met with diminishing applause. Ill and in debt, he left Helpston for Northborough and, at the encouragement of his editor, John Taylor, was then committed to a private asylum, High Beach in Epping Forest, in 1837. Leaving the asylum in 1841, he made the long trek on foot back to his home where he spent a few months before eventually being removed to Northampton General Lunatic Asylum in which he died in 1864.
The schoolboys in the morning soon as dressed
Went round the fields to play and look for nests.
They found a crow’s but dare not climb so high,
And looked for nests when any bird was nigh;
From The Wood is Sweet (ed. David Powell, and illustrator Carry Akroyd), 2005, on sale via the Society (see the Publications and Merchandise page)