I have recently become interested in the life and work of a poet who was born just down the road from where I now live.
The poet is John Clare and he was born into a poor agricultural labouring family in Helpston (then called Helpstone) in what was then part of the county of Northamptonshire and is now the county of Cambridgeshire, just a few miles from the towns of Stamford in Lincolnshire, the small market town of Market Deeping in Lincolnshire (where I live) and the city of Peterborough.
I have recently researched Clare’s life and works and am presently reading an excellent biography about him by Jonathan Bate.in chapter 2 of the book “Childhood” Bate makes a powerful assertion: “John Clare is England’s greatest poet of childhood”.
He states that Clare was not childlike in his writing, but he recalled the joys of childhood in an agrarian society that had changed so much with the introduction, in his lifetime, of the dreaded enclosures, that changed the face of the land and created a movement of workers from agriculture towards the cities and towns that were part of the burgeoning industrial revolution in the country.
His Helpston was a place where villagers worked on common lands and effectively were peasants in the classical idea of what that term meant. The village then, as now, had a fine church that was at the centre of family life. Education was a haphazard affair, with Clare learning from a lady teacher in the village before he went (when he could afford it) to the one-room village school in the nearby village of Glinton.
Clare’s mother was illiterate all her life but his father was the illegitimate son of a fiddle playing, literate, roving Scotsman by the name of Parker, who for a brief time became the village teacher before his affair with a young village girl and her subsequent being “with child” led him to seek pastures new!
Clare’s father had some literacy and enjoyed singing and performing folk songs in the local pub, the other centre of the community’s life.
Clare grew up with a passionate desire to learn and also a passionate interest in books. Indeed he walked from Helpston to the nearby town of Stamford to buy his first books with money he had saved from his labouring work.
Almost as soon as he developed his reading, he also became interested in the two things that would dominate his adult life, writing and the world of nature. His family’s constant fights with poverty meant that he did not receive a full education and throughout his life, he struggled with accepted grammar and spelling. He wrote in the local dialect and in this respect was influenced by the great Scottish poet Robbie Burns.
He found fleeting fame with the publication of his first book of poems Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery (1820). He was brought up to London as the newly discovered “labouring poet” and mixed in high-powered literary and social circles for a while.
The next book of poems was far less successful and he never received the adulation and attention of this brief period of fame for the rest of his life. His life became one of constant fights against poverty and a struggle to bring up his nine children. He wrote huge amounts of poetry, observations of nature and even songs.
The latter part of his life saw him descend into madness. He was first taken to a private mental asylum in Epping Forest, Essex, which he famously left and walked eighty miles back to his home in Northborough (a village near his birthplace of Helpston, where he had moved after he married). His prose essay on this walk, written in a feverish passion in the hours after he finally got home, has been described as one of the darkest pieces of writing in English literature.
He stayed in Northborough for a few months but was later committed to a public asylum in Northampton and died there on May 20th, 1864. He was 70 years of age and by then, largely forgotten as a writer.
That I am writing about him now is due to the fact that in very recent times his poetry has been rediscovered and he has become accepted as a major poet of rural life. The cottage he was born and lived in Helpston has now become a tourist attraction and is a museum showing where and how he worked.
As I stated above Bate calls Clare the “greatest English poet of childhood” and to get an idea of this he quotes from his poem “Evening Schoolboys”:
Harken that happy shout- the schoolhouse door
Is open thrown and out the younkers teem
Some rush to leapfrog on the rushy moor
And others dabble in the shallow stream
Catching young fish and turning pebbles o’er
For mussel-clams – look in that mellow gleam
Where the retiring sun that rests the while
Streams through the broken hedge-how happy seem
Those schoolboy friendships leaning o’er the stile,
Both reading in one book- anon a dream
Rich with new joys doth their young hearts beguile
And the book’s pocketed most hastily.
And happy boys, well may ye turn and smile
When joys are yours that never cost a sigh.
At the end of his life, one of his final poems shows his hope for a return (in death) to a simpler world, pre-enclosure, where he had run free as a child: