The Arbour Chapbook series - No. 5 ‘Accursed Wealth’



           On the 16th July, whilst many were still at the Society’s Festival, Jeremy Corbyn quoted John Clare at Tolpuddle festival:

     "Inclosure came and trampled on the grave  
     Of labour's rights and left the poor a slave …
     And birds and trees and flowers without a name /
     All sighed when lawless law's enclosure came."

            Even in 2017,  without doubt, Clare is as relevant as ever.  Here are the lines from his 1820 collection "Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery" that his publisher had expunged from the book in the Second and subsequent editions, MUCH to Clare's annoyance:

     "Accursed wealth oer bounding human laws 
     Of every evil thou remains the cause 
     Victims of want those wretches such as me 
     Too truly lay their wretchedness to thee 
     Thou art the bar that keeps from being fed 
     & thine our loss of labour & of bread 
     Thou art the cause that levels every tree 
     & woods bow down to clear a way for thee "

            ‘Accursed Wealth’ – those two words echo down the generations for any student of Clare, whether scholar or simply a reader of the great poet’s work.  Right from the early poems that have come down to us, we find in Clare an honesty that is often painful to observe.  We all know that here was a man born in grinding poverty but perhaps because of naivety, roundly cheated by his publishers of much of his earnings:

"& tho I know I am cheated   such is the cunning of avarice [that] like the tricks of a conjuror   it defies detection"

It is hardly surprising that Clare was personally affronted by the actions of those who should have been acting on his behalf.  As he appended to one ‘financial’ statement from Drury and Taylor:

"How can this be?  I never sold the poems for any price -- what money I had of Drury was given me on account of profits to be received     but here it seems I have got nothing and am brought in minus twenty pounds of which I never received a sixpence -- or it seems that by the sale of these four thousand copies I have lost that much -- and Drury told me that 5,000 copies had been printed tho' 4,000 only are accounted for." 

Clare had not befitted by these sales by a single penny.  All this simply cemented his long-held belief that, in the words of his essay ‘Apology for the Poor:

“Every restraint now adays is laid on poverty & every liberty is given to luxury (…) every nessesary article with the poor is taxed & every luxury with the rich goes riot free”

For Clare all this is cemented into to place in his mind by the evidence of the enclosure around Helpston.

            Clare’s poetic response to the dramatic transformations in society of the time provides a unique, eye-witness account of the impact these changes had on the people who were their victims.  The only voice, of a rural working man and victim of the enclosures, that we have.  Read Clare for yourself and will get a very good idea of what the ordinary labourer thought.

“They give me eight pence by the day
& make it up at night
With six pence worth of parish pay
& can ye call it right

Nay they have stopt me when Ive gone
To take that weight away
& backed deceptions wrong        
To take your gains away”

“Accursed Wealth” is the 5th Chapbook in the series, and is to be published on the 4th September.  It is available from me for £4 including P&P.  Email me at rogerclare0@yahoo.co.uk for more details, or leave a message below.


--- oOo ---

The Wounded Soldier (excerpt)

An excerpt from a very early poem, no doubt written in the aftermath of the various Napoleonic battles.   The young John Clare, as always, pulls no punches in his condemnation of those he calls "the rich & great".

O cruel War when will thy horrors cease
And all thy slaughtering of poor men give oer
O sheath O sheath thy bloody blade in peace
Nor stain thy hand with human blood no more

See at yon door were round the children swarm
The piteous object of thy rage appears
Thou'st left him nothing but a single arm
Both legs are gone & he is old in years

O shatter'd man did ever eyes behold
A more distressing form of misery

(...)

O what I owe the tender feeling poor
Since I've been brought to this sad state you see 

Ne'er have I left their lowly welcome Door 

Without some token of their Charity

But O in vain (it grieves me to relate) 

These wooden stumps & this poor armless side 

Attracts the pity of the rich & great 

They deem my sorrows far beneath their pride

Yon house that shows its owners wealth & power 

Lur'd me to ask relief but ask'd in vain 

A scornful proudling drove me from the door 

To crave a morsel from the needy swain


But ah ye Rich as rich as you may be 

You—tho You fancy you can't want no more 

May by misfortune be reduc'd like me 

And glad to beg a crust from door to door

EP I 91

Accursed Wealth

Jeremy Corbyn quotes John Clare at Tolpuddle festival last weekend:
"Inclosure came and trampled on the grave
 Of labour's rights and left the poor a slave … 
 And birds and trees and flowers without a name 
All sighed when lawless law's enclosure came"
Clare is as relevant as ever... Here are the lines from his 1820 collection "Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery" that his publisher had expunged from the book in the Second and subsequent editions, MUCH to Clare's annoyance:
"Accursed wealth oer bounding human laws
Of every evil thou remains the cause
Victims of want those wretches such as me
Too truly lay their wretchedness to thee
Thou art the bar that keeps from being fed
& thine our loss of labour & of bread
Thou art the cause that levels every tree
& woods bow down to clear a way for thee "
In September I will be publishing the 5th book in the John Clare Chapbook series.  Entitled 'Accursed Wealth' it will explore Clare's writings on the subject of Wealth and Poverty.

John Clare, the poet of the environmental crisis – 200 years ago

Next week I'll mark John Clare Day.  This great poet showed how the era of greed began with the enclosure of the land.

The land around Helpston, just to the north of Peterborough in Northamptonshire, now ranks among the most dismal and regularised tracts of countryside in Europe.  But when the poet John Clare was born in 1793, it swarmed with life.  Clare describes species whose presence there is almost unimaginable today.  Corncrakes hid among the crops, ravens nested in a giant oak, nightjars circled the heath, the meadows sparkled with glow worms.  Wrynecks still bred in old woodpecker holes.  In the woods and brakes the last wildcats clung on.

The land was densely peopled.  While life was hard and spare, it was also, he records, joyful and thrilling.  The meadows resounded with children pranking and frolicking and gathering cowslips for their May Day games; the woods were alive with catcalls and laughter; around the shepherds' fires, people sang ballads and told tales.  We rightly remark on the poverty and injustice of rural labour at that time; we also forget its wealth of fellowship.

All this Clare notes in tremulous bewitching detail, in the dialect of his own people.  His father was a casual farm labourer, his family never more than a few days' wages from the poorhouse.  Clare himself, from early childhood, scraped a living in the fields.  He was schooled capriciously, and only until the age of 12, but from his first bare contact fell wildly in love with the written word.  His early poems are remarkable not only for the way in which everything he sees flares into life, but also for his ability to pour his mingled thoughts and observations on to the page as they occur, allowing you, as perhaps no other poet has done, to watch the world from inside his head.  Read The Nightingale's Nest, one of the finest poems in the English language, and you will see what I mean.

And then he sees it fall apart.  Between 1809 and 1820, Acts of Enclosure granted the local landowners permission to fence the fields, the heaths and woods, excluding the people who had worked and played in them.  Almost everything Clare loved was torn away.  The ancient trees were felled, the scrub and furze were cleared, the rivers were canalised, the marshes drained, the natural curves of the land straightened and squared.  Farming became more profitable, but many of the people of Helpston – especially those who depended on the commons for their survival – were deprived of their living.  The places in which the people held their ceremonies and celebrated the passing of the seasons were fenced off.  The community, like the land, was parcelled up, rationalised, atomised.  I have watched the same process breaking up the Maasai of East Africa.


As Jonathan Bate records in his magnificent biography, there were several possible causes of the "madness" that had Clare removed to an asylum in 1837: bipolar disorder, a blow to the head, malaria (then a common complaint on the edge of the fens).  But it seems to me that a contributing factor must have been the loss of almost all he knew and loved.  His work is a remarkable document of life before and after social and environmental collapse, and the anomie that resulted.

What Clare suffered was the fate of indigenous peoples torn from their land and belonging everywhere.  His identity crisis, descent into mental agony and alcohol abuse, are familiar blights in reservations and outback shanties the world over.  His loss was surely enough to drive almost anyone mad; our loss surely enough to drive us all a little mad.

For while economic rationalisation and growth have helped to deliver us from a remarkable range of ills, they have also torn us from our moorings, atomised and alienated us, sent us out, each in his different way, to seek our own identities.  We have gained unimagined freedoms, we have lost unimagined freedoms – a paradox Clare explores in his wonderful poem The Fallen Elm.  Our environmental crisis could be said to have begun with the enclosures.  The current era of greed, privatisation and the seizure of public assets was foreshadowed by them: they prepared the soil for these toxic crops.

Earlier this year the writer and poet Paul Kingsnorth suggested that we should celebrate Barnes Night, to mark the life of another neglected genius, William Barnes.  His themes – an intense engagement with nature, the destruction caused by the enclosures, even unrequited love for a woman called Mary – are remarkably similar to Clare's.  But to say that he cannot hold a candle to Clare is no disrespect to him, for this puts him in the company of all the other pastoral poets England has produced.

John Clare, unlike Robert Burns (Tam O'Shanter, The Cotter's Saturday Night, Death and Doctor Hornbook), is a poet of the day.  So a Clare Night, whose absence Jonathan Bate laments, does not feel quite right.  I'm not going to wait for anyone else.  As far as I'm concerned, 13 July is Clare Day, and I'll be raising a glass to celebrate and mourn him.  I hope you'll join me.

Published in The Guardian in July 2012 - 
I don't know the author, probably George Monbiot

Ronnie Blythe on the John Clare Festival

(from 2014, but still worth a read)
See YOU at the 2017 Festival?
Sultry July days. Twin calendars rule them: the lectionary, and a writer's. Thus our trip to Helpston, the birthplace of the great rural poet John Clare. It is exactly as we left it last year, except that a strange additional memorial rises over his grave. Dear once-a-year friends walk along the broad village street, with its handsome Barnack stone houses and towering hollyhocks.
Ringing the changes, my lecture is on Thomas Hardy, whose hands did not touch the soil; and Clare, whose hands drove the plough. Their days slightly overlapped - had they heard of each other? Neither could really operate, as it were, outside their own country-side. In their time, the "peasant" would become a "farm labourer", and the bottom of the rural population.
And towards the end of the 19th century the British countryside would fall into a depression that would last until the opening of the Second World War, when food needs, and today's non-traditional farming methods, would rescue it from decline.
I looked up Clare's activities in July from his wonderfully useful The Shepherd's Calendar. So far as I can tell, virtually nothing happens in Wormingford in July. You might have to squeeze past a hay lorry whose dizzy oblong load totters ahead, and whose driver waves his sunburnt hand. No women semi-dressed in the hay-making fields which so tantalised the young poet. What work does he list for July? Well, mostly anything which meant using a scythe.
I keep my scythe in cutting order with a whet-stone. I bought it in Stowmarket a long time ago, and I am enchanted this moment to see Adrian wielding it in the orchard. Softly, it lays the summer growth down in rhythmic folds. Greengages will tumble down on to them without bruising. You have to beat the birds where there are greengages. A week late, and they will be the debris of a feast.
Clare's July village is noisy with "singing, shouting herding boys", and bagpipes, as young Scots tramp down the Great North Road to seek their fortunes in London. Our car makes its journey through ancient lanes and motorways to the church at Helpston, where I sit on the chancel step to talk on England's most eloquent village voice, and a prolific one, so that the John Clare Society need never run out of subjects.
We come home to matins and evensong in two different churches, and to the lasting heat wave. Now, with the house empty, and the white cat thanking her god for summer's torpor as she sleeps in the window ledge above what was the copper, I get back to routine, breaking into it now and then to pull up some giant weed. By far my most wondrous July achievement this year is the sweet-pea wigwam: a score of bamboo rods that carry the flowers to heaven. A vase of them locked into a room overnight is the best welcome to a July breakfast.
Clare sees "the gardener sprinkling showers from watering cans on drooping flowers" as he tended both wild and cultivated plants behind his cottage. It could have been a statement on his own genius. His natural history was marvellously inclusive. It began when he was a boy, lying low in the summer grass, watching climbing insects; and it ended as the beautiful sane region to which he could escape from the "madhouse".

First published in the Church Times, 25th July 2014 

from "The Dream"

When nights last hours like haunting spirits creep
With listning terrors round the couch of sleep
& midnight brooding with its deepest dye
Seizes on fear with dismal sympathy

I dreamd a dream of somthing kin to fate
Which superst[it]ions blackest thoughts create
Something half natural to the grave that seems
Which deaths long trance of slumber aptly dreams

A dream of staggering horrors & of dread
Whose shadows lingerd when the dream had fled
Clinging to memory with their gloomy view
Till doubt & fancy half believd it true

That time was come or seemd as it was come
When death no longer makes the grave its home
When waking spirits leave their earthly rest
To mix forever with the damnd or blest

When years in drowsey thousands counted bye
Then hung on minutes with their destiny
When life in terror drops its draining glass
& all thats mortal like to shadows pass

As neath approaching tempests sinks the sun
When time shall leave eternity begun
Life swoond in terror at that hours dread birth
& as in ague shook the fearful earth

MP I 325

from "The Night Mare"

'Her steps take hold of hell' (Proverbs 5:5)

My dream began in bliss & lifted high
My sleeping feelings into fancys joy
Though like one wandering in a sweet far land
I seemd to hear & coud not understand
Among the many voices hurring bye
Nor knew one face were many met my eye

That dim seen mystery which in dreams appears
Was mine a feeling of joy hopes and fears,
Mingld together yet I knew not why
Where all was beauty trouble shoud be bye
The place was light & yet no sun was there
To cause itpale & beautifully fair,

Nor glare nor gloom but like eternity
Mild like what spirits may expect to see
But there was earth & sky & trees & flowers,
Different in kind & yet resembling ours
& mightiest objects that the eye surveyd
No light they clouded & they cast no shade;


& in that sky no cloud crossd east or west
No storm crept frowning oer its chrystal rest
At length a mighty mansion gatherd high
Whose bounds seemd almost boundless to the eye
A place that wakend fancys wonders there
As mysterys mask left half her shadow bare

MP I 332