Ronnie Blythe on the 2014 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 

Some 'gleanings'... from the archives

The new spring grass was high
The new pinks nest was seen
Where little padded lanes went bye
In hedges warm & green

When the golden evening came
& the tree tops like a flame
Glittered on the gazing eye
Like golden groves in a golden sky

The shepherd seeks the field
Where the awthorn hedges shield
The lane way to the open plain
& sets his fold of trays again

Some fragments from the 1830s

The Country Girl

O dear what fine thinkings beset me
Sin' the young Farmer yesterday met me
To tell me for truth he wou'd get me
Some service more fitting in town
For he said 'twas a shame & he swore too
That I should be serv'd so & more too
& that he was vex'd oer & oer too
To see me so sadly run down

When to thank him—for curtsy'ng I dropt me
He said twas all foolish & stopt me—
& into his arms Oh he popt me!
And crumpl'd my bonnet awry
The tray sav'd the fall till he mov'd it
& this way & that way he shov'd it
Good behaviour he said how he lov'd it
When maids wa'n't so foolish & shy

O dear what fine thinkings beset me
Since the young Farmer promis'd & met me
Of what he would do & would get me
How my heart pittapatters about
Tho Fear—none but fools make a trade on—
He swore when he saw what I play'd on
‘My word is my bond pretty maiden’
Then why need I harbour a doubt

Tho the tell clacking grass's foul staining
In my holiday clothes is remaining

I ne'er shall go make no complaining
I've promise o' better in Town
So Chub needn't come no more croaking
To maul one about so provoking
I know what is what—wi'out Joking
Theres nought got by pleasing a Clown

The Early Poems of John Clare 1804-1822
ed. Eric Robinson, David Powell and Margaret Grainge
(Oxford, 2 volumes, I-II, 1989)

Come maiden dear maiden...

[Image : Anne Lee]

On Friday, 11th July working in the Clare Archives in Peterborough I had a spare 10 minutes at the end of the day.  I had been checking for errors in my transcription of a poem that will be published for the first time in Anne Lee and my future volume "In the Shadows".  I idly turned over a few pages and encountered this, also unpublished poem outside of the Clarendon Editions (see comment below) of nine verses.  The day afterward I read the first three verses - the only ones I had transcribed by then - at the public reading of Clare's work at the John Clare Festival.  Here are those verses...

Come maiden dear maiden a beautiful troop
Of images now the young morning doth wear
The lark leaves her nest & the dew splashes up
As she flies through the clover & sings in the air

The bushes that rustle & catch at thy gown
The trees that thy pathway envelopes in leaves
The grass smooth as velvet runs green up and down
& from the young morning a rapture receives

& from the green hedge that the path brushes nigh
The flight of a bird shakes the rain in the place
& the blackbird frit off from her nest rushing bye
Shakes a shower on the path that will sprinkle thy face

Unpublished Sonnet

OK... going to be away at the Festival from Thursday until Sunday, so for those who cannot make it to Helpston this year (you must have a good excuse) here is another of Lady Clementina Hawarden's delicious daughters (whoops, sorry... but they are all so beautiful) coupled with a Clare sonnet as yet unpublished, but WILL figure in our next volume "In the Shadows" which Anne Lee and I are working upon at present.

Hopes sun shines sweet but who of hopes are proud
To see how soon it meeteth with a cloud
How many hopes & memorys went with thee
That forwerd looked to better destiny
Song seems not worth the muses care
Unless to grace it womans love be there
& fame is but a shadow crowned with bays
Without the cheering sun of womans grace
When thy young bosom at the tales it heard
Heavd up & panted like a timid bird
Thy splendid beauty blushed upon the sight
Like sudden frenzy of unlooked for flight
Thou haven of my trouble when I see
That lovely face the show is past with me

Discovered in the Clare Archive by Professor Eric Robinson and Roger Rowe

To Innoscence

[Taken around 1860 this is one of Lady Clementina Hawarden's famous photos of one of her daughters.  Such an early photo and so stunning a composition.  A large collection can be viewed in the V&A.]

O Innoscence thou captivating charm
Thou beauty's gem pure, heavenly, & divine
The Virgins cheek—when thy soft flushes warm
What 'witching sweetness & what powers are thine
Coy bashfull looks turn'd from admiring eyes
Chill'd trembling paleness aw'd by fancied fear
Short timid Answers blushing sweet suprise
When Loves soft sighs are wisper'd in her ear
These charms! The very soul's recesses thrills
These sweet confusions every bosom feels
In every heart the magic sweet Instills
Which each coy lover painfully consceals—
The rose & rubys charms—frail beautys pride
But vainly please the wise—devoid of thine
A dazzling toy by fools & younkers ey'd
Like brazen lure that daubs inviting sign
Tho tempted Eve thy sweet origin lost
A 'zembling shade the virtues still retain—
Still Emmas Face thy sweetest charm can boast
& heaven it self more sweetness boasts in vain

The Early Poems of John Clare 1804-1822
ed. Eric Robinson, David Powell and Margaret Grainger
(Oxford, 2 volumes, I-II, 1989)

The Milking Hour

The sun had grown on lessening day
A table large & round
& in the distant vapours grey
Seemed leaning on the ground
When Mary like a lingering flower
Did tenderly agree
To stay beyond her milking hour
& talk awhile with me

We wandered till the distant town
Had silenced nearly dumb
& lessened on the quiet ear
Small as a beetles hum
She turned her buckets upside & down
& made us each a seat
& there we talked the evening brown
Beneath the rustling wheat

& while she milked her breathing cows
I sat beside the streams
In musing oer our evening joys
Like one in pleasant dreams
The bats & owls to meet the night
From hollow trees had gone
& een the flowers had shut for sleep
& still she lingered on

We mused in rapture side by side
Our wishes seemed as one
We talked of times retreating tide
& sighed to find it gone
& we had sighed more deeply still
Oer all our pleasures past
If we had known what now we know
That we had met the last

Selected Poems and Prose of John Clare
ed. Eric Robinson and Geoffrey Summerfield
(Oxford, 1967, 1978)