The weeders...

[Image: Peter de Wint]

The weeders go to weed the wheat
The weather fine & fair
& find a pleasant dinner seat
To eat their dinner there

The ploughman gets a pleasant boon
& whistles all the way
& leaves his team in after noon
For weeding half the day

The maiden plagued for being fair
Laps thistles in her gown
& gets behind him unawares
To prick the noisey clown

He only turns again & smiles
Nor tries to get away
& runs & stops her at the stile
& so they end the day

John Clare, Poems of the Middle Period
ed. Eric Robinson, David Powell and P.M.S. Dawson

John & Patty - Great Casterton, March 1820

Ronald Blythe deep in conversation with David and Roger Rowe in the garden of the Crown Inn, Great Casterton just opposite the church in which Clare and Patty were married in March 1820. David sang two of Clare's poems -'Maid of Walkherd' and 'The Courtship' as part of the presentation of poems, songs and readings in the Church. It is hoped that these songs will form part of a Clare CD in the near future. At present I can offer a 'Demo' recording of David's settings of 9 of Clare's poems for the princely sum of £3-00.

A womans is the dearest love
Theres nought on earth sincerer
The leisure upon beautys breast
Can any thing be dearer

I saw her love in beauty’s face
I saw her in the rose
I saw her in the fairest flowers
In every weed that grows

(from 'The Courtship')

Oh!  And here is a photocopy of the Clare / Turner Marriage Certificate from that memorable day in March 1820.  Notice "with the consent of" has been scored out, her father refused to attend as Patty was 6 months pregnant.    With the publication of "Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery" in January of the same year, Clare was the new sensation.  With grateful thanks to Clare descendant Pat Jones.

The 'John Clare Poet' facebook group

In December 2012, poet Angela Topping and I decided it was time to start a proper John Clare Facebook page. In the 20 months since then, my how we have grown, with today no fewer than 423 members. Last year in August we held our inaugural 'group' weekend in the Helpston area, and over 19/20th May this year a gathering remembering our great poet by his graveside, and the gravesides of his wife Patty and muse Mary Joyce.
We have writers, musicians, painters, photographers & illustrators, film-makers, poets, sculptors, several descendants of Clare, academics, and plain old fans of his work. We have a rolling virtual exhibition of work "John Clare 150" dedicated to Clare (more contributions would be welcomed), and several books have been published from members of the group who met via these pages, as well as other collaborations.
We plan a second (or is that third) gathering over the weekend of the 12th/14th September (mark your diaries now), again in the Helpston area, but with the possibility of visits a bit further afield to Holme Fen and Woodwalton Fen, weather depending of course.
And to add to all that, the weekend of the 11th to 13th July was the Festival in the village organised by our friends from the John Clare Society (many of us are of course, members of that organisation - one of the largest literary societies in the country).
Our cup runneth over...
Click here to go to the facebook page.

Market Day

With arms and legs at work and gentle stroke
That urges switching tail nor mends his pace,
On an old ribbed and weather beaten horse,
The farmer goes jogtrotting to the fair.
Both keep their pace that nothing can provoke
Followed by brindled dog that snuffs the ground
With urging bark and hurries at his heels.
His hat slouched down, and great coat buttoned close
Bellied like hooped keg, and chuffy face
Red as the morning sun, he takes his round
And talks of stock: and when his jobs are done
And Dobbin's hay is eaten from the rack,
He drinks success to corn in language hoarse,
And claps old Dobbin's hide, and potters back.

Northborough Sonnets (1995)

Clare's Grave...

With another Clare Festival now over it may be timely to remind pilgrims to Clare's grave that the designer of Clare's very distinctive gravestone, memorably described by Charles Causley* as 'an upturned stone boat', was one Michael Drury, a Lincoln architect, who happens to have been a son of Edward Drury, the Stamford bookseller, originally from Lincoln, who alerted his publisher cousin John Taylor to Clare's talents. There is a nice symmetry in the fact that Drury senior first 'discovered' the poet and Drury junior commemorated his last resting place.

I owe this information to a clipping from the Stamford Mercury, 13 August 1864, preserved in a notebook in the Godfrey Collection at Peterborough Museum (PMS G2, p.21).

Edward Drury also had a brother named Michael, a Philadelphia bookseller, mentioned on p.156 of Jonathan Bate's biography. There was also a George Drury, of Barholm, near Market Deeping, on the committee that raised funds for the gravestone by public subscription, and it seems likely that he too belonged to this family. A quick search of the UK Telephone Directory shows that Drury is still quite a common name in Lincolnshire, and chances are the family line continues to this day. Perhaps at some future Festival we may even see Clare descendants and Drury descendants converge at the graveside, which would be a very fitting communion indeed.

Greg Crossan
John Clare Society Newsletter No 92 (June 2006)


Hills sank like green fleets on the land's long rim
About the village of toast-coloured stone.
Leaving the car beside the Blue Bell, we
Walked with a clutch of flowers the clear lane
Towards the grave.

It was well combed, and quiet as before.
An upturned stone boat
Beached at God's thick door.
Only the water in the spiked grave-pot
Smelt sourly of death.
Yet no wind seemed to blow
From off the fen or sea
The flowers flickered in the painted pot
Like green antennae,
As though John Clare from a sounding skull
Brim with a hundred years of dirt and stone
Signalled to us;
And light suddenly breathed
Over the plain.

Later, drinking whisky in The Bull at Peterborough,
The face of the poet
Lying out on the rigid plain
Stared at me
As clearly as it once stared through
The glass coffin-lid
In the church-side pub on his burial day:
Head visible, to prove
The bulging brain was not taken away
By surgeons, digging through the bone and hair
As if to find poems still
Beating there;
Then, like an anchor, to be lowered fast
Out of creation's pain, the stropping wind,
Deep out of sight, into the world's mind.

Charles Causley

[Cornishman Charles Causley, who on being asked if he would be the first President of the John Clare Society in 1981 thought he lived too far away to do justice to the position.  It was he who suggests one of his oldest friends, Ronnie Blythe.  Charles died on November 4, 2003, at the age of 86.]

Dancing oak trees round & round

[Image: Anne Lee]

The wood is sweet - I love it well
In spending there my leisure hours
To seek the snail its painted shell
& look about for curious flowers
Or neath the hazels leafy thatch
On a stulp or mossy ground
Little squirrels gambols watch
Dancing oak trees round & round

Green was the shade - I love the woods
When autumns wind is mourning loud
To see the leaves float on the floods
Dead within their yellow shroud
The wood was then in glory spread -
I love the browning bough to see
That litters autumns dying bed -
Her latest sigh is dear to me

Neath a spreading shady oak
For awhile to muse I lay
From its grains a bough I broke
To fan the teasing flies away
Then I sought the woodland side
Cool the breeze my face did meet
& the shade the sun did hide
Though twas hot it seemed sweet

Leonard Clark (ed)
John Clare (Longman's Poetry Library, 1969)

You owe it to yourself to visit John Clare country

Clare’s poetry is strange, intense, wonderfully sensuous – and magical
by James Delingpole
This has been a terrible year for horseflies. It’s bad enough if you’re human: often by the time you swat them off the damage has already been wrought by their revolting, cutting mandibles and it’s not till 24 hours later, I find, that the bite reaches peak unpleasantness, swelling into a huge itchy dome which somehow never quite generates the massive sympathy you feel you deserve. But obviously it’s worse if you’ve no hands to swat them with, as Girl and I were reminded when we went out for a summer ride.
Every few yards our mounts shuddered and twitched and twisted their heads back under sustained and vicious assault from the evil clegs. Sometimes, you could see the blood. ‘Kill them! Keep killing them!’ commanded our teacher, Jane, explaining how you had constantly to watch each other’s horses and squash all the biters that their own riders couldn’t reach. It struck me that the horse’s tail is a perfect example of Darwinian natural selection: any proto-horse that lacked such a vital anti-cleg device would soon have been driven by madness to early extinction. (Lessons there for the Conservative party, surely?)
Anyway, days later, I was reading the July entry from my monthly literary treat The Shepherd’s Calendar and I came upon this couplet about horses: ‘Switching their tails and turning round/ To knap the gadflys teazing wound’. And as I often do with John Clare I felt that thrill of delighted recognition at yet another instance of rural life so acutely observed and perfectly expressed. Truly if you love the country there is no finer poet than Clare.
At first, like Betjeman, he feels a bit of a guilty pleasure. The simple, mind-numbingly repetitive, ti-tum-ti-tum-ti-tum metre, the lack of punctuation, the way he’ll rhyme ‘grass’ and ‘lass’ twice within 20 lines, the rustic archaisms, the hints of tweeness — you worry that you might be enjoying something dangerously close to doggerel.
Get over it. (And you will.) The man (same applies to Betjeman, of course) is a genius and right up with the greats. It’s just that his approach is different: untutored, unfiltered, hallucinatory in its intensity, strangeness and immediacy. You need to read him in small doses because otherwise it’s just too much, like tasting a ladleful of honey rather than a teaspoon. (‘Which bees so long were toiling home/ And rifled from so many flowers/ And carried thro so many hours.’)
Even in his heyday, Clare was recognised as a nostalgic curiosity. The Shepherd’s Calendar was published in 1827 — nearly 30 years after Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads — by which time the Industrial Revolution had made Clare’s pastoral idyll look almost as achingly remote as, say, Laurie Lee’s Gloucestershire does today.
Then as now the educated classes yearned to recapture this vanished Eden and for a period Clare — an echt Northamptonshire farm labourer’s son who had variously toiled as a farm hand, a pot boy, in a gipsy camp, as a militiaman and as a lime burner — became the darling of literary London. Reading Clare is probably as close as we’ll ever get to knowing how it really felt to work the land in the pre-industrial age. Unlike lefty, middle-class ponces like Wordsworth, he’d actually lived the life.
He can be wonderfully sensuous. There’s a passage in July where a swain is trying to seduce a pretty maid by plying her with alcohol and solicitousness. ‘And in her hand will oft contrive/ From out his pocket pulld to slive/ Stole fruit when no one turns his eye/ To wet her mouth when she’s adry.’ You wonder how much longer the poor girl is going to be able to hold out against the randy yokel’s twin-pronged assault.
Clare’s priggish publisher John Taylor was discomfited by this kind of detail and insisted he do a bowdlerised version of July with all the smut (‘And snow white bosoms nearly bare/ That charms ones sight amid the hay/ Like lingering blossoms of the may’) and rusticities excised.
‘Editors are troubled with nice amendings & if Doctors were as fond of amputation as they are of altering & correcting the world would have nothing but cripples,’ Clare commented sourly. And he was dead right: the original is far stronger.
Sadly, it wasn’t until Clare’s rehabilitation in the 20th century (by Arthur Symons, Edmund Blunden, and also Britten in his ‘Spring Symphony’) that people began properly to appreciate his talents. In its day, The Shepherd’s Calendar sold quite poorly. When Clare died, aged 71, in the madhouse, he was impoverished and largely forgotten.
But such is so often the lot of great artists. At least we can make amends by appreciating Clare properly today — and I promise, if you haven’t discovered him already, you’ll thank me for the tip. Apart from being a delightful poet, he teaches you to see the English countryside with completely new eyes: the eyes of someone who has spent day after day, year after year, observing those tiny nuances of nature that we’re far too busy these days to notice.
Here he is, writing possibly the best description ever of an intensely hot, summer’s day:
The breeze is stopt the lazy bough
Hath not a leaf that dances now
The totter grass upon the hill

And spiders threads is hanging still

The feathers dropt from morehens wings

Upon the waters surface clings
As stedfast and as heavy seem

As stones beneath them in the stream.
And here is a couplet that I’m sure a sophisticated editor would have excised on the grounds that its too folksy and cute and bathetic, but which for me contains the essence of Clare’s charm:
   A horse thats past his toiling day
   Yet still a favorite in his way.
John Clare: you’re magical and we love you just the way you are.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 2 August 2014

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