The “Northamptonshire peasant poet” John Clare was born in 1793 to a farm labourer and his wife. He was fortunate to be given a rudimentary education, but he also had to work in the fields as a child and when older. His interest in writing poetry was sparked by reading a copy of “The Seasons” by the 18th century Scottish poet James Thomson, and he was already composing poems at the age of thirteen. His first collection (“Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery”) was published in 1820 after a chance discovery of one of his poems by a publisher. However, John Clare had many difficulties throughout his life as he tried to match his literary ambitions with the need to support a family, and his mental health came under severe strain. He spent the last twenty years of his life in a lunatic asylum although he continued to write during this time. He died in 1864.
The subject matter of his poetry was the countryside in which he spent most of his life. His eye for detail and sense of wonderment led him to produce a large number of poems in which plants, animals, birds and people are placed in the context of the changing seasons. For the main part his poems are simply descriptions, without attempting to draw profound conclusions about the meaning and purpose of the cosmos or Man’s place in it.
“Winter Evening” is a good example. It runs as follows:
The crib-stock fothered, horses suppered-up
And cows in sheds all littered down in straw
The threshers gone, the owls are left to whoop
The ducks go waddling with distended craw
Through little hole made in the henroost door
And geese with idle gabble never o’er
Bate careless hog until he tumbles down
Insult provoking spite to noise the more
While fowl high-perched blink with contemptuous frown
On all the noise and bother heard below
Over the stable ridge in crowds the crow
With jackdaws intermixed known by their noise
To the warm woods behind the village go
And whistling home for bed go weary boys
This is ostensibly a sonnet, in that it has fourteen lines of iambic pentameter, but it fails the test of the traditional sonnet, whether Petrachan or (to a lesser extent) Shakespearean, by not including a “turn” (or “volta”) to divert the flow of the poem and introduce a conflicting thought or solution to a problem. Clare’s poem is a smooth flow of description all the way through. Also, the rhyme scheme (ABABBBCcDEEDEF) is highly idiosyncratic and fits none of the generally accepted schemes for a sonnet.
However, these divergences from tradition do not seem to matter, and neither does Clare’s lack of punctuation apart from commas in the first and third lines. His grammar is sometimes a little wayward (as in “Through little hole”) and he occasionally uses words that were familiar to him as a Northamptonshire countryman but which need “translation” for anyone who is not (such as “fothered” for “foddered” in the first). Again, these discrepancies are immaterial and do not distract from the general impression of the poem.
Many poets might have treated this subject matter with pious sentimentality. Not so John Clare. There is no piety here, with God left well out of reach, and certainly no sentimentality. All the animals and birds mentioned here are doing exactly what they might be expected to do. They are not being held up as examples for mankind to follow or avoid, neither are their actions anthropomorphised into human ones, with the possible sole exception of the “contemptuous frown” of the fowl perched on the beams of the barn.
Clare’s diction is more 18th than 19th century in tone, and, although there is a touch of Romanticism in his poetry, his control and poise are more Classical or Augustan. This comes in part from his early devotion to the work of James Thomson, who belonged to the previous century, but also from his desire simply to express what he saw and felt in straightforward words and phrases.
A true Romantic might well have described the approach of night on a farm in terms of everything going quiet and peace descending on man and beast alike. However, that is far from the impression that Clare conveys. Within the fourteen lines there are six distinct references to noise, from the whoop of the owls in the third line to the whistling boys in the last. The word “noise” appears three times in alternate lines in the second half of the poem. At the heart of the poem the gabbling geese annoy the hog, and his noise offends the fowl looking down. This is followed immediately by the noise of crows and jackdaws outside the farm buildings and then there are the whistling boys to finish off. This is hardly a scene of agrarian serenity!
However, this is all offered without comment or any suggestion that this winter evening is in any way unusual or remarkable. This is life on the farm as it is every evening in winter when the animals are fed and gathered together for the cold night to come. Country life, whether natural or agricultural, is one of routine and repetition, and the scene painted by John Clare is offered without fanfare or fuss because of its normality.
It is the simplicity of John Clare’s choice of vocabulary and use of language that makes his poems so approachable, as well as his refusal to make more of a situation than it deserves. It is left to the reader to observe the poem in the same spirit that Clare used to observe the scene he describes.
© John Welford