John Clare

The sky-lark is perhaps the most poetized bird in English, his song having been sung by Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron, and Keats, in their turns, among many others

John Clare (1793-1864) is often considered to be the quintessential nature poet of the Romantic era. He was acclaimed as a “nature poet” from the time his first volume, Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery, appeared in 1820. Unlike Robert Burns, whose extended education undercut his claims for status as a “primitive” or “rustic,” Clare was an uneducated field laborer who produced direct, sensuous lyrics recording the natural world around his native village of Helpston in Northamptonshire. He grew up surrounded by, and interacting with, the pastoral plants and animals that were so characteristic of life in English villages and towns in the early 19th century: thrushes and thistles, skylarks and sunflowers, badgers and buttercups. His love of, and sensitivity to, these precise details of his environment is perhaps unrivaled in the English language. Although influenced by his reading of  James Thomson, William Cowper, William Wordsworth, and George Gordon, Lord Byron, his striking poetic style and manuscript idiosyncrasies reveal a powerful verbal immediacy that makes him unique among the poets of his era:

While ground larks on a sweeing clump of rushes
Or on the top twigs of the oddling bushes
Chirp their ‘cree creeing’ note that sounds of spring
And sky larks meet the sun wi flittering wing
Soon as the morning opes its brightning eye
Large clouds of sturnels blacken thro the sky
From oizer holts about the rushy fen
And reedshaw borders by the river Nen
(from “March,” The Shepherd’s Calendar)

Clare’s unselfconsciousness came at a price, however. By 1837 he was committed to an asylum at Epping Forest and later to Northampton Asylum for the remainder of his life. Some of his most powerful and moving lyrics were written during his periods of “insanity.” Their power, immediacy, and profound personal and psychological awareness leave the critic with little that can usefully be said about such lines:

I hid my love in field and town
Till e’en the breeze would knock me down.
The bees seemed singing ballads o’er
The fly’s buzz turned a lion’s roar;
And even silence found a tongue
To haunt me all the summer long:
The riddle nature could not prove
Was nothing else but secret love. (“Song,” 1842-64)


Clare links:

The hedgehog: the "cutest" animal in Great Britain

Clare on the natural world (poetry excerpts)

Natural history in Clare’s writing (prose excerpts)

Clare’s Cottage in Helpston, Lincolnshire: “The John Clare Trust purchased Clare Cottage in 2005, preserving it for future generations. The Cottage has been restored, using traditional building methods, to create a centre where people can learn about John Clare, his works, how rural people lived in the early 19thcentury and also gain an understanding of the environment.”

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