John Clare.

Poems Chiefly from Manuscript online

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[Illustration: JOHN CLARE.

_Engraved by E. Scriven, from a Painting by W. Hilton, R.A._]


* * * * *


For the present volume over two thousand poems by Clare have been
considered and compared; of which over two-thirds have not been
published. Of those here given ninety are now first printed, and are
distinguished with asterisks in the contents: one or two are gleaned
from periodicals: and many of the others have been brought into line
with manuscript versions. While poetic value has been the general
ground of selection, the development of the poet has seemed of
sufficient interest for representation; and some of Clare's juvenilia
are accordingly included. The arrangement is chronological, though
in many cases the date of a poem can only be conjectured from the
handwriting and the style; and it is almost impossible to affix dates
to such Asylum Poems as bear none.

Punctuation and orthography have been attempted; Clare left such
matters to his editor in his lifetime, conceiving them to be an
"awkward squad." In some poems stanzas have been omitted, particularly
in the case of first drafts which demand revision; but in others
stanzas dropped by previous editors have been restored. Titles have
been given to many poems which, doubtless, in copies not available to
us were better christened by Clare himself. So regularly does Clare
use such forms as "oer," "eer," and the like that he seems to have
regarded them not as abbreviations but as originals, and they are
given without apostrophe. The text of the Asylum Poems which has been
used is a transcript, and one or two difficult passages are probably
the fault of the copyist.

For permission to examine and copy many of the poems preserved in the
Peterborough Museum, and to have photographs taken, we are indebted
to J. W. Bodger, Esq., the President for 1919-1920; without whose
co-operation and interest the volume would have been a very different
matter. Valuable help, too, has been given by Mr. Samuel Loveman of
Cleveland, Ohio, who has placed at our disposal his collection of
Clare MSS. To G. C. Druce, Esq., of Oxford, whose pamphlet on Clare's
knowledge of flowers cannot but delight the lover of Clare: to the
Rev. S. G. Short of Maxey, and formerly of Northborough: to J.
Middleton Murry, Esq., the Editor of the _Athenaeum_: to Edward
Liveing, Esq., and E. G. Clayton, Esq.: and to Norman Gale, Esq., who
has not wavered from his early faith in Clare, our gratitude is gladly
given for assistance and sympathy.

And to Mr. Samuel Sefton of Derby, the grandson of Clare and one of
his closest investigators, who has patiently and carefully responded
to all our queries in a long correspondence, and who, besides
informing us of the Clare tradition as it exists in the family, has
supplied many materials of importance in writing the poet's life,
special thanks are due. It was a fortunate chance that put us in
communication with him.




And he repulséd, (a short tale to make),
Fell into a sadness; then into a fast;
Thence to a watch; thence into a weakness;
Thence to a lightness; and by this declension,
Into the madness wherein now he raves.


The life of John Clare, offering as it does so much opportunity for
sensational contrast and unbridled distortion, became at one time
(like the tragedy of Chatterton) a favourite with the quillmen. Even
his serious biographers have made excessive use of light and darkness,
poetry and poverty, genius and stupidity: that there should be some
uncertainty about dates and incidents is no great matter, but that
misrepresentations of character or of habit should be made is the
fault of shallow research or worse. We have been informed, for
instance, that drink was a main factor in Clare's mental collapse;
that Clare "pottered in the fields feebly"; that on his income of
"£45 a year ... Clare thought he could live without working"; and all
biographers have tallied in the melodramatic legend; "Neither wife
nor children ever came to see him, except the youngest son, who came
once," during his Asylum days. To these attractive exaggerations there
are the best of grounds for giving the lie.

John Clare was born on the 13th of July, 1793, in a small cottage
degraded in popular tradition to a mud hut of the parish of Helpston,
between Peterborough and Stamford. This cottage is standing to-day,
almost as it was when Clare lived there; so that those who care to do
so may examine Martin's description of "a narrow wretched hut, more
like a prison than a human dwelling," in face of the facts. Clare's
father, a labourer named Parker Clare, was a man with his wits about
him, whether educated or not; and Ann his wife is recorded to have
been a woman of much natural ability and precise habits, who thought
the world of her son John. Of the other children, little is known but
that there were two who died young and one girl who was alive in 1824.
Clare himself wrote a sonnet in the _London Magazine_ for June, 1821,
"To a Twin Sister, Who Died in Infancy."

Parker Clare, a man with some reputation as a wrestler and chosen for
thrashing corn on account of his strength, sometimes shared the fate
of almost all farm labourers of his day and was compelled to accept
parish relief: at no time can he have been many shillings to the good:
but it was his determination to have John educated to the best of his
power. John Clare therefore attended a dame-school until he was seven;
thence, he is believed to have gone to a day-school, where he
made progress enough to receive on leaving the warm praise of the
schoolmaster, and the advice to continue at a nightschool - which he
did. His aim, he notes later on, was to write copperplate: but there
are evidences that he learned much more than penmanship. Out of school
he appears to have been a happy, imaginative child: as alert for mild
mischief as the rest of the village boys, but with something solitary
and romantic in his disposition. One day indeed at a very early age he
went off to find the horizon; and a little later while he tended sheep
and cows in his holiday-time on Helpston Common, he made friends with
a curious old lady called Granny Bains, who taught him old songs and
ballads. Such poems as "Childhood" and "Remembrances" prove that
Clare's early life was not mere drudgery and despair. "I never had
much relish for the pastimes of youth. Instead of going out on the
green at the town end on winter Sundays to play football I stuck to
my corner stool poring over a book; in fact, I grew so fond of being
alone at last that my mother was fain to force me into company, for
the neighbours had assured her mind ... that I was no better than
crazy.... I used to be very fond of fishing, and of a Sunday morning
I have been out before the sun delving for worms in some old
weed-blanketed dunghill and steering off across the wet grain ... till
I came to the flood-washed meadow stream.... And then the year used
to be crowned with its holidays as thick as the boughs on a harvest
home." It is probable that the heavy work which he is said to have
done as a child was during the long holiday at harvesttime. When he
was twelve or thirteen he certainly became team-leader, and in this
employment he saw a farm labourer fall from the top of his loaded
wagon and break his neck. For a time his reason seemed affected by the

At evening-school, Clare struck up a friendship with an excise-man's
son, to the benefit of both. In 1835, one of many sonnets was addressed
to this excellent soul:

Turnill, we toiled together all the day,
And lived like hermits from the boys at play;
We read and walked together round the fields,
Not for the beauty that the journey yields -
But muddied fish, and bragged oer what we caught,
And talked about the few old books we bought.
Though low in price you knew their value well,
And I thought nothing could their worth excel;
And then we talked of what we wished to buy,
And knowledge always kept our pockets dry.
We went the nearest ways, and hummed a song,
And snatched the pea pods as we went along,
And often stooped for hunger on the way
To eat the sour grass in the meadow hay.

One of these "few old books" was Thomson's "Seasons", which gave
a direction to the poetic instincts of Clare, already manifesting
themselves in scribbled verses in his exercise-books.

Read, mark, learn as Clare might, no opportunity came for him to enter
a profession. "After I had done with going to school it was proposed
that I should be bound apprentice to a shoemaker, but I rather
disliked this bondage. I whimpered and turned a sullen eye on every
persuasion, till they gave me my will. A neighbour then offered to
learn me his trade - to be a stone mason, - but I disliked this too....
I was then sent for to drive the plough at Woodcroft Castle of Oliver
Cromwell memory; though Mrs. Bellairs the mistress was a kind-hearted
woman, and though the place was a very good one for living, my mind
was set against it from the first;... one of the disagreeable things
was getting up so early in the morning ... and another was getting
wetshod ... every morning and night - for in wet weather the moat used
to overflow the cause-way that led to the porch, and as there was but
one way to the house we were obliged to wade up to the knees to get
in and out.... I staid here one month, and then on coming home to my
parents they could not persuade me to return. They now gave up all
hopes of doing any good with me and fancied that I should make nothing
but a soldier; but luckily in this dilemma a next-door neighbour at
the Blue Bell, Francis Gregory, wanted me to drive plough, and as I
suited him, he made proposals to hire me for a year - which as it had
my consent my parents readily agreed to." There he spent a year in
light work with plenty of leisure for his books and his long reveries
in lonely favourite places. His imagination grew intensely, and in his
weekly errand to a flour-mill at Maxey ghosts rose out of a swamp and
harried him till he dropped. This stage was hardly ended when one
day on his road he saw a young girl named Mary Joyce, with whom he
instantly fell in love. This crisis occurred when Clare was almost
sixteen: the fate of John Clare hung in the balance for six months.
Then Mary's father, disturbed principally by the chance that his
daughter might be seen talking to this erratic youngster, put an end
to their meetings. From this time, with intervals of tranquillity,
Clare was to suffer the slow torture of remorse, until at length
deliberately yielding himself up to his amazing imagination he held
conversation with Mary, John Clare's Mary, his first wife Mary - as
though she had not lived unwed, and had not been in her grave for

But this was not yet; and we must return to the boy Clare, now
terminating his year's hiring at the Blue Bell. It was time for him
to take up some trade in good earnest; accordingly, in an evil hour
disguised as a fortunate one, he was apprenticed to the head gardener
at Burghley Park. The head gardener was in practice a sot and a
slave-driver. After much drunken wild bravado, not remarkable in the
lad Clare considering his companions and traditions, there came the
impulse to escape; with the result that Clare and a companion were
shortly afterwards working in a nursery garden at Newark-upon-Trent.
Both the nursery garden and "the silver Trent" are met again in the
poems composed in his asylum days; but for the time being they meant
little to him, and he suddenly departed through the snow. Arrived home
at Helpston, he lost some time in finding farm work and in writing
verses: sharing a loft at night with a fellow-labourer, he would rise
at all hours to note down new ideas. It was not unnatural in the
fellow-labourer to request him to "go and do his poeting elsewhere."
Clare was already producing work of value, none the less. Nothing
could be kept from his neighbours, who looked askance on his ways of
thinking, and writing: while a candid friend to whom he showed his
manuscripts directed his notice to the study of grammar. Troubled
by these ill omens, he comforted himself in the often intoxicated
friendship of the bad men of the village, who under the mellowing
influences of old ale roared applause as he recited his ballads. This
life was soon interrupted.

"When the country was chin-deep," Clare tells us, "in the fears of
invasion, and every mouth was filled with the terror which Buonaparte
had spread in other countries, a national scheme was set on foot to
raise a raw army of volunteers: and to make the matter plausible a
letter was circulated said to be written by the Prince Regent. I
forget how many were demanded from our parish, but remember the panic
which it created was very great. No great name rises in the world
without creating a crowd of little mimics that glitter in borrowed
rays; and no great lie was ever yet put in circulation without a herd
of little lies multiplying by instinct, as it were and crowding under
its wings. The papers that were circulated assured the people of
England that the French were on the eve of invading it and that it
was deemed necessary by the Regent that an army from eighteen to
forty-five should be raised immediately. This was the great lie, and
then the little lies were soon at its heels; which assured the people
of Helpston that the French had invaded and got to London. And some of
these little lies had the impudence to swear that the French had even
reached Northampton. The people were at their doors in the evening to
talk over the rebellion of '45 when the rebels reached Derby, and
even listened at intervals to fancy they heard the French rebels at
Northampton, knocking it down with their cannon. I never gave much
credit to popular stories of any sort, so I felt no concern at these
stories; though I could not say much for my valour if the tale had
proved true. We had a crossgrained sort of choice left us, which was
to be found, to be drawn, and go for nothing - or take on as volunteers
for the bounty of two guineas. I accepted the latter and went with
a neighbour's son, W. Clarke, to Peterborough to be sworn on and
prepared to join the regiment at Oundle. The morning we left home our
mothers parted with us as if we were going to Botany Bay, and people
got at their doors to bid us farewell and greet us with a Job's
comfort 'that they doubted we should see Helpston no more.' I confess
I wished myself out of the matter. When we got to Oundle, the place
of quartering, we were drawn out into the field, and a more motley
multitude of lawless fellows was never seen in Oundle before - and
hardly out of it. There were 1,300 of us. We were drawn up into a line
and sorted out into companies. I was one of the shortest and therefore
my station is evident. I was in that mixed multitude called the
battalion, which they nicknamed 'bum-tools' for what reason I cannot
tell; the light company was called 'light-bobs,' and the grenadiers
'bacon-bolters' ... who felt as great an enmity against each other as
ever they all felt against the French."

In 1813 he read among other things the "Eikon Basilike," and turned
his hand to odd jobs as they presented themselves. His life appears to
have been comfortable and a little dull for a year or two; flirtation,
verse-making, ambitions and his violin took their turns amiably
enough! At length he went to work in a lime-kiln several miles from
Helpston, and wrote only less poems than he read: one day in the
autumn of 1817, he was dreaming yet new verses when he first saw
"Patty," his wife-to-be. She was then eighteen years old, and modestly
beautiful; for a moment Clare forgot Mary Joyce, and though "the
courtship ultimately took a more prosaic turn," there is no denying
the fact that he was in love with "Patty" Turner, the daughter of the
small farmer who held Walkherd Lodge. In the case of Clare, poetry was
more than ever as time went on autobiography; and it is noteworthy
that among the many love lyrics addressed to Mary Joyce there are not
wanting affectionate tributes to his faithful wife Patty.

Maid of Walkherd, meet again,
By the wilding in the glen....

And I would go to Patty's cot
And Patty came to me;
Each knew the other's very thought
Under the hawthorn tree....
And I'll be true for Patty's sake
And she'll be true for mine;
And I this little ballad make,
To be her valentine.

Not long after seeing Patty, Clare was informed by the owner of the
lime-kiln that his wages would now be seven shillings a week, instead
of nine. He therefore left this master and found similar work in the
village of Pickworth, where being presented with a shoemaker's bill
for £3, he entered into negotiations with a Market Deeping bookseller
regarding "Proposals for publishing by subscription a Collection of
Original Trifles on Miscellaneous Subjects, Religious and Moral, in
verse, by John Clare, of Helpstone." Three hundred proposals were
printed, with a specimen sonnet well chosen to intrigue the religious
and moral; and yet the tale of intending subscribers stood adamantly
at seven. On the face of it, then, Clare had lost one pound; had worn
himself out with distributing his prospectuses; and further had been
discharged from the lime-kiln for doing so in working hours. His
ambitions, indeed, set all employers and acquaintances against him;
and he found himself at the age of twenty-five compelled to ask for
parish relief. In this extremity, even the idea of enlisting once
more crossed his brain; then, that of travelling to Yorkshire for
employment: and at last, the prospectus which had done him so much
damage turned benefactor. With a few friends Clare was drinking
success to his goose-chase when there appeared two "real gentlemen"
from Stamford. One of these, a bookseller named Drury, had chanced
on the prospectus, and wished to see more of Clare's poetry. Soon
afterwards, he promised to publish a selection, with corrections; and
communicated with his relative, John Taylor, who with his partner
Hessey managed the well-known publishing business in Fleet Street.
While this new prospect was opening upon Clare, he succeeded in
obtaining work once more, near the home of Patty; their love-making
proceeded, despite the usual thunderstorms, and the dangerous rivalry
of a certain dark lady named Betty Sell. The bookseller Drury, though
his appearance was in such critical days timely for Clare, was not a
paragon of virtue. Without Clare's knowing it, he acquired the legal
copyright of the poems, probably by the expedient of dispensing money
at convenient times - a specious philanthropy, as will be shown. At the
same time he allowed Clare to open a book account, which proved
at length to be no special advantage. And further, with striking
astuteness, he found constant difficulty in returning originals. In a
note written some ten years later, Clare regrets that "Ned Drury has
got my early vol. of MSS. I lent it him at first, but like all my
other MSS. elsewhere I could never get it again.... He has copies
of all my MSS. except those written for the 'Shepherd's Calendar.'"
Nevertheless, through Drury, Clare was enabled to meet his publisher
Taylor and his influential friend of the _Quarterly_, Octavius
Gilchrist, before the end of 1819.

By 1818, there is no doubt, Clare had read very deeply, and even had
some idea of the classical authors through translations. It is certain
that he knew the great English writers, probable that he possessed
their works. What appears to be a list of books which he was anxious
to sell in his hardest times includes some curious titles, with some
familiar ones. There are Cobb's Poems, Fawke's Poems, Broom's, Mrs.
Hoole's, and so on; there are also Cowley's Works - Folio, Warton's
"Milton," Waller, and a Life of Chatterton; nor can he have been
devoid of miscellaneous learning after the perusal of Watson's
"Electricity," Aristotle's Works, Gasse's "Voyages," "Nature
Display'd," and the _European Magazine_ ("fine heads and plates"). His
handwriting at this time was bold and hasty; his opinions, to judge
from his uncompromising notes to Drury respecting the text of the
poems, almost cynical and decidedly his own. Tact was essential if you
would patronize Clare: you might broaden his opinions, but you dared
not assail them. Thus the friendly Gilchrist, a high churchman, hardly
set eyes on Clare before condemning Clare's esteem for a dissenting
minister, a Mr. Holland, who understood the poet and the poetry: it
was some time before Gilchrist set eyes on Clare again.

The year 1820 found Clare unemployed once more, but the said Mr.
Holland arrived before long with great news. "In the beginning of
January," Clare briefly puts it, "my poems were published after a long
anxiety of nearly two years and all the Reviews, except Phillips'
waste paper magazine, spoke in my favour." Most assuredly they did.
The literary world, gaping for drouth, had seen an announcement, then
an account of "John Clare, an agricultural labourer and poet," during
the previous autumn; the little cloud, no bigger than a man's hand, in
a little while seemed to usurp the whole sky - or in other terms, three
editions of "Poems Descriptiveof Rural Life and Scenery" were sold
between January 16 and the last of March. While this fever was raging
among the London coteries, critical, fashionable, intellectual, even
the country folk round Helpston came to the conclusion that Clare was
something of a phenomenon. "In the course of the publication," says
Clare, "I had ventured to write to Lord Milton to request leave that
the volume might be dedicated to him; but his Lordship was starting
into Italy and forgot to answer it. So it was dedicated to nobody,
which perhaps might be as well. As soon as it was out, my mother took
one to Milton; when his Lordship sent a note to tell me to bring ten
more copies. On the following Sunday I went, and after sitting
awhile in the servants' hall (where I could eat or drink nothing
for thought), his Lordship sent for me, and instantly explained the
reasons why he did not answer my letter, in a quiet unaffected manner
which set me at rest. He told me he had heard of my poems by Parson
Mossop (of Helpston), who I have since heard took hold of every
opportunity to speak against my success or poetical abilities before
the book was published, and then, when it came out and others praised
it, instantly turned round to my side. Lady Milton also asked
me several questions, and wished me to name any book that was a
favourite; expressing at the same time a desire to give me one. But I
was confounded and could think of nothing. So I lost the present.
In fact, I did not like to pick out a book for fear of seeming
over-reaching on her kindness, or else Shakespeare was at my tongue's
end. Lord Fitzwilliam, and Lady Fitzwilliam too, talked to me and
noticed me kindly, and his Lordship gave me some advice which I had
done well perhaps to have noticed better than I have. He bade me
beware of booksellers and warned me not to be fed with promises. On my
departure they gave me a handful of money - the most that I had ever
possessed in my life together. I almost felt I should be poor no
more - there was £17." Such is Clare's description of an incident which
has been rendered in terms of insult. Other invitations followed, the
chief practical result being an annuity of fifteen pounds promised by
the Marquis of Exeter. Men of rank and talent wrote letters to Clare,
or sent him books: some found their way to Helpston, and others sent
tracts to show him the way to heaven. And now at last Clare was well
enough off to marry Patty, before the birth of their first child, Anna

Before his marriage, probably, Clare was desired to spend a few days
with his publisher Taylor in London. In smock and gaiters he felt most
uncertain of himself and borrowed a large overcoat from Taylor to
disguise his dress: over and above this question of externals, he
instinctively revolted against being exhibited. Meeting Lord Radstock,
sometime admiral in the Royal Navy, at dinner in Taylor's house, Clare
gained a generous if somewhat religiose friend, with the instant
result that he found himself "trotting from one drawing-room to the
other." He endured this with patience, thinking possibly of the cat

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Online LibraryJohn ClarePoems Chiefly from Manuscript → online text (page 1 of 13)