VI.3.1: WHY JOHN CLARE MATTERS TO US STILL

This article is based primarily on R S Attack’s excellent John Clare: Voice of Freedom (Shepheard-Walwyn, London, 2010).

In the early 19th century John Clare described in verse the glories of the English countryside and the injustice of the Enclosures. His message is as pertinent today as it was then.

The cover of Rosemary Attack’s book shows the portrait of John Clare by his friend William Hilton, now in the National Portrait Gallery
The cover of Rosemary Attack’s book shows the portrait of John Clare by his friend William Hilton, now in the National Portrait Gallery

John Clare was born into the great age of English Romanticism in 1793, just one year after Percy Bysshe Shelley; and for one or two years his poems outsold Shelley’s. Clare and Shelley wrote about the same things – as indeed did all the Romantics: nature and social justice. But – and this was a fate that Shelley suffered too – Clare’s politically charged poetry found very small favour with publishers, who preferred not to offend the upper classes who, after all, were the biggest buyers of books. Both poets, then, until recently, have been remembered primarily for their feeling for and evocation of nature. Yet Clare was not remembered at all for more than a century after his initial fame. His work was rediscovered and re-introduced to the world only in the 1960s, which is when I first became aware of him. Certainly he did not appear in the anthologies of English verse that I remember from my own schooldays in the 1950s.

In sharp contrast to Shelley, Clare was born a peasant – in the village of Helpstone (now Helpston) in Northamptonshire, near the borders with Cambridgeshire, Rutland, and Lincolnshire. But he did visit London to see his publishers and for a time was almost lionised, and made some good friends among the arty set, one of whom, William Hilton, painted the portrait that now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery (as shown in the book cover). Evidently he had fine features, a cross between the Duke of Wellington and Virginia Woolf, although they were tall and willowy while Clare was just five feet. Some of the aristocrats and wealthy took to him too and he lived largely on their patronage, as he was obliged to do, not least because his publishers rarely seemed to pass on his royalties; while work as a rural labourer, his day job, was always hard to come by. Yet Clare never felt quite at home in elevated company. On his fourth visit to London in 1824 the poet and humourist Thomas Hood (who wrote the poignant Song of the Shirt and also wrote for Punch) described him sitting in his grass-green coat and yellow waistcoat among the “grave-coloured suits of the literati” looking like “a very cowslip!” Always, Clare’s heart remained with his roots, the countryside and the ways of life of his childhood, and always he burned with the injustice that his family and fellow villagers, and he himself, had suffered and were suffering. As one of his earlier biographers, John Goodridge, commented, he “is valued as the verse-spokesman of the village and the village community. Even more than Wordsworth he is the champion of the local and the particular, the marginalized and the undervalued, both in the human world and in all those fragile and vital areas of nature.”

For Clare, like millions of others, was a victim of the Enclosure Acts that first began to reshape England from the early 17th century onwards. Parish by parish, the traditional common land of feudal times that peasants had had an essentially God-given right to farm, each in their allotted strips, were fenced in great fields; and those fields were deemed to belong not to the people, but to the elite – and not least to the parliamentarians who passed the Acts. The particular Act that applied to Helpstone and neighbouring parishes was passed in 1809, when Clare was 16. By then he was already an experienced farmhand, working alongside his labouring father, long used to handling the plough-horses, despite his diminutive frame. He had received a good elementary education in the vestry of his local church and by then was a poet too – although he was hardly aware that there was such a thing as poetry until he was twelve years old, when a friend showed him The Seasons, by the 18th-century Scot James Thomson (who also wrote Rule Britannia). Thomson’s poem, said Clare, “made his heart twitter with joy”. All in all, no-one felt the impact of the Enclosures more keenly than Clare, and no-one was better equipped to express what it meant.

This expropriation of common land looks very like straightforward theft, larceny on the grandest scale, not condemned by law as theft should be but perpetrated by the law – although of course, the lawmakers of the late 18th and early 19th centuries had their excuses ready. The old ways of farming were inefficient, they said, and enclosure was needed to increase the food supply, which was vital because the population was rising so rapidly. Thomas (Robert) Malthus was still at that time preaching his message that human numbers must soon outstrip capacity – and as if to prove his point, Britain’s population rose from 10 million in 1800 to 17 million by the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815. But as Rosemary Attack comments in John Clare, enclosure per se, though at times it doubtless improved the farming, need not have involved transfer of ownership and the rights that went with it from the many to the few. Theft it very definitely was, and still is.

Clare’s best-loved nature poems depict the countryside as he remembered it from his childhood. Commonly he focused not on the grand sweeps of landscape as Wordsworth and the Romantic painters were inclined to do, but on the minutiae – as in the sweet and simple ‘Grasshoppers’:

Grasshoppers go in many a thumming spring
And now to stalks of tasseled sow-grass cling,
That shakes and swees awhile, but still keeps straight;
While arching oxeye doubles with his weight.
Next on the cat-tail-grass with farther bound
He springs, that bends until they touch the ground.

But after 1809 a very different tone creeps in. Thus in 1818, while he was working as a lime-burner at Bridge Casterton, seven miles from Helpstone, he wrote:

Ye injurd fields ere while so gay
When natures hand displayed
Long waving rows of Willows gray
And clumps of Hawthorn shade
But now alas your awthorn bowers
All desolate we see
The tyrants hand their shade devours
And cuts down every tree …

And:

The hawks and eddings are no more
The pastures too are gone
The Greens, the Meadows and the Moors
Are all cut up and done
There’s scarce a greensward spot remains
And scarce a single tree
All naked are thy native plains …

Clare always claimed to be non-political but in 1821 he wrote ‘The Mores’:

Far spread the moorey ground a level scene
Bespread with rush and one eternal green
That never felt the rage of blundering plough
Though centurys wreathed spring’s blossoms on its brow
Still meeting plains that stretched them far away
In uncheckt shadows of green brown, and grey
Unbounded freedom ruled the wandering scene
Nor fence of ownerhip crept in between
To hide the prospect of the following eye
Its only bondage was the circling sky

Now this sweet vision of my boyish hours
Free as spring clouds and wild as summer flowers
Is faded all – a hope that blossomed free,
And hath been once, no more shall ever be

Inclosure came and trampled on the grave
Of labour’s rights and left the poor a slave

The sky-bound mores in mangled garbs are left
Like mighty giants of their limbs bereft
Fence now meets fence in owners’ little grounds
In little parcels little minds to please

Each little tyrant with his little sign
Shows where man claims earth no more divine
But paths to freedom and to childhood dear
A board sticks up to notice ‘no road here’
And on the tree with ivy overhung
The hated sign by vulgar taste is hung
As tho’ the very birds should learn to know
When they go there they must no longer go
Thus, with the poor, scared freedom bad goodbye

Enclosure put many thousands of small farmers out of work, and reduced them from semi-independent peasants and yeomen to having nothing to sell but their labour. Faute de mieux they fled to the cities, there to found what became the urban working class. The rise of machines and hence of the industrial age reduced the need for labour even more, while the influx of Irish, fleeing from the disaster of their own land, and the return of the military after their victory at Waterloo in 1815, tipped the balance even further in favour of the employers, and they on the whole took full advantage. Clare left his job as a lime-burner when his employer cut his wages, out of the blue, from 18 to 14 shillings a week. There was no redress. It was in effect forbidden by law even to discuss the possibility of forming a union. The Luddites who broke the weaving machines in the Midlands and North were expressing a discontent that was far more general. Men, women, and children assembled in St Peter’s Square, Manchester in 1819 to discuss their grievances, all in their Sunday best, and were attacked by militiamen. Eleven died and more than 400 were injured, 162 of them by sabre cuts. The day is forever remembered as the Peterloo Massacre.

Clare married a local girl, Martha Turner, in 1820 and they produced nine children. Not surprisingly, largely unrewarded as a poet and as a labourer, he always found it hard to make ends meet. Socially he was torn between his peasant roots and the lure of art and ideas, but although he was popular among the artists, intellectuals, and the well-heeled he was also deeply frustrated, since his patrons would not publish his poems of protest that perhaps he cared about most. In his early 40s, torn this way and that, and seriously stressed financially, he went mad – drinking heavily, shouting at Shylock at a performance of Merchant of Venice, and imagining that he was a prize-fighter (and, later, that he was Byron). One of his benefactors paid for him to enter a private asylum in 1837 but alas it was in the Epping Forest, far from his beloved Northamptonshire. By 1841 he’d decided he’d had enough and walked the 90 miles back to where his family now lived in Northborough, not far from Helpstone. He wasn’t out for long. After five months he was committed to Northampton General Lunatic Asylum (now St Andrew’s Hospital) where he spent the last ten years of his life. He died in 1851, aged 64; not a bad age, all things considered. He wrote to the end and some of his most memorable poems were among his last. They include the most famous of all, ‘I am’:

I am: yet what I am none cares or knows,
My friends forsake me like a memory lost;
I am the self-consumer of my woes,
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shades in love and death’s oblivion lost;
And yet I am! and live with shadows tost

Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life nor joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;
And e’en the dearest – that I loved the best –
Are strange – nay, rather stranger than the rest.

I long for scenes where man has never trod;
A place where woman never smil’d or wept;
There to abide with my creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept:
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie;
The grass below – above the vaulted sky.

We might look back on Clare’s life and trials and thank our stars that we are living now. But, says Attack, the Enclosures affect us still. Agricultural strategy is still rooted in the assumption that land can and should be owned by individuals, to be sold on at will for their own enrichment – and this idea, odd though it is historically, is now taken as the norm. The descendants of the dispossessed farmers became the urban poor who, in large part, have remained the urban poor ever since.

For what has really changed? The rich continue to take the land and buildings that once were owned by farmers and workers, just as Clare recorded:

The good old fame the farmers earned of yore
They made as equals, not as slaves, the poor,
That good old fame did in two sparks expire:
A shooting coxcomb and a hunting Squire

… those whose clownish taste aspires
To hate their farms and ape the country Squires

Or as he wrote in moralizing vein in 1818:

Ah, cruel foes with plenty blest
So ankering after more
To lay the greens and pastures waste
Which profited before
Poor greedy souls – what would they have
Beyond their plenty given?
Will riches keep them from the grave
Or buy them rest in heaven?

I recall too the village that I used to live in, where a local farmhouse was transformed before our eyes into a Patagonian hacienda, with pillars and gates and a helicopter; and a loch it used to be good to wander by in Scotland, where a barbed wire fence around a manicured patch of hillside now forces walkers down on to the shore where it’s rocky and slippery, and generally insalubrious. All this for the likes of me is merely an irritation. But for millions of country people in the past the insouciance and self-centredness of those with wealth meant life or death.

For those who have most power still take from those who don’t. Clare’s age was also one of Empire (though he didn’t talk much about it) and although imperialism is now considered passé, the world is still dominated by superpowers – which is taken to be the natural way of things. In Clare’s day in order to take command the would-be imperialists commonly had first to fight a war, and then install a civil service: all very dangerous and expensive. Now the world is so arranged that they just have to wave a chequebook. Land-grabbing in Africa has become de rigueur. Britain is grabbing too but is also practising a kind of anti-land grab. Though it is still among the richest countries, successive governments have been eager to swell the coffers still further by selling off everything saleable – land, industries, public utilities, football teams, London – to whoever will pay the most. It isn’t clear what we will do for an encore.

More generally, the rise and rise of machines, bigger and smarter, and the wholesale flight worldwide from the countryside to the town, and the mobilization of labour, has produced such a pool of surplus people-power so desperate for work that as Paul Mason records in his latest book, Postcapitalism, we have come full circle. It can be cheaper to employ gangs of men with buckets of soapy water than to build a new car-wash. Britain’s agriculture now has a skeleton staff at best, and as Felicity Lawrence told the 2016 Oxford Real Farming Conference, our farming now relies on gangs of semi-bonded labour of conveniently dubious legal status, commonly controlled by organized crime, to do the necessary. The equivalent in Clare’s day were the “earthwork gangs”, described (though not by Clare) as “rootless, poverty-stricken, aimless men who lived under a smarting sense of injustice and became semi-criminal”. For a time, Clare worked as one of them.

Still it is more or less taken for granted, at least in high places, that those who are rich and otherwise powerful have a right to dominate, and to take for themselves whatever they can. Since Clare’s day the idea that “might is right” has been justified and further reinforced by what might be called “Brute Darwinism”, the crudest possible interpretation of Darwin’s original thesis, which takes “survival of the fittest” as its axiom and is happy to let the Devil take the hindmost. The might-is-right morality is perceived to be rooted in biology and therefore to be natural and therefore right. This in truth is bad biology and even worse philosophy but it lies at the heart of the modern, neoliberal economy. Whoever plays the market most adroitly and indeed most ruthlessly comes out on top, and this is seen to be right and proper.

Those who dare to speak in parliament these days of kindliness and justice, are openly mocked – and, Attack notes, it wasn’t always so. Feudalism still persisted in mainland Europe until the 1840s and in Clare’s day in reality it was still the norm in the British countryside (as to a significant extent of course still is). I was taught as a modern townie that feudalism belonged to a barbaric age that we have mercifully out-grown, and so it should do – yet in some ways feudalism could be far more benign than what we have today. For feudal lords recognized the principle of noblesse oblige – that those in power had a duty, ultimately to God, to treat their underlings fairly and with compassion. Many did just that, sometimes because they were nice people, sometimes through enlightened self-interest (starving peasants are less use, on the whole, than those who are physically fit), and sometimes simply for social reasons – it was ungentlemanly, infra dig, to be seen to treat servants and peasants unjustly.

But the modern elite has risen to power through commerce, and the richest of all live entirely in the abstract world of money and never actually see the goods they trade in, or know or care about the people who produced them or at what cost. Usually, to be fair, the new rich do not actually believe that they are made of finer clay than the rest, as the old aristocracy did. They do feel though, in brute Darwinian vein, that they must have risen to the top through their own merit, and fully deserve their status. Unlike their feudal predecessors, they have inherited no sense of obligation and do not feel any, except perhaps towards their own flesh and blood and to what George W Bush called “my kind of people”. The odd donation to charity apparently compensates for their general social indifference. So now in some ways we have the worst of all worlds – a ruling elite, immensely rich, but with no in-built sense of responsibility. According to the early 20th century socialists Beatrice and Sidney Webb, the switch from one mind-set to the other initially occurred quite quickly, late in the 18th century, at about the time that Clare was born: “within a generation the House of Commons exchanged its policy of mediaeval protectionism for one of ‘administrative nihilism’”.

Yet still there is worse. For now, as in Clare’s day, the changes that can be so damaging to people, wildlife, and landscapes are held to represent progress, and progress is seen to be inexorable – presented to us, in high-falutin’ rhetoric, as “Man’s Destiny”. It’s considered reprehensible, backsliding, letting the side down, not to go with the flow, however destructive the flow may be. The Luddites drew attention to what perhaps is still the greatest dilemma of our age; how humanity can live with the machines that can make life more agreeable but can also, all too easily, make many of us redundant – and indeed, in the long run, render all of humanity obsolete. They were prophetic. But “Luddite”, now, has become a term of abuse.

Clare saw the first stirrings of what might properly be called modernity – social, political, economic, technical – and recorded it all beautifully. We have moved on technically since Clare’s time but in the ways that really matter, socially and morally, hardly at all. If he were around today he might write in a different style but his message would surely be the same.