In 1793, the village of Helpston was a small agricultural community in eastern England just north of Cambridge. On the surface, as an ancient, originally Anglo-Saxon hamlet Helpston was all rose covered cottages, home fires, water wells and wildly growing meadows with grazing cows and other livestock. In reality, it was deeply poor and rural children born at that time such as John Clare grew up suffering from malnutrition and hardship.
From the age of twelve, Clare had to find work – in the fields, as a gardener or even in the militia. With only a rudimentary early education, he nevertheless listened and read and saved enough money to buy a book of poetry. Desperate to earn money to stop his parents being evicted from their home, Clare began to write sonnets and poems which were sent to the same publisher as the celebrated poet John Keats.
A man of the countryside, of wildlife, wild flowers and birds, John Clare wrote extraordinary descriptions of a rural world which was fast disappearing through the rising tide of industrialisation. His poems were immediately recognised by London society – “There was no limit to the applause bestowed upon Clare, unanimous in their admiration of a poetical genius coming before them in the humble garb of a farm labourer”
A subscription raised £45 a year (around £12,000 today) and later Earl Fitzwilliam offered him a cottage and garden. Having married and fathered seven children, John Clare’s finances never improved.
With an innate restlessness which meant he never settled and a tendency towards alcoholism, Clare spent much of the last 20 years of his life in asylums, some more humane than others. It was within such four walls that he wrote possibly his most famous poem “I am”:
“I am—yet what I am none cares or knows;
My friends forsake me like a memory lost:”
Thanks to the pandemic all of us to a degree have spent time wondering what we are, struggling with our minds, trapped by four walls, trying to make sense of a fragile world and aching to be outside again.
“I love to see the summer beaming forth.
And white wool sack clouds sailing to the north.
I love to see the wild flowers come again.”
Clare was riven by fears of what industrialization would do to his world and what would be destroyed to become just a memory. He sought to express his intensity of feeling through words and rhythms but they were so great that he was in and out of sanity.
He was an extraordinary, intense, disturbing and loving poet of the countryside whose views have a deep relevance to our current society with our fears of climate change and waste. “No one has ever written more powerfully of nature, of a rural childhood, and of the alienated and unstable self”.
I think many of us have the same fears but the best way to overcome them is to do something. I don’t know if it is enough but reinstating wild flower meadows and borders and giving places over to wild life and birds away from our intrusion must at least help. He is one of my favourites and his words resonate particularly strongly with me.