In response to a query from a participant in a workshop in Bradford, who wanted to hear the poems as she read them, we asked actor and life-long John Clare reader, Toby Jones, to read a selection of poems, and a couple of sections of prose. These poems were recorded at Oxford Brookes University on 3 July 2019. The sound engineer was Joseph Carr. Most of these poems are available in RKR Thornton’s Everyman selection of the poetry. The prose can be found in various places, including Carcanet’s By Himself edition of collected prose.
Toby Jones reads John Clare
Here we meet, too soon to part,
Here to leave will raise a smart,
Here I’ll press thee to my heart,
Where none have place above thee:
Here I vow to love thee well,
And could words unseal the spell,
Had but language strength to tell,
I’d say how much I love thee.
Here, the rose that decks thy door,
Here, the thorn that spreads thy bow’r,
Here, the willow on the moor,
The birds at rest above thee,
Had they light of life to see,
Sense of soul like thee and me,
Soon might each a witness be
How doatingly I love thee.
By the night sky’s purple ether,
And by even’s sweetest weather,
That oft has blest us both together,—
The moon that shines above thee,
And shews thy beauteous cheek so blooming,
And by pale age’s winter coming,
The charms, and casualties of woman,
I will for ever love thee.
First published January 1820.
From John Clare, Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery (London: Taylor and Hessey, 1820), pp. xviii–xix.
Sonnet: ‘I found a ball of grass among the hay’I found a ball of grass among the hay
And progged it as I passed and went away,
And when I looked I fancied something stirred
And turned again and hoped to catch the bird,
When out an old mouse bolted in the wheat
With all her young ones hanging at her teats.
She looked so odd and so grotesque to me,
I ran and wondered what the thing could be
And pushed the knapweed bunches where I stood,
When the mouse hurried from the crawling brood.
The young ones squeaked and when I went away
She found her nest again among the hay.
The water o’er the pebbles scarce could run
And broad old cesspools glittered in the sun.
Written sometime in 1836, when Clare was living in Northborough.
John Clare. Edited by R. K. R. Thornton. London: Everyman, 1997. 54. With grateful thanks to Professor Thornton.
Prose extract: ‘I had plenty of leisure…’
I had plenty of leisure but it was the leisure of solitude for my Sundays was demanded to be spent in the fields at horse or cow tending my whole summer was one days employment as it were in the fields I grew so much into the qu[i]et love of nature[s] presence that I was never easy but when I was in the fields passing my sabbaths and leisures with the shepherds and herd boys as fancys prompted somtimes playing at marbles on the smooth beaten sheep tracks or leap frog among the thimey molehills somtimes ranging among the corn to get the red and blue flowers for cockades to play at soldiers or runing into the woods to hunt strawberrys or stealing peas in church time when the owners was safe to boil at the gipseys fire who went half shares at our stolen luxury we heard the bells chime but the fields was our church and we seemd to feel a religious feeling in our haunts on the sabbath while some old shepherd sat on a mole hill reading aloud some favour[i]te chapter from an old fragment of a Bible which he carried in his pocket for the day a family relic which possesd on its covers and title pages in rude scrawls geneoligys of the third and fourth Generations when aunts uncles and grandmothers dyd and when cousins etc were marri[e]d and brothers and sisters born occupying all the blank leaves in the book and the title pages bhorders which leaves were prese[r]ved with a sacred veneration tho half the contents had been sufferd to drop out and be lost
I lovd this solitary disposition from a boy and felt a curosity to wander about the spots were I had never been before I remember one incident of this feeling when I was very young it cost my parents some anxiety it was in summer and I started off in the morning to get rotten sticks from the woods but I had a feeling to wander about the fields and I indulgd it I had often seen the large heath calld Emmonsales stretching its yellow furze from my eye into unknown solitudes when I went with the mere openers and my curosity urgd me to steal an opportunity to explore it that morning I had imagind that the worlds end was at the edge of the orison and that a days journey was able to find it so I went on with my heart full of hopes pleasures and discoverys expecting when I got to the brink of the world that I coud look down like looking into a large pit and see into its secrets the same as I believd I coud see heaven by looking into the water so I eagerly wanderd on and rambled among the furze the whole day till I got out of my knowledge when the very wild flowers and birds seemd to forget me and I imagind they were the inhabitants of new countrys the very sun seemd to be a new one and shining in a different quarter of the sky still I felt no fear my wonder seeking happiness had no room for it I was finding new wonders every minute and was walking in a new world often wondering to my self that I had not found the end of the old one the sky still touchd the ground in the distance as usual and my childish wisdoms was puzzld in perplexitys night crept on before I had time to fancy the morning was bye when the white moth had begun to flutter beneath the bushes the black snail was out upon the grass and the frog was leaping across the rabbit tracks on his evening journeys and the little mice was nimbling about and twittering their little earpiercing song with the hedge cricket whispering the hour of waking spirits was at hand which made me hasten to seek home I knew not which way to turn but chance put me in the right track and when I got into my own fields I did not know them every thing seemd so different the church peeping over the woods coud hardly reconcile me when I got home I found my parents in the greatest distress and half the vill[a]ge about hunting me one of the wood men in the woods had been killd by the fall of a tree and it servd to strengthen their terrors that some similar accident had befallen rnyself as they often leave the oaks half cut down till the bark men can come up to pill them which if a wind happens to rise fall down unexpected
Clare wrote most of his prose autobiographical sketches in the early 1820s.
See John Clare By Himself. Edited by Eric Robinson and David Powell. Ashington and Manchester: MidNAG/Carcanet, 1996. 39–41.
How sweet I’ve wandered bosom-deep in grain
When Summer’s mellowing pencil sweeps his shades
Of ripening tinges o’er the checkered plain:
Light tawny oat-lands wi’ their yellow blades
And bearded corn like armies on parade,
Beans lightly scorched that still preserved their green
And nodding lands of wheat in bleachy brown
And streaking banks where many a maid and clown
Contrasts a sweetness to the rural scene,
Forming the little haycocks up and down,
While o’er the face of nature softly swept
The lingering wind mixing the brown and green,
So sweet that shepherds from their bowers have crept
And stood delighted musing o’er the scene.
Written sometime between 1819 and 1820.
John Clare. Edited by R. K. R. Thornton. London: Everyman, 1997. 15–16. With grateful thanks to Professor Thornton.
Why is the cuckoo’s melody preferred
And nightingale’s rich song so fondly praised
In poets’ rhymes? Is there no other bird
Of nature’s minstrelsy that oft hath raised
One’s heart to ecstasy and mirth as well?
I judge not how another’s taste is caught;
With mine there’s other birds that bear the bell
Whose song hath crowds of happy memories brought.
Such the wood Robin singing in the dell
And little Wren that many a time hath sought
Shelter from showers in huts where I did dwell
In early Spring, the tenant of the plain,
Tenting my sheep, and still they come to tell
The happy stories of the past again.
Helpstone, July 1828. First published in the annual Friendship’s Offering, 1829, 334.
John Clare. Edited by R. K. R. Thornton. London: Everyman, 1997. 42. With grateful thanks to Professor Thornton.
Prose extract: ‘I hunted curious flowers…’
I hunted curious flowers in raptures and mutterd thoughts in their praise I lovd the pasture with its rushes and thistles and sheep tracks I adord the wild marshy fen with its solitary hernshaw sweeing along in its mellan[c]holy sky I wandered the heath in raptures among the rabbit burrows and golden blossomd furze I dropt down on a thymy mole hill or mossy eminence to survey the summer landscape as full of raptures as now I markd the varied colors in flat spreading fields checkerd with closes of different tinted grain like the colors in a map the copper tinted colors of clover in blossom the sun tand green of the ripening hay the lighter hues of wheat and barley intermixd with the sunny glare of the yellow c[h]arlock and the sunset imitation of the scarlet head aches with the blue corn bottles crowding thier splendid colors in large sheets over the
lands and ‘troubling the corn fields’ with destroying beauty the different greens of the woodland trees the dark oak the paler ash the mellow Lime the white poplar peeping above the rest like leafy steeples the grey willow shining chilly in the sun as if the morning mist still lingerd in its cool green I felt the beauty of these with eager delight the gad flyes noon day hum the fainter murmer of the bee flye ‘spiring in the evening ray’ the dragon flyes in their spangld coats darting like ‘winged arrows down the stream’ the swallow darting through its one arched brig the shepherd hiding from a thunder shower in an hollow dotterel the wild geese scudding along and making all the letters of the Alphabet as they flew the motley clouds the whispering wind that mutterd to the leaves and summer grass as it flutterd among them like things at play I observd all this with the same raptures as I have done since but I knew nothing of poetry it was felt and not utterd most of my sundays was spent in this manner about the fields with such merry company I heard the black and the brown beetle sing their evening songs with rapture and lovd to see the black snail steal out upon its dewy baulks I saw the humble horse bee at noon ‘spiring’ on wanton wing I lovd to meet the woodman whistling away to his toils and to see the shepherd bending oer his hook on the thistly green chatting love storys to the listening maiden while she milkd her brindld cow the first primrose in spring was as delightful as it is now the copper colord clouds morning was watchd and the little ups and downs and roly poly child mountains of the broken heath with their brown mossy crowns and little green bottoms were the sheep feed and hide from the sun the stone quarry with its magnified precipic[e]s the wind mills sweeing idly to the sum[m]er wind the steeples peeping among the trees round the orisons circle
I noticd the cracking of the stubbs to the increasing sun while I gleand among them I lovd to see the heavey grassopper in his coat of delicate green bounce from stub to stub I listened the hedge cricket with raptures
the evening call of the patridge the misterious spring sound of the land rail that cometh with the green corn
I lovd the meadow lake with its fl[a]gs andlong purples crowding the waters edge I listend with delights to hear the wind whisper among the feather topt reeds and to see the taper bulrush nodding in gentle curves to the rippling water and I watchd with delight on haymaking evenings the setting sun drop behind the brigs and peep again thro the half circle of the arches as if he longs to stay
Clare wrote most of his prose autobiographical sketches in the early 1820s.
See John Clare By Himself. Edited by Eric Robinson and David Powell. Ashington and Manchester: MidNAG/Carcanet, 1996. 38–9.
I love at eventide to walk alone
Down narrow lanes o’erhung with dewy thorn,
Where from the long grass underneath, the snail
Jet black creeps out and sprouts his timid horn.
I love to muse o’er meadows newly mown
Where withering grass perfumes the sultry air,
Where bees search round with sad and weary drone
In vain for flowers that bloomed but newly there,
While in the juicy corn the hidden quail
Cries ‘wet my foot’ and, hid as thoughts unborn,
The fairylike and seldom-seen landrail
Utters ‘craik craik’ like voices underground,
Right glad to meet the evening’s dewy veil
And see the light fade into glooms around.
Written in 1830, and first published in the Stamford Champion, 20 April 1830.
John Clare. Edited by R. K. R. Thornton. London: Everyman, 1997. 19–20. With grateful thanks to Professor Thornton.
Sonnet: ‘I dreaded walking where there was no path’
I dreaded walking where there was no path
And pressed with cautious tread the meadow swath
And always turned to look with wary eye
And always feared the owner coming by;
Yet everything about where I had gone
Appeared so beautiful I ventured on
And when I gained the road where all are free
I fancied every stranger frowned at me
And every kinder look appeared to say
You’ve been on trespass in your walk today.
I’ve often thought the day appeared so fine,
How beautiful if such a place were mine;
But having nought I never feel alone
And cannot use another’s as my own.
Composed sometime between 1832 and 1837, when Clare was living in Northborough.
John Clare. Edited by R. K. R. Thornton. London: Everyman, 1997. 9–10. With grateful thanks to Professor Thornton.
The Nightingale’s Nest
Up this green woodland ride let’s softly rove
And list the nightingale – she dwelleth here.
Hush! let the wood gate softly clap – for fear
The noise might drive her from her home of love;
For here I’ve heard her many a merry year
At morn and eve, nay, all the live-long day
As though she lived on song – this very spot,
Just where that old man’s beard all wildly trails
Rude arbours o’er the road and stops the way,
And where that child its bluebell flowers hath got,
Laughing and creeping through the mossy rails.
There have I hunted like a very boy
Creeping on hands and knees through matted thorns
To find her nest and see her feed her young,
And vainly did I many hours employ:
All seemed as hidden as a thought unborn.
And where these crimping fern leaves ramp among
The hazel’s underboughs – I’ve nestled down
And watched her while she sung – and her renown
Hath made me marvel that so famed a bird
Should have no better dress than russet brown.
Her wings would tremble in her ecstasy
And feathers stand on end as ’twere with joy
And mouth wide open to release her heart
Of its out-sobbing songs – the happiest part
Of Summer’s fame she shared – for so to me
Did happy fancies shapen her employ;
But if I touched a bush or scarcely stirred
All in a moment stopped – I watched in vain:
The timid bird had left the hazel bush
And at a distance hid to sing again,
Lost in a wilderness of listening leaves.
Rich ecstasy would pour its luscious strain
Till envy spurred the emulating thrush
To start less wild and scarce inferior songs,
For cares with him for half the year remain
To damp the ardour of his speckled breast,
While nightingales to Summer’s life belongs,
And naked trees and Winter’s nipping wrongs
Are strangers to her music and her rest.
Her joys are evergreen; her world is wide.
– Hark! there she is, as usual, let’s be hush,
For in this blackthorn clump if rightly guessed
Her curious house is hidden – part aside
These hazel branches in a gentle way
And stoop right cautious ’neath the rustling boughs;
For we will have another search today
And hunt this fern-strown thorn-clump round and round,
And where this seeded woodgrass idly bows
We’ll wade right through; it is a likely nook.
In such-like spots and often on the ground
They’ll build where rude boys never think to look.
Aye, as I live, her secret nest is here,
Upon this whitethorn stulp – I’ve searched about
For hours in vain – there; put that bramble by.
Nay, trample on its branches and get near
– How subtle is the bird; she started out
And raised a plaintive note of danger nigh
Ere we were past the brambles, and now near
Her nest she sudden stops – as choking fear
That might betray her home – so even now
We’ll leave it as we found it – safety’s guard
Of pathless solitudes shall keep it still.
See; there she’s sitting on the old oak bough,
Mute in her fears – our presence doth retard
Her joys and doubt turns every rapture chill.
Sing on, sweet bird; may no worse hap befall
Thy visions than the fear that now deceives.
We will not plunder music of its dower
Nor turn this spot of happiness to thrall,
For melody seems hid in every flower
That blossoms near thy home – these harebells all
Seems bowing with the beautiful in song,
And gaping cuckoo with its spotted leaves
Seems blushing of the singing it has heard.
How curious is the nest. No other bird
Uses such loose materials or weaves
Their dwellings in such spots – dead oaken leaves
Are placed without and velvet moss within
And little scraps of grass – and scant and spare
Of what seems scarce materials, down and hair,
For from man’s haunts she seemeth nought to win.
Yet nature is the builder and contrives
Homes for her childern’s comfort even here
Where solitude’s disciples spend their lives
Unseen save when a wanderer passes near
That loves such pleasant places – Deep adown
The nest is made an hermit’s mossy cell.
Snug lies her curious eggs, in number five,
Of deadened green or rather olive brown
And the old prickly thorn bush guards them well.
And here we’ll leave them still unknown to wrong
As the old woodland’s legacy of song.
Written in 1832, this poem was first published in the the newspaper Stamford Bee, on 30 November 1832, and was also published in the annual Friendship’s Offering, 1833, 358–60.
John Clare. Edited by R. K. R. Thornton. London: Everyman, 1997. 47–50. With grateful thanks to Professor Thornton.
Sonnet: ‘The shepherds almost wonder where they dwell’
The shepherds almost wonder where they dwell
& the old dog for his night journey stares
The path leads somewhere but they cannot tell
& neighbour meets with neighbour unawares
The maiden passes close beside her cow
& wonders on & think her far away
The ploughman goes unseen behind his plough
& seems to loose his horses half the day
The lazy mist creeps on in journey slow
The maidens shout & wonder where they go
So dull & dark are the november days
The lazy mist high up the evening curled
& now the morn quite hides in smokey haze
The place we occupy seems all the world
This poem was probably written in November 1835, when John Clare was living in Northborough. November 1835 is a date written in the same manuscript as this poem, at any rate.
The text was transcribed and edited from the publicly-owned manuscripts in Peterborough Central Library, by Simon Kövesi. It is discussed and analysed at length in Kövesi’s book, John Clare: Nature, Criticism and History, Palgrave Macmillan, 2017, 100–117.
The Gipsy Camp
The snow falls deep; the Forest lies alone:
The boy goes hasty for his load of brakes,
Then thinks upon the fire and hurries back;
The Gipsy knocks his hands and tucks them up,
And seeks his squalid camp, half hid in snow,
Beneath the oak, which breaks away the wind,
And bushes close, with snow like hovel warm:
There stinking mutton roasts upon the coals,
And the half-roasted dog squats close and rubs,
Then feels the heat too strong and goes aloof;
He watches well, but none a bit can spare,
And vainly waits the morsel thrown away:
’Tis thus they live – a picture to the place;
A quiet, pilfering, unprotected race.
Written in 1841 while was resident in an asylum in High Beach, Epping Forest, this sonnet is one of a group of poems Clare handed to Cyrus Redding, who published them with an accompanying essay in his new and short-lived English Journal, across two issues, on 15 May 1841 (305–9) and 29 May 1841 (340–3).
John Clare. Edited by R. K. R. Thornton. London: Everyman, 1997. 22. With grateful thanks to Professor Thornton.
The Fallen Elm
Old Elm that murmured in our chimney top
The sweetest anthem Autumn ever made
And into mellow whispering calms would drop
When showers fell on thy many-coloured shade,
And when dark tempests mimic thunder made
While darkness came as it would strangle light
With the black tempest of a Winter night
That rocked thee like a cradle to thy root,
How did I love to hear the winds upbraid
Thy strength without, while all within was mute;
It seasoned comfort to our hearts’ desire.
We felt thy kind protection like a friend
And pitched our chairs up closer to the fire,
Enjoying comforts that was never penned.
Old favourite tree, thou’st seen time’s changes lour
Though change till now did never injure thee,
For time beheld thee as her sacred dower
And nature claimed thee her domestic tree.
Storms came and shook thee many a weary hour
Yet steadfast to thy home thy roots hath been.
Summers of thirst parched round thy homely bower
Till earth grew iron; still thy leaves was green.
The childern sought thee in thy Summer shade
And made their playhouse rings of sticks and stone;
The mavis sang and felt himself alone
While in thy leaves his early nest was made
And I did feel his happiness mine own,
Nought heeding that our friendship was betrayed.
Friend not inanimate, though stocks and stones
There are and many formed of flesh and bones,
Thou owned a language by which hearts are stirred
Deeper than by a feeling clothed in words;
And speakest now what’s known of every tongue,
Language of pity and the force of wrong;
What cant assumes, what hypocrites may dare
Speaks home to truth and shows it what they are.
I see a picture that thy fate displays
And learn a lesson from thy destiny:
Self interest saw thee stand in freedom’s ways
So thy old shadow must a tyrant be.
Thou’st heard the knave, abusing those in power,
Bawl freedom loud and then oppress the free.
Thou’st sheltered hypocrites in many a shower
That when in power would never shelter thee.
Thou’st heard the knave supply his canting powers
With wrong’s illusions when he wanted friends,
That bawled for shelter when he lived in showers
And when clouds vanished made thy shade amends;
With axe at root he felled thee to the ground
And barked of freedom – O I hate that sound;
Time hears its visions speak, and age sublime
Had made thee a disciple unto time.
– It grows the cant terms of enslaving tools
To wrong another by the name of right;
It grows the licence of o’erbearing fools
To cheat plain honesty by force of might.
Thus came enclosure – ruin was its guide
But freedom’s clapping hands enjoyed the sight,
Though comfort’s cottage soon was thrust aside
And workhouse prisons raised upon the site.
E’en nature’s dwellings far away from men,
The common heath, became the spoilers’ prey;
The rabbit had not where to make his den
And labour’s only cow was drove away.
No matter – wrong was right and right was wrong
And freedom’s bawl was sanction to the song.
Such was thy ruin, music-making Elm.
The rights of freedom was to injure thine.
As thou wert served, so would they overwhelm
ln freedom’s name the little that is mine.
And there are knaves that brawl for better laws
And cant of tyranny in stronger powers,
Who glut their vile unsatiated maws
And freedom’s birthright from the weak devours.
Written c. late 1830.
John Clare. Edited by R. K. R. Thornton. London: Everyman, 1997. 79–81. With grateful thanks to Professor Thornton.
An Invite to Eternity
Wilt thou go with me sweet maid?
Say, maiden, wilt thou go with me
Through the valley depths of shade,
Of night and dark obscurity,
Where the path hath lost its way,
Where the sun forgets the day,
Where there’s nor life nor light to see?
Sweet maiden, wilt thou go with me?
Where stones will tum to flooding streams,
Where plains will rise like ocean waves,
Where life will fade like visioned dreams
And mountains darken into caves,
Say, maiden, wilt thou go with me
Through this sad non-identity,
Where parents live and are forgot
And sisters live and know us not?
Say, maiden, wilt thou go with me
In this strange death of life to be,
To live in death and be the same
Without this life, or home, or name;
At once to be, and not to be,
That was, and is not – yet to see
Things pass like shadows – and the sky
Above, below, around us lie?
The land of shadows wilt thou trace
And look – nor know each other’s face;
The present mixed with reasons gone
And past, and present all as one.
Say, maiden, can thy life be led
To join the living with the dead?
Then trace thy footsteps on with me;
We’re wed to one eternity.
Composed sometime in the mid-1840s, when Clare was resident in the Northamptonshire Lunatic Asylum.
John Clare. Edited by R. K. R. Thornton. London: Everyman, 1997. 63–4. With grateful thanks to Professor Thornton.
First Love’s Recollections
First love will with the heart remain
When all its hopes are by,
As frail rose blossoms still retain
Their fragrance till they die;
And joy’s first dreams will haunt the mind
With shades from whence they sprung,
As Summer leaves the stems behind
On which Spring’s blossoms hung.
Mary, I dare not call thee dear,
I’ve lost that right so long,
Yet once again I vex thine ear
With memory’s idle song.
Had time and change not blotted out
The love of former days
Thou wert the last that I should doubt
Of pleasing with my praise.
When honied tokens from each tongue
Told with what truth we loved,
How rapturous to thy lips I clung
Whilst nought but smiles reproved;
But now methinks if one kind word
Were whispered in thine ear
Thou’dst startle like an untamed bird
And blush with wilder fear.
How loath to part, how fond to meet
Had we two used to be;
At sunset with what eager feet
I hastened on to thee.
Scarce nine days passed ere we met
In Spring, nay wintry weather;
Now nine years’ suns have risen and set
Nor found us once together.
Thy face was so familiar grown,
Thyself so often by,
A moment’s memory when alone
Would bring thee to mine eye;
But now my very dreams forget
That witching look to trace;
Though there thy beauty lingers yet,
It wears a stranger face.
I felt a pride to name thy name
But now that pride hath flown,
My words e’en seem to blush for shame
That own I love thee on.
I felt I then thy heart did share
Nor urged a binding vow;
But much I doubt if thou couldst spare
One word of kindness now.
And what is now my name to thee,
Though once nought seemed so dear?
Perhaps a jest in hours of glee
To please some idle ear;
And yet like counterfeits with me
Impressions linger on
Though all the gilded finery
That passed for truth is gone.
Ere the world smiled upon my lays,
A sweeter meed was mine –
Thy blushing look of ready praise
Was raised at every line,
But now methinks thy fervent love
Is changed to scorn severe
And songs that other hearts approve
Seem discord to thine ear.
When last thy gentle cheek I pressed
And heard thee feign adieu,
I little thought that seeming jest
Would prove a word so true.
A fate like this hath oft befell
E’en loftier hopes than ours;
Spring bids full many buds to swell
That ne’er can grow to flowers.
Written in the summer of 1825. First published in the annual the Literary Souvenir, 1826, 203–6.
John Clare. Edited by R. K. R. Thornton. London: Everyman, 1997. 57–9. With grateful thanks to Professor Thornton.
Summer pleasures they are gone, like to visions every one,
And the cloudy days of Autumn and of Winter cometh on.
I tried to call them back but unbidden they are gone
Far away from heart and eye and for ever far away.
Dear heart and can it be that such raptures meet decay?
I thought them all eternal when by Langley Bush I lay;
I thought them joys eternal when I used to shout and play
On its bank at ‘clink and bandy’, ‘chock’ and ‘taw’ and ducking stone,
Where silence sitteth now on the wild heath as her own
Like a ruin of the past all alone.
When I used to lie and sing by old Eastwell’s boiling spring,
When I used to tie the willow boughs together for a ‘swing’,
And fish with crooked pins and thread and never catch a thing
With heart just like a feather – now as heavy as a stone –
When beneath old Lea Close Oak I the bottom branches broke
To make our harvest cart like so many working folk;
And then to cut a straw at the brook to have a soak.
O I never dreamed of parting or that trouble had a sting,
Or that pleasures like a flock of birds would ever take to wing
Leaving nothing but a little naked spring.
When jumping time away on old Crossberry Way
And eating haws like sugar plums ere they had lost the May
And skipping like a leveret before the peep of day
On the roly poly up and downs of pleasant Swordy Well,
When in Round Oak’s narrow lane as the south got black again
We sought the hollow ash that was shelter from the rain
With our pockets full of peas we had stolen from the grain:
How delicious was the dinner time on such a showery day.
O words are poor receipts for what time hath stole away –
The ancient pulpit trees and the play.
When for school o’er ‘little field’ with its brook and wooden brig
Where I swaggered like a man though I was not half so big,
While I held my little plough though ’twas but a willow twig
And drove my team along made of nothing but a name:
‘Gee hep’ and ‘hoit’ and ‘woi’ – O, I never call to mind
These pleasant names of places but I leave a sigh behind
When I see the little mouldiwarps hang sweeing to the wind
On the only aged willow that in all the field remains;
And nature hides her face where they’re sweeing in their chains
And in a silent murmuring complains.
Here was commons for their hills where they seek fo class="font-type-2"r freedom still,
Though every common’s gone and though traps are set to kill
The little homeless miners – O it turns my bosom chill
When I think of old Sneap Green, Puddocks Nook and Hilly Snow
Where bramble bushes grew and the daisy gemmed in dew
And the hills of silken grass like to cushions to the view,
Where we threw the pismire crumbs when we’d nothing else to do.
All levelled like a desert by the never-weary plough,
All vanished like the sun where that cloud is passing now
And settled here for ever on its brow.
O I never thought that joys would run away from boys
Or that boys would change their minds and forsake such Summer joys,
But alack, I never dreamed that the world had other toys
To petrify first feelings like the fable into stone,
Till I found the pleasure past and a Winter come at last.
Then the fields were sudden bare and the sky got overcast
And boyhood’s pleasing haunts like a blossom in the blast
Was shrivelled to a withered weed and trampled down and done,
Till vanished was the morning Spring and set that Summer sun
And Winter fought her battle-strife and won.
By Langley Bush I roam but the bush hath left its hill;
On Cowper Green I stray – ’tis a desert strange and chill –
And spreading Lea Close Oak ere decay had penned its will
To the axe of the spoiler and self interest fell a prey;
And Crossberry Way and old Round Oak’s narrow lane
With its hollow trees like pulpits I shall never see again.
Enclosure like a Bonaparte let not a thing remain,
It levelled every bush and tree and levelled every hill
And hung the moles for traitors – though the brook is running still,
It runs a naked brook, cold and chill.
O had I known as then joy had left the paths of men,
I had watched her night and day, be sure, and never slept again;
And when she turned to go, O I’d caught her mantle then
And wooed her like a lover by my lonely side to stay,
Aye, knelt and worshipped on, as love in beauty’s bower,
And clung upon her smiles as a bee upon a flower
And gave her heart my poesies all cropt in a sunny hour
As keepsakes and pledges all to never fade away;
But love never heeded to treasure up the May
So it went the common road with decay.
Written 1832, probably after Clare had moved from Helpston to Northborough.
John Clare. Edited by R. K. R. Thornton. London: Everyman, 1997. 67–9. With grateful thanks to Professor Thornton.
You can see Toby Jones playing John Clare in the feature film By Our Selves (Soda Pictures, 2015), some of which was filmed at Oxford Brookes.