The English Peasant/John Clare
A Peasant Poet.
(Golden Hours, 1873.)
A little fair-haired boy, with bright, eager eyes, clad in well-patched smock and heavy clouted shoes, is running joyfully over a wild heath at early dawn. Every now and then he stops to take breath, and sometimes plucks a bluebell or a sprig of marjoram yet he presses onwards, over common and field, through wood land and park, down into the valley and up the hill; at first singing, but after a time often sinking down wearily by the wayside for the sun is getting fierce, and his strength is well-nigh gone.
Whither is the child bent? Yesternight and again this morning he saw hanging midway between heaven and earth a beautifu land. To reach it he set out breakfastless, but alas! the nearer h seems to get to it, the further off it appears; and now, as he gain the summit of the hill he has made such an effort to climb, a dark cloud has fallen, and the alluring vision is lost in dull, grey gloom.
Ready to faint from sheer exhaustion and distress of mind, some men working in the neighbourhood take pity upon him, give him a crust or two from their wallets, and set him out on his road home. Thither he returns at nightfall, to receive his punishment, and then to hide his sorrows in the dark, and to sob over the destruction of the bright illimitable hopes that delusive horizon had aroused in his imagination.
Just as the child is father to the man, so this early adventure of John Clare proved an omen of what his life would be. Again and again he realised the bitter experience of his "Dream," and learnt how
"Hopeless distance with a boundless stretch,
Flashed on despair the joy it could not reach,
A moment's mockery."
In Helpstone, an obscure village in Northamptonshire, not far from Peterborough Great Fen, dwelt, towards the close of the last century, one Parker Clare, " a hind born to the flail and plough." He was the child of sin and suffering; his mother a poor girl, misled by the audacious manners and glib tongue of a roving vagabond who had made the village his halting-place for a season.
Parker Clare solaced himself in the only way he could by taking a companion to share his woes. Those were days when wages in Northamptonshire, for able-bodied men, were only eight or nine shillings in summer, and about five or six shillings in winter; but since Parker Clare could never claim to be an able-bodied man, he went through life mainly as a pauper. Knowing what we do of agricultural homes, we may suppose that the dwelling of such a poverty-stricken wretch was just a little more miserable than those of his fellows. But, doubtless, even he felt its misery more acutely when, seven months after he had taken to himself a wife, he became the father of twins. Nevertheless, if he could have seen it, there was just at that time a ruddy glare on the social horizon, which betokened a bright to-morrow. The feudal system, of whose dregs he was a victim, was rapidly passing away. Its sun was setting in blood-red clouds, and all Europe stood aghast, as men who watch in silent horror some awful conflagration. John Clare was born in that "Annus Terribilis," 1793.
He was, as I have said, a twin child, much more sickly than his sister, who died; but, like so many sickly people, the very weakness of the body seemed to give the soul more play. The walls of sense were not so thick, the veil which hid the Invisible was not quite so dense; and if John Clare suffered more than his chubby companions, he was compensated by a power to perceive and enjoy glories which were hidden from them.
Even in his earliest years he discovered, as we have seen, the soul of a poet, yearning after the beautiful. He was a silent, solitary child, loving the companionship of flowers and purling brooks better than that of his rough and noisy playmates—a sort of fondling of Dame Nature, feeling only happy in her arms, and when she was unfolding some of her beauteous stores for his delectation
"With other boys he little cared to mix;
Joy left him lonely in his hawthorn bowers,
As haply binding up his knot of flowers,
Or list'ning unseen birds to hear them sing;
Or gazing downwards where the runnel pours,
Through the moss'd bridge, in many a whirling ring,
How would he muse o'er all on pleasure's fairy wing?
He was like "the child" in "The Story without an End." His dearest friends dwelt in the woods, the fields, the hedges, and on the banks of the gurgling rivulets. Among such scenes "there was no end to his delight. The little birds warbled and sang, and fluttered and hopped about, and the delicate wood flowers gave out their beauty and their odours ; and every sweet sound took a sweet odour by the hand, and thus walked through the open door of the child's heart, and held a joyous nuptial dance therein." Nevertheless, his soul was human, and his eye and his heart were just as open to the lights and sounds, the manner of life and mode of thought, which marked the simple swains among whom he lived and died. That village life was imprinted like a series of never-fading photographs on his mind. And although the light of his genius could not help seizing upon everything capable of forming a picture and irradiating it, just as the sunlight fills even ugly things with its own glow of beauty ; nevertheless, the continued wretchedness and unmerited suffering of the life around him burnt so deeply into his young heart, that no personal acts of kindness he hereafter experienced — and they were innumerable from high and low—could ever wring from him one note of joy for being, born an Englishman, or, in fact, for being born at all.
"As most of Nature's children prove to be,
His little soul was easy made to smart,
His tear was quickly born to sympathy,
And soon were rous'd the feelings of his heart,
In others' woes and wants to bear a part.
Alas, he knew too much of every pain,
That shower'd full thick on his unshelter'd head."
Ignorant of all other lore, his parents had an endless stock of ghost stories and fairy tales to tell him, while an old woman who tended the cows belonging to the village on Helpstone Heath was his first teacher in the art of poesy. Day by day, as he went to school, he used to wander after his old friend, listening with delight to her songs and ditties, so that the child was for ever humming, even in his dreams, such old-world rhymes as these,—
"There sat three ravens upon a tree,
Heigh down, derry O !
There sat two ravens upon a tree,
As deep in love as he and she."
Thus in various ways did his appetite for the beautiful, the human, the wonderful, and the musical get food.
But bread and raiment were still more imperiously needful since his father was so often ailing. So Parker Clare made his son a small flail wherewith he could assist him to thresh. But the child's weak arms could do so little that they put him with the ploughman. This, too, was far beyond his strength; in a few months he fell ill, and was laid up with a tertiary ague. Poverty, however, has no choice, and it was better to drag himself from his bed to work in the damp fields than to have nothing to eat but potatoes and rye-bread.
And still more his soul refused to die of starvation, and demanded its portion of food also; so he laid by his pence, and when the slack time came in winter, he went to school at Glinton, a village noted for its tapering spire, and for its comfortable look compared to poverty-stricken Helpstone. His schoolmaster was a tall old man, with white hair hanging down over his coat collar. He was fond of the violin and long walks, pursuing the latter with the spirit of a true pedestrian, taking great strides, wrapt in thought, and humming a tune to himself as he went along. His boys laughed at his ways, but loved him, for he was very good to them. He allowed them to read books out of his little library, which to a lad like Clare was a privilege indeed. Hungry he often was for a crust of bread, but infinitely more did he hunger after a book. He made such good use of the precious hours he spent at Mr Merrishaw's school that he fairly astonished his parents by his wonderful learning, and even surprised a certain uncle, who had seen rather more of the world. This relative, butler to a Wisbeach lawyer, was so struck with his nephew's abilities, that he felt sure his master had only to see him, and he would secure such talent at once by giving him a place in his office.
Manifold were the preparations for John's entrance into the great world. Mrs Clare cut up an old gown expressly to make him a pair of trousers, and actually committed the extravagance of buying him a pair of gloves. He went by boat to Wisbeach, and arrived at the great man's house. Uncle Morris took him under his wing, and presented him to his master. The lawyer looked at the poor lad in his big breeches and tight little coat, ordered him to be well taken care of, and sent back again as soon as might be to Helpstone.
From lawyer's clerk in a large county town to general servant at the village public-house was rather a fall; nevertheless the latter was by far the more congenial situation, affording him opportunities he otherwise would not have had of becoming one truest of the and sweetest of England's rural poets.
The landlord of the Blue Bell was an easy man, and treated him as if he had been his own son. John's chief occupation was to tend his master's cattle. This gave him ample time for reading, and he used to wander about the Heath, book in hand. Unfortunately, books were very scarce in Helpstone, and those he chiefly got were the old favourites which the pedlars sold: "Valentine and Orson," "Cinderella," "Jack the Giant-Killer," and others like them.
Well-fed and without a care, in these happy days the boy lived on enchanted ground.
"Nature looked on him with a 'witching eye,
Her pleasing scenes were his delightful book,
Where he, while other louts roam'd heedless by,
With wild enthusiasm used to look.
The king-cup vale, the gravel-paved brook,
Were paradise with him to move among;
And haply sheltering in some lonely nook,
He often sat to see it purl along,
And, fir'd with what he saw, humm'd o'er his simple song."
When summer-time came he would seek the woodlands, and penetrating into the leafy recesses "where sweet hermit Nature hides," he would track out some runlet—
On its journey wild,
Where dripping blue-bells on the bank did weep.
O what a lovely scene to Nature's child,
Through roots and o'er dead leaves to see it creep,
Watching on some moss'd stump in contemplation deep.
No insect 'scap'd him, from the gaudy plume
Of dazzling butterflies, so fine to view,
To the small midges that at evening come
Like dust-spots, dancing o'er the waters blue."
For hours he would lie—
"Stretched o'er an oaken plank,
To see the dancing beetles play."
Thus, as each season returned, he with unwearied eye was ever watching Nature at work. And she in return unfolded to him her secrets, as she does only to the humble, the innocent, and the loving. Intelligent men who in after days visited the scenes he has described, marvelled, when they found the reality so commonplace, at the genius which enabled this peasant boy to see beauties which to ordinary eyes were unperceivable. But John Clare possessed the Argus-eyes of love, and still more a rustic faith which enabled him to people the woods and meadows around him with a wondrous kingdom of fays, and ghosts, and giants, idealising for him these homely scenes with a sense of the invisible.
Sometimes indeed his imagination became almost a terror to him. There was a lonely road along which he had to take his cattle once a week, and it led through a part of the fen where it was reported a murder had once been committed. It was a fearful place for a country lad to pass, since here, as soon as it was dark, the wicked sprites held high carnival, and were accustomed to treat most unmercifully the belated traveller.
One autumn afternoon the gloom came on unusually early, and when poor John reached the haunted spot down came the ghosts upon him, and so pinched, and pulled, and buffeted him that when he entered the Blue Bell his livid face and chattering lips made his mistress think he was about to have the ague.
Nevertheless, "fear" was with him "a cherished visitant," and he would rather have endured far worse terrors than have never entertained a belief in fairy-land.
Over and over again in his poems does he return to the delights of those days of unquestioning faith, perhaps nowhere more beautifully than in the lines in the "Shepherd's Calendar," beginning—
"Oh ! spirit of the days gone by,
Sweet childhood's fearful ecstacy !"
How his thoughts and feelings were now bursting every day into life he has himself told us, with much delicacy and power, in his " Dawnings of Genius." It is evidently of himself, when he writes—
"Thus pausing wild on all he saunters by,
He feels enraptured though he knows not why;
And hums and mutters o'er his joys in vain,
And dwells on something which he can't explain.
The bursts of thought with which his soul's perplexed
Are bred one moment, and are gone the next."
Now and then he got a book which opened up the outer world to him; as, speaking of himself under the name of the "Village Minstrel," he says —
"And oft with books spare hours he would beguile,
And blunder oft with joy round Crusoe's lonely isle."
To a youth with so lively an imagination, the sudden apparition of a fair young girl sitting on a stile, weaving a garland, was enough to alter the whole complexion of his life.
There are not many ballads in the English language which, for light and gracefulness, can match the song in which this young peasant has expressed the burst of feeling which now carried away his heart—
"I love thee, sweet Mary, but love thee in fear;
Were I but the morning breeze, healthy and airy,
As thou goest a-walking I'd breathe in thine ear,
And whisper and sigh how I love thee, my Mary!
I would steal a kiss, but I dare not presume;
Wert thou but a rose in thy garden, sweet fairy.
And I a bold bee for to rifle its bloom,
A whole summer's day would I kiss thee, my Mary!
I long to be with thee, but cannot tell how;
Wert thou but the elder that grows on thy dairy,
And I the blest woodbine to twine on the bough,
I'd embrace thee and cling to thee ever, my Mary!"
Mary Joyce listened to the tale of love his stammering, artless tongue poured forth; but when her father heard of it, he forbade her ever to speak to "that beggar boy" again. It was not his poverty so much as his poetry that caused Farmer Joyce to talk of him so harshly. John moved in a most eccentric orbit, and the sight of him running after the cows, book in hand, or declaiming to himself by the wayside, his clothes in tatters, and his long hair streaming in the wind, produced the very natural impression that he was half silly and never would come to any good.
Mary was obedient, but remained a spinster to her dying day; as to John, the disappointment warped his life. It was his first deep sorrow, never, never to be forgotten. His penknife carved the initials of her name inside the porch of Glinton Church, but love carved that name still deeper on his heart. Half a century later it was the only memory that survived when all else had gone to wreck.
It was just at this juncture, when love had thus stirred up the fount of feeling, that he met with Thomson's "Seasons." Coming back from Stamford, where he had been to buy the book, the purchase-money, eighteenpence, having been made up partly by pence extracted from his mother, and partly by loans from friendly villagers, his path lay through Burghley Park, and what with the loveliness of the scene, and the joy of having a real poetry book, his soul burst forth for the first time into song, and found expression in verse.
Parker Clare had a love for gardening; it would have suited him better than ploughing or threshing. It was too late now to change his occupation, but nothing could be better for John; so when he heard that the head-gardener at Burghley wanted an apprentice, it aroused every latent spark of ambition in the poor man's breast, and he determined to lose no time in trying to secure the place for his son. With much obsequiousness, the pair waited on the great man, and he, pleased at being treated with such deference, took a fancy to the boy, and consented to employ him.
"What a life for John!" thought Parker Clare, as he rejoiced with his wife over their great success. How could he help looking forward to the day when they should all go and live in one of the Marquis's best cottages, or, perhaps, indeed, keep one of the lodges at the park gates! John, too, no doubt, had his thoughts; the inspiration first came in Burghley Park, and there he was to work and live. How he would sing and make melody in his heart the live-long day!
But alas! the apprenticeship at Burghley Park proved an apple of Sodom. The gardener and his men were sons of Belial. Every night it was the custom to lock up the workmen lest they should rob the orchards. However, directly the master went out, as he usually did to get tipsy at an inn in the town, the men and boys managed to get through one of the windows, scramble over the park palings, and betake themselves to a neighbouring public-house, called "The Hole in the Wall," kept by a retired servant from the great house.
Of course John Clare was coaxed and persuaded to go, and of course he became as bad as any of them. Doubtless he had often wondered whether the crooning old woman whom the villagers pointed out as a witch, had really
"Sold herself to Satan's evil powers."
Did he ever think that he himself was really doing so now? Poor fellow, he lay again and again all night besotted under a tree. What wonder that a horrible rheumatism tormented him, and that the inspiration left him? Never afterwards did he free himself from the habit incurred at Burghley Park.
At last he broke his contract and ran off, perhaps the only way he could conceive of deliverance. At first he and his companion set out northwards, but ere long his heart forced him home again, whither he returned a poor destitute lad, all his bright visions of Burghley Park lost for ever in a mist of sin and brutality.
Once again back and in the fields, the inspiration returned, and he began to write poetic effusions, and to read them whenever he could get a listener. But his people had a dull ear for such stuff; his comrades gibed at him, his father reproved him, and his mother, anxious soul—more suspicious, doubtless, of those bits of paper, covered with weird characters, than of half-a-dozen "Holes in the Wall," "Blue Bells," or "Parting Pots,"— burnt them all from motives, not, perhaps, very dissimilar to those which prompted Don Quixote's niece to make an auto-da-fé of her uncle's romantic library.
But the way in which Clare met this pretty persecution showed that he had real genius. He did not complain of his hard fate, but determined to instil into his parents' minds a love of poetry. So the next piece he made he read over to his father, who, however, pronounced it all stuff and nonsense, and not at all to be compared to the ballads they were accustomed to troll out at the "Blue Bell." So the next time John composed a poem in the ballad style, and, without saying whose it was, read it to his father as if it was from a printed sheet. Old Mr Clare declared it fine, and told his son if he could write like that it would do. Thus John learnt it was not his poetry, but himself they doubted, and henceforth he read all his effusions anonymously, and afterwards hid them far away from his mother's careful eye in a deep crevice in the wall of his bed-room.
Later on, when the villagers woke up to the idea that the silly beggar boy was likely to prove some one great after all, they began to entertain respect for his scribblings.
The young poet used to sit in the evening in one corner of the kitchen, where there was a little window looking out on the "Blue Bell," and when the neighbours popped their heads in at the door and saw him writing, they would turn away, saying that they were afraid that they should disturb John. But years of effort had so accustomed him to self-concentration that he would invariably reply, "Come in, you won't hinder me." The window is now blocked up, and the nook is used as a cupboard, but the tradition survives to this day in Helpstone.
After awhile John determined to show his poems to another friend, a labouring man much older than himself, but who had the reputation of having been in a better position, and of having had some education. This worthy examined them very carefully, and after a week returned them to Clare, with the significant question, "Do you understand grammar?"
Poor John blushed and felt utterly ashamed of his attempts at composition while he remained densely ignorant of so important a branch of knowledge. So he procured, without delay, one of those puzzling works called English grammars. He tried his best to make it out, but finally gave it up in despair, and resolved to get on without understanding grammar.
Meanwhile the young man, craving above all things for a little sympathetic appreciation of his poetic efforts, fell into the hands of a couple who had nothing to recommend them but the faculty of "good fellowship."
At the end of the village lived, on their own little freehold, two brothers named Billings. They loafed away their time in the day, and poached at night; gathering around them every evening in their cottage, which went by the name of " Bachelors' Hall," the most reckless characters in the place. It was very easy, after the Burghley Park experiences, for John Clare to fall into this kind of temptation, and night after night he spent at Bachelors' Hall, reciting his songs amidst the thumping applause of heavy fists and hob-nailed boots.
At home things began to look more dreary than ever. The poor father was more and more a burden, and John found he had less and less money to spare. It was a dark time in Clare's life, and he made it still darker and more wretched for his unhappy parents, by committing the usual folly of a rural labourer when he loses his head in drink. He fell into the hands of the recruiting sergeant—
"With high-crowned hat and ribbons hung about,
With tuteling fife, and hoarse rap-tapping drum."
Clare was marched off with a number of other poor waifs to learn the goose-step. It must have been a queer Falstaffian regiment, for Clare was clad in trousers so long that he had to tuck them into his shoes. Indeed, the recruiting was managed on such slipshod principles, that the whole district set their faces against it determinately, so that in the end the military authorities quietly gave way, and disbanded the men. Thus Clare had just enough of soldiering to give him a taste for vagabondism.
Accordingly, we find him next consorting with the gipsies. Happily the very cause which rendered his life a burden saved him from going quite astray at this juncture. He enjoyed the freedom, the merriment, the wit of his nomadic friends, but he could not stomach their greasy pot. So after a time he returned to honest labour, and began working in a limekiln at 10s. a week.
One Sunday afternoon, having had his glass at the village inn, he sat down under a hedge, when the vision of Patty—Patty of the Vale—Patty, who was to prove his faithful wife, came across him.
His thoughts rose high again. Bright forms once more appeared above the horizon. He set his heart on three objects. To possess his charming Patty, to see his poems printed in a book, and to wear an olive-green coat!
However, John was a born poet, and in spite of all his illusions he could not help bursting forth with the words—
"What are vain hopes? The puffing gale of morn,
That of its charms divests the dewy lawn,
And robs each flow'ret of its gem—and dies;
A cobweb hiding disappointment's thorn,
Which slings more keenly through the deep disguise."
Some one had put it into his head that the only way to get his poems printed was to issue a prospectus, and so to induce a number of persons to become subscribers. The prospectus was printed and distributed, but although Clare got seven names put down, he only had one real subscriber to the book.
He now became restless and determined to quit his native village, he and another man named Coblee. The night before they were to depart, the jovial crew who held their revels at the Bachelors' Hall had a farewell feast. By way of settling to what part of the country Clare and his friend should journey, it was proposed that a stick should be put up in the middle of the room, that they should all join hands and dance around it, and that the way it fell should indicate the direction the travellers were to take. In the midst of this singular proceeding there was a loud tap at the door. When it was opened, a voice was heard calling for John Clare to come home at once, as there were two real gentlemen waiting to see him. John went without delay, and the two real gentlemen proved to be Mr Edward Drury, bookseller, of Stamford, and his friend the editor of the Stamford Mercury.
This visit proved a turning-point in Clare's life. Mr Drury had seen the prospectus, and being struck with its extreme simplicity, had determined to find out the author and have a look at his poems. But the singular appearance of the poet must have surprised him even more than the peculiar style of his prospectus. "A man of short stature, keen eager eyes, high forehead, long hair, falling down in wild and almost grotesque fashion over his shoulders, and garments tattered and torn, altogether little removed from rags"—such is the portrait his biographer, Mr Frederick Martin, draws of John Clare at this time.
At his visitor's request Clare produced a bundle of his poems, the first of which so pleased the bookseller that he at once made him a most generous offer—in effect to print the poems at his own expense, and give Clare the profits.
But when he read over another packet of poems which Clare sent him afterwards the bookseller began to be afraid he had gone too far, and accordingly asked the opinion of a learned clergyman, who, no doubt shocked at the bad spelling and grammar, pronounced decidedly against them. A few days after Clare went over to Stamford to learn what was going to be done. Mr Drury put the clergyman's letter into his hands; Clare read it, burst into tears, and rushed out of the shop. The kind-hearted bookseller, grieved at his want of tact, ran after him, and by dint of much talk consoled him. The poems were then sent up to London. Mr Taylor, the publisher, had the discrimination to see that their author was a real poet, and that his work only wanted a little polishing. From this time forth Mr Drury proved his friend. He had him continually to his house, lent him books, advised and talked with him, and used his influence over him in a very praiseworthy manner.
But alas for such poets as John Clare—there was little hope foi them in those days except they consented to yield themselves t< the enervating influence of patronage. It mattered little to sturdy, self-reliant man when he had fairly got on his own legs; but it was a continual source of pain to a sensitive, gentle, clinging nature such as Clare's. He was sure to rely too much upon he was sure to surrender too much to it, and then to resent its very natural dictation.
He was not, however, without friends, who treated him as a man ought to be treated. Such an one was Mr Holland, the Independent Minister at Market Deeping. Meeting with Clare's prospectus, one of the poems so pleased him that he made a pilgrimage to Bridge Casterton to see the writer. He found him in a lime-kiln, scribbling on the top of his hat. The acquaintance soon ripened into friendship; and nothing was so grateful or encouraging to Clare as the genuine commendation which he received from Mr Holland, when from time to time he put a new poem into his hands to read. Thus he was helped to a truer faith in himself, and his courage sustained. Mr Taylor had taken his work in hand; but months had elapsed, and no news came of its fate. Clare was beginning to despair, when one wet day who should appear at his cottage door but Mr Holland, his face beaming with pleasure.
"Am I not a good prophet?" said he, coming up to John and shaking him by both hands.
Clare was mystified; but soon to his great delight he heard that his book was out, and that it was the talk of the town—in fact, a great success.
His spirits rose at once to the seventh heaven. The longings, the hopes, the ambitions of his life were realised. Once more he saw the beautiful unknown world gleaming on the horizon. Heaven had lifted the dark clouds; the load of life fell from his back; he could walk, run, scale any height; he would soon reach that elysium of poetic fame he had dreamt of; and then "the crown of bays," for which he had hoped and waited so long, would descend on his brow.
But the troubles he had hitherto known, the discords his soul had as yet experienced, were light compared with those which were to follow. A fierce temptation was already lying in wait for him. Clare had fallen into the snare, so common among the rural poor—the delusion that courtship is the same as matrimony. It came, as temptation often does, in a form seemingly beautiful, and totally unexpected. When the London Reviews came down that January, the great people in the neighbourhood were astonished to find that a poet had arisen amongst them,—perhaps a Burns, some one who would shed fame on all who had to do with him. One day an old general met him in Mr Drury's shop, and took him home to his mansion, where a romantic young lady made love to him, a proceeding which well-nigh tempted him to the wickedness of repudiating his Patty, to whom he was now bound by the tenderest ties.
As he returned home that night from his wanderings, after the unknown bliss which had beckoned to him so alluringly from the far-off horizon, Clare felt that the clouds had already dropped, and with all his glory he was still a heartsore, struggling man. Happily he overcame the great temptation to forsake Patty, and without more ado he married her, and brought her home to the old cottage at Helpstone.
It is beyond my purpose to trace the history of his literary life. Suffice it to say that his patrons carried him up to London, and made a great show of him for one season. The long overcoat he wore to conceal his poverty he stoutly refused to take off in the hottest of rooms or the densest of crowds, so that he was a great sensation in every saloon to which he was taken. As handsome as a nobleman, yet so clownish, so unsophisticated: it was delicious to have the monotonous perfection of good society broken by such a singular apparition.
Nevertheless, he gave his keepers some anxiety, as he would only make friends with those who he felt really sympathised with him, and these were too often of the Billings' stamp, rowdies of the upper class, men who took him to the lowest theatres, and into the worst company. Happily, he made one friendship of the Holland type. Admiral Lord Radstock, a noble specimen of an English gentleman, who had nothing of the mere patron about him, met him at dinner; and the peer and the peasant being both true, simple-hearted men, felt "that touch of nature which makes the whole world kin," and became fast friends for life. Lord Radstock, who to a fine manly nature united great literary abilities and sound common-sense, was able and willing to be of the] utmost service to the poor poet.
This was not the only time Clare visited London. He came up on three subsequent occasions, and was introduced into the literary society of the day, meeting such men as Hazlitt and Cuaningham, De Quincey, Lamb, and Coleridge. But in the little cottage at Helpstone they must have learnt to dread these London journeys, for he invariably came back unhappy and discontented, and not able to apply himself to ordinary work.
Instead of finding him some post of usefulness, where he could labour either mentally or physically, his patrons thought that the best possible thing to do was to endow him with an annuity. Once Clare wanted to spend a part o the fund in a small freehold, and turn farmer. The brothers Billings had found the usual end of such ways. They were deeply in debt, and forced to sell their freehold. They offered it to Clare, but, to his great chagrin, Lord Radstock, who was a trustee of the fund, would not consent to its purchase. Unhappily that disinterested and intelligent friend died too early for Clare's advantage. Clare, anxious to do something, persisted in his scheme of becoming a farmer, and got deeper and deeper into pecuniary embarrassment.
In 1821 came out his second volume of poems, "The Village Minstrel," but the sensation was over; the peasant poet was oiit of fashion, and the book did not sell. The volume is tinged throughout with a more continuous and profounder melancholy than the "Rural Life and Scenery," showing that worldly fame had already made a sad life sadder. His family was increasing; so, what with disappointment and debt, it is not surprising that he fell ill.
In 1825 "The Shepherd's Calendar" was published, and although it contains some of the most wonderfully descriptive nature-painting in the English language, and some most touching tales—as true to village life as Crabbe's—it was not a success.
There are few bits of nature-painting finer than his description of a July day, one of those days when hour after hour the summer heat grows fiercer and fiercer—
"Till noon burns with its blistering breath
Around, and day dies still as death:
The busy noise of man and brute
Is on a sudden lost and mute;
E'en the brook that leaps along
Seems weary of its bubbling song,
And so soft its waters creep,
Tired silence sinks in sounder sleep.
The cricket on its banks is dumb,
The very flies forget to hum;
And save the waggon rocking round,
The landscape sleeps without a sound.
And in the over-heated air
Not one light thing is floating there,
Save that to the earnest eye
The restless heat is twittering by."
Or a picture in perfect harmony with the burst of joy which all creation feels in early summer-time:—
"The driving boy beside his team,
Of May-month's beauty now will dream.
And cock his hat, and turn his eye
On flower, and tree, and deepening sky;
And oft burst loud in fits of song.
And whistle as he reels along;
Cracking his whip in starts of joy,
A happy, dirty, driving boy."
But what are one or two quotations,—his poems abound with descriptions and touches of character true and vivid as these. It seems strange, indeed, that they should be so little appreciated, so that it does not appear to be worth the while of any publisher to bring them out in a popular form.
But to return to his actual history; his wants drove him now to a singular trade for a poet. He tried to hawk his own books about the country; but this too was a failure, and he gave it up in despair.
With fierce ardour he began again to labour on his little farm. Sometimes he would work on fifteen or sixteen hours a day, but it was in vain. His frantic efforts to keep the wolf from the door only made it come the sooner. He was confined to his bed for a month. Poverty, gaunt and hungry, came upon him. His children wanted bread.
When he came out of his sick-room, his creditors began dunning him, especially his landlord, who threatened to turn him out of his house.
His love for the old place was something touching—something impossible to conceive of by those who have ample means, and are accustomed to the pleasures and benefits of constant change. And so, when they talked about turning him out, it almost drove him beside himself. In his dismay, he ran like a child to his friend, the butler at Melton Park. It so happened that while he was relating his troubles Earl Fitzwilliam appeared on the scene, and Clare in his excitement poured them all out to him. The Earl listened with much sympathy; and, anxious to relieve his anxiety, told him that he would find a cottage and a small piece of land for him. Lord Fitzwilliam was better than his word, for not only did he have a cottage built expressly for Clare, but he took pains to have it erected in the most charming spot in his domain. Half-hidden in mossy orchard- trees and surrounded by a luxuriant and fragrant garden, a cottage in Northborough would appear just the home for a Rural Poet. But Clare was something more than a mere reflector of external nature. He would have been as great a poet, and perhaps a greater, had he been born amongst bricks and mortar. Deep, intense human affection lay at the basis of his being, and almost overpowered every other faculty. From earliest infancy it had gone out to all things animate and inanimate about him, and so entwined itself about them as to make them part of its own being. Sordid and ugly they might be to others, but to him they were all aglow with the radiance of his own love.
"O native endearments! I would not forsake ye,
I would not forsake ye for sweetest of scenes:
For sweetest of gardens that Nature could make me,
I would not forsake ye, dear valleys and greens.
Swamps of wild rush-beds and sloughs' squashy traces,
Grounds of rough fallows with thistle and weed,
Flats and low valleys of kingcups and daisies,
Sweetest of subjects are ye for my reed:
Ye commons, left free in the rude rays of Nature,
Ye brown heaths, beclothed in furze as ye be.
My wild eye in rapture adores every feature.
Ye are dear as this heart in my bosom to me."
When the time therefore came for him to go, the wrench was more than he could bear. He dallied and delayed until his wife could bear it no longer, and at last, by the advice of some of his best friends, she determined to make the move without his consent. When he saw the goods actually being carried out of the house, he rose up and followed them as a man might the corpse of one he had loved. It was a bitter trial to him, and he solaced himself in his own way by pouring out his heart in the verses—
"I've left my own old Home of Homes,
Green fields, and every pleasant place;"
concluding with the lines so conscious of daily increasing sadness, so hopeless of the present and the future—
"I dwell on trifles, like a child—
I feel as ill becomes a man;
And yet my thoughts, like weedlings wild.
Grow up and blossom where they can:
They turn to places known so long,
And feel that joys were dwelling there;
So home-fed pleasure fills my song
That hath no present joy to share."
And now, though he had a house to live in, concerning the rent of which he need be under no anxiety, and a pension of £45 a year, yet with a wife and children, and laden with debt, he could not keep his head above water. Poverty came on like an armed man, and what rendered it worse to bear than before was that the friends who had surrounded him from a child could not know. So he sank deeper and deeper into distress of mind and body. One day in the winter following he went out, having left his children almost starving. The time passed on, and he did not return. His little girl was sent to look for him. She found him lying insensible by the river-side. They dragged him home, got him to bed, and there he lay a poor invalid until the spring-time came again. Then he sat up once more in his chair and looked at his books. His wife would have him go out. She had known of old—
"How forth into the fields he went,
And nature's living motion lent
The pulse of life to discontent."
But Nature-medicine would do no longer; he was conscious of it, and refused to go. It was not merely physical disease, it was not entirely mental; it was something deeper still,—his spirit was wounded. He had tasted the bitter cup the world had to give, and he found it wormwood and gall. The beautiful unknown land had appeared so near. It was but "a moment's mockery." Every new effort he had made, every new pleasure he had tasted, only proved that the "distance" was more "hopeless" than ever, and that the land of earthly satisfaction was an illusion; that though it might seem to rise for an hour on the horizon, it would only be to
"Flash on despair the joy it could not reach."
So he sank down as he did when a child, footsore and heartsore, longing for a father's hand to help him home again. But no labourer in a neighbouring field came to him now. No one even offered him the driest crust of Divine truth, whereon he might stay his soul till he reached the Father's home again.
Conscious that Nature-worship could afford him no relief, he turned instinctively to where he believed God was to be found. He took down the Bible; he began to read in a blind sort of way the theological books he possessed. But though he read, he could not understand. He was like the eunuch, who, reading the most pregnant chapter in the Old Testament, answered the question, "Understandest thou what thou readest?" with the humble reply, "How can I, unless some one teach me?" But there was none to teach Clare, and so he lost himself in admiration of the poetry of the Bible. He was so captivated with the golden tints, the brilliant hues, the aerial perspective, that he forgot these were but the glorious and transitory garments of eternal truths which he had yet to find. As was natural to every troubled man coming to the Bible for consolation, he fastened on the Psalms and the Book of Job. When the doctor came to see him he could talk of nothing but the Bible. He told him that he meant to write a volume of religious poetry, simple explanations of the truths of the Bible.
The doctor was pleased, and told Clare that he would leave no stone unturned to get him subscribers. This he did, but to his surprise, whenever he came with news of what he was doing, Clare seemed utterly indifferent, and could only talk about the Bible. On one occasion he cried out, "Is not this Book of Job a wonderful poem? Let me read you my paraphrase of it." In a tremulous voice he read until he came to the last lines, and then burst into tears. The kind doctor was alarmed. It looked as if there was something more than bodily weakness. But after the fit was over he conversed rationally enough. There was a rift in the clouds for the last time.
Alas, poor Clare! He was straining his eyes once more into the beautiful unknown. Doubtless he was feeling after God, if haply he might find Him. He had loved to call on all Nature to join with him in praising its glorious Creator. There are few religious lyrics, indeed, in the English language finer than his "Song of Praise," and "Nature's Hymn to Deity;" but it does not appear from his works or his life that he had up to this time ever felt his need of God as a Saviour. Now, he was eagerly stretching out his hands; there was something in the Bible—something deeper, more glorious than ever he had thought of before. It was the true light glimmering on the far-off horizon, but the clouds were fast coming. A long night of darkness was about to settle on his soul.
For months his wife watched and waited, hiding the dread secret as long as she could. But a sudden visit of Clare to the vicar of Helpstone revealed the extent of the calamity. He burst out in a manner which left no doubt of his insanity. Medical advice was at once taken, and he was removed to an asylum in Epping Forest.
By outdoor employment and exercise they sought to restore the tone of his mind. He was allowed to roam about the Forest at will, but strictly forbidden to write poetry. But even this restriction was relaxed, and now and then he presented the doctor with a composition.
These bits were more touchingly beautiful than ever, but they betrayed the fact that even now, when chaos reigned in his mind, his soul was again straining after a beautiful vision; that, even in his deep despondency, the horizon was flashing with another illusive joy.
Long before he was sent away to Epping Fore,st he had fancied that he had again seen his "Mary"—that Mary whose fair form seated on a stile, weaving a garland, struck the first note of love in his heart. The apparition had awakened the old fount of feeling, and Clare sang in touching accents—
"First love will with the heart remain
When all its hopes are by,
As frail rose-blossoms still retain
Their fragrance when they die.
And joy's first dreams will haunt the wind
With shades from whence they sprung,
As summer leaves the stems behind,
On which spring blossoms hung."
And now though that sweet form lay silent in the grave, and Clare himself was sinking into a darkness more terrible—a real imprisonment of mind and soul—it was his unhappy fate to believe that the joy which, in his youth, had appeared at so hopeless a distance, was now about to be realized, and that Mary was his wife, only waiting for him to come home again.
How truly do the lines just quoted describe his woeful experience! As the real world passed away from his vision, the hallucination took more and more hold of him. In a volume recently published, "Life and Remains of John Clare," by Mr J. L. Cherry, a number of poems are given which were written during the long period of mental illusion into which Clare now fell. Out of seventy-three pieces, forty-nine are love poems. One is "To my Wife,—a Valentine," but the greater part of the remainder are evidently inspired by the memory of the lost one. Sometimes she is addressed by name, sometimes she is disguised under other names, sometimes she has other surnames, Mary Batiman, Mary Littlechild, Mary Appleby, Mary Dove. Even Nature must talk to him of his beloved.
"The cowslips blooming everywhere
My heart's own thought would steal:
I nip't them that they should not hear:
They smiled, and would reveal;
And o'er each meadow, right or wrong,
They sing the name I've worshipped long.
The brook that mirrored clear the sky—
Full well I know the spot;
The mouse-ear looked with bright blue eye,
And said "Forget-me-not."
And from the brook I turned away,
But heard it many an after day.
The king-cup on its slender stalk,
Within the pasture dell,
Would picture there a pleasant walk
With one I loved so well.
It said, "How sweet at eventide
'Twould be, with true love at thy side."
And on the pasture's woody knoll
I saw the wild blue-bell.
On Sundays, where I used to stroll
With her I loved so well:
She culled the flowers the year before;
These bowed, and told the story o'er."
He was ever in imagination seeking his lost one, and ever hoping to regain her.
So now, while he appeared to be getting better, he was dreaming how he could effect his escape, and find his Mary. After several unsuccessful attempts, he managed to get away, and the story of his adventures written by himself has an interest quite unique.
In an old wide-awake, which he had found amongst the remains of a gipsy encampment, Clare stole off. By a sort of intuition he managed to get into the great York road, reaching Stevenage in Hertfordshire the first night. There he slept in an old shed on some clover, taking care to lie with his head to the north, that he might know in what direction to steer in the morning.
With a grateful thanksgiving for his night's rest, he set out on his journey fasting, for he had not a penny in his pocket. Happily, a countryman whom he met on horseback threw him a penny, with which he got half a pint of beer, a rest, and shelter from a heavy shower. Onward he marched, through villages and towns, until, as the morning waned, he sat down for half an hour, and, as he quaintly observes, "made a good many wishes for breakfast."
When, late in the evening, he reached Potton in Bedfordshire, he inquired for the house of the clergyman and the overseer. But he could not find them, and being nearly worn out, one of his feet having become so crippled that he could only just hobble along, he asked a labourer where he could find a shed and some dry straw on the road. The man told him of a farm a little farther on, belonging to a public-house called "The Ram." However, he felt too much fatigued to go on, and lay down under some elms by the roadside. But the wind was so fierce that he had to get up again, quaking as one who had the ague. So he essayed to reach The Ram," but the night was getting dark. Still he hobbled on as fast as he could, contrasting his own misery with the comfort inside the houses by the road-side as they lit up one after another. When he got to "The Ram," it was still open, and he did not like to lie in the outhouse, as there were people about. So he travelled on through a lonely road overshadowed by trees. At last he came to a spot where the road branched into two highways, and turning back to read a milestone, utterly forgot which was north and south. His doubts and hopelessness made him so feeble he could scarcely walk; however, coming to a turnpike gate, he found on inquiry he was right, and so went on with courage. At last he found a solitary house near a wood, and he lay in the porch all night.
Next day he pursued his journey, but in such a dazed state from hunger and fatigue, that he was simply a walking automaton, seeing, hearing, scarcely feeling anything. However, when he lay down in a dyke at night and fell asleep, the cold water woke him up and compelled him to go on. He went through a long dark avenue of trees, a town with lights in the chamber windows; suddenly a light coach heavily laden came rattling by, splashing the mud in his face. But he walked on as one half asleep.
Morning came, and his hunger was now so intense that he satisfied its craving by eating the grass as he went along! At length he became footsore, and dropping down as he entered Stilton, he fell asleep on the pavement in that partial manner usual with overstrained nature, and heard the people talking about him. "Poor creature!" said one. "Oh, he's shamming," said another. So he dragged himself up and hobbled on towards Peterborough.
Just before he reached that town, a cartful of Helpstone people passed him, and recognising him, threw him some halfpence. So he got a meal and was refreshed. On through Peterborough he went, until he got some distance out of the town, when a cart appeared on the road. It was his poor faithful Patty, his true wife! She had heard from the Helpstone people of her husband's miserable plight, had divined the truth, and without delay had set off to meet him. With much coaxing, and an admission that she was his second wife, he was induced to allow himself to be put into the cart and driven to Northborough.
Perchance he might have recovered had affluence been his lot, and he could have been left quiet in the bosom of his family. But it was thought advisable to remove him to Northampton County Asylum, where he passed the long dark evening of his life—twenty-two years in a madhouse!
"When all the hopes that charmed him once were o'er,
To warm his soul in ecstasy no more,
By disappointments proved a foolish cheat,
Each ending bitter and beginning sweet;"
when the last dim light of these illusive horizons had vanished and sunk into night, with that wondrous instinct which had been deceived so oft, yet never could be destroyed, Clare's heart turned again towards the hopes of an unknown blessed land of rest and peace, and from his prison he uttered the cry—
"I long for the scenes where man has never trod,
For scenes where woman never smiled or wept:
There to abide with my Creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept,
Full of high thoughts, unborn. So let me lie—
The grass below; above the vaulted sky."
This was his dying note; he wrote no more. The spring of 1864 came and found the much-tried poet sinking quietly to rest. On the 20th of May he gently passed away : his last words, "I want to go home,"—the cry of the wearied, wandering child, who longs for the safety and repose of its father's arms.
One or two pious hearts in Northampton, who knew how he had loved his native scenes, came forward to save his remains from a pauper's grave. They remembered that he had said—
"O let one wish, go where I will, be mine—
To turn me back and wander home to die,
'Mong nearest friends my latest breath resign,
And in the churchyard with my kindred lie."
A letter was despatched to acquaint his wife with his decease, and that his body would be brought to Helpstone to be buried on the 24th. But the letter was opened by another Mrs John Clare at Helpstone, so that the widowed woman at Northborough remained in ignorance of what had happened.
Tragic, then, was the last return of John Clare to the dear native spot to which he had hoped to come back to die.
The coffin arrived with its precious remains, but there were none to meet it; not a soul, led by Christian, or even by relative or literary ties, to perform the last obsequies of an English poet. The bearers took it to the churchyard, and called upon the sexton to dig a grave. He was away from home that afternoon, so with some reluctance they carried the corpse into the tap-room of "The Hexter's Arms," and laid it on the table.
On the evening of the next day, when the body was committed to the ground, his old cottage was sold, but it did not disturb John Clare now. He was gathered to his fathers, and had reached "the Home of Homes."
Thus did his
"Weary spirit sail away,
That long, long-looked-for 'better place' to gain."
John Clare is the poet of English peasant life. He, if any one can, may claim to be a representative man. Bloomfield has not depicted that life with more sympathy, nor Crabbe with a truer touch. Crabbe looked down upon it from above; Clare lived it, felt its joys, and endured all its woes.
I have tried to give some idea of the sordid suffering of his childhood and youth, but only those who have read his works can know how the iron entered into his soul. He was one with his brethren in that bitter, long-fought fight with grim Poverty; one with them in his content and discontent; contented to do as his fathers did, yet discontented, profoundly discontented with his lot.
With a love for his native scenes, capable of being developed into the intensest patriotism, with a love of old customs and old institutions—in fact, a Conservative by nature—he is driven to cry—
"O England! boasted land of liberty,
With strangers still thou may'st the title own,
But thy poor slaves the alteration see,
With many a loss to them the truth is known.
And every village owns its tyrants now,
And parish slaves must live as parish kings allow."
With the intensest love of home, with a capacity for the fullest, deepest human affection, he is driven at last by utter stress of woe to feel completely weaned from it, and to cry, as many an aged labourer, the inmate of a Union so distant that he is forgotten by kith and kin, might do, that
"Even those he loved best
Are strange—nay, they are stranger than the rest."
And then his errors : are they not just those of the labouring man? And so too the deep yet melancholy piety which marks him all through life—so in harmony with what one reads everywhere in our village churchyards.
Life is a misery—an ignis fatuus,—death a freedom from misery—something that will heal every wound, and enable him to lay his aching head to rest. He is resigned; "God's will be done," he says.
Doomed many evils should encompass thee."
He speaks of God as "the Omnipotent," thinking doubtless of Him as the poor labourer does in His awful character as "the Almighty." His simple theology is this:—God has mysteriously doomed us to pain and want here; if we bear it patiently and well now, we shall be rewarded hereafter. Thus, speaking of the dead who lie in the churchyard, he says—
"The bill's made out, the reck'ning paid.
The book is crossed, the business done;
On them the last demand is made,
And heaven's eternal peace is won."
Who will deny that there is some truth in this view with our Lord's words before him? "But Abraham said. Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things ; but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented." But at best it is a view which can only help men to endure; it is utterly powerless to raise them from sin, from suffering, and woe.
Oh! when will the true light shine upon our poor pagani? when will they learn that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is not a stern Fate, who dooms thousands of His creatures to want and misery? How could they, if they were truly taught His character from the Bible, and learnt there what pains the God of Moses took to prevent any of His people coming to utter poverty?
Only let the true gospel be preached, the good news that God himself is the Saviour, the Redeemer of man, and this melancholy religion which teaches men calmly to resign their children to want and dirt—in reality to disease and death—will pass away as a dark oppressive cloud from the minds and souls of our agricultural poor, and enable them to be, as they ought from their occupation to be, the most joyous, most independent inhabitants of our land.