John Clare

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[F]ields were the essence of the song1

John Clare, the self-styled 'Northamptonshire Peasant Poet', was a poet of the 'fields' in more ways than one: he himself laboured in the fields; he wrote of the life of field hands; he was a superb field naturalist; he lived through and lamented the loss of the old sustainable open-field system of agriculture; he celebrated the ecology of fields, considered not only as sites of agricultural production but as habitats (homes) of mutually dependent plants and animals; and he was, like Wordsworth, but in a much more explicitly ecological way, a great poet of what may be called phenomenological ecology: the study of fields of experience. That is, rather than the study of resources (plants, animals, and minerals considered with respect to their use value) distributed throughout 'space', phenomenological ecology is the study of 'lived' relationships (i.e. experience) considered with respect to a specific 'place'.

The classical definition of ecology is the study of the relationships between living things and their environments. In his poem 'Shadows of Taste', written before the science of ecology was codified and even before the word 'ecology' was coined, Clare provides us with a rhymed couplet that anticipates this definition while giving it a wider experiential dimension. Clare writes: 'Associations sweet each object breeds/And fine ideas upon fancy feeds'. This is to say that the ecological web of life (the 'associations' or 'relationships' bred between things or objects) cannot be separated from the phenomenological web of being (the perceptual and conceptual feeding of 'fine ideas' upon 'fancy', a 'fancy' that itself feeds upon the associations bred by natural objects in a food chain or web of signification). For Clare, all objects of all thought, then, are (re)charged with a significance beyond that of mere use; all objects have being; the objective is itself subjective. As Clare also writes in the same poem, 'Flowers in the wisdom of creative choice/Seem blest with feeling and a silent voice'. Such natural objects are subjects because they have 'feeling' and 'voice'. As subjective ecological objects, 'birds and flowers and insects' '[a]ll choose for joy in a peculiar way': in their ability to 'choose', they also have agency. Furthermore, biological subject-objects, unlike the passive regularities of objects in Newtonian physics, are 'peculiar'; that is, they are individuals.

In contradistinction to Albert Einstein's search for a 'universal field theory' of the space-time continuum, John Clare's 'ecological field theory' of the place-time continuum and its great web of being was local or situated (rather than universal) and embodied (rather than abstract)—peculiar rather than regular. Though merely thought parochial in Clare's time, such a 'situated' and 'embodied' perspective now plays a key role in the work of important contemporary historians and philosophers of science such as Donna Haraway, who seeks to replace 'relativism' (again an echo of Einstein) with 'location', substituting 'local knowledges' for 'world system' and 'webbed accounts' for 'master theory'.2

Clare's poems (and the 'webbed accounts' and 'local knowledges' they embody) represent an explicit response to the following questions drawn from phenomenology (the 'ecology' of experience). We can perceive individual blades of grass, but can we perceive (with just our senses) a field, if by 'field' we mean not a congeries of things but a series of relationships, a living community involved in a mutually sustainable process of self-regulation? The answer is 'no': 'relationship' is not a sensory phenomenon. However, through the mediation of culture, ecological communities (such as a field) may be experienced (if not directly sensed). Not all cultures, though, provide a mode of sustainable (or ecological) experience. Therefore, what would the songs and stories of such a sustainable culture be like? What visual images are more sustainable than others? How would songs, stories, and imagery function to provide the feedback necessary to any self-regulatory, sustainable community, constituted by both the human and the non-human? Such are the situated (local) or embodied (ecological) questions that readers today may profitably ask of Clare's poetry and prose.

Like the socio-economic status of the local places that Clare defends in his verse, Clare's place in the field of English literature has, until recently, been marginal. Today, however, Clare is considered the 'finest poet of Britain's minor naturalists and the finest naturalist of all Britain's major poets';3 the 'first true ecological writer in the English-speaking world'.4

Ecologist Paul Sears writes that ecology is a 'subversive subject'.5 Natural history, for Clare, could be subversive not only because it could serve to describe healthy natural communities that would themselves serve as benchmarks against which to measure environmental devastation; natural history could also help reveal the inseparability of environmental and human concerns. As James McKusick writes: 'Clare is virtually unprecedented in the extent of his insight into the complex relation between ecological devastation and social injustice'.6 Indeed, consider the following two lines from the poem 'Remembrances', lines that illustrate how Clare's 'ecological' argument ('ecological' because it sees interdependence between premises and terms that an earlier logic overlooked) subverts conventional distinctions by suggesting relationships among categories that in the nineteenth century would have been thought to belong to separate spheres, viz., natural history

(ecology), religion, agricultural policy, and continental history and imperialism. Clare laments the devastation of a place he had known and loved, 'old round oaks narrow lane':

...its hollow trees like pulpits I shall never see again

Inclosure like a buonaparte let not a thing remain.

Clare's 'hollow trees', also called den trees today, serve as homes for several species of living things. Foresters today use the number of hollow trees per acre to indicate the status of a woodland's health. Such trees are therefore also called ecological indicators. Anticipating such an indexical function for hollow trees, John Clare, in simultaneously ecological and religious terms, compares 'hollow trees' to 'pulpits', implying that such trees are sites that proclaim (or give indication of, as would a preacher from a pulpit) the status of both our spiritual and ecological health. But, Clare tells us, such trees are threatened by the politics of parliamentary enclosure, a socio-economic process of privatizing (enclosing or fencing off) the old open-fields and of industrializing the means of agricultural production. Significantly, Clare likens his local experience of parliamentary enclosure to the imperial politics of Napoleon Bonaparte. Indeed, Clare is one of the first to recognize the interdependent relationship between colonial or imperial politics (symbolized by Napoleon) and colonial or imperial biologies (symbolized by parliamentary enclosure's effect on the 'hollow trees' of Clare's 'round oaks narrow lane'). Clare also recognizes here the interdependence between local and global (or at least continental) processes. Napoleon's destruction of life on a continental scale in Europe is related to the destruction on a local scale (in and around Clare's home village of Helpstone) of both ecological habitats and local social habits (the customs in common—'common' understood as a relationship and a place, the commons or open-fields). Plants and animals are reduced by biological imperialism to mere commodities and elevated (as in Kew Gardens or the Jardin du Roi) to signs of national identity.

Tim Fulford points out that Clare's poem 'The Fallen Elm' is unique in how it 'develops a discourse of political protest from a personal response to a local landscape'.7 Even though Clare is in many ways not part of the English Romantic literary tradition to which he belongs by date of birth, in his use here and elsewhere of personal experience (the foundation of being and knowing for English Romantics) as a basis for political protest we find the origins of a Romantic style of ecological politics. For example, Clare takes the Romantic notion of the supremacy of the 'individual' (a notion criticized by some for having emerged with and being necessary to those less desirable aspects of capitalism) and uses it to make readers aware that biotic communities are individuals too. In a poem such as 'The Lament of Swordy Well', Clare has 'Swordy Well' (a once complex biotic community that has had its ecological capital nearly spent) speak for itself as an individual. In giving a voice and a face to 'Swordy Well', Clare succeeds at least aesthetically in claiming for biotic communities the moral standing that in Clare's (and even in our own) time has only been thought due to individual human beings. As James McKusick writes, 'Clare is certainly among the first to suggest that the earth itself should have the legal right to redress of environmental grievance.'8 Not until some 150 years later, in 1972, does a law professor, Christopher D.Stone, begin to chart the legal path towards rights for natural objects.9

Clare also establishes 'poverty' as an environmental category or condition—not just an economic one: Robert Pogue Harrison writes that the last stanza of 'The Lament of Swordy Well' provides 'an ominous ending, for it gives the condition of poverty a broad, almost universal extension to nature as a whole'; poverty for Clare meant 'the state of defenselessness against the forces of assault and expropriation. It did not mean destitution, at least not intrinsically.'10 Clare, therefore, makes the vulnerability of nature natural, a real possibility (in a time when extinction, for example, was still a categorical impossibility within the stability of the Natural Theological world-view). He also anticipates the philosophical basis for what today is called the voluntary simplicity movement, poverty not as destitution but as a sustainable personal alliance with the land.

John Clare was born in the village of Helpstone, which in 1793 was in Northamptonshire, England. He was largely self-educated and, until his declining physical and mental health no longer permitted it, worked for some twenty-five years as a ploughboy, a gardener, an inn keeper's helper, and a lime-burner. He also served as a reservist in the local militia. 'When he was thirteen', writes R.K.R. Thornton, '[Clare] was set on his path to be a poet by discovering Thomson's Seasons, which inspired him to write down his first poem.' 'His poems accumulated and, through contact with a local bookseller, he succeeded in having a book of poems published by Keats' publisher, John Taylor.'11 This first book ran to four editions, receiving, as one critic writes, 'considerable though condescending acclaim'. However, his last three books did poorly. Indeed,

Clare was doubly damned from the beginning—damned because he was associated with one locality at a time when the railways were breaking down regional boundaries and regional consciousness; and damned because he was a peasant at a time when the national imagination was being captured by the immensity of industrialism...Clare was not only loyal to the countryside, he was part of it.12

Today, in academic culture, we are constantly made aware of the force of Clare's 'sin' of being a 'part of (rather than disinterestedly 'apart from') some one place. A mere regional poet is of relatively little value compared to a poet of universal appeal (but of no place). To present a paper at a regional (or, heaven forbid, a local) conference has little value for academic advancement. Indeed, in academic culture's aversion to the local we find the enshrinement (even in the 'incorrigible gap' between culture and nature posited by postmodernism) of the earlier class-based condescension that kept the 'rustic' Clare 'in his place' (and out of place in high culture)— while, ironically, enclosure and scientific agriculture served to remove that place from him. To read Clare well today, then, is to seek to reclaim an aesthetic and an ethic that reconciles the local and the global as well as culture and nature.

Clare's father was a thresher, whose reading was little but whose knowledge of the vanishing oral folk traditions of song (and work), of story (and field), was great. His mother, the daughter of the town shepherd of Castor, was another source of that oral folk tradition that had been an integral part of the long-sustained common- or open-field agricultural systems of medieval England. Clare writes, 'I am now Rhyming some of my Mother's "old stories" as she calls 'em they are Local Legends Perhaps only known in these Places'.13 Here, significantly, in a language that is simultaneously ecological, literary, and historical, Clare speaks of the (ecological) habitats of 'Local Legends', of stories as inseparable from 'Places' as species are from their environments. Indeed, in the loss Clare was to experience of the cultural diversity of his own folk tradition is perhaps the origin of the emotional depth of his original response to the loss of diversity in the biological tradition.

As George Deacon writes, Clare was the 'earliest collector of the songs people actually sang in Southern England'.14 Furthermore, Clare's own literary ballads show evidence of his desire not only to commemorate that oral tradition but to adapt it to what for Clare could only be an uncertain future community beyond his imagining. Another key question, therefore, that emerges from reading Clare today is this: If not for Clare in his time, is it possible for readers of Clare in our time to recover or to reinvent the lost ecological ethic and aesthetic once embodied in the folk song and ritual of Clare's rural Northamptonshire (agri)cultural tradition, a tradition that contemporary scientific 'narratives' such as Garrett Hardin's highly influential 'Tragedy of the Commons' erase or efface?15

Hardin argues that a 'commons', his metaphor for any ecosystem—a lake, estuary, grassland, or even ocean or atmosphere—subject to communal or unregulated use, is at risk of a tragic ecological collapse because of a virtual law of human behaviour. Consider a grassy commons used by several families of herders. Each herder will generally find it to his or her economic advantage, when the possibility arises, to add one cow to his or her herd—and thus to the commons. In the short term, the degradation of the commons will not be great, and the loss of profit that results from this general but moderate degradation—a degradation that itself resulted from the combined independent decisions of the herders— will be shared (and experienced therefore in 'diluted' form) by all. However, each individual herder who decided to add one cow will reap all of the economic gain from that cow. Of course, according to Hardin's model, in the middle or long term the ecological and economic viability of the commons will collapse. Here then is Hardin's insidious tragedy of the commons. Hardin's atomistic view, however, assumes the operation of self-interest only; it assumes that there are no community feedback mechanisms for assessing the condition of the commons and acting upon those assessments. For Hardin, the cows may feed but the herdsmen give no feedback. Clare's poems, however, are the voice (the ecological feedback mechanism) of the herdsmen—and of the other labourers whose voices parliamentary enclosure disrupted and Hardin never heard. In the poem 'The Wild Bull', Clare begins:

Upon the common in a motely plight

Horses & cows claim equal common right

Who in their freedom learn mischiveous ways

& driveth boys who thither nesting stray... 4

& school boys leave their path in vain to find

A nest—when quickly on the threatening wind

The noisey bull lets terror out of doors

To chase intruders from the cows lap [cowslip] moores.

Here, then, is a 'story' that makes the commons a place worth preserving. Clare describes the interdependent community of the commons as a self-regulating one—one that keeps 'intruders' from despoiling the nests of those birds whose habitat it is. Clare's strategy here, then, transforms the biological principle of self-regulation into the political one of self-sufficiency, which political principle is itself echoed by the 'claim' the 'horses and cows' make for 'equal common right' (line 2) and 'freedom' (line 3). The commons, then, is a place of freedom.

But here lies a terrible political irony, as we see in Clare's 'The Fallen Elm'. In this poem, Clare shows his sophistication as a writer of environmental polemic, when he writes about one of his favourite trees, felled as part of the new economics of enclosure. Speaking to the memory of the tree, Clare writes,

Self interest saw thee stand in freedom's ways

So thy old shadow must a tyrant be.

Here Clare shows his insight into the fact that all landscapes (even the trees in them) under enclosure's imperial gaze must themselves be made to seem tyrannical so as to justify their despoliation, ironically, in the name of free enterprise. But as Clare shows in 'The Wild Bull', the land is always already a free enterprise. As Robert Pogue Harrison writes: 'In an age that rallied around the cry of "freedom", that conceived of freedom as a liberation, short, as a freedom from—in such an age, then, Clare located freedom elsewhere: in what already existed in its own right'.16

John Clare is important to the history of environmental thinking in at least two additional ways. His natural history poems dramatize what the twentieth-century ecologist Eugene Odum describes as the 'values' of 'old growth' ecological communities, their tendency to optimize protection, stability, and quality over production, change, and quantity.17 For example, consider the following passage from Clare's 'The Robins Nest':

.each ancient tree

With lichens deckt—time's hoary pedigree

Becomes a monitor to teach and bless.

Where old neglect lives patron and befriends

Their [the birds'] homes with safetys wildness—where nought lends A hand to injure

We see in Clare's use of 'safetys wildness', 'ancient' and 'time's hoary pedigree' Odum's old growth values of 'protection' ('safetys wildness'), 'stability' ('ancient'), and 'quality' ('pedigree').

Clare's natural history poetry also dramatizes the operation of natural systems in what we might today call post-modern terms: these systems are ironic agents. For Clare, natural systems are sites of resistance to the closure of science or to any other form of institutionalized thought. In 'Shadows of Taste', Clare writes of the resistance to the taxonomic scientist on the part of insects, who 'e[v]en grow nameless mid their many names'. In 'May', from The Shepherd's Calendar, Clare writes about a ventriloqual bird of the grasslands, a rail, that resists a swain's (a country lad's) and a schoolboy's attempts to locate it even in the most regular terrain:

.in the grass the rails odd call That featherd spirit stops the swain To listen to his note again & school boy still in vain retraces The secrets of his hiding places

The ventriloqual voice of the rail is a deferral or displacement of its identity, one that puts a stop to the boys' search for the rail's nest—the origin or centre of its environment. Similarly, contemporary virus hunters have most often been foiled in their search for the origin of newly emergent viruses, and, parallel to Clare's rail's deceptive strategy, some viruses, in another act of deferral, present themselves, in Trojan-horse fashion, to our immune systems as something other than harmful agents. (Indeed, many literary themes, including Homer's Trojan horse, have always already been biological.) Clare, then, anticipates at the ecosystem level what pathologists have only relatively recently discovered: the ironic agency of the non-human biological world.


1 Clare, 'The Progress of Rhyme', in Eric Robinson, David Powell and P.M.S.Dawson (eds), Poems of the Middle Period 1822-1837, vol. III, line 144.

2 Donna Haraway, 'Situated Knowledges', Simians, Cyborgs, and Women, New York: Routledge, p. 194, 1991.

3 James Fisher, quoted in Margaret Grainger (ed.), 'Introduction', The Natural History Prose Writings of John Clare.

4 James McKusick, '"A language that is ever green": The Ecological Vision of John Clare', University of Toronto Quarterly, 61, 2 (Winter), pp. 226-49, p. 233, 1991.

5 Paul Sears, quoted in Donald Worster, Nature's Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas, 2nd edn, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p.23, 1994.

7 Tim Fulford, 'Cowper, Wordsworth, Clare: The Politics of Trees', John Clare Society Journal, 14 (July), p. 47, 1995. A special 'Clare and Ecology' issue.

9 Should Trees Have Standing: Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects, special rev. edn, New York: Avon Books, 1975.

10 Robert Pogue Harrison, Forests: The Shadow of Civilization, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, pp. 216, 213, 1992. Contains half a chapter on Clare and nature.

11 R.K.R.Thornton (ed.), 'Note on the Author and Editor', John Clare, Everyman's Poetry, London: J.M.Dent, p. v, 1997.

12 Eric Robinson and Geoffrey Summerfield (eds), 'Introduction', Selected Poems and Prose of John Clare, Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. xiv, 1978.

13 Eric Robinson, David Powell and P.M.S.Dawson, 'Introduction', Cottage Tales, by John Clare, Manchester: The Mid Northumberland Arts Group, Carcanet Press, p. xii, 1993.

14 John Clare and the Folk Tradition, London: Sinclair Browne, p. 18, 1983.

17 'The Strategy of Ecosystem Development', Science, 164, pp. 262-70, p. 265, 1969.

See also in this book


Clare's major writings

Clare published, in his lifetime, Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery (1820), The Village Minstrel, and Other Poems (1821), The Shepherd's Calendar, with Village Stories and Other Poems (1827) and The Rural Muse (1835). Eight of the projected nine volumes of The Complete Poems of John Clare are now published.

The Early Poems of John Clare 1804-1822, ed. Eric Robinson, David Powell and

Margaret Grainger, 2 vols, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989. John Clare: Poems of the Middle Period 1822-1837, ed. Eric Robinson, David Powell and P.M.S.Dawson, 4 vols, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996, 1998.

The Later Poems of John Clare 1837-1864, ed. Eric Robinson, David Powell and Margaret Grainger, 2 vols, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984.

Also of central interest to Clare's environmental thinking is:

The Natural History Prose Writings of John Clare, ed. Margaret Grainger, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983.

A readily available paperback selection of Clare's poetry is John Clare, ed.

R.K.R.Thornton, London: J.M.Dent, 1997, as part of their Everyman's Poetry series.

Further reading

Barrell, John, The Idea of Landscape and the Sense of Place: An Approach to the Poetry of John Clare, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972.

Coletta, W.John, 'Ecological Aesthetics and the Natural History Poetry of John Clare', John Clare Society Journal, 14 (July), pp. 29-46, 1995. A special issue subtitled 'Clare and Ecology'.

-'"Writing Larks": John Clare's Semiosis of Nature', The Wordsworth Circle

(TWC), XXVIII (3), pp. 192-200, 1997. A special issue subtitled 'Romanticism and Ecology'.

-'Literary Biosemiotics and the Postmodern Ecology of John Clare', Semiotica,

Helsinger, Elizabeth, 'Clare and the Place of the Peasant Poet', Critical Inquiry, 13, pp. 509-31, 1987.

McKusick, James C., 'John Clare's Version of Pastoral', The Wordsworth Circle, XXX (2) (Spring), pp. 80-4, 1999.

Studies in Romanticism, 35 (3) (Fall), 1996. Special issue on Romanticism and Ecology.

Williams, Raymond, The Country and the City, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975.


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