Today is the 75th anniversary of VE Day.
A very different kind of day is being celebrated from the one that was planned…
This post may seem unconnected… but please be patient….!
…. I discovered John Clare’s poetry a few years ago at a music festival in Wales.
Known in the 18th century rather dismissively as the ‘peasant poet’ it makes his achievement as a contemporary of Keats during the romantic era all the more remarkable.
He had little schooling and his family were farm labourers. He taught himself to write poetry, after being given a book of poems and being captivated by them.
Although poor, his early work is full of happiness, love, a sense of community and of his exploits in the pastureland near his home.
He was catapulted into the London Bourgeoisie as a result of his poetry. Something he found pretty hard.
What I love about Clare’s poetry is its simplicity, its accessibility and the very obvious love Clare has for nature. He not only feels nature, he lives and breathes it. It’s part of his soul.
I have become rather fascinated by his life after some research and even more so that after his ‘discovery’ he endured poor mental health and ended up in what was known as a ‘lunatic asylum.’
His later work reflects his growing sense of sadness and despair.
What may have led up to his bouts of what appears to be mania and psychosis, is partly a struggle to continue getting his work published, feeling disconnected from his peers, and thirdly, the Enclosures Act, which ripped the common land away from the people, rerouted streams, saw hedges and trees felled and generally changed the lives and landscape forever, for so many people who had so little to begin with.
An act of tyranny, he describes it. One of his most moving poems recounts the felling of the community’s favourite elm tree, which had survived so much and for so long – and was almost venerated by people for special occasions and celebrations. The Enclosures Act saw it felled.
Clare’s deep sensitivity enabled him to write about the nature he loved fluently, bringing to life for the reader a time of a great abundance in trees, insects, birds and flowers, that we can only imagine.
I have thought of him during my daily ambles throughout the countryside around Ottery and how the landscape here must have appeared, and smelled during the 18th century.
Lockdown for me has offered a deep optimism that we can bring back much of the nature we have lost. As a gift to future generations.
I hope that one day we will see again, the abundance in nature – almost magical as it would seem today – similar to the sights and sounds John Clare witnessed.
And back to the VE Day celebrations …. if every single person in this country. Indeed the world… especially politicians … took the time to walk slowly, carefully, peacefully and mindfully in the countryside regularly, I truly believe that every single decision would be more likely for the greater good of the people and nature, than with any other motivating factor.
I am not sure whether I have ever heard a nightingale, nor am I sure I have ever seen one…
Here’s one of my favourite John Clare poems…
The Nightingale’s Nest
Up this green woodland-ride let’s softly rove,
And list the nightingale – she dwells just 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, at 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 blue-bell 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 thorn
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 those crimping fern-leaves ramp among
The hazel’s under boughs, 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 stopt. 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 while of half the year Care him bereaves,
To damp the ardour of his speckled breast ;
The nightingale 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 black-thorn clump, if rightly guest,
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 to day,
And hunt this fern-strewn thorn-clump round and round ;
And where this reeded wood-grass 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 white-thorn stump ! 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
Seem bowing with the beautiful in song ;
And gaping cuckoo-flower, with spotted leaves,
Seems blushing of the singing it has heard.
How curious is the nest ; no other bird
Uses such loose materials, or weaves
Its dwelling in such spots : dead oaken leaves
Are placed without, and velvet moss within,
And little scraps of grass, and, scant and spare,
What scarcely seem materials, down and hair ;
For from men’s haunts she nothing seems to win.
Yet Nature is the builder, and contrives
Homes for her children’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 a hermit’s mossy cell.
Snug lie her curious eggs in number five,
Of deadened green, or rather olive brown ;
And the old prickly thorn-bush guards them well.
So here we’ll leave them, still unknown to wrong,
As the old woodland’s legacy of song.