Memory Maps: 'A Writer's Day-Book' by Ronald Blythe
The Poet and the Nest
We can do some writers no greater injustice than to read them primarily for the information of their times. John Clare is constantly in danger of such readings. But those inventories of his were made for his own peace of mind, not our education, although the bird lists, reminders for him, remind us, quite unbearably, of the wonderful 'Natural History of Helpstone' that never was. When we read his inventories we see a totting-up of what he refused to believe he had lost- and we see everything which, as twenty-first century country people, we once possessed. For a great many of us are in direct descent from John Clare's landworkers. He leaves little out. He was making his lists at the very moment in agricultural history when there were for the first time more people in the factories than on the farms. He would not have known this. For Clare field toil would have gone on and on until kingdom come. The huge changes he witnessed, the coming of the railway, enclosure, some mechanisation on the surrounding estates, he treated as unwanted disturbances to the old hard way of life which had for him a spiritual quality of such importance that to alter it was a blasphemy. He was for ever counting what it consisted of right down to the honeydew on the sycamores, to a boy's song, to Mrs Nottingham of the Exeter Arms' description of fifteen will-o-the-wisps dancing reels on Eastwell Moor. Nothing was left out, from the footsteps of girls to the shouts of shepherds, from the insect on the stalk to the sound of those same bells which we hear today.
Helpston was no Eden- Clare was never clearer than on this point- but it was his. Illness and the powers that be took it from him, or would have done so had he not found a way to take it with him. What is the most repeated, most closely observed, most loved centre of his `belonging' in his poetry and prose? It is the nest, its secrecy, its intimacy. What in the object of men's ritual discovery and theft? It is the nest. What brought John Clare into stillness and contemplation, into a silence in which he could hear his heart beating? It was the nest with its sitting bird. His finding and, watching nests took him through folklore, botany and ornithology into a profound self-discovery. Hence that superb list of nest poems which, whilst giving us such unique observations of nature, give us something extra, the poet in all his strength and song and vulnerability. 'The Fern Owls Nest', 'The Ravens Nest', 'The Moorhens Nest', 'The Pewits Nest', 'The Robins Nest' and, finest of all, 'The Nightingales' Nest', these nervous, furtive but complete observations are unique in literature. There is nothing like them.
Bird's-nesting was until quite recently a tolerated activity for country boys. Pity, courage- some nests were high- and competition drove it. It was kind to take a single egg whilst the mother bird bravely screamed a foot or two above. The egg was sucked or blown and placed with many others in a cotton-wool drawer, the rarer the better. Seamus Heaney writes of 'boy-deeds' and recalls a particularly daring boy-deed by Michael Collins, a man born to be king or president. As a boy he made a practice of coming down the chute with the hay whirling from a high loft to the ground in a cloud of dried flowers and grass. Later on, says Heaney, Collins was ambushed in the Pass of Flowers, shot down, having nothing to hold on to.
John Clare was in free-fall all his life. The various and many helping hands held out to save him proved useless. Eventually they caught him and put him in a cage. Here he went on singing, lyrically, sadly, satirically, nostalgically. None of those who shared his cage get a mention, only those who continued to live in the freedom of Helpston, many of whom were in the churchyard, or who he translated to his other native place, Scotland.
Clare's early boy-deeds had to double with child labour, the latter being the custom and the reality. At eight he was wielding a toy-sized flail in the stone barn alongside Parker, his father, though stopping now and then to draw algebraic signs in the killing dust. A pleasant thing happened when he was about ten. Francis Gregory, the young innkeeper next door, got him to run errands and to help plough and reap his eight acres or so of corn. Francis was unmarried and lived with his mother at the Blue Bell. They were both ill. Looking back, Clare said, 'They used me uncommon well as if I was their own'. Mother and son lie by the church tower, their helper by chancel wall. However, continued Clare, ''Tis irksome to a boy to be alone and he is ready in such situations to snatch hold of any trifle to divert his loss of company, and make up for pleasanter amusements'. Birds-nesting in the ordinary way would have topped these amusements, but Clare, in his autobiographical 'Sketches', confesses to a very different pastime. It was that there, in Francis Gregory's cornfield, he began his 'muttering', his softly speaking aloud of the rhymes which he would later write down in his bedroom, a tile shifted to let in light. He would memorise lines as he walked to and from Maxey Mill, lugging flour. Boys sang, they did not mutter, and eyes would have been upon him, this child talking to himself, a sure sign of something being wrong. Or different, which is not a good thing to be.
And all this before a Methodist friend loaned him that fragment of James Thomson's famous poem 'The Seasons'. The other day I found an ancient anthology entitled 'Poetry of the Year, 1867' and in it, only three years after Clare's death, were scattered among work by Crabbe, Bloomfield, Burns and others six poems by him. And what lines introduce this collection? None other than those which introduced Clare to poetry: Thomson's:
Come, gentle spring, etherial mildness, come,
And from the bosom of yon dropping cloud,
While music wakes around, veiled in a shower
Of shadowing roses, on our plains descend.
The editor would not have known this. Serendipity had him by the hand. The electric words for Clare would have been 'our plains'. Both Thomson and he were lowlanders, singers of the levels. Something else appeared to have left a memorable mark at this youthful moment, for Clare makes it an important point in the 'Sketches'. It concerned his arrangement with the kind Gregorys at the Blue Bell- it was 'The only year I lived in hired service in my life'. He mentions it because of it being all too close to his mother's plan to put him into domestic service. She had already got him a box for his clothes. He filled it with books. Francis Gregory, the former-publican, and Clare shared a friend named John Turnill who helped the jobbing boy with his maths. It was Turnill who composed the lines for Gregory's tombstone under the tower.
I thought of John Turnill when we were exploring Robert Bloomfield's countryside near Thetford to discover that the churchyard of his patron Capel Lofft had been recently vandalised for the sake of the lawnmower, the memorials pulled up and made into paths and a rockery, their tender village verses under our feet. Nineteenth century funerary verse may not be Wordsworth but it might well be Turnill or some other young man mourning his friend.
Robert Bloomfield was still a child when farmwork was thought too heavy for him, so they sent him to a London den to learn shoemaking. A similar fate awaited John Clare before the landlord of the Blue Bell took him in. Is this pub named after Scotland's harebell or 'Endymion non-scriptus'- without the Greek 'Ai!' which can be seen in the throat of narcissus, that cry of despair? The once most picked flower in the English woods.
Margaret Grainger in her 'Natural History Prose Writings of John Clare' sees him always doubling his boy-deeds, his 'watching of the night-jar was an inextricable part of his late night wanderings for courting purposes- he had been a lover since he was fourteen- and his searching for ferns accompanied his efforts to throw off ill health'. He becomes an expert on cover, learning this essential art- Helpston always had its eye on him- from the birds. 'The Mavis thrush', like himself at this moment, 'sings like the song of a young bird while learning to sing'. Like him, 'It loves to frequent ... old orchards and hedge borders ... near the village with a song [in December] when it can get shelter and cover as if it loved to treat the village with a song at such a dreary season. [But] as the spring advances its song ceases and it disappears to its more solitary haunts of woods and forests where it builds its nest beside a large tree on the twigs and water grains that shoot from the body. Its nest is made of the blades of dead grass moss and cowdung lined with warmer materials of wool and a finer sort of grass ... The Mavis never forgets her dead ramping grass [couch grass] for the out side covering and a plentiful supply of wool within the wool is what bird nesting boys know it bye'.
In Clare's 'Biographys of Birds', one of my favourite book titles and his 'Bird List' which he made for the tantalising 'Natural History of Helpstone', birds' nests stretch out like an ornithological city. The Large Wood Owle, by which Care possibly means the tawny owl, 'attacks boys in a bold manner', the Raven builds where it is difficult to climb, the jackdaw in uninhabited houses, and as to magpies which sway about in nests filled with teaspoons, well they are apt to keep their loot. It horrifies him to see the overseers of Helpston rewarding boys who kill sparrows and he would give:
To tyrant boys a fee
To buy the captive sparrows liberty
As he wrote in his poem 'The Fate of Genius'. The fate of genius in the villages of his day could be quite terrifying. So hide away, hide away. Take Cover. Find cover on 'our plain':
Boys thread the woods
To their remotest shades
But in these marshy flats, these stagnant floods,
From year to year
Places untrodden lie
Where man nor boy nor stock ventured near
- Naught gazed on but the sky
And fowl that dread
The very breath of man
Hiding in spots that never knew his tread
A wild and timid clan
In these thy haunts
I've gleaned habitual love
From the vague world where pride and folly taunts
I muse and look above
The unbounded heaven esteems
And here my heart warms into higher moods
And dignifying dreams
Clare often turns to nests which lie on the ground and sometimes finds them safest. He himself feels secure in lying low. Fame elevated him and hurt him, and he was sighted by the spoilers. In the sequence of nest poems, among the greatest natural history poems in the language, he finds a metaphor for his happiness and his plight. They are a miracle of close observation, both of himself treading carefully and of a sitting bird such as the peewit brooding 'on her unsavoury nest', and of moorhens on their safe 'shelved nests'. The accuracy of the descriptions result from many lengthy scarcely-daring-to-breathe starings at building material, delicate eggs and parent birds which were not conscious of the poet's presence. These observations reach perfection in 'The Nightingales Nest', which tells of Clare's nest-finding apprenticeship and, after many boyish attempts at birdwatching, that it needed maturity for him to come close. It is then that he witnesses those connections which touch his own existence.
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
Far from mans haunts she seemeth naught to win
Yet nature is the builder and contrives
Homes for her children ...
Clare's nest was robbed of him, shaken to bits and had to be constructed in his head. Taken from the nest, he joined those who sang the great songs of exile.
Excerpt from 'A Writer's Day-Book', by Ronald Blythe, published by Trent Editions, 2006 © Ronald Blythe
Vagabondage in a Native Place: John Clare and the Gypsies
Sometimes I watch a film or read a book, come-to and tell myself, 'But I was there! I heard it, I saw it.' It is a not uncommon experience. It occurs when I read John Clare on the gypsies. He both hobnobbed with them and was fastidious where they were concerned, was prejudiced and unprejudiced at the same time. He wrote many poems about them which envied their lot, their freedom, their women, and one poem which envied them nothing.
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 ribs,
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.
It is masterly in its realism. Though one observation would not be ours- 'a picture to the place'. Today's Travellers' encampment has swapped the vardo for the mobile home, horses for horse-power and horse-dealing for scrap metal, and is anathema in our twinked countryside. We, the council, intended the Traveller (is 'gypsy' P.C.?- or not?-it is all rather worrying) to just winter on the official site, then push on, not to purchase them and turn them into messy caravan additions to our village. We like the gypsies best at the horse-fairs, when they return to being their colourful selves, painted wagons, fortune tellers, dark-eyed beauties, lively yearlings and all. Appleby Fair is where they should be. No scrap-dealing there.
I was a churchwarden of St Peter's Charsfield, Suffolk, when I was writing 'Akenfield'. It was the mid-Sixties, a moment of seismic change in East Anglia as all over the countryside, although, like everyone else, I had no notion of it. One afternoon I found Mr King, our gravedigger for miles around, throwing up clay by the churchyard hedge. He was one of those not uncommon men who would hold back on some subjects and hold forth on others, being what we called 'contrary'. You could never be certain whether he would tell you everything or nothing. Thus,
'Whose grave is it, Mr King?'
'Never you mind. You wouldn't know her.'
'No-one you would know.'
'When is the funeral then?'
'Friday they reckon.'
Dig, dig, dig. Then, seeing my still inquisitive face from down below, he said, 'Ocean'.
'They are burying Ocean?'
It was then I experienced one of those close connections between John Clare's world and my own. I had never seen Ocean, just as one rarely sees a legend, but I knew what she looked like, which is someone he would have seen- this in the purely native sense. Ocean was one of East Anglia's most celebrated Romanies. She had travelled our counties for nearly a century, leaving tales in her wake, a formidable woman with a magnificent name. And here she would lie, in our churchyard. There were family connections. Her grandsons, gone Gaujo, lived just up the road in a square bungalow at the edge of an orchard which was never picked and behind windows which were never uncurtained. And there was a copse where she may have wintered.
Clare's gypsies were everywhere when I was a boy. They came regularly to the house, for mother would only have their split ash clothespegs with the little tin band. And they did piece-work in summer, pea-picking, soft fruit gathering, hence the chalked board outside the pub, 'No Gypsies, no Travellers'. There was a green lane known as the Gull where we found stamped out hearths and blackened cans, and evidence of ponies.
In no time fireweed came to hide the mess. Grandmother, born the decade when Clare died, had actually witnessed a vardo being burnt on Lavenham common. Lavenham churchyard was full of Petulengros. George Borrow had put 'our' gypsies in 'Romany Rye' and 'Lavengro'. My old friend John Nash, wretched in the trenches, told me how he had been cared for by a young gypsy who had been called up and who comforted them both with promises of the Open Road. One day they would be 'out of all this' and on the Open Road. They would be friends and live again. On and on they would walk - in Buckinghamshire, which was where they truly belonged. No more Artists' Rifles, roll on sleeping in haystacks. John's only reading in Flanders was Borrow, and when loomed Passchendaele to his girl for safety.
We knew a woman tramp called Nellie Eighteen and her lover Boxer who refused to sleep in the Spike (workhouse) and who resided briefly in ruined buildings of all kinds, and were accepted as part of the wandering population. Fanciful things were said about them. But they were tramps and not gypsies. We all knew the difference. You wouldn't find a gypsy pushing a pram.
Jonathan Bate wrote, 'Clare loved to spend time with the gypsies who camped on the commons and margins where they were to go once the "waste" grounds became private property. It was through such eyes as these that he saw enclosure.' The enclosure of Helpston put many of Clare's best-loved spots out of bounds, and not only sometimes out of bounds but beyond recognition, for they were in our terms bulldozed. His wrath flares up in poem after poem:
The silver springs, grown naked dykes,
Scarce own a hunch of rushes:
When grain got high the tasteless tykes
Grubbed up trees, banks and bushes,
And me, they turned me inside out
For sand and grit and stones
And turned my old green hills about
Picked my very bones.
He made Swordy Well protest. Bad enough for the villagers, now being pauperised, but quite terrible for the gypsies immemorially camped at Langley bush. The Vagrancy Act of 1824, swiftly following the Enclosure Act, made it an offence, among other things, 'to be in the open air, or under a tent, or in a cart or wagon, not having any visible means of subsistence, and not giving a good account of himself, or herself'. Ocean had given a memorable account of herself, we believed. But for generations after the Vagrancy Act her kind were regularly sent to prison for merely existing. And then, only two years later, came the Commons Act of 1826 which allowed the local authority to set its own rules for its own common land. And soon most commons were closed to gypsies. When the Gypsy Council was at long last created in 1966, Gordon Boswell, a member of a leading gypsy family, at once proposed that permanent camps should be made by law where his people could winter without being moved on by the police. The Council was legally aided by Gratton Puxon, the son of a Colchester solicitor, who was a friend of ours. Gratton was the kind of practical romantic one would have met with among Clare's rural 'intellectuals', who thought and acted outside their own sphere, as it were.
Erotic gypsy women, with their freedom, were a frequent subject of Clare's songs during the asylum years:
A gipsey lass my love was born
Among the heaths furse bushes O,
More fair than Ladies on the lawn,
Whose song is like the thrushes O.
Like links of snakes her inky hair,
The dandy bean she kisses O.*
Her face round as an apple fair
She blisters where she kisses O.
(*There was an ancient law forbidding men to make love in a beanfield because its scent made them irresistible. Fellatio.)
And then we have 'Sweet legged' Sophie, and Maria 'who sleeps in the nightly dew'. He:
Loves the flowers that she sees,
The wild thyme bank she beds on
Mid the songs of honeybees.
These 'cozy blanket camp' girls exist in a sexual dimension beyond the conventions. Free as air, the poet can take them at will. Part of Clare's life might be called a vagabondage in a native place. This is still not unusual for the artist/writer. He belonged as few writers have ever belonged- yet he knew that he did not belong. Not as the rest of his community belonged. His was the fate of the insider being an outsider. In order to write and read and look and listen, he would walk to the edge of his own birthright territory, and it was there that he would sometimes find those who quite clearly had no claim to it, the gypsies. He would spread himself on the earth where they had been:
Wednesday 29th Sept, 1824
Took a walk in the fields ... saw an old woodstile taken away from a favourite spot which it had occupied all my life. The posts were overgrown with ivy and it seemed so akin to nature and the spot where it stood, as though it had taken it on lease for an undisturbed existence. It hurt me to see it was gone, for my affections claim a friendship with such things. Last year Langley Bush was destroyed, An old white thorn that had stood for more than a century full of fame. The Gipsies and Hern men all had their tales of its history.
A few weeks later Clare attended 'Another Gipsy Wedding of the Smiths family, fiddling and drinking as usual'. He learned some gypsy medicine which was based on like for like, such as how to cure a viper's sting. Boil the viper and apply the broth to the wound it made. A sure cure, the gypsies said. Some of Clare's poems show both pride and prejudice for his Romany friends, calling them 'a sooty crew'. Though before this he assures them:
That thou art reverenced, even the rude clan
Of lawless Gipsies, driven from stage to stage,
Pilfering the hedges of the husbandman ...
His frequent preferences for the parish boundary caused comment: 'My old habits did not escape notice- they fancied I kept aloof from company for some sort of study-others believed me crazed, and put some more criminal interpretation to my rambles and said I was a night-walking assoclate with the gipsies, robbing woods of the hares and pheasants because I was often in their company.' But sometimes he was at the camp for music lessons. A gypsy named John Gray was to teach him how to play the fiddle by ear: 'Finished planting my auricolas- went a-botanising after ferns and orchises, and caught a cold in the wet grass has made me as bad as ever. Got the tune of "Highland Mary" from Wisdom Smith, a gipsy, and pricked another sweet tune without a name as he fiddled it'.
Jonathan Bate reminds us that Clare had been writing down dance tunes for many years, and that one of his oblong music books is entitled 'A Collection of Songs, Airs and Dances for the Violin, 1818'. His fleeting vagabond Scottish grandfather had taught the villagers of Helpston music among other subjects before going on his way. One of Clare's lime-burner workmates at Pickworth had actually joined the gypsies- married one of them. His name was James Nobbs. And such was their fascination that a Suffolk Archdeacon, Robert Hindes Groom, a friend of Edward Fitzgerald and George Borrow, had also wed a Romany woman. A certain fastidiousness in Clare seems to have marked their relationship, their 'disgusting food' for instance. But he recognised their artistry, and he was an early precursor of folksong collecting. Recalling the 'No Peapickers' sign outside our Suffolk pubs when I was a boy reminds me of Vaughan Williams taking a young gypsy into a bar in order to take down his song- and both of them being thrown out by the landlord. It wasn't a 'singing' pub.
It was George Borrow, a near contemporary of John Clare, whose Romany books would offer an alternative life style to many Victorians. Lavengro was published In 1831, 'The Romany Rye or the Gypsy Gentleman', in 1857. Clare might well have read them at Northampton. Borrow was famously touchy and bad-tempered, and hard to handle. Stories of his picaresque wanderings and encounters are told in Spain, East Anglia and Wales to this day. During a walking holiday on Anglesey a few years ago my host said, 'George Borrow stayed in this house'. Returning from gathering material for 'Hidden Wales' he saw a lad mending the roof and spoke to him in Welsh- and was answered in French. Much put out Borrow demanded to know why. 'Sir, you spoke to me in a language which is not your own, and I reply in a language which is not my own.' Speaking Romany became quite a cult in the nineteenth century although nothing like the heady cult of the Open Road. It descended from a celebrated passage in 'Lavengro' which, if it had come John Clare's way during his last years in 'Hell', his other name for the 'Madhouse', would have sent shivers through him.
'Life is sweet, brother.'
'Do you think so?'
'Think so! There's night and day, brother, both sweet things; sun, moon,
and stars, brother, all sweet things; there's likewise a wind on the heath. Life is very sweet, brother, who would wish to die?'
'I would wish to die-'
'You talk like a Gorgio- which is the same as talking like a fool. Were you a Romany Chal you would talk wiser. Wish to die, indeed! A Romany Chal would wish to live for ever.'
'In sickness, Jasper?'
'There's the sun and the stars, brother.'
'In blindness, Jasper?'
'There's the wind on the heath; if I could only feel that I would gladly live for ever.
Two years after 'Lavengro' was published, and still several years before death made it possible for Clare to return to Helpston, Matthew Arnold wrote 'The Scholar-Gipsy'. It told of an Oxford undergraduate who walks out of the University, having seen through its claims, to join gypsy freedom. His life is furtive, shy like that of a woodland creature, and the world to which he belonged now has only glimpses of him. He is not pursued. His realm is Oxfordshire not Oxford, and the county is given a tempting pastorality which excludes such realities as the local vagabond law. Rather, the area is proud to harbour such a learned tramp. In his note on the poem Arnold said, 'After he had been pretty well exercised in the trade (of Romany lore), there chanced to ride by a couple of scholars, who had formerly been of his acquaintance, They quickly spied out their old friend among the gypsies; and he gave them an account of the necessity which drove him to that kind of life, and told them that the people he went with were not such impostors as they were taken for, but that they had a traditional kind of learning among them, and could do wonders by the power of the imagination, their fancy binding that of others ...' Arnold said too that he had found the story in Glanvil's 'Vanity of Dogmatizing' (1661). 'The Scholar-Gipsy' concludes with the wonderfully hazardous lines on how such a persistent foreign element may have reached our shore:
Outside the western straits, and unbent sails
There, where down cloudy cliffs, through sheets of foam,
Shy traffickers, the dark Iberians come;
And on the beach undid his corded bales.
Homesickness frequently overwhelmed Clare. The plants and birds of Epping Forest, the close-knit gypsy families with their music and nasty food and skinny dogs were an extension of Helpston but not it, and was a hundred miles from it. One Sunday afternoon he met some gypsies who said he could hide away with them until there was a propitious moment for his escape from the madhouse. Money was mentioned. But Clare the patient did not have the same welcome as Clare the fiddler, and the gypsies cleared off without helping him. When he went to their camp it was empty save for an old hat. He picked this up and kept it- may have worn it during the walk out of Essex. On Tuesday 20 July 1841, he took their suggested route. Epping was a very confusing place. When he at last managed to find the main road a man from the discouragingly named pub The Labour in Vain directed him towards Enfield-towards where Cowden Clarke had introduced Keats to Chaucer- and thus to the Great York Road. Now, as Clare wrote, it could only be 'plain sailing and steering ahead, meeting no enemy and fearing none'. 'Here shall he see no enemy but winter and rough weather.' Later he would give his own sanitized version of the gypsies. No pilfering, no stinking mutton, no being let down now. Just one more freedom song from a poor prisoner doing life:
The joys of the camp are not cares of the Crown,
There'll be fiddling and dancing a mile out of town.
Will you come to the camp ere the moon goes down
A mile from the town?
The camp of the gipsies is sweet by moonlight
In the furze and the hawthorn- and all out of sight
There'll be fiddling and dancing and singing tonight
In the pale moon light.
Excerpt from 'A Writer's Day-Book', by Ronald Blythe, published by Trent Editions, 2006 © Ronald Blythe