John Bird: The lesson of the peasant poet

John Clare was an exceptionally great poet and his tragedy still echoes down through the generations

I left the road when I saw the brown tourist sign to John Clare’s cottage. I had perhaps a dozen times over 50 years told myself that I must visit his cottage and connect with the poet who was described as the Northampton peasant poet and lived from 1793-1864.

But it took a day last week for me to leave the road and spend a few hours at Clare’s museum.

As a kind of poet, in that I write poems (see the tea towel of my poem Weedy, weedy, weedy in The Big Issue Shop) and have worked in fields and woods, I am drawn to the man’s work.

But you cannot just be drawn to what he wrote; for his life is an incredible ascendancy out of rural poverty, into basic village school education and book reading; and followed by poetic fame for a short time, and then a descent into mental illness.

His cottage is well worth a visit. Its symbol is a very small sketch of a cottage by Clare that they have used as the museum logo. Although small, as you would expect of an 18th century rural labourer’s cottage, it is packed full of illustrations of Clare’s life.

An occasional schoolboy, he had worked in the fields and the barn from the age of 10. In the meanwhile, he took the little he got at school and made the most of it.

Helpston in north Northamptonshire is a fine village with the old pub next door that Clare drank in. I went on a bright day and was surprised at the bustle, and stayed for lunch. A joyousness in this small rural recollection of a man who is believed to be one of the greatest poets of childhood and the discoveries that childhood brings.

Whilst all the time he writes from the working man’s view of life; nature is not as a backdrop viewed from the bay window of a Jane Austen-like squire’s drawing room. But from the fields and the streams with the taste of wind and sun and wind and rain in the lines.

The Mole-Catcher is delightful and descriptive:

When melted snow leaves bare the black-green rings,

And grass begins in freshening hues to shoot,

When thawing dirt to shoes of ploughmen clings,

And silk-haired moles get liberty to root,

An ancient man goes plodding round the fields

Which solitude seems claiming as her own,

Wrapt in greatcoat that from a tempest shields,

Patched thick with every colour but its own.

This is the poetry of the dirt and stuff of nature. A man who writes from the field, not from the study, and nor from the reflection that comes from contemplation after endless education.

Clare’s rise to the very top of his chosen poetic profession did not lead to a permanent position in society. He rose spectacularly – and when taste turned against his bucolic voice, when fashion’s tide receded – Clare was a penniless peasant again. And tragically he never returned to prominence.

In some ways, 200 years ago had its advantage over the mental illness of our streets

After his death, Clare rose again. And countless works, like The Shepherd’s Calendar, came to be seen as worthy of reading again and again. John Clare’s star has risen even further and it is increasingly evident that he was more than a flash in the poetic pan.

Dismissed, mentally ill, yet he lives and breathes among us in collections that show his grace and descriptive beauty.

John Clare spent years in mental asylums, his first in a private institution in Essex. And then when back in Northampton, after his escape from Essex in the county asylum, where he finally died in old age.

One hears today of the increasing awareness we have of mental illness. Of the NHS struggling to keep up with demand. News items often show NHS managers and doctors saying what strenuous efforts they are making.

But could we now give a poet, or a labourer, or a confused mother with mental health problems, the certitude of a place of safety as was offered in Clare’s day?

The (at times) brutal quality of that service was, for the time, as near as possible to humane. With humaneness, combined with saving a shed load of money in mind, the Thatcher government closed down the mental hospital system. Replaced with the laughingly delivered ‘care in the community’, it was obvious that hospitals, prisons and the streets would take up the slack. And they filled up.

In some ways, 200 years ago had its advantage over the mental illness of our streets, for at least you had a roof over your head.

John Clare was an exceptionally great poet and his tragedy still echoes down through the generations. But today, our ill cry out for relief. We need to be there for them.