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Constant Inconstancy: Learning to Belong through John Clare’s Poetics of Attention – Longform Excerpt

By Helen Halliwell

1. Introduction

John Clare celebrates the specificity of nature – a celebration which, in his extensive body of poetry, is lovingly confined to his village of Helpston and the surrounding Northamptonshire countryside. Much of his poetry is marked by his use of the phrase, “I love.” He loves to see, to hear, and he loves to simply mark or note, and none of these acts of recognition are reduced by his oft-repeated experiences with the objects of his attention. In fact, they seem to be enhanced by the repetition. Bridget Keegan writes that “Unlike other locodescriptive poets, he does not begin with ‘I see’ or a command to readers to ‘Behold’” (159). Indeed, when Clare does appeal to the eye, he still writes, “I love to see.” He does not, except when trying to emulate his poetic predecessors from the latter half of the eighteenth century, stand atop the peaks of hills and declare his love. Instead, when expressing his own poetic voice, he stays close to the ground, more likely to whisper his love to ground nests or mumble it in fascination to himself as he watches critters on the road. As a working-class poet, Clare keeps his poetic self in the peopled landscape of his village, yet his poetry oscillates between being within it and without it. It is not by mere chance that he notices and writes about the small, the overlooked, the hidden: insects, nests, hedgerow-dwellers, birds, children. Clare sometimes includes himself within this category. Curiously, and what criticism seems to have overlooked for the most part, is that although his poetry is perhaps not consciously didactic, it is, almost by nature, educational as a result of the amount of detail he includes. In this way, Clare places himself as the source of that education and embodies the position of being both within a community as a sharer of knowledge, and outside the community, as one who has abilities and prospects that others in his community do not, either because of disinterest or lack of access and time. His teaching is direct and immediate, reaching beyond schoolhouse prosaic teaching and into an imaginative realm of natural embodiment in which he attempts to mimic nature in its physicality and sound. Part of the impetus behind his poetry is to draw readers into a more physically involved and experiential inhabiting of nature — something he achieves through both staying true to his locality in knowledge and dialect, but also through energetic rhythms and emphasis on vocality in his verse. 

There is, above all this, a multivalence to Clare’s relationship towards his local nature: as a careful observer of perhaps otherwise hidden phenomena who also publishes these observations as poetry, he displays an irresistible urge to write and share that which he sees. Yet this sharing also isolates him from a largely illiterate, but tightly interconnected community. His attentiveness also coincides with the encroaching borders of enclosure laws, and many of the objects of his observations are in the process of disappearing, distorting his sense of rootedness and familiarity. In reading Clare’s appreciation of what could be taken for granted, we witness how his keenly attentive poetry can show us to be better inhabitants of our locale; that is, if we acknowledge how our own senses of place are altered in the rapidly changing environments and disappearing landscapes in which we live. What are the different ways of knowing that he exemplifies, and what is at stake in the accuracy of his description? What does it mean for his identity and educative project that he experienced a life centered on the margins of both literary society and the Helpstonian community? 

2. Context and Attention

This paper explores Clare’s problem of unsettledness and displacement through an analysis of how his reiterative, attentive contact with nature works as an entryway to an intersubjective relationship with nature. Living in and writing about both the margins of society and the minutiae of nature, Clare explores the possibility that through detailed knowledge of local nature, processed through poetry — a format that emphasises rhythm, movement, and vocality — an uncertain and skirting relationship with nature can transform into, or function with, one of belonging. John Barrell, a major Clare critic who helped reinvigorate studies on John Clare with his 1972 book The Idea of Landscape and the Sense of Place, became a key component to the development of my argument in his discussions on Clare’s sense of place, and I am grateful for having been able to read Clare’s poetry over his shoulder. I aim to use past critics’ works on Clare in a way that, incidentally, echoes the system of communication within the pre-enclosed community that Clare witnessed disappear. This system exemplifies the circumambulatory nature of communication so that, as I make my way down my own critical pathway, points of interest are signposted, flagging alternate routes, forming an image of criticism not unlike Clare’s poetical journey as one that is both sociable and solitary. This paper will begin with a general introduction to Clare’s particular attention and how it differs from his predecessors, situating him within a larger poetic and historical context. It will then turn to an analysis of how we can read Clare’s poetry as educational and what it means for poetry to be a form of knowledge, looking at language and sound, then rhythm and vocality, and finally, at the relationship of our bodies to nature. This examination uses Clare’s nest poems as a basis of analysis. The thesis then shifts to a discussion of community and belonging and how Clare’s poems — guiding, attentive, exemplary — can figure for us an open communication and appeal to a common tenderness.  

Clare’s love for nature local to his village developed from the time and attention he devoted to it, his practice of a conscious, everyday looking. Molly Mahood uses Clare’s phrase “a pure unselfish love” from his poem “Childe Harold” to describe his relationship to nature. Clare’s “pure unselfish love” partly stems from intimate knowledge of the subject — perhaps because to know so much about the other can be an unselfish act; indeed, that the poet takes time out of his day to crouch and look, whiling away hours and waiting for a bird to appear speaks volumes about his love and dedication. Clare’s observations in “Summer Images” (Robinson MP III, 153) are a striking example: 

I love at early morn from new mown swath

To see the startled frog his rout pursue

& mark while leaping oer the dripping path

His bright sides scatter dew (lines 99-102)

A detailed observation like this would be impossible from a passing glance. That the dew sprinkles off not just the frog’s general “body,” but his “bright sides,” specifically, is more likely an observation that came from a moment of sustained attention and repeated looking. Clare’s love is continuous, not an established, finite action, but something that happens in the present moment and will happen again; thus, it reflects the ways of nature around him, the way the frog will jump across the road again because the swath will be mown again and disturb the wildlife. Clare notices the effects of these frequent and continuous motions not just because of his regular exposure to this environment, but because he chooses to look and listen in places others might not. Margaret Grainger fittingly uses a quotation for Clare that originally referenced Edward Thomas: “‘[his] knowledge of natural history diffused itself through his mind, … it never hampered the artist in him … or obscured the poet’s vision … he wrote, not of the rare experience or the unique occasion, but of the everyday happening and of the common life of the open air’” (xlvi). Clare’s sensitivity to “the common life” transfers the everyday from ignored to elevated. 

Clare’s attentiveness, which introduces deep and sensitive ways of knowing, originates in his habitual nature — walking the same paths, performing the same tasks — but it could also work vice versa. Does he repeat the action because he loves, or does he love because he repeats the action? On Heraclitus’ aphorism “Nature loves to hide,” Pierre Hadot in The Veil of Isis discusses the use of the Greek word philei for love, or the Latin diligendo. Philei, as used in Heraclitus, denotes love as a habitual kind of love, or “a process that occurs necessarily or frequently.” Thus, the wind loves (is accustomed) to blow (7). In this light, perhaps we can understand Clare’s acts of attention and motion not just as the root of his love, but as acts of love in themselves. As with many poets of his age, Clare was a prolific walker. “Solitude” (Robinson EP II, 339) is full of ways of walking that encourage a Clare-like attention in the reader: “Wether sauntering we proceed,” “Wether curious waste an hour, / Pausing oer each tasty flower,” “Or as lingering by the streams” (7-15). And with a watchful and practiced eye in “Recollections After an Evening Walk” (327), Clare catalogues all the littlest creatures: the bee, the beetle, the moth, the snail, frog, glowworm, bat, cricket, and mouse. We also hear about the “down headed grass” (line 28) and the “guggles & groans” over the “pebbles & stones” (43-45). Things that usually live in the hedges and rivers, cracks and rafters emerge, unoppressed, coaxed out by the curious and wandering eye and ear of the poet. He does not abstractly love the object of his attentions; he loves to see, notice, to mark, and to know. He loves the process, the action, just as much as the object.  

To look, for a moment, at Clare in contrast to his predecessors — poets he sometimes emulated and at other times critiqued — might show where his poetry, and more specifically, the practice of observation in relation to his poetry, departs from those who came before. Viewing Clare against the background of landscape poets sharpens our understanding of what informs his attention to the everyday, namely that his knowledge about nature is the firsthand knowledge of a working-class person rather than the distantly gleaned knowledge of a landowner. Broadly, on the tradition of prospect poetry as whole, John Barrell writes “the descriptive procedures that [James] Thomson developed … demanded that the particular objects in the landscape be subdued to our impression of its total design; and this had the effect of making the language of the landscape-description a very general one” (136). While Clare valued and admired the previous tradition of nature — landscape — poetry, he struggled to write comprehensive prospect poetry, as in the vein of his predecessor Thomson, because “he [kept] trying to bring the most distant objects into the sharpest possible focus” (Barrell 140). When writing in a tradition that scans horizons, Clare could not separate his knowledge about nature from his verse, making it hard to paint in broad, prospective strokes and participate in a knowledge of expansive landscapes in which he did not live. To do so, he would need to stand at a remote point, abstracting himself from the landscape — the kind of abstraction enacted by the urban tourist, whose class position preemptively removes them from the land. 

To compare, here are several examples of Thomson’s technique that indicate what kind of landscape the tradition was interested in describing and what objects within that landscape were prioritized:

From these the prospect varies. Plains immense

Lie stretched below, interminable meads

And vast savannas, where the wandering eye, 

Unfixt, is in a verdant ocean lost… (qtd. in Barrell 30)
And see where surly Winter passes off

Far to the north, and calls his ruffian blasts:

His blasts obey, and quit the howling hill, 

The shattered forest, and the ravaged vale;

While softer gales succeed, at whose kind touch, 

Dissolving snows in livid torrents lost, 

The mountains lift their green heads to the sky… (qtd. in Barrell 33)

We see a pronounced sense of the eye’s tendency to organize the landscape according to the tradition of landscape artists and writers, such as Claude Lorrain and William Gilpin, who pioneered a way of looking at the landscape in which the eye enacts the framing. In Thomson, the eye sweeps the landscape; it is “unfixt,” “wandering,” finding purchase for mere moments before passing onto the next prospect, constructing a vast winding land that is great, intangible, and potentially mutable. Clare’s sonnet “A Scene” is an example of what Barrell calls one of Clare’s “hardest tries” (136) at prospect poetry. He begins: 

The landskip’s stretching view, that opens wide, 

With dribbling brooks, and river’s wider floods,

And hills, and vales, and darksome lowering woods, 

With grains of varied hues and grasses pied; (qtd. in Barrell 136-137)

Attempting to align himself with the tradition, Clare echoes the language  — a “stretching view” that “opens wide” — and tries to enumerate landscape types, picking elements to add up to a whole: “hills, and vales, and darksome lowering woods,” like Thomson’s “howling hill, / The shattered forest, and the ravaged vale.” He attempts to use the sweeping gaze of the eye to simultaneously compartmentalize and conflate objects in its view, but for him this view simply cannot stay too distant, and later within the same poem, objects in the landscape, both “far off and near / Approach my sight,” “maidens stript, haymaking too, appear; / And Hodge a-whistling at his fallow plough; / And herdsman hallooing to intruding cow.” Now the landscape is noisy, bustling, and Clare’s knowledge and experience of the village community shuffle in, inseparable from his poetry. He skips over the landscape for something more familiar, creating a poem with action and movement where even the brooks and rivers try to spill out of their determined courses. As Clare comes into his own poetic practice, his view draws much closer to the land, giving the impression of an individual walking, moving, pausing within not just a landscape at large, but right in the thick of it. He highlights the by-ways and the hedges, he enters the “darksome lowering woods,” and stops there, listening and looking, not just to the workings of his own mind, but to his immediate surroundings. Clare’s knowledge of his habitat and his language for it is naturally more intimate because he does not gaze at Helpston from a prospect. Aware of his proximity to nature, and by walking within the landscape, not above it, listening to the people’s hallooing and bawling, he more fully embraces the scope of what his senses can inform him.

 Clare accounts for his attention to detail in his awareness of landmarks and language as something he had since childhood, but the enclosure that Helpston underwent in the 1810s challenges the familiarity he had honed. His insistence on staying local, or perhaps his inability to be anything other than local,^1 puts further pressure on this familiarity. Enclosure was not an efficient, surreptitious process, but instead unfolded over a lengthy period of time; the nineteenth century simply saw the last bout of enclosure laws. For Helpston, The Act of Parliament for the Enclosure of Helpston was passed in 1809 and the work was largely completed by 1816 (Barrell 106). J. M. Neeson neatly summarizes: 

Most commoning economies were extinguished by enclosure at some point between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries. The pace of change was uneven. Much of England was still open in 1700; but most of it was enclosed by 1840. Commoners did not always object to enclosure, but often they did. Of the smaller commoners many lost land as well as grazing. They lost a way of life too. In Helpston, wheat and beans still grew after enclosure but they did not grow in open fields. They were fenced in with rails and quickthorn. Enclosure — rightly named — meant the closing of the countryside. (5)

Enclosure shut down a certain way of life, specific community-driven agricultural practices. It was a closing achieved by implementing barriers within a landscape. Barrell details the process of enclosure specifically in Helpston, noting how the “openness and the old uniformity of the fields disappeared together, to be replaced by a very different uniformity; and by its new straight highway to Peterborough, and its new system of land-drainage, Helpston was made a part of the large, flat, fenny area.” Enclosure, then, while separating fields and discontinuing footpaths across those fields, also, contrary to its name, opened the area and exposed the people and land to a larger world. It developed a countryside that could better blend into the surroundings with one cohesive sweep of the eye, a view of land to which Clare’s nature was opposed. 

A few years after the end of Helpston’s enclosure, around 1821, Clare became almost solely preoccupied with writing about his village, compelled to write on its particularities that he already knew and loved. At this point, however, faced with the effects of enclosure, “which sought to de-localise, to take away the individuality of a place” (Barrell 120), he was now hyper-aware of the impermanence of the system he was used to and the fragility of nature at the hands of men. In “Helpstone” (Robinson EP I, 156), published in 1820, he condemns destructive land practices: “Now all laid waste by desolations hand / Whose cursed weapons levels half the land … Accursed wealth o’er bounding human laws / Of every evil thou remainst the cause … Thou art the cause that levels every tree / & woods bow down to clear a way for thee” (123-34).  

Clare was acutely self-aware, however, and recognized the singularity of his attention to sense of place, right in those key years of his drawing towards Helpston as a source of writing, calling himself out on it: “‘A second thought tells me I am a fool,’ he wrote to John Taylor in 1821, ‘was People all to feel & think as I do the world could not be carried on — a green woud not be ploughed a tree or bush woud not be cut for firing or furniture & every thing they found when boys would remain in that state till they dyd’” (qtd. in Adam Phillips 210). He understands that for life to go on as usual, indeed, for the “world” to “be carried on,” destructions must happen — trees need to be cut, fields need to be ploughed — yet as time wore on the devastating effects of enclosure became more apparent in their erasure of a past way of life, he explored the topic more passionately and explicitly, as he does in “The Mores” (Robinson MP II, 347): “Inclosure came and trampled on the grave / Of labours rights & left the poor a slave” (lines 19-20). While the threat of loss did not incite his attention, it did make it keener, into something only the more ripe for poetry, which became a place for him to explore the feelings of that loss. 

3. Education

Since the threat of loss gives rise to an urgency to preserve specificities of natural and local history, Clare’s compulsion to write about Helpston is partly what establishes his role as a guide, as one who details the nature around him so carefully that it becomes educational. It is important to note that as soon as we figure Clare’s writing as educational, the question of audience emerges and it becomes necessary to distinguish between types of audiences that Clare may or may not have been writing for. When reading his detail-driven poems as educational, it is typically assumed that the audience is an urban one, unfamiliar with Helpston and with the countryside in general.

The language that Clare engages with in his poetry, both dialect words and sound-words, encapsulates one of his key ways of knowing and acts as an access point for readers to be observers in the same way he was, as he forms their perceptions. The nests and flowers and birds that Clare knew and wrote about were specific to his home in Helpston, and thus have to be described in ways that are precise and recognizable, especially to speakers of that community:

as long as he was in Helpston, the knowledge he had was valid, was knowledge: the east was east and the west was west as long as he could recognise them by the landmarks in the parish, and by the simple habit of knowing; the names he knew for the flowers were the right names as long as the flowers were in Helpston. (Barrell 121-122) 

Indeed, when not conceding to his editor’s changes, Clare defended himself in response to criticism of his lexicon. He wrote to his publisher’s partner, James Hessey, “‘I think vulgar names to the flowers best …, as I know no others’” (qtd. in Barrell 126). His resistance to learning the standardized names of flora and fauna reads like a love-letter to locality; it implies that learning different words for them would change his relationship to the natural world. When he leaves his language unedited, he brings us much closer to the reality, the sights and sounds of his day-to-day life. To help us understand the connection between language and consciousness, Robert Macfarlane’s book Landmarks (2015) proves helpful. Macfarlane writes about current language losses that impoverish people’s understanding and view of the natural world, connecting the loss of specificity in language with a slipping attention to surroundings. In his project, he brings together glossaries of nature-specific vocabulary from across the British Isles that have either gone out of use or are threatening to do so. One of his sources is a Hebridean “Peat Glossary,” in which the words differentiate themselves with demanding accuracy: 

lèig-chruthaich is ‘quivering bog with water trapped beneath it, and an intact surface,’ whereas breunloch is ‘dangerous sinking bog that may be bright green and grassy,’ and botann is ‘a hole in the moor, often wet, where an animal might get stuck.’ Other terms are distinctive for their poetry. Rionnach maoim, for instance, means ‘the shadows cast on the moorland by clouds moving across the sky on a bright and windy day,’ Èit refers to ‘the practice of placing quartz stones in moorland streams so that they would sparkle in the moonlight and thereby attract salmon to them in the late summer and autumn.’ (18)

Macfarlane writes that such linguistic flexibility and precision “is a testimony to the long relationship of labour between the Hebrideans and their land,” and the fact that it makes room for poetic language is significant: “For this is also a language of looking, touching and appreciation — and its development is partly a function of the need to love that which is being done, and done to.” In that sense, the language is both educational and brilliant; it simultaneously instructs and shines on its own, in its sounds. Clare’s language, local and scattered with dialect words, establishes an immediacy to wherever he is in the present moment, whether describing a sound, an action, or the appearance of something. Macfarlane recognizes that the language of a community such as Clare’s develops from attentiveness to the natural world because of their daily proximity to it and their use-based relationship with it. Macfarlane remarks that “once [natural phenomena] go unnamed they go to some degree unseen. Language deficit leads to attention deficit” (24). In knowing the right words to use, or describing things by impression or natural-transcription (“& chirping plaudits fill the chilling shades … / And twitatwit their visions as they rise” (“Helpstone” 36-38), Clare’s attention to the natural landscape is sustained and strung all the way from his experience into the lines of poetry.

Clare’s particular language in describing his surroundings works to both recognize the natural phenomena in Helpston in the way its inhabitants understand it and usher the reader into an intimate space of nature and learning. “The Woodman” (Robinson EP II, 287) shows us this:

The squirking^2 rabbit scarcly leaves her hole

But rolls in torpid slumbers all the day


The hare so frisking timid once and gay

Hind the dead thistle hurkles^3 from the view

Nor scarecely scard tho in the travellers way

Tho wafflings^4 curs and shepherd dogs pursue (46-53)

The poem sounds out the environment it replicates, the unfamiliar words jumping out at us from the page, adding new edges to movements and sounds that sharpen our conception of what the wintery wood is like. Evidently, a waffling dog is not the same as a barking dog. Mahood writes that Clare’s love for nature was best expressed through poetry because poetry is a place for “the kind of pleasure that most naturally expresses itself in heightened, connotative, metaphorical language” (135). While this is true of some of Clare’s more musing, philosophical poetry, it also seems that when working in his own particular mode, he likes to recreate the presence or sound of something in the most accurate way possible, rather than suggest it through comparison, thus keeping the reader strictly within the bounds of Helpston. In preserving these words, Clare works to resist the universalizing effects of enclosure that sought to “de-localise, to take away the individuality of a place” (Barrell 120) and, because of its specificity, allows us to read his poetry as an educative project.

As seen in the previous paragraph, Clare’s poetry does not only incorporate local language, but is also attuned to nature’s own language. It is musical, imitative, bordering on onomatopoeic — reminiscent of how some birds are named after their calls (chickadee, cuckoo). “Summer Evening” (Robinson EP I, 5), for example, is filled to the brim with twilit motions: 

Cooing sits the lonly dove

Calling home her abscent love

Kirchip Kirchip mong the wheat

Partridge distant partridge greet


Round the pond the martins flirt

Their snowy breasts bedawbed in dirt. (7-16)

We are familiar with the word “cooing” since it is still commonly used, for birds and babies alike, but we less often use “kirchip” in our everyday. Not only is Clare writing in birdsong, but he repeats it and weaves it into the rhythm of the poem, allowing the sounds around him to shape the poem. The first two lines are shaped by: “Cooing,” “lonly,” “dove,” “Calling,” “home,” “love” — round, soft words, with ‘l’s and ‘o’s, drawing out the gentler side of the country’s evensong. The next two lines have “kirchip,” “wheat,” “partridge,” “distant,” “greet,” with sharper ‘i,’‘s,’ and ‘t’ sounds, gesturing to a more alert movement of nature, mirroring the haste and alertness that twilight birds sometimes sing with, as if aware of the time-constraint of evening (also perhaps echoing the sharp jitteriness of a partridge call). His language also sometimes denotes motion itself, like “bedawbed,” in which we can almost see the bird on the ground, moving in a quick dipping and rising motion to the rhythm of the word, speckled with dirt like dew. The alternate spellings he uses, like “daubs” (20), instead of, say, “dawb,” are also key because in our reading of variable words, we shape our mouths in ways that align more accurately with the sound or motion of the moment, which adds a somatic layer of immediacy and further strengthens the poem’s sense of place. 

By examining his technique of establishing immediacy to place through audio-perception, we can further understand how for Clare, poetry is a way of knowing, moving into a discussion beyond aural awareness and into visual and physical perception. For Clare, writing poetry stemmed from and was, in itself, a physical experience, as we will see through a breakdown of some of his nest poems. Hugh Haughton and Adam Phillips helpfully write that “For Clare, poetry was a form of knowledge — a place where his absolutely particular, but also historically and socially representative, knowledge of place might finally be acknowledged” (16). Perhaps through publication, his knowledge was acknowledged in a larger social context, but I want to look for a moment at why it is important that poetry was the medium for that knowledge to be transferred and why it is so conducive as an outlet for his noticings. In reference to the larger context of the literary world, Haughton and Phillips write that the issue with Clare in the scene of Romantic poetry is that he was not always taken seriously as a thinker. They write that it seemed as if he was “working at a lesser degree of intellectual intensity and in relative obliviousness of the quasi-philosophical questioning associated with the now-dominant Romantic tradition” (15). This aligns with Keats’ critique of Clare that “the Description too much prevailed over the Sentiment” (qtd. in Barrell 129) — that because he writes so completely about nature, there is no room for further philosophical meditations. 

Yet is it exactly because poetry has limited space that makes it so powerful not only for what Clare wants to convey, but how he conveys it. When a reader begins a poem, there is a tacit agreement between the poet and reader that they will immerse themselves in the music of it, the line breaks, the vocabulary. Poetry differs from prose in that while poetry is intentional in its boundaries, prose has no such measurement; the beginning and end of a line of prose is arbitrary, decided according to the printing press and the size of the paper. In poetry, the chosen words fully inhabit their meaning, taking up the precious space of a line. Clare allows the music of the particular play for itself, unlike his predecessors and contemporaries who did not, despite being figures “who were also interested in natural history”:

His own writings … set him apart from such poets as Thomson, Goldsmith, Cowper, Crabbe, and Bloomfield, whose incidental study of natural history displayed far less acuteness, range, and curiosity. In this context it is worth noticing that, unlike Cowper whose subtle nose distinguished a peculiar scent in the soil, ‘exactly the scent of amber when it has been rubbed hard, only more potent’, but whose sense of literary propriety prevented him from mentioning this in The Task, Clare makes no distinction between what is a fit subject for poetry and what is not. (Grainger xlviii)

Clare enjoyed botanical communications in his personal life, as shown by the letters and plant species he exchanged with his friends Edmund Tyrell Artis and Joseph Henderson, employees of Clare’s patron, Lord Fitzwilliam, at Milton Hall. In a letter to Clare, Henderson attempts to identify a bird for him, successfully identifies a caterpillar, congratulates Clare on his drawing of it, and also thanks him for the “plants of Elder,” reminding him, “Do not forget to collect some specimens of plants & send me” (xxxix). However, despite these lively discussions and Clare’s extensive botanical reading, a genre that he supported the publication of for a wider, working-class audience (Grainger xlii), he was not comfortable with the rigorous standardization of the system.^5 Perhaps as a result of his troubled relationship with botany and prose, he includes his learned natural knowledge into his poems in ways that other poets may have found awkward.

Poetry allows for the variability of nature to be expansively, delightfully explained in a melding of connotative and denotative qualities. Mahood astutely describes Clare’s revisions as displaying a “botanical exactitude”:

his perceptions sharpened by all the natural-history activity of the interim, he saw that the hawthorn ‘unseals’ rather than ‘uncurls’ its shoots; that the pussy-palm willow is studded, not with ‘golden down’ as he first wrote, but with a ‘golden dust’ of pollen that transforms the appearance of the downy white catkins; that the elm flowers are more accurately described as ‘hop-like pale’ than ‘hop-like green.’ (133)

Clare’s effectiveness, Mahood writes, comes from a mingling of “the exact and the evocative” (133) — noting how the above-quoted poem, “Spring,” with its microscopic technicalities, ends with a recollection of the spring buttercup’s involvement in a children’s fortune-telling game. Yet it does not seem that it is entirely horticultural accuracy that is at stake here. Rather than improving upon description always for more accuracy, Clare sometimes seems to experiment with the endlessly revisable quality of poetry in a way that reflects the minute variability seen in nature, in the changing seasons, in the behavior of animals. The poems show that he strived for precision, but edits like these also indicate an unending search, both for the right words and for the leaves, flowers, or birds themselves — giving him the chance to keep looking again and again.^6 Thus, while the connotative and metaphorical freedoms of poetry are highly conducive to writing that constantly seeks to work with the variability of nature, it is also important to remember the helpfulness of the denotative accuracy of his local descriptors, the squirking of rabbits and the waffling of dogs. Because of poetry’s particular quality that allows for recording ways of speaking and being in the world specific to certain locales, Clare’s poems become educationally generative in their inherent vocality. He minimizes the space between poet and the willing listener, whether local or not, and fills the shoes of the guide, and by contracting that distance, creates a space where readers can experience nature more wholly with their bodies in ways that he experienced, experimenting with a kind of embodied knowledge. 

“The Nightingale’s Nest” (Robinson MP III, 456) is a talkative poem that not only exemplifies how poetry can be a form of knowledge, but also demonstrates the role of the body in that knowledge. As such, it is a prime example of how Clare is able to orchestrate an experience for his readers. An energetic piece of writing, it situates the speaker as a guide and the reader as guided. In it, both venture to find the nightingale, which they do, and then go on to look for its nest. The poem has a conversational quality to it, engaging in a back and forth which the rhythm of verse effectively captures for translating the sway of conversation, particularly one held while walking. The poem begins with an invitation to walk, locating the reader and speaker, together: “Up this green wood land ride lets softly rove” (1), then as the two figures move, the poet begins to expound upon his past experience hunting for the bird:

There have I hunted like a very boy

Creeping on hands & knees through matted thorns

To find her nest & see her feed her young

& vainly did I many hours employ

All seemed as hidden as a thought unborn

& where these crimping fern leaves ramp among

The hazels under boughs—Ive nestled down

& watched her while she sung (lines 12-19)

The ability to choose what verbal material to distribute across these lines of five iambic beats gives Clare the power to pace the timing of the exploration and chatter. The enjambment between “matted thorns” and “To find her nest” makes us work to continue onwards, and the physical distance between the lines gives breathing space for the speaker, finding his words to finish his sentence. The decision to write “crimping fern leaves ramp among / The hazels under boughs” instead of “crimping fern leaves ramp / Among the hazels under boughs,” despite the latter making more syntactical sense, working with the rhythm of the line, adds to the walking rhythmic quality. This structuring allows the specific pairs of words to bounce off the page, like “rove along,” “run among” (which also arises from the quick succession of similar vowels and consonants in the chosen words). The speaker then goes on to marvel in the bird itself until saying,

While nightingales to summers life belongs

& naked trees & winters nipping wrongs

Are strangers to her music and her rest

Her joys are ever green her world is wide

—Hark there she is as usual lets be hush (38-42)

At the end of a line, in the middle of a thought, the bird is spotted and the voice hushed. These kinds of interruptions abound in the poem, making “The Nightingale’s Nest” intensely instructional. After his invitation, he guides the reader, revealing that he has been here before, “this very spot, / Just where that old mans beard all wildly trails / Rude arbours oer the rode & stops the way / & where that child its blue bell flowers hath got” (7-10). Here are our identifiers: old man’s beard and the places that children frequent for bluebells, a neat juxtaposition of old and young, a span of age, yet a continual relatedness to nature — a subtle invocation to community and the passing of knowledge. An incredible narration follows, as if he is guiding us through the motions as we explore, trample, and listen:

—Hark there she is as usual lets 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

& stoop right cautious neath the rustling boughs

For we will have another search to day

& hunt this fern strown^7 thorn clump round & round

& where this seeded woodgrass idly bows,

We’ll wade right through it is a likely nook

In such like spots & often on the ground

Theyll build where rude boys never think to look

Aye as I live her secret nest is here

Upon this white thorn stulp^8—Ive searched about

For hours in vain—there put that bramble bye

Nay trample on its branches and get near. (42-56)

Clare gives us various commands, “Part aside / These hazel branches,” “There put that bramble by,” cautions us to do it “in a gentle way” and even corrects our actions while motivating us: “Nay trample on its branches and get near.” It is clear that we are not the experts in this field; we are the ones who are given directions, being cautioned and assessed. This is indeed the most physically involved of the nest poems, doling out both encouragement and censure, while identifying landmarks that we could use in the future if we ever find ourselves without our knowledgeable host.

 There is an evident heightened energy about the poem, a hushed but barely contained excitement, given away by the written vocalizations, like “Hush,” “Hark,” “Aye,” and “There,” blurted out, as if he cannot help himself. Therein is both the immediacy of the joy of observation and the happiness in sharing it, in exclaiming it, and writing it down. Theresa Kelley also identifies this, writing: “Vocality shapes the singularity of this poetic address: its orality, repetition, dialect words and syntax, and punctuation impede or hasten the speaking voice” (127), Thus, both through the words themselves and their delivery, Clare includes the readers in the process of discovery, and this inclusion is successful because of the emphasis on the poem’s conversational elasticity; he maximizes the quality of verse to serve an educative purpose. Clare’s distribution of the metrical beats once again allows those beats to echo the sounds of the environment and speeds up the reading, adding a level of urgency, fitting for a hunting call. In the line “& stoop right cautious neath the rustling boughs,” the beats land on “stoop,” the first half of “cautious,” “neath,” and the first syllable of “rustling,” emphasizing the sharp “st” sounds and even leaning into the “sh” sound in “cautious,” making us quite the rustling readers and walkers, spurring on the need for gentleness. The repetition and emphases in “& hunt this fern strown thorn clump round & round” also serve the same purpose, although perhaps this time the words stand for a hushing, a whispering, since the metrical beats land on “hunt,” “fern,” thorn,” and “round,” touching on soft “h,” “th,” and “r” sounds. This rhythm, in combination with his vocalizations and instruction is mimetic and has a transportive quality in imitating not just the sounds of the forest, but the sounds of the humans — their breath, their trampling, their hurrying and tripping. 

To add to this nervous energy, the search for the bird is a long one, and for a large portion of the poem it is unclear whether or not we have found the nest, either. At the “Hark,” our attention is brought from our guide’s musings on the nightingale’s joys down to the ground, continuing our search, but then the poet-guide throws uncertainty into the mix with his “if rightly guest.” This leads us to understand that while our guide has a fair knowledge of the area and habitat of the nightingale, where he has “heard her many a merry year,” nature still retains its variabilities and we must use our attentive faculties and guess work — extending the mind to other potentialities and conclusive thinking — to find our quarry. Once Clare revives or extends our attention, renews our focus from search for the bird to the nest, he says “For we will have another search to day,” and continues in the same earlier vein of half guess-work: “We’ll wade right through it is a likely nook: / In such like spots & often on the ground, / Theyll build.” In these lines, Clare orchestrates a simultaneous use of former knowledge based on habit, experience, and careful attention as well as a fraction, or perhaps more, of guess work. This inherent variability in nature further excites the seekers and the poet — it brings the energy to a constant state of visual expectation (although only partially satisfied). Throughout the reading process, we feel our eyes searching the poem as if searching the ground, attempting to distinguish between the foliage, battling through the thorny “fern strewn thorn clump,” over which our mouths or feet might stumble. 

We know that the seekers find the nest after all this searching because the poet writes that the nervous nightingale stops singing due to their proximity to the nest: “& now near / Her nest she sudden stops—as choaking fear / That might betray her home.” As a result, the poet comforts the bird and assures her that we will not disturb it: “so even now / We’ll leave it as we found it—safetys guard / Of pathless solitudes shall keep it still” (59-63). Yet even then, after the poet’s verbal assurances to the bird (which mean nothing to it), Clare detains our attention for a moment longer, for one last lesson in identification, and details the outfitting of the nest — “dead oaken leaves / Are placed without & velvet moss within / & little scraps of grass — & scant & spare / Of what scarce seem materials down & hair” (78-81) — so despite not reaching the nest and poking around in it, Clare still provides sufficient identificatory information. He does this however, not out of any overt penchant for expositing didactic content through verse, but rather because: “How curious is the nest” (76). Mahood refers to “a hairspring balance between delight and apprehension” (141), which we can see here. He just cannot help but stay a while longer to admire and adjust his perception of the nightingale’s little home, despite knowing that our presence not only disturbs the nightingale, but may put it in danger by drawing attention to it. 

Clare retains a balance between a kind of pedantry in these poems in his directions to the reader and a simultaneous innocence in his impulsive exploration and description, adding to the poem, lengthening it, instead of sharpening his descriptions through shortening. With the same eager energy which our eyes search for the bird and the nest as we read the poem, the poet corrects himself about the eggs: “of deadened green or rather olive brown” (90). This in-the-moment qualification shows that his tendency for exactness (or his search for it) is so strong that he corrects himself within the poem, not as a post-walk or writing edit, as if there is no time to edit and revise. More than that, however, since he includes the self-editing process in the poem, it seems that the importance of it is not that you, the observer, walker, writer, etc., find the objectively correct way to identify an egg or a bird (such that a book of botany might provide), but that the excitement in partaking in these moments of identification leads the participant to self-correct, to constantly seek the better, more accurate word — a process that will keep him close to his surrounding nature and paying attention. 

This entire sequence and transfer of knowledge, however, comes off as rather precarious — precarious because we do not, ourselves, see the bird; we are not given a description of her in real time, but only one from his past visits. To add to that, the bird is restless and scared, and when we do hear about the nest in detail, it is only after we have agreed to leave. The poem is exciting and simultaneously indicative of the difficulties of having a clumsy human body in nature — yet that does not prevent Clare’s intense curiosity, perhaps because our tricky physicality comes hand-in-hand with the joys of a sensory experience in nature. Either way, while it is a precarious transmission of learned technique and identifiers, it is one that is spurred by love and curiosity, by embodied, sensory contact. The variability of nature and its temperamentality is not shunned, but given to be understood and worked with.

In “The Nightingale’s Nest” Clare uses elements of vocality — address, rhythm, sound — to mimetically orchestrate a physically involved experience in nature. The educational quality of Clare’s poems, however, is not only vocally instructive and physically involved, but it also teaches us to use nature to measure and to think of our bodies in relation to the natural world around us, sometimes using them as instruments of learning in their own right. This teaching approach calls for a greater awareness of our surroundings and hopes to make the process of developing that awareness easier by using our bodies — something we always have access to — as a point of reference. In the poems on the pettichap and yellowhammer’s nests, he goes a few steps beyond identifying a location or a nest for us, like he did with the nightingale, but once we are situated in the now-familiar Clare crouch, he encourages us to think of ourselves as part of the very nature we observe. This shift in some of his poetry is significant in his educational effort because it allows the reader an additional liberty in which our bodies become key players in the experience — in other words, we are allowed to touch (or perhaps imagine touching) and are encouraged to imagine ourselves part of the natural community we observe. 

In “The Pettichaps Nest” (Robinson MP III, 517), although the nest is spotted by accident, Clare reminds us of our physical presence and, establishing a relationship between ourselves and the nest, gives us an accessible way to identify and aggregate information about the natural world: through our very fingers. Clare writes that the pettichap’s nest is “Hard to discover — that snug entrance wins / Scarcely admitting e’en two fingers in” (20-21). With this description, he prompts us to think of our own two fingers, the size of them, drawing us into the moment with him. Anyone reading the poem can look down at their own hand and immediately understand the scale of the object. Clare helps us understand the scale of it even further by observing the contents: “& full of eggs scarce bigger e’en then peas / Heres one most delicate with spots as small as dust — & of a faint and pinky red” (24-26). Once we have entered this natural realm, so different from ours, and understood the size of it, we can imaginatively inhabit the physical space. Clare situates us very closely to the nest. He says it is “Built like an oven” (19), with only a hole, yet he describes the interior intimately enough, and we can imagine him on his knees, peeking right inside: “& lined with feathers warm as silken stole / & soft as seats of down for painless ease” (22-23). When Clare invites us to leave the peaceful scene and wish the inhabitants well, he does not miss a chance to remind us of the risks that the eggs face: “they are left to many dangers ways / When green grass hoppers jump might break the shells” (29-30). Since Clare has situated us so closely to the tiny home and delicate softness of it, line 30 now accomplishes two things: the grasshopper’s jumps become an immense and terrible force, and we are led to feel that perhaps we are the intruding, offending insect. The following line — “While lowing oxen pass them morn & night” — does not help our case, since only earlier in the poem, we trampled our own way past the nest, like oxen, “& you & I / Had surely passed it in our walk today” (9-10), scaring the bird and making it flit up. In the poem, after Clare describes the nest, we seem to stand on our feet again, looking at the hedgerow and the bird there, but for a moment, our involvement with the nest went beyond mere observation.

We see this technique again in “The Yellowhammer’s Nest” (Robinson MP III, 515) which physically transforms us and appeals to our sympathies. He writes, “Let us stoop / And seek its nest — the brook we need not dread / tis scarcely deep enough a bee to drown” (3-5). We stoop down once again, and, amusingly, are assured that we are not in any danger from the babbling brook. “Dread” is a strong response to a brook, but perhaps not so if we were about the size of a bee; in Clare’s assurance of safety, however, our bee-form is more fully inhabited. Once we are on the ground, our eyes levelled with the flowers and the reeds, the delicacy of the eggs and the dangers of the brook become pressing concerns. While lying low, Clare then invites us to imagine how our newly embodied grasshopper weight could crush these eggs and by imagining so, more generously realise how precious they are. By understanding their fragility, we too could come to know a “pure unselfish love” (“Childe Harold,” 43) that attempts to understand the stakes that birds (and bees) live with day-to-day. 

Clare also noticeably uses points of reference that are instantly relatable to almost anyone, but perhaps particularly a person who has grown up in a natural environment, simultaneously appealing to both his own community and the one outside of Helpston. Generally, his units of measurement are simple and universal because they tend to be either his own body or objects that surround him: peas, a bee, an apron.^9 Perhaps he is more comfortable with these references because unlike poet and naturalist J.F.M. Dovaston (1782-1854), “with his nesting boxes and ornithotrophe, Clare devised no special equipment and conducted few experiments. He did not possess a microscope or field-glasses; there is no evidence of his use of a simple magnifying glass” (Grainger xliii). Whatever Clare’s reasons for abstaining from such scientific implements, despite them being used and praised by his contemporaries, his approach to the world remains accessible to those who have no access to such instruments. 

The teaching in his poetry moves beyond both prosaic didacticism and fanciful poetics, leaping into and striving towards an almost literal incorporation of oneself into the natural world, a forming of the body so that it may better understand the implications of being part of a system that is interdependent and full of risks as well as beauty. Raymond Williams writes that the guiding principle in Clare’s poetry is “of wonder at the life which pulses through each entity, an awareness of the dangers it faces, and an intense desire to write about it before it is lost” (215). I believe that this wonder at pulsing life extends beyond the objects we observe in non-human nature, but to ourselves, as well, and Clare’s ability to talk about nature as related to our bodies and lives pulls forward that wonder. Importantly, however, that wonder is also a double-edged sword when paired with his ecological knowledge because he cannot allow himself to get lost in the wonder, but must remain, as quoted earlier, in “a hairspring balance between delight and apprehension” (141), particularly of the dangers to which living beings are subject. Thus, Clare’s moments of “We’ll leave it as we found it” (“The Nightingale’s Nest”) always pull us back to the stark differences between ourselves and the subject,^10 whether that is the bird, the nest, the tree — in short, the entity at risk of disappearing. Our presence poses a risk to it if we stay too long, either by bringing too much attention to it so that it is endangered or by damaging it ourselves. Throughout these physically-involved poems there is an underlying thread of tension, as if we are on a timer. Thus, while we become so engaged in the world at our feet that we are almost part of the nature we observe, as if attempting the ultimate communing with nature, we are always reminded of the line between the human community and the natural community in that while we enjoy observing their ways of being, we are also aware of and respect their vulnerabilities. Harm to their environment can, in turn, affect our human vulnerabilities and harm our environments.

  1. He wrote to his publisher: “I wish I livd nearer you at least I wish London would creep within 20 miles of Helpstone I don’t wish Helpstone to shift its station” (Clare 19).
  2. Squeaking
  3. Crouches
  4. Barking
  5. “Hills Herbal gave me a taste for wild flowers which I lovd to hunt after … & on happening to meet with Lees Botany secondhand I fell for collecting them into familys but it was a dark system & I abandoned it with a dissatisfaction” (Grainger xliii).
  6. This tactic reflects his habitual relationship with nature as one that needs continual revisiting, to hear and see again and again, since there is no way to do justice to an experience (or a poem) except by continual rereading.
  7. Strewn
  8. Stump
  9. “They make a nest so large in woods remote / Would fill a womans apron with the sprotes” (“The Puddock’s Nest,” Robinson MP V, 367).
  10. Also see: “We’ll let them be and safety guard them well” (“The Pettichap’s Nest”).

Works Cited

Barrell, John. The Idea of Landscape and the Sense of Place: 1730-1840: An Approach to the Poetry of John Clare. Cambridge University Press, 1972.

Clare, John. ed by Edmund Blunden. Sketches in the Life of John Clare. Cobden-Sanderson, 1931.

Clare, John. ed by Eric Robinson. The Early Poems of John Clare, 1804-1822. Vol. I. Clarendon Press, 1989.

Clare, John. ed by Eric Robinson. The Early Poems of John Clare, 1804-1822. Vol. II. Clarendon Press, 1989.

Clare, John. ed by Eric Robinson. John Clare: Poems of the Middle Period, 1822-1837. Vol. II. Oxford University Press, 1996. 

Clare, John. ed by Eric Robinson. John Clare: Poems of the Middle Period, 1822-1837. Vol. III. Oxford University Press, 1998.

Clare, John. ed by Eric Robinson. John Clare: Poems of the Middle Period, 1822-1837. Vol. V. Oxford University Press, 2003.

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

Despret, Vinciane, translated by Helen Morrison. Living as a Bird, Polity Press, 2022.

Despret, Vinciane. Habiter en Oiseau (Actes Sud, 2019, transl. Anne-Lise François) pp. 31-36.

François, Anne-Lise. “Passing Impasse.” Comparative Literature, vol. 72, no. 2, Duke University Press, 2020, pp. 240–57,

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

Goodridge, John and Kelsey Thornton. “John Clare: The Trespasser.” John Clare in Context, edited by Hugh Haughton, Adam Philips, Geoffrey Summerfield, Cambridge University Press, 1994, pp. 87-129. 

Hadot, Pierre, translated by Michael Chase. The Veil of Isis: an essay on the history of the idea of nature, Harvard University Press, 2006. 

Haughton, Hugh, Adam Philips. “Introduction: relocating John Clare.” John Clare in Context, edited by Hugh Haughton, Adam Philips, Geoffrey Summerfield, Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Keegan, Bridget. British Labouring-Class Nature Poetry, 1730-1837. Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

Kelley, Theresa M. Clandestine Marriage: Botany and Romantic Culture. John Hopkins University Press, 2012.

Macfarlane, Robert. Landmarks. Penguin Random House, 2015. 

Mahood, M. M. The Poet as Botanist. Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Neeson, J. M. Commoners: Common Right, Enclosure and Social Change in England, 1700-1820. Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Ogren, Thomas Leo. “Botanical Sexism Cultivates Home-Grown Allergies.” Scientific American Blog Network, Scientific American, 29 Apr. 2015, Accessed May 28, 2022. 

Phillips, Adam. “John Clare’s Exposure.” On Flirtation, Harvard University Press, 1994, pp. 206-217. 

Right to Roam,,recently%20been%20codified%20into%20law. Accessed May 27, 2022. 

Williams, Raymond. The Country and the City. Spokesman Books, 2011.

Williams, Merryn and Raymond, editors. John Clare: Selected Poetry and Prose. Methuen, 1986.

Wordsworth, William. ed by Stephen Gill. William Wordsworth: The Major Works. Oxford University Press, 2008.