Thursday, September 12, 2019

Climate Strike Poetry: John Clare

For another round of Climate Strike poetry: More celebrations of the natural world.

John Clare

John Clare’s sonnet:  
Emmonsails Heath in Winter.

Clare was born into a peasant family in Helpston, a small English village. Both his parents were illiterate, but he received some formal schooling as a boy and teen. He was a contemporary of John Keats (they had the same publisher and briefly exchanged letters).

His first book, Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery (1820) became popular, but he was a passing fad with most of the poetry reading public (known as “the peasant poet” largely by those with wealth and leisure time) and struggled as a day laborer for most of his life before finally being placed in an asylum for the insane in his early forties, where he spent the rest of his life.

His work became well-known in the 1960’s and he is now seen as an equal to the more well-known poets of his time - Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth, etc.

I think of Clare as one of the first ecological poets in the English language. Ecology here defined as the study of the relations of organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings. He spent his entire childhood wandering and laboring in the fields and woods around his village and knew the details of bird nests, gypsy camps, creeks, when certain flowers would appear and when, and wrote poems that made connections between everything...

He was also a keen observer of the political ramifications of enclosure during his time and wrote many laments and elegies for whole swathes of land that were enclosed around his village. Enclosure was the legal process in England of enclosing landholdings into larger farms; use of the land then became restricted and available only to the owner, ceasing to be for communal use.

In Emmonsails Heath, the minute details are woven together into a whole. Each thing is related to the other. When I first encountered this poem I scrambled the lines, put them in different places, and – to my 21st century mind – it still worked, the pattern was still there. Try it.

But what I love most about this poem is that it begins with “I love…”

Emmonsails Heath in Winter

I love to see the old heath's withered brake
Mingle its crimpled leaves with furze and ling,
While the old heron from the lonely lake
Starts slow and flaps its melancholy wing,
An oddling crow in idle motion swing
On the half-rotten ash-tree's topmost twig,
Beside whose trunk the gypsy makes his bed.
Up flies the bouncing woodcock from the brig
Where a black quagmire quakes beneath the tread;
The fieldfares chatter in the whistling thorn
And for the haw round fields and closen rove,
And coy bumbarrels, twenty in a drove,
Flit down the hedgerows in the frozen plain
And hang on little twigs and start again.

’Awe is the Northamptonshire dialect term for hawthorn berry. Closen are small fields or enclosures. Bumbarrel is the long-tailed tit. 


 Oh, no, I can't stop. Here's another one, a mourning of enclosure - the privatization of collective land.
Read it out loud: 

The Mores

Far spread the moorey ground a level scene
Bespread with rush and one eternal green
That never felt the rage of blundering plough
Though centurys wreathed spring’s blossoms on its brow
Still meeting plains that stretched them far away
In uncheckt shadows of green brown, and grey
Unbounded freedom ruled the wandering scene
Nor fence of ownership crept in between
To hide the prospect of the following eye
Its only bondage was the circling sky
One mighty flat undwarfed by bush and tree
Spread its faint shadow of immensity
And lost itself, which seemed to eke its bounds
In the blue mist the horizon’s edge surrounds
Now this sweet vision of my boyish hours
Free as spring clouds and wild as summer flowers
Is faded all – a hope that blossomed free
And hath been once, no more shall ever be
Inclosure came and trampled on the grave
Of labour’s rights and left the poor a slave
And memory’s pride ere want to wealth did bow
Is both the shadow and the substance now
The sheep and cows were free to range as then
Where change might prompt nor felt the bonds of men
Cows went and came, with evening morn and night,
To the wild pasture as their common right
And sheep, unfolded with the rising sun
Heard the swains shout and felt their freedom won
Tracked the red fallow field and heath and plain
Then met the brook and drank and roamed again
The brook that dribbled on as clear as glass
Beneath the roots they hid among the grass
While the glad shepherd traced their tracks along
Free as the lark and happy as her song
But now all’s fled and flats of many a dye
That seemed to lengthen with the following eye
Moors, loosing from the sight, far, smooth, and blea
Where swopt the plover in its pleasure free
Are vanished now with commons wild and gay
As poet’s visions of life’s early day
Mulberry-bushes where the boy would run
To fill his hands with fruit are grubbed and done
And hedgrow-briars – flower-lovers overjoyed
Came and got flower-pots – these are all destroyed
And sky-bound mores in mangled garbs are left
Like mighty giants of their limbs bereft
Fence now meets fence in owners’ little bounds
Of field and meadow large as garden grounds
In little parcels little minds to please
With men and flocks imprisoned ill at ease
Each little path that led its pleasant way
As sweet as morning leading night astray
Where little flowers bloomed round a varied host
That travel felt delighted to be lost
Nor grudged the steps that he had ta-en as vain
When right roads traced his journeys and again –
Nay, on a broken tree he’d sit awhile
To see the mores and fields and meadows smile
Sometimes with cowslaps smothered – then all white
With daiseys – then the summer’s splendid sight
Of cornfields crimson o’er the headache bloomd
Like splendid armys for the battle plumed
He gazed upon them with wild fancy’s eye
As fallen landscapes from an evening sky
These paths are stopt – the rude philistine’s thrall
Is laid upon them and destroyed them all
Each little tyrant with his little sign
Shows where man claims earth glows no more divine
But paths to freedom and to childhood dear
A board sticks up to notice ‘no road here’
And on the tree with ivy overhung
The hated sign by vulgar taste is hung
As tho’ the very birds should learn to know
When they go there they must no further go
Thus, with the poor, scared freedom bade goodbye
And much they feel it in the smothered sigh
And birds and trees and flowers without a name
All sighed when lawless law’s enclosure came
And dreams of plunder in such rebel schemes
Have found too truly that they were but dreams.


Banksy?/Extinction Rebellion Mural

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