This has been a terrible year for horseflies. It’s bad enough if you’re human: often by the time you swat them off the damage has already been wrought by their revolting, cutting mandibles and it’s not till 24 hours later, I find, that the bite reaches peak unpleasantness, swelling into a huge itchy dome which somehow never quite generates the massive sympathy you feel you deserve. But obviously it’s worse if you’ve no hands to swat them with, as Girl and I were reminded when we went out for a summer ride.
Every few yards our mounts shuddered and twitched and twisted their heads back under sustained and vicious assault from the evil clegs. Sometimes, you could see the blood. ‘Kill them! Keep killing them!’ commanded our teacher, Jane, explaining how you had constantly to watch each other’s horses and squash all the biters that their own riders couldn’t reach. It struck me that the horse’s tail is a perfect example of Darwinian natural selection: any proto-horse that lacked such a vital anti-cleg device would soon have been driven by madness to early extinction. (Lessons there for the Conservative party, surely?)
Anyway, days later, I was reading the July entry from my monthly literary treat The Shepherd’s Calendar and I came upon this couplet about horses: ‘Switching their tails and turning round/ To knap the gadflys teazing wound’. And as I often do with John Clare I felt that thrill of delighted recognition at yet another instance of rural life so acutely observed and perfectly expressed. Truly if you love the country there is no finer poet than Clare.
At first, like Betjeman, he feels a bit of a guilty pleasure. The simple, mind-numbingly repetitive, ti-tum-ti-tum-ti-tum metre, the lack of punctuation, the way he’ll rhyme ‘grass’ and ‘lass’ twice within 20 lines, the rustic archaisms, the hints of tweeness — you worry that you might be enjoying something dangerously close to doggerel.
Get over it. (And you will.) The man (same applies to Betjeman, of course) is a genius and right up with the greats. It’s just that his approach is different: untutored, unfiltered, hallucinatory in its intensity, strangeness and immediacy. You need to read him in small doses because otherwise it’s just too much, like tasting a ladleful of honey rather than a teaspoon. (‘Which bees so long were toiling home/ And rifled from so many flowers/ And carried thro so many hours.’)
Even in his heyday, Clare was recognised as a nostalgic curiosity. The Shepherd’s Calendar was published in 1827 — nearly 30 years after Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads — by which time the Industrial Revolution had made Clare’s pastoral idyll look almost as achingly remote as, say, Laurie Lee’s Gloucestershire does today.
Then as now the educated classes yearned to recapture this vanished Eden and for a period Clare — an echt Northamptonshire farm labourer’s son who had variously toiled as a farm hand, a pot boy, in a gipsy camp, as a militiaman and as a lime burner — became the darling of literary London. Reading Clare is probably as close as we’ll ever get to knowing how it really felt to work the land in the pre-industrial age. Unlike lefty, middle-class ponces like Wordsworth, he’d actually lived the life.
He can be wonderfully sensuous. There’s a passage in July where a swain is trying to seduce a pretty maid by plying her with alcohol and solicitousness. ‘And in her hand will oft contrive/ From out his pocket pulld to slive/ Stole fruit when no one turns his eye/ To wet her mouth when she’s adry.’ You wonder how much longer the poor girl is going to be able to hold out against the randy yokel’s twin-pronged assault.
Clare’s priggish publisher John Taylor was discomfited by this kind of detail and insisted he do a bowdlerised version of July with all the smut (‘And snow white bosoms nearly bare/ That charms ones sight amid the hay/ Like lingering blossoms of the may’) and rusticities excised.
‘Editors are troubled with nice amendings & if Doctors were as fond of amputation as they are of altering & correcting the world would have nothing but cripples,’ Clare commented sourly. And he was dead right: the original is far stronger.
Sadly, it wasn’t until Clare’s rehabilitation in the 20th century (by Arthur Symons, Edmund Blunden, and also Britten in his ‘Spring Symphony’) that people began properly to appreciate his talents. In its day, The Shepherd’s Calendar sold quite poorly. When Clare died, aged 71, in the madhouse, he was impoverished and largely forgotten.
But such is so often the lot of great artists. At least we can make amends by appreciating Clare properly today — and I promise, if you haven’t discovered him already, you’ll thank me for the tip. Apart from being a delightful poet, he teaches you to see the English countryside with completely new eyes: the eyes of someone who has spent day after day, year after year, observing those tiny nuances of nature that we’re far too busy these days to notice.
Here he is, writing possibly the best description ever of an intensely hot, summer’s day:
The breeze is stopt the lazy bough
Hath not a leaf that dances now
The totter grass upon the hill
And spiders threads is hanging still
The feathers dropt from morehens wings
Upon the waters surface clings
As stedfast and as heavy seem
As stones beneath them in the stream.
And here is a couplet that I’m sure a sophisticated editor would have excised on the grounds that its too folksy and cute and bathetic, but which for me contains the essence of Clare’s charm:
A horse thats past his toiling day
Yet still a favorite in his way.
John Clare: you’re magical and we love you just the way you are.