Clare's Earliest Rhymes

The age at which Clare's poetic fancies first wrought themselves into verse cannot be definitely fixed. We know from his steadfast friend and first editor, John Taylor, publisher to the London University, that his fondness for poetry found expression before even he had learnt to read. He was tired one day with looking at the pictures in a volume of poems, which he used to say he thought was Pomfret's, when his father read him one piece in the book to amuse him. This thrilled him with a delight of which he often afterwards spoke, but though he distinctly recollected the vivid pleasure which the recital gave him he could never recall either the incidents or the language. It may almost be taken for granted that so soon as Clare could write he began to rhyme. The Editor of this volume has before him the book in which the boy set down his arithmetical and geometrical exercises while a pupil of Mr. Merrishaw, and in this book are scribbled in pencil a few undecipherable lines commencing, "Good morning to ye, ballad-singing thrush."

He was thirteen years old when an incident occurred which gave a powerful impulse to his dawning genius. A companion had shown him Thomson's "Seasons," and he was seized with an irrepressible desire to possess a copy. He ascertained that the book might be bought at Stamford for eighteenpence, and he entreated his father to give him the money. The poor man pleaded all too truthfully his poverty, but his mother, by great exertions, contrived to scrape together sevenpence, and the deficiency was made up by loans from friends in the village. Next Sunday, John rose long before the dawn and walked to Stamford, a distance of seven miles, to buy a copy of the "Seasons," ignorant or forgetful of the fact that business was suspended on that day. After waiting for three or four hours before the shop to which he had been directed, he learnt from a passer-by that it would not be re-opened until the following morning, and he returned to Helpstone with a heavy heart.

Next day he repeated his journey and bore off the much-coveted volume in triumph. He read as he walked back to Helpstone, but meeting with many interruptions clambered over the wall surrounding Burghley Park, and throwing himself on the grass read the volume through twice over before rising. It was a fine spring morning, and under the influence of the poems, the singing of birds, and the bright sunshine, he composed "The Morning Walk." This was soon followed by "The Evening Walk," and some other minor pieces.

At the age of sixteen, if we may trust the account given by his early friend Mr. Octavius Gilchrist, in the "London Magazine" for January, 1820, Clare composed the following sonnet "To a Primrose":-

Welcome, pale primrose, starting up between
Dead matted leaves of oak and ash, that strew
The every lawn, the wood, and spinney through,
'Mid creeping moss and ivy's darker green!
How much thy presence beautifies the ground!
How sweet thy modest, unaffected pride
Glows on the sunny bank and wood's warm side!
And where thy fairy flowers in groups are found
The schoolboy roams enchantedly along,
Plucking the fairest with a rude delight,
While the meek shepherd stops his simple song,
To gaze a moment on the pleasing sight,
O'erjoyed to see the flowers that truly bring
The welcome news of sweet returning Spring.