'The Poet and the Nest'

We can do some writers no greater injustice than to read them primarily for the information of their times. John Clare is constantly in danger of such readings. But those inventories of his were made for his own peace of mind, not our education, although the bird lists, reminders for him, remind us, quite unbearably, of the wonderful 'Natural History of Helpstone' that never was. When we read his inventories we see a totting-up of what he refused to believe he had lost- and we see everything which, as twenty-first century country people, we once possessed. For a great many of us are in direct descent from John Clare's landworkers. He leaves little out. He was making his lists at the very moment in agricultural history when there were for the first time more people in the factories than on the farms. 

He would not have known this. For Clare field toil would have gone on and on until kingdom come. The huge changes he witnessed, the coming of the railway, enclosure, some mechanisation on the surrounding estates, he treated as unwanted disturbances to the old hard way of life which had for him a spiritual quality of such importance that to alter it was a blasphemy. He was for ever counting what it consisted of right down to the honeydew on the sycamores, to a boy's song, to Mrs Nottingham of the Exeter Arms' description of fifteen will-o-the-wisps dancing reels on Eastwell Moor. Nothing was left out, from the footsteps of girls to the shouts of shepherds, from the insect on the stalk to the sound of those same bells which we hear today.

Helpston was no Eden - Clare was never clearer than on this point - but it was his. Illness and the powers that be took it from him, or would have done so had he not found a way to take it with him. What is the most repeated, most closely observed, most loved centre of his `belonging' in his poetry and prose? It is the nest, its secrecy, its intimacy. What in the object of men's ritual discovery and theft? It is the nest. What brought John Clare into stillness and contemplation, into a silence in which he could hear his heart beating? It was the nest with its sitting bird. His finding and, watching nests took him through folklore, botany and ornithology into a profound self-discovery. Hence that superb list of nest poems which, whilst giving us such unique observations of nature, give us something extra, the poet in all his strength and song and vulnerability. 'The Fern Owls Nest', 'The Ravens Nest', 'The Moorhens Nest', 'The Pewits Nest', 'The Robins Nest' and, finest of all, 'The Nightingales' Nest', these nervous, furtive but complete observations are unique in literature. There is nothing like them.


John Clare was in free-fall all his life. The various and many helping hands held out to save him proved useless. Eventually they caught him and put him in a cage. Here he went on singing, lyrically, sadly, satirically, nostalgically. None of those who shared his cage get a mention, only those who continued to live in the freedom of Helpston, many of whom were in the churchyard, or who he translated to his other native place, Scotland.

Clare's early boy-deeds had to double with child labour, the latter being the custom and the reality. At eight he was wielding a toy-sized flail in the stone barn alongside Parker, his father, though stopping now and then to draw algebraic signs in the killing dust. A pleasant thing happened when he was about ten. Francis Gregory, the young innkeeper next door, got him to run errands and to help plough and reap his eight acres or so of corn. Francis was unmarried and lived with his mother at the Blue Bell. They were both ill. Looking back, Clare said, 'They used me uncommon well as if I was their own'. Mother and son lie by the church tower, their helper by chancel wall. However, continued Clare, ''Tis irksome to a boy to be alone and he is ready in such situations to snatch hold of any trifle to divert his loss of company, and make up for pleasanter amusements'.


It was that there, in Francis Gregory's cornfield, he began his 'muttering', his softly speaking aloud of the rhymes which he would later write down in his bedroom, a tile shifted to let in light. He would memorise lines as he walked to and from Maxey Mill, lugging flour. Boys sang, they did not mutter, and eyes would have been upon him, this child talking to himself, a sure sign of something being wrong. Or different, which is not a good thing to be.

Excerpt from 'A Writer's Day-Book', by Ronald Blythe, published by Trent Editions, 2006.

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