Just over a mile from the Northamptonshire village of Helpston, where the so-called peasant poet John Clare was born, baptised and buried, lies a peculiar, teeming patch of uncultivated ground.
Westbound drivers passing the mouth of it on the farm-lined road between Peterborough and Stamford might catch sight of the hoardings for the Stamford Stone Company and Swaddywell Quarry.
However, this would give them no sense of the landscape within, emphatically reclaimed by nature in a way that would have lightened Clare’s often troubled mood.
No English poet has identified himself more viscerally than he with the soil and landscape of his birth and childhood years. None has written more engagingly of what could be observed by a keen eye in the secluded places of those flatlands to the north and west of Peterborough. In The Lament of Swordy Well Clare effectively throws his own voice into the throat of the earth and becomes this bit of ground. As poetic ventriloquism goes, it could hardly be more passionate.
“I’m Swordy Well,” he writes, “a piece of land/That’s fell upon the town,/Who worked me till I couldn’t stand/And crush me now I’m down.”
In bemoaning the over-exploited state of this plot, he is also directing his rage for the umpteenth time at the enclosures which had radically altered the open landscape of his boyhood. The sense of a shared cause he frequently notes between himself and the vanishing commons is enough to make his admirers suspect that his bouts of depression and insanity were largely brought on by the drawing-in of his own native ground’s physical boundaries. To a creature of his sensibilities, it was nothing less than enclosure of the self.
He was to spend the last twenty-three years of his life in Northampton General Lunatic Asylum, still writing prolifically and, in the view of the critic Geoffrey Summerfield in his 1990 selection of Clare’s verse, producing work of an intensity and vibrance reminiscent of Vincent Van Gogh’s later pictures.
While such contemporary Romantics as John Keats and William Wordsworth might celebrate the English countryside with high imagery and classical allusion, Clare’s verse is grounded, close and specific. Like Keats, he wrote of the nightingale, but their birds are from different, even alien worlds. For the Londoner Keats, a member of the so-called Cockney School of poets, the creature was a “light-winged dryad of the trees”; for the farm labourer’s boy, following quite literally in his father’s footsteps, the source of fascination was the bird’s dwelling, in which “dead oaken leaves/Are placed without and velvet moss within/And little scraps and, scant and spare,/What scarcely seem materials, down and hair.”
His impulses are to note such things as the growth pattern of hawthorn, to celebrate the downy white covering of catkin, to detail with painstaking precision the paths, patterns and surroundings of animals’ lives. And as the poet Paul Farley pointed out in his 2007 selection of Clare’s poems, he really does notice things: “the squeak and clap of a favourite gate, the ‘guggles and groans’ of a brook – but at certain moments in his work, it’s as if he’s trying to synthesise the very act and habits of reading and writing with what’s being described.”
As the son of a farm labourer and an illiterate mother, his childhood was as poor in material terms as its countryside was rich in the stuff that was to inspire his prolific output. It is often suggested that his capacity for melancholy was due in part to the additional loss of his twin sister in her infancy.
In The Lament of Swordy Well of course, he goes further than mourning the fall of these acres to the forces of commercial production, and becomes the place itself. In so doing, he gifts the land with articulacy so that the complaint comes to resemble that of a parishioner fallen into destitution.
“I am Swordy Well a piece of land/ That’s fell upon the town/ Who worked me till I couldn’t stand/ And crush me now I’m down.” This humanising of natural matter runs like a current through his work. In his poem The Fallen Elm he addresses the tree in question directly, observing that “Thou owned a language by which hearts are stirred/Deeper than by a feeling clothed in words,/And speakest now what’s known of every tongue,/Language of pity and the force of wrong.” Complaint, he tells us time and time again, is not the sole prerogative of humanity.
Between Clare’s time and ours, Swaddywell’s own biography has also been an eventful one. There was the compression of its name, the earlier version having been a reference to a sword that was allegedly found there. Shaped rather like a hand pistol, the site points skewily in the direction of Stamford, an impeccable town of Lincolnshire limestone, crowded with churches and wormholed with narrow passages from square to square.
Clare had knowledge of this place too since its close neighbour is the palatial Burghley House, home to the Cecil family for sixteen generations, starting with Elizabeth 1’s indispensable adviser William Cecil. Clare worked here for two periods, first as a teenager and later in his early twenties. It is reckoned to be the second largest home in the nation, after Buckingham Palace, and sitting in the heart of a 300-acre deer park landscaped by Capability Brown.
With its state rooms, chapel, paintings by Gainsborough and Breughel, it is perhaps no surprise that when Clare was invited to meet the Marquis of Exeter, he was deeply embarrassed by the sight and sound of his own soiled hobnail boots on the marble floor.
He would surely have been cheered, and surprised, to learn that Swaddywell was to become one of the first nature reserves in England. In 1915 it was included in the so-called Rothschild List, named after the English banker and entomologist Charles Rothschild. This register contained 284 sites which he considered suitable candidates for that protective designation.
No less than Clare’s early life, Swaddywell’s was one of labour; six years after the end of the Great War it was sold, and the quarrying was resumed. For the rest of the twentieth century its CV became diverse. In the Second War it was pressed into service as a bomb dump; then it was filled and taken back into agricultural use. Since then, until its present management by the Langdyke Countryside Trust, it was variously a fly-tipping site, a venue for raves and a Volkswagen racetrack. Formed in 1999, the Trust’s work includes a John Clare Countryside Project, whose admittedly poetic vision includes the restoration of swifts and swallows as a central feature of summer evenings; the flourishing of diverse creatures, be they otter or insect; the silence of the natural world and its dark skies; the “cherishing of heritage around them, both natural and man-made.”
To enter the place now feels like arriving in another country – one removed not by place but time. The absence of tarmac, walls, hedges, anything that speaks of demarcation, is a presence in its own right. The substantial meadow where the rubbish tip once sprawled is now a breeding ground for grassland wildflowers. The reserve has become a home to dragonflies, butterflies, dwindling bird species such as the yellowhammer and reed bunting.
Though the perimeter is barely more than a mile, there is an interior vastness to it. With such an abundance of wild growth, even the modest wooden observation cabin beside the path can look like an alien presence. Up in the top corner is the long-disused quarry which has partially flooded into a triumphantly unmanaged expanse of reed and water. Of the many species of dragonfly here, the Trust singles out the Emperor for special praise, citing its ability to travel at 40 mph while “clashing in aerial duels with rival males.”
Up the road in the village of Helpston, Clare remains very publicly in evidence. Here stands the sober memorial with its imitation lancet windows, funded by public subscription and erected in 1869.
Though the line of houses carries on all the way down West Street to the medieval humps of Torpel Manor Field, the core of the village is little more than a crossroads.There is a single shop, which is both post office and general store. There is also a defunct red phone box nearby finding new usefulness as a free library, packed to bursting with books. A hundred yards down Woodgate you come to the cottage of his birth. Bought in 2005 by the Trust, this has now been partially restored so that some of the rooms look as they would have done during his time there; the gardens likewise, planted with varieties of flowers and herbs he would have known.
On the ground floor there’s a café and a shop, with a range of books attesting to the growth of the Clare industry: At Helpston: Meetings with John Clare by Ronald Blythe, himself the author of a famous account of village life with his book Akenfield in 1975; John Clare and the Folk Tradition by George Deacon, exploring the vital relationship between the poet’s work and the rich heritage of local songs and fiddle tunes he learned from his musician father and fellow players. These premises occupy a careful place between the public and the private, being both a busy outlet for Clare merchandise and a tastefully managed secular shrine. Relaid in the kitchen after a long spell of exile in the garden are the original floor stones. In the living area are the exposed original beams. Through panels of Perspex you can see the original wattle-and-daub construction of the walls.
Next door is the Blue Bell Inn, where in his early adulthood he worked as a pot boy. One of the rooms here is called the John Clare Snug, and he would surely have savoured the irony of someone from such humble stock as he becoming the focal point of literary tourism.
As for the gravestone at St. Botolph’s Church, here is nothing less than posthumous aristocracy. Also funded by his admirers, Clare’s is the only supine stone in view and, in the long shadows of an evening sun, the surrounding ones can look as though they have assembled in tribute to their fallen neighbour. Each year the children of the village lay a bright floral display of “Midsummer Cushions” at the graveside.
Over the years the tribute on the stone, “A poet is born not made” fell victim to the spread of lichen (recently removed) until the final letter was almost indecipherable, and you could be forgiven for reading that a poet is born not mad. Whatever the truth of that, it touched a sensitive area since Clare’s life had been blighted by bouts of severe mental illness, involving episodes of despair and delusion, and causing him to spend the last two decades of his life in an asylum in Northampton.
The causes of these afflictions remain the subject of much debate and speculation. Was the condition innate, or was it the result of some trauma? Was it a combination of the two? Certainly his life was marked by bouts of mental instability and episodes of plain delusion. For a while in his twenties, the publication of his first collection of poems by the established London house of John Taylor made him something of celebrity, feted and visited by literary tourists from the capital. This fame waned, as did his public fortunes and his spirit.
It was Taylor who in the summer of 1837 had helped him gain admission to High Beach, a private asylum next to Epping Forest run by the enlightened Dr. Matthew Allen. During his time here he was reportedly “full of strange delusions,” thinking himself to be a prize-fighter and, later, the poet Lord Byron. Not far from the asylum lived the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson at Beech Hill House, and it is possible the two men met. Tennyson was said to be “delighted with the mad people…the most agreeable and the most reasonable persons he has met with.” Clare also maintained that he had two wives, one being Martha (or “Patty”), to whom he was indeed married, and the other being Mary Joyce, the object of his youthful infatuation.
In 1840, in a letter to The Times, Dr. Allen wrote this of the poet: “It is most singular that ever since he came…the moment he gets pen or pencil in hand he begins to write most poetical effusions. Yet he has never been able to obtain in conversation, nor even in writing prose, the appearance of sanity for two minutes or two lines together, and yet there is no indication of insanity in any of his poetry.”
Whatever the causes of his mental affliction, it would be impossible to overlook the effects of enclosure, the upheavals it brought to this stretch of land and to those who lived on it and from it. Coming as it did in 1809, the Helpston Enclosure Act coincided with the second year of the Peninsular War being waged against the French by Spain, Portugal and the United Kingdom. To Clare, who was sixteen at the time, the effects were no less destructive than warfare, and in his later poem Remembrances he was to make the comparison explicit : “ Enclosure like a Buonaparte let not a thing remain,/It levelled every bush and tree and levelled every hill/And hung the moles for traitors – though the brook is running still/It runs a sicker brook, cold and still.”
This sense of a birthright suddenly stolen with the vanishing of the commons recurs constantly in his thoughts and his verse. In a particularly elegiac poem, The Moors, he rues the passing of “the wandering scene”, and recalls that “its only bondage was the circling sky”. To read these and his countless other complaints, in prose as well as poetry, about the effects of the 1809 Act is to sense the desperation of a native who has quite literally had the ground, and with it the known world, stolen from under his feet. As his perspectives shift from communal grazing land to private usage, he assumes the bewilderment of a stranger, edged out by the sharp elbows of the new spaces, all squares and rectangles. His poems grow full of remembered spaces: Emmonsales Heath, Oxey Woods, Lolham Briggs, Round Oak Spring, Swordy Well.
In his 2003 biography of Clare, Jonathan Bate makes the often overlooked point that enclosure, for all the hostility it generated, should also be credited with increasing rural employment and productivity. But he adds that “what matters to individual lives is personal experience, not economic statistics.”
Around the time of writing Remembrances, Clare suffered a further deracination. His longstanding patron Lord Fitzwilliam had meant well in offering the family better accommodation in the nearby village of Northborough, but to Clare the move felt like bitter exile. The Rev Gary Alderson, whose benefice includes St. Botolph’s Church, is sympathetic, as is local resident Anna Kinnaird, a committee member of the flourishing John Clare Society. Northborough may only be three miles away, they observe, but to one as finely attuned to his immediate surroundings as was Clare, the distance was immense. “The landscape makes this sudden shift,” says Mr. Alderson. “In Helpston you’re on the end of the limestone ridge. But then everything on from here is fen and more fen.’’
In a recent sermon he noted that the present state of the countryside would baffle and depress the poet who observed it so scrupulously. Creation itself “groans and travails in pain….And yet. Maybe things are taking a turn. The red kites or, as Clare often called them, ‘puddocks,’ are soaring again over the Nene and Welland valleys. As I wrote this sermon, I looked out of my study window at three pyramidal orchids growing in the lawn – things I never dreamed you would see growing in a front yard!”
There is another memorial to Clare, though it is neither official nor easily accessible. To reach it, you must make your way west out of Helpston for about five hundred yards, then north at the T-junction, from where the Langley Bush Road, or B1443, brings you towards two rail crossings just three hundred yards apart. The first takes you over the railway line bound west for Stamford, Oakham, Uppingham and, eventually, Birmingham. The second, from which this branch has sprung, is the East Coast mainline between London and Scotland. The first tracks were laid during the 1840s, by which time Clare was already gone from this landscape and living out his days at the Northampton asylum. Such is the speed and frequency of the InterCity expresses that the barriers seem to be closed for longer than they are open. The trains have taken less than one hour to cover the distance which took Clare four days and nights when he walked away from his earlier asylum in Epping, orienting himself by lying down at night with his head to the north.
Once over this line and the Maxey Cut flood relief channel, the road hunkers down on a series of low stone arches. You are on the old Roman road, now called King Street, with its nine stone bridges bearing it across the Welland flood plain towards the village of West Deeping. Clare frequented these crossings, and celebrated them in a poem called The Flood: “On Lolham Brigs in wild and lonely mood/I’ve seen the winter floods their gambols play/Through each old arch that trembled while I stood/Bent o’er its walls to watch the dashing spray.”
At one of these bridges you can clamber down the grassy bank and enter the arch. Here you are likely to find a supermarket trolley, a narrow low table, an old camping stove, sleeping bags made lumpy with stored clothes, an old counterpane turned into a rug. The place is like a burrow for human creatures, something between dereliction and, provided the day is warm, rough homeliness. On the steep-sloping shoulders of the arch are carved names, some bold and crafted, others not. J. Dolby 1871; J.M. 1852; Arthur, spelled in an arching row of capitals, but with no date; and, on one of the stones close to the base of the arch, the slightly smudged but clear enough characters of J. Clare, Helpston, followed by what looks like the year 1818.
In his lament for Swordy Well, Clare is similarly immersed in the features of the land that produced him. For all the clarity of his protest, the poem owes much of its richness and complexity to the way in which this eventful piece of ground, having been given its own articulacy, then goes on to note the sorrows of the people who have lived and struggled there. At times it appears to be throwing its own voice back as spokesman in the cause of sympathy for human impoverishment: “I couldn’t keep a dust of grit/Nor scarce a grain of sand/But bags and carts claimed every bit/And now they’ve got the land.”
As well as standing up for the much maligned, even hanged, creature, the mole, which he considered an essential sifter of deep soil, Clare had a fondness and fascination for weeds, considering their apparent lack of use as a manmade prejudice.
Though his own verse may often seem to despise the present by recalling a vanished past in yearning terms, he has also come to be known increasingly as an essential voice in matters of the Anthropocene, the name given to the present geological era in which atmospheric and geological changes appear to be substantially driven by human activity. Two influential pioneers in this appraisal of the poet have been the anthropologists Richard Irvine and Mina Gorji. In 2013 they argued, in The Cambridge Journal of Anthropology, that his close, radical study of natural processes and land management gave him “a particular pertinence” at such a perilous time in the Earth’s environmental and geological history.
In the light of such an opinion, the land at the heart of The Lament can almost assume the character of a down-and-out proclaiming his rage across the centuries and finally getting heard.
The Lament of Swordy Well
Petitioners are full of prayers To fall in pity’s way, But if her hand the gift forbears They’ll sooner swear than pray. They’re not the worst to want, who lurch On plenty with complaints, No more than those who go to church Are e’er the better saints. I hold no hat to beg a mite Nor pick it up when thrown, No limping leg I hold in sight But pray to keep my own. Where profit gets his clutches in, There’s little he will leave; Gain stopping for a single pin Will stick it on his sleeve. For passers-by I never pin No troubles to my breast, Nor carry round some names to win More money from the rest. I’m Swordy Well, a piece of land That’s fell upon the town, Who worked me till I couldn’t stand And crush me now I’m down. In parish bounds I well may wail, Reduced to every shift; Pity may grieve at trouble’s tale But cunning shares the gift. Harvests with plenty on his brow Leaves losses’ taunts with me, Yet gain comes yearly with theplough And will not let me be. Alas dependence, thou’rt a brute Want only understands; His feelings wither branch and root That falls in parish hands. The muck that clouts the ploughman’s shoe, The moss that hides the stone, Now I’m become the parish due Is more than I can own. Though I’m no man, yet any wrong Some sort of right may seek, And I am glad if e’en a song Gives me the room to speak. I’ve got among such grabbling gear And such a hungry pack, If I brought harvests twice a year They’d bring me nothing back. When war their tyrant prices got, I trembled with alarms; They fell and saved my little spot, Or towns had turned to farms. Let profit keep an humble place That gentry may be known; Let pedigrees their honours chase And toil enjoy its own. The silver springs grown naked dykes Scarce own a bunch of rushes; When grain got high the tasteless tykes Grubbed up, trees, banks and bushes, And me, they turned me inside out For sand and grit and stones And turned my old green hills about And picked my very bones. These things that claim my own as theirs Were born but yesterday, But ere I fell to town affairs I were as proud as they: I kept my horses, cows and sheep And built the town below Ere they had cat or dog to keep – And then to use me so. Parish allowance, gaunt and dread, Had it the earth to keep, Would even pine the bees to dead To save an extra keep. Pride’s workhouse is a place that yields From poverty its gains, And mine’s a workhouse for the fields, A-starving the remains. The bees fly round in feeble rings And find no blossom by, Then thrum their almost-weary wings Upon the moss and die. Rabbits that find my hills turned o’er Forsake my poor abode – They dread a workhouse like the poor And nibble on the road. If with a clover bottle now Spring dares to lift her head, The next day brings the hasty plough And makes me misery’s bed. The butterflies may whirr and come, I cannot keep ‘em now, Nor can they bear my parish home That withers on my brow. No, now not e’en a stone can lie, I’m just what e’er they like; My hedges like the winter fly And leave me but the dyke; My gates are thrown from off the hooks, The parish thoroughfare: Lord, he that’s in the parish books Has little wealth to spare. I couldn’t keep a dust of grit Nor scarce a grain of sand, But bags and carts claimed every bit And now they’ve got the land. I used to bring the summer’s life To many a butterfly, But in oppression’s iron strife Dead tussocks bow and sigh. I’ve scarce a nook to call my own For things that creep or fly – The beetle hiding ‘neath a stone Does well to hurry by. Stock eats my struggles every day As bare as any road; He’s sure to be in something’s way If e’er he stirs abroad. I am no man to whine or beg, But fond of freedom still I hang no lies on pity’s peg To bring a grist to mill; On pity’s back I needn’t jump, My looks speak loud alone – My only tree they’ve left a stump And nought remains my own. My mossy hills gain’s greedy hand And more than greedy mind Levels into a russet land, Nor leaves a bend behind. In summers gone I bloomed in pride, Folks came from miles to prize My flowers that bloomed nowhere beside And scarce believed their eyes. Yet worried with a greedy pack They rend and delve and tear The very grass from off my back – I’ve scarce a rag to wear, Gain takes my freedom all away Since its dull suit I wore And yet scorn vows I never pay And hurts me more and more. Whoever pays me rent or takes it, I’ve neither words or dates; One makes the law and others break it And stop my mouth with rates. And should the price of grain get high – Lord help and keep it low – I shan’t possess a single fly Or get a weed to grow; I shan’t possess a yard of ground To bid a mouse to thrive, For gain has put me in a pound, I scarce can keep alive. I’m not a man, as some may think, Petitioning for loss Of cow that died of age’s drink And spavin-foundered horse For which some beg a list of pelf And seem on loss to thrive, But I petition for myself And beg to keep alive. There’s folks that make a mort of bother And o’er lost gainings whine, But, lord, of me I’m this and t’other, There’s no-one cares for mine. They strip the grass from off my back And take my things away; I’m robbed by every outlaw pack I own I’m poor like many more But then the poor mun live, And many came from miles before For what I had to give; But since I fell upon the town They pass me with a sigh, I’ve scarce the room to say ‘Sit down’ And so they wander by. The town that brought me in disgrace Have got their tales to say;. I ha’n’t a friend in all the place Save one and he’s away. A grubbling man with much to keep And nought to keep ‘em on Found me a bargain offered cheap And so my peace was gone. But when a poor man is allowed So to enslave another, Well may the world’s tongue prate aloud How brother uses brother. I could not keep a bush to stand For years but what was gone, And now I ha’n’t a foot of land To keep a rabbit on. They used to come and feed at night When danger’s day was gone, And in the morning out of sight Hide underneath a stone. I’m fain to shun the greedy ack That now so tear and brag; They strip the coat from off my back And scarcely leave a rag, That like the parish hurt and hurt While gain’s new suit I wear, Then swear I never pay ‘em for’t And add to my despair. Though now I seem so full of clack, Yet when you’re riding by The very birds upon my back Are not more fain to fly. I feel so lorn in this disgrace, God send the grain to fall; I am the oldest in the place And the worst-served of all. Lord bless ye, I was kind to all And poverty in me Could always find a humble stall, A rest and lodging free; Poor bodies with an hungry ass I welcomed many a day, And gave him tether-room and grass And never said him nay. There was a time my bit of ground Made freemen of the slave; The ass no pindar’d dare to pound When I his supper gave; The gypsies’ camp was not afraid, I made his dwelling free, Till vile enclosure came and made A parish slave of me. The gypsies further on sojourn No parish bonds they like; No sticks I own, and wold earth burn I shouldn’t own a dyke. I am no friend to lawless work, Nor would a rebel be, And why I call a Christian Turk Is they are Turks to me. I am the last Of all the field that fell; My name is nearly all that’s left Of what was Swordy Well. And if I could but find a friend With no deceit to sham, Who’d send me some few sheep to tend And leave me as I am, To keep my hills from cart and plough And strife of mongrel men And as spring found me find me now, I should look up again. And save his Lordship’s woods that past The day of danger dwell, Of all the fields I am the last That my own face can tell. Yet, what with stone pits’ delving holes And strife to buy and sell, My name will quickly be the whole That’s left of Swordy Well.
John Clare, in the 1830s.