John Clare (1793 – 1864), a lately recognized major poet of the Romantic period, was an untrained poet and farm laborer from Northhamptonshire, England. His Major Works abound with nature, but nature idealized, abstracted, and, at times, sentimental.
Where the dark ivy the thorn-tree is mounting,
Sweet shielding in summer the nest of the dove,
There lies the sweet spot, by the side of the fountain,
That’s dear to all sweetness that dwells upon love:
For there setting sunbeams, ere even’s clouds close ’em,
One stretch’d a long shadow of one I adore;
And there did I meet the sweet sighs of a bosom
Of one ever dear, tho I meet her no more.
Nature, and in particular the English countryside, provides Clare with a perfect metaphor to express memory, nostalgia and a capsizing feeling of loss. But it was more than that, nature itself was the subject of Clare’s loss. In particular the wild and common areas that were converted to farming and grazing during his lifetime. 1
Clare witnessed the countryside of his boyhood utterly reshaped. The British Enclosure Acts, enacted by the government during the 18th and 19th centuries, walled and divided common land in order to create private farms. This had a devastating effect on the physicality of the space as well as the humans therein. Clare’s poetry contains a deeply felt a deep longing for what had been.
Oh, happy Eden of those golden years
Which memory cherishes, and use endears,
Thou dear, beloved spot! may it be thine
To add a comfort to my life’s decline.
But his poetry runs much deeper than a lamentation for open meadows. For most of his adult life, Clare suffered from depression—”harassed by perpetual bother,” he called it, according to historian Robin Lane Fox.2
The last two decades of his life, Clare was confined in a mental hospital and wrote, arguably, his best poetry. His sorrow for things lost—nature, horizons, childhood—are a veiled stand-in for the ultimate loss that those of us harassed by depression know all too well: first self, then life.
So when the traveller uncertain roams
On lost roads leading every where but home
Each vain desire that leaves his heart in pain
Each fruitless hope to cherish it in vain
Each hated track so slowly left behind
Makes for the home which night desires to find
And every wish that leaves the aching breast
Flies to the spot where all its wishes rest
Reading Clare and comparing his 19th-century vantage point (clean, unbounded common land) to modern agricultural scapes (separated, divided, but nonetheless beautiful) inspired my rumination on walls as well as a look at The Importance of Walking About.
A stout companion to Clare’s works is Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways, a book that meditates on the intersection of paths and humans throughout the British Isles. Or Thomas A. Clark’s “In Praise of Walking,” a slim prose/poem that says everything considerable there is to say about roaming.
Additionally, the work of Cumbrian sculptor Andy Goldsworthy, who builds structures that “can take the quality of a design in the landscape,” provides a very interesting counterpoint to the interaction of human structures and nature (that we need not disappear into it).
I wish these two could meet and dialogue: what Clare might say about Goldsworthy’s walls, what might Goldsworthy say about Clare’s need for uninterrupted, unblemished, non-humanized landscape.
One century after Clare, English poet and essayist Laurie Lee observed “A decade in the country can slip down the gullet with the deceptive smoothness of an oyster.” Lee’s essays find the same sweetness and delight in the English countryside that Clare did, although it had changed so significantly. I suppose there is some consolation that although everything around us may change, humans will always feel the same.