John Clare (1793-1864), a lately-recognized major poet of Romantic period, was an untrained farm laborer from rural Northhamptonshire. His Major Works are fraught with nature. But nature idealized, abstracted.
Clare saw his countryside reshaped, cultivated and changed by the hands of humans. He lived during the Enclosure Acts; common land was walled and divided to create private farms. Like Henry David Thoreau and Mary Oliver – Clare saw a measure of eternity in nature, something grander that extends beyond us, holds us and to which we must return. Throughout his poetry Clare projected a deep longing for something past, something gone.
For most of his adult life, Clare suffered depression, “harassed by perpetual bother.” The last years of his life he lived in a mental hospital and wrote, arguably, his best poetry. His lamentation of 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.
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, how they form, are made, where they exist and in particular, when do we notice them. Clare must have noticed them abounding. Today, I fear we do not.
A stout companion to Clare’s works is Robert MacFarlane’s The Old Ways, a book that meditates on the intersection of paths and humanity throughout the British Isles.
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 Goldsworhty say about Clare’s need for uninterrupted, unblemished, non-humanized landscape.