‘I felt myself on the way home’: in the footsteps of John Clare

Jake Hearn explores concepts of home and the wild in John Clare’s Helpston.

Some weeks ago, I went on a trip to Helpston in an attempt to follow the footsteps of nineteenth century agriculturalist and poet John Clare. I had no expectations of the trip, and no initial plan when I arrived (in the style of the Clare himself); however, upon arrival and during my exploration of his house and garden, I began to wonder about Clare and his concept of home. I began to ponder why one man felt such a rootedness and connectedness to the landscape which he inhabited, and how the 1809 Enclosure Act which affected Helpston, changed not only the local ecology and surrounding landscape, but also affected Clare’s own physical and psychological engagement with such an environment.

In his 2016 publication, Being a Beast, Charles Foster begins by positing a simple statement: “I want to know what it is like to be a wild thing.” (xi) Foster’s methodology, he writes, includes a sharp understanding of neuroscience; a philosophical and lateral mind; a willingness to inch ‘dangerously down the evolutionary tree’; and, most importantly in my opinion, ‘a lot of the poetry of John Clare.’ Foster seeks to understand not merely what it is like to live as a wild animal; but, rather how and whether it is possible, or not, for a human being to reset their biological clockwork in order to live as a badger in a set; an otter in a body of water; a fox on the urban streets of a metropolis; a deer in the highlands of Scotland, and a swift en route to Africa. Both Clare and Foster demonstrate the difficulties of living such lives in such difficult locales and how we as a species are different because of our innate attachment to places we call home and all that they encompass.

Whilst looking around his cottage and gardens, I gradually became more and more aware of just how important Helpston and the surrounding environment was to Clare and his family. For Clare, Helpston was just as significant and precious as the Lakes were to Wordsworth and the Scottish Borders were to Scott. His understanding of the local environment was encyclopaedic and microscopic to the core: he knew the call of every bird and the leaf of every tree, the print of every animal and the species of every flower. It soon became apparent that it was not merely the small thatched cottage which Clare regarded as ‘home’; rather, it was the entire surrounding landscape: its every tree, river and stone.

During my sojourn, I recalled Jonathan Bate’s fine study on nineteenth century landscape aesthetics and philosophy, The Song of the Earth (2000). Bate – a leading authority on the work of Clare, and his official biographer – notes the importance of twentieth century place philosopher, Gaston Bachelard, and his theory of topophilia (from the Greek, topos = place, and philos = loving), in relation to Clare’s work. Bate notes that “Clare’s poetry is supremely committed to localisation of the spaces of his intimacy with the world.” (155) Whilst walking around the local environs of Helpston, it was easy to grasp Bate’s understanding of Clare’s work: for Clare, there was never a dichotomy between the home (the familiar) and the wild (the unfamiliar). Admittedly, nature, at times, proved uncomfortable and hostile, but he often found shelter in the hollows of trees and the confines of ditches and holes. They themselves became an extension of the family home, a kind of dwelling which, according to Bachelard, Clare inhabited. This inhabitation (a form of immersion), heightened his intimacy with the landscape and natural world, which resonated with the memories of his childhood home and a feeling of familiarity.

In his poem ‘The Hollow Tree’, I love the image of Clare finding himself caught in a summer rain storm and instead of looking for a shelter of bricks and mortar, discovers the hollow of a tree which he temporarily inhabits. The tree becomes a primordial zone in which he experiences an intimate kinship with the land and therefore benefits from its benevolence. For Clare, the tree “becomes centralised solitude” and affords him both protection and sanctuary. Some years after Clare had written his poem, the prolific writer and environmentalist (Clare’s transatlantic bedfellow) – Henry David Thoreau – published a small essay titled Walking (1862). In this extraordinary little piece of writing, Thoreau recounts going on a walk and witnessing a scene of transcendent beauty:

I took a walk on Spaulding’s Farm the other afternoon. I saw the setting sun lighting up the opposite side of a stately pine wood. Its golden rays straggled into the aisles of the wood as into some noble hall. […] The pines furnished them with gables as they grew. Their house was not obvious, to vision: the trees grew through it. […] Their coat of arms is simply a lichen. I saw it painted on the pins and oaks. Their attics were in the tops of the trees. (77-78)

The image is one of familiarity and homeliness. Thoreau, despite being in the middle of a wood, finds a form of comfort in his ability to look at nature as a shelter – a primordial zone of protection, like that of the womb or a family home. One hundred and fifty-ish years later, Roger Deakin went on to write his seminal work: Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees (2007) in which his existence, like Clare, became rooted on the periphery between the wild (the unknown) and the domestic (the familiar).

Some years before he was admitted to High Beach Asylum, there is a noticeable change in Clare’s writing style, changes that mirror the evolving face of the landscape throughout the industrial age in England. In his piece titled ‘Closes of Greensward’, Clare comments on the abundance of bounty afforded by the landscape:

With lakes of water well stocked with fish leaping up in the sunshine & leaving rings widening & quavering on the water with the plunge of a pike in the weeds driving much into the clear water slanting now & towards the top of their bellies in the silver light.

Here, during the summer months, Clare notes the plenitude of fish stocks in the local lakes. His comments here point not only towards the time of the year in which the piece was composed, but, on a more subterranean level, the richness of the landscape before it was divided up for private sale. The movements of the fish and water: “leaping”, “widening”, “quavering” and “driving”, alongside the use of light in the extract, are all images of abundance and prosperity; they represent the period of Clare’s life before he was taken away from his family. Whilst walking through this landscape myself, it was difficult not to feel a sense of untainted joy and restless freedom; yet, what sat deep at the back of my subconscious was the other side of Clare, the side which resulted in his imprisonment.

Around 1809, the Enclosure Act saw the private sale and division of large amounts of the British countryside. In his piece titled Autumn, Clare notes a dramatic change from that of the latter:

Naked fields […] the plot of meadows now don’t look bigger than a large homestead and the ponds that used to seem so large are now no bigger than puddles and as for fish I scarcely have interest enough to walk around them to see if there is any.

As summer turns to autumn, the landscape loses both its vitality and enormity. I read this passage not merely as Clare’s reflection upon the season of autumn (like that which we witness in Keats’ famous ode); rather, I look at it as a passage of text symbolic of Clare’s own mental deterioration and anguish at the rapidly diminishing landscape he once grew up in. The lakes have decreased in depth; the fish stocks depleted, and there is a sense of abandonment and upheaval.

Whilst tracing the periphery of this landscape, I looked out over the fields some miles away from the village and saw the small cluster of cottages of Helpston. Even for me, an outsider, I felt a sense of familiarity and safety and imagined the 90-mile journey Clare made from Epping after his escape from High Beach in 1841. In his Journey Out of Essex, Clare recalls, in vivid detail, his journey home: “It now began to grow dark apace and the odd houses on the road began to light up and show the inside tenants lots very comfortable”. There is a strong sense of longing for home in this passage, one which is comparable to Wordsworth’s famous poem, Michael; a Pastoral Poem:

Their cottage on a plot of rising ground
Stood single, with large prospect […]
And from this constant light, so regular,
And so far seen, the House itself, by all
Who dwelt within the limits of the vale,
Both old and young, was named THE
EVENING STAR.

In this poem, Wordsworth portrays Michael’s cottage as a beacon (of both light and hope) to travellers and locals alike. Clare too, on his journey home to Helpston, found solace from the light of the local cottages and describes how at times, both people and nature assisted him on his journey home. I left Helpston that evening recalling the sentiments of Bate, that “Clare’s poetry is the record of his search for a home in the world.” (153)

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Jake Hearn completed the M.A. Wild Writing: Literature, Landscape and the Environment back in 2015. His thesis, titled ‘Romantic Petrarchism’, focused on the unexplored scholarship of Romantic poet, Lord Byron’s engagement and close relationship with the early renaissance poet, diarist and mountain climber, Francesco Petrarcha. Since completing his M.A., Jake now works in secondary education, both teaching and mentoring, and has recently begun research into a potential Ph.D. topic on literary mountaineering. He blogs at www.isaachearn.wordpress.com.

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One Response to ‘I felt myself on the way home’: in the footsteps of John Clare

  1. Pingback: ‘I Felt Myself on the Way Home’: In the Footsteps of John Clare | Taking a Leaf…

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