John Clare in Hiding: ‘He Hides and Sings’

by Ronald Blythe


Ronald Blythe, Talking About John Clare (Nottingham: Trent Books, 1999) 39-47.
(c) Ronald Blythe


In his poem ‘The Botanist’s Walk’, written at High Beach, Epping, Clare says of the nightingale ‘She hides and sings’, which I have often thought might well be a description of himself - ’He hides and sings’. Clare brought to a fine art the old village practise of vanishing in the local landscape. A village was, still is in some ways, the least private place on earth. A native village left one exposed and naked. To have kept an important side of oneself from the eyes and ears of the neighbours would have amounted to genius. To be ‘different’ as Clare was different was disastrous. In Suffolk we called it ‘sticking out’. As we know, John Clare stuck out a mile, sometimes miserably, often not caring. Both tough and sensitive, both profoundly native and yet not belonging, he would occasionally rail about the locals, with their ceaseless gossip and prying, though never with surprise. They were the price he paid for living in paradise. He would play down the latter when away from Helpston and apologise for coming from such a dull place, and every now and then, when at home, he would lash out in ferocious criticism of its meanness, cruelty, injustice and grimness, such criticism being the anger he felt towards those who defiled their own nest, so to speak.

From boyhood on Clare led a double life at Helpston, a now you see me, now you don’t existence. During the course of giving a lecture on Francis Kilvert at Hereford, and mentioning Clare, someone spoke of the poet’s east midlands, seen from the train, as being ‘a featureless plain for miles and miles’. But then his country was Kilvert country, the Wye Valley, the distant Black Mountains, a delectable border land, although as we know from Kilvert’s Diary, a region with its own enchanting, and sometimes terrible, hideaways. A few weeks before this Alan Cudmore and myself had stopped for a picnic by the side of a lane just a couple of miles from Helpston, by chance at a spot which neither of us had noticed before, to find ourselves all at once in a situation of classic John Clare secrecy. There was a group of oaks which would have been full grown in his day, a rutted grassy waste, an empty green lane - and a nightingale in full song. One could have watched the bird or read a book or written verses for hours on end without being seen by a soul. There are villages all over eastern England, like Helpston, which although seemingly laid out on a level which denies shelter or hiding place to those who needed to escape from the community, are full of spots where one can totally disappear.

There is a theme, an obsession, a burning necessity, which runs throughout Clare’s poetry and prose, that of going into hiding. Not that he was alone in doing this. Such a disappearance trick was one of the great arts of the noisy, nosy, inquisitive old countryside. William Hazlitt, of whom Clare wrote a sharply observed profile, had practised such hiding away since he was a boy at Wem, when he would read all day long in the long grass, shutting his ears to cries from the manse. Not long ago I passed my neighbour idling at the far edge of his field and told him, ‘Your wife is calling you.’ ‘I know she is,’ he replied. John Clare had to get out of earshot and out of view in order to see and hear. At Dr Allen’s no doubt rackety asylum with its inmates, attendants and servants, he wrote:

O take me from the busy crowd,
I cannot bear the noise;
For Nature’s voice is never loud;
I seek for quiet joys.

It was at High Beach that he wrote a disturbing poem on how a patient from the asylum would affect the world outside.

I went in the fields with the leisure I got
The stranger might smile but I heeded him not
The hovel was ready to screen from a shower
And the book in my pocket was read in an hour

The bird came for shelter but soon flew away
The horse came to look and seemed happy to stay
He stood up in quiet and hung down his head
And seemed to be hearing the poem I read

The ploughman would turn from his plough in the day
And wonder what being had come in his way
To lie on a molehill and read the day long
And laugh out aloud when he finished his song

...Fame bade me go on and I toiled the day long
Till the fields where he lived should be known in my song

One day Clare lists his own ecstasies, imaginations and hopes. Here is inventory of delights - delights which he shared only with some of his fellow Helpstonians but which he believed should be shared by all. Orchis hunting. Gipsies. Old stone pits fringed with ivy. Gathering cowslips for wine. The pleasure of waiting in a spot to hear the song of the nightingale. Waiting for a lover. The successive growth of flowers - he means the discovering of a certain flower, such as the white violet, in the same place year after year. The pleasures of fair-going in boys. The pleasures of cutting open a new book on a spring morning. The pleasures of lovers walking narrow lanes. House-warming customs. Birds-nest building. Larks. The pleasure of the shepherd making marks to tell by the sun the time of the day. The pleasure of the boy angling over the bridge, and of boys stripping off to jump over a cat gallows. The pleasures of schoolboys climbing the leads of the church to cut their names there. The pleasures of pelting at the weather cock. The pleasure of an old man taking a journey to see his favourite oak gathering into leaf.

Clare’s study of natural history began in solitude but it eventually opened out into consultation, the more so when Taylor his publisher suggested that he wrote a ‘Selborne’ for Helpston. Where the village was concerned, his learned interest in plants and birds made him less strange than his regularly vanishing into the wilds to read and scribble. It had no idea how sacred Helpston itself was to him, and that his vanishings were like the withdrawal from the crowd of a contemplative who needed to feed on silence. Just before the fatal move to Northborough so like was he to his ‘successive growth flowers’ that he might well have been off to Botany Bay - he wrote defensively ‘There are some things that I shall regret leaving, and some journeys that I shall make yearly - to see the flood at Lolham Briggs, to gather primroses in Hilly Wood, and hunt the nightingale’s nest in Royce Wood, and to go to see the furze in flower on Emmonsails Heath.’

In lieu of what was soon to befall him at Northborough, we can see in this constant listing of his birthplace’s secret glories in what he called his ‘solitudes’, and the intellectual and sensuous responses which they accorded, his own statement of what he knew he possessed, even in the madhouse, his true identity card. There it was, the interior document which showed half his life in the blessed woods and fields, half his life in hell.

O could I be as I have been
And ne’er can be no more
A harmless thing in meadows green
Or on the wild sea shore

O could I be what once I was
In heaths and valleys green
A dweller in the summer grass
Green fields and places green

A tenant of the happy fields
By grounds of wheat and beans
By gipsies camps and milking bield
Where luscious woodbine leans

I wish I was what I have been
And what I was could be
As when I roved in shadows green
And loved my willow tree

To gaze upon the starry sky
And higher fancies build
And make in solitary joy
Loves temple in the field

At Helpston Clare sought different solitudes, one for nature study, one for ‘escape’, one for inspiration, one for reading, one for bliss. The uncultivated region beyond the enclosure, the Holes and Hills at Barnack, the muddles and sunken ponds, all became a set of outdoor rooms where he could safely close the door on noise and intrusion. He is the human nightingale who hides and sings.

While I wander to contrive
For myself a place as good
In the middle of a wood
There aside some mossy bank
Where the grass in bunches rank
Lifts its down on spindles high
Shall be where I choose to lie

But other things belonging to what might have been often intrude into these hides, such as Mary Joyce’s voice, whose ‘beautiful tone . . . made loneliness more than alone’. It was often the fate of the religious who went to hear God in desert silences to hear instead some other, unbearable, voice.

John Clare frequently rationalises his need to hide with that of the wild creatures. ‘Nightingales are very jealous of intrusions and their songs are hymns to privacy’. He often sees himself like ‘the time-killing shepherd boys whose summer homes are ever out of doors’ and he celebrates their workaday (and workanight) freedom in two splendid poems. He likes the idea that ‘The pewits are hid from all sight but the allseeing sun’ and that the martin cat ‘hides in lonely shade / Where prints of human foot is scarcely made’, that the hedgehog hides beneath the rotting hedge, and that ‘each nimbling hare / Sturts quick as fear and seeks its hidden lair’. Though the robin seems to be fond of company and the haunts of men, and makes no secret of its dwelling. Yet when he writes ‘The Robin’s Nest’ he makes it a poem to solitude. Helpston, slogging away on the land, finds him timewasting and problematical. Often in village terms he is a skiver. Even when sharing its normal toil.

I homeward used to hie
With thoughts of books I often read with stealth
Beneath the blackthorn clumps at dinner hour

The village would have understood that other stealth which he wrote about. Until quite recently the woods and meadows were erotic. Noting a daisy in some flattened grass, Clare wrote:

Might well e’en Eve to stoop adown and show
Her partner Adam in the silky grass
This little gem that smiled where pleasure was

Arm-in-arm courting along the footpaths and lanes was the public statement of the clandestine lovemaking which took place in the secret tangles and wastes. One day Clare would write, wryly, ‘The pleasures of youth are enjoyed in youth only’.

Soon he would be obliquely describing himself as ‘the man of science’, and with some justification. His publisher James Hessey had recommended him to read Gilbert White. Not that Hessey ever had any great faith in what Clare might do in this direction, but it was a percipient notion all the same. Yet there were dangers. ‘I would have you be careful how you venture into prose . . . You may injure your poetical name by a prose attempt’. But as Margaret Grainger points out in her The Natural History Prose Writings of John Clare, publishers like John Taylor and James Hessey could have had little or no comprehension of the intellectual field into which Clare had been taken by Edmund Artis and Joseph Henderson. All three of them had become indeed ‘men of science’. Helpston itself positively welcomed the news that Clare was collecting information on birds and beasts and flowers, and was eager to contribute. ‘The winter before last one of Phillips draymen of the common brewhouse Stamford, when coming to Helpston, saw a strange bird in Pilsgate meadow . . . a schoolmaster was at a public house and tho he had Pennants History he declared that he was unable to call it by its name.’ It could have been a young heron or a gannet. As for Clare’s prose, it is frequently electric. He is the master of the startled moment, of the confrontation between himself and the surprised creature which he is stalking. He is not at all like Gilbert White. Although he now is ‘the man of science’ he remains the birdsnesting boy and the bird-like hiding poet. It often embarrassed him to be caught-out doing youthful things when he was a grown-up. ‘I feel almost ashamed of my childish propensities and cannot help blushing if I am observed by a passing neighbour’.

With a possible John Clare’s Natural History of Helpstone on the stocks, and with the locals finding it an acceptable task, his excursions need no longer be fugitive. When the village saw him, day after day, and even late at night, making for his hides, it made sense to them. They chose to forget that their man of science had been notorious for loving ‘each desolate neglected spot / That seems in labours left forgot’. Or in other words the poet’s relief at finding a place which neither plough nor woodman, railway navvy nor roadmaker had violated. It thrilled him to the heart to discover some unreclaimed spot. He moved stealthily among these wastes which had become nature’s own enclosures in acts of consecration. ‘The sacredness of mind in such deep solitudes we seek - and find’. He joins what he calls their ‘heirs and tenants’. He wrote, ‘I felt it happiness to be / Unknown, obscure and like a tree / In woodland peace and privacy’. And he is intrigued by seeing the behaviour of someone, such as the cow boy, who gives vent to his feelings when he thinks himself unobserved.

Absorbed as in some vagrant summer dream
And now in gestures wild
Starts dancing to his shadow on the wall
Feeling self-gratified
Nor fearing human thrall

It was of course this habit of lying low from childhood which made John Clare a naturalist. He was from the very beginning on the level of ‘different insects passing and repassing as if going to market or fair, some climbing up bents and rushes like so many church steeples, and others getting out of the sun and into the bosom of a flower’.

Soon he would be hidden away until the end of his life, though not in solitude. That must have been the worst horror of it. He wrote himself out of this worst of all isolation, and incessantly, to bring back the old hiding places, a girl’s voice and the wild birds’ songs, and an uncontaminated air. He had always loved the Book of Job and now he tasted its despair. In ‘The Nightingale’s Nest’, among his finest achievements, he states:

- How subtle is the bird she started out
And raised a plaintive note of danger nigh
Ere we were past the brambles and now near
Her nest she sudden stops - as choaking fear
That might betray her home so even now
We’ll leave it as we found it - safetys guard
Of pathless solitude shall keep it still
See there shes sitting on an old oak bough
Mute in her fears our presence doth retard
Her Joys and doubts turns all her rapture chill
Sing on sweet bird may no worse hap befall
Thy visions than the fear that now decieves.

Ronald Blythe
President, John Clare Society