'Triumphs of Time': John Clare and the Uses of Antiquity,
by Bob Heyes (Birkbeck College, London)

From the John Clare Society Journal, no. 16 (July 1997)
(c) Bob Heyes /The John Clare Society

John Clare worked in an intellectual tradition in which 'antiquities and the countryside were seen as part of a common field of intellectual enquiry and aesthetic response.'1 It was a tradition to which, in an earlier generation, Gilbert White also belonged; although his book is usually referred to as The Natural History of Selborne, it is, in fact, The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne. It was a tradition which long outlived Clare; when an exhibition was held at Peterborough in 1893 to celebrate Clare's centenary it was organised by the Peterborough Natural History, Scientific and Archaeological Society. Although Clare has always been best known for his poems of rural life and his descriptions of the natural world, the world of the past, of ruins and antiquities, was always an integral part of his vision of the English countryside.

When John Clare was a boy one of his favourite occupations was hunting for snails, or pooties as they were called in the Northamptonshire dialect, and this was an interest that continued into adulthood when he met other naturalists who shared his fascination, and who also collected snails. In one of his natural history letters, dating from around 1825, he wrote about his collecting of snail shells, saying:

I found many of them in a spot were it woud puzzle reason to know how they got there A person had been digging a dyke in the old roman bank by the side of a fence & in some places it was 6 feet deep & in the deepest places I found the most shells most of them of the large garden kind which had been clarified as it were in the sandy soil in which they were bedded I suppose them to have lain ever since the road was made & if it is so what a pigmy it makes of the pride of man Those centurions of their thousands & 10 thousands that comanded those soldiers to makes these roads little thought that the house of a poor simple snail horn woud out live them & their proudest temples by centurys it is almost a laughable gravity to reflect so profondly over a snail horn but every trifle owns the triumph of a lesson to humble the pride of man (Natural History, pp. 64-5).

The origin of this passage probably lies in an incident noted by Clare in his Journal entry for 26 December 1824, which provides a further illustration of his profound reflection over these matters:

Found at the bottom of a dyke made in the roman bank some pootys of varied colors & the large garden ones of a russet color with a great many others of the meadow sort which we calld 'badgers' when I was a school boy found no were now but in wet places--there is a great many too of a water species now extinct--the dyke is 4 foot deep & the soil is full of these shells--have they not lay here ever since the romans made the bank & does the water sorts not imply that the fields was all fen & under water or wet & uncultivated at that time I think it does-- I never walk on this bank but the legions of the roman army pass bye my fancys with their mysterys of nearly 2000 years hanging like a mist around them what changes hath past since then--were I found these shells it was heath land above 'swordy well' (Natural History, p. 212).

What is striking about these passages is not merely the detailed description but the way in which Clare uses his observations and draws conclusions from the evidence. As in his poetry, description is never an end in itself but always serves a wider purpose, leading on to questioning the meaning of observations and learning lessons from them. Living in an area rich in evidences of the past, and particularly in Roman remains, Clare grew up with an awareness of the past and with a propensity to draw moral lessons from this awareness. One of the country's main Roman roads, Ermine Street, is near Clare's village of Helpston, and a branch of this, King Street, runs past the village and was often walked by Clare; this is the 'old roman bank' he is talking about.

The former occupants of the country had an almost physical presence for Clare; in another of the Natural History Letters that he sent to his publishers, on 25 March 1825, he again combines detailed observation and careful reasoning with imaginative interpretation:

the heathen mythology is fond of indulging in the metramorping of the memory of lovers & heroes into the births of flowers & I coud almost fancy that this blue anenonie sprang from the blood or dust of the romans for it haunts the roman bank in this neighbourhood & is found no were else it grows on the roman bank agen swordy well & did grow in great plenty but the plough that destroyer of wild flowers has rooted it out of its long inherited dwelling it grows also on the roman bank agen Burghley Park in Barnack Lordship (Natural History, p. 61).

The remains of the past were familiar landmarks to Clare; when discussing ferns in a Natural History Letter he says: 'we have also the thorn pointed fern of lenius thats grows on one spot in a dyke by Harisons closes near a roman station' (Natural History, p. 62). One of the consequences of the enclosure of his village, which Clare so much detested, was that many of these landmarks disappeared; along with the ancient trees and fields, footpaths and streams, which vanished during the enclosure, many Roman and medieval remains were also removed in the craze for agricultural improvement.

It was not only the evidence of the Roman occupation which contributed to Clare's awareness of the past. When he was in his mid-twenties, and just before his first book was published, he was employed as a lime-burner at Pickworth, in Rutlandshire, which is a fine example of a large deserted medieval village; describing this time in his autobiographical writings, he says:

Pickworth is a place of other days it appears to be the ruins of a large town or city the place were we dug the kiln was full of foundations and human bones we was about a stones throw from the spot were the church had been which was entirely swept away excepting a curious pointed arch perhaps the entrance to the porch that still remains a stout defiance to the besiegings of time and weather it now forms a gateway to a stackyard (By Himself, pp. 92-3).

One of Clare's most eloquent statements of the importance to him of these evidences of the past comes in a draft letter apparently written in the early 1830s to Sir John Trollope, who owned the hamlet of Ashton which included a large wood called The Lawn. There is no evidence that Clare actually sent this letter, and if he did no reply seems to have been forthcoming, but the letter sums up admirably Clare's feelings about antiquities:

Altho I am a perfect stranger to you my love for old times & my veneration for antiquity emboldens me to write my wishes which are the wishes of antiquity herself (as she seems to have got out of the worlds way into every nook & comer to be at rest)--In a wood of yours in your Lordship of A[shton] there are some fragments of an old castle or some other vestige of ancient shadows & I frequently in times past paid it a visit as a favourite spot but on last seeing it I was very dissapointed to find that the hand of modern improvement (whose thirst for change is eternal) had found it out & commenced its utter destruction to supply materials for mending the road through the wood--& as I satisfied my own mind that you knew nothing of the matter--to please my own feelings & that of antiquity by rescuing the remaining fragments from the intentions of the road menders I came to the resolution of taking the liberty to write to you--feeling in no fear that I shall offend by the intrusion but a pleasant hope that the spot will be saved from the levellers who on a second visit will leave nothing but the level on which it lies--It is in the wood called the 'Lawn' at the south east corner & close beside it in the neighbouring close is a portion of the moat that used to suround it (Letters, p. 553).

Clare mentions Ashton Lawn, and its ruins, a few years earlier in two entries in his Journal on the 20 and 21 November 1824; on the first of these dates he was out hunting for ferns when he came across the ruined castle,2 and he returned the next day with a friend to have a closer look:

Paid a second visit to the old castle in ashton lawn with my companion J. Billings to examine it—we strum it & found it 20 yards long fronting the south & 18 fronting eastward we imagind about 12 foot of the walls still standing tho the rubbish has entirely coverd them except in some places were about a foot of the wall may be seen it is coverd with in & without with black thorn & privet & s[p]urge laurel so that it is difficult to get about to view it I broke some of the cement off that holds the stones together & it appears harder then the stone it self brought some home in my pocket for my friend Artis there is some rabbits haunts it & the earth the[y] root out of their burrows is full of this cement & perishd stone—part of the moat is still open (Natural History, p. 206).

There is some typically precise observation here, which, together with his later observation of the destruction of the ruins, and his snail hunting, was transformed into a pair of sonnets on Ashton Lawn:


I had a joy & keep it still alive
Of hoarding in the memorys treasured book
Old favourite spots that with affections thrive
& to my inward fancys shine & look
Like well-done pictures in some winning page
Such was old Langley bush by time forsook
With its old sheltered thorn tree mossed with age
& such the roman bank by swordy well
Where idless would a leisure hour engage
To hunt where ditchers toild the pooty shell
Among the sand & grit existing still
Though buried with it sixteen hundred years
Thus man in myriads dies--while time reveres
The simplest things above his mightiest skill

In Ashton lawn condemned to slow decay
Close to the south-east nook a ruined hill
Lies choaked in thorns & briars--yet to this day
Reality may trace the castle still
A fragment of the moat still forms a pond
Beset with hoof tracked paths of horse & cow
That often go to drink & all beyond
Greensward with little molehills on its brow
& fairy-rings in its old mysterys dark
Still wear its ancient name & shepherds call
The closen all around it still 'old parks'
Still traced by buried fragments of a wall
The castles self will soon be nothings heir
Pickt up to mend old roads--old garden walls repair (Midsummer Cushion, p. 448).

In the Journal entry quoted earlier Clare said that he took some of the cement from the old ruined castle home for his friend Artis, and it was Artis who played an important part in developing Clare's awareness of the past, helping to clarify his thoughts and increase his knowledge (3). Edmund Tyrell Artis was the house steward at Milton Hall a few miles from Helpston, and became acquainted with Clare in 1821. He was a noted geologist and palaeontologist; this gave him something in common with Clare, who had been fascinated by fossils since boyhood, as he recounts in his autobiographical writings:

I also was fond of gather[ing] fossil stones tho I never knew these was the subject of books yet I was pleasd to find and collect them which I did many years tho my mother threw them out of doors when they was in her way a Dr Dupere of Crowland collected such things and my friend John Turnill got some for him this gave me the taste for fossil hunting my friend Artis had what was left when I became acquainted with him (By Himself, p. 62).

Artis was also an archaeologist; for many years he conducted excavations in the vicinity of Castor, the neighbouring village to Milton, and was assisted on occasion by Clare. Clare identified a Roman site near his own village and when he and Artis excavated the site in December 1827 they found a fine tessellated pavement. This is an experience which finds a place in one of Clare's most ambitious poems on the subject of antiquity, 'Triumphs of Time'. This is a lengthy poem, twenty-five nine-line stanzas, on the general theme of the impermanence of human achievement. The first two verses read:

Emblazoned vapour half eternal shade
That gatherest strength from ruin & decay
Emperor of empires for the world hath made
No substance that dare take thy shade away
Thy banners nought but victorys display
In undisturbed success thourt grown sublime
Kings are thy vassals & their scepters lay
Round thy proud footstool—Tyranny & crime
Thy subjects are then hail victorious Time
The elements that wreck the marble dome
Proud with the polish of the artizan
Thunders that torture the poor trifling home
Traced with the insignificance of man
Are architects of thine & proudly plan
Rich monuments to show thy growing prime
Earthquakes that rend the rocks with dreadful span
Lightnings that write in characters sublime
Inscribe their labours all unto the praise of time

These are, in a way, conventional sentiments, familiar from many eighteenth and early nineteenth-century poems, although powerfully expressed; however, the poem does not proceed entirely at this level of generality. In verse sixteen, for example, we find clear evidence of Clare's involvement with the archaeology of his district:

Here where I stand thy voice breathes from the ground
A buried tale of sixteen hundred years
Fragments of roman pavements littered round
In each new rooted mol hill thick appears
Ah what is fame that honour so reveres
& what is victorys laurel crowned event
When thy grand powers intollerance interferes
Een Ceasars deeds are left in banishment
Indebted een to moles to show us where he went (4)

The poem also provides evidence of Clare's wide knowledge of history; there are references to Greece and Rome, to Athens and Babylon, reminding us that Clare's knowledge was derived from wide reading, and also from his personal friendships with men and women with antiquarian interests. Edmund Artis was perhaps the most significant of these, but by no means the only one; for instance, Clare was acquainted with Dr Georg Noehden of the Department of Antiquities at the British Museum and visited him when he was in London.

Another of Clare's friends who stimulated his interest in antiquities was Frank Simpson, the eldest son of Alderman Frances Simpson of Stamford. Frank Simpson was a skilled amateur artist with an interest in the antiquarian, and particularly in church architecture. Simpson was in the forefront of the renewed appreciation of church architecture which generated a powerful interest in ecclesiology in the 1830s and 40s. Sometime around 1826 or 1827 John Clare and Frank Simpson took a trip into the Lincolnshire fens to visit Crowland. During their visit Simpson made a drawing of the ruined abbey, and Clare wrote a sonnet which was first published in The Literary Souvenir for 1828 and was reprinted in Clare's last book, The Rural Muse:

Crowland Abbey.

In sooth, it seems right awful and sublime
To gaze by moonlight on the shattered pile
Of this old Abbey, struggling still with Time,
The grey owl hooting from its rents the while;
And tottering stones, as wakened by the sound,
Crumbling from arch and battlement around,
Urging dread echoes from the gloomy aisle,
To sink more silent still.-The very ground
In Desolation's garment doth appear,
The lapse of age and mystery profound.
We gaze on wrecks of ornamented stones,
On tombs whose sculptures half erased appear,
And rank weeds, battening over human bones,
Till even one's very shadow seems to fear.(5)

The language here, with its Gothic overtones, is somewhat uncharacteristic of Clare, possibly because he was aiming at something which would be appropriate to the literary annuals. More probably, however, he took his cue from Frank Simpson's drawing although, since we don't have that, it is impossible to know how Simpson represented the scene. Certainly the poem seems to have been intended to accompany the drawing, as Simpson reveals in a letter written to Clare on 28 December 1827 in which he comments on this and another poem of Clare's which he has seen in the annuals:

I have had a stolen Sight of your poetry in the Xs presents & the Amulet is before me. The quiet Mind is a very good thing & I hope you may long enjoy that the greatest Earthly Blessing in a literal Sense. They are all creditable to you & I could not help feeling a little envious that the World at large should share what I had before thought was all my own the "Crowland Abby Sonnet". That is an admirable thing & I never saw it shewn up or rather heard it read up with such Effect as by Mrs Eaton the Bankers Wife who is a very superior Lady to whom I shewed them somtime since with its concommitant the Drawing of the Abby (6).

It was not only the physical remains of the past that fascinated Clare; when first lent the three volumes of Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry he told his publisher, 'there is some sweet Poetry in them & I think it the most pleasing book I ever happend on the tales are familiar from childhood all the stories of my grandmother & her gossiping neighbours I find versified in these vols' (Letters, p. 82). Clare himself became a collector of songs and ballads, the earliest collector in southern England. His father claimed to know a hundred ballads by heart, and many of these were among those recorded by Clare; being a fiddler he could read music well enough to prick down a tune and two of his tune books still exist. He also recorded folklore and customs and published an article on these in William Hone's Every Day Book (7).

In all of Clare's poems on historical themes there is a real sense of historical change; in her book England's Ruins Anne Janowitz discusses briefly a Clare poem, 'Ruins of Despair', and she remarks that it is 'sharply anti-picturesque' and possesses 'indomitable materiality', (8) and this is true of all of these poems of Clare's. But when you've excavated Roman remains, when you've dug a lime-kiln, when you've picked up beads and coins, fragments of pottery and fossils while working in the fields, when you've dug for snail shells in the 'roman bank', in other words when you've got dirt under your finger nails, it makes for a certain materiality.

The point about the anti-picturesque nature of Clare's verse is also important. Unlike most of the other eighteenth and early-nineteenth-century poets discussed by Anne Janowitz, Clare never uses his description of the remains of the past as a means of naturalizing, and thereby de-historicizing, the past, of distancing past from present and so contributing to what Janowitz calls 'a growing gap between political and poetic functions'. (9) With Clare the reverse is true, his discussion of historical themes becomes a vehicle for the broaching of political ideas; 'Triumphs of Time' was first published, in three instalments, in the Stamford Champion, a radical newspaper, in June 1830. It is generally accepted that the strength and character of Clare's poetry comes from the unique way in which he combines the literary and the oral traditions, but David Vincent has suggested that 'for self-educated working men the problem was not so much encompassing two entirely alien cultural experiences as reconciling the elements of change with those of continuity'. (10) Clare's interest in antiquities enables him to think about these ideas in his verse, and to bridge the gap between the changing and the eternal. In a poem about another relic of the past, 'To a Fallen Elm', he says:

I see a picture that thy fate displays
And learn a lesson from thy destiny (Oxford Authors, p. 97).

The fate of antiquarian remains are continually providing Clare with food for thought and the opportunity to learn lessons. One idea which clearly intrigues him is that of things being reused or recycled: the church arch now standing in a stack-yard, the stones from old buildings being used to make roads, the moat serving as a pond for cows and horses, or, at a more fanciful level, the 'blood or dust of the romans' reappearing centuries later as the 'blue anemonie'. Clare is able to face up to the reality of historical change, to place himself with respect to the changes taking place in his environment, and to think about what changes and what remains. His poetry which deals with time or with historical themes acts as a link between the natural world and the social world, and between the poetic and the political; it enables Clare to explore the political implications of his observations, most noticeably in his 'enclosure elegies' where he confronts the realities of this traumatic event in his life. (11) However, Clare's concerns with the workings of fate occur throughout his poems, and are often bound up with reflections on the fate of his own poetry. As he faced up to the possibility that he might not be a popular or successful poet in his own time, he was able to find comfort in the thought that his works, like the visible remains of the past which surrounded and inspired him, would survive and carry his message to other people in other times. This feeling is given memorable expression in 'The Eternity of Nature':

Cowslaps golden blooms
That in the closen and the meadow comes
Shall come when kings and empires fade and dye
And in the meadows as times partners lie
As fresh two thousand years to come as now
With those five crimson spots upon its brow
And little brooks that hum a simple lay
In green unnoticed spots from praise away
Shall sing--when poets in times darkness hid
Shall lie like memory in a pyramid
Forgetting yet not all forgot though lost
Like a threads end in ravelled windings crost [...]
And think ye these times play things pass p[r]oud skill
Time loves them like a child and ever will
And so I worship them in bushy spots
And sing with them when all else notice not
And feel the music of their mirth agree
With that sooth quiet that bestirreth me
And if I touch aright that quiet tone
That soothing truth that shadows forth their own
Then many a year shall grow in after days
And still find hearts to love my quiet lays (Oxford Authors, pp. 165-6).

Characteristically, though, it is the patterns and incidents of the natural world, surviving down the ages and cherished by 'Time' itself, that offer more cause for celebration than humankind and its monuments, and that draw the poet's deepest engagement with 'Antiquity'.

Bob Heyes (Birkbeck College, London)

From The John Clare Society Journal, no. 16 (July 1997)

(c) Bob Heyes /The John Clare Society


1. Stuart Piggott, Ruins in a Landscape: Essays in Antiquarianism (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1976), p. 101.

2. I am told by Mrs Mary Moyse that the ruins are in fact of an old manor house.

3. For details of Clare's friendship with Artis see Bob Heyes, 'Some Friends of John Clare: the Poet and the Scientists', Romanticism, 2 (1996), 98-109.

4. I am grateful to Professor Eric Robinson for providing the text of this poem as it will appear in the Oxford English Texts edition.

5. The text given here is that which appeared in The Rural Muse in 1835 (p. 123).

6. British Library, Egerton MS 2247, ff. 377V-8.

7. For Clare's activities in the recording of songs, tunes and customs see Deacon.

8. Anne Janowitz, England's Ruins: Poetic Purpose and the National Landscape (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990), pp. 121-2.

9. Janowitz, England's Ruins, p. 65.

10. David Vincent, 'The Decline of the Oral Tradition in Popular Culture', in Popular Culture and Custom in Nineteenth-Century England, ed. by Robert D. Storch (London: Croom Helm, 1982), pp. 20-47 (p. 30).

11. See John Goodridge, 'Pastoral and Popular Modes in Clare's "Enclosure Elegies"', in The Independent Spirit: John Clare and the Self-Taught Tradition, ed. John Goodridge (Helpston: The John Clare Society and The Margaret Grainger Memorial Trust, 1994), pp. 139-55.