Country Life in the Poetry of John Clare

Country Life in the Poetry of John Clare
Title: Country Life in the Poetry of John Clare
Release Date: 2017-01-01
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The Project Gutenberg eBook, Country Life in the Poetry of John Clare, byMildred M. CoenThis eBook is for the use of anyone anywhere in the United States and mostother parts of the world at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever.  You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms ofthe Project Gutenberg License included with this eBook or online at  If you are not located in the United States, you'll haveto check the laws of the country where you are located before using this ebook.Title: Country Life in the Poetry of John ClareAuthor: Mildred M. CoenRelease Date: January 1, 2017  [eBook #53860]Language: EnglishCharacter set encoding: ISO-646-US (US-ASCII)***START OF THE PROJECT GUTENBERG EBOOK COUNTRY LIFE IN THE POETRY OF JOHNCLARE***

Transcribed from the 1922 University of Illinois edition byDavid Price, email [email protected]










January 23, 1922


Mildred M. Coen

ENTITLED Country Life In The Poetry ofJohn Clare


Bachelor of Arts

Clarence Valentine Boyer

Instructor in Charge

Approved Unreadable signature


p.iiiTable of Contents



1. Part I

Economic Conditions in the Time of John Clare


2. Part II

The Life of John Clare


3. Part III

Country Life in the Poetry of John Clare


4. Bibliography


Economic Conditions in the Time of Clare

About forty years before the birth of the Poet Clare, (1793)there began in England a land revolution which by the end of theeighteenth century pauperized a great part of the ruralpopulation.  Up until 1750 fully half of the land of Englandwas worked in “common”, or in accordance with whatwas known as the open field system.  This open field systemmeans that there were special fields set aside for plowland.  These fields were divided into very small stripswhich were alternately cultivated and left unplowed. Besides this plow land, there was a definite area of grazingland, known as the commons.  With the coming of enclosuresthis open field system was abolished.  (By the term‘enclosure’ is meant that all the strips of any oneman scattered throughout the holdings of the village were givento him in equivalent in a single, consolidated acreage, which hehad to fence, ditch, etc.  Or again, the term applies to alarge district, as very frequently the commons, that was fencedin for the wealthy landowner’s sheep-pens.)

An enclosure began with a private bill introduced intoParliament—often by a wealthy landlord.  This bill,showing the advantages of enclosing, was sent to a committee,whose leader or chairman might have been the selfsame landlordwho had proposed the bill.  After being considered andpassed p. 2uponby the house of lords, which was in turn composed of wealthylandowners only, the bill was put into the hands of a commissionto be executed.  Such a commission, perhaps headed by thenobleman wanting the enclosure, descended upon the district anddistributed the land according to their wishes.

Enclosures no doubt increased the national wealth immensely inthe long run.  Of course, no modern system of farming couldsurvive in which an acre was divided into ten or more strips eachwith a different crop and different owner.  And modernmethods were just then being introduced into England, and werefinding an obstacle in the old system that was almost identicalwith the Anglo-Saxon system of a thousand years earlier. But the change was too rapid and altered the character of thenational life of England to such a degree that it wrought untoldhardships for more than half a century.  The people of thevillages were robbed of the barest means of making aliving.  Just as today the small manufacture has no chanceagainst the big one in his line, so then the small landownercould not compete against the wealthy ones, especially since newand expensive machinery and fertilizers were becoming more andmore essential.  The wealthy landowners improved theirestates so that they might raise the rent and make a profit thatcould be compared to the profit made by the fast-rising merchantaristocracy.  The rent on these improved farms was so highthat the small farmer had to give up farming altogether. The commons were enclosed and in a majority of the cases went top. 3the wealthylandowners who raised a better grade of sheep with heavier woolon the pasturage thus afforded: but the small farmer and in factall the rest of the agricultural population did not have a placeto graze a cow.  The small sum of money given them for theloss of their rights in grazing stock on the commons andgathering wood from the waste, was soon spent for the barenecessities of living; and when this was spent, the economicindependence of the laboring population was gone.

The enclosures were thus fatal to three classes of the ruralpopulation: the small farmer, who had at most thirty acres; thecotter or cottager, who had perhaps five; and the laborer who hadless than that or none.  The process of enclosing theirallottments after the consolidation mentioned, was so expensivethat it could not be borne except by a man with some capital tostart on.  The man who was called upon by the enclosingcommittee to promptly ditch and fence his little land, and whocould not do so, was compelled to sell at whatever price he couldget.  The small farmer of thirty acres might possibly haveborne this expense but he received no adequate recompense for hisrights of common; and such advantages as he received from theconsolidation of his thirty acres could not make amends for theloss of common rights.  For, without pasture he could notkeep sheep; with no sheep he could not fertilize his land;without fertilizer the land soon wore out.  The small farmerthen could emigrate to America, or go to an industrial town, orbecome a day laborer.  Thus it was that a small, independentfarmer in a p.4few years became a laborer and in another few years wasperhaps thrown upon parish relief.

The effect upon the cottager can best be described by sayingthat before the enclosures he was a laborer with land; and afterthe enclosure he was a laborer without land.  For theinability to fence and ditch his holdings operated even moresternly in his case than in that of the small farmer.  Agreat part of the land, moreover, that was enclosed was turned topasture by the large owners, and the laborers formerly employedon it were discharged.  Where fifteen men farmed, one manherded.  The cottager and the laborer were thus madedependent on wages alone at a time when competition for work wasbeating wages down to a starvation level.  The squatter wasa poor alien on the land.  He settled on the waste, built acottage, and got together a few geese, perhaps a cow and a horse;and began to cultivate the land.  With the coming of theenclosure he lost his common right; and thus uprooted he couldstart on a wandering journey of beggary.

Perhaps we can get an idea of the misery and universalwretchedness of the rural population if we quote a few words froman eye-witness, Cobbett, in his ParishRegister:

“Their dwellings are little better thanpig-beds; and the looks would indicate that their food is notnearly the equal of that of a nig.  The wretched hovels arestuck upon little plots of ground by the road-side where thespace was wider than the road demanded.  . . . Yesterdaymorning was a sharp frost; and this had set the poor creaturesdigging up their little plots of potatoes.  In my whole lifeI never saw p.5such wretchedness, not even among the plantationnegroes.”

The laborer, to keep from starving, often turned to poachingand petty thievery.  But the noblemen had their parksenclosed against trespassers.  Spring-guns were set up onthe estates.  Poaching offenses were made punishable bydeath, or at the least by transportation to Australia.  Thepoor might seek charity from the parish pauper work-house. Or they might starve.

Many reforms to better these conditions were proposed, mainlybecause the English Aristocracy had just seen in a sister nationwhat a desperate proletariat could do if pushed to extremes ofmisery.  The reform that was adopted goes under the name ofThe Speenhamland System.  In brief, it provided thatif a laborer did not receive a certain minimum wage (which wasset on a sliding scale to correspond to the price of wheat), hewas to be given from the parish relief to make up the setamount.  Nothing was done to force the employer to pay thisminimum wage; and since he could depend upon the parish having topay it, he seldom did give the laborer a living wage.  Theresult was that those who were not already paupers speedilybecame so.  The scheme was the culmination of a series ofstrokes that pauperized an already impoverished nation.

The laborer was separated from the land by the enclosures in agreater degree than can be readily realized.  Before theindustrial and agrarian revolutions, Arthur Young estimated thatout of a population of 8,500,000, the agricultural portion was2,800,000, or one-fourth of the total number.  In the p. 6second decadeof the nineteenth century the total number engaged of farms anddairies was 1,300,000: that is not half the actual number engagedin the century before; while the proportion had sunk from oneperson in four to one in twenty-five.

The main features of this land change were; the open fieldsystem was abolished; the plow and grazing lands were enclosed;small farms were consolidated into larger ones; new methods andmachinery were introduced; and the laborer was separated from theland.  It was in this change of rural conditions that thepoet John Clare was born and reared—in Northamptonshire,which was a purely agricultural district and felt the misery anduniversal pauperization that went with the agrarianrevolution.

The Life Of John Clare (1793–1864)

John Clare was horn in the little village of Helpstone inNorthamptonshire, in 1793.  His family, one of the poorestin the village, was enrolled in the parish pauper list. When the poet was seven, his father by the greatest privationssent him to a certain “Dame-School”; but the moneycould not be spared to keep him there very long, and John washired out to tend the geese and sheep on the commons.  Hesaved up his few pennies during the next two or three years; andagain, at the age of ten, went to school for a few months. This was all the formal education that the poet received; for attwelve he was already working regularly in the fields.  Withhardly strength enough for the slightest labor, so small andweak-armed that his father made him a special flail to threshwith, he must have endured sufferings of body and spirit thoseyears.

When he was thirteen, the reading of Thomson’s“Seasons” led him to believe that he was a poethimself.  He had already showed a poetic temperament: as avery young child he had set out one day to walk towards thehorizon, that he might touch it.  As he grew older he wasunusually credulous of supernatural things, fancying all kinds ofghosts and goblins in the swamps ready to attack him.  Then,when he read the “Seasons”, he scribbled down on apiece of paper the lines which were afterwards known as“The p.8Morning Walk.”  He wrote other verses onscraps of paper which he would stuff into a hole in thewall.  When his mother would find them, she used them forlighting the fires.  The poet showed some of his verses to aMr. Thomas Porter living near Helpstone, and was advised to learngrammar.  The attempt to do this kept him from writing anymore poems for several years.

During these years, Clare engaged in various forms of daylabor to support himself.  For a time he worked among thegardeners in Burghley Park, where he acquired the habit ofcarousing and drinking.  He ran away for a few months butafter wandering about, went back home to work on a farm. Later he found work at a lime-kiln; where, though the

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