John Clare – the poems


You there ? Good. Last time I gave you a quick outline of Clare’s life and the kind of time he lived in- the class system,lack of mass communication etc.

It’s time to have a look at one of his poems.

The wild duck startles like a sudden thought,
And heron slow as if it might be caught.
The flopping crows on weary wings go by
And grey beard jackdaws noising as they fly.
The crowds of starnels whizz and hurry by,
And darken like a clod the evening sky.
The larks like thunder rise and suthy round,
Then drop and nestle in the stubble ground.
The wild swan hurries hight and noises loud
With white neck peering to the evening clowd.
The weary rooks to distant woods are gone.
With lengths of tail the magpie winnows on
To neighbouring tree, and leaves the distant crow
While small birds nestle in the edge below.

It’s a sonnet- you might have noticed. And it’s about birds.I don’t know how good you are on bird recognition- but can you tell the difference between a jackdaw and a crow ? Have you ever seen a heron ? If, like me, you live in the town, you might have a problem.

Clare lived in the country and knew wild birds the way a town boy can recognise motor cars. He knew the way they flew, what they lived on, and this poem shows off his knowledge and his ability to differentiate them.

The answer lies in the verbs he uses – “startles” “flopping” “noising” “whizz” ducks fly as sudden as thought; crows flop through the air.

But it’s not just verbs.
“The weary rooks to distant woods have gone”
Eight words paint a picture- an autumn evening, the rooks flapping away in the dying light.
I’m not sure about the magpies “winnowing” – that usually applies to sorting the wheat from the chaff- I think maybe he’s describing the way the magpies thread their way through the trees.

And what about the larks who “thunder”- their song echoes down from a height, and then they”suthy” (flutter) back to the stubbly ground. Literally a rise and fall.

Fourteen lines- and ten birds named and described in detail- and notice, he doesn’t tell you what they look like- he tells you how they move..
Not bad for a frail, lonely farm boy.

If you’ve found this piece interesting, then get hold of some John Clare. He’s disconcertingly simple at first reading- but there’s a lot beneath the surface.

I think John Clare deserves a place on the Desert Island..don’t you ?


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