John Clare

Melvin Bragg’s ‘In our Time’ featured the 19th century ‘peasant’ poet John Clare – it is well worth a listen. A poet with an unprecedented eye for wildlife and a man who lived through the enclosures of the Northamptonshire Commons which no doubt played a part in the mental health issues he faced later in his life.

You can listen to the radio programme here.

Here is one of his poems – The Cuckoo – he captures the bird and its natural history in words in a way that we would only know 200 years later as a result of scientific research – remarkable.

Cuckoo 1

The Cuckoo

The cuckoo, like a hawk in flight,
With narrow pointed wings
Whews o’er our heads – soon out of sight
And as she flies she sings:
And darting down the hedgerow side
She scares the little bird
Who leaves the nest it cannot hide
While plaintive notes are heard.

I’ve watched it on an old oak tree
Sing half an hour away
Until its quick eye noticed me
And then it whewed away.
Its mouth when open shone as red
As hips upon the brier,
Like stock doves seemed its winged head
But striving to get higher

It heard me rustle and above leaves
Soon did its flight pursue,
Still waking summer’s melodies
And singing as it flew.
So quick it flies from wood to wood
‘Tis miles off ‘ere you think it gone;
I’ve thought when I have listening stood
Full twenty sang – when only one.

When summer from the forest starts
Its melody with silence lies,
And, like a bird from foreign parts,
It cannot sing for all it tries.
‘Cuck cuck’ it cries and mocking boys
Crie ‘Cuck’ and then it stutters more
Till quick forgot its own sweet voice
It seems to know itself no more.


2 thoughts on “John Clare

  1. He also wrote a very graphic poem about badger baiting, and a splendidly observant one called “The Flood.” Sadly, his depression would probably be treatable today and he would not be committed to an asylum. When you remember that his parents were illiterate, you realise what a truly great achievement his poetry was and what a tremendous step getting his work published was.

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