Background to John Clare and Enclosures
by Dave Featherstone (1999)
John Clare, perhaps one of the most overlooked, misrepresented and misunderstood poets in the English language, is an extraordinary fine ‘nature’ poet.
He was the most striking of a number of poets who were seized upon by the early nineteenth century literary establishment as illustrating the authentic voice of the English peasant’ just as that vocation and the landscape that went with it were being banished and razed forever – this representation has startling parallels in the green movements sentimentalised invocation of shifting cultivating tribes in places like Papua New Guinea in a similar epoch of destruction and reinvention of (the idea of) nature.
His poems, despite the ways that they have been represented distinctively go beyond the narrow limits of the pastoral, of the idea of the existence of a harmonious uncontested countryside, and show they are much more than the mad incoherent ramblings of a ‘rhyming peasant’ (he ended his life in an asylum). The poems that made him ‘amusing to Dukes’ in London’s literary scene were generally inferior to his later work – much of which remained unpublished until long after his death.
He grew up in the small fenland community of Helpstone in Northamptonshire, and ‘the green language’ running through his poetry forms beautifully sensitive description of that area’s creatures and people.
‘Remembrances’ and ‘To a Fallen Elm’, are two of the finest examples of the elegies he wrote to the fields and woods which he grew up in as they were destroyed and razed by the brutal progress of enclosure.
Although the enclosure of ‘common land’ was not a ‘new’ process in early nineteenth century England- it had been going on before Gerrard Winstanley’s time – but the virulency of it was new – and through it the vicious inequality of English rural society acquired a ‘terrible visibility’.
Clare’s poetry gives voice to a ‘tormented customary consciousness’: in his poetry we see the disintegration of a moral economy- an economy which was still held together by a delicate social fabric based and secured by custom, rather than by the vagaries of money and profit: though this ‘moral’ economy could be as brutal and unequal as anything that came after it.
What Clare laments is the replacement of this order by ‘new instrumental and exploitative stance, not only towards labour……… but also towards the natural world’. This is important because it shows that the experience of people and nature are not riven and fractured apart, but intertwined.
The persistence of fracturing apart people, especially ‘working’ people, from their complex and uneven interrelations with nature is one of the major reasons for the poverty in our understandings of the relationships between people, inequality and ecology.
This intertwining of the experience of people and nature is starkly represented in an image like that of the hanging moles in ‘Remembrances’. Here there is a blurring of the distinctive experience of people and nature, since they can stand for each other- the image probably alludes to the labourers hung during the Captain Swing riots and rick burnings that exploded across Southern England during 1830: A period ringing with the echoes of the ‘bloody old Times’ baying for the labourers blood.
The most disabling element that one sees enclosure bringing to the lives of landless labourers in Clare is the way that they were not only dispossessed of ownership, but also of their control of their landscape: they became alienated from it.
This new landscape of ‘repression and greed’ that enclosure had stamped upon the land is similarly stamped across the structure of ‘Remembrances’. One feels the fences and exclusions of the new landscape tightening like a torque around the poems beautifully flowing rhythm; particularly in the last line of each stanza which cuts bitterly across the verse’s sprung motion.
In ‘To a Fallen Elm’ the fact that Clare no longer has the right to decide the fate of the Elm overshadowing his house becomes an emblem of the erosion of the right to nature- of the right to shape one’s environment. this right is ridden over by a new knavish and empty conception of freedom.
Though he sentimentalised the Helpstone of his youth Clare’s writing suggests resources for the emergence of ‘a different kind of freedom’, from this knavish and empty conception- in the relationships between people and between people and their environments: ‘a different kind of freedom’ which has many resonances for the struggle to prevent the New Right ensuring that we only conceptualise each other and our environments through the grid of financial value and transactions.