John Clare and ‘The Tragedy of the Enclosures’ – mourning the privatisation of collective land

John Clare and ‘The Tragedy of the Enclosures’

(John Clare 1793 – 1864)


The Mores


To a Fallen Elm

Background to John Clare and the Inclosures by Dave Featherstone


Enclosure commissioners measuring out Henlow, in the height of the enclosures in the eighteenth century. From Tate, English Village and Enclosure movements


The Mores


Far spread the moorey ground a level scene

Bespread with rush and one eternal green

That never felt the rage of blundering plough

Though centurys wreathed spring’s blossoms on its brow

Still meeting plains that stretched them far away

In uncheckt shadows of green brown, and grey

Unbounded freedom ruled the wandering scene

Nor fence of ownership crept in between

To hide the prospect of the following eye

Its only bondage was the circling sky

One mighty flat undwarfed by bush and tree

Spread its faint shadow of immensity

And lost itself, which seemed to eke its bounds

In the blue mist the horizon’s edge surrounds

Now this sweet vision of my boyish hours

Free as spring clouds and wild as summer flowers

Is faded all – a hope that blossomed free,

And hath been once, no more shall ever be

Inclosure came and trampled on the grave

Of labour’s rights and left the poor a slave

And memory’s pride ere want to wealth did bow

Is both the shadow and the substance now

The sheep and cows were free to range as then

Where change might prompt nor felt the bonds of men

Cows went and came, with evening morn and night,

To the wild pasture as their common right

And sheep, unfolded with the rising sun

Heard the swains shout and felt their freedom won

Tracked the red fallow field and heath and plain

Then met the brook and drank and roamed again

The brook that dribbled on as clear as glass

Beneath the roots they hid among the grass

While the glad shepherd traced their tracks along

Free as the lark and happy as her song

But now all’s fled and flats of many a dye

That seemed to lengthen with the following eye

Moors, loosing from the sight, far, smooth, and blea

Where swopt the plover in its pleasure free

Are vanished now with commons wild and gay

As poet’s visions of life’s early day

Mulberry-bushes where the boy would run

To fill his hands with fruit are grubbed and done

And hedgrow-briars – flower-lovers overjoyed

Came and got flower-pots – these are all destroyed

And sky-bound mores in mangled garbs are left

Like mighty giants of their limbs bereft

Fence now meets fence in owners’ little bounds

Of field and meadow large as garden grounds

In little parcels little minds to please

With men and flocks imprisoned ill at ease

Each little path that led its pleasant way

As sweet as morning leading night astray

Where little flowers bloomed round a varied host

That travel felt delighted to be lost

Nor grudged the steps that he had ta-en as vain

When right roads traced his journeys and again –

Nay, on a broken tree he’d sit awhile

To see the mores and fields and meadows smile

Sometimes with cowslaps smothered – then all white

With daiseys – then the summer’s splendid sight

Of cornfields crimson o’er the headache bloomd

Like splendid armys for the battle plumed

He gazed upon them with wild fancy’s eye

As fallen landscapes from an evening sky

These paths are stopt – the rude philistine’s thrall

Is laid upon them and destroyed them all

Each little tyrant with his little sign

Shows where man claims earth glows no more divine

But paths to freedom and to childhood dear

A board sticks up to notice ‘no road here’

And on the tree with ivy overhung

The hated sign by vulgar taste is hung

As tho’ the very birds should learn to know

When they go there they must no further go

Thus, with the poor, scared freedom bade goodbye

And much they feel it in the smothered sigh

And birds and trees and flowers without a name

All sighed when lawless law’s enclosure came

And dreams of plunder in such rebel schemes

Have found too truly that they were but dreams.




Summer pleasures they are gone like to visions every one

And the cloudy days of autumn and of winter cometh on

I tried to call them back but unbidden they are gone

Far away from heart and eye and for ever far away

Dear heart and can it be that such raptures meet decay

I thought them all eternal when by Langley Bush I lay

I thought them joys eternal when I used to shout and play

On its bank at ‘clink and bandy’ ‘chock’ and ‘taw’ and ducking stone

Where silence sitteth now on the wild heath as her own

Like a ruin of the past all alone


When I used to lie and sing by old eastwells boiling spring

When I used to tie the willow boughs together for a ‘swing’

And fish with crooked pins and thread and never catch a thing

With heart just like a feather- now as heavy as a stone

When beneath old lea close oak I the bottom branches broke

To make our harvest cart like so many working folk

And then to cut a straw at the brook to have a soak

O I never dreamed of parting or that trouble had a sting

Or that pleasures like a flock of birds would ever take to wing

Leaving nothing but a little naked spring


When jumping time away on old cross berry way

And eating awes like sugar plumbs ere they had lost the may

And skipping like a leveret before the peep of day

On the rolly polly up and downs of pleasant swordy well

When in round oaks narrow lane as the south got black again

We sought the hollow ash that was shelter from the rain

With our pockets full of peas we had stolen from the grain

How delicious was the dinner time on such a showry day

O words are poor receipts for what time hath stole away

The ancient pulpit trees and the play


When for school oer ‘little field’ with its brook and wooden brig

Where I swaggered like a man though I was not half so big

While I held my little plough though twas but a willow twig

And drove my team along made of nothing but a name

‘Gee hep’ and ‘hoit’ and ‘woi’- O I never call to mind

These pleasant names of places but I leave a sigh behind

While I see the little mouldywharps hang sweeing to the wind

On the only aged willow that in all the field remains

And nature hides her face where theyre sweeing in their chains

And in a silent murmuring complains


Here was commons for the hills where they seek for freedom still

Though every commons gone and though traps are set to kill

The little homeless miners- O it turns my bosom chill

When I think of old ‘sneap green’ puddocks nook and hilly snow

Where bramble bushes grew and the daisy gemmed in dew

And the hills of silken grass like to cushions to the view

When we threw the pissmire crumbs when we’s nothing else to do

All leveled like a desert by the never weary plough

All vanished like the sun where that cloud is passing now

All settled here for ever on its brow


I never thought that joys would run away from boys

Or that boys would change their minds and forsake such summer joys

But alack I never dreamed that the world had other toys

To petrify first feelings like the fable into stone

Till I found the pleasure past and a winter come at last

Then the fields were sudden bare and the sky got overcast

And boyhoods pleasing haunts like a blossom in the blast

Was shrivelled to a withered weed and trampled down and done

Till vanished was the morning spring and set that summer sun

And winter fought her battle strife and won


By Langley bush I roam but the bush hath left its hill

On cowper green I stray tis a desert strange and chill

And spreading lea close oak ere decay had penned its will

To the axe of the spoiler and self interest fell a prey

And cross berry way and old round oaks narrow lane

With its hollow trees like pulpits I shall never see again

Inclosure like a Buonaparte let not a thing remain

It levelled every bush and tree and levelled every hill

And hung the moles for traitors – though the brook is running still

It runs a naked brook cold and chill


O had I known as then joy had left the paths of men

I had watched her night and day besure and never slept agen

And when she turned to go O I’d caught her mantle then

And wooed her like a lover by my lonely side to stay

Aye knelt and worshipped on as love in beautys bower

And clung upon her smiles as a bee upon her flower

And gave her heart my poesys all cropt in a sunny hour

As keepsakes and pledges to fade away

But love never heeded to treasure up the may

So it went the common road with decay


Composed c. 1832    First published 1908

mouldywharps = moles


To a Fallen Elm


Old Elm that murmured in our chimney top

The sweetest anthem autumn ever made

And into mellow whispering calms would drop

When showers fell on thy many coloured shade

And when dark tempests mimic thunder made

While darkness came as it would strangle light

With the black tempest of a winter night

That rocked thee like a cradle to thy root

How did I love to hear the winds upbraid

Thy strength without while all within was mute

It seasoned comfort to our hearts desire

We felt thy kind protection like a friend

And pitched our chairs up closer to the fire

Enjoying comforts that was was never penned


Old favourite tree thoust seen times changes lower

But change till now did never come to thee

For time beheld thee as his sacred dower

And nature claimed thee her domestic tree

Storms came and shook thee with aliving power

Yet stedfast to thy home thy roots hath been

Summers of thirst parched round thy homely bower

Till earth grew iron – still thy leaves was green

The children sought thee in thy summer shade

And made their play house rings of sticks and stone

The mavis sang and felt himself alone

While in they leaves his early nest was made

And I did feel his happiness mine own

Nought heeding that our friendship was betrayed


Friend not inanimate- tho stocks and stones

There are and many cloathed in flesh and bones

Thou ownd a language by which hearts are stirred

Deeper than by the attribute of words

Thine spoke a feeling known in every tongue

Language of pity and the force of wrong

What cant assumes what hypocrites may dare

Speaks home to truth and shows it what they are


I see a picture that thy fate displays

And learn a lesson from thy destiny

Self interest saw thee stand in freedoms ways

So thy old shadow must a tyrant be

Thoust heard the knave abusing those in power

Bawl freedom loud and then oppress the free

Thoust sheltered hypocrites in many an hour

That when in power would never shelter thee

Thoust heard the knave supply his canting powers

With wrongs illusions when he wanted friends

That bawled for shelter when he lived in showers

And when clouds vanished made thy shade ammends

With axe at root he felled thee to the ground

And barked of freedom – O I hate that sound


It grows the cant terms of enslaving tools

To wrong another by the name of right

It grows a liscence with oer bearing fools

To cheat plain honesty by force of might

Thus came enclosure- ruin was her guide

But freedoms clapping hands enjoyed the sight

Tho comforts cottage soon was thrust aside

And workhouse prisons raised upon the scite

Een natures dwelling far away from men

The common heath became the spoilers prey

The rabbit had not where to make his den

And labours only cow was drove away

No matter- wrong was right and right was wrong

And freedoms brawl was sanction to the song


Such was thy ruin music making Elm

The rights of freedom was to injure thine

As thou wert served so would they overwhelm

In freedoms name the little so would they over whelm

And these are knaves that brawl for better laws

And cant of tyranny in stronger powers

Who glut their vile unsatiated maws

And freedoms birthright from the weak devours


Composed c. 1821    First published 1920


Background to John Clare and Enclosures

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 th e 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 dispossesed 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 r elationships 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.

Dave Featherstone


E.P. Thompson ‘Custom Law and Common Right’ in his Customs in Common 1991 Penguin esp p. 175- 184.

John Tripp’s fine poem ‘Greetings, John Clare’ in his Selected Poems published by Seren.

Raymond and Merryn Williams’s edition of John Clare: Selected Poetry and Prose which has fine introduction and critical commentary and is published by Methuen.

Raymond Williams ‘The Country and The City’ published by Chatto and Windus/ the Hogarth Press.

The important phrase ‘Tragedy of Enclosures’ is used by the Spanish writer on ecology and inequality- J. Martinez-Alier in an essay on Latin American ecological history:

‘Ecology and the poor: A neglected dimension of Latin American history’. Journal of Latin American Studies 23.

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