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The Life of John Clare by Frederick Martin

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* * * * *


Some forty years ago, the literary world rapturously hailed the
appearance of a new poet, brought forward as 'the Northamptonshire
Peasant' and 'the English Burns.' There was no limit to the applause
bestowed upon him. Rossini set his verses to music; Madame Vestris
recited them before crowded audiences; William Gifford sang his praises
in the 'Quarterly Review;' and all the critical journals, reviews, and
magazines of the day were unanimous in their admiration of poetical
genius coming before them in the humble garb of a farm labourer. The
'Northamptonshire Peasant' was duly petted, flattered, lionized, and
caressed--and, of course, as duly forgotten when his nine days were
passed. It was the old tale, all over. In this case, flattery did not
spoil the 'peasant;' but poverty, neglect, and suffering broke his heart.
After writing some exquisite poetry, and struggling for years with fierce
want, he sank at last under the burthen of his sorrows, and in the spring
of 1864 died at the Northampton Lunatic Asylum. It is a very old tale, no
doubt, but which may bear being told once more, brimful as it is of human

The narrative has been drawn from a vast mass of letters and other
original documents, including some very curious autobiographical memoirs.
The possession of all these papers, kindly furnished by friends and
admirers of the poet, has enabled the writer to give more detail to his
description than is usual in short biographies--at least in biographies
of men born, like John Clare, in what may truly be called the very lowest
rank of the people.

London, _May_, 1865.

* * * * *






































* * * * *



On the borders of the Lincolnshire fens, half-way between Stamford and
Peterborough, stands the little village of Helpston. One Helpo, a
so-called 'stipendiary knight,' but of whom the old chronicles know
nothing beyond the bare title, exercised his craft here in the Norman
age, and left his name sticking to the marshy soil. But the ground was
alive with human craft and industry long before the Norman knights came
prancing into the British Isles. A thousand years before the time of
stipendiary Helpo, the Romans built in this neighbourhood their
Durobrivae, which station must have been of great importance, judging
from the remains, not crushed by the wreck of twenty centuries. Old urns,
and coins bearing the impress of many emperors, from Trajan to Valens,
are found everywhere below ground, while above the Romans left a yet
nobler memento of their sojourn in the shape of good roads. Except the
modern iron highways, these old Roman roads form still the chief means of
intercommunication at this border of the fen regions. For many
generations after Durobrivae had been deserted by the imperial legions,
the country went downward in the scale of civilization. Stipendiary and
other unhappy knights came in shoals; monks and nuns settled in swarms,
like crows, upon the fertile marsh lands; but the number of labouring
hands began to decrease as acre after acre got into the possession of
mail-clad barons and mitred abbots. The monks, too, vanished in time, as
well as the fighting knights; yet the face of the land remained silent
and deserted, and has remained so to the present moment. The traveller
from the north can see, for thirty miles over the bleak and desolate fen
regions, the stately towers of Burleigh Hall--but can see little else
beside. All the country, as far as eye can reach, is the property of two
or three noble families, dwelling in turreted halls; while the bulk of
the population, the wretched tillers of the soil, live, as of old, in mud
hovels, in the depth of human ignorance and misery. An aggregate of about
a hundred of these hovels, each containing, on the average, some four
living beings, forms the village of Helpston. The place, in all
probability, is still very much of the same outer aspect which it bore in
the time of Helpo, the mystic stipendiary knight.

Helpston consists of two streets, meeting at right angles, the main
thoroughfare being formed by the old Roman road from Durobrivae to the
north, now full of English mud, and passing by the name of Long Ditch, or
High Street. At the meeting of the two streets stands an ancient cross,
of octangular form, with crocketed pinnacles, and not far from it, on
slightly rising ground, is the parish church, a somewhat unsightly
structure, of all styles of architecture, dedicated to St. Botolph.
Further down stretch, in unbroken line, the low huts of the farm
labourers, in one of which, lying on the High Street, John Clare was
born, on the 13th July, 1793. John Clare's parents were among the poorest
of the village, as their little cottage was among the narrowest and most
wretched of the hundred mud hovels. Originally, at the time when the
race of peasant-proprietors had not become quite extinct, a rather roomy
tenement, it was broken up into meaner quarters by subsequent landlords,
until at last the one house formed a rookery of not less than four human
dwellings. In this fourth part of a hut lived the father and mother of
John, old Parker Clare and his wife. Poor as were their neighbours, they
were poorer than the rest, being both weak and in ill health, and partly
dependent upon charity. The very origin of Parker Clare's family was
founded in misery and wretchedness. Some thirty years previous to the
birth of John, there came into Helpston a big, swaggering fellow, of no
particular home, and, as far as could be ascertained, of no particular
name: a wanderer over the earth, passing himself off, now for an
Irishman, and now for a Scotchman. He had tramped over the greater part
of Europe, alternately fighting and playing the fiddle; and being tired
awhile of tramping, and footsore and thirsty withal, he resolved to
settle for a few weeks, or months, at the quiet little village. The place
of schoolmaster happened to be vacant, perhaps had been vacant for years;
and the villagers were overjoyed when they heard that this noble
stranger, able to play the fiddle, and to drink a gallon of beer at a
sitting, would condescend to teach the A B C to their children. So
'Master Parker,' as the great unknown called himself for the nonce, was
duly installed schoolmaster of Helpston: The event, taking place sometime
about the commencement of the reign of King George the Third, marks the
first dawn of the family history of John Clare.

The tramping schoolmaster had not been many days in the village before he
made the acquaintance of a pretty young damsel, daughter of the
parish-clerk. She came daily to wind the church clock, and for this
purpose had to pass through the schoolroom, where sat Master Parker,
teaching the A B C and playing the fiddle at intervals. He was as clever
with his tongue as with his fiddlestick, the big schoolmaster; and while
helping the sweet little maiden to wind the clock in the belfry, he told
her wonderful tales of his doings in foreign lands, and of his travels
through many countries. And now the old, old story, as ancient as the
hills, was played over again once more. It was no very difficult task for
the clever tramp to win the heart of the poor village girl; and the rest
followed as may be imagined. When spring and summer was gone, and the
cold wind came blowing over the fen, the poor little thing told her lover
that she was in the way of becoming a mother, and, with tears in her
eyes, entreated him to make her his wife. He promised to do so, the
tramping schoolmaster; but early the next day he left the village, never
to return. Then there was bitter lamentation in the cottage of the
parish-clerk; and before the winter was gone, the poor man's daughter
brought into the world a little boy, whom she gave her own family name,
together with the prefixed one of the unworthy father. Such was the
origin of Parker Clare.

What sort of existence this poor son of a poor mother went through, is
easily told. Education he had none; of joys of childhood he knew nothing;
even his daily allowance of coarse food was insufficient. He thus grew
up, weak and in ill-health; but with a cheerful spirit nevertheless.
Parker Clare knew more songs than any boy in the village, and his stock
of ghost stories and fairy tales was quite inexhaustible. When grown into
manhood, and yet not feeling sufficiently strong for the harder labours
of the field, he took service as a shepherd, and was employed by his
masters to tend their flocks in the neighbourhood, chiefly in the plains
north of the village, known as Helpston Heath. In this way, he became
acquainted with the herdsman of the adjoining township of Castor, a man
named John Stimson, whose cattle was grazing right over the walls of
ancient Durobrivae. John Stimson's place was taken, now and then, by his
daughter Ann--an occurrence not unwelcome to Parker Clare; and while the
sheep were grazing on the borders of Helpo's Heath, and the cattle
seeking for sorrel and clover over the graves of Trajan's warriors, the
young shepherd and shepherdess talked sweet things to each other,
careless of flocks and herds, of English knights and Roman emperors. So
it came that one morning Ann told her father that she had promised to
marry Parker Clare. Old John Stimson thought it a bad match: 'when
poverty comes in at the door, love flies out of the window,' he said,
fortified by the wisdom of two score ten. But when was ever such wisdom
listened to at eighteen!

The girl resolved to marry her lover with or without leave; and as for
Parker Clare, he needed no permission, his mother, dependent for years
upon the cold charity of the workhouse, having long ceased to control his
doings. Thus it followed that in the autumn of 1792, when Robespierre was
ruling France, and William Pitt England, young Parker Clare was married
to Ann Stimson of Castor. Seven months after, on the 13th day of July,
1793, Parker Clare's wife was delivered, prematurely, of twins, a boy and
a girl. The girl was healthy and strong; but the boy looked weak and
sickly in the extreme. It seemed not possible that the boy could live,
therefore the mother had him baptized immediately, calling him John,
after her father. However, human expectations were not verified in the
twin children; the strong girl died in early infancy, while the sickly
boy lived--lived to be a poet.

Of _Poeta nascitur non fit_ there never was a truer instance than in the
case of John Clare. Impossible to imagine circumstances and scenes
apparently more adverse to poetic inspiration than those amidst which
John Clare was placed at his birth. His parents were the poorest of the
poor; their whole aim of life being engrossed by the one all-absorbing
desire to gain food for their daily sustenance. They lived in a narrow
wretched hut, low and dark, more like a prison than a human dwelling; and
the hut stood in a dark, gloomy plain, covered with stagnant pools of
water, and overhung by mists during the greater part of the year. Yet
from out these surroundings sprang a being to whom all life was golden,
and all nature a breath of paradise. John Clare was a poet almost as soon
as he awoke to consciousness. His young mind marvelled at all the
wonderful things visible in the wide world: the misty sky, the green
trees, the fish in the water, and the birds in the air. In all the things
around him the boy saw nothing but endless, glorious beauty; his whole
mind was filled with a deep sense of the infinite marvels of the living
world. Though but in poor health, the parents were never able to keep
little John at home. He trotted the lifelong day among the meadows and
fields, watching the growth of herbs and flowers, the chirping of
insects, the singing of birds, and the rustling of leaves in the air. One
day, when still very young, the sight of the distant horizon, more than
usually defined in sharp outline, brought on a train of contemplation. A
wild yearning to see what was to be seen yonder, where the sky was
touching the earth, took hold of him, and he resolved to explore the
distant, unknown region. He could not sleep a wink all night for eager
expectation, and at the dawn of the day the next morning started on his
journey, without saying a word to either father or mother. It was a hot
day in June, the air close and sultry, with gossamer mists hanging thick
over the stagnant pools and lakes. The little fellow set out without food
on his long trip, fearful of being retained by his watchful parents.
Onward he trotted, mile after mile, towards where the horizon seemed
nearest; and it was a long while before he found that the sky receded the
further he went. At last he sank down from sheer exhaustion, hungry and
thirsty, and utterly perplexed as to where he should go. Some labourers
in the fields, commiserating the forlorn little wanderer, gave him a
crust of bread, and started him on his home journey. It was late at night
when he returned to Helpston, where he found his parents in the greatest
anxiety, and had to endure a severe punishment for his romantic
excursion. Little John Clare did not mind the beating; but a long while
after felt sad and sore at heart to have been unable to find the
hoped-for country where heaven met earth.

The fare of agricultural labourers in these early days of John Clare was
much worse than at the present time. Potatoes and water-porridge
constituted the ordinary daily food of people in the position of Clare's
parents, and they thought themselves happy when able to get a piece of
wheaten bread, with perhaps a small morsel of pork, on Sundays. At this
height of comfort, however, Parker Clare and his wife seldom arrived.
Sickly from his earliest childhood, Parker Clare had never been really
able to perform the work required of him, though using his greatest
efforts to do so. A few years after marriage, his infirmities increased
to such an extent that he was compelled to seek relief from the parish,
and henceforth he remained more or less a pauper for life.
Notwithstanding this low position, Parker Clare did not cease to care for
the well-being of his family, and, by the greatest privations on his own
part, managed to send his son to an infant school. The school in question
was kept by a Mrs. Bullimore, and of the most primitive kind. In the
winter time, all the little ones were crowded together in a narrow room;
but as soon as the weather got warm, the old dame turned them out into
the yard, where the whole troop squatted down on the ground. The teaching
of Mrs. Bullimore did not make much impression upon little John, except a
slight fact which she accidentally told him, and which took such firm
hold of his imagination that he remembered it all his life. There was a
white-thorn tree in the school-yard, of rather large size, and the
ancient schoolmistress told John that she herself, when young, had
planted the tree, having carried the root from the fields in her pocket.
The story struck the boy as something marvellous; it was to him a sort of
revelation of nature, a peep into the mysteries of creation at the works
of which he looked with feelings of unutterable amazement, not unmixed
with awe. But there was little else that Mrs. Bullimore could teach John
Clare, either in her schoolroom or in the yard. The instruction of the
good old woman was, in the main, confined to two things--the initiation
into the difficulties of A B C, and the reading from two books, of which
she was the happy possessor. These books were 'The Death of Abel' and
Bunyan's 'Pilgrim's Progress.' Their contents did not stir any thoughts
or imaginings in little John, whose mind was filled entirely with the
pictures of nature.

When John Clare had reached his seventh year, he was taken away from the
dame-school, and sent out to tend sheep and geese on Helpston Heath. The
change was a welcome one to him, for, save the mysterious white-thorn
tree, there was nothing at school to attract him. Helpston Heath, on the
other hand, furnished what seemed to him a real teacher. While tending
his geese, John came into daily contact with Mary Bains, an ancient lady,
filling the dignified post of cowherd of the village, and driving her
cattle into the pastures annually from May-day unto Michaelmas. She was
an extraordinary old creature, this Mary Bains, commonly known as Granny
Bains. Having spent almost her whole life out of doors, in heat and cold,
storm and rain, she had come to be intimately acquainted with all the
signs foreboding change of weather, and was looked upon by her
acquaintances as a perfect oracle. She had also a most retentive memory,
and being of a joyous nature, with a bodily frame that never knew
illness, had learnt every verse or melody that was sung within her
hearing, until her mind became a very storehouse of songs. To John, old
Granny Bains soon took a great liking, he being a devout listener, ready
to sit at her feet for hours and hours while she was warbling her little
ditties, alternately merry and plaintive. Sometimes the singing had such
an effect that both the ancient songstress and her young admirer forgot
their duties over it. Then, when the cattle went straying into the pond,
and the geese were getting through the corn, Granny Bains would suddenly
cease singing, and snatching up her snuff-box, hobble across the fields
in wild haste, with her two dogs at her side as respectful aides-de-camp,
and little John bringing up the rear. But though often disturbed in the
enjoyment of those delightful recitations, they nevertheless sunk deep
into John Clare's mind, until he found himself repeating all day long the
songs he had heard, and even in his dreams kept humming--

'There sat two ravens upon a tree,
Heigh down, derry, O!
There sat two ravens upon a tree,
As deep in love as he and she.'

It was thus that the admiration of poetry first awoke in Parker Clare's
son, roused by the songs of Granny Bains, the cowherd of Helpston.


The extreme poverty of Parker Clare and his wife compelled them to put
their son to hard work earlier than is usual even in country places. John
was their only son; of four children born to them, only he and a little
sister, some six years younger, having remained alive; and it was
necessary, therefore, that he should contribute to the maintenance of the
family, otherwise dependent upon parish relief. Consequently, John was
sent to the farmer's to thrash before he was twelve years old, his father
making him a small flail suited to his weak arms. The boy was not only
willing, but most eager to work, his anxious desire being to assist his
poor parents in procuring the daily bread. However, his bodily strength
was not equal to his will. After a few months' work in the barn, and
another few months behind the plough, he came home very ill, having
caught the tertiary ague in the damp, ill-drained fields. Then there was
anxious consulting in the little cottage what to do next. The miserable
allowance from 'the union' was insufficient to purchase even the
necessary quantity of potatoes and rye-bread for the household, and, to
escape starvation,--it was absolutely necessary that John should go to
work again, whatever his strength. So he dragged himself from his bed of
sickness, and took once more to the plough, the kind farmer consenting to
his leading the horses on the least heavy ground. The weather was dry for
a season, and John rallied wonderfully, so as to be able to do some
extra-work, and earn a few pence, which he saved carefully for
educational purposes. And when the winter came round, and there was
little work in the fields, he made arrangements with the schoolmaster at
Glinton, a man famed far and wide, to become his pupil for five evenings
in the week, and for as many more days as he might be out of employment.
The trial of education was carried on to John Clare's highest
satisfaction, as well as that of his parents, who proclaimed aloud that
their son was going to be a scholar.

Glinton, a small village of about three hundred inhabitants, stands some
four or five miles east of Helpston, bordering on the Peterborough Great
Fen. It was famous in Clare's time, and is famous still, for its
educational establishments, there being three daily schools in the place,
one of them endowed. The school to which John went, was presided over by
a Mr. James Merrishaw. He was a thin, tall old man, with long white hair
hanging down his coat-collar, in the fashion of bygone days. It was his
habit to take extensive walks, for miles around the country, moving
forward with long strides, and either talking to himself or humming soft
tunes; on which account his pupils styled him 'the bumble-bee.' The old
man was passionately fond of music, and devoted every minute spared from
school duties and his long walks, to his violin. To the more promising of
his pupils Mr. James Merrishaw showed great kindness, allowing them,
among other things, the run of his library, somewhat larger than that of
ordinary village schoolmasters. John Clare had not been many times to
Glinton, before he was enrolled among these favourites of Mr. Merrishaw.
Being able already to read, through his own exertions, based on the
fundamental principles instilled by Dame Bullimore, little John dived
with delight into the treasures opened at the Glinton school, never tired
to go through the somewhat miscellaneous book stores of Mr. Merrishaw. In
a short while, the young student was seized with a real hunger for
knowledge. He toiled day and night to perfect himself, not only in
reading and writing, but in some impossible things which he had taken
into his head to learn, such as algebra and mathematics. Coming home late
at night, from his long walk to school, he astonished and not a little
perplexed his poor parents by crouching down before the fire, and
tracing, in the faint glimmer of a burning log, incomprehensible signs
upon bits of paper, or sometimes pieces of wood. Far too poor to buy even
the commonest kind of writing paper, John was in the habit of picking up
shreds of the same material, such as used by grocers and other village
shopkeepers, and to scratch thereon his signs and figures, sometimes with
a pencil, but oftener with a piece of charcoal. Perhaps there never was a
more unfavourable study of mathematics and algebra.

For two winters and part of a wet summer, John Clare went to Mr.
Merrishaw's school at Glinton, during short intervals of hard labour in
the fields. At the end of this period a curious accident seemed to give a
sudden turn to his prospects in life. A maternal uncle, called Morris
Stimson, one day made his appearance at Helpston, having been previously
on a visit to his father and sisters at Castor. Uncle Morris was looked
upon as a very grand personage, he holding the post of footman to a
lawyer at Wisbeach, and as such clad in the finest plush and broadcloth.
Being duly reverenced, the splendid uncle in his turn thought it his duty
to patronize his humble friends, and accordingly was kind enough to offer
little John a situation in his master's office. There was a vacancy for a
clerk at Wisbeach, and Uncle Morris was sure his nephew was just the man
to fill it. John himself thought otherwise; but was immediately overruled
in his opinion by father, mother, and uncle. A boy who had been to Mr.
Merrishaw's for ever so many evenings; who could read a chapter from the
Bible as well as the parson, and who was drawing figures upon paper night
after night: why, he was fit enough to be not only a lawyer's clerk, but,
if need be, a minister of the church. So they argued, and it was settled
that John should go to Wisbeach, and be duly installed as a clerk in the
office just above the pantry in which dwelt Uncle Morris. Mr. Morris
Stimson did not stop at Helpston longer than a day; but, before leaving,
made careful arrangements that his nephew should follow him to Wisbeach
precisely at the end of seven days.

Those were stirring seven days in the little hut of Parker Clare. The
poor mother, anxious to assist to the best of her power in her son's rise
in life, ransacked her scanty wardrobe to the utmost, to put John in what
she deemed a proper dress. She mended all his clothes as neatly as
possible; she made him a pair of breeches out of an old dress, and a
waistcoat from a shawl; and then ran up and down the village to get a few
more necessary things, including an old white necktie, and a pair of
black woollen gloves. Thus equipped, John Clare started for Wisbeach one
Friday morning in spring--date not discoverable, but supposed to be
somewhere about the year 1807. The poor mother cried bitterly when John
shook hands for the last time at the bottom of the village; the father
tried hard to hide his tears, but did not succeed; and John himself,
light-hearted at first, had a good cry when he turned his face at Elton,
and got a final glimpse of the steeple of Helpston church. Beyond Elton
John Clare had never been in his life, and it was with some sort of
trembling, mixed with a strong feeling of homesickness, that he inquired
his way to Peterborough. His confusion was great when he found that the
people stared at him on the road; and stared the more the nearer he
approached the episcopal city. No doubt, a thin, pale, little boy, stuck
in a threadbare coat which he had long outgrown, and the sleeves of which
were at his elbows; with a pair of breeches a world too large for his
slender legs; with a many-coloured waistcoat, an immense pair of woollen
gloves, a white necktie, and a hat half a century old, was a rare sight,
even in the fen country. Poor John, therefore, had to march into
Peterborough followed by the curious eyes of a hundred male and female
idlers, who opened doors and windows to see him pass along. Happily the
trial was not a long one, for, having discovered his way to the Wisbeach
boat, he ran to it as fast as his legs would carry him, and, fairly on
board, ensconced himself behind a bale of goods. Oh, how he repented
having ever left Helpston, in the fatal ambition of becoming a lawyer's

The journey from Peterborough to Wisbeach, in those days, was by a Dutch
canal boat--a long narrow kind of barge, drawn by one horse, with a large
saloon in front for common passengers, and a little room for a possible
select company behind, near the steersman. The boat only ran once a week,
on Friday, from Peterborough to Wisbeach, returning the following Sunday;
and, as far as it went, the passage was cheap as well as convenient--the
charge for the whole distance of twenty-one miles being but
eighteen-pence. But John Clare, fond though he was of water, and trees,
and green fields, did not much enjoy the river journey, his heart being
big with thoughts of the future. What the great lawyer to whom he was
going would say, and what replies he should make, were matters uppermost
in his mind. To prepare for the dreaded interview John at last set
himself to compose an elaborate speech, on the model of one which he had
seen in the 'Royal Magazine' at Mr. Merrishaw's school. The speech,
however, was not quite ready when the boat stopped at Wisbeach, landing
John Clare, together with the other passengers. One more source of
trouble had to be overcome here. When the young traveller inquired for
the house of Mr. Councillor Bellamy, the people, instead of replying,
stared at him. 'Mr. Councillor Bellamy? _You_ are not going to Mr.
Bellamy's house?' said more than one of the Wisbeach citizens, until poor
John got fairly frightened. He was still more frightened when he at last
arrived before the house of Mr. Councillor, and found that it was a
stately building, bigger and nobler-looking than any he had ever entered
in his life. He had not courage enough to ring the bell or knock at the
door, but stood irresolute at the threshold. At last John ventured a
faint tap at the door; and, luckily, Uncle Morris appeared in answer to
the summons, and welcomed the visitor by leading him down into the
kitchen, where the board was spread. 'I have told master about your
arrival,' said Uncle Morris; 'and meanwhile sit down to a cup of tea. Do
not hang your head, but look up boldly, and tell him what you can do.'
John sat down to the table, yet was unable to eat anything, in fear and
trembling of the things to come. It was not long before Mr. Councillor
Bellamy made his appearance. Poor John tried hard to keep his head erect
as ordered, and made a convulsive effort to deliver himself of the first
sentences of his prepared speech. But the words stuck in his throat.
'Aye, aye; so this is your nephew, Morris?' now said Mr. Councillor
Bellamy, addressing his footman. 'Yes, sir,' replied the faithful
servant; 'and a capital scholar he is, sir.' Mr. Councillor glanced at
the 'scholar' from the country--at his white necktie, his little coat,
and his large breeches. 'Aye, aye; so this is your nephew,' Mr.
Councillor repeated, rubbing his hands; 'well, I _may_ see him again.'
With this Uncle Morris's master left the room. He left it not to return;
and John Clare had never in his life the honour of seeing Mr. Councillor
Bellamy again. There next came an order from the upper regions to make
Morris's nephew comfortable till Sunday morning, and to put him, at that
time, on board the Peterborough boat for the return journey. The behest
of Mr. Councillor was duly executed, and John Clare, on the following
Sunday evening, after three days' absence, again walked into his father's
cottage at Helpston, a happier and a wiser lad. He had discovered the
great truth that he was not fit for the profession of the law.


The mother cried for joy when her John again entered the little cottage;
but the father welcomed him with a melancholy smile. John himself, though
with a little mortified vanity, felt rather pleased than otherwise. His
good sense told him that this journey to Wisbeach had been but a fool's
errand, and that, in order to rise in the world, he had to look into
other directions than to a lawyer's office. He therefore fell back with a
strong feeling of contentment into his old occupation, holding the
plough, carting manure to the field, and studying algebra. In the latter
favourite labour he was much assisted by a young friend, whose
acquaintance he had made at Glinton school, named John Turnill, the son
of a small farmer. The latter, having a little more money at his command
than his humble companion, was able to purchase the necessary books, as
well as a modest allowance of paper and pencils, the gift of which threw
John Clare into ecstasies of delight. With Master Turnill, the attachment
to mathematics and algebra was a real love, though it was otherwise with
Clare, who pursued these studies solely out of ambition, and with a hope
of raising himself in the world. The desire to improve his position
became stronger than ever after his return from Wisbeach. The sneers of
the people who met him during the journey had sunk deep into his
sensitive mind, and he determined to make a struggle for a better
position. How far mathematics and the pure sciences would help him on the
road he did not trouble himself to consider; he only had a vague notion
that they would lead him to be a 'scholar.' So he toiled with great
energy through the algebraic and mathematical handbooks purchased by
friend Turnill, often getting so warm on the subject as to neglect his
dinner-hour, in brown studies over the _plus_ and _minus_, squares,
cubes, and conic sections. Every evening that he could possibly spare he
walked over to Turnill's house, near Elton, regardless of wind, rain, and
snow, and regardless even of the reproaches of his kind parents, who
began to be afraid of his continued dabbling in the occult arts. However,
little John stuck to his algebra, and it was nearly two years before he
discovered that he was as little fit to be a mathematician as a lawyer's

Meanwhile, and before the algebraic studies came to an end, there
occurred a somewhat favourable change in the circumstances of John Clare.
Among the few well-to-do inhabitants of Helpston was a person named
Francis Gregory, who owned a small public-house, under the sign of the
'Blue Bell,' and rented, besides, a few acres of land. Francis Gregory, a
most kind and amiable man, was unmarried, and kept house with his old
mother, a female servant, and a lad, the latter half groom and half
gardener. This situation, a yearly 'hiring,' being vacant, it was offered
to John, and eagerly accepted, on the understanding that he should have
sufficient time of his own to continue his studies. It was a promise
abundantly kept, for John Clare had never more leisure, and, perhaps, was
never happier in his life than during the year that he stayed at the
'Blue Bell.' Mr. Francis Gregory, suffering under constant illness,
treated the pale little boy, who was always hanging over his books, more
like a son than a servant, and this feeling was fully shared by Mr.
Gregory's mother. John's chief labours were to attend to a horse and a
couple of cows, and occasionally to do some light work in the garden or
the potato field; and as these occupations seldom filled more than part
of the day or the week, he had all the rest of the time to himself. A
characteristic part of Clare's nature began to reveal itself now. While
he had little leisure to himself, and much hard work, he was not averse
to the society of friends and companions, either, as in the case of
Turnill, for study, or, as with others, for recreation; but as soon as he
found himself, to a certain extent, his own master, he forsook the
company of his former acquaintances, and began to lead a sort of hermit's
life. He took long strolls into the woods, along the meres, and to other
lonely places, and got into the habit of remaining whole hours at some
favourite spot, lying flat on the ground, with his face toward the sky.
The flickering shadows of the sun; the rustling of the leaves on the
trees; the sailing of the fitful clouds over the horizon, and the golden
blaze of the sky at morn and eventide, were to him spectacles of which
his eye never tired, with which his heart never got satiated. And as he
grew more and more the constant worshipper of nature, in any of her
aspects, so his mind gradually became indifferent to almost all other
objects. What men did, what they had done, or what they were going to do,
he did not seem to care for, or had the least curiosity to know. In the
midst of these solitary rambles from his 'Blue Bell' home, the news was
brought of some extraordinary discoveries at Castor, his mother's native
village. It was news which, one might have thought, would fire the
imagination of any man gifted with the most ordinary understanding. In a
part of the township of Castor called Dormanton Fields, the greater part
of the vast ruins of Durobrivae were discovered: temples and arches
crumbled into dust; many-coloured tiles and brickwork; urns and antique
earthen vessels; and coins, with, the images of many emperors--so
numerous that it looked as if they had been sown there. To reconstruct
the ancient Roman city, to people it anew with the conquerors of the
world, was a task at once undertaken by zealous antiquarians; yet Clare,
though he heard the matter mentioned by numerous visitors to the 'Blue
Bell,' and had plenty of time for investigation, took so little interest
in it as not even to attempt a walk to the city of ruins, on the borders
of which he was feeding his cattle. Now, as up to a late period of his
life, a bunch of sweet violets was worth to John Clare more than all the
ruins of antiquity.

While at the 'Blue Bell' John gradually dropped his algebra and
mathematics, and began to read ghost-stories. The reason of his leaving
the 'sciences called pure' was the discovery that the further he
proceeded on the road the more he saw his utter incapacity to
understand and to master the subjects. His friend and guide, John
Turnill,--subsequently promoted to a post in the excise--was equally
unable to throw light into the darkness of _plus_ and _minus_, and after
a few last convulsive struggles to get through the 'known quantities'
into the unknown regions of _x_, _y_, and _z_, he gave it up as a
hopeless effort. The spare hours henceforth were devoted to studies of a
very different kind, namely, fairy tales and ghost stories. Under the
roof of the 'Blue Bell' no other literature was within his reach, and he
was quite content to draw temporary nourishment from it. Scarcely any
books but these highly spiced ones, stuffed in the pack of travelling
pedlars, ever found their way to Helpston. There was 'Little Red
Riding-hood,' 'Valentine and Orson,' 'Sinbad the Sailor,' 'The Seven
Sleepers,' 'Mother Shipton,' 'Johnny Armstrong,' 'Old Nixon's Prophecy,'
and a whole host of similar 'sensation' stories, printed on coarse paper,
with a flaming picture on the title-page. John Clare scarcely knew that
there were any other books than these and the few he had seen at Glinton
school in existence; he had never heard of Shakespeare and Milton,
Thompson and Cowper, Spenser and Dryden; and, therefore, with the natural
eagerness of the young mind just awoke to its day dreams, eagerly plunged
into the new realm of fancy. The effect soon made itself felt upon the
ardent reader, fresh from his undigested algebraic studies. He saw ghosts
and hobgoblins wherever he went, and after a time began to look upon
himself as a sort of enchanted prince in a world of magic. He had no
doubt whatever about the literal truth of the stories he read; the
thought of their being mere pictures of the imagination not entering his
mind for a moment. It was natural, therefore, that he should come to the
conclusion that, as the earth had been, so it was still peopled with
fairies, dwarfs, and giants, with whom it would be his fate to come into
contact some time or other. So he buckled his armour tight, ready to do
battle with the visible and invisible world.

Opportunity came before long. Among his regular duties at the 'Blue Bell'
was that of fetching once a week flour from Maxey, a village some three
miles north of Helpston, near the Welland river. The road to Maxey was a
very lonely one, part of it a narrow footpath along the mere, and the
superstition of the neighbourhood connected strange tales of horror and
weird fancy with the locality. In the long days of summer, John Clare,
who had to start on his errand to the mill late in the afternoon, managed
to get home before dark, thus avoiding unpleasant meetings; but when the
autumn came, the sun set before he left Maxey, and then the ghosts were
upon him. They always attacked him half way between the two villages, in
a low swampy spot, overhung by the heavy mist of the fens. Poor John
battled hard, but the spirits nearly always got the upper hand. They
pulled his hair, pinched his legs, twisted his nose, and played other
tricks with him, until he sank to the ground in sheer exhaustion.
Recovering himself after a while, the fairies then let him alone, and he
staggered home to the 'Blue Bell,' pale and trembling, and like one in a
dream. His good friend and master, Francis Gregory, wondering at the
haggard look of the lad, thought he was going to have another attack of
the tertiary ague, and spoke to his parents; but John, in his silent
mood, said it was nothing, and begged to be left alone. So they let him
have his way, and he continued his weekly errands to Maxey, with the same
result as before. At last, when thoroughly wearied of this repetition of
supernatural terrors, he hit upon an ingenious plan for breaking the
chain connecting him with the invisible world. The plan consisted in
concocting, on his own part, a story of wonders; a story, however, 'with
no ghost in it.' Now a king, and now a prince--in turn a sailor, a
soldier, and a traveller in unknown lands--John himself was always the
hero of his own story, and, of course, always the lucky hero. With his
vast power of imagination, this calling up of a new world of bright
fancies to destroy the lawless apparitions of the air had the desired
effect, and the ghosts troubled John Clare no more on his way to and from
the mill.

Nevertheless, his constant reading of fairy tales, with incessant play on
the imagination and surexcitation of the mind, was not without leaving
its ill effect upon the bodily frame. John sickened and weakened visibly,
and his general appearance became the talk of the village. His long
solitary roamings through the woods and fields, his habits of reading
even when tending the cattle, and his apparent dislike to hold converse
with any one, were things which the poor labourers, young and old, could
not understand; and when, as it happened, people met him on the road to
Maxey in the dark, and heard that he was talking to himself in a loud
excited manner, they set him down as a lunatic. Some few of the coarsest
among the youngsters went so far as to greet him with volleys of abuse
when he happened to come near them, while the old people drew back from
him as in disgust. His sensitive feelings suffered deep under this
treatment of his neighbours, which might have had the worst consequences
but for one great event which suddenly broke in upon him. John Clare fell
in love.

'Love took up the glass of Time, and turned it in his glowing hands;
Every moment, lightly shaken, ran itself in golden sands.
Love took up the harp of Life, and smote on all the chords with might;
Smote the chord of Self, that, trembling, pass'd in music out of

John Clare's first love--the deepest, noblest, and purest love of his
whole life--was for 'Mary,' the Mary of all his future songs, ballads,
and sonnets. Petrarch himself did not worship his Laura with a more
idealized spirit of affection than John Clare did his Mary. To him; she
was nothing less than an angel, with no other name than that of Mary;
though vulgar mortals called her Mary Joyce, holding her to be the
daughter of a well-to-do farmer at Glinton. John Clare made her
acquaintance--if so it can be called what was the merest dream-life
intercourse--on one of his periodical journeyings to and from the Maxey
mills. She sat on a style weaving herself a garland of flowers, and the
sight so enchanted him that he crouched down at a distance, afraid to
stir and to disturb the beautiful apparition. But she continuing to sit
and to weave her flowers, he drew nearer, and at last found courage to
speak to her. Mary did not reply; but her deep blue eyes smiled upon him,
lifting the humble worshipper of beauty into the seventh heaven of bliss.
And when he met her again, she again smiled; and he sat down at her feet
once more, and opened the long pent-up rivers of his heart. Mute to all
the world around him, he to her for the first time spoke of all he felt,
and dreamt, and hoped. He told her how he loved the trees and flowers,
and the singing nightingales, and the lark rising into the skies, and the
humming insects, and the sailing clouds, and all the grand and beautiful
works of nature. But he never told her that he thought her more beautiful
than ought else in God's great world. This he never said in words, but
his eyes expressed it; and Mary, perhaps, understood the language of his
eyes. Mary always listened attentively, yet seldom said anything. Her
eyes hung upon his lips, and his lips hung upon her eyes, and thus both
worshipped the god of love.

The sweet dream lasted full six months--six glorious sunlit months of
spring and summer. Then the father of Mary Joyce heard of the frequent
meetings of his daughter with John Clare, and though looking upon both as
mere children, he sternly forbid her to see 'the beggar-boy' again. His
heart of well-to-do farmer revolted at the bare idea of his offspring
talking with the son of one who was not even a farm-labourer, but had to
be maintained as a pauper by the parish. Explaining this great fact to
his blue-eyed daughter, he deeply impressed its terrible importance upon
her soft little heart, making her think with a sort of shudder of the
pale boy who told her such pretty stories. Perhaps Mary nevertheless
preserved a lingering fondness for her little lover's memory, for though
many wooed her in after life, she never wedded, and died a spinster. As
for John Clare, he fretted long and deeply, and all his life thought of
Mary Joyce as the symbol, ideal, and incarnation of love. With the
exception of a few verses addressed to 'Patty,' his future wife, the
whole of Clare's love poetry came to be a dedication and worship of Mary.
As yet, in these youthful days of grief and affection, he wrote no
verses, though he felt a burning desire to give vent to his feelings in
some shape or other. Having lost his Mary, he carved her name into a
hundred trees, and traced it, with trembling hand, on stones, and walls,
and monuments. There still stands engraven on the porch of Glinton
churchyard--or stood till within a recent time--a circular inscription,
consisting of the letters, 'J. C. 1808,' cut in bold hand, and
underneath, in fainter outline, the name 'Mary.'


Just before quitting the 'Blue Bell,' at the end of his twelve months'
service, another important event took place in the life of John Clare.
One morning, while tending his master's cattle in the field, a farmer's
big boy, with whom he had but a slight acquaintance, showed him a copy of
Thomson's 'Seasons.' Examining the book, he got excited beyond measure.
It was the first real poem he had ever seen, and in harmony as it was
with all his feelings, it made upon him the most powerful and lasting
impression. Looking upon the book as a priceless treasure, he expressed
his admiration in warm words, asking, nay, imploring the possessor to
lend it him, if only for an hour. But the loutish boy, swollen with
pride, absolutely refused to do so; it was but a trumpery book, he said,
and could be bought for eighteen-pence, and he did not see why people who
wanted it should not buy it. The words sunk deep into John Clare's heart;
'Only eighteen-pence?' he inquired again and again, doubting his own
ears. The big boy was quite sure the book cost no more than
eighteen-pence; he had himself bought it at Stamford for the money, and
could give the name and address of the bookseller. It was information
eagerly accepted by John, who determined on the spot to get the coveted
poem at the earliest opportunity. His wages not being due at the moment,
he hurried home to his father in the evening, entreating the loan of a
shilling, as he himself possessed but sixpence. But Parker Clare, willing
though he was to gratify his son, was unable to render help on this
occasion. A spare shilling was not often seen in the hut of the poor old
man, dependent chiefly upon alms, and in want, not unfrequently, of the
bare necessaries of life. But the loving mother could not listen to her
son's anxious entreaty without trying to assist him, and by dint of
superhuman exertions she managed to get him sevenpence. The fraction
still wanting to complete the purchase-money of the book was raised by
sundry loans at the 'Blue Bell,' and John waited with eagerness for the
coming Sunday, when he would have time to run to Stamford. The Sunday
came--a Sunday in spring; and he was up soon after midnight, and stood
before the bookseller's shop in Stamford when the eastern clouds assumed
their first purple hue. John Clare patiently waited one hour, two hours,
three hours, yet the treasure store which contained Thomson's 'Seasons'
remained closed. Tremblingly he asked a boy who came along the street at
what time the shop would be opened: 'It will not be open at all to-day,
for it is Sunday, rejoined the other. Then John went home in bitter
sorrow to Helpston, not knowing how to get the much-coveted book. On the
way, a bright thought struck him. If he could but raise twopence, in
addition to the capital already acquired, he thought he could manage the
matter. So by making extraordinary efforts, he got his twopence, and then
held a long conversation with the cowherd of a neighbouring farmer.
Clare's occupation on the following morning was to take his master's
horses to the pasture, and he offered the cowherd the sum of one penny to
look after the horses for him, and one more penny for 'keeping the
secret.' The bargain was struck, after an animated discussion, in which
the conscientious cowherd strove hard to get a total reward of
threepence, so as to be able to keep the secret for any length of time.
But John was inflexible, for strong reasons of his own, and thus gained
the victory.

During the night from Sunday to Monday, John Clare could not shut his
eyes for sheer anxiety. The questions whether the bookseller would have
any copies left of the wonderful poem; whether it could really be bought
for eighteen-pence; and whether the big farmer's boy did not mean the
whole story as a hoax, occupied his mind all night long. It seemed so
improbable to him, on reflection, that a book containing the most
exquisite verses could be bought for little more than the common fairy
tales of the hawkers, and it seemed still more improbable that, being
sold so cheap, there would be any books left for sale, that he at last
inwardly despaired of getting the book. Thereupon he had a good long cry
in the silence of the night, when all the village was asleep; and the
crying closed his eyelids, too, for sheer weariness. And when he roused
himself again there was a faint glow in the sky; so he rushed down to the
stables, took out his horses, and led them to the pasture, awaiting the
arrival of his confederate. The latter came at length, and, having given
over his horses, John set off in a sharp trot, skipping over the seven or
eight miles to Stamford in little more than an hour. The bookseller's
shop, alas, was still closed; but the people in the streets told the
eager inquirer that the shutters would be taken down in about an hour and
a half. John, therefore, sat down in quiet resignation on the door-step,
counting the quarters of the chiming clock. At last there was a noise
inside the house, a rattling of keys and drawing of bolts. The bookseller
slowly opened his door, and was immensely astonished to see a little
country lad, thin and haggard, with wild gleaming eyes, rush at him with
a demand for Thomson's 'Seasons.' Was there ever such a customer seen at
Stamford? The good bookseller was not accustomed to excitement, for the
old ladies who dealt at his shop bought their hymn-books and manuals of
devotion without any manifestations of impatience, and even the young
ones, though they asked for Aphra Behn's novels in a whisper, came in
very quietly and demurely. Who, then, was this queer, haggard-looking
country boy, who could not wait for Thomson's 'Seasons' till after
breakfast, but was hovering about the shop like a thief? The good
bookseller questioned him a little, but did not gain much satisfactory
information. That his little customer was servant at the 'Blue Bell;' had
hired himself to Master Gregory for a year; had a father and mother
maintained by the parish; and had seen Thomson's 'Seasons' in the hands
of a farmer's boy--that was all the inquisitive bookseller could get at;
and, indeed, there was nothing more to tell. However, the Stamford
shopkeeper was a man of compassion, and seeing the wan little figure
before him, resolved upon a tremendous sacrifice. So he told Clare that
he would let him have Thomson's 'Seasons' for one shilling: 'You may keep
the sixpence, my boy,' he exclaimed, with a lofty wave of the hand. John
Clare heard nothing, saw nothing; he snatched up his book, and ran away
eastward as fast as his legs would carry him. 'A queer customer,' said
the shopkeeper, finishing to take down his shutters.

The sun had risen in all his glory when John Clare was trotting back from
Stamford to Helpston. Every now and then he paused to have a peep in his
book. This went on for a mile or two, after which he could contain
himself no longer. He was just passing along the wall of the splendid
park surrounding Burghley Hall, the trees of which, filled with melodious
singers, overhung the road. The village of Barnack in front looked dull
and dreary; but the park at the side was sweet and inviting. With one
jump, John was over the wall, nestling, like a bird, among some thick
shrubs in the hedge. And then and there he read through Thomson's
'Seasons'--read the book through twice over, from beginning to end. And
the larks and linnets kept singing more and more beautifully; and the
golden sun rose higher and higher on the horizon, illuminating the
landscape with a flood of light, a thousandfold reflected in the green
trees and the blue waters of the lake. John Clare thought he had never
before seen the world so exquisitely beautiful; he thought he had never
before felt so thoroughly happy in all his life. He did not know how to
give vent to his happiness; singing would not do it, nor even crying. But
he had a pencil in his pocket and a bit of crumpled paper, and,
unconscious almost of what he was doing, with a sort of instinctive
movement, he began to write--began to write poetry. The verses thus
composed were subsequently printed, but with great alterations, under the
title, 'The Morning Walk.' What Clare actually wrote on his crumpled bit
of paper was, probably, very imperfect in form, and not fit to be seen
till thrice distilled in the crucible of his future 'able editor.'

John Clare felt intensely joyful when returning to Helpston from his long
morning walk. He did not mind being taken to task by his indulgent
employer for having, for the first time, neglected his duty; did not mind
the reproaches of his fellow-servant as to his having broken his compact.
The cowherd justly argued that, after the solemn agreement to look after
the horses for three hours on payment of one penny, and to keep the
secret for another penny, it was unfair to burthen him with the
responsibility of the guardianship, as well as the secret, for more than
half a day. Seeing the justice of the claim, John Clare, in the fulness
of his heart, gave his brother cowherd the sixpence, which the kind
bookseller at Stamford had presented him with. However, though generously
paid, the cowherding youth was unable to keep the terrible secret for
more than a day. The next morning he told his sweetheart, in strict
confidence, that Clare had got into an immense fortune, and was running
up and down to Stamford to buy books and 'all sorts of things.' Before it
was evening, the whole village knew the story, and a hundred fingers were
pointed at Clare while he walked down the street. He was greatly blamed
on all sides: blamed, in the first instance, for allowing himself to be
drawn away by the sprites and their nameless chief, and, as was supposed,
accepting gold and silver from them; and blamed still more for not
sharing his fortune with his poor parents. There were those who had seen
him, on the brink of the mere, holding converse with the Evil One; they
had actually witnessed the passing of the glittering coin, 'which fell
into his hands like rain drops.' Clare's poor old father and mother did
not believe these stories; yet even they shuddered when their son entered
the little hut. It was clear John could not remain long at Helpston.
There was danger in being a poet on the borders of the fen regions.


When the yearly engagement at the 'Blue Bell' came to an end, there was
serious consultation between John and his parents as to his future course
of life. He was too weak to be a farm labourer; too proud to remain a
potboy in a public-house; and too poor to get apprenticed to any trade or
handicraft. John himself would have liked to be a mason and stone-cutter,
which trade one Bill Manton, of Market Deeping, who had a reputation far
and wide for setting up gravestones, was ready to teach him. Bill Manton
was a big swaggering fellow, who, vibrating constantly to and fro between
tavern and graveyard, hinted to John that in becoming his apprentice he
would have to write the mortuary poetry as well as to engrave it upon
stone; and the notion was so pleasing that he made a desperate effort to
get initiated into the art and mysteries of stone-cutting. But the
obstacles were insurmountable, for Bill Manton wanted a premium of four
pounds, which Clare's parents had no more means of raising than so many
millions. There was another chance for learning a trade in the offer of
one Jim Farrow, a hunchback, who proposed to teach John the art of
cobbling gratis, the sole condition being that the apprentice should
provide his own tools. The few pence necessary for this purpose might
have been obtained, and the poet might have taken to the calling of St.
Crispin, but that he showed a great aversion to the trade. The prospect
of passing his whole life in a narrow cabin, mending hobnailed boots, was
one he could not face, and he strongly expressed his wish of rather
remaining servant in a public-house than submitting to this necessity.
One more resource remained, which was to become a gardener's apprentice
at Burghley Park, the seat of the Marquis of Exeter, where such a place
happened to be vacant. The mere mentioning of the name Burghley Park had
charms of its own to John Clare; and although the situation was but a
poor one as regarded pay, he eagerly expressed his willingness to apply
for it. To make success more sure, old Parker Clare resolved to accompany
John in making the application. Accordingly, one morning, father and son,
dressed in their very best, made their appearance at the park gates,
inquiring for the head gardener of the noble Marquis. After a long delay
they were ushered into the presence of the great man. Parker Clare, in
whose eyes a head-gardener was quite as important a personage as a
prince, took off his hat and bowed to the ground, and the example was
followed, in great trepidation of mind, by John. This evidently pleased
the high functionary, and he condescended to engage John Clare on the
spot. The terms were that John should serve an apprenticeship of three
years, receiving wages at the rate of eight shillings per week for the
first year, and a shilling more each successive year; out of which sum he
would have to provide his board and all other necessaries except
lodgings. The arrangement seemed a most advantageous one both to John and
his father, and poor old Parker wept tears of joy when returning to
Helpston, and informing his wife of the brilliant future in store for
their offspring. He was now, they thought, on the high road to fortune.

However, it was an evil day for John when entering upon his service at
Burghley Park. The visions of poetry which swept across his mind when
first lying under the trees of the park, and, with Thomson's 'Seasons' in
hand, surveying the beautiful scenery, soon took flight, to give way to a
reality more dreary and more corrupt than any he had yet witnessed. John
Clare had not been many weeks in his new place, before he found that his
master, the head-gardener, was but a low, foul-mouthed drunkard, while
his fellow-apprentices and the other workmen sought pride in rivalling
their chief in intemperance and dissipation. It was the custom at
Burghley Park to lock up all the workmen and apprentices employed under
the head-gardener during the night, to prevent them robbing the orchards.
The men did not much relish the confinement in a narrow house, and
therefore got into the regular habit of making their escape, at certain
days in the week, to a neighbouring public-house, which they reached by
getting out of the window of their garden-house prison, and climbing over
the park fence. The tavern at which the jolly gardeners held their
carousals was kept by one 'Tant Baker,' formerly a servant at Burghley
Park, and now retailing fermented liquors under the sign of 'The
Hole-in-the-Wall.' To go to the 'Hole-in-the-Wall' was one of the first
proposals made to John after he had entered upon his service, and though
he at first showed some reluctance, his scruples were soon overcome by
the persuasion of his companions, who made the greater effort for this
purpose, as they were afraid that by leaving him behind he would become a
tell-tale. The young apprentice, in consequence, paid his regular visits
with the others to the public-house; and it was not long before he came
to like Tant Baker's strong ale as well, if not better, than his
companions. Thus John Clare became accustomed, in some measure, to
intemperate habits. Not unfrequently he took such a quantity of drink at
the 'Hole-in-the-Wall' as to be completely stupified, and disabled to
reach his sleeping-place for the night. He would then lie down under any
hedge or tree, sleeping off his intoxication, and creeping home, in the
early morning, to Burghley Park. Debasing as were the moral effects of
this course of life, the physical consequences were not less disastrous.
Several times, after having made his bed on the cold ground, John Clare
found on awaking his whole body, covered as with a white sheet, the
result of the cold dews of the night. Rheumatic complaints followed,
permanently enfeebling a body weak from infancy.

The unhappy course of Clare's life was aggravated by the conduct of those
under whom he served. The head gardener, a confirmed drunkard, thought it
nevertheless beneath his dignity to get intoxicated at the
'Hole-in-the-Wall,' but sought his alcoholic refreshments at a more
aristocratic public-house in the neighbouring town. He often caroused at
Stamford so long and so late, that his spouse got impatient at her lonely
residence, and despatched one messenger after the other to bring her
truant lord home. The policy of the wife, however, was defeated by her
drunken husband. He made it a rule of keeping the envoys sent to him, and
plying them with strong drink till they were more unable to report their
own than his movements. Poor little John, unfortunately, was often sent
on these errands, which led to his being made drunk one night at
Stamford, by his master, and the next evening, by his fellow-workers, at
the way-side 'Hole-in-the-Wall.' What would have become of him had this
wretched career been pursued long, is easy to imagine; but, happily, the
state of things was brought to an end shorter than at first calculated
upon. The drunken master was likewise a brutal master, and, to escape his
insults and occasional violence, one of the gardeners, bound by a long
engagement, resolved to run away; and, having taken a certain liking to
John, persuaded him to become a companion in the flight. This was when
John Clare had been about eleven months at Burghley Park, and, by the
terms of his agreement with the head gardener, would have had to remain
an apprentice for above two years longer. However, he did not think
himself bound by the contract, and early one morning in autumn--date
again uncertain, but probably about the year 1809, Clare now full
sixteen--he scrambled through the window with his companion, and
furtively quitted Burghley Park and the service of the Marquis of Exeter.
Already on the evening of the same day he repented his rash act. His
companion in the flight took him on a long trot to Grantham, a distance
of twenty-two miles, where the two lodged at a small beerhouse, and Clare
fancied that he was fairly out of the world. Having not the slightest
notions about geography, or topography either, he believed he had now
arrived at the confines of the habitable earth, and with but little
chance of ever seeing his parents again. The thought brought forth tears,
and he wept the whole night. On the next morning, the two fugitives tried
to find work at Grantham, but did not succeed, so that they were
compelled to tramp still further, towards Newark-upon-Trent. Here they
were fortunate enough to obtain employment with a nurseryman named
Withers, who gave them kind treatment, but very small wages. John,
meanwhile, had got thoroughly home-sick, and the idea of being an immense
distance away from his father and mother did not let him rest day or
night. Not daring to speak to his companion, for fear of being retained
by force, he at last made up his mind again to run away from his
employer, this time alone. It was beginning to get winter; the roads were
partially covered with snow, and swollen streams and rivers interrupted
on many points the communication. Nevertheless, John Clare started on his
home journey full of courage, though absolutely destitute of money and
clothing, leaving part of the latter, together with his tools, at his
master's house. During the two or three days that it took him to reach
Helpston, he subsisted upon a crust of bread and an occasional draught of
water from the nearest stream, while his lodgings were in haystacks on
the roadside. His heart beat with tumultuous joy when at last he beheld
the loved fields again, and the village where he was born. And when the
door swung back which led into the little thatched hut, and he saw his
mother and father sitting by the fire, he rushed into their arms, and
fairly frightened them with the outburst of his affection.

There now remained nothing for John Clare but to fall back upon his old
way of living, and to seek a precarious existence as farm-labourer. This
was what he resigned himself to accordingly, only changing his occupation
now and then, as circumstances permitted, by doing odd jobs as a shepherd
or gardener. It was a very humble mode of life, and its remuneration
scarce sufficient to purchase the coarsest food and the scantiest
clothing; but it was, after all, the kind of existence which seemed most
suited to the habits and inclinations of the strange youth, now growing
into manhood. His intense admiration and worship of nature could not
brook confinement of any sort, even such as suffered within the vast
domain of Burghley Park. While gardener at the latter place, his poetical
vein lay entirely dormant; he was never for a moment in the mood of
writing nor even of reading verses. Perhaps the habits of dissipation
into which he had fallen had something to do with this; yet it was owing
still more to the position in which he was placed; The same scenery which
had inspired him to his first poetical composition, when viewed in the
glowing light of a beautiful morning in spring, left him cold and
uninspired ever after. He often complained to his fellow-labourers, that
he could not 'see far enough:' it was as if he felt the rattling of the
chain, which bound him to the spot. A yearning after absolute freedom,
mental as well as physical, was one of his strongest instincts through
life, and not possessing this, he appeared to value little else. It was a
desire, or a passion, which nearly approached the morbid, and gave rise
to much that was painful in the subsequent part of his existence.

Once more a farm-labourer at Helpston, John Clare was all his own again.
Thomson's 'Seasons' never left his pocket; he read the book when going to
the fields in the morning, and read it again when eating his humble meal
at noonday under a hedge. The evenings he invariably spent in writing
verses, on any slips and bits of paper he could lay hold of. Soon he
accumulated a considerable quantity of these fugitive pieces of poetry,
and wishing to preserve them, yet ashamed to let it be known that he was
writing verses, he hid the whole at the bottom of an old cupboard in his
bedroom. What made him more timid than ever to confess his doings to
either friends or acquaintances, was their entire want of sympathy,
manifested to him on more than one occasion. It sometimes happened, on a
Sunday, that he would take a walk through the fields, in company with his
father and mother, or a neighbour; and seeing something particularly
beautiful, an early rose, or a little insect, or the many-hued sky, John
Clare would break forth into ecstasies, declaiming, in his own
enthusiastic way, on what he deemed the marvellous things upon this
marvellous earth. His voice rose; his eyes sparkled; his heart bounded
within him in intense love and admiration of this grand, this
incomprehensible, this ever-wonderful realm of the Creator which men call
the world. But whenever his companions happened to listen to this
involuntary outburst of enthusiasm, they broke out in mocking laughter. A
rose was to them a rose, and nothing more; an apple they valued higher,
as something eatable; and, perhaps, over plum-pudding they would have got
enthusiastic, too. As it was, poor John was a constant butt for all the
shafts of coarse ridicule; even his own parents, to whom he was attached
with the tendered affection, and who fully returned his love, did not
spare him. Old Parker Clare shook his head when he heard his son
descanting upon the beauties of nature, and reproved him on many
occasions for not using his spare time to better purpose than scribbling
upon little bits of paper. Parker Clare's whole notion of poetry was
confined to the halfpenny ballads which the hawkers sold at fairs, and it
struck him, not unnaturally, that the things being so cheap, it could not
be a paying business. This important fact he lost no occasion to impress
upon his son, though with no result whatever.

While the father was not sparing in his attacks upon John's poetical
manifestations, the mother, on her part, was active in the same
direction. She had discovered her son's hiding-place of the curious slips
of paper which engrossed his nightly attention, and, to make an end of
the matter at once, the good woman swept up the whole lot one morning,
and threw it in the chimney. Very likely there was in her mind some
intuitive perception of the fact that her son's poems 'wanted fire.' John
was greatly distressed when he found his verses gone; and more still when
he discovered how the destruction happened. To prevent the recurrence of
a similar event, he conceived the desperate plan of instilling into his
parents a love of poetry. He boldly told them, what he had hitherto not
so much as hinted at, that he was writing verses 'such as are found in
books,', coupling it with the assertion that he could produce songs and
ballads as good as those sold at fairs, so much admired by his father.
Parker Clare again shook his head in a doubting mood, expressing a strong
disbelief of his offspring's abilities in writing poetry. Thus put upon
his mettle, John resolved to do his best to change the scepticism of his
father, and having written some verses which he liked, and corrected them
over and over again into desirable smoothness, he one evening read them
to his astonished parents. But the result was thoroughly disappointing.
So far from admiring his son's poetry, Parker Clare expressed his strong
conviction that it was mere rubbish, not to be compared to the half-penny
songs of the fairs. John was much humbled to hear this; however, he
carried within himself a strong belief that his verses were not quite
valueless, and therefore resolved upon one more test. Hearing the
constant vaunting of the cheap ballads, he made up his mind to try
whether his father was really able to distinguish between his own verses
and those in print. Accordingly, when he had finished another
composition, he committed it to memory, and rehearsed it to his parents
in the evening, pretending to read it from the print. Then his father
broke out in the delightful exclamation: 'Ah, John, my boy, if thou
couldst make such-like verses, that would do.' This was an immense relief
to the poor scribbler of poetry. He now saw clearly that his father's
want of confidence was in him, the writer, and not in his writings.
Henceforth, he made it his regular habit of reciting his own poetry to
his parents as if reading it from a book, or printed sheet of paper. The
habit, though it was strictly a dishonest proceeding, proved to him not
only a real source of pleasure, in hearing his praises from the lips of
those he loved most, but it also served him as a fair critical school.
Whenever he found his parents laugh at a sentence which he deemed very
pathetic, he set himself at once to correct it to a simpler style;
whenever they asked him for an explanation of a word, or line, he noted
it down as ill-expressed, or obscure; and whenever either his father or
mother asked for a repetition of a song which they had heard before, he
marked the slip of poetry so honoured as a success. And all these
successful slips of paper John Clare placed in a crevice between his bed
and the lath-and-plaster wall; a hole so dark and unfathomable as to be
beyond the reach of even his sharp-eyed mother, always on the look-out
for manuscript poetry to light the fire.

Having gained the surreptitious approval of his verses by his parents,
John Clare began to be moved by a slight and almost unconscious feeling
of ambition. Hitherto he had written poetry solely for the sake of
pleasing himself, but he now was stirred by anxiety to discover what
value others set upon his writings. The crevice in his bed-room,
jealously guarded since his mother's grand _auto-da-fe_, and as yet
undiscovered by the watchful maternal eye, contained a few dozen songs
and ballads, descriptive of favourite trees, and flowers, and bits of
scenery, and, after long brooding within himself, John resolved upon
showing these pieces to an acquaintance. The person selected for this
confidence was one Thomas Porter, a middle-aged man, living at a lonely
cottage at Ashton Green, about a mile from Helpston. He was one of those
individuals, described, in a class, as 'having seen better days;'
besides, a lover of books, of flowers, and of solitary rambles. Their
tastes coinciding so far, John Clare and Thomas Porter had become
tolerably intimate friends, the former making it a point to visit, almost
every Sunday, the little cottage at Ashton Green. Having wound his
courage up to the point, John at last, with much secret fear and
trembling, showed to his friend the best specimens of his poetry, asking
for his opinion on the same. Mr. Thomas Porter, though a very
good-natured man, was somewhat formal in his habits, scrutinizing, with
visible astonishment, the little pieces of paper--blue, red, white, and
yellow, having served the manifold purposes of the baker and tallow
chandler before being helpful to poetry--which were submitted to his
judgment. Seeing his young friend's disappointed look at the examination,
he promised to give his opinion about the poetry in a week, namely, on
the following Sunday. The week seemed a long one to John Clare, and he
was almost trembling with excitement when again approaching the door of
the small cottage of Ashton Green. He trembled still more at the first
question of Mr. Thomas Porter:--'Do you know grammar?' It was useless for
John to profess that he did know so much as the meaning of the word
grammar; or whether it signified a person or a thing. Then Mr. Thomas
Porter began to frown. 'You cannot write poetry before you know grammar!'
he sternly exclaimed, handing the many-coloured slips of paper back to
his poor friend. John Clare was humiliated beyond measure: he felt like
one having committed a dreadful, unpardonable crime. Because the sense of
the words was not at all clear to him, he was the deeper impressed with
the consciousness of the heinous misdeed of having written verses without
knowing grammar. So he resolved to know grammar, even should he perish in
the attempt.

To ask Mr. Thomas Porter by what means he could get to know grammar, he
had not the courage: the ground was burning under his feet in the little
cottage at Ashton Green. John Clare, therefore, took his farewell without
seeking further information, and hurried off to the house of a lad with
whom he had been at Mr. Merrishaw's school. Did he know where or what
grammar was? Yes, the lad knew; he had plunged into grammar at Mr.
Merrishaw's, instead of into algebra and the pure sciences. But he could
not tell how to learn grammar, except through one very difficult work,
bound in leather, and called 'The Critical Spelling-book.' To get this
wonderful book now became the all-absorbing thought of John Clare. Penny
after penny was hoarded by immense exertions, and the greatest frugality,
approaching to a want of the necessaries of life. The two shillings for
the 'Critical Spelling-book' were saved at length, and John once more
made his way to the Stamford bookseller, as eager as when in quest of
Thomson's 'Seasons.' He was lucky enough to get 'Lowe's Critical
Spelling-book' at once; but, having got it, underwent a fearful
disappointment. Reading it under the hedge on the roadside, in his
anxiety to possess the contents; reading it at his noonday meal; and
reading it again at the evening fireside--the more he read it, the less
could he understand it. Algebra and the pure sciences had puzzled him
infinitely less than this awful grammar. Worthy Mr. Lowe's 'Critical
Spelling-book,' happily forgotten by the present generation, instilled
knowledge on the good old plan of making it as dark and mysterious as
possible. There was, first, a long preface of twenty-two pages, in which
Mr. Lowe deprecated all other spelling-books whatever, especially those
of his very dear friends and fellow-teachers, Mr. Dixon, author of the
'English Instructor;' Mr. Kirkby, the learned writer of the 'Guide to the
English Tongue;' Mr. Newberry, creator of the 'Circle of the Sciences;'
Mr. Palairet, the famous compiler of the 'New English Spelling-book;' and
Mr. Pardon, author of 'Spelling New-Modelled.' Having gone through the
painful task of deprecating his friends, with the annexed modest
statement that the 'Critical Spelling-book' would be found superior to
any other work of the kind, past, present, or future, Mr. Lowe proceeded
to give his own rules, distinguished 'by the greatest simplicity. Through
the first chapter, treating of 'monosyllables,' John Clare made his way,
with some trouble; but the second, entering the field of 'polysyllables,'
brought him to a stop. Read as he might, poor John could not understand
the ever-changing value of 'oxytones,' 'penacutes,' 'ternacutes,'
'quartacutes,' and 'quintacutes,' and was still more bewildered when he
found that even after having got through all these hard words, there was
a still harder tail at the end of them, in the shape of 'exceptions from
the spelling-book--sounds of letters and syllables, some of which are
more simple, and may conveniently be learnt by a single direction, others
more complex, and may better be explained by being cast into phrases.'
Finding it absolutely impossible to get over the oxytones, he shrunk back
from the quartacutes and quintacutes as beyond the reach of an ordinary
human being, and gave up the study in despair. He next put 'Lowe's
Critical Spelling-book' into the old cupboard where his mother used to
look after his poems--for culinary purposes. But the good housewife never
burnt the 'Critical Spelling-book;' it being, probably, too tough for
her, in all its hide-bound solidity. As for John Clare, he entirely
failed in learning grammar and spelling, remaining ignorant of the sister
arts to the end of his days.


The failure of his attempt to learn grammar, and the firm belief in the
words of Mr. Thomas Porter that grammar was indispensable to poetry, for
some time preyed upon the mind of John Clare. He lost all his pleasure in
scribbling verses, either at home or in the fields, careless even of the
praise which his parents had got into the habit of bestowing upon his
pretended readings from the poets. This lasted for nearly a year, at the
end of which time his own hopefulness, coupled with the natural buoyancy
of youth, drove him again to his old pursuits. His spirits were raised
additionally by the encouragement of a new friend, the parish-clerk of
Helpston. The rumour had spread by this time that John was 'a scholar,'
and was 'writing bits of books on paper,' and though the _vox populi_ of
Helpston thought not the better of John for this acquirement, but rather
condemned him as a practically useless creature, the parish-clerk, being
teacher also of the Sunday-school, and, as such, representative of
learning in the village, held it to be his duty to take notice of and
patronize the young man. He went so far as to call upon Clare, now and
then, with much condescension, and having glanced, in a lofty sort of
way, at the rainbowed slips of paper, already submitted, with such
unhappy results, to the judgment of Master Porter, he promised to 'do
something' for his young friend and pupil. The something, after a time,
turned out to be an introduction to Lord Milton, eldest son of the Earl
Fitzwilliam, with whom the worthy Sunday-school teacher professed to be
on very intimate terms. John Clare, at first, was very unwilling to
thrust himself upon the notice of any such high-born personage; but the
united persuasion of his parents and the obliging new friend broke his
reluctance. A day was fixed, accordingly, for the visit to the noble
lord, residing at Milton Park, half way between Helpston and
Peterborough. After infinite trouble of dressing, the memorable
waistcoat, with cotton gloves, and white necktie, which had made the
journey to Wisbeach, being again put into requisition, John Clare and his
patron started one fine morning for Milton Park. The stately porter at
the lodge, after some parley, allowed them to pass, and they reached the
mansion without further misadventure. His lordship was at home, said the
tall footman in the hall; and his lordship would see them immediately, he
reported, after having delivered the message of the two strangers.
Trusting the 'immediate,' John Clare and his friend waited patiently one
hour, two hours, three hours; they saw the sun culminate, and saw the sun
set, and still waited with becoming quietness. At last, when it was quite
dark, the news came that his lordship could not see them this day, but
would be glad to meet them some other time. Thereupon John Clare and the
Sunday-school teacher left Milton Park and went back to Helpston,
slightly sad, and very hungry.

To John Clare this first attempt to gain high patronage was profoundly
discouraging; but not so to the worthy parish-clerk, whose experience of
the world was somewhat larger. The latter induced his young friend to
make another trial to meet Lord Milton, and, the thing being better
planned, they were successful this time--as far, at least, as the mere
meeting was concerned. Having discovered that the noble lord was in the
habit of occasionally visiting some outlying farms, the shrewd clerk
waylaid his lordship, and, together with his young friend, burst upon him
like an apparition. Breaking out into glowing praise of John Clare, which
made the latter blush like a maiden, the parish-clerk finished by pulling
from his pocket a bit of antique pottery, unearthed somewhere in the
grounds between Helpston Heath and Castor. Lord Milton smiled, and
handing the bearer some loose cash, accepted the gift, not forgetting to
state that he would remember the young man thus favourably introduced to
his notice. John Clare instinctively comprehended the meaning of all
this, and went home and made a silent vow never more to seek patronage in
cotton gloves, with a white necktie, and never more to trust his
grandiloquent friend and patron, the parish-clerk.

The failure of all his attempts to raise himself from his low condition,
drove John Clare into a desponding mood. Weak in body, and suffering
under continuous ill-health, his work as a farm-labourer brought him
scarce sufficient remuneration to procure the coarsest food and the
scantiest clothing, while it left him without any means whatever to
assist his parents in their great distress, so that they had to continue
recipients of meagre parish relief. Throughout, Clare had an innate
consciousness of being born to a freer and loftier existence, and thus
deeply felt the burthen of being condemned to the fiercest struggle with
poverty and misery. The bitter feeling engendered by this thought he
surmounted, most frequently, by flying into his favourite realm of
poetry; but often enough the moral strength failed him for the task, and
he sank back in utter hopelessness. More and more was this the case at
this period. He was now verging upon manhood, and with it came, as nobler
aspirations, so baser passions and desires. To these he fell a prey as
soon as he threw aside his slips of paper and pencil, in consequence of
Thomas Porter's sharp rebuke, and the utter failure to master 'Lowe's
Critical Spelling-book.' For many months after, he neither read, nor made
the slightest attempt to write verses, and the idle hours threw him again
into evil company, similar to that from which he had escaped at Burghley
Park. There were, among the labourers of Helpston, two brothers of the
name of John and James Billings, who lived, unmarried, at a ruinous old
cottage, nicknamed Bachelors' Hall. Both were given to poaching, hard
drinking, and general rowdyism, and fond, besides, of meeting kindred
spirits, of the same turn of mind, at the riotous evening assemblies in
their little cottage. Hitherto, John Clare's passion for poetry had kept
him constantly at home, the nightly companion of his poor parents; but no
sooner had he weaned himself from his verses, when he fled to the Hall.
To his ardent temper, there was a great charm in the wild, uproarious
meetings which took place every evening, accompanied by as much
consumption of ale as the purses of the lawless fraternity would allow.
Poaching, to most of them, proved a source of considerable gain, not less
than a pleasant excitement, and the money thus freely acquired was as
freely spent in drink and debauchery. Though pressingly invited, Clare
could not be made to join in the stealing of game; he was too deep a
lover of all creatures that God had made, to be able to hurt or destroy
even the least of them wilfully. But although unwilling to commit
slaughter himself, he was not at all disinclined to share in its fruits,
and it was not long before he became the leader at the frequent drinking
bouts at Bachelors' Hall. Shy and reserved on ordinary occasions, he was
at these meetings the loudest of loud talkers and singers, the fumes of
vanity, together with those of alcohol, exerting their combined
influence. Reciting his verses to merry companions, he earned warm and
enthusiastic applause, and for the first time in his life deemed himself
fully and justly appreciated. That this fancied road to fame was, after
all, the dreariest road to ruin, poor John Clare did not see, and,
perhaps, could scarcely he expected to see.

Fortunately, at this critical period of Clare's life an event occurred
which, though it drove him for the moment into company almost worse than
that of Bachelors' Hall, at the same time afforded the means for his
rescue. It was in the spring of 1812, Clare now in his nineteenth year,
that great efforts were made throughout the kingdom to raise the local
militia of the various counties, in view of getting, through this source,
recruits for the regular army. Veterans, with red noses and flying
ribbons on their hats, kept tramping from one end of the country to the
other, making every pothouse resound with tales of martial glory, and
fearful accounts of 'Bony.' Even into remote Helpston the recruiting
sergeant penetrated, taking up his quarters at the 'Blue Bell,' and with
much political wisdom honouring the convivial meetings at Bachelors' Hall
with occasional visits. John Clare's heart was stirred within him when,
for the first time, he heard of golden deeds of valour in the field, and
how men became great and famous by killing other men. The eloquent
recruiting sergeant rose to his full height when drawing the accustomed
figure of 'Bony,' with horns and tail, swallowing a dozen babies at
breakfast. John Clare, with other of his fellows at the Bachelors' Hall,
got into a holy rage at the crimes of 'Bony,' vowing to enter the list of
avenging angels. The veteran with the red nose took his audience at the
word, tendering to each of them a neat silver coin, and enlisting them in
the regular militia. John was the foremost to take his shilling, and
though his heart misgave him a little when thinking the matter over in
the cool of the next morning, he had no choice but to take the
red-blue-and-white cockade and follow the sergeant. The latter managed to
enlist a score of young fellows from Helpston, and the whole village
turned out when he marched them off to Peterborough. Old Parker Clare and
his wife shed tears on bidding their son farewell, fearing it might be a
farewell for ever. As to John, his pride only prevented him from joining
in their lamentation, for his mind was by no means easy regarding the
consequences of his rash endeavour to become a hero. He deeply felt his
own irresolution to commit acts of heroism, even such inferior ones as
the killing of small game; and he asked himself with terror how he would
fare when put face to face with such great tigers as 'Bony' and his men.
The thought was anything but pleasant, and he was relieved from it only
by joining the horse-play of his riotous companions, and ransacking the
stores of the roadside taverns. Having reached Peterborough, the whole
troop of aspirant warriors was taken before a magistrate to swear
fidelity to King George the Third, after which Clare and his fellow-men
had quarters assigned to them at the various beer-houses of the episcopal
city. For a week or longer, their daily business, in the service of King
George the Third, was to get drunk, to parade the streets singing and
shouting, and to fight with the watchmen of the town. John Clare,
thinking the matter over in his daily musings, wondered at the curious
road laid down for people who wished to become heroes.

The Helpston group of warriors having been joined by other clusters from
various parts of the county of Northampton, the whole regiment of raw
recruits was marched along, one fine morning, to Oundle. Here they were
drawn up in a body, some thirteen hundred strong, and divided into
companies, according to size. John Clare, being among the smallest of the
young heroes, scarce five feet high, was put into the last company, the
fifth in number. These preliminaries being duly arranged, the thirteen
hundred had to exchange their smock-frocks, jackets, and blouses, for the
regulated red coat and trousers. Unfortunately, the official distributor
of these articles paid no attention whatever to the stature and physical
conformation of the recipients, nor even to their division into
different-sized companies, but threw out his uniforms like barley among
the chickens. The consequences were of the most ludicrous kind. Nearly
all the big men got coats which fitted them like strait-laced jackets,
while the little ones had garments which hung upon their shoulders in
balloon fashion. John Clare was more unlucky than any of his warrior
brethren. His trousers, apparently made for a giant, were nearly as long
as his whole body, and though he drew them up to close under his arms,
they still fell down, by many inches, over his shoes. To prevent his
tumbling over them, like a clown in the pantomime, he held up his
pantaloons with one hand, while with the other he kept his helmet from
falling in the mud. This wonderful headpiece was as much too small for
the big-brained recruit as the other parts of the uniform were too large,
and it required the most careful balancing to keep it in a steady
position on the top of the crown in a quiet atmosphere while, in any
little gust of wind, it was indispensable to ensure the equilibrium with
outstretched arm. All this was easy enough while John Clare went through
his first martial exercises: nothing more simple, while learning the
goose-step, than to hold his big trousers with one hand and his tight
helmet with the other. But at the end of four weeks, his superiors gave
John Clare a gun, and with it came blank despair. He did not know in the
world how to hold his trousers, his gun, and his headpiece at one and the
same time. Puzzling over the matter till his brain got dizzy, he at
length resolved upon a notable expedient. He tucked his nether garments
into his shoes, thereby giving the upper portion of them a bag-like
appearance, while he exchanged his helmet for another of larger
dimensions, in the possession of a thin-headed brother recruit. The new
headpiece was a good deal too large, which, however, was easily remedied
by a stuffing of paper and wood shavings, so that henceforth, unless the
wind blew too strong, the ingenious young soldier had, at least, one of
his two hands to himself. This would have been an immense benefit under
ordinary circumstances; but unfortunately, in the case of John Clare, and
as if to damp his military ardour, it also turned out a source of
unqualified regret. The corporal under whose immediate orders he was
placed, a prim and lady-like youngster, took an aversion to John, partly
on account of the bag-trousers, and partly because of the stuffings of
his helmet, a fraction of which not unfrequently escaped its confinement,
and hung down, in stiff wooden ringlets, over his pale cheeks. At this
the dandy-corporal sneered, and his sneers growing louder on every
occasion, John Clare, at the first favourable opportunity, knocked him
down with his unoccupied right hand. The offence, amounting to a crime,
was at once reported to the captain, and Clare expected momentarily to be
thrust into the black-hole, to be tried by court-martial, and perhaps to
be shot. But, singularly enough, nothing, after all, came of the whole
affair. The serious breach of military discipline was entirely overlooked
by the authorities of the Northamptonshire militia, who probably thought
the whole body of men not worth looking after, the greater number of them
consisting of a mere collection of the lowest rabble. In consequence of
strong remonstrances made by the good people of Oundle about the
insecurity of their property, and even their lives, the thirteen hundred
warriors were disbanded soon afterwards, and never called together again.
John Clare thereupon left his quarters at the 'Rose and Crown,' where he
had been tolerably well treated by the owners, a widow and her two
daughters, and, with a joyful heart, returned to Helpston. He came home
somewhat richer than he left, for he brought back with him a second-hand
copy of Milton's 'Paradise Lost,' an odd volume, with some leaves torn
out, of Shakespeare's 'Tempest,' both works purchased at a broker's shop
at Oundle, and, over and above these acquisitions, a knowledge of the
goose step.


The few weeks' martial glory which John Clare enjoyed had the one good
effect of weaning him from the roisterous company at the Bachelors' Hall,
and bringing him once more to his former peaceful studies. While a
recruit in the militia, he had seen so much of rioting and debauchery, on
the part of the vilest of his companions, as to be cured from all desire
to follow in their footsteps, and he now made the firm vow to lead a more
respectable life for the future. A change of scenery, too, had cured him
of the all-absorbing fear that he should never be able to write poetry,
for want of grammar, and the proper understanding of 'Lowe's Critical
Spelling-book.' It seemed to him, on reflection, that, as he could make
himself understood in speaking to his fellow men without knowing grammar,
he would be able to do so likewise in writing. He therefore began, more
eagerly than ever, to collect small strips of paper, and to fill them
with verses on rural scenery, fields, brooks, birds, and flowers. His
daily occupation, as before, consisted in working as an out-door farm
labourer, and doing occasional odd jobs in gardening and the like, which,
though it was barely sufficient to maintain him, had the to him
inestimable advantage of leaving him completely his own master. This was
the more valuable to John Clare at the present moment, in consequence of
an affair which occurred soon after his return from Oundle, and which was
nothing less than his falling in love, for the second time in his life.
He met, saw, and was conquered by Elizabeth Newton, the daughter of a
wheelwright, at Ashton, a small hamlet close to Helpston. She was but a
plain girl, but possessed of all the arts of coquetry; and though John
Clare did not care much for her at first, she gradually entangled him
into fervent affection, or what he held to be such. It was not Platonic
love, by any means, like that for sweet Mary Joyce; and less so on the
part of the lass than on that of her lover. John, as always, so at his
meetings with Elizabeth Newton, was shy, reserved, and bashful, while she
was frank and forward, professing to be deeply in love with him. This had
the desired effect upon John Clare, whose easily-touched heart could not
withstand the charms and wiles of female enchantment. Having got her
lover thus far, Elizabeth began to talk of marriage, at the mentioning of
which word John felt somewhat startled. His old studies in arithmetic
brought to his mind the difficulties there must be in keeping a
matrimonial establishment upon ten shillings a week, the average amount
of his income, not only for the time, but in all probability for years to
come, if not for his whole life. Elizabeth, on her part, did not share
these arithmetical apprehensions, in consequence of which there were
quarrels, bickerings, and misunderstandings without end. To please his
Elizabeth, John Clare was made to go frequently to the house of father
Newton, the wheelwright, a curious old man, who was constantly reading in
the Bible and trying to find out the meaning of the Apocalypse. He had
quotations upon every subject, none of which, however, showed John
clearly how to get over the great difficulty of keeping a wife upon nine,
or at the best ten, shillings a week. Seeing that her lover was unwilling
to do the one thing she wanted, Elizabeth Newton at last jilted him
openly, telling him, before a number of other girls, that he was but a
faint-hearted fool. After this, she refused to see him again, although
John Clare would have been willing to renew the acquaintance, and even,
if necessary, to marry her. He felt, now she had parted from him, and,
probably, because she had parted from him, a strong affection for the
girl, not to be overcome by many inward struggles. For a short time he
sank into melancholy, from which he roused himself, however, by a new

On Helpston Heath and the neighbouring commons there were always some
gypsy tribes in encampment, the two largest of them being known by the
names of 'Boswell's crew,' and 'Smith's crew.' While out on his solitary
rambles, John Clare made the accidental acquaintance of 'King Boswell,'
which acquaintance, after being kept up by the interchange of many little
courtesies and acts of kindness, gradually ripened into a sort of
friendship. John Clare thought the dark-eyed gypsies far more intelligent
than his own working companions in the fields, and he was attracted to
them, besides, by their fondness for and knowledge of plants and herbs,
as well as their love of music. Expressing a wish to learn to play the
fiddle, the most expert musicians of King Boswell's crew at once began to
teach him the art, in their own wild way, without notes or other
scientific aid, but with the net result that he was able to perform to
his own satisfaction in the course of a few months. He now became a
constant visitor at King Boswell's tent, which he only neglected during
his courtship with Elizabeth Newton. This being broken off, in his grief
of unrequited affection John Clare was seized with a real passion for the
wild life of his gypsy friends, and resolved to join them in their
wanderings. He actually carried out this resolve, and enrolled himself as
a member of Boswell's crew for a few days; but at the end of this period
left them with much internal disgust. The poetry of gypsy life utterly
vanished on close examination, giving way to the most disagreeable prose.
Accustomed as John Clare was to humble fare under a poor roof, his nerves
could not stand the cookery at King Boswell's court. To fish odds and
ends of bones, bits of cabbage, and stray potatoes from a large iron pot,
in partnership with a number of grimy hands, and without so much as a
wooden, spoon, seemed unpleasant work to him, not to be sweetened by all
the charms of black eyes and a tune on the fiddle. He therefore told his
new friends that he could not stop with them; at which they were not very
sorry, seeing in him but a poor hand for making fancy baskets and
stealing young geese. Thus King Boswell and his secular friend parted to
their mutual satisfaction, John Clare returning once more to his
accustomed field and gardening operations. However, the poet, all his
life long, did not forget the gypsies; nor did they forget him. Whenever
any of 'Boswell's crew,' or, in their absence, their first cousins of
'Smith's crew' happened to be near John Clare, on a Saturday evening,
after he had drawn his weekly wages, they did not fail to pay him a
friendly visit, singing some new song to the ancient text of 'Auld lang


The short trial of gypsy life was not sufficient to make John Clare
forget his troubles of love, and he began to think seriously of his
further prospects in life. He would have been but too happy to ask
Elizabeth Newton to become his wife; but having seen so much of poverty
in the case of his parents, he had a natural dread to start in the same
career, with the workhouse for ultimate goal. While thus given up to
reflections on his life, there came an offer which appeared to be most
acceptable. A fellow labourer of the name of Gordon, who had been once
working at a lime-kiln, with good wages, proposed to him to seek the same
employment, and to act as a guide and instructor in the matter. John
Clare consented, and starting with his friend, in the summer of 1817, the
two were lucky enough to find work not far off, near the village of
Bridge Casterton, in Rutlandshire. By dint of very severe labour, Clare
managed to earn about ten shillings a week, a part of which he carefully
hoarded, with the firm intention of attempting a new start in life, by
the aid of a little capital.

The first investment of the small sum thus acquired led to rather
important results. Having collected a considerable quantity of verses,
and safely carried them off from the old hiding-place at Helpston, John
Clare resolved to copy a selection, comprising the best of them, into a
book, so as to preserve his poetry the more easily. With this purpose in
view he went to the next fair at Market Deeping, and after having gone,
with some friends, through the usual round of merry-makings, called upon
a bookseller and stationer, Mr. Henson, to get the required volume of
blank paper. Mr. Henson had no such article in stock, but offered to
supply it in a given time, which being agreed on, particulars were asked
as to the quantity of paper required, and the way in which it should be
ruled and bound. In reply to these questions, John Clare, made talkative
by a somewhat large consumption of strong ale, for the first time
revealed his secret to a stranger. He told the inquirer that he had been
writing poetry for years, and having accumulated a great many verses,
intended to copy them into a book for better preservation. The bookseller
opened his eyes at the widest. He had never seen a live poet at Market
Deeping, yet fancied, somehow or other, that the species was of an
outward aspect different from that of the tattered, half-tipsy,
undersized farm labourer who was standing before him. Though an active
tradesman, willing to oblige people at his shop, Mr. Henson could not
help hinting some of these sceptic thoughts to his customer, and
feelingly inquired of him whether it was 'real poetry' that he was
writing. John Clare affirmed that it was real poetry; further explaining
that he wrote most of his verses in the fields, on slips of paper, using
the crown of his hat as a desk. This was convincing; for the hat, on
being inspected, certainly showed abundant marks of having been employed
as a writing-desk, and even bore traces of its occasional use as a
camp-stool. Doubts as to John Clare being a poet were now impossible; and
Mr. Henson willingly agreed to furnish a book of white paper, strongly
bound, fit for the insertion of a vast quantity of original poetry, at
the price of eight shillings. When parting, the obliging bookseller
begged as a favour to be allowed to inspect one of his customer's poems,
promising to keep the matter as secret as possible. The flattering
request was promptly acceded to, and in a few days after, there arrived
by post at Market Deeping two sonnets by John Clare, which he had
recently composed. One of these was called 'The Setting Sun;' and the
other 'The Primrose.' Mr. Henson, who was no particular judge of sonnets,
thought them very poor specimens of poetical skill, the more so as they
were ill-spelt, and without any attempts at punctuation. He threw the
poems aside at once, and wrote to the poet that he might have his blank
paper book on paying the stipulated eight shillings. So the matter rested
for the present.

John Clare's labours as a lime-burner at Bridge Casterton were of the
most severe kind. He was in the employ of a Mr. Wilders, who exacted
great toil from all his men, setting them to work fourteen hours a day,
and sometimes all the night long in addition. Nevertheless, Clare felt
thoroughly contented in his new position, being delighted with the
beautiful scenery in the neighbourhood, and happy, besides, in being able
to earn sufficient money to send occasional assistance to his parents.
When not engaged at work, he went roaming through the fields far and
wide, always with paper and pencil in his pocket, noting down his
feelings in verse inspired by the moment. It was the time when his
poetical genius began to awaken to full life and consciousness. He began
writing verses with great ease and rapidity, often composing half-a-dozen
songs in a day; and though much of the poetry thus brought forth was but
of an ephemeral kind, and of no great intrinsic value, the exercise,
combined with extensive reading of nearly all the old poets, contributed
considerably to his development of taste. Sometimes he himself was
surprised at the facility with which he committed verses to paper, on the
mere spur of the moment. It was on one of these occasions that the
thought flashed through his mind of his being endowed with poetical gifts
denied to the majority of men. This was a perfectly new view which he
took of himself and his powers, and it helped to give him immense
confidence. Timid hitherto and entirely distrustful of his own abilities,
he now felt himself imbued with strength never known, and under the
impulse of this feeling determined to make another attempt to rise from
his low condition. The idea occurred to him of printing his verses, and
of coming openly before the world as a poet. Each time he had written a
new verse with which he was pleased, his confidence grew; though his
hopes fell again when he set himself thinking the matter over, and
dwelling upon the difficulties in his way. This inward struggle lasted
nearly a year, in the course of which there occurred another notable
event, which in its consequences grew to be one of the most important of
his whole life.

Every Sunday afternoon, the labourers at Mr. Wilder's lime-kiln were in
the habit of visiting a small public-house, at the hamlet of Tickencote,
called 'the Flower Pot.' Thirsty, like all of their tribe, they spent
hours in carousing; while John Clare, after having had his glass or two,
went into the fields, and, sitting by a hedge, or lying down under a
tree, surveyed the glories of nature, feasting his eyes upon the
thousandfold beauties of earth and sky. It was on one of these Sunday
afternoons, in the autumn of 1817--Clare now past twenty-four--that he
saw for the first time 'Patty,' his future wife. She was walking on a
footpath across the fields, while he was lying in the grass not far off,
dreaming worlds of beauty and ethereal bliss. Patty stepped right into
his ideal realm, and thus, unknown to herself, became part and parcel of
it. She was a fair girl of eighteen, slender, with regular features, and
pretty blue eyes; but to Clare, at the moment, she seemed far more than
fair, slender, and pretty. He watched her across the field, and when she
disappeared from sight, John Clare, almost instinctively, climbed to the
top of a tree, to discover the direction in which she was going. His
courage failed him to follow and address her, though he would have given
all he possessed to have one more glance at the sweet face which so
suddenly changed his poetical visions into a still more poetical reality.
However, the shades of evening were sinking fast; John Clare could not
see far even from the top of his tree, to which he clung with a lover's
despair, so that the beautiful apparition was soon lost to him. Sleep did
not come to his eyes in the following night; and the slow hours of
lime-burning the next day only passed on in making projects how he would
go to the field near the 'Flower Pot,' and try to meet his sweet love
again. He went to the field, but she came not; not the following day, nor
the second, nor the whole week. John Clare began to think the fair face
which he had seen, and with which he had fallen in love at first sight,
was after all, but the vision of a dream.

More than two weeks passed, and John Clare, with his fiddle under his
arm, one evening made his way to Stamford, to play at a merry meeting of
lime-burners the tunes which the gypsies had taught him. While walking
along the road, the vision burst upon him a second time in not to be
mistaken reality. There again was the fair damsel he had seen walking, or
floating, across the greensward on the Sunday eve; as fair and trim as
ever, though this time not in her Sunday dress. John Clare, with much
good sense, thought it useless to climb again upon a tree; but summing up
courage, followed his vision, and, after a while, addressed her in timid,
soft words. What gave him some courage for the moment was, that being on
a festive excursion, he had donned his very best garments, including a
flowery waistcoat and a hat as yet free from the desk service of poetry.
The fair damsel, when thus addressed in the road, smiled upon her
interlocutor; there could be no doubt, his words, and, perhaps, his
waistcoat and new hat, found favour in her eyes. And not only did she
allow him to address her, but permitted him even to accompany her to her
father's cottage, some four miles off. Thither accordingly went John
Clare, in an ecstacy of delight; feeling as if in heaven and playing
merry gypsy-tunes to the winged angels. He wished the four miles were
four hundred; and when arrived at the paternal door with his fair
companion, and she told him that he must leave her now, it seemed to him
as if it had been but a minute since he met her. He looked utterly
dejected; but brightened up when she told him that her name was Martha
Turner, that her father was a cottage farmer, and that the place where
they were standing was called Walkherd Lodge--which perhaps, she
whispered, he would find again. It sounded as if the fiddle under his arm
was again making music to the bright angels. John Clare was in heaven;
but the poor lime-burners at Stamford did not think so, that evening,
when they had to dance without a fiddle.

After seeing his sweet companion disappear behind the garden-gate; after
hearing the door of the house open and shut, and watching the movement of
the lights within the house for an hour or two, John Clare at last turned
his back upon Walkherd Lodge, and went the way he came. The road he
trotted along, with his feet on good Rutlandshire soil, but his head
still somewhat in the clouds, got gradually more and more narrow, till it
ended at a broad ditch, with, a dungheap on the one side and a haystack
on the other. It was now that John perceived for the first time that he
had lost his way. While walking along with Martha Turner, he no more
thought of marking the road than of solving riddles in algebra, and,
besides a faint consciousness that he was coming somewhere from the east
and going to the west, he was utterly lost in his topography. However,
under the circumstances, it seemed no great matter to John to lose his
way, and rather pleasant than otherwise to sleep in a haystack within a
mile of the dwelling of Martha Turner. On the haystack, accordingly, he
sat down with great inward satisfaction, and, the moon having just risen,
pencil and paper were got out of the pocket, by the help of which, in
less than half an hour, another love-song was finished. But though the
day was warm and comfortable, John felt too restless to sleep. So he
cleared the ditch before him with one jump, and pursued the journey
further inland, where lights appeared to be glimmering in the distance.
Onward he trotted and leaped, over hedges and drains, across ploughed
fields, through underwood and meadows, around stone-quarries and
chalk-pits. At last, after a wild race of four or five hours, he sank
down from sheer exhaustion. There was soft, mossy grass under his feet,
and a sheltering tree above, and he thought it best to stop where he was
and to compose himself to sleep. The heavy eyelids sank without further
bidding, and for several hours his soul took flight into the land of
dreams. When he awoke, the moon was still shining, but not far above the
western horizon. Looking around, he perceived something bright and
glittering near him, similar to the bare track beaten by the sheep in hot
weather. To follow this path was his immediate resolve, as sure to lead
to some human habitation, if only a shepherd's hut. He was just going to
rise, but still on the ground, when one of his feet slipped a short
distance, in the direction of the silvery line, and he heard the clear
splash of water under him. At the same moment, the last rays of the moon
disappeared from above the horizon. John Clare shuddered as if the hand
of death was upon him. Creeping cautiously towards the neighbouring tree,
and clasping both his arms around it, he awaited daybreak in this
position. At length, after hours which seemed endless, the burning clouds
appeared in the east. He once more looked around him, and found that he
was lying on the brink of a deep canal, close to the River Gwash. One
turn of the body in its restless dreams; one step towards the tempting
silvery road of night, would have made an end for ever of all the
troubles, the love and life and poetry, of poor John Clare.


Soon after his first meeting with Martha Turner, at the beginning of
October, 1817, John Clare left Bridge Casterton, hand went to Pickworth,
a village four miles off, in a northerly direction, where he found
employment in another lime-kiln, belonging to a Mr. Clerk. The reason he
quitted his old master was that the latter lowered his wages from nine to
seven shillings per week, which reduction John Clare would not submit to.
Though content, throughout his life, to live in the humblest way, he had
two strong reasons, at this moment, for wishing to earn moderately good
wages, so as to be able to save some money. The first was that he had set
his heart on having a new suit of clothes, including an olive-green coat.
As young maidens sigh for a lover, and as children long for sweetmeats,
so John Clare had set his heart for years on having an olive-green coat.
For this wonderful garment he was 'measured' soon after returning from
Oundle and martial glory, under the agreement, carefully stipulated with
the master tailor, that it was to be delivered only on cash payment. But
he had never yet been able to raise the necessary fifty shillings,
although the olive-green coat was dearer to his heart than ever before.
However, there was one still dearer object, for the carrying out of which
he wanted to save money, namely, the attempt to get some of his verses
printed. His chief impulse, in this respect, was not-so much literary
vanity, but a strong desire to get the judgment of the world on his own
secret labours. As yet, though with an intuitive perception of the
intrinsic worth of his poetry, he had no real faith in himself. The
intimation of Thomas Porter, respecting the necessity of grammar, still
weighed heavily upon his mind, and the cold reception which his verses
met with at the hands of the bookseller of Market Deeping greatly
contributed to weaken the belief in the value of his writings.
Nevertheless, the old spirit of faith urging him again and again, he had
more than once renewed his communications with Mr. Henson, and repeated
visits to Market Deeping at last produced a sort of treaty between
bookseller and poet. Mr. Henson agreed to print, for the sum of one
pound, three hundred prospectuses, inviting subscribers for a small
collection of 'Original Trifles by John Clare.' The price of the volume
was to be three shillings and sixpence, 'in boards;' and Mr. Henson
promised that, as soon as one hundred subscribers had given in their
names, he would begin to print the book, at his own risk. This treaty,
the result of several interviews, and much anxiety on the part of John
Clare, was settled between the interested parties in the month of
December, 1817.

A more excited time than that which now followed, Clare had never seen in
his life. He was in love over head and ears, and had to pay frequent
visits to his mistress at Walkherd Lodge; he had to think of saving money
for his long-desired olive-green coat--more than ever desired now for
presentation at the Lodge; and, last not least, he had to work overtime
to get the one pound sterling required for the printing of the three
hundred prospectuses. In short, he had to labour harder than ever, in
order to gain more money; and, yet, at the same time, required more
leisure than ever, both for writing verses and love-making. To reconcile
these opposite wants, he took to night-work, in addition to daily labour,
risking his health and almost his life to gain a few shillings and to
have an occasional glimpse at his sweet mistress. His love prospects did
not appear to be very promising, at first. As for Martha Turner herself,
she rather encouraged than otherwise the attentions of the young
lime-burner; her parents, however, were strongly and energetically
opposed to the courtship. Dignified cottage-farmers, renting their
half-a-dozen acres of land, with a cow on the common, and a pig or two,
they thought their pretty daughter might look higher in the world than to
a mere lime-burner with nine shillings a week. Besides, there was another
lover in the wind, of decidedly better prospects, who had already gained
the ear of the parents, and was backed by all their influence. It was a
young shoemaker from Stamford, with a shop of his own; a townsman dressed
in spotless broadcloth on all his visits to Walkherd Lodge, and of
manners considered aristocratic. Martha herself wavered slightly between
the shoemaker and the lime-burner; the former was not only well-dressed
but good-looking, to neither of which externals John Clare could lay any
pretensions. The only advantage possessed by him over his rival was that
he pleaded his cause with all the zeal and ardour of a man deeply
enamoured, and this, as always, so here, carried the day finally. There
was some languid indifference in the addresses of the loving shoemaker,
to punish which Martha Turner threw herself into the arms of John Clare.
So far, things were looking prosperous at the Pickworth lime-kiln, during
the first months of 1818.

Meanwhile, the poetical aspirations of John Clare had made little
progress. Mr. Henson, of Market Deeping, insisted that the poet should
write his own prospectus, or 'Invitation to Subscribers,' and Clare
trembled at the bare idea of undertaking such a formidable work. Easy as
it was to him to compose scores of verses every day, in the intervals of
the hardest manual labour, he had never attempted, in his whole life, to
write a single line in prose, and therefore could not bring himself, by
any exertion, to go through the new task. Day after day he tormented his
head to find words how to begin the required prospectus, but invariably
with the same negative result. Often it happened that, when trying to
write down the first line of the 'Invitation,' his thoughts involuntarily
lost themselves in rhyme, till finally, instead of the desired 'Address
to the Public,' there stood on paper, much to his own surprise, an
address to the primrose or the nightingale. Thus, one morning, when going
to his work, in deep thoughts of poetry, prospectuses, love, and
lime-burning, the reflection escaped his lips, 'What is life?' and, as if
driven by inspiration, he instantly sat down in a field, and, on a scrap
of coarse paper, wrote the first two verses of the poem, subsequently
published under the same title. Clare's poetical genius threatened to
master even his own will.

At length, however, after infinite trouble and exertion, he managed to
get the dreaded prospectus ready. Having saved the pound with which to
pay the printer, he firmly determined to make a final attempt to write
prose, in some form or other, and to send it off to Market Deeping, in
whatever shape it might turn. At this time he was in the habit of
working, sometimes at Mr. Clerk's lime-kiln at Pickworth, and sometimes
at a branch establishment of the same owner, situated at Ryhall, three
miles nearer towards Stamford. Firm in his determination to produce a
prospectus, he started one morning for Ryhall, and, arrived at his place
of labour, sat down on a lime-scuttle, pencil in hand, with the hat as
ever-ready writing-desk. For once, the prose thoughts flowed a little
more freely, and after a strong inward effort, the following came to
stand upon paper:--

'Proposals for publishing by Subscription a Collection of Original
Trifles on miscellaneous subjects, religious and moral, in Verse, by John
Clare of Helpston. The Public are requested to observe that the Trifles
humbly offered for their candid perusal can lay no claim to eloquence of
poetical composition; whoever thinks so will be deceived, the greater
part of them being Juvenile productions, and those of later date
offsprings of those leisure intervals which the short remittance from
hard and manual labour sparingly afforded to compose them. It is hoped
that the humble situation which distinguishes their author will be some
excuse in their favour, and serve to make an atonement for the many
inaccuracies and imperfections that will be found in them. The least
touch from the iron hand of Criticism is able to crush them to nothing,
and sink them at once to utter oblivion. May they be allowed to live
their little day and give satisfaction to those who may choose to honour
them with a perusal, they will gain the end for which they were designed
and their author's wishes will be gratified. Meeting with this
encouragement it will induce him to publish a similar collection of which
this is offered as a specimen.'

The writing of this paper--presented here as originally written, with the
correction only of the spelling, and the insertion of a few stops and
commas--took Clare above three hours, and having finished it, and read it
over several times, he thought he had reason to be pleased with his
performance. A third reading increased this satisfaction, in the fulness
of which he determined to send the prospectus at once to the printer.
Accordingly, he sat down upon his lime-scuttle, fastened the paper
together with a piece of pitch, scraped from an old barrel, and directed
it, in pencil, to 'Mr. Henson, bookseller, Market Deeping.' This
accomplished, he started off in a trot to the post-office at Stamford. On
the road, new doubts and scruples came fluttering through his mind. Was
it not a foolish act, after all, that he, a poor labourer, the son of a
pauper, should risk a pound of his hard earnings in the attempt to
publish a book? Would not the people laugh at him? Would they not blame
him for spending the money on such an object, instead of giving it to his
half-starving parents? Such were the doubts that crossed his mind. But,
on the other hand, he considered that success might possibly attend his
efforts; that, if so, it would be the means of raising his parents, as
well as himself, from their low situation; and that, whatever the result,
it would show the world's estimate of his own doings--either encourage
him in writing more verses, or cure him of a silly propensity. This last
reflection, and a thought of the fair girl he loved, decided the matter
in his own mind. He sprang up from the stone heap, where he had sat
buried in reflections, and pursued his way to Stamford. His face was
burning with excitement, and, entering the town, he fancied everybody was
looking at him, with a full knowledge of his vainglorious errand. The
post-office was closed, and the clerk at the wicket demanded one penny as

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