The Life of John Clare by Frederick Martin

Produced by Jonathan Ingram, Thomas Berger, and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team. THE LIFE OF JOHN CLARE. by FREDERICK MARTIN. * * * * * PREFACE. 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
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  • 1865
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Produced by Jonathan Ingram, Thomas Berger, and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team.




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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 interest.

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.

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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 clerk!

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 clerk.

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 sight.’

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 resolution.

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 syne.’


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