Till Earth Was

Poet John Clare (1793-1864) seems to have grown from the soil.  His last name derives from the word clayer—someone who manures and enriches clay.  As a farm laborer, he drew sustenance from the earth.  Immersed in humus, he learned the humility so necessary to creativity.  His poems, like furrow lines, break the surface of things to expose the extraordinary aspect of the ordinary.  Delighting in common things—birds, flowers, trees, blades of grass—Clare revels in their simple mystery.  It is an art that captures the first day forever dawning.

John Clare was born in Helpston in Northamptonshire, a small village largely undisturbed since the Middle Ages.  People kept the old ways and customs, shared the common land, and still observed the pre-Reformation calendar that celebrated all the seasonal festivals.  Life was in rhythm with nature, in an era before the Enclosure Acts took their toll and radically reconstructed English rural life.

The Clare family subsisted as farm laborers, living on potatoes and water gruel.  When only seven, Clare had a job looking after sheep and geese.  At 12, he worked the fields.  Never robust in health or temperament, he stood barely five feet five inches, a small, sensitive plant.  One reviewer who visited him at Northborough sanitarium described his eyes as “light blue and flashing with genius.”


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