John Clare, Peterborough’s Local Poet

David Dykes from Clare Cottage in Helpston talks to Govinda Gill about the life and work of John Clare (1793-1864) described as “the greatest labouring-class poet that England has ever produced.”

06:50 7th October 2010
Peterborough Breakfast Show BBC Radio Cambridgeshire.

PAUL STAINTON: Sit back. Relax. And listen to our reporter Govinda Gill on the life of Peterborough’s most famous poet, John Clare. (TAPE)

I am.
I am! yet what I am none cares or knows,
My friends forsake me like a memory lost;
I am the self-consumer of my woes,
They rise and vanish, an oblivious host,
Like shades in love and death’s oblivion lost;
And yet I am! and live with shadows tost (FADE OUT)

My name is David Dykes. I am one of the three duty managers that help look after the Clare Cottage in Helpston. John Clare was born in Helpston, 1793. And his passion through his younger life was the wildlife and the environment. In 1807 he was introduced to poetry when he saw a book called The Seasons by James Thompson. Thereafter he started writing lots of poetry on all the wildlife and what he saw. By 1820 he had collected enough poems and backing to be able to produce his first book, Poems Descriptive of Rural Scenery. That was published in London in 1820 by a company called Taylor Hessey, and they published John Keats book. And for a period of time, Clare’s book outsold John Keats. Thereafter, he let three other books out, but they didn’t do as well. But he suffered from mental problems. He had depression, he had a lot of other problems. In 1832 he left Helpston, the cottage that we’re in today, and went to Northborough to try and help him.
GG: And in terms of his poetry, what do you think his major influences were?
DD: His major influences are the wildlife and the environment. The changes on the wildlife and the environment caused by the Enclosure Act. He also recorded people’s traditions, because people were losing traditions then. Even then they were talking about the good old days. And he kept a record of those kinds of things. So his poetry, when you look at it, is very accurate in recording the behaviour of certain animals and plants, the look and feel of the countryside, and he was one of our first environmentalist poets.
GG: Why do you think his poetry, you said his books were outselling John Keats, why do you think it was so popular with people?
DD: It was totally different. Up until then, poetry had come from a classical background, classical structure. Clare was self-taught. His parents were illiterate, so they couldn’t read and write to the same degree. So he taught himself to read. he taught himself to write. And he used the Northamptonshire Dialect, and the words of that time, and didn’t know anything about the way that was structured. He just wrote it as he felt.
Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life nor joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;