John Clare: Natural history writing and a loco-descriptive poetics of landscape

John Clare: Natural history writing and a loco-descriptive poetics of landscape

Jeffrey Dories


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Abstract: John Clare used many different techniques to present the natural world to his readers. In order to understand his poetry, and his philosophical view of nature, one must examine his published and unpublished poetry and natural history writing. Through the use of extensive detail, an obsession with his local environment, and using writing techniques such as prosopopoeia, Clare presented a view of his local environment that deserves further study. Nature lovers of any generation can appreciate his work and learn from the way he viewed nature. At the same time, his work shows some of the dislocation and alienation that people feel when disconnected from land.


In reading John Clare’s poetic oeuvre, two facts are completely undeniable: that his poetry is tied to his sense of place and that his emphasis on location serves as a primary defining characteristic of his writing. Clare’s hometown and the surrounding areas influenced him and resonated throughout his writing, which is the major characteristic that makes his writing unique. Arguably, few British writers of the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries were more influenced by their locations than Clare.

There were many critiques of Clare’s poetry based on his intense focus on local natural history instead of symbolism, metaphor, and a deeper philosophical meaning. For instance, in an unsigned review from New Monthly Magazine, the writer argues, ‘in his minuteness of detail he seems at a loss where to stop’.[1] In other words, Clare cannot help but give more detail than is needed. A critic, from Monthly Magazine made such an argument, writing that ‘[t]hough Mr C’s poems are not devoid of merit, they will not stand the test of trial themselves’ because they are not sufficiently philosophical.’ One piece of advice given to Clare from Charles Lamb is especially notable as Lamb recommends that Clare ‘transplant Arcadia to Helpstone’.[2] In other words, Lamb told Clare that his poetry would be better received if he did not use unique images from his hometown, instead, Clare should take idealized pastoral Arcadian images and superimpose them over his local area.

A central aspect of these critiques listed above is that they attack the most distinctive aspects of Clare’s work, his minute descriptions of nature.[3] The critics favoured the sentiments that are commonplace throughout much of the poetry of this period: idealization of the scene, sentiments overlaying natural description, and philosophical ideas guiding poetics.[4] The aspect of Clare’s writing that distinguishes it from other works is exactly what he was castigated for during his lifetime. Clare felt that much could be learned through lengthy descriptions without overtly inserting larger philosophical meanings directly into his descriptive writing. Clare was able to depict a scene in a manner in which the reader would learn about the natural world, humanity, and many other concepts with pure description. If there was any idea that Clare rejected, it was transposing Arcadia over nature, especially his hometown.

This essay focuses on the intricate detail of Clare’s natural history writing and his use of prosopopoeia to personify landscapes. The origins of Clare’s poetry rest in his natural history writing, so in order to understand his poetry, we must examine how much of his philosophy derived from his natural history background. The main importance of this study is to emphasize Clare’s intricate details in the landscapes he portrays and that natural history writing, in general, should be recognized as an integral genre in Romantic studies.

Privileging the Local over the Universal

In July, 1793, the poet John Clare was born in the little town of Helpstone, Northamptonshire. Clare, known as a peasant-poet, was born the son of a farm laborer, and his grandfather was an itinerant laborer whose lineage was a mixture of laborers, farmers, and clerks. Born in a simple cottage, his formal education was limited to classes in a church until the age of twelve after which he was self educated. Most of his life, he was a laborer who wrote poetry in his time off from work, including those times he found ways to avoid work. He did achieve some fame for his writing, but this formally lasted approximately three years, and then the rest of his life was spent in financial struggle and despair.

Gilbert White’s natural histories influenced both Clare’s natural history writing and his poetry. After reading White’s Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne (1789) in his teenage years, Clare decided to write a similar natural history of his hometown, Helpstone.[5] The disparity between the two natural histories is vast: White’s was thoroughly formed, published, and became one of the most popular selling books of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, while Clare’s ended up no more than a scattered series of fragments and letters that were not comprehensively assembled until Margaret Grainger compiled them in 1983. However, the themes that run throughout both natural histories show that Clare’s philosophy of nature writing was shaped through this experience.

One theme throughout Clare’s natural histories is a focus on detailed observation of the natural environment. He felt passionately that recording the intricate details of the natural world was integral in order to preserve the natural history of his hometown that was drastically altered by human and governmental intervention including, but not limited to, the Enclosure Acts. This concern for keeping record of the world he knew resulted in Clare being deeply invested in his home district. The threat of the loss of his childhood land and way of life helped provide an intense focus and rootedness to his writing that many other nature writers lacked. He never left England and only traveled outside of a ten-mile radius of his hometown on four occasions, which intensified his investment in locality throughout his work.[6]

Clare argued that by recording nature as accurately as possible, his readers would better understand their environment and act as witnesses to help future generations comprehend the changes in the natural world that would be altered for future generations. In a period of history that was defined by revolution (political, economic, industrial, religious, poetic, etc.), both the literal earthly landscape and the landscape of ideas were dramatically changing. Clare felt that if nature as it currently appeared was not recorded, it would disappear forever, and this fueled his passion for detail. Because of this, the act of bearing witness to the natural destruction is a political and poetic act that serves an important role in natural history writing.

Natural history writers challenge the dominant discourse that enables nature to be wantonly used or destroyed. Writers like Clare confront the impending enclosure of his land, which many businessmen from his era thought of as a positive act that provided jobs and wealth to large groups of people,[7] and suggests that it will destroy nature, the communal aspect of the commons, and the traditional way of life that their families had experienced for generations. This testimony takes shape throughout their writing by providing a written record of the scenes that they loved.

An integral part of bearing witness to natural destruction is recording what the affected land was like prior to the acts that altered it. In order to accomplish this, the recording must be focused and detailed in order to gain a full perspective of what was lost. The argument for a recording of the natural history on the more narrow local level and not in a universalized manner is explained in this paragraph:

I think an able Essay on objects in nature that woud beautifye descriptive poetry might be entertaining & useful to form a right taste in pastoral poems that are full of nothing but the old thread bare epithets of ‘sweet singing cuckoo’ ‘love lorn nightingale’ ‘fond turtles’ ‘sparkling brooks’ ‘green meadows’ ‘leafy woods’ & c & c these make up the creation of Pastoral & descriptive poesy & every thing else is reckond low & vulgar… in fact they are too rustic for… the fashionable or prevailing system of rhyme till some bold innovating genius rises with a real love for nature & then they will no doubt be considerd as great beautys which they really are.[8]

Clare criticized more traditional poetry for relying on metaphors and allusions to literary nature, false observations that had been passed down for generations and not real details of the natural world. He argued that more biologically accurate depictions of the natural world would enrich and beautify poetry, and that it would take an “innovating genius” to accomplish this feat. Clare argued that the job of nature writers was to dispel superstition and myths about the natural world in order to come closer to biological reality. He believed that through a qualitative, didactic, and more biologically accurate poetry that relies less on superstition and dispelled facts, readers would have a better understanding of the world that surrounds us. At the same time, more biologically accurate poetry would strengthen and alter the poetic world by creating a new kind of nature-based poetics that would act as a testimonial to nature. Of course, this movement would have needed to achieve popular appeal and this did not directly occur, but in analyzing and introducing their poetry to contemporary readers a new opportunity appears for instituting this alternate poetics of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The act of recording and preserving biological details as an act of bearing witness represents a common thematic element between Clare’s work and that of other natural history writers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that need further examination.

One of the areas where Clare’s observation and recording of the natural world excelled was in his depictions of birds, especially their nests. For instance:

[t]he gold finch… builds its nest on the eldern or apple tree & make its outside of grey moss like the pinks which it greatly resembles but its lining is different & instead of cowhair it prefers thistle down it lays 5 pale eggs thinly sprinkled with feint red spots.[9]

In this passage, he wrote about where the nest was found, what it looked like, what it was made of, and what lay inside of it. After reading Clare’s observations, it would be easy to distinguish the nests of the dozens of birds that reside in and around Helpstone. In this case, if you looked at the apple tree outside his cottage, there most likely would be a gold finch’s nest. While most writers would see these nests as similar, or at least, not be able to distinguish the differences between them in such great detail, Clare studied them to the point that he could identify the bird just by seeing their nests. Most importantly, Clare saw intrinsic value in studying animals within their habitat, whereas many Linnaean naturalists normally killed plants and animals and took them out of their habitat in order to dissect and classify them. These writers painstakingly recorded their environments to make a record of the plants and animals that could not write their own histories.

In making their nests, Clare observed that the nightingale always uses ‘dead oak leaves;’ the pettichap makes its nest so small that they cannot get in without stretching the opening and Clare hypothesized that both the male and female birds sit on the eggs because they are so large that one would not be able to cover it.[10] The thrush builds its nest near ‘large tree[s]’ for protection, with ‘twigs,’ ‘water grains,’ ‘dead grass moss,’ ‘cow dung,’ mixed with ‘wool’ and a ‘finer grass’ lining.[11] In each of these examples, Clare used the common colloquial name of the bird rather than the Latin, in the case of the thrush, Turdus philomelos. He utilized the colloquial name throughout his natural history writing as a purposeful rejection of the Latinized systemic classification. While an argument could easily be made that Clare used this philosophical rejection in order to avoid learning the Linnaean system, throughout his life he proved that when he had the will to learn even very difficult concepts, he would easily do so. Clare’s interest in exacting biological detail in his natural history writing helped him develop a talent for observing intricate details of the biological world that will later appear in his poetry. In order to understand Clare’s poetics based in natural history, it is important to illustrate how dedicated Clare was to presenting the natural world accurately and recording details that many writers and poets would ignore.

The detailed example of the thrush’s nest represents the extent of Clare’s passionate recording of every minute detail in the surrounding area. The thrush has a long tradition in literature dating back to Homer, and in England, Chaucer, but after reading Clare’s descriptions, there is little doubt that few other poets had a fuller understanding of the bird than he. There may have been naturalists who had similar knowledge of the thrush; although, they could not express their understanding as artistically and thoroughly. Because Clare presented these birds, and the natural world in such detail, no other writer of the nineteenth century straddled the naturalist and poetic divide more aptly than Clare. This is noteworthy because Clare viewed natural history poetry in a unique manner as a vehicle for recording and bearing witness to the natural world that may disappear. Few poets of his era have attempted to use poetry as a medium for natural advocacy and testimony for plants and animals that could not speak for themselves.\

The focus of John Clare’s natural history writings emphasize the interactions that occur between the plants, animals, insects and their environment. His focus on landscapes tied together the scene in a way that other writers rarely did. When readers are presented with animals, insects, and even humans in their environment and the interactions between them and their environment, they understand the ecosystem as a holistic entity, not just discordant parts. Clare’s writing acts as a composite image of the entire system of the natural world providing the reader with not just a series of incoherent parts, but instead, an organic, holistic vision of nature that will influence the way that he wrote poetry as well. Clare’s landscapes are both detailed and poetic. When he portrays a scene, it is thronging with life, with plants and land just as alive as the animals in the scene:

The tall poplars peeping above the rest like leafy steeples the grey willows shining chilly in the sun as if the morning mist still lingered on its cool green I felt the beauty of these with eager delight the gadflys noonday hum the fainter murmur of the beefly ‘spinning in the evening ray’ the dragonflys in spangled coats darting like winged arrows down the thin stream . . . I lovd to see the heaving grasshopper in his coat of delicate green bounce from stub to stub I listend the hedgecricket with rapture.[12]

In this scene, the trees come alive ‘peeping’ and the ‘murmur’ of dragonflies mix with many other sounds to create a symphonic sound that penetrates through the scene. Clare illustrated, through his writing, a living and breathing ecosystem that was not a series of individual parts; instead, all the sounds combined to make an organic, living world that thrived around him as he enjoyed the experience. He recorded the scene in a manner that reflects the interconnected nature of the environment and portrayed the significance of all the elements of the ecosystem working together. If any part of the ecosystem is destroyed it will affect the entire system.

Clare wrote in his ‘Essay on Taste’ that taste is ‘a uniformity of excellence-it modifys expression & selects images-it arranges & orders matters & thoughts’.[13] This definition of taste defined both his nature writing and his poetry. He argued that the writer’s job is to ‘select images,’ ‘modify,’ and ‘arrange’ them. In his nature poetry, Clare did not attempt to lift imagination to a higher level, or create a subjective filter to view nature through. Instead, he viewed the job of a writer like that of a realist painter: to attend carefully to accurate, non-idealized representations of the natural world. Of course, it is impossible to completely present the scenes in a realistic manner, but that was Clare’s lofty goal throughout his natural history oeuvre. Because of this, his poetry is didactic in the way it illustrates biological details for the reader.

Personification, Prosopopoeia, and Living Landscapes

One of the most fascinating aspects of Clare’s writing is that he uses personification in ways distinctive from the poets whom he idolized. Instead of just giving plants, animals, or other parts of nature anthropomorphized characteristics, on multiple occasions he used prosopopoeia[14] as if the natural figure is the narrator of the poem. He attempts to give a voice to the elements of nature in a way that he imagines as realistic. For example, Clare gives a voice to an area of land named Swordy Well and a stream named Round Oak Waters. Both the quarry and the stream that he gives voice to were altered by the Enclosure Acts, so his attempt to portray their thoughts to the reader is an effort to help readers empathize and understand the negative impact of the acts. He uses this technique of making a part of nature act as the narrator in other poems as well; generally, this was not a common practise for the poets that he had been exposed to.

Clare’s most powerful examples of personification in his poetry occur in his prosopopoeia Enclosure Elegies,[15] ‘The Lament of Swordy Well’ (1821-4) and ‘The Lamentations of Round-Oak Waters’ (1818). Clare wrote two poems about Swordy Well, a quarry area near his home, the first being ‘I’ve Loved Thee Swordy Well’ and the second ‘The Lament of Swordy Well.’ The first poem about this quarry was an expression of Clare’s love for the wild flowers that he found there, and the second was an even more powerful expression because of the loss of this area, which Clare claimed was a direct result of the Enclosure Acts and human exploitation. The most powerful aspect of ‘The Lament of Swordy Well’ is that it is written as a dramatic monologue in the first person from the perspective of the quarry itself, and the land speaks of its own exploitation in the language of the working class using the colloquial language unique to that area.[16] There has been debate about whether or not this is the first poem in literary history to personify a landscape and not just individual parts of that landscape;[17] regardless, it is a unique and interesting poem.

The ‘Lament of Swordy Well’ begins by decrying ‘petitioners’ as disingenuous and comparing them to churchgoers who believe they are better than ‘saints’ (‘Swordy Well’ 8).[18] In the second stanza, the unidentified speaker, blames profit for the problems of the poor, writing ‘[w]here profit gets his clutches in/ Theres little he will leave’ (‘Swordy Well’ 13-4). Clare begins the third stanza of ‘The Lament of Swordy Well’ with a clear indication that it is not him speaking, and describes the devastation that has happened to this piece of land that he held very dear: ‘I’m Swordy Well, a piece of land/ Thats fell upon the town,/ Who worked me till I couldn’t stand/ And crush me now I’m down’ (‘Swordy Well’ 21-4). Hearing from the land itself increases the reader’s empathy for these fields that, because of the Enclosure Acts, are now being over-farmed and destroyed, despoiled from the haven that Clare had once deemed them. In line twenty-six of the poem, Swordy Well says that there was a time when his land ‘[m]ade a freeman of the slave,’ which is Clare speaking through the land expressing the idea that even when he felt that he was doing the work of a slave he could visit this space to feel free from difficulty. The next two lines reference another benefit of the land, the fact that it provided sustenance for many animals: in the example given, an ‘ass.’ Swordy Well then explains that he made the dwelling ‘free’ for the gypsies that roamed the territory as well. Now that the land has been enclosed, it no longer provides a free space for Clare, gypsies, or the animals that had once roamed freely.

Swordy Well’s language becomes strikingly blunt in the next section of the poem as Clare increases his advocacy for the working class and preserving the land. He also attempts to show the horrific effects of enclosure through the mouth of the land:

In parish bonds I well may wail


Harvests with plenty on his brow

Leaves losses taunts with me

Yet gain comes yearly with the plough

And will not let me be


And me they turned inside out

For sand and grit and stones

And turned my old green hills about

And pickt my very bones (‘Swordy Well’ 25, 29-32, 61-4)

Swordy Well complains of the ‘bonds’ of the ‘parish’ and that the unyielding ‘plough’ ‘will not let [him] be.’ The use of the plough as a symbol of abusing the land is especially interesting because of Clare’s familiarity with Thomson’s use of the plough in The Seasons as a positive symbol representing the greatness of Britain. This image, of the plough as destroyer, appears multiple times throughout the poem and inverts Thomson’s plow symbolism. Then, a few stanzas later, the imagery becomes very physical as the voice of Swordy Well speaks about being ‘turned inside out’ and having his ‘bones’ ‘pickt’. The abrasive physicality of these words creates an image that emphasizes the violent destruction that occurs in natural spaces abused by overuse. Through the words of this passage, Clare directly connects ownership of this land through the acts of enclosure to its over-cultivating. The land is being overused in a despotic way, and because of the voice representing the working class, the poem becomes a commentary on peasantry being treated like they are enslaved in the ‘bonds’ of the parish. While the personification that Clare uses is metaphorical, the intense language helps the reader imagine what it would feel like to be the land that is destroyed through this exploitation.

‘The Lament of Swordy Well’ continues to compare the plight of the land with that of the working class as Clare writes of the animals that are dying:

The bees flye round in feeble rings

And find no blossom bye

Then thrum their almost weary wings

Upon the moss and die

Rabbits that find my hills turned oer

Forsake my poor abode

They dread a workhouse like the poor

And nibble on the road (‘Swordy Well’ 81-8)

Clare creates a powerful, graveyard-like scene with weary animals dying and searching for food, including a powerful image of them ‘nibbl[ing] on the road.’ The choice of using bees and rabbits as examples of animals that suffer from the exploitation of the land is important in what they represent. The bees are dying because they cannot find ‘blossom[s]’ to pollinate, so they directly represent the loss of the flowers that Clare loved so much in the first Swordy Well poem. The honey that the bees produced represents one of the oldest food sources for humankind and, because of pollination, bees represent the thriving of plant-life in general. The loss of bees symbolizes the eventual death of plant-life throughout the land. The rabbits in this passage illustrate the multitude of homes that are lost for animals through the massive cultivation of land.

Clare writes a bit later in the poem about this lack of homes for the animals in this ecosystem, writing ‘Ive scarce a nook to call my own/ For things that creep or flye.’

These animals are displaced and it dramatically alters the ecosystems present in that area. Overall, Clare is illustrating, through the mouth of the land itself, how ecosystems are altered and eventually destroyed through over-production that comes with enclosure and modernization.

Clare continues the theme of over-cultivation leading to destruction of the land by addressing the loss of the butterfly. Through the mouth of Swordy Well, he writes:

The next day brings the hasty plough

And makes her miserys bed

The butterflyes may wir and come

I cannot keep them now

Nor can they bear my parish home

That withers on my brow (‘Swordy Well’ 91-6)

This passage elaborates on how the land becomes inhospitable to even butterflies and uses the symbol of the plow to represent humanity’s destruction of the land. At the same time, the fact that the land is inhospitable to these butterflies is representative of the loss of beauty. While the bees symbolized food production and rabbits the destruction of homes within the ecosystem, the loss of butterflies represents the loss of one of the most beautiful creatures in nature. Butterflies symbolize beauty throughout the Western tradition, and while Clare is writing about the reality of losing this insect, he is also lamenting the loss of the beauty of the scene. He mourns this loss of beauty throughout the poem, but one powerful passage towards the middle of the poem explains ‘In summers gone I bloomed in pride/ Folks came for miles to prize/ My flowers that bloomed no where beside/ And scarce believed their eyes’ (‘Swordy Well’ 133-6). This place was special to the village, a place of recreation and admiration, and now it is merely an exploited resource.

Clare, through the mouth of Swordy Well, condemns the greed inherent in agrarian capitalism by writing that if the ‘price of grain [were to] get high’ the land should not ‘possess a single flye’ or ‘get a weed to grow’ (‘Swordy Well’ 147-8). Then, Clare begins anthropomorphizing Swordy Well and dehumanizing the people who have demolished it. Swordy Well refers to trees getting ‘their heads chopped off’, and conveys the pain of the land as if it were hair torn out of skin. He illustrates the loss of the land’s ability to produce as an excruciating pain. At the same time, he animalizes the people that are committing these actions, representing them as a pack of beasts. Reversing the human and animal binary so that the animals appear humane and humans appear animal-like is an effective way to destabilize the reader’s anthropocentric mind-set. This continues a little later in the poem as Swordy Well refers to the men that now abuse this land as ‘mongerel[s]’ (‘Swordy Well’ 198). Clare maintains this line of reasoning, needling away at the commonly accepted idea that humans are more humane than animals and uses dehumanization as a technique to illustrate the harm done by humankind. It is obvious that the intensity of Clare’s depictions, deconstruction of the human and nature binary, and use of personification has a much greater intensity and urgency than Thomson and many other poets of his era.

Perhaps the strongest lines of ‘The Lament of Swordy Well’ come as the narrator attacks enclosure directly, explaining, ‘Till vile enclosure came and made/ A parish slave out of me.’ Swordy Well compares the impact of enclosure on him as a form of slavery that is torturous, inhumane, and will hurt both the enslaved and the enslaver. Finally, Clare ends the poem in a familiar way by stating that soon there shall be nothing left of Swordy Well except its name. Throughout his poetry, he makes this argument that it is his job, both as natural history writer and poet, to bear witness to these actions and to accurately record the land as it once was and the events that altered it forever. Basically, people have stripped it of its resources as a ‘greedy pack’ who tore ‘the very grass from off my back’ so that he has ‘scarce a rag to wear’ (‘Swordy Well’ 136-140). Clare argues that even as the land he cherished disappears, he can record it for others to enjoy throughout history, and at the same time, by making the horrific events widely known, perhaps it will prevent this devastation from occurring in other places.

Clare uses a similar form of prosopopoeia in his poem ‘The Lamentations of Round-Oak Waters’ (1820); however, in this case, the voice is not a labouring-class voice, but a more poetic advocate for the land and working class. The speaker, who is assumed to be Clare, introduces the poem, but the narration is soon given to a voice generated from the water itself. Interestingly, the voice appears at the moment that the speaker is complaining about the inhumanity of the wealthy:

(For when my wretched state appears

Hurt friendless poor and starv’d

I never can withhold my tears

To think how I am starv’d

To think how money’d men delight

More cutting then the storm

To make a sport and prove their might

O’ me a fellow worm) (‘Round-Oak Waters’ 17-24)

The lines here are put in parenthesis to signify that they are thoughts from the narrator that are left unspoken. Interestingly, in the past Clare often dehumanized the men that attack nature in many ways, but here, he explains how he feels dehumanized by ‘money’d men,’ as if he were a ‘worm.’ The word ‘fellow’ that modifies worm is vital to notice because it signifies both that he feels more in common with worms than these wealthy men. As the speaker decries that he is ‘melancholy,’ full of ‘sorrow’ and in ‘misery,’ a voice comes from the water to comfort him (‘Round-Oak Waters’ 26, 27, 30). The stream shows compassion for the narrator’s pain and refers to him as an ‘equal’ (‘Round-Oak Waters’ 44). This reverses the technique that Clare often uses where the speaker suggests equality with nature, having nature claim equality with the narrator. Secondly, the water represents a figure with more education and is identifying with a labourer. Basically, Clare is both levelling the distinction between man and nature and also between different classes of people.

As the poem continues, Round-Oak Waters tells the speaker about all of the ways that people used to enjoy its water and how it made the stream contented to live in a mutually beneficial relationship with both animals and people. As with Clare’s other poems, he does not promote the complete separation of land and humans, instead, he advocates for a mutually beneficial non-exploitative relationship. Then, a pivotal shift in tone occurs as Round-Oak is pulled into the present time and explains:

‘But now alas my charms are done

For shepherds and for thee

The Cowboy with his Green is gone

And every Bush and tree

Dire nakedness oer all prevails

Yon fallows bare and brown

Is all beset wi’ post and rails

And turned upside down’ (‘Round-Oak Waters’ 93-100)

Clare begins this passage with Round Oak saying that its ‘charms’ are gone, which is a term that Clare uses often throughout his oeuvre. This is an interesting term for him to use to denote the loss of the resources from the land and the mutual relationship with nature and man. The word charm has a mystical meaning to it, so Clare is suggesting that when humans and nature work together in a way that is self-sustaining and beneficial to both, there is a holistic balance to this relationship. The second interesting point about this stanza is that Round Oak considers the ‘Shepherd’ and ‘Cowboy’ as parts of its environment that are missed now that enclosure has fenced in the land. Clare often references these two figures in his poems as figures that respectfully interact with nature. The land is not resentful of humans that view themselves as part of the natural world, but it is resentful of those who exploit it. Round-Oak also refers to a common symbol in poems where Clare uses anthropomorphism, that is, the idea of being naked. Just like pulling the hair from the back of Swordy Well, Round-Oak regards the overuse of the land that surrounds it as stripping and a painful experience. The brook complains that ‘dire nakedness oer all prevails’ and that it is ‘stript’ of all that is meaningful. This helps the reader to empathize with the land through the description of this experience that would be considered tragic if it happened to a human. Once again, the radical intensity of Clare’s language surpasses most other natural history writers and is one of the benefits of using poetry as an avenue for protesting this exploitation.

The poem then takes a dark turn similar to that in ‘The Lament of Swordy Well’ as Round-Oak describes the losses that came with enclosure:

‘The bawks and Eddings are no more

The pastures too are gone

The greens the Meadows and the moors

Are all cut up and done


Ah cruel foes with plenty blest

So ankering after more

To lay the greens and pastures waster

Which proffited before

Poor greedy souls—what would they have

Beyond their plenty given?

Will riches keep ’em from the grave?

Or buy them rest in heaven? (‘Round-Oak Waters’ 116-20, 189-96)

As the speaker explains how the natural surroundings have been altered by enclosure, three familiar themes are returned to that recur throughout his oeuvre. First, he dehumanizes the perpetrators of the attacks on the land. In this case, Round Oak disembodies the people that have stolen from the land. They are no longer viewed as human; instead, he refers to them as ‘greedy souls.’ As he does this, he also comes back to a theme of death being a class leveller, expressing both hope and hopelessness. The third theme that appears throughout his work is attacking the abstract concept of profit and greed as forces behind the destruction. Both Clare and the stream have a common foe: profit seeking humans. It is especially important that he often separates the humans from the abstract concepts perhaps in a concerted effort to show that these motivations are not completely a part of the human spirit and that they can be combated with effort. Clare’s main efforts are to make his readers think of the land as an equal rather than subordinate, remind the readers of the cruelty in their actions, and separate humans from the abstract driving forces in an effort to show that humans can resist these motivations.

Clare used prosopopoeia and personification in order to fight against the power of profit, greed and the exploitation of the working class. Through using these literary techniques and the intense focus on minute local description in the first section of this essay, his writing was able to describe the horrors of the enclosure movement, bear witness to its destruction, and ultimately, preserve a written record of all that might be lost because of this movement and modernization in general.

[1] Storey, Edward, The Letters of John Clare (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), p.68.

[2] Storey, p.175.

[3] John Barrell investigated this comparison more fully in his book The Idea of Landscape (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972), p.50. He argues that many writers often took natural descriptions from the great poets back to Theocritus and superimposed these descriptions on the landscape of the area that they were attempting to describe in the present.

[4] Susan J. Wolfson, ‘Wordsworth’s Craft’, The Cambridge Companion to Wordsworth. Ed. Stephen Gill. (United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p.114, refers to this in her writing on Wordsworth as ‘lofty contemplation’. Nicholas Roe, John Keats and the Culture of Dissent, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), p.200, refers to this tendency in Romanticism as ‘introspective and universalizing’ of the natural scene, and William Galperin, The Return of the Visible in British Romanticism, (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1993) p.173, wrote that this kind of writing originated from a ‘mind that half perceives and half creates.’

[5] Margaret Grainger, The Natural History Prose Writings of John Clare (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983)

[6] Grainger, p. xxxviii.

[7] Kenneth Olwick in his book Landscape, Nature, and the Body Politic (Madison, Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin, 2002), p.119, explains that the Old Whigs, who were rooted in the old country traditions, were for maintaining the commons and generally against most aspects of enclosure. The New Whigs, on the other hand, disregarded traditional custom and were for enclosure. Clare seems to be calling the New Whigs hypocritical in both calling themselves Whigs and yet standing against custom in regards to enclosure.

[8] Grainger, p. 51.

[9] Grainger, p. 45.

[10] Grainger, p.69, p.80.

[11] Grainger, p. 47.

[12] John Clare, Selected Prose and Poems of John Clare, ed. by Eric Robinson and Geoffrey Summerfield  (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. 24-25.

[13] Grainger, p.267.

[14] Paul de Man writes in ‘Autobiography as De-facement’ Modern Language Notes 94 (Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 1979), p. 926, that prosopopeia gives voice to a ‘deceased or voiceless entity, which posits the possibility of the latter’s reply and confers upon it the power of speech.’ De Man connects prosopopeia to autobiography, which in this case suggests that Clare is creating an autobiography or giving speech to both the land and the stream that were previously voiceless.

[15] Johanne Clare writes extensively on the ‘Enclosure Elegies’ in John Clare and The Bounds of Circumstance (Kingston, Ontario: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1987).

[16] Johanne Clare explains in John Clare and The Bounds of Circumstance (Kingston, Ontario: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1987), p. 43, that John Clare uses the voice of the labourer for the voice of Swordy Well in order to show the inherent connection between the labourer and land. This inherent connection, she suggests, is formed from a ‘common enemy, namely enclosure and modernization.

[17] James McKusick writes in Green Writing: Romanticism and Ecology (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000), p. 86, that ‘The Lament of Swordy Well,’ is ‘one of the first and still one of the very few poems to speak for the Earth in such a direct and immediate way’.

[18] It is unclear whether Clare is using the word ‘petitioner’ in reference to individuals who are petitioning the government or the political organization known as the Petitioners, which later became the Whigs. If I had to venture a guess, I would think that he is referring to the political organization because of the Whigs’ role in the Enclosure Acts as explained by Kenneth Olwick in his book Landscape, Nature, and the Body Politic (Madison, Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin, 2002), p. 119.