John Clare (1793-1864) is often overlooked in accounts of Romantic poetry, but he wrote sensitively and originally about the English countryside and his poetry displays a fine eye for local detail. He is regarded by some as the finest nature poet in the English language. His poem ‘Autumn’ showcases his rare talents, and repays closer analysis: consider the wonderful line ‘Hill-tops like hot iron glitter bright in the sun’. For a good edition of John Clare’s poetry, we recommend John Clare: Major Works from Oxford University Press.
The thistledown’s flying, though the winds are all still,
On the green grass now lying, now mounting the hill,
The spring from the fountain now boils like a pot;
Through stones past the counting it bubbles red-hot.
The ground parched and cracked is like overbaked bread,
The greensward all wracked is, bents dried up and dead.
The fallow fields glitter like water indeed,
And gossamers twitter, flung from weed unto weed.
Hill-tops like hot iron glitter bright in the sun,
And the rivers we’re eying burn to gold as they run;
Burning hot is the ground, liquid gold is the air;
Whoever looks round sees Eternity there.
John Clare, like another great nineteenth-century nature poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, provides a good example of the idea of the poet as genius. He simply saw things differently from most people, noticing what few of us notice but all of us know and feel, and finding just the right metaphor or simile to capture its essence. In a series of quatrains rhymed aabb, Clare captures the sights and sounds of nature in the autumn season.
And whilst a line like ‘The ground parched and cracked is like overbaked bread’ would not be out of place in a schoolchild’s first attempt at poetry, the simile now striking us as perhaps a little too obvious, the image of the fallow fields glittering like water – their surface shimmering in the sun like the surface of a lake or the sea – is inspired.
There’s also a glorious sense of play, particularly in the internal rhymes: having ‘iron’ soften into the verb ‘eying’ in that final stanza, for example, or ‘mounting’ giving way to ‘fountain’ in that first stanza, and tantalising us with the possibility of ‘mountain’ – under pressure from that ‘hill’ – a word which never appears. This is John Clare the joyful, playful poet who found such wonder and delight in the natural world, and who could put into words the smallest details of the season in a way that is immediately recognisable.