The best poems by John Clare selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
John Clare (1793-1864) has been called the greatest nature poet in the English language (by, for instance, his biographer Jonathan Bate), and yet his life – particularly his madness and time inside an asylum later in his life – tends to overshadow his poetry. So here we’ve picked ten of John Clare’s best poems which offer an introduction to his idiosyncratic style and wonderful eye for detail, especially concerning the natural world.
‘First Love’. First love is powerful and stays with us, but it can be painful as well as joyous or liberating. This poem, one of John Clare’s most widely anthologised, captures this dual nature of first love and the way in which it is a loss of something – namely, innocence – as well as a gaining of something new and special.
‘I Am’. ‘I am – yet what I am none cares or knows’. As opening lines go, it teeters on the edge of self-pity, and it’s a brave poet who will risk that charge – and a fine poet who can pull the rest of his poem back from the brink of such self-indulgent wallowing that might be expected to follow. John Clare’s ‘I Am’ manages this, making it a fine and especially interesting example of Romantic poetry, exploring the individual self and the poet’s own place in the world.
‘The Thunder Mutters’. In this short poem, Clare turns his thoughts to that most ominous and powerful of natural phenomena: the rumble or ‘mutter’ of thunder. The effect that the rumbling of thunder has upon the natural world, that perennial theme in Clare’s poetry, is here evoked with his keen eye – and ear – for detail.
‘The Badger’. How many great poems about badgers are there in English literature? Clare’s ‘The Badger’ is perhaps the greatest of this small and select group. ‘The Badger’ is written in rhyming couplets, also known as heroic couplets – and although Clare describes the way the badger is hunted and caught, he imbues the creature with a quiet heroism and nobility. After describing the badger’s appearance and habits, Clare then details how the badger is caught, trapped, and baited.
‘The Yellowhammer’s Nest’. As John Clare wrote so often about nature, it comes as little surprise that he also turned his beautifully close attention to small details to the world of birds. This poem shows Clare’s wonderful sensitivity to vowel sounds, as he explores the patterns found within nature by focusing on the nest of the bird, which is described as ‘poet-like’.
‘Little Trotty Wagtail’. Another wonderful bird poem from Clare, written – like many of Clare’s finest poems – in the quietly dignified rhyming couplets he uses so well elsewhere too. Almost childlike in his innocent admiration of the little bird, Clare’s speaker captures the movements of the bird with disarming simplicity: ‘He waddled in the water pudge and waggle went his tail / And chirrupt up his wings to dry upon the garden rail’.
‘I Love to See the Summer Beaming Forth’. What a joyous opening line for this poem, written in heroic couplets, with ‘beaming’ sending out to both brightness (the bright beams or rays of sunlight) and happiness (a beaming smile etc.). Few English poets have captured the joys of the natural world with such delirious invention and skill as John Clare.
‘Autumn’. As one of English literature’s finest nature poets, John Clare often wrote about the seasons. 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’. 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.
‘Emmonsail’s Heath in Winter’. We’ve had poems about summer and autumn, so how about one of Clare’s winter poems? And this is one of Clare’s most admired, its subject being – as the title makes clear – a heath during the wintry season when its ‘withered brake / Mingle its crimpled leaves with furze and ling’. Its fourteen lines are suggestive of a sonnet, but Clare breaks with tradition by employing his own rhyme scheme, which helps to capture the surprising features of the heath in its winter aspect.
‘The Secret’. This little poem is not his John Clare’s most famous, but it’s worth sharing here because it so perfectly puts into words the power of untold love. ‘I loved thee, though I told thee not’: undoubtedly we could all tell a similar story, especially during those powerful years when we’re in the grip of first love.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.