By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Emmonsail’s Heath in Winter’ is one of John Clare’s most admired poems, 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’. Before we offer an analysis of this curious and brilliant paean to nature in wintertime, here’s the text of the poem.
Emmonsail’s Heath in Winter
I love to see the old heath’s withered brake
Mingle its crimpled leaves with furze and ling,
While the old heron from the lonely lake
Starts slow and flaps its melancholy wing,
An oddling crow in idle motion swing
On the half-rotten ash-tree’s topmost twig,
Beside whose trunk the gypsy makes his bed.
Up flies the bouncing woodcock from the brig
Where a black quagmire quakes beneath the tread;
The fieldfares chatter in the whistling thorn
And for the haw round fields and closen rove,
And coy bumbarrels, twenty in a drove,
Flit down the hedgerows in the frozen plain
And hang on little twigs and start again
Emmonsail’s Heath, in Northamptonshire, isn’t far from Helpston, the village in which John Clare (1793-1864), the son of a farm labourer, was born. He knew the area well and spent much of his time there over the years, observing the heath during the changing seasons of the year. As this poem’s title makes clear, Clare is describing Emmonsail’s Heath in wintertime, and the details he notices and incorporates into this poem brilliantly capture the varied natural life found on the heath during the cold months.
The focus is not exclusively on the birds – that ‘old heron’ that ‘flaps his melancholy wing’, or the ‘oddling crow’ idly swinging over the twig of the ash tree, which has rotted in the various frosts – but also on the human life that can sometimes be found on Emmonsail’s Heath.
Clare knew many of the travellers who slept on the heath, and the reference to ‘the gipsey’ who ‘makes his bed’ beside the trunk of that ash-tree is no mere detail sketched in by an idle observer. This is a landscape Clare lived and breathed – and loved.
What is most arresting – and rewarding, not to mention refreshing – about John Clare’s nature poetry is that he writes about nature for its own sake: everywhere he seems to resist the urge to make nature about something else, to treat it as mere symbol.
When Clare describes the movement of that ‘bouncing woodcock’ as it flies up from the ‘brig’ (a mysterious dialect word, but one Clare elsewhere uses to refer to wood: in his ‘The Yellowhammer’s Nest’, he describes how a bird flew up ‘by the wooden brig’), he is writing about what he sees, with no thought for secondary meanings or symbolism after the fact. He is caught up in the moment of experience, of watching nature on the heath, and wants us to catch something of that experience through the reading of ‘Emmonsail’s Heath in Winter’.
Speaking of that ‘brig’, a few other terms Clare uses may be unfamiliar to readers. A ‘fieldfare’ is a species of thrush, known for their colour, and similar in their habits to a mistle thrush (and yes, they do indeed chatter). ‘Haw’ is the fruit of the hawthorn. But what is a ‘bumbarrel’? It’s an English regional term (used particularly in the midlands, where Clare lived) for the long-tailed tit, so it’s another bird (in another poem, Clare refers to ‘a bumbarrel’s nest’ as well as the ‘hedgesparrow’s eggs pearl blue’).
‘Emmonsail’s Heath in Winter’ has a curious form. 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 poem rhymes abab bcdc deff gg, beginning and ending like a traditional English or Shakespearean sonnet (which is rhymed ababcdcdefefgg).
What’s more, in many printings of the poem, ‘Emmonsail’s Heath in Winter’ ends without a final full-stop. Many of Clare’s poems have erratic (or no) punctuation, and many editions of his work honour his manuscripts in retaining his unconventional punctuation; the lack of a full-stop after the final line, ‘And hang on little twigs and start again’, enacts the cyclical nature of the birds’ actions.
‘Emmonsail’s Heath in Winter’ was written some time between 1824 and 1832, but not published until 1908. It was not until over a hundred years after his death that John Clare began to get the readership and critical attention his work deserves. He is a true nature poet, and this poem shows his talent for writing about nature, not as something else, but on its own terms.