Happy birthday, John Clare

John Clare was born on 13 July 1793 in Helpson, which was then part of Northamptonshire. He came from a labouring background but – unusually for a man of his class – would become a famous poet. If anything, he is more famous today than he was at the time.

Clare’s work enjoyed a revival in the later twentieth century, because he was a rare example of a working-class voice from the generation of Romantic poets. Clare was living through the industrial revolution and a time of great social upheaval, and chronicled this in his works. In the 1960s and 70s, many historians and literary scholars were influenced by Marxism: if the historian E. P. Thompson described this period as ‘the making of the English working class’, then Clare was its poet.

More recently, Clare has been celebrated for his perspective on the changing environment. He was born into a world where rural labourers had a close relationship with the land, but over his lifetime the countryside was effectively privatised and industrialised: the process of ‘enclosure’ parcelled up the land into tracts for large-scale farming. Common people lost their traditional rights to the land and became wage labourers for large landowners. And the environmental upheaval had lasting effects to this day, reducing the biodiversity and sustainability of the countryside. As such, Clare is now a favourite figure for environmental campaigners, and scholars of eco-criticism and environmental history.

John Clare, painted by William Hilton (1820): Wikimedia Commons.

I got to know Clare from a different direction, when I was working on my book Embodying the Militia in Georgian England. Clare served in the Northamptonshire Militia during the Napoleonic Wars, and is a very rare example of a working man who wrote about his experiences of militia service. By his own admission, he wasn’t very good at soldiering. He was twice rejected for being too short, and was not very diligent: ‘I was then a rhymer and my thoughts were often absent when the word of command was given’. But for Clare, as for many working men, military service was paid work at a time of economic uncertainty. His experience was highly typical of a long war when as many as one in four men served in the military at some point of their lives.

He therefore tells us a great deal about his times, and is very relevant to our own. Happy birthday, John Clare.

Matthew McCormack

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