Greed and beauty – The Clock O’Clay


Wednesday, 13 July 1793 was the birthdate of the poet John Clare.

James spoke of him during the recent teachings at Emerson College… referring to the deep despair and desolation the poet felt following the Enclosure act of 1773 and that his sensitivity was such that its impact on his mental heath was enough to send him into madness.       There were other tensions around his poet/peasant identity and in relationship, and so as he watched the drastic changes in his world he became increasingly unstable and weak in health. He spent the latter part of his life incarcerated in asylums…whilst continuing to write poetry.
It seems that he had a complete breakdown after swearing publicly at Shylock during a performance of Shakespear’s Merchant of Venice.
Perhaps this also related to feeling obliged to accede to the many alterations that  his editors insisted on making to his original work …. changes which he saw as a massacre…in order to support his family and to continue to write. Also much of his financial support came from…. lords and landed gentry…the instigators of the enclosures. His vehemence in the ‘Lament of Swordy Well’ is telling as is the sadness of ‘Decay, a Ballad’…

The stated intention of the Enclosures act was to be ‘An Act for the better Cultivation, Improvement, and Regulation of the Common Arable Fields, Wastes, and Commons or Pasture in this Kingdom’  and to achieve this a majority of those who used the land were supposed to be included  in the decision-making and formation of the petitions to be put before Parliament (as were the local landowners and those with title deeds). A suitable commissioner was then to have the responsibility of dividing up the land appropriately.

However the commissioners were often chosen by the landowners and the planning meetings held in private amongst themselves. The commoners were excluded from the process…. and then quickly or slowly they were excluded from the land… as what had been the ‘common land’ of England was fenced off by local landowners and taken from the ‘common man’.

The look of the landscape changed completely as the angular nature of the new divisions was imposed on the spontaneous landscape. Trees were felled, marshland drained, wild areas ‘tamed’ and the countryside emptied of those who had previously enjoyed its use… their livelihood, playground and means of existence or subsistence were stolen from them.

And so it goes…………..You might be interested in reading this article by Liz Alden Wily  The Global Land Grab: The New Enclosures

Seeing what’s happening yet remaining sane is a middle way….and, speaking from experience, it takes a lot of practice!
At one point, having looked at what was going on… and then found out more and more about what was going on… I  completely lost any sense of spaciousness, developed an oppositional ‘good/bad’ ‘right/wrong’  perspective, managed to pass my anxiety onto a few other people… who were already no doubt  already anxious… and brought myself out in an acutely uncomfortable rash! Not a great result!
James has spoken often enough about how healthy engagement can only occur from a healthy position….and,  paraphrasing the Buddha, the priority is to become free from one’s own delusions….with that clarity comes the ability to be with and, when appropriate, work with arising circumstances in an easy and beneficial way.

There’s greed and harshness and also beauty in the illusion….

John Clare had loved to wander freely  across the countryside around him, moving at his own, sometimes very slow, pace. Sometimes stopping for hours to minutely observe… at the level of the plants and the insects… going back day after day and observing so closely that he was not an ‘observer’ but someone who could feel and sense and see from the inside…filling his mind/heart eye, not separate…
So fresh and free from artifice,  beautifully shaped, released from the editors constrictions his poems are, i think, a joy…….


In the cowslip pips I lie,
Hidden from the buzzing fly,
While green grass beneath me lies,
Pearled with dew like fishes’ eyes,
Here I lie, a clock-o’-clay,
Waiting for the time o’ day.

While the forest quakes surprise,
And the wild wind sobs and sighs,
My home rocks as like to fall,
On its pillar green and tall;
When the pattering rain drives by
Clock-o’-clay keeps warm and dry.

Day by day and night by night,
All the week I hide from sight;
In the cowslip pips I lie,
In the rain still warm and dry;
Day and night, and night and day,
Red, black-spotted clock-o’-clay.

My home shakes in wind and showers,
Pale green pillar topped with flowers,
Bending at the wild wind’s breath,
Till I touch the grass beneath;
Here I live, lone clock-o’-clay,
Watching for the time of day.

John Clare (1793-1864)

and some music and movement to go with it!


P.S. The Everyman’s edition – Selected poems of John Clare is a few pounds on Abe books.

Photo of cowslips  Alex Brown licenced under creative commons