John Clare was a 19th century English poet who loved the countryside. He lived in the sweeping rural landscape of Northamptonshire and, working as a farm labourer, grew up in poverty without any formal schooling. Paradoxically, his poetry left us with a rare insight into an important period of rural life after the Enclosure Acts which radically changed land ownership, bringing in newer forms of agriculture.
John Clare recorded, in his own, self-educated words how he saw the welfare of the countryside and the trials and beauty of the wildlife around him at the time. Later in his life he suffered from declining mental health which was reflected in his writing but, keeping him company along the way, was the robin.
Though, not a bird held in high esteem by many, the robin stays with us through the seasons. When walking through the woods it has one of the most beautifully resonant songs that carries through the trees. The charming characterful bird often seeks our company and stands close by, hoping for us to disturb the ground and reveal an insect snack. It is ever present through the autumn and winter, occasionally posing for a photograph, showing its flame red bib.
As a prolific writer, one of the many moving, and very personal poems John Clare penned was The Autumn Robin which captured both the mood of the man and his alliance with his feathered companion.
Sweet little bird in russet coat
The livery of the closing year
I love thy lonely plaintive note
And tiney whispering song to hear
While on the stile or garden seat
I sit to watch the falling leaves
Thy songs thy little joys repeat
My loneliness relieves
This is the first of fourteen verses which go on to describe how shepherds, hedgers, milk maids, ‘gypsey’ boys, ditchers, woodmen and ploughmen across the countryside all stop for a reflective moment to listen to this very amiable little bird.
by Matt Parkins
I feel a very strong affiliation to John Clare as my grandfather and father both lived in Northamptonshire. I grew up in a neighbouring, equally rural, county and spent my formative years outdoors at every opportunity, developing a deep connection with the fields, trees and rivers around our village. I didn’t excel in English at school but later combined my passion for wild things with a new-found and self-taught love of writing to share my passion for the natural world. Through this healing connection with wildlife, I find my own therapeutic benefit and enjoy experiencing that with others.