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Sunday 30 March 2014

John Clare: Cottage Fears


Cottage Roof, Lower Darnley, Prince Edward Island: photo by Jim Rohan, 22 March 2014

                        The evening gathers from the gloomy woods
                        And darkling creeps oer silent vale and hill
                        While the snug village in nights happy moods
                        Is resting calm and beautifully still
                        The windows gleam with light the yelping curs
                        That guards the henroost from the thieving fox
                        Barks now and then as something passing stirs
                        And distant dogs the noises often mocks
                        While foxes from the woods send dismal cries
                        Like somthing in distress the cottager
                        Hears the dread noise and thinks of danger nigh
                        And locks up door in haste -- nor cares to stir
                        From the snug safety of his humble shed
                        Then tells strange tales till time to go to bed

John Clare (1793-1864): Cottage Fears, composed c. 1832-1835


TC said...

More by the wonderful John Clare:

John Clare: The Sand Martin

John Clare: I Am

John Clare: Badger

John Clare: The Fox

John Clare: From the Journal: Walks in the Fields

Hazen said...

Yes, he is wonderful. If ever we’re tempted to think that there’s never been a time like ours, we can discover, thanks to you, Tom, a time like Clare’s—and be reminded of the whole mad parade, and know that everybody is marching in it. Only the costumes change, and the strange tales we tell ourselves for purposes of self-calming. Clare’s poem and that picture are perfect together.

TC said...

Thank you, my friend.

It seems the parade marched over this ground a while back, so that, looking up from a flattened, affrighted defensive posture, all I can see is the naked posteriors of the participants dragging out of the trendy costumes. Baboons have better-looking ones, at that.

Cottage fears are not unknown here, these nights.

Hazen said...

And there are the daymares too, to contend with. Some are in the head. Some aren't. Contend we must.

Mose23 said...

While foxes from the woods send dismal cries

We often hear the city foxes outside our window: unearthly, always troubling when you first catch it.

And darkling creeps oer silent vale and hill

Quiet menace.

The absence of punctuation aids the flow of the thing as you read. Moves as smooth as the evening.

TC said...


On the subject of "naturalness", it's interesting to consider the odd tension that existed between Clare's way of doing poetry and that of John Keats.

Both came from the unprivileged classes, in the one case country, in the other city; and though they never met, they had the same publisher, John Taylor, and were thus aware of one another's work.

Recalling Keats's memorable early letter to Taylor, in which he expresses his thoughts on how poetry ought to come naturally:

"The rise, the progress, the setting of Imagery should, like the sun, seem natural to him, shine over him, and set soberly, although in magnificence, leaving him in the luxury of twilight. But it is easier to think what poetry should be, than to write it -- And this leads me to another axiom -- That if poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all." (JK/JT, Hampstead, 27 February 1818)

After Keats's death, Clare composed a rather stiff, formal sonnet in his honour; the effort has that false ring of forced lines. In private, however, Clare expressed his misgivings, particularly about Keats's readiness to wax lyrical upon "natural" scenes which were actually remote to him. He suggested to Taylor that a brook would look incomplete to Keats without its dryads and naiads -- the conventional "literary" props.

"In spite of all this his descriptions of scenery are often very fine but as it is the case with other inhabitants of great cities he often described nature as she appeared to his fancies and not as he would have described her had he witnessed the things he described."

When Keats speaks of nightingales, he is soon enough rapt away to faery lands forlorn.

Whereas the field worker Clare, for his part, writes of the literal bird, with her plain "russet brown dress", and follows the singer back to her nest -- "an hermit's mossy cell" -- where he discovers five eggs (not four, not six), of 'deadened green or rather olive brown'; and what we are then made to see is not a scene out of Lemprière's handbook of mythology, but a precisely registered bit of reality.

ACravan said...

What an extraordinary experience to be up in the middle of the night reading/experiencing this. I love Clare and discovered him through BTP. Although we live in a suburb of a large city, we have gloomy woods, foxes at night (and those noises), "darkling creeps oer silent vale and hill," distant outside dogs setting off the inside dogs, and cottage fears aplenty. This is great. Curtis

TC said...

Hurray for the tenacity of those beleaguered city foxes, bravely moving about o'nights (as do the no less tenacious creatures of the night here -- and they are certainly not any less endangered, what with the take-no-prisoners freeway feeder carving its path of wanton mayhem through everything -- the raccoons, the possums, et al.)

This suggests that, if foxes may be heard at night by modern people dwelling in the near environs of great cities like Birmingham and Philadelphia, then the experience of the field-hand poet living two centuries ago in a gloomy village in rural Northamptonshire, on the brink of the Lincolnshire fens, remains something that, if it is not quite universal, then indeed can still be identified with.

Of how many poems writ now will it be possible to say this, two centuries on?

ACravan said...

What I was thinking in the middle of the night, reading the poem a number of times, was how contemporary it seemed in the writing and thinking, even taking into account some of the old-style language and the formal structure. It's the way the lines flow into each other (as WB notes) and the way they capture in a 360 degree way all aspects of the scene and situation. It really does reach out from the 19th century to us. As WB also mentions, fox sounds are indeed troubling, but I feel incredibly lucky and privileged whenever I see one. They're one of my two favorite local animals, the other one being the Belted Galloway cows who live in Phoenixville, expensive imported items, but definitely worth a detour. Curtis