In his masterpiece ‘The Shepherd’s Calendar‘, John Clare reminds us of traditional English rural life through the changing seasons. Those were hard times of course, yet they had something precious that today we seem to have lost.
The Shepherd’s Calendar -January
‘Withering and keen the Winter comes,
While Comfort flies to close-shut rooms,’
As winter bites outside, in the hospitality of a warm pub, the farmers read the papers, talk about the weather and the price of corn while sipping their ale. Outside the children play in the snow and skate along the frozen streams.
But the workers in the fields have not had it so easy. By evening with frozen hands and faces they wearily return home for a meal and some warmth around a cottage fire. The milkmaid with her pail of milk is noticed with keen interest by the hungry cat! The thresher leaves his flail in the barn and the shepherd returns with his dog. The hedger throws one of his hard-gained brushwood faggots on the welcome fire.
Clare’s poetry is a language which seemed to come from the very earth itself, and which had belonged to the centuries of men and women who had cultivated it. ‘The truest poem of English country life’, it has rightly been called. …….He takes us to the heart of it and is its very voice.‘Talking about John’ Clare by Ronald Blythe (former president of the John Clare Society)
As each one warms their hands by the cottage fire they
‘tell in labours happy way
Their story of the passing day
While as the warm blaze cracks and gleams
The supper reeks in savoury steams
Or kettle simmers merrily
And tinkling cups are set for tea.
Thus doth the winter’s dreary day
From morn to evening wear away.’
After tea the shepherd plays with his children while, underneath his seat, his tired dog lies asleep chasing the straying sheep in his dreams. Supper removed, the mother tells her children story-tales as she knits or sews until finally it’s the children’s bedtime.
Traditional English Village Life
There is all of village life in winter going on here. These intimate pictures of hearth and home on winter evenings were rare times of family pleasure after a weary day of work outside. It was John Clare who noticed all these things and turns them into a scene of simple charm. This is a rural village landscape Clare loved, breathed and wrote about with his own calloused hands, used to working in its fields..
Asked where he found his poetry Clare once replied, “I kicked it out of the clods, while ploughing the fields.” We know that the fields sang to him, and that he reported the song, and with never a false note.Ronald Blythe
Today something is missing in the rural landscape. The fields are silent except for the sound of the wind and a lone tractor driver at work. This old shepherd’s hut speaks of a bygone age. There is now an increasing loss of rural village life with its sense of place and of belonging to the land with its local life and traditions.
Small village communities with their own pub, shop, church, local school and shared community life are increasingly rare. Somewhere you greet passers-by in the street, stop to chat with neighbours in the local shop and join in village life.
In the winter evenings Clare’s village folk gathered around blazing cottage fires, joined in conversation, sharing their stories of the past day and spending time with their children. In our hectic modern world of enclosed, private lives there is a growing sense of un-rootedness and isolation. Clare reminds us of what we are missing. and our need of rediscovering traditional English shared village life. He makes us feel, inwardly, that this is where we really belong. Our true roots are here.
Top featured photo by Andrew Hill – ‘River scene in Winter’ – geograph. Taken in the cold winter of 2010.