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Hugh Lupton: The Ballad of John Clare

John Clare was an English rural poet. Unlike many of the poets of that era, he came from a poor agricultural background and struggled to make his mark. As well as poverty he struggled with alcohol and mental health issues, spending his last years in asylum. After his death, he was mainly forgotten but interest revived in his work in the early twentieth century and he is now considered the greatest labouring-class poet that England has ever produced. There have been numerous works about him, both fiction and non-fiction.

Author Hugh Lupton is a professional story-teller and therefore is ideally suited to tell this account of one year in the life of John Clare. The year starts on Rogation Sunday, 1811.

Lupton has skilfully told his tales to cover various aspects. We follow the story of John Clare, which involves his somewhat murky romantic life, the various jobs he does to earn a living, his family amd one key plot element involving his friendship with a gypsy. And we also see how he became a poet and the poetry he writes.

In the opening pages he is described as bookish and solitary, and cannot seem to set his hand to any trade. One minute, he will be muttering to himself, and crouching beneath a hedge, or inside a hollow dottorel scribbling onto a scrap that he holds against the crown of his hat, the next, he will be picking a quarrel with some village, Hickathrift.

But Lupton gives us a lot more. We see the village life in all its detail, the good and the not so good but also the natural life of the flora and fauna in the area.We also see the huge class divide and how that affects people like the Clares who are at or near the bottom of the ladder. and as the quote above shows, Lupton makes full use of the local dialect (there is a glossary at the end of he book).

Related to the class divide, we see a key feature of the English countryside in that era: enclosure of the common lands . This was nominally done to make agriculture more efficient but, in practice, it removed access to the common lands (grazing, water sources and so on) which had a very harmful effect on the ordinary, non-land-owning people. Lupton shows the effect in this book and while initially the ordinary people get paid to carry out the work for the enclosure) (both John and his father are just two who do so), the longer term effect was devastating and indirectly led to the Industrial Revolution as displaced rural workers went to the cities to look for work. Lupton makes the negative effects very clear.

John does a variety of jobs to earn a living, all of a labouring nature. Just before the period when the book opens, he had been working elsewhere as a gardener and has just returned to Helpston . We follow his other jobs and how, at times, he is somewhat frivolous with his limited funds, drink and presents for his girlfriend being two examples. However he also buys books – he buys a battered copy of Paradise Lost during the course of this book.

His love life initially revolves around Mary Joyce, daughter of a farmer and therefore, as her father continually reminds her, she is of a higher social station than him. They continue seeing each other, meeting again when he returns to Helpston, but it goes wrong.

We only see one of his poems and his parents really do not like it. It should be noted that there is a dispute about the copyright of his unpublished poems (not mentioned in this book) which may be a factor. We do know that he spends times writing them during the book but at this time – 1811-1812 – none of his poems had been published.

John was a nature poet and one of Lupton’s skills is to show the beauties of the natural environment in the Helpston area. For example, John had found a nightingale’s nest, apparently very rare. The local landowner Earl Fitzwilliam would pay handsomely for nightingale eggs but while John is happy to steal buzzard eggs, albeit not stealing all of the eggs in the nest, he keeps the nightingale’s nest secret even from his friends and regularly visits the area.

John’s family, like many in the village, struggle to make ends meet and all have to work to feed the family. We get stories of debt and other financial struggles, particularly after the enclosure. Poaching is viciously punished as we shall see.

John is good friends with Wisdom Boswell, a gypsy (Wisdom is seventeen, John eighteen). The gypsies live in an encampment and are despised and hated by many, particularly the local landowners. At a local fair (Lupton covers these events in detail and colourfully) Wisdom mocks a gamekeeper. when the gamekeeper finds out that Wisdom has killed a stag, he goes after him, Wisdom is arrested and sent to the assizes in Peterborough. What happens and John’s involvement continue throughout the book.

The other event that takes place beyond the village is the Napoleonic Wars. We do not see much of it, though we see some French prisoners and there are references to the wars. However, on the whole, it does not seem to have affected Helpston much.

John Clare seems at times erratic and unpredictable, though not nearly as much as he will become. He sticks by his friends, works (more or less) hard, drinks too much and is often irresponsible. But he is devoted to the natural flora and fauna of his region and devoted to his craft, which will lead to a certain amount of fame in his lifetime and more posthumously. Above all, Lupton tells a first-class story of the poet and his milieu.

Publishing history

First published in 2010 by Dedalus