Radical Balladry: John Clare, the Enclosures and the Destruction of the Environment

Ballad Seller pic

Jess also posted up this poem by John Clare, the 19th century poet and agricultural worker, in her comment to one of my pieces on radical working class music and poetry, as another piece that continues to speak to modern needs and issues today from over a hundred years ago. In this instance it’s the threat to the environment from intensive commercial agriculture.

The Mores

Far spread the moorey ground a level scene
Bespread with rush and one eternal green
That never felt the rage of blundering plough
Though centurys wreathed spring’s blossoms on its brow
Still meeting plains that stretched them far away
In uncheckt shadows of green brown, and grey
Unbounded freedom ruled the wandering scene
Nor fence of ownership crept in between
To hide the prospect of the following eye
Its only bondage was the circling sky
One mighty flat undwarfed by bush and tree
Spread its faint shadow of immensity
And lost itself, which seemed to eke its bounds
In the blue mist the horizon’s edge surrounds
Now this sweet vision of my boyish hours
Free as spring clouds and wild as summer flowers
Is faded all – a hope that blossomed free,
And hath been once, no more shall ever be
Inclosure came and trampled on the grave
Of labour’s rights and left the poor a slave
And memory’s pride ere want to wealth did bow
Is both the shadow and the substance now
The sheep and cows were free to range as then
Where change might prompt nor felt the bonds of men
Cows went and came, with evening morn and night,
To the wild pasture as their common right
And sheep, unfolded with the rising sun
Heard the swains shout and felt their freedom won
Tracked the red fallow field and heath and plain
Then met the brook and drank and roamed again
The brook that dribbled on as clear as glass
Beneath the roots they hid among the grass
While the glad shepherd traced their tracks along
Free as the lark and happy as her song
But now all’s fled and flats of many a dye
That seemed to lengthen with the following eye
Moors, loosing from the sight, far, smooth, and blea
Where swopt the plover in its pleasure free
Are vanished now with commons wild and gay
As poet’s visions of life’s early day
Mulberry-bushes where the boy would run
To fill his hands with fruit are grubbed and done
And hedgrow-briars – flower-lovers overjoyed
Came and got flower-pots – these are all destroyed
And sky-bound mores in mangled garbs are left
Like mighty giants of their limbs bereft
Fence now meets fence in owners’ little bounds
Of field and meadow large as garden grounds
In little parcels little minds to please
With men and flocks imprisoned ill at ease
Each little path that led its pleasant way
As sweet as morning leading night astray
Where little flowers bloomed round a varied host
That travel felt delighted to be lost
Nor grudged the steps that he had ta-en as vain
When right roads traced his journeys and again –
Nay, on a broken tree he’d sit awhile
To see the mores and fields and meadows smile
Sometimes with cowslaps smothered – then all white
With daiseys – then the summer’s splendid sight
Of cornfields crimson o’er the headache bloomd
Like splendid armys for the battle plumed
He gazed upon them with wild fancy’s eye
As fallen landscapes from an evening sky
These paths are stopt – the rude philistine’s thrall
Is laid upon them and destroyed them all
Each little tyrant with his little sign
Shows where man claims earth glows no more divine
But paths to freedom and to childhood dear
A board sticks up to notice ‘no road here’
And on the tree with ivy overhung
The hated sign by vulgar taste is hung
As tho’ the very birds should learn to know
When they go there they must no further go
Thus, with the poor, scared freedom bade goodbye
And much they feel it in the smothered sigh
And birds and trees and flowers without a name
All sighed when lawless law’s enclosure came
And dreams of plunder in such rebel schemes
Have found too truly that they were but dreams.
John Clare
http://ecohist.history.ox.ac.uk//readings/clare-poems.pdf

Firth and Arnove include it in the section, ‘Land and Liberty’, in their The People Speak, as an example of popular protest against the Enclosures, which saw thousands of tenant farmers and agricultural workers forced off their land as they were enclosed and developed by the landlords.

Historians now take the view that before the rise of the Romantic movement, and particularly before Shell published their motoring guides to the British countryside in the 1920s and 1930s, people had a much more utilitarian attitude to the environment. Rather than seeing it simply or primarily as a place of beauty, it was seen instead as a working environment, valued by the people who lived there for the resources they could exploit.
This changed when Shell published their motoring guides, which opened the countryside up to city dwellers, who were now able to travel by car into the countryside to enjoy its beauty and quaint, historic buildings.

I’m not entirely convinced by this. While people I know who’ve come from a farming background have said that the farming and agricultural community does have a much less romantic attitude to the countryside, and does indeed see it in terms of what can be used, people down the centuries have always celebrated it’s beauty. You can see it as a far back as one of the Viking romances. There is a tale where a Viking warrior decides to leave his home due to harassment from other, hostile warriors. Travelling on the road away from his farmstead, he takes one last look at it. He is struck by the beauty of the sun shining on his farm in the valley, and so changes his mind. He turns back, determined to fight for his land and his home.

And of course there are all the songs and poems written during the Middle Ages about the beauty of the countryside in spring time.

As for modern attempts to preserve the environment, these date to the late nineteenth century, when Ruskin and others up and down the country started a movement to preserve the local countryside from development so that local people could continue to enjoy it, over two decades before the Shell Guides appeared. The enjoyment of the countryside, not just as a place of work, but also as a place of leisure and beauty, goes back a long way.

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One Response to “Radical Balladry: John Clare, the Enclosures and the Destruction of the Environment”

  1. jess Says:

    I would argue that it is about more than environmantal matters.

    The lines;
    “Unbounded freedom ruled the wandering scene
    Nor fence of ownership crept in between
    To hide the prospect of the following eye
    Its only bondage was the circling sky”

    Can also be read as referring to the privatisation of public space

    Whilst;
    “Inclosure came and trampled on the grave
    Of labour’s rights and left the poor a slave”

    Are also pretty explicitly critical of the manner in which ‘privatisation of the commons’ withdrew a ‘means of subsistence’ from the poor and forced them into ‘slaving’ for a wage.

    “Fence now meets fence in owners’ little bounds
    Of field and meadow large as garden grounds
    In little parcels little minds to please
    With men and flocks imprisoned ill at ease”

    Is also pretty unequivocal in describing how the fences on the, once free moors, are symbolic of the narrowing of the community’s social vision.

    The poems can be found, with others of the same ilk, in Dawson, Robinson and Powell (Eds) John Clare, a Champion for the Poor, Manchester, 2000, along with most of Clare’s ‘social verse’

    John Clare was usually treated as a ‘pastoral poet’, until Roger Sales recovered his ‘Hue and Cry’ from the Stamford Champion and published a major reassessment in his ‘English Literature in History; 1780-1830’, 1983

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