Cottage hearths are blazing high

I’m diving into the middle part of John Clare’s ‘Shepherd’s Calendar’….

Old winter whipes his ides bye
And warms his fingers till he smiles
Where cottage hearths are blazing high
And labour resteth from his toils
Wi merry mirth beguiling care
Old customs keeping wi the day
Friends meet their christmass cheer to share
And pass it in a harmless way

Old customs O I love the sound
However simple they may be
What ere wi time has sanction found
Is welcome and is dear to me
Pride grows above simplicity
And spurns it from her haughty mind
And soon the poets song will be
The only refuge they can find

The shepherd now no more afraid
Since custom doth the chance bestow
Starts up to kiss the giggling maid
Beneath the branch of mizzletoe
That neath each cottage beam is seen
Wi pearl-like-berrys shining gay
The shadow still of what hath been
Which fashion yearly fades away

As falls the pattering rain

John Clare’s ‘The Shepherd’s Calendar’  is a poem cycle covering the months of the year. In parts it is idyllic, but there is also harsh reality too – life for ordinary folk in the nineteenth century was hard and precarious. People who worked on the land, like my ancestors  had a life of toil and labour, out in all weathers and doing s they were told, when they were told.

His description here is very apt for today’s weather, the flying clouds, the wind that o’er each coming tempest broods, the pattering rain – we had a lot of pattering rain today!

The flying clouds urged on in swiftest pace
Like living things as if they runned a race
The winds that oer each coming tempest broods
Waking like spirits in their startling moods
Fluttering the sear leaves on the blasting lea
That litters under every fading tree
And pausing oft as falls the pattering rain
Then gathering strength and twirling them again
The startld stockdove hurried wizzing bye
As the still hawk hangs oer him in the sky
Crows from the oak trees qawking as they spring
Dashing the acorns down wi beating wing
Waking the woodlands sleep in noises low
Pattring on crimpt brakes withering brown below
While from their hollow nest the squirrels (pop)
Adown the tree to pick them as they drop
The starnel crowds that dim the muddy light
The crows and jackdaws flapping home at night
And puddock circling round its lazy flight
Round the wild sweeing wood in motion slow
Before it perches on the oaks below
And hugh black beetles revelling alone
In the dull evening with their heavy drone
Buzzing from barn door straw and hovel sides
Where fodderd cattle from the night abides
These pictures linger thro the shortning day
And cheer the lone bards mellancholy way
And now and then a solitary boy
Journeying and muttering oer his dreams of joy.

John Clare 1793 – 1864

Some pleasing objects for his praise delay

October has arrived and I feel that as well as turning over a new page on the calendar (I never even look until the first of the month so I have a little surprise!) I can also look again at John Clare’s Shepherd’s Calendar. Even though this was written nearly two hundred years ago many of the scenes he describes can still be seen today – especially in a rural area like our county of Somerset. Autumn is covering the right colours of summer, changing them to rich browns and golds, fields are full of stubble – with or without horses, and there are plenty of farm animals still in fields nearby – although no shepherd boys any more!


Nature now spreads around in dreary hue
A pall to cover all that summer knew
Yet in the poets solitary way
Some pleasing objects for his praise delay
Somthing that makes him pause and turn again
As every trifle will his eye detain
The free horse rustling through the stubble land
And bawling herd boy with his motly band
Of hogs and sheep and cows who feed their fill
Oer cleard fields rambling where so ere they will
The geese flock gabbling in the splashy fields
And quaking ducks in pondweeds half conseald
Or seeking worms along the homclose sward
Right glad of freedom from the prison yard
While every cart rut dribbles its low tide
And every hollow splashing sports provide
The hedger stopping gaps wi pointed bough
Made by intruding horse and blundering cow
The milk maid tripping on her morning way
And fodderers oft tho early cutting hay
Dropping the littering forkfulls from his back
Side where the thorn fence circles round the stack
The cotter journying wi his noisey swine
Along the wood side where the brambles twine
Shaking from dinted cups the acorns brown.

John Clare  1793 – 1864

The harvest wagons sound

For most of us harvest time passes us by; we might notice the seasons changing, the days getting shorter, neighbours offering us fruit and vegetables which have grown in abundance, but for the most part, our lives chug on the same as usual.

Here is Somerset the orchards (many of them recently planted as cider grows in popularity) are almost ready to have their apples picked, farm machinery ‘the harvest wagons‘, are on the roads day and night, and villages will be having their ‘Harvest Homes’ – a great feast, eating and drinking, dancing into the night, to celebrate this time of year.

I came across an interesting site which was discussing  church harvest festivals – another aspect of life which has changes as fewer people attend church; as well as a brief history, there was a nice selection of recipes. Here was what was offered:

  • harvest soup (it was a bit of a modern twist, including squash and yoghurt, but in the olden days a hearty vegetable soup would certainly have been on any Harvest Home menu!)
  • cottage loaf
  • fidget pie
  • baked stuffed marrow
  • apple damson tansy
  • apple cake
  • hedgerow jelly

Here is another extract from John Clare’s ‘The Shepherd’s Calendar’ for September:

The maid afield now leaves the farm
With brimming bottles on her arm
Loitering unseen in narrow lane
To be oertook by following swain
Who happy thus her truth to prove
Carrys the load and talks of love
Full soon the harvest wagons sound
Rumbling like thunder all around
In ceasless speed the corn to load
Hurrying down the dusty road
While driving boy with eager eye
Watches the church clock passing bye
Whose gilt hands glitter in the sun
To see how far the hours have run
Right happly in the breathless day
To see it wearing fast away
Yet now and then a sudden shower
Will bring to toil a resting hour
When under sheltering shocks a crowd
Of merry voices mingle loud
Wearing the short lived boon along
With vulgar tale and merry song
Draining with leisures laughing eye
Each welcome bubbling bottle drye
Till peeping suns dry up the rain
Then off they start to toil again

Anon the fields are wearing clear
And glad sounds hum in labours ear
When childern halo ‘here they come
And run to meet the harvest home
Stuck thick with boughs and thronged with boys
Who mingle loud a merry noise
Glad that the harvests end is nigh
And weary labour nearly bye
Where when they meet the stack thronged yard
Cross bunns or pence their shouts reward

John Clare

… and here is the link to the recipes:

Cackling hens and whining hogs

More from the immortal John Clare, some of whose poems are described as  ‘poems of celebration and also poems of loss – actual or threatened‘. John had a tragic life, he was a genius but died in poverty and in an asylum at the age of seventy-one in 1864.

His ‘Shepherd’s Calendar’, a great poem celebrating the farming year brings the past to life and evokes memories for people who have known the countryside in the years since he wrote it in the 1820’s; my mother and her sisters grew up in the country in the 1930’s, a hundred years later, and much of what he describes would have been familiar to them.  The poem is not just evocative, it is also a wonderful piece of social history, giving s a glimpse into past lives.

Here is another extract from September

None but imprison’d childern now
Are seen where dames with angry brow
Threaten each younker to his seat
That thro’ the school door eyes the street
Or from his horn book turns away
To mourn for liberty and play
Loud are the mornings early sounds
That farm and cottage yard surrounds
The creaking noise of opening gate
And clanking pumps where boys await
With idle motion to supply
The thirst of cattle crowding bye
The low of cows and bark of dogs
And cackling hens and wineing hogs
Swell high-while at the noise awoke
Old goody seeks her milking cloak
And hastens out to milk the cow
And fill the troughs to feed the sow
Or seeking old hens laid astray
Or from young chickens drives away
The circling kite that round them flyes
Waiting the chance to seize the prize
Hogs trye thro gates the street to gain
And steal into the fields of grain
From nights dull prison comes the duck
Waddling eager thro the muck
Squeezing thro the orchard pales
Where mornings bounty rarely fails
Eager gobbling as they pass
Dew worms thro the padded grass
Where blushing apples round and red
Load down the boughs and pat the head
Of longing maid that hither goes
To hang on lines the drying cloaths
Who views them oft with tempted eye
And steals one as she passes bye

Harvest awakes the morning still

September… I’d like to do an inventory of poems to see which month has been written about most, and i think it might be September… it’s such an ambiguous month – do I mean ambiguous? It’s drifting into autumn and yet we can have the most amazing summer-like days, it’s nowhere near winter and yet it can really feel like it. The air is on the change, that subtle difference between seasons which is just in the smell and the feel of it.

Here we are no longer a major agricultural country, our society is not governed by working on the land, however, in John Clare’s time – even though industry was growing like a mighty monster, most of the people still worked in the countryside.

Harvest awakes the morning still

Harvest awakes the morning still
And toils rude groups the valleys fill
Deserted is each cottage hearth
To all life save the crickets mirth
Each burring wheel their sabbath meets
Nor walks a gossip in the streets
The bench beneath its eldern bough
Lined oer with grass is empty now
Where blackbirds caged from out the sun
Could whistle while their mistress spun.
All haunt the thronged fields still to share
The harvests lingering bounty there
As yet no meddling boys resort
About the streets in idle sport
The butterflye enjoys his hour
And flirts unchaced from flower to flower
And humming bees that morning calls
From out the low huts mortar walls
Which passing boy no more controuls
Flye undisturbed about their holes
And sparrows in glad chirpings meet
Unpelted in the quiet street

The sun slopes in the west

We’re coming to the end of July, and it’s a rather variable end… sunshine and showers – actually sunshine and a cloudburst today. We were at a lovely wedding on Monday, but it was cold and very windy; it didn’t spoil the celebrations but it would have been nice to have had blue skies above the very happy couple!

Here is an except from John Clare’s ‘Shepherd’s Calendar’ for July:

Loud is the summers busy song
The smallest breeze can find a tongue
Where insects of each tiney size
Grow teazing with their melodys
Till noon burns with its blistering breath
Around and day dyes still as death
The busy noise of man and brute
Is on a sudden lost and mute
The cuckoo singing as she flies
No more to mocking boy replys
Even the brook that leaps along
Seems weary of its bubbling song
And so soft its waters creep
Tired silence sinks in sounder sleep
The cricket on its banks is dumb
The very flies forget to hum
And save the waggon rocking round
The landscape sleeps without a sound

The breeze is stopt the lazy bough
Hath not a leaf that dances now
The totter grass upon the hill
And spiders threads are standing still
The feathers dropt from more hens wing
Which to the waters surface cling
Are stedfast and as heavy seem
As stones beneath them in the stream
Hawkweeds and Groundsells fanning downs
Unruffled keep their seedy crowns
And in the oven heated air
Not one light thing is floating there
-Save that to the earnest eye
The restless heat seems twittering bye
Noon swoons beneath the heat it made
And flowers een wither in the shade
Untill the sun slopes in the west
Like weary traveler glad to rest
On pillard clouds of many hues
Then natures voice its joy renews
And checkerd field and grassy plain
Hum with their summer songs again
A requiem to the days decline
Whose setting sun beams cooly shine
A welcome to days feeble powers
As evening dews on thirsty flowers

John Clare  1793 – 1864