The Shepherds Calendar – February – A Thaw

I’m writing this after the two coldest nights of the year, with the weather looking set to warm slightly again, for the time being at least.  Though the day is dull, the frost is disappearing more quickly than before, and the remaining snow grows less.  There are clear signs of spring in the garden and round the village, and more people are getting out as the days get longer and the sun higher.  The masterly John Clare had an ability to capture the countryside’s everyday rhythms and changes in very accessible poetry, and some certainly think him the most important poet of the natural world.

This is part of his Shepard’s Calendar and records a February thaw from the mid 19th century.

The snow is gone from cottage tops
The thatch moss glows in brighter green
And eves in quick succession drops
Where grinning ides once hath been
Pit patting wi a pleasant noise
In tubs set by the cottage door
And ducks and geese wi happy joys
Douse in the yard pond brimming oer


Odd hive bees fancying winter oer
And dreaming in their combs of spring
Creeps on the slab beside their door
And strokes its legs upon its wing

While wild ones half asleep are humming
Round snowdrop bells a feeble note
And pigions coo of summer coming
Picking their feathers on the cote


Each barns green thatch reeks in the sun
Its mate the happy sparrow calls
And as nest building spring begun
Peeps in the holes about the walls

The wren a sunny side the stack
Wi short tail ever on the strunt
Cockd gadding up above his back
Again for dancing gnats will hunt


Hens leave their roosts wi cackling calls
To see the barn door free from snow
And cocks flye up the mossy walls
To clap their spangld wings and crow
About the steeples sunny top
The jackdaw flocks resemble spring
And in the stone archd windows pop
Wi summer noise and wanton wing


The small birds think their wants are oer
To see the snow hills fret again
And from the barns chaff litterd door
Betake them to the greening plain
The woodmans robin startles coy
Nor longer at his elbow comes
To peck wi hungers eager joy
Mong mossy stulps the litterd crumbs


The hedghog from its hollow root

Sees the wood moss clear of snow
And hunts each hedge for fallen fruit
Crab hip and winter bitten sloe
And oft when checkd by sudden fears
As shepherd dog his haunt espies
He rolls up in a ball of spears
And all his barking rage defies

Work without Hope

Despite the recent snow and frost, life stirs again in the garden and along the canal: the birds are singing, insects are about, and flowers brave the cold.  There seems to be purpose again, and hope.  Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote this rather self-aware (and back to front) sonnet in February 1825, towards the end of his life, when he thought his muse had long since left him to his own disappointments.  Obviously, she’d not deserted him completely judging by the quality of this verse, and the essential truths it conveys about the importance to humans of purposeful hope and its application.

ALL Nature seems at work.  Slugs leave their lair –
The bees are stirring – birds are on the wing –
And Winter, slumbering in the open air,
Wears on his smiling face a dream of Spring!
And I, the while, the sole unbusy thing,
Nor honey make, nor pair, nor build, nor sing.
Yet well I ken the banks where amaranths blow,
Have traced the fount whence streams of nectar flow.
Bloom, O ye amaranths! bloom for whom ye may,
For me ye bloom not!  Glide, rich streams, away!
With lips unbrighten’d, wreathless brow, I stroll:
And would you learn the spells that drowse my soul?
Work without Hope draws nectar in a sieve,
And Hope without an object cannot live.

Nature, of course, has no sense of hope or purpose as we know them – it just acts as though it had.  An Amaranth is a plant related to spinach whose seeds can produce a flour: available in all good health shops, it seems …

Ballad of the Drover

It must have been August when we last walked to the old packhorse bridge over the Avon.  English Heritage says the bridge was built in 1725, with a repair by the County Council in 1856.  In summer, I remember struggling through waist-high burdock and thistle, but now it’s just teasle and grass hummocks you have to avoid as you look for the path.

Before such routes were replaced by turnpikes and canals, this beautifully proportioned bridge would have been an important drover route connecting Waddon, Semington and Broughton Gifford.  In his Ballad of the Drover, Philip Larkin reminds us that, when there were no such bridges to carry horse and human safely across fast rivers, travel could be perilous.

This is how the poem ends …

Across the flooded lowlands
And slopes of sodden loam
The pack-horse struggles onward,
To take dumb tidings home.
And mud-stained, wet, and weary,
Through ranges dark goes he;
While hobble-chains and tinware
Are sounding eerily.

The floods are in the ocean,
The stream is clear again,
And now a verdant carpet
Is stretched across the plain.
But someone’s eyes are saddened,
And someone’s heart still bleeds
In sorrow for the drover
Who sleeps among the reeds.

February 2012

The Winter’s Come

John Clare wrote this around 1850 in the Northampton asylum.

The Winter’s Come

Sweet chestnuts brown like soleing-leather turn,
The larch trees, like the colour of the sun
That paled sky in the Autumn seem’d to burn.
What a strange scene before us now does run
Red, brown, and yellow, russet, black and dun,
Whitethorn, wild cherry, and the poplar bare,
The sycamore all withered in the sun,
No leaves are now upon the birch-tree there,
All now is stript to the cold wintry air.
See, not one tree but what has lost its leaves,
And yet the landscape wears a pleasing hue,
The winter chill on his cold bed receives
Foliage which once hung o’er the waters blue,
Naked, and bare, the leafless trees repose,
Blue-headed titmouse now seeks maggots rare,
Sluggish and dull the leaf-strewn river flows,
That is not green, which was so through the year,
Dark chill November draweth to a close.
‘Tis winter and I love to read in-doors,
When the moon hangs her crescent up on high
While on the window-shutters the wind roars
And storms like furies pass remorseless by.

Autumn Revelation

Trees usually turn colour and shed foliage as the temperature drops, but this year many species began to lose their leaves in August because of a shortage of water.  However, the real autumn is now with us – a time that has inspired poets across time and cultures.  Sudie Stuart Hager was Idaho Poet Laureate from 1949 up to her death in 1982.  Her best-known collections were Earthbound, published in 1947, and Beauty Will Abide (1970).  Her poems dealt with the rhythms of life and with the changing seasons.  This is a reflection on autumn in the high deserts of Idaho.

 Poets say that love in April bloom,
And petal-showered lovers feel the same;
I thought so, too, in spring but now I know
Love is the autumn leaf’s breathtaking flame.
October Finale
Autumn still retains her charm
As she walks the stage;
But blood-red paint cannot, for long,
Conceal the lines of age.  The Prodigal
October, reckless heir to autumn wealth,
Spends lavishly.  Our dazzled eyes behold
His palace roof of sapphire, gold-leaf floors.
Rich draperies of bronze and flame.  He pours
A mellowed heady wine and drinks to madness;
He showers coins with riotous autumn gladness.
Then, one bleak day, we wake to find October
Sans raiment, gold, sans everything – and sober;
His gay mood changed to deepest melancholy,
But, oh, the world is richer for his folly.

November 2011