This is an extract from John Clare’s The Winter’s Spring. It reminds me to make the best of every season, even winter, despite aching cold and biting winds.
The winter comes; I walk alone,
I want no bird to sing;
To those who keep their hearts their own
The winter is the spring.
No flowers to please – no bees to hum –
The coming spring’s already come.
I never want the grass to bloom:
The snowstorm’s best in white.
I love to see the tempest come
And love its piercing light.
The dazzled eyes that love to cling
O’er snow-white meadows sees the spring.
I love the snow, the crumpling snow
That hangs on everything,
It covers everything below
Like white dove’s brooding wing,
A landscape to the aching sight,
A vast expanse of dazzling light.
It is the foliage of the woods
That winters bring – the dress,
White Easter of the year in bud,
That makes the winter Spring.
The frost and snow his posies bring,
Nature’s white spurts of the spring.
John Clare’s Winter Walk offers us the hope of more than the passing of dark days. It reminds us that we’re not alone in wishing winter gone, and that we have more in common than we like to think with those creatures with whom we share the Earth.
The holly bush a sober lump of green
Shines through the leafless shrubs all brown & grey
& smiles at winter be it e’er so keen
With all the leafy luxury of may
& o it is delicious when the day
In winters loaded garment keenly blows
& turns her back on sudden falling snows
To go where gravel pathways creep between
Arches of ever green that scarce let through
A single feather of the driving snow
& in the bitterest day that ever blew
The walk will find some places still & warm
Where dead leaves rustle sweet & give alarm
To little birds that flirt & start away
John Clare’s ‘December’ which speaks of the simple gifts of a child’s Christmas.
While snow the window-panes bedim,
The fire curls up a sunny charm,
Where, creaming o’er the pitcher’s rim,
The flowering ale is set to warm;
Mirth, full of joy as summer bees,
Sits there, its pleasures to impart,
And children, ‘tween their parent’s knees,
Sing scraps of carols o’er by heart.
And some, to view the winter weathers,
Climb up the window-seat with glee,
Likening the snow to falling feathers,
In fancy infant ecstasy;
Laughing, with superstitious love,
O’er visions wild that youth supplies,
Of people pulling geese above,
And keeping Christmas in the skies.
As tho’ the homestead trees were drest,
In lieu of snow, with dancing leaves,
As tho’ the sun-dried martin’s nest,
Instead of ickles, hung the eaves,
The children hail the happy day –
As if the snow were April’s grass,
And pleas’d, as ‘neath the warmth of May,
Sport o’er the water froze as glass.
Despite our more material, comfortable, and increasingly electronic times, there are still simple pleasures that can make Christmas and winter a memorable and special time.
THE mid-day hour of twelve the clock counts o’er
A sultry stillness lulls the air asleep
The very buzz of flies is heard no more
Nor faintest wrinkles o’er the waters creep
Like one large sheet of glass the waters shine
Reflecting on their face the burnt sunbeam
The very fish their sporting play decline
Seeking the willow-shadows ’side the stream
And, where the hawthorn branches o’er the pool
The little bird, forsaking song and nest
Flutters on dripping twigs his limbs to cool
And splashes in the stream his burning breast
O, free from thunder, for a sudden shower
To cherish nature in this noon-day hour!
The young John Clare’s Noon details no human presence, but it’s easy to image him, sitting, pen in hand by a pool, just letting his thoughts flow – even though the water does not. This is a hot summer day poem: far too warm to be bothered with punctuation. How a summer day ought to be: sitting quietly, just a part of nature.
John Clare published his Shepherd’s Calendar in 1827. It contains 12 long poems, each about country life month by month, and the shepherd’s part in this. June begins …
NOW Summer is in flower, and Nature’s hum
Is never silent round her bounteous bloom;
Insects, as small as dust, have never done
With glitt’ring dance, and reeling in the sun;
And green wood-fly, and blossom-haunting bee,
Are never weary of their melody.
Round field and hedge, flowers in full glory twine,
Large bind-weed bells, wild hop, and streak’d woodbine,
That lift athirst their slender throated flowers,
Agape for dew-falls, and for honey showers;
These o’er each bush in sweet disorder run,
And spread their wild hues to the sultry sun.
The shepherd’s leisure hours are over now;
No more he loiters ’neath the hedge-row bough,
On shadow-pillowed banks and lolling stile;
The wilds must lose their summer friend awhile.
With whistle, barking dogs, and chiding scold,
He drives the bleating sheep from fallow fold
To wash-pools, where the willow shadows lean,
Dashing them in, their stained coats to clean;
Then, on the sunny sward, when dry again,
He brings them homeward to the clipping pen
Of hurdles form’d, where elm or sycamore
Shut out the sun – or to some threshing-floor.
Summers never seem to me as wonderful as Clare describes them, though everything he writes about is still hereabouts, if you look for it. However, whilst the essentials of shepherding remain, the society within which it was embedded has long gone.
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