November 25, 2022

Poem of the Week: Clock a Clay by John Clare | John Claire

clock a clay

In the cuckoo clocks I go to bed
Hidden from the buzzing fly
As the green grass beneath me lies
Beaded with dew like fish eyes
Here I put a clock on clay
Waiting for the time of day


As the grassy forests tremble with surprise
And the wild wind sobs and sighs
My golden house rocks like it’s falling
On its tall green pillars
When the pouring rain leads goodbye
Clock a Clay keeps warm and dry

Day after day and night after night
All week I hide from view
In the cuckoo clocks I go to bed
In the rain and dew still hot and dry
Day and night and night and day
Red black spotted clock a clay

My house shakes with wind and showers
Pale green pillar with flowers
Bend to the blow of the wild wind
Until I touch the grass below
Here again I live alone on a clay
Watch the time of day

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It’s pointless, but still fun sometimes to imagine how poets of the past might practice their art if they were writing in the 21st century. Would Chaucer have moved to the African continent to become an honorary member of the Africanfuturists? Milton and Shakespeare would probably have created innovative cinema, combining their gifts for dramatic storytelling with eloquent yet familiar verse dialogue. By fast-forwarding this trio into the future, the iambic pentameter may have begun to fracture long before Ezra Pound sent his elegant kicks in its direction – but that’s another, longer story.

My train of hypotheses was kicked off by this week’s poem, John Clare’s Clock a Clay. His interlocutor is the beetle more commonly known as ladybug, a species whose population is now in serious decline. Tom Clark, in a beautifully illustrated blog post, tells us that the term originated from the idea that you could tell the time by counting the hours before a ladybug, perched on your hand, obeyed your command. to “fly home”. A variant explanation refers to the number of kicks needed to scare the insect away from a plant. This is the one I suppose to be the most likely, since “clay” more immediately suggests the ground underfoot than the metaphorical clay of the human hand.

Fewer of Clare’s poems observe insects than birds, animals, and plants. There are still plenty of bees, ants, butterflies – and other ladybugs. A letter to its first editors, John Taylor and James Hussey, is illuminating: “I have often been amused by the manners and habits of Insects, but I do not know entemology to know the names they bear”, Claire begins. He then records a patient investigation of the cooperative feeding habits of beetles. As he weeds a field of beans, he watches a small green beetle attack a large moth. The moth dispatched, the beetle disappears, leaving its prey largely uneaten, but then returns with a beetle mate, both of which depart and return with more mates until there are six at the total to share the feast. Clare concludes: “I have often had fun in the summer, lying in the grass, watching the quantities of different insects pass and repass as if I were going to a market or a fair, some climbing bends and rushes like so many church steeples and others coming out of the sun within the flowers [s] the most common seen in these busy moves are the long-legged shepherd, green beetle, and red and yellow flies.

Giving voice to the clock a clay, encased in the “peeps” (petals) of a primrose, Clare also describes, to some extent, his own condition in the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum where he composed the verses, in all safe (and free). , within limits, back and forth) but uneasy, as always, with the closing condition. A clay clock knows that it is tiny compared to its environment. Primroses do not grow very tall, but the little beetle perceives the stems as “high green pillars”, and imagines the grass as a forest, the dew drops as “fish eyes”. We might think of Clare not just in the asylum, but in the not-quite-safe house of 19th-century English poetry. There is a constant tension for the beetle between the weather, the wind and the showers that shake its house, and its feeling of being warm and dry. The repeated lines maintain the tension with subtle shifts in balance across four seemingly effortless stanzas.

Unlike the green beetles of the bean field, this “red black speckled clock a clay” is a solitary creature. His resemblance to the poet is accentuated in the last stanza with the qualifiers interposed, “always” and “alone”: “Here again I live alone clock a clay / Watching for the time of day”. But there is a cheerful rhythm in the tetrametric line and the tightly intertwined rhymes, perhaps suggesting the light stomping of children in a skipping game. The clay clock is hardly overwhelmed with dejection and, enjoying the privileges of its windswept ‘house of gold’, can be a kindred spirit with Shakespeare’s Ariel.

So, back to the simulation game. If Clare had been born in 1993 instead of 1793, he would likely be a great eco-folk singer, with a recent triumphant start at Glastonbury. Or he could lead the environmental poet-activists, now with a full knowledge of entomology under his cap, and new visual technology to enhance his fieldwork. He could be a very popular children’s poet in the school circuit. Or even all three. His poetic diction would be different, of course, but not uneasy in the tangled rivers of British mainstream dialects. In what I like to think of as the battle of the nightingales, John Clare the realist beats John Keats the romantic. He would be the voice of environmentalism and he would be heard. May your voice still wake us through the centuries, John Clare!