John Clare was born, lived and is buried in Helpston, a village six miles north of Peterborough, in what was once within the boundaries of Northamptonshire. Often called a
minor romantic poet, he is undoubtedly among the most important of the 19th century poets.
The biographer, Jonathan Bate, called him “the greatest labouring-class poet that England has ever produced”. Bate said: “No one has ever written more powerfully of nature, of a rural childhood, and of the alienated and unstable self.”
Clare would have known Oundle quite well, as he had an unsuccessful stint with the Northamptonshire militia in 1812, and was briefly stationed in Oundle.
The battalion comprised 1,300 “lawless fellows” prone to public disorder. With a shortage of accommodation in town for such numbers, Clare complained that the rents were correspondingly high. He later wrote: “I was obliged to be content with the quarters allotted to me, which were at The Rose and Crown Inn, kept by a widow woman and her two daughters, which happened to be a good place.”
Clare’s fellow recruits were “of the lowest rabble” and their behaviour was so bad that “in consequence of strong remonstrances made by the good people of Oundle, about the insecurity of their property, and even their lives, the thirteen hundred warriors were disbanded soon afterwards and never called together again.”
Clare had never seen so much rioting and debauchery as during his time in Oundle, and he returned to Helpston vowing to live a more respectful life of rural pursuits.
Clare made a name for himself as a poet with his first, highly praised work, Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery, published in 1820 by the same publisher of none other than John Keats.
Part of Clare’s success was due to London literary society’s curiosity about a man from such a modest and uneducated background who could write such sublime poetry. His reputation was built on his origins as “The Northamptonshire Peasant Poet”.
He was invited to the best literary salons, and reluctantly endured this notoriety, although he believed he was above other “peasants” of his class, who he looked down upon as “ignorant” and “careless”.
Clare is perhaps best-known for his lamentations on the industrialisation of the English countryside and the enclosures which destroyed traditions and rural livelihoods.
The John Clare Cottage, Clare’s home in Helpston, was purchased and refurbished by the John Clare Trust in 2005 with funds from the Heritage Lottery Fund.
The Cottage is now open to visitors every day from 10:30 to 4:00, and one can also enjoy tea in the lovely garden.
You can also consider following their three day John Clare Walk, which passes through Oundle. “The John Clare Walk recreates, ‘in the spirit of John Clare’, the poet’s trek northwards from High Beach in Essex to Helpston, the village of Clare’s much loved first home and the site of Clare Cottage.”
By Thomas Bailey