Birds, Bees and Beasts (first published on ‘poetryparc’)
John Clare, born July 1793, died May 1864
There is much to be said about John Clare as a poet but he is probably best known as a highly observational poet and writer of Nature from his world of part-fenland, moorland, wood and even recently enclosed farm-lands surrounding his home village of Helpston a few miles north-ish of Peterborough. Even today ornithologists recommend new enthusiasts to read his writings for accurate descriptions of birds and their activities.
Perhaps the most known poems are from anthologies, such as:
Little Trotty Wagtail
Little trotty wagtail he went in the rain,
And tittering, tottering sideways he neer got straight again,
He stooped to get a worm, and looked up to get a fly,
And then he flew away ere his feathers they were dry.
Little trotty wagtail, he waddled in the mud,
And left his little footmarks, trample where he would.
He waddled in the water-pudge, and waggle went his tail,
And chirrupt up his wings to dry upon the garden rail.
Little trotty wagtail, you nimble all about,
And in the dimpling water-pudge you waddle in and out;
Your home is nigh at hand, and in the warm pig-stye,
So, little Master Wagtail, I’ll bid you a good-bye.
I should say here that Clare was not enthusiastic about punctuation and his spelling was variable plus his use of Northamptonshire dialect words to add to the mix. So that’s my excuse! I just read the best I can!
In 2016 (Dr). Jeff Ollerton spoke at a ‘Clare and Nature’ event (see his ‘biodiversity blog’.) and pointed out the value of Clare’s natural history writing and poetry for its highly detailed observations. In the next poem, written sometime in 1825, Clare describes five bees that were common. Today, after nearly 200 years, naturalists have established from his descriptions that within Northamptonshire at least, four are still common and one, the red-shanked Carder bee is rare. I am not a naturalist, I recognise two sorts of bees from my garden, both common, it seems:
These children of the sun which summer brings
As pastoral minstrels in her Merry train
Pipe rustic ballads upon busy wings
And glad the cotters’ quiet toils again.
The white-nosed bee that bores its little hole
In mortared walls and pipes it’s symphonies,
And never absent cousin, black as coal,
That Indian-like bepaints its little thighs,
With white and red bedight for holiday,
Right earlily a-morn do pipe and play
And with their legs stroke slumber from their eyes.
And aye so fond they of their singing seem
That in their holes abed at close of day
They still keep piping in their honey Dreams,
And larger ones that thrum on ruder pipe
Round the sweet smelling closen and rich woods
Where tawny white and red flush clover buds
Shine bonnily and bean fields blossom ripe,
Shed dainty perfumes and give honey food
To these sweet poets of the summer fields;
Me much delighting as I stroll along
The narrow path that hay laid meadow yields,
Catching the windings of their wandering song,
The black and yellow bumble first on wing
To buzz among the sallow’s early flowers,
Hiding it’s nest in holes from fickle spring
Who stints his rambles with her frequent showers;
And one that may for wiser piper pass,
In livery dress half sables and half red,
Who laps a moss ball in the meadow grass
And hoards her stores when April showers have fled;
And russet commoner who knows the face
Of every blossom that the meadow brings,
Starting the traveller to a quicker pace
By threatening round his head in many rings:
These sweeten summer in their happy glee
By giving for her honey melody.
There aren’t so many poems about bees, maybe a few more about Hares. This is Clare’s
Hares at Play
The birds are gone to bed the cows are still
And sheep lie panting on each old mole hill
And underneath the willows grey green bough
Like toil a resting – lies the fallow plough
The timid hares throw daylights fears away
On the lanes road to dust and dance and play
Then dabble in the grain by nought deterred
To lick the dewfall from the barleys beard
Then out they sturt again and round the hill
Like happy thoughts dance squat and loiter still
Till milking maidens in the early morn
Giggle their yokes and start them in the corn
Through well known beaten paths each nimbling hare
Sturts quick as fear – and seeks its heavy lair.
Next we could look at his badgers or foxes: Lets go for the fox, its less well-known
The shepherd on his journey heard when nigh
His dog among the bushes barking high;
The ploughman ran and gave a hearty shout,
He found a weary fox and beat him out.
The ploughman laughed and would have ploughed him in
But the old shepherd took him for the skin.
He lay upon the furrow stretched for dead,
The old dog lay and licked the wounds that bled,
The ploughman beat him till his ribs would crack,
And then the shepherd slung him at his back;
And when he rested, to his dog’s surprise,
The old fox started from his dead disguise;
And while the dog lay panting in the sedge
He up and snapt and bolted through the hedge.
He scampered to the bushes far away;
The shepherd called the ploughman to the fray;
The ploughman wished he had a gun to shoot.
The old dog barked and followed the pursuit.
The shepherd threw his hook and tottered past;
The ploughman ran but none could go so fast;
The woodman threw his faggot from the way
And ceased to chop and wondered at the fray.
But when he saw the dog and heard the cry
He threw his hatchet–but the fox was bye.
The shepherd broke his hook and lost the skin;
He found a badger hole and bolted in.
They tried to dig, but, safe from danger’s way,
He lived to chase the hounds another day.
But now the elusive Pine-marten: Originally untitled, the editors title is
The martin cat long shaged of courage good
Of weazle shape a dweller in the wood
With badger hair long shagged and darting eyes
And lower then the common cat in size
Small head and running on the stoop
Snuffing the ground and hind parts shouldered up
He keeps one track and hides in lonely shade
Where print of human foot is scarcely made
Save when the woods are cut the beaten track
The woodmans dog will snuff cock tailed and black
Red legged and spotted over either eye
Snuffs barks and scrats the lice and passes bye
The great brown horned owl looks down below
And sees the shaggy martin come and go
The martin hurrys through the woodland gaps
And poachers shoot and make his skin for caps
When any woodman come and pass the place
He looks at dogs and scarcely mends his pace
And gipseys often and birdnesting boys
Look in the hole and hear a hissing noise
They climb the tree such noise they never heard
And think the great owl is a foreign bird
When the grey owl her young ones cloathed in down
Seizes the boldest boy and drives him down
They try agen and pelt to start the fray
The grey owl comes and drives them all away
And leaves the Martin twisting round his den
Left free from boys and dogs and noise and men
(Punctuation and spelling as from JC mss, text from ‘Clare, NOES’, published Oxford. Ed’s: Robinson & Summerfield ) If available still, a good collection to have.
It does look like wildlife was considered entertainment or a threat in Clare’s day too.
I reckon the owl mentioned is the one known as Eurasian eagle owl from Clare’s note of colour and nesting. Not the white, Arctic Owl. Pine-Martins are extremely secretive animals and very scarce in most of England. From this poem we again see Clare’s quality of observation including boys and hunters’ proclivities of the day. Clare was not averse to egg-collecting in his youth, I doubt he was actively a poacher or into badger hunting and the like but was an observer of detail around him, including the activities of people. His poem of a ‘Badger’ being cornered by dogs and men can be read as straightforward, vivid, descriptive fact but also as anti-hunting. Though he may not have been able to declare it openly. The poems of Fox and the Vixen have similar sympathies with the animals.
In Clare’s poem the pine marten the owl is realistically described. I looked for poems that described the owl rather than just promoting it as a mystical, magical or wise old bird. Apparently, it is none of those things….. There are very few that limit themselves to description only, maybe because they are nocturnal. Or I haven’t looked hard enough.
Here is one observation from life by Jean Whitfield from the edge of Dartmoor:
Composed by the roadside
he weighed a level branch down
knowing he was beautiful
the clear white sweep of him
tufted ears and round orange head
he blinked his eyes
rested iron claws easy
let us see enough of him
and finding undercurrents
lifted slowly, wafted wide wings
poised in the even air
figure skated on the breeze
allowed himself to fall
a small space gracefully
and rolled the lazy evening
forward and backward
over the hump in the road
he hung on those sunken eyes
swung over the field-hedge
Poured down from that low sky
– was gone.
Charles Baudelaire offers a more, but not quite, typical poet’s view of the owl
Under the overhanging yews,
The dark owls sit in solemn state, Like stranger gods; by twos and twos Their red eyes gleam.
Motionless thus they sit and dream Until that melancholy hour When, with the sun’s last fading gleam, The nightly shades assume their power.
From their still attitude the wise Will learn with terror to despise All tumult, movement, and unrest;
For he who follows every shade, Carries the memory in his breast, Of each unhappy journey made.
Ted Hughes’ writes The Owl: . A short poem with the briefest of image, much like sightings can be.
The path was purple in the dusk
I saw an owl perched,
on a branch
And when the owl stirred, a fine dust
fell from its wings.
the owl quaver.
And at dawn, waking,
the path was green in the
And for any that drive up and down the A1: from j Johnson Smith:
The Owl of Beeston.
Ask a local and they will say it is always there in the periphery, on the edge of vision.
Driving fast, you might spot it, silhouetted as black as the night it should be hiding in.
Slow drive, curving right under its beak You might spy a mouse crouching As if to pounce Or waiting, stoicly
DH Lawrence is recognised as a great fiction writer, set at A level, I believe, still well-known for his travel writing. Even tried his arm at painting though with less success. How about his poems? He was quite prolific but his name as a poet has not stuck. As happens with many writers who move into novels successfully. In temperament many poems would fit with the politics of Vernon Scannell or Billy Bragg but he definitely had a sensitive side:
In anthologies you regularly find his poems Especially ‘Snake’ and ‘Kangaroo’
Lawrence wrote memorably on other beasts. Such as this one:
A Baby Asleep After Pain
As a drenched, drowned bee
Hangs numb and heavy from a bending flower,
So clings to me
My baby, her brown hair brushed with wet tears
And laid against my cheek;
Her soft white legs hanging heavily over my arm
Swinging heavily to my movements as I walk.
My sleeping baby hangs upon my life,
Like a burden she hangs on me.
She has always seemed so light,
But now she is wet with tears and numb with pain
Even her floating hair sinks heavily,
As the wings of a drenched, drowned bee
Are a heaviness, and a weariness.
Yes, the mention of the bee is what caught my attention! Another Lawrence:
Bat – (or Man and Bat, in another anthology)
At evening, sitting on this terrace,
When the sun from the west, beyond Pisa, beyond the mountains of Carrara
Departs, and the world is taken by surprise …
When the tired flower of Florence is in gloom beneath the glowing
Brown hills surrounding …
When under the arches of the Ponte Vecchio
A green light enters against stream, flush from the west,
Against the current of obscure Arno …
Look up, and you see things flying
Between the day and the night;
Swallows with spools of dark thread sewing the shadows together.
A circle swoop, and a quick parabola under the bridge arches
Where light pushes through;
A sudden turning upon itself of a thing in the air.
A dip to the water.
And you think:
‘The swallows are flying so late!’
Dark air-life looping
Yet missing the pure loop …
A twitch, a twitter, an elastic shudder in flight
And serrated wings against the sky,
Like a glove, a black glove thrown up at the light,
And falling back.
The swallows are gone.
At a wavering instant the swallows gave way to bats
By the Ponte Vecchio …
Bats, and an uneasy creeping in one’s scalp
As the bats swoop overhead!
Black piper on an infinitesimal pipe.
Little lumps that fly in air and have voices indefinite, wildly vindictive;
Wings like bits of umbrella.
Creatures that hang themselves up like an old rag, to sleep;
And disgustingly upside down.
Hanging upside down like rows of disgusting old rags
And grinning in their sleep.
Not for me!
Now there’s a man who has been tested but is still able to find his sense of humour.
Dare I finish on this by Ivor Cutler? from Fly Sandwich, Methuen)
A bison’s face is its whole
head – a rueful head. It is
not grateful for having been
saved from extinction. ‘You
the exterminator, and you
the preserver – man – look
much alike to me. An
uncultured mob. And you,
Mister Poet, keep your
phoney empathy. Spending
£25 on a season ticket to pop
In and feel sorry for me. Be
a pal, next time bring your
rifle. You tell all your chums
how pragmatic you are’
All these poems have more than one face to nature, nature and man; and offer discussion points as well as clear observation to where and what is ‘Nature Poetry.’