Poetry News

Stephen Moss Introduces 'Grandfather' of Nature Poetry, John Clare

By Harriet Staff
John Clare

While studying at Cambridge, Stephen Moss was inspired by J.H. Prynne and John Barrell to look into John Clare's poetry about birds. At Literary Hub, Moss (now the author of Mrs Moreau’s Warbler: How Birds Got Their Names) explains: "I became hooked on Clare’s bird poetry more or less by accident, when studying English Literature at Cambridge back in the early 1980s." From there: 

My Director of Studies at Gonville and Caius College, the famously enigmatic poet J.H. Prynne, learned of my interest in birds and enthusiasm for the poetry of John Clare, and suggested I meet John Barrell, who I later discovered was one of the world’s greatest experts on Clare’s writings.

Sitting in Professor Barrell’s wood-paneled room in the forbidding surroundings of King’s College, I nervously explained that I had noticed that the verse structure of Clare’s bird poems somehow seemed to mimic the movements and behavior of the bird itself. Encouraged by his positive response, I went on to write my undergraduate dissertation on this very subject.

I am not alone in my love and admiration of John Clare; he has inspired many of today’s cohort of “new nature writers.” But at the time, not everyone approved of the way he wrote about the natural world. His contemporary John Keats complained that in his verse “the description too much prevailed over the sentiment.” While that may occasionally be true, it is impossible to dispute Clare’s intimate knowledge and understanding of nature, gained from day to day, season to season and year to year, and more importantly his skill in turning these marvelously detailed observations into poetry.

Yet despite Clare’s undoubted influence and popularity today, for the new reader the poems can at first appear rather baffling. This is not just because of the style of writing, which, once you get used to his lack of punctuation and rather eccentric spelling, is actually very accessible—and full of delightful insights into bird behavior—but also because in many cases the self-taught Clare chose to ignore the official name for the species, preferring to use the folk name he grew up with.

So in his poems we find the land rail and fern owl, butter bump and fire tail, water hen and peewit—now known respectively as the corncrake and nightjar, bittern and redstart, moorhen and lapwing.

Learn more at Literary Hub.

Originally Published: December 6th, 2018