JOHN CLARE BY HIMSELF
I watchd with delight on haymaking evenings the setting sun drop behind the brigs and peep again thro the half circle of the arches as if he longs to stay1
The Tibbles, in their edition of Clare's prose, speak of the 'Sketches' as the enchanting account of a vanished English childhood and youth, far away from, while yet contemporary with, the French terror and the Napoleonic Wars ... an account of a country childhood during one of the hardest periods of Enclosure, when rustic activities and customs, now swept away for ever, were still in full swing.2
In fact the Terror, the Napoleonic Wars, and even Enclosure are so far removed from Clare's preoccupations that they only appear on the scene as part of a local experience - in the POW camp at Norman Cross, in the strange antics of the militia, and in the inconvenience of fences. This is the world seen through the wrong end of the telescope but filled with its own strange intensity. In the London episodes, the great wander across the scene - Lamb, Coleridge, Hazlitt, Reynolds, Sir Thomas Lawrence and others - or Byron, Clare's hero, is seen through the eyes of a poor sailor, but most of the characters are purely local. Granny Bains, John Cue of Ufford, old Shepherd Newman, John Billings, George Cousins: these are people who but for Clare would have been entirely forgotten. They and their countryside become the setting for Clare's Paradise.
He tells us much about the people - of the hardships suffered by poor men, their humiliations and their sense of oppression, but also of their joys, their festivities and their songs. Sometimes, as in his 'Apology for the Poor', one hears his honest anger:
now if the poor mans chance at these meetings is any thing better then being a sort of foot cushion for the benefit of others I shall be exceedingly happy to hear but as it is I much fear it as the poor mans lot seems to have been so long remembered as to be entirely forgotten viii