There is almost no other poet that stirs emotion in me as much as he who was affectionately known as the Peasant Poet, John Clare.
Clare’s poetry is infused with a language as textured in tone and hue as the countryside he describes with such unsentimental affection.
The jagged rhyming couplets of The Badger drive the narrative in the same way as the creature himself is driven by the dogs and cudgels of the crowd.
It is the human’s in this piece that become savage while the tenacity of the badger is ennobling. We root for his struggle. Against all odds, we want him to overcome.
At one point it seems he might do just that. In this day and age of Disney movies we have become so used to the pattern of the fairy tale and happy endings, they almost seem inevitable, but here the poet reveals that when the script is in our hands we often forfeit the good for the base and the profound for the profane. Indeed, we often act well beneath the animals we claim to supersede in intelligence.
The poets fidelity to conveying the stark reality of nature is what ultimately infuses the last line with its power and paradoxically lifts it beyond the mundane into the metaphysical. Unlike a gladiator in a ring, the death of the badger is without ceremony or purpose. We see the creature at one moment bristling with survival instinct and vital life blood, the very next a cackling, groaning, blood stained rag on the ground. This unremarkable death barely scrapes a line, yet takes this poem beyond a mere faithful and emotive recording of an event to a far greater, deeper meditation on the nature of humanity and the sacredness of nature.
The badger grunting on his woodland track
With shaggy hide and sharp nose scrowed with black
Roots in the bushes and the woods, and makes
A great high burrow in the ferns and brakes.
With nose on ground he runs an awkward pace,
And anything will beat him in the race.
The shepherd’s dog will run him to his den
Followed and hooted by the dogs and men.
The woodman when the hunting comes about
Goes round at night to stop the foxes out
And hurrying through the bushes to the chin
Breaks the old holes, and tumbles headlong in.
When midnight comes a host of dogs and men
Go out and track the badger to his den,
And put a sack within the hole, and lie
Till the old grunting badger passes bye.
He comes and hears—they let the strongest loose.
The old fox hears the noise and drops the goose.
The poacher shoots and hurries from the cry,
And the old hare half wounded buzzes bye.
They get a forked stick to bear him down
And clap the dogs and take him to the town,
And bait him all the day with many dogs,
And laugh and shout and fright the scampering hogs.
He runs along and bites at all he meets:
They shout and hollo down the noisy streets.
He turns about to face the loud uproar
And drives the rebels to their very door.
The frequent stone is hurled where e’er they go;
When badgers fight, then every one’s a foe.
The dogs are clapt and urged to join the fray;
The badger turns and drives them all away.
Though scarcely half as big, demure and small,
He fights with dogs for bones and beats them all.
The heavy mastiff, savage in the fray,
Lies down and licks his feet and turns away.
The bulldog knows his match and waxes cold,
The badger grins and never leaves his hold.
He drives the crowd and follows at their heels
And bites them through—the drunkard swears and reels.
The frighted women take the boys away,
The blackguard laughs and hurries on the fray.
He tries to reach the woods, an awkward race,
But sticks and cudgels quickly stop the chase.
He turns again and drives the noisy crowd
And beats the many dogs in noises loud.
He drives away and beats them every one,
And then they loose them all and set them on.
He falls as dead and kicked by boys and men,
Then starts and grins and drives the crowd again;
Till kicked and torn and beaten out he lies
And leaves his hold and cackles, groans, and dies.
Some more poems by John Clare
A wonderful analysis of the poem below can be found here.
The Gipsy Camp
The snow falls deep; the Forest lies alone:
The boy goes hasty for his load of brakes,
Then thinks upon the fire and hurries back;
The Gipsy knocks his hands and tucks them up,
And seeks his squalid camp, half hid in snow,
Beneath the oak, which breaks away the wind,
And bushes close, with snow like hovel warm:
There stinking mutton roasts upon the coals,
And the half roasted dog squats close and rubs,
Then feels the heat too strong and goes aloof;
He watches well, but none a bit can spare,
And vainly waits the morsel thrown away:
‘Tis thus they live – a picture to the place;
A quiet, pilfering, unprotected race.
Here is a link to a post I wrote a few years ago about the poem below.
Ode to a Fallen Elm
Old elm that murmured in our chimney top
The sweetest anthem autumn ever made
And into mellow whispering calms would drop
When showers fell on thy many coloured shade
And when dark tempests mimic thunder made –
While darkness came as it would strangle light
With the black tempest of a winter night
That rocked thee like a cradle in thy root –
How did I love to hear the winds upbraid
Thy strength without – while all within was mute.
It seasoned comfort to our hearts’ desire,
We felt that kind protection like a friend
And edged our chairs up closer to the fire,
Enjoying comfort that was never penned.
Old favourite tree, thou’st seen time’s changes lower,
Though change till now did never injure thee;
For time beheld thee as her sacred dower
And nature claimed thee her domestic tree.
Storms came and shook thee many a weary hour,
Yet stedfast to thy home thy roots have been;
Summers of thirst parched round thy homely bower
Till earth grew iron – still thy leaves were green.
The children sought thee in thy summer shade
And made their playhouse rings of stick and stone;
The mavis sang and felt himself alone
While in thy leaves his early nest was made,
And I did feel his happiness mine own,
Nought heeding that our friendship was betrayed,
Friend not inanimate – though stocks and stones
There are, and many formed of flesh and bones.
Thou owned a language by which hearts are stirred
Deeper than by a feeling clothed in word,
And speakest now what’s known of every tongue,
Language of pity and the force of wrong.
What cant assumes, what hypocrites will dare,
Speaks home to truth and shows it what they are.
I see a picture which thy fate displays
And learn a lesson from thy destiny;
Self-interest saw thee stand in freedom’s ways –
So thy old shadow must a tyrant be.
Thou’st heard the knave, abusing those in power,
Bawl freedom loud and then oppress the free;
Thou’st sheltered hypocrites in many a shower,
That when in power would never shelter thee.
Thou’st heard the knave supply his canting powers
With wrong’s illusions when he wanted friends;
That bawled for shelter when he lived in showers
And when clouds vanished made thy shade amends –
With axe at root he felled thee to the ground
And barked of freedom – O I hate the sound
Time hears its visions speak, – and age sublime
Hath made thee a disciple unto time.
– It grows the cant term of enslaving tools
To wrong another by the name of right;
Thus came enclosure – ruin was its guide,
But freedom’s cottage soon was thrust aside
And workhouse prisons raised upon the site.
Een nature’s dwellings far away from men,
The common heath, became the spoiler’s prey;
The rabbit had not where to make his den
And labour’s only cow was drove away.
No matter – wrong was right and right was wrong,
And freedom’s bawl was sanction to the song.
– Such was thy ruin, music-making elm;
The right of freedom was to injure thine:
As thou wert served, so would they overwhelm
In freedom’s name the little that is mine.
And there are knaves that brawl for better laws
And cant of tyranny in stronger power
Who glut their vile unsatiated maws
And freedom’s birthright from the weak devour.
All nature has a feeling
All nature has a feeling: woods, fields, brooks
Are life eternal: and in silence they
Speak happiness beyond the reach of books;
There’s nothing mortal in them; their decay
Is the green life of change; to pass away
And come again in blooms revivified.
Its birth was heaven, eternal it its stay,
And with the sun and moon shall still abide
Beneath their day and night and heaven wide.