Roger Rowe

On a Church-yard Stone
It is November 1848, and John Clare has been, in his own words, ‘in the madhouse’ in Northampton General Asylum for very nearly 7 years.  Yet even after such a long period of separation, his fertile mind is still in Helpston and Glinton; and upmost in his thought is his youth and his two ‘wives’.  Here is Ronald Blythe on his demeanour whilst incarcerated:

“The full Clare reader will also discover what poetry can say on the subject of what Clare called ‘thwarted love’.  He took, as well as tragedy, the landscape he shared with his lover into captivity with him.”  (Ronald Blythe - ‘Desertions’ from Borderland 2005)

Over the previous years whilst confined in the asylum, Clare had written numerous poems with a lot of different women in his thoughts.  Certainly, Patty and Mary do surface in this work from time to time, but it is only in the autumn of 1848 that he seems, once again, to return in his mind the two women who haunt the whole corpus of his work.

In the October it was his wife Patty who was the subject of his verse:

O once I had a true love
As bless't as I could be
Young Patty was my turtle dove
And Patty she loved me
We walked the fields together
By wild roses and woodbine
In summers sunshine weather
And Patty she was mine
(Clare to his Wife, lines 1-8)

However, by mid-November he is once again dwelling on his ‘first wife’, Mary Joyce, in ‘Mary, A Ballad’, dated the 11th November 1848:

Love is past and all the rest
Thereto belonging fled away
The most esteemed and valued best
Are faded all and gone away
How beautiful was Mary's dress
While dancing at the meadow ball
—'Tis twenty years or more at least
Since Mary seemed the first of all
(Mary, A Ballad, lines 1-8)

I believe that “Love is past and all the rest” shows clearly his settled conviction that all was, in truth “faded all and gone away”.  Somehow he had come to terms with the long avoided fact she was permanently gone, and that he had now to live in the light of that.  Whilst still in Northborough he had, of course, heard the talk of Mary’s death, but refused at that terrible time for him to believe it.

The poem continues, but the reader unexpectedly encounters her death in the starkest of tones.

Lord how young bonny Mary burnt
With blushes like the roses hue
My face like water thrown upon't
Turned white as lilies i' the dew
(lines 9-12)

To come upon in line 9 the line “Lord how young bonny Mary burnt”, even if he is speaking of her blushes at their first meeting, is an astonishing shock for students of Clare’s work;Clare unconsciously(?) recording the manner of her death in the most shocking way imaginable.

Mary had, as Clare had been avoiding for so long, perished in the fire at her parent’s farm-house in Glinton on the 14th of July 1838 -- the flame blackened lintels are obvious still to all.  Her grave in the churchyard of St. Benedict’s Church, Glinton was, and is, clear for all to see.

What is certain, is that also in the October of 1848, his mind was filled again with memories of Mary and of their shared landscape; here is an extract from his poem ‘Childhood’ written at that time:

O dear to us ever the scenes of our childhood
The green spots we played in the school where we met
The heavy old desk where we thought of the wild-wood
Where we pored o'er the sums which the master had set
(Childhood, lines 1-4)

Then, one month later, in lines 13-16 of “Mary, A Ballad” we findClare admitting that he had, in fact visited their old haunts in Glinton Church during his stay in Northborough:

When grown a man I went to see
The school where Mary's name was known
I looked to find it on a Tree
But found it on a low grave stone
(Mary, A Ballad, lines 13-16)

As is well attested, Clare and Mary had met at the school they both attended in Glinton church.  Was the ‘Tree’ the place where their names were carved 30 years earlier in the Lady-Chapel of St. Benedict’s where the school met?

In support of this supposition, and clearly referred to in the lines above, is the “low grave stone”.  Hard by the church is the grave stone where Mary’s name, although barely distinguishable 173 years later, was very clearly engraved in 1838:

But all is gone—and now is past
And still my spirits chill alone
Loves name that perished in the blast
Grows mossy on a church-yard stone
(Mary, A Ballad, lines 21-24)

Finally, for those who do not know this important poem from the work completed during the 25 years of his incarceration in Northampton General Asylum, here it is:

MARY
A Ballad
Love is past and all the rest
Thereto belonging fled away
The most esteemed and valued best
Are faded all and gone away

How beautiful was Mary's dress
While dancing at the meadow ball
—'Tis twenty years or more at least
Since Mary seemed the first of all

Lord how young bonny Mary burnt
With blushes like the roses hue
My face like water thrown upon't
Turned white as lilies i' the dew

When grown a man I went to see
The school where Mary's name was known
I looked to find it on a Tree
But found it on a low grave stone

Now is past—was this the now
In fine straw-hat and ribbons gay
I'd court her neath the white thorn bough
And tell her all I had to say

But all is gone—and now is past
And still my spirits chill alone
Loves name that perished in the blast
Grows mossy on a church-yard stone

(11th November 1848)


Notes

The Early Poems of John Clare, ed. Eric Robinson, David Powell and Margaret Grainger (two volumes, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989)

John Clare, Poems of the Middle Period, ed. Eric Robinson, David Powell, and P.M.S. Dawson (two volumes, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996); III-IV (1998)

The Later Poems of John Clare, ed. Eric Robinson, David Powell and Margaret Grainger (two volumes, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984)

Jonathan Bate (John Clare – A Biography)

Tim Chilcott (John Clare – The Living year 1841)

Incidentally, John Clare - The Living Year 1841 (Edited by Tim Chilcott) is invaluable for anyone interested in this most important of years in Clare’s life, and most particularly for the text of Child Harold as well as the rest of Clare’s 1841 output.