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John Clare: Elegiac recorder of a tranquil world that was already vanishing. This portrait was commissioned by his publisher, John Taylor  (credit: National Portrait Gallery)

Love of the countryside, idealisation of the "organic" village community, gardening and bird-watching, respect for local traditions and folk customs: all these things are often celebrated in discussions of the nature of Englishness. The special place held in the English imagination by painters such as Constable and Samuel Palmer, together with composers such as Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius, is testimony to the force of the English rural muse. One important dimension of Shakespeare's multifaceted qualification for the title of "national poet" is his attunement to what might be called "deep England", as manifested in his witty portrayal of small-town life in The Merry Wives of Windsor and his dramatisation of the voice of the mouldering shires in the great military recruiting scene in Henry IV Part 2, set in a Gloucestershire orchard and replete with references to the Cotswold hills and the price of bullocks at market.

But Shakespeare spent most of his working life in the City of London. We have to look elsewhere for the authentic poetic voice of English rural life. William Wordsworth is traditionally invoked in this regarded, but his is a poetry less of village communities than of sublime and near-empty places — lakes and mountainsides in which the poet communes with a vast landscape that is shared only by a solitary reaper, a wandering leech-gatherer or a dogged shepherd. Where, the English often wonder on Burns night, is our equivalent of the divine Robbie, the ploughman poet, the Scottish bard? Where is the poet of the English land, English labour and the English pub? The answer to that question has been staring us in the face for nearly 200 years, but it is still forgotten more often than it is remembered. What better time, then, for some serious remembering than the 150th anniversary of the death of the man who deserves the title of our English Burns?

John Clare was born in the village of Helpston, Northamptonshire, in July 1793. His father was a casual agricultural labourer with very little formal education but a great love of songs and ballads (and beer). As a boy Clare benefited from some part-time local schooling, but also worked as a ploughboy, a reaper, a thresher and a pot-scourer in the kitchen of the inn next door to his family's cottage. He also became a voracious reader, discovering James Thomson's elegant landscape poem The Seasons around the age of 13. His love of poetry set him apart from his peers, made him seem like an oddball. The paradox of Clare's life and work commences here: his poetry seems to offer the reader an inalienable vision of a life lived at one with a sense of place and yet the very act of communicating through poetry in a largely illiterate rural community was a form of displacement. To read the seasons in a book was to begin to lose the ability to live at ease with the seasons of the working life of farm and field.

Clare's sense of alienation from the quotidian life of his village was compounded by the intensity of his response to change. It is not an uncommon experience to lose your first great love — for Clare that was a girl called Mary Joyce, whose parents disapproved of him because as yeoman farmers they were a cut above the hired labouring class. But Clare felt the loss with uncommon depth: the memory of Mary Joyce haunted him for the rest of his days, like that of childhood itself.

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