Steve Whitaker, Literary Editor

Poem Of The Week: 'Noon' By John Clare (1793-1864)

John Clare, by William Hilton, 1820.
John Clare, by William Hilton, 1820.

The mid-day hour of twelve the clock counts o'er,
A sultry stillness lulls the air asleep;
The very buzz of flies is heard no more,
Nor faintest wrinkles o'er the waters creep.
Like one large sheet of glass the waters shine,
Reflecting on their face the burnt sunbeam:
The very fish their sporting play decline,
Seeking the willow-shadows 'side the stream.
And, where the hawthorn branches o'er the pool,
The little bird, forsaking song and nest,
Flutters on dripping twigs his limbs to cool,
And splashes in the stream his burning breast.
O, free from thunder, for a sudden shower,
To cherish nature in this noon-day hour!

A little knowledge of John Clare’s world, of its social and economic disposition, colours the sun at its zenith in shades of elegy. This poet of the agrarian landscape of Helpston, a peasant by origin, the son of a farm labourer, is an observer of change, of rural evictions and of deracination. Emotionally sensitive to the effects of nationally-legislated disruption on the Northamptonshire working classes of the early nineteenth century, Clare’s poetics is suggestive of the anxiety of migration, even in near stasis.

The bucolic immediacy of ‘Noon’ is sharpened on such an awareness, creating a kind of arcadia as the mind’s eye is left free to roam over pasture, copse and pond. Clare’s skilled use of rhythm and rhyme regulates our view, allows us pause, gives time to reflect on the unfolding of an idyll. The refraction of time through the medium of poetic form is reminiscent of John Keats, whose creative years were almost coterminous with Clare’s own. This sonnet-celebration of an evanescent moment is both languid and sumptuous, teeming and viscerally connected.

That John Clare would spend his declining years in an asylum is one measure of an extraordinary sensitivity to the natural world, and to the crushing antagonisms of a society riven by inequity.