If life had a second edition, how I would correct the proofs. (John Clare)
John Clare was born in rural Northamptonshire in July 1793, the son of a Farm Labourer. He died from a stroke in Northampton County Lunatic Asylum in May 1864, leaving a wife and family together with over 3500 poems, many of them unpublished in his lifetime.
Clare never settled in London literary circles preferring to visit the capital from time to time, returning quickly to his home close to the village of his birth. It was there he found the inspiration for many of his poems, observations of a countryside and a way of life that was in the process of undergoing dramatic and irrevocable change.
Clare writes about the things that marked the times and seasons of rural life: the seasonal changes in the landscape, the birds building their nests and raising their young. But he is more than a recorder of a rural way of life that was fast disappearing, never to return - much of his writing is intensely personal and, often, deeply emotional.
He records in fine detail his reactions to life's circumstances at a time when life was cheap, with poverty and death an ever present threat. (Clare always struggled financially and several of his own children died young from TB, a disease typical of poverty). From descriptions of his first home, to an early poem written in memory of his twin sister Bessie who died in infancy through to the despair of incarceration in a succession of Asylums, the real Clare is here for us to see.
I first encountered Clare's poetry almost 40 years ago as an Undergraduate Student. It was - and remains - a primary source for, and a record of, a key period in British History. The world was changing - there were fortunes to be made and land to tame but much of what then served as rural "community" would be lost. It was an altogether more utilitarian age. Alongside that loss of community would be a schism in the relationship between man and the land: the closeness and dependence between humanity and creation was being lost, never to be regained.
Clare is realistic and never overtly sentimental about rural life.. It has its joys and sorrows as his own experiences prove but there is an thread of sadness about a place - and a life - that is passing into history.
Editing the proofs
Few, if any, of us will go through life without regret. We may wish we hadn't done or said some of the things we've been involved with; we'll regret and mourn people who have helped and influenced us; we may be sorry that a favourite place or breathtaking view isn't quite what it was. Then again, we'll probably regret that we didn't do something, somehow, somewhere when we had the chance or may wish we had done it sooner. Like Clare, we want to rewrite history to correct the proofs of the first edition.
I know that's true for me. A one time Farm Labourer, like Clare, I share his love for creation and lament the passing of much of what once was my life and work. I expect that the 9 generations of Farm Labourers I can trace back to the early 1700's would not recognise their world today.
There's a few magic wands I'd love to wave over the past to ensure that the gut wrenching, embarrassing bits of my life are airbrushed out of existence or, at least, changed to reflect a rather more palatable version of events and outcomes. Ok some things are more humorous these days (I can stick a bit of teasing about my curly hair and sideburns) but there's more than a bit from back then (and still now) which needs some serious work. Thankfully God is on the case and ever in the business of making all things new. There's hope for us all.
Stand, look and follow
In looking to the future we must not ignore the lessons of the past nor lose sight of the journey we have travelled. A very kind friend shared the following verses as I began my sabbatical: - apparently he always associates them with me!
This is what the LORD says: "Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls (Jeremiah 6:16)
Standing at the crossroads is not a comfortable activity - I've always been used to a busy life with an ever changing list of "to do's." Back in 1969 it was a 50 hour week just getting to and from school with lessons included and with homework on top. When you do stand still, strange things happen: as Frank Bruno once said in response to a question to why he moved around a lot in the Boxing ring "If I stand still, they 'it me, Harry."
Clare's reflections and God's invitations to ask and to walk, remind me now, today, that it is equally important to stop and to be, as much as to keep going and to do. The ancient path and the good way are still the right ones - that's one first edition that never needs correction, even if I do.