A Garland for John Clare by Sidney Keyes

[Image: David Austin's "John Clare Rose"]

A Garland for John Clare                                   

Whether the cold eye and the failing hand
Of these defrauded years . . .
Whether the two-way heart, the laughter
At little things would please you, John; the waiting
For louder nightingales, for the first flash and thunder
Of our awakening would frighten you –
I wonder sometimes, wishing for your company
This summer; watching time’s contempt
For such as you and I, the daily progress
Of couch-grass on a wall, avid as death.
But you had courage.   Facing the open fields
Of immortality, you drove your coulter
Strongly and sang, not marking how the soil
Closed its cut grin behind you, nor in front
The jealousy of stones and a low sky.
Perhaps, then, you’ll accept my awkward homage –
Even this backyard garland I have made.
I’d give you wild flowers for decking
Your memory, those few I know;
Far-sighted catseye that so soon turns blind
And pallid after picking; the elder’s curdled flowers,
That wastrel witch-tree; toadflax crouching
Under a wall; and even the unpersistent
Windflowers that wilt to rags within an hour . . .
These for a token.   But I’d give you other
More private presents, as those evenings
When under lime-trees of an earlier summer
We’d sing at nine o’clock, small wineglasses
Set out and glittering; and perhaps my friend
Would play on a pipe, competing with the crickets --
My lady Greensleeves, fickle as fine weather
Or the lighter-boy who loved a merchant’s girl.
Then we would talk, or perhaps silently
Watch the night coming.
Those evenings were yours, John, more than mine.
And I would give you books you never had;
The valley of the Loire under its pinewoods;
            My friend Tom Staveley; the carved stone bridge
At Yalding; and perhaps a girl’s small face
And hanging hair that are important also.
I’d even give you part in my shared fear:
This personal responsibility
For a whole world’s disease that is our nightmare --
You who were never trusted or obeyed
In anything, and so went mad and died.
We have too much of what you lacked,
Lastly, I’d ask a favour of you, John:
The secret of your singing, of the high
Persons and lovely voices we have lost.
You knew them all.   Even despised and digging
Your scant asylum garden, they were with you.
When London’s talkers left you, still you’d say
You were the poet, there had only ever been
One poet – Shakespeare, Milton, Byron
And mad John Clare, the single timeless poet.
We have forgotten that.   But sometimes I remember
The time that I was Clare, and you unborn.

Whether you’d fear the shrillness of my voice,
The hedgehog-skin of nerves, the blind desire
For power and safety, that was all my doubt.
It was unjust.   Accept, then, my poor scraps
Of proper life, my waste growth of achievement.
Even the cold eye and the failing hand
May be acceptable to one long dead.

                                             12th-13th July 1941.

Sidney Keyes died alas before his 21st birthday, but certainly seemed to be well acquainted with Clare's work.   He quotes Clare in one of his letters "This morning I went for a walk by the stream; there was a hard frost and bits of ice were hanging on twigs by the water -- "Like fishes' eyes"* as John Clare said.   Whilst at Queen's College, Oxford he was part of the Oxford Cadet Force -- officers in training.   His lecturer in map-reading was a certain Edmund Blunden, who will need no introduction to readers of this page.   Notice too the date "Garland for John Clare" was completed -- Clare's birthday on the 13th and coincidentally(?) almost exactly 100 hundred years since the day that Clare left High Beach, Epping for his long walk up the Great North Road home.  A stunning, mature work by one so young.

* "Pearled wi' dew like fishes eyes" (Clock a Clay)

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