Next Monday 13 July is my friend John’s birthday, although in this year of Coronapause, his annual midsummer party has been cancelled. There won’t be salads , puddings and cakes served all day in Helpston Village Hall, nor bring-and-share poetry readings for an audience companionably snuggled into the parish church of St Botolph.

I wonder whether any of the children at “his” school near Peterborough will decorate his grave with “midsummer cushions”? Or whether the bumblebees will be out in busy force on the lavender bushes that lead to St Botolph’s porch?

And just outside the village, will the ancient meeting tree ever carry ribbons as tokens of celebration? Will the Brown Hare gallop across the road towards Sacrewell, as it did in 2015 when we were cycling to our camp site after John’s party?

Or will The Blue Bell be serving ales at his Birthday Beer Festival? On his 223rd birthday?

My friend, whose works I read out loud to the microphone for many years (to share with a blind naturalist), is the ornithologist, folk violinist, music collector, and poet, John Clare.

One of the things that characterises much of his nature poetry, in particular, is the quality of his delight. Indeed many of his verses contain the phrase “I love…”

And that’s what we are going to use for our first exercise today, with a subtle extension to the reflective phrase: “I used to love”.

Brain dump

I love …

I love …

I love … and so on for at least five minutes, and then:

I used to love

I used to love …

I used to love … for another five minutes…

Before you read through or share these, circle the word(s) immediately following “love”, that is, the ‘object’ of your love.

Each time, notice if it’s a noun (thing, place, person, quality? ) or a verb (a “doing” or “being” word or phrase) or an adjective, adverb?

& notice whether “I used to love” is followed by “but now” or “and…”

Now do the same, using some of John Clare’s nature writings, and other “I love” quotations that follow (and there are more in the Further Resources section). You could try reading them out loud, to “taste” the words:


I love to see the summer beaming forth

And white wool sack clouds sailing to the north

I love to see the wild flowers come again

And Mare blobs stain with gold the meadow drain

And water lilies whiten on the floods

Where reed clumps rustle like a wind shook wood

Where from her hiding place the Moor Hen pushes

And seeks her flag nest floating in bull rushes

I like the willow leaning half way o’er

The clear deep lake to stand upon its shore

I love the hay grass when the flower head swings

To summer winds and insects happy wings

That sport about the meadow the bright day

And see bright beetles in the clear lake play

Taken from:


I love thee, nature, with a boundless love,

The calm of earth, the storm of roaring woods;

The winds breathe happiness wher’er I rove,

There’s life’s own music in the swelling floods.

My heart is in the thunder-melting clouds….


John Clare could do romantic “lurve” as well, and in his long life wrote many poems that related to his wife Martha (‘Patty’), mother to their seven children.

But this one, ‘First Love’ – here read aloud against an emotive soundtrack that you will either like or hate – refers to Mary Joyce, a schoolfriend whom he loved deeply. She was “unavailable” to him under the strict conventions of village life. She died, as yet unmarried, in a house fire at the age of 41. His love poems to Mary continued after her death, of which he was most likely unaware. (He was living in High Beach Lunatic Asylum, Essex, and then Northampton Asylum, for nearly all of his remaining life).

Why not have an activity break? You could take a walk around a garden or down a street (either in real life, or by looking through pictures in a magazine or book, or on a website such as this or this).

Or try a family photo album for visual reminders of “these I have loved”, as Rupert Brooke said (and more about that sensory poem in Further Resources at the end).

And then for ten minutes use the starting prompt “I love…” all over again.

Forget the structural elements, just flow with “I love…”

Elm fruit in May copyright Kathy McVittie 2020

How are you feeling?

“Check in” with two words that say how you feel right now. Write them as 1 and 2 at the top of your page. Turn the book round and write their opposites 3 and 4 at the far end of the page.

For the next 10 minutes I invite you to use any of the four words (in the remaining space) just so:

“She loved feeling 1 (or 3)” or “I love feeling 2 (or 3) or “I hate feeling 3 (or 4)” or “He hated feeling 2 (or 4)” or whatever you most want to write. As ever with this practice, you get to choose!

And while you write, allow any tension that you notice in your hands, your arms, your shoulders, your neck, your jaw… to flow down through those body parts and out through the fingers and into the words that you spill out on to the page. Let them flow, let them go.

And when these feelings are spent, take a break; have a shake (at least of your hands); a drink and a snack? before you come back

In exploring today these tiny fragments of John Clare’s prodigious output, I see much about the quality of sensed experience, both of the natural and rural world of the nineteenth century, and of his own emotions. Perhaps that’s a good observation to take into the celebrations of his 223rd birthday on Monday. I love you, John Clare!

Appreciation, with love

Today I am grateful for:




Further Resources

The John Clare poem below, one of many that he wrote to ‘Autumn’, demonstrates his idiosyncratic presentation, which bring an immediacy and joyful breathlessness to his writing. And, from his vantage point within the cottage (in which the “casement” refers to a window that opens like a door), he is truly “at home, loving”. Just like me.

Autumn by John Clare (first three verses)

I love the fitful gust that shakes
The casement all the day,
And from the glossy elm tree takes
The faded leaves away,
Twirling them by the window pane
With thousand others down the lane.

I love to see the shaking twig
Dance till shut of eve,
The sparrow on the cottage rig,
Whose chirp would make believe
That Spring was just now flirting by
In Summer’s lap with flowers to lie.

I love to see the cottage smoke
Curl upwards through the trees;
The pigeons nestled round the cote
On November days like these;
The cock upon the dunghill crowing,
The mill sails on the heath a-going.

Online audio

We’ve scarcely made inroads to John Clare resources online. Much more scholarship and sheer pleasure is out there for you to find, perhaps starting with these historic recordings:

BBC World Service (1991) ‘Omnibus: John Clare’

Ted Hughes reads John Clare ‘Nightingale’s Nest’, Westminster Abbey (1993)

and maybe continuing, Birthday Festivals and all, with membership of:

PS Here’s an extract from a message to would-be visitors to the John Clare Festival 2020, from Dr Valerie Pedlar, Chair of the John Clare Society:

Although we have had to cancel the Festival this year, there are other ways in which Clare’s birthday, this anniversary year, can be celebrated.
Presidential address
One feature of the Festival that you can experience ‘virtually’ this year is the Presidential address. Carry [Akroyd] has made a video of her talk and you can find it on YouTube with this link 

Postscript: The following was posted on 13 July 2020 on the John Clare Society Facebook page:

Marking Clare’s 227th birthday today, here’s a poem from his first collection, Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery, published 200 years ago, on 1st January 1820

To an Insignificant Flower Obscurely Blooming in the Lonely Wild

And tho thou seems a weedling wild
Wild & neglected like to me
Thou still art dear to natures child
& I will stoop to notice thee

For oft like thee, in wild retreat
Aray’d in humble garb like thee
There’s many a seeming weed proves sweet
As sweet as garden flowers can be

& like to thee, each seeming weed
Flowers unregarded like to thee
Without improvement–runs to seed
Wild & neglected like to me

Like unto thee, so mean & low
Nothing boasting like to thee
No flattering dresses tempting show
Can tempt a friend to notice me

& like to thee, when beautys cloath’d
In lowly raiment like to thee
Disdaining pride (by beauty loath’d)
No beauties there can never see

For like to thee, my Emma blows
Flowers like to thee I dearly prize
& like to thee, her humble cloaths
Hides every charm from prouder eyes

Altho like thee, a lowly flower
If fancied by a polish’d eye
It soon would bloom beyond my power
The finest flower beneath the sky

& like to thee, lives many a swain
With Genius blest–but like to thee
So humble, lowly, mean & plain
No one will notice them nor–me

So like to thee, they live unknown
Wild weeds obscure–& like to thee
Their sweets are sweet to them alone
–The only pleasure known to me

Yet when I’m dead lets hope I have
Some friend in store as I’m to thee
That will find out my lowly grave
& heave a sigh to notice me

(Early Poems, 1989, I, 216-18)

These I have loved: Rupert Brooke

This is the first, and well-known, line of ‘The Great Lover’ by Rupert Brooke (1887-1915). He too uses sensuous examples and luscious embodied language, such as

The benison of hot water; furs to touch;
The good smell of old clothes; and other such —
The comfortable smell of friendly fingers,
Hair’s fragrance, and the musty reek that lingers
About dead leaves and last year’s ferns. . . .

You can read the whole poem here.