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Anomie

Enclosure and dispossession have driven us, like John Clare, all a little mad.

by George Monbiot: journalist, author, academic and environmental and political activist, United Kingdom.

The land around Helpston, just to the north of Peterborough in Northamptonshire, now ranks among the most dismal and regularised tracts of countryside in Europe. But when the poet John Clare was born this coming Friday in 1793, it swarmed with life. Clare describes species whose presence there is almost unimaginable today. Corncrakes hid among the crops(1), ravens nested in a giant oak(2), nightjars circled the heath(3), the meadows sparkled with glow worms(4). Wrynecks still bred in old woodpecker holes(5). In the woods and brakes the last wildcats clung on(6).

The land was densely peopled. While life was hard and spare, it was also, he records, joyful and thrilling. The meadows resounded with children pranking and frolicking and gathering cowslips for their May Day games(7); the woods were alive with catcalls and laughter(8); around the shepherds’ fires, people sang ballads and told tales(9). We rightly remark the poverty and injustice of rural labour at that time; we also forget its wealth of fellowship.

All this Clare notes in tremulous bewitching detail, in the dialect of his own people. His father was a casual farm labourer, his family never more than a few days’ wages from the poorhouse. Clare himself, from early childhood, scraped a living in the fields. He was schooled capriciously, and only until the age of 12, but from his first bare contact fell wildly in love with the written word(10). His early poems are remarkable not only for the way in which everything he sees flares into life, but also for his ability to pour his mingled thoughts and observations onto the page as they occur, allowing you, as perhaps no other poet has done, to watch the world from inside his head. Read The Nightingale’s Nest, one of the finest poems in the English language, and you will see what I mean.

And then he sees it fall apart. Between 1809 and 1820, acts of enclosure granted the local landowners permission to fence the fields, the heaths and woods, excluding the people who had worked and played in them. Almost everything Clare loved was torn away. The ancient trees were felled, the scrub and furze were cleared, the rivers were canalised, the marshes drained, the natural curves of the land straightened and squared. Farming became more profitable, but many of the people of Helpston – especially those who depended on the commons for their survival – were deprived of their living. The places in which the people held their ceremonies and celebrated the passing of the seasons were fenced off. The community, like the land, was parcelled up, rationalised, atomised. I have watched the same process breaking up the Maasai of East Africa(11).

Clare documents both the destruction of place and people and the gradual collapse of his own state of mind. “Inclosure came and trampled on the grave / Of labour’s rights and left the poor a slave … And birds and trees and flowers without a name / All sighed when lawless law’s enclosure came”(12).

As Jonathan Bate records in his magnificent biography, there were several possible causes of the “madness” that had Clare removed to an asylum in 1837: bipolar disorder, a blow to the head, malaria (then a common complaint on the edge of the Fens)(13). But it seems to me that a contributing factor must have been the loss of almost all he knew and loved. His work is a remarkable document of life before and after social and environmental collapse, and the anomie that resulted.

What Clare suffered was the fate of indigenous peoples torn from their land and belonging everywhere. His identity crisis, his descent into mental agony and alcohol abuse are familiar blights in reservations and outback shanties the world over. His loss was surely enough to drive almost anyone mad. Our loss was surely enough to drive us all a little mad.

For while economic rationalisation and growth have helped to deliver us from a remarkable range of ills, they have also torn us from our moorings, atomised and alienated us, sent us out, each in his different way, to seek our own identities. We have gained unimagined freedoms, we have lost unimagined freedoms, a paradox Clare explores in his wonderful poem The Fallen Elm. Our environmental crisis could be said to have begun with the enclosures, the current era of greed, privatisation and the seizure of public assets was foreshadowed by them: they prepared the soil for these toxic crops.

Earlier this year the writer and poet Paul Kingsnorth suggested that we should celebrate Barnes Night, to mark the life of another neglected genius, William Barnes(14). His themes – an intense engagement with nature, the destruction caused by the enclosures(15), even unrequited love for a woman called Mary(16,17) – are remarkably similar to Clare’s. But to say that he cannot hold a candle to Clare is no disrespect to him, for this puts him in the company of all the other pastoral poets England has produced.

John Clare, unlike Robert Burns (Tam O’Shanter, The Cotter’s Saturday Night, Death and Doctor Hornbook), is a poet of the day. So a Clare Night, whose absence Jonathan Bate laments(17), does not feel quite right. I’m not going to wait for anyone else. As far as I’m concerned, July 13th is Clare Day, and I’ll be drinking a pint or three to celebrate and mourn him. I hope you’ll join me.

References:

  1. Summer Moods.
  2. The Raven’s Nest.
  3. The Fern Owl’s Nest.
  4. Summer Images.
  5. The Wryneck’s Nest.
  6. Clare wrote that “the wild cat used to hide and raise its kittens in the old roof [of a ruined farmhouse], an animal that used to be common in our woods, though rather scarce lately.” Quoted by Jonathan Bate, 2003. John Clare: a biography. Picador, London, page 55.
  7. Sport in the Meadows.
  8. Nutters.
  9. The Shepherd’s Fire.
  10. See Chapter 2 of Jonathan Bate, 2003. John Clare: a biography. Picador, London.
  11. George Monbiot, 1993. No Man’s Land: an investigative journey through Kenya and Tanzania. Macmillan, London.
  12. The Mores.
  13. See Chapter 18 of Jonathan Bate, 2003. John Clare: a biography. Picador, London.
  14. https://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jan/24/william-barnes-england-robbie-burns
  15. Barnes wrote two poems that I know of on this theme, both with the title The Common a-Took In.
  16. Meäry’s Smile.
  17. Meäry Wedded.
  18. Jonathan Bate, page 547.

3 Comments

  1. Yesterday David Bollier had an article about the suggested privatization of England’s last common forest: https://bollier.org/blog/will-commoning-englands-new-forest-disappear

    So a splendid quota about the privatization of land, for Scandinavian readers:

    “Jorden är förutsättningen för våra liv. Den är ett gemensamt villkor för allt levande och en oåtskiljelig del av detta att vara vid liv. Jorden har fostrat människan. Den är vårt arv och vårt ansvar. Dess rikedomar tillhör av uppenbara orsaker alla. Ingen kan med någon logisk rätt peka på ett område på jorden och säga att det är mitt och ingen annans, men inte desto mindre lever vi med en ordning där det mesta av jorden är underlagd privat egendomsrätt. Så har det inte alltid varit. Det är bara några få årtusenden sedan som beväpnade feodalherrar med våld började stjäla jorden från allmänheten. Även under lång tid därefter förblev stora landområden i Europa kollektiv egendom som alla i en by hade brukningsrätt av. Privatiseringen av landskapet såsom vi känner det idag är resultatet av den så kallade enclosure-rörelsen, vilken bredde ut sig från England över kontinenten under tiden från 15- till 1700-talet. Här delade den landbesuttna klassen upp de tidigare allmänna arealerna mellan sig och gjorde jorden till ett ekonomiskt objekt som kunde köpas och säljas som vilken vara som helst. Äganderätten till jorden medförde att en liten grupp människor blev omåttligt mer välbärgade och maktfulla än alla andra. Det var bland annat denna ojämlikhet som de republikanska revolutionerna i Frankrike och USA var tänkta att göra upp med. Idealet för dessa uppror var att alla fötts likvärdiga och därför hade krav på likvärdiga möjligheter. När de nya författningarna dock skulle skrivas kom de ändå att säkra egendomarna åt jordägarna, för det var ju trots allt jordägarna själva som höll i pennan. En av den amerikanska författningens huvudförfattare, Madison, sa direkt att avsikten var ”att säkra den välbärgade minoriteten mot flertalet.” På detta vis kom de moderna demokratierna att grundas på en lag som var fundamentalt och genomgripande odemokratisk.” – Skönhetens Befrielse av Morten Skriver, s. 173: https://igenom.se/Bilder/Skonhetens_befrielse_Morten%20Skriver.pdf

  2. I’m sorry, the article by Bollier was about the abandoning of the commons in England’s New Forest.

    By the way, great article! We have to abandon the privatization of land, returning to the commons. There’s two things you cannot own, that’s land and ideas. Privatization of land disconnects us from the Earth of which we are part, being a major responsibility for today’s environmental catastrophe. Land has to be managed by common laws, a project Bollier is working with these days: https://bollier.org/blog/commons-law-project-vision-green-governance

    And the stupidity of copyright laws is just as silly as to privatize the DNA of the species of the world. Ideas must be free and intermingle as they find it best, only this way we can create a world of abundance!

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