Peasant poet's home to be made into rural education centre

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The Independent Online

The country cottage in which John Clare, the "peasant poet", was born, lived and worked is to be turned, almost 150 years after his death, into an education centre devoted to the countryside he loved.

The three-bedroom house in Helpston, Cambridgeshire, the village where Clare is buried, comprised five tenements when he lived there.

It has a Grade II listed dovecote in the garden, which may be turned into a writer's retreat, and the cottage will be opened to the public.

The man behind the rescue operation to save Clare's former home is the Labour MP Barry Sheerman, the chairman of the Commons Education Select Committee. Mr Sheerman, a lifelong admirer of Clare's work, heard about the farmhouse being put on the market and, with John Chirico, the chairman of the John Clare Society, launched a bid to buy it.

They took out a mortgage of £500,000 and reckon they will need another £500,000 to turn the house into a centre to teach children about Clare's life and times. The house will become a resource centre for literary, social, natural and cultural history of Britain in the early 19th century.

Of all the great poets, Clare, born in 1793, was probably the least well educated and never mastered the art of punctuation.

Mr Sheerman said: "Clare lived in one of the tenements and there were seven children, an elderly sister, and his parents so it was pretty crowded. It was later converted into a farmhouse. When I heard it was on the market, I jumped at the chance. Clare lived his whole life in the area and was homesick if he couldn't see the spire of his church. We want this to be a place where people can enjoy the countryside, and the walks that Clare enjoyed, and learn something about the Britain that Clare knew."

He added: "I was introduced to Clare's poetry at school by an English master who loved Clare's work. I have never forgotten some of his verses."

Clare was the son of a farmworker and an illiterate mother but, in 1820, at the age of 26, he became an overnight success as the "peasant poet" with the publication by John Taylor, a London bookseller, of his first collection of poetry, Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery .

However, his subsequent collections sold badly and he spent the rest of his life in relative literary obscurity. His works included The Village Minstrel (1821), The Shepherd's Calendar (1827) and The Rural Muse (1835). Much of his work was written on scraps of paper.

In 1837, Clare was admitted to a mental asylum in Epping, Essex. In 1841 he escaped and walked all the way to Northborough, near Helpston, in the hope that he would be reunited with his childhood sweetheart, Mary Joyce.

Shortly after his recapture, he was transferred to Northampton General Lunatic Asylum where he spent the last 23 years of his life, continuing to write poetry until the end. It was while he was incarcerated at the Northampton asylum that he wrote his famous, desolate poem "I Am". I long for scenes where man has never trod;/ A place where woman never smiled or wept;/There to abide with my creator, God,/And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept:/ Untroubling and untroubled where I lie;/The grass below - above the vaulted sky."

Clare died on 20 May 1864 in Northampton asylum but in accordance with his wishes he was buried at St Botolph's churchyard in his beloved village of Helpston.

The Old Year
by John Clare

The Old Year's gone away
To nothingness and night:
We cannot find him all the day
Nor hear him in the night:
He left no footstep, mark or place
In either shade or sun:
The last year he'd a neighbour's face,
In this he's known by none.
All nothing everywhere:
Mists we on mornings see
Have more of substance when they're here
And more of form than he.
He was a friend by every fire,
In every cot and hall -
A guest to every heart's desire,
And now he's nought at all.
Old papers thrown away,
Old garments cast aside,
The talk of yesterday,
All things identified;
But times once torn away
No voices can recall:
The eve of New Year's Day
Left the Old Year lost to all.