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Poem of the week: Autumn by John Clare


A wind-blown lyric exhilarated by the first blasts of wintry weather, which moves beyond the polite conventions of its time

John Clare wrote a number of poems expressing an intense pleasure in windy weather. Perhaps the wind had an animistic quality for him, and turned into some elusive, energetic and unpredictable creature which could excitingly be traced through its effects on other living things – the birds, trees, and mammals which are painstakingly observed in so much of his poetry. I've chosen a seasonal lyric, "Autumn", for this week, a week frequently weather-filled in the UK as it marks the transition from a rich autumnal month to a bleaker more wintry one.

Clare's wind-blown landscape looks, and to some extent is, tidily constructed: it even boasts numbered stanzas. In fact, it combines the two aspects of Clare, the self-aware and well-read literary artist, and the intensely local and watchful nature-poet. The first stanza seem almost Keatsian, apart from what Clare would have called the "grammer" (he had no time for what he perceived as its oppressive pedantry) and odd spelling. These minor matters are nevertheless central to his effects. By rendering "fitful" as "fitfull" he refreshes a literary adjective: the wind is made more alive, somehow, by being fitfull – full of fits and starts. Similarly, as his eye favours the double l, his ear prefers the double s (gusts/shakes) even if it means disagreement between noun and verb. The singular "fitful gust" would not be nearly as effective.

The speaker could be indoors in stanza one, watching from the window. The singular "leaf" here is not standing in poetically for many leaves. It's a particular leaf which he watches, in close-up, as the wind detaches it from the elm-tree. After "twirling by" the window, it's seen in brilliant long-shot, lost among the "thousand others in the lane".

In the second stanza, we're probably outdoors, noticing and hearing the sparrow "on the cottage rig" – presumably the roof, or some other jutting external part of the building. The evocative present participles gather: "twirling", "shaking" (the verb cleverly carried over from casement to twig) and "flirting by", the latter verb picking up the quick trill of "chirp". The personification of spring is saved from mere literary device: she seems more country-girl than goddess. "Flirting" also echoes the "twirling" of the leaf, suggesting a similar playfulness and fitfulness. In Clare's quick-moving imagination, spring swiftly attains the melodious, drowsy fulfilment of the last line, "in summers lap with flowers to lie".

In the next stanza, the smoke that curls upwards through the bare trees suggests that the wind has temporarily paused. Clare has added an extra beat to the usual trimeter of the "b" line, allowing himself a little more space for observation. His tiny bird-portraits are beautifully contrasted. While the pigeons "nestled round the coat" (cote?) might partly symbolise the season's death-threat of sharpening cold, the sparrow, busy as if in spring, and the cock, strutting his stuff as normal on the un-idealised location of a dung-hill, are simply there, simply being themselves. These birds are not wing-clipped to fit the mood or the season.

While the language of this poem does not draw greatly on the rich Northamptonshire dialect we associate with Clare, it still quietly challenges the conventions of the lyric landscape poem. After the defiant image of the cock crowing on the dung-hill, there's a splendid linguistic defiance in " the mill-sails on the heath agoing." That simple, rustic-sounding verb, "agoing" (without a hyphen) is all that's needed to create an impression of rapid and ceaseless movement.

There is a kind of casual framing, in that the falling and fallen leaves of the first stanza are now in the last stanza mirrored by the falling feather and the falling acorns. Once more, Clare gives us the perfect verb-in-apposition: "pattering down," letting us both see and hear the acorns lightly hitting the tree-trunk and each other as they rain onto the dead leaves at the foot.

The humble acorn is often an object of homily. But these acorns are not to grow into "mighty oaks". They are food, and the pigs are suddenly in the picture, cumbersome, noisy and eager, part of the glorious fitfullness of the natural scene.

They complete the landscape and end the poem. Clare has organised his details, so that from stanza to stanza we have moved deeper into the countryside – from a position close to the cottage window, then, via the twirling leaf to the lane. There's a steady backwards look at the cottage, then a longer view of the heath, the mill, the stubble-field. An altered ecology in a landscape now deserted by humans reveals those less domesticated, but, for Clare, not ominous, birds, the raven and the crow. But finally, Clare lets the wild pigs steal the show, reminding us that his poem has been no orderly eighteenth-century pastoral, despite the numbered stanzas, the mostly regular rhyme and metre, and the satisfying grouping of images. The neat frames are filled with movement. And, after the poem has stopped, it's as if it's still going on somewhere, the buffeting wind and flying mill-sails, the birds being bird-like, and the pigs grubbing up the acorns which are still falling, just beyond our view – and beyond Romantic convention. Even without the dialect, Clare ensures his poem is wind-blown, moving, alive.


I love the fitfull gusts that shakes
 The casement all the day
And from the mossy elm tree takes
 The faded leaf away
Twirling it by the window-pane
With thousand others down the lane

I love to see the shaking twig
 Dance till the shut of eve
The sparrow on the cottage rig
 Whose chirp would make believe

That spring was just now flirting by
In summers lap with flowers to lie

I love to see the cottage smoke
 Curl upwards through the naked trees
The pigeons nestled round the coat
 On dull November days like these
The cock upon the dung-hill crowing
The mill sails on the heath agoing

The feather from the ravens breast
 Falls on the stubble lea
The acorns near the old crows nest
 Fall pattering down the tree
The grunting pigs that wait for all
Scramble and hurry where they fall

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