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Village Minstrel

1 hour, 15 minutes
First broadcast:
Sunday 03 November 2013

Village Minstrel. John Clare won fame in his own lifetime as the 'peasant poet', but has long been appreciated in his own right as one of the most important poetic voices of the 19th century. Karl Johnson and David Annen are the readers in a selection of Clare's own poems and writings by John Steinbeck, Gilbert White, Richard Jefferies and others chosen to reflect his life as a farm labourer, his intense ability to observe the natural world, and his eventual mental deterioration. With music by Britten, Haydn, Gurney, Vikki Clayton, Chris Wood, and The Imagined Village among others.

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Timings (where shown) are from the start of the programme in hours and minutes
  • Producer's Note

    John Clare is one of a clutch of poets and writers who have found their way into more than one Words and Music selection of mine, but so far he is the only one who has struck me as good for the actual subject of a programme. The insistent quality of his verse was largely responsible of course; coming late to Clare, and with many, many poems of his yet to read, I find that however unassuming a particular one may seem at first, it soon presses its way into my consciousness, its skill and depth growing ever more obvious. The pat description of Clare as a ‘peasant poet’ may have a demographical (if patronising) truth to it, but it does little to suggest the high levels of humanity, honesty and contemplative incisiveness of the man’s art. 


    This programme, however, is not intended as a portrait of Clare, nor as an anthology of his best poems. The former is too complex a project to attempt in an hour and a quarter, and, with so many poems to choose from, the latter is too ambitious (not to mention contentious). Instead, I’ve picked a small number to represent aspects of his personality that appeal to me most strongly, and then set them among prose-writings and music that reflect them. Three of the songs here – John Jeffreys’s Little Trotty Wagtail, Britten’s The Evening Primrose and Vikki Clayton’s The Badger, are also settings of Clare’s verse.


    First among these aspects is Clare’s painterly ability to re-create in words the world about him – not just the way it looks, but the way it moves, sounds and feels. Sometimes, as in ‘Swordy Well’ and ‘Sometimes I pass a little nest’, a poem will start this way and then broaden to take in wider considerations; elsewhere, as in ‘The Rural Muse’ or the extract from ‘The Village Minstrel’, a verse concerned from the start with another subject will burst with precise and vivid descriptions of a bird’s flight, the growth pattern of a flower or the movement of the air. Others still, such as ‘In Hilly-Wood’, amaze with their sheer evocative beauty. Descriptions like these are so penetrating and true that you are frequently left thinking, ‘yes, that’s exactly how it is,’ even though you yourself may never have realised it that way before. Here was a born observer, a man who acquired a minute knowledge and understanding of the natural world just by looking closely at it, and this is what prompted me to include prose extracts by two common spirits - one (Gilbert White) who preceded him, and one (Richard Jefferies) who came after him. White’s account of enticing a cricket safely from its home, reminded me of Clare in particular for its intense concern for, and identification with, fellow creatures.


    Then there is the matter of enclosure. Clare lived through one of the most active periods of enclosure of English common land, and the change it wrought on his native landscape and his ability to move freely across it hits hard in the lines from ‘The Village Minstrel’. Though he himself expressed a distaste for political radicalism his anger is clear, and I’ve chosen to echo it in songs of dispossession and protest by Chris Wood and The Imagined Village, as well as WH Hudson’s dismayed account of the punishment of rural protesters in Wiltshire in the 1830s, an extract from Jim Crace’s recent novel Harvest, and a typically rolling, Biblical-style passage from Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.   The dignity of labour itself also suggested a passage from Anna Karenina. By chance, a more topical political note is struck in Vikki Clayton’s setting of ‘The Badger’ (though you will look in vain in it for hints of what Clare’s opinion of today’s culling operations might have been). 


    Elsewhere I’ve sought to evoke nothing more than a rural atmosphere, whether in a 20th-century manifestation such as Tippett’s glorious Concerto for Double String Orchestra, or through 18th-century eyes, as in Thomas Linley’s The Lark Sings High in the Cornfield. That 18th-century English view of nature was much influenced by James Thomson’s great poetic canvas, ‘The Seasons’, the work which Clare acknowledged as having inspired him to take up his pen. I’ve included a section from Haydn’s oratorio setting of it, choosing the aria from ‘Winter’ in which the poet looks back over the changing seasons and compares them to life’s passage. After that, ‘I am’, Clare’s heartbreaking and most famous poem written in the isolation and disorientation of his later years in the Northampton asylum, felt like the only way to end.  


    Lindsay Kemp (Producer)


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