Reading a selection of John Clare’s poetry, made by a poet from Liverpool called Paul Farley (published by Faber and Faber in 2007), I was struck by the fact that Clare has sometimes been described as a peasant poet. While the poetry of Clare often focuses on the natural world, I was initially unsure whether or not the label ‘peasant’ was a helpful one. There is a sophistication and a beauty about the poetry which does not fit well with common conceptions of the word peasant.
However, perhaps it is modern interpretations of the word ‘peasant’ which are at fault. Agricultural labour is really important. The word ‘peasant’ should be thought of positively. The hard work on the land is necessary. Furthermore, it should not be seen as lacking in skill. Most jobs have skills; it is just that society values some skills more than others.
As for Clare, his life was tough and he experienced great unhappiness. But his poetry has survived long after his death in 1864. While the Romantic poets had praised larks and nightingales, Farley has indicated that Clare also paid significant attention to blackcaps, corncrakes, wrens, owls, and wrynecks. Perhaps this acknowledgement of the diversity of birds illustrates that Clare had a more intimate relationship with nature than the more celebrated Romantic poets enjoyed. Clare wrote about what he knew, and like many ‘peasants’, he knew a lot.