John Clare and the snipe

October 15, 2021 0 Comments

Slow radio at its best achieves what no amount of ‘fast radio’, with its assumption of the attention span of a hoverfly, can achieve: thought connections that stay in the mind long after the programme has ended. 

Paul Farley’s recent day (half an hour on the radio: The Poet and the Snipe) looking, in vain, for a snipe at the Arnside and Silverdale AONB near Morcambe Bay left plenty of ideas about the associations between the shy, ‘post-punk’ bird, and the solitary poet – and his search for it.  Close, concentrated attention is needed for snipe-hunting and poetry-writing.  Both need an alternative, ankle-height view on the world.  Poems often surprise the poet, as when a snipe springs and lifts off suddenly after being disturbed.  The snipe probes in the mud for worms and larvae, taking the world’s temperature, picking up signals, like poets.  Its long bill resembles a writer’s nib or stylus.

John Clare’s cottage, Helpston

For such a secretive, unseen bird the snipe has attracted many poets: Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney and Simon Armitage, and long before them, the Japanese poets Saigyō and Bashō.  Farley quotes the grand-daddy of snipe verse, John Clare.  He calls To the Snipe ‘one of the best poems of the nineteenth century’.  That’s a big claim to make, but on reading and rereading Clare’s poem it’s tempting to agree.

It’s a poem in 22 four-line stanzas with a simple A-B-A-B rhyme scheme, but with an irregular stress count.  There are just two beats in the first line, three in the second, five in the third and three in the last – almost as if Clare is mirroring the awkward, shuffling gait of the bird, or its curious shape: stocky body and ultra-long thin bill.

The first four stanzas introduce the main themes that echo through the whole poem:

Lover of swamps
The quagmire over grown
With hassock tufts of sedge – where fear encamps
Around thy home alone

The trembling grass
Quakes from the human foot
Nor bears the weight of man to let him pass
Where thou alone and mute

Sittest at rest
In safety neath the clump
Of hugh flag forrest that thy haunts invest
Or some old sallow stump

Thriving on seams
That tiney island swell
Just hilling from the mud and rancid streams
Suiting thy nature well

Nowhere does Clare describe, or even name, the snipe.  Neither, of course, does Shelley paint a picture of his skylark, or Keats his nightingale.  But the non-appearance of the snipe is more apposite than theirs.  It’s a bird notoriously difficult to spot: it inhabits marshy, wet ground hard for humans to negotiate, and it’s by nature shy and furtive.  Clare wrote his poem shortly after leaving his native Helpston in 1832 to move a few miles to another village, Northborough.  Helpston lay in gently rolling Northamptonshire, but Northborough was right on the edge of the fenland, the natural home for the snipe.  Here was a good opportunity to see the bird.  Whether Clare did see many is uncertain.  Of another secretive wader, the land rail, he wrote, about the same time, ‘I have followed it for hours and all to no purpose’.  If Clare, an agricultural labourer who spent most of his time outdoors, could not find one, who could?

It’s not the bird, then, that Clare highlights, but its habitat: the swampy, tussocky, reedy, stagnant half-land-half-water that gives the snipe a home, food – and safety.  This is truly ankle-height observation.  As the poem goes on Clare multiplies the ‘wet words’, repeating words he’s already used and adding new vernacular and local variants: ‘the sinky little foss / streaking the moores whence spa-red waters spews / from pudges fringed with moss’.  We may not see the snipe, but as our boots sink into the quag we can feel and see and hear the watery world it hides within.

Clare’s second theme is man.  Humans are to be feared, from the first stanza onward.  At first, boys keep to their play in the woods and the ‘the skulking fowler’ with his dogs and guns keeps to higher ground.  But they seem to get nearer and nearer:

Free booters there
Intend to kill and slay
Startle with cracking guns the trepid air
And dogs thy haunts betray

As we go on the foreboding becomes more intense, and we sense the poet and the snipe beginning to coalesce.  In the last stanzas of the poem Clare makes the association explicit:

In these thy haunts
Ive gleaned habitual love
From the vague world where pride and folly taunts
I muse and look above

Thy solitudes
The unbounded heaven esteems
And here my heart warms into higher moods
And dignifying dreams

I see the sky
Smile on the meanest spot
Giving to all that creep or walk or flye
A calm and cordial lot

Thine teaches me
Right feelings to employ
That in the dreariest places peace will be
A dweller and a joy

These verses, with their longing for peaceful solitude and the benevolence of the open sky, find an echo, much later, when Clare comes to write, from the asylum in Northampton, his most desolate poem, I am:

I long for scenes where man hath 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.

John Clare’s cottage, Helpston

Today, reading ‘To the Snipe’, we might worry even more for the fate of the bird at the hands of humans.  The snipe has recently been placed on the ‘near threatened’ category of European birds, in the State of nature in the EU report, after a 30% decline in numbers in the last six years.  Human activity is to blame: intensive agriculture, pollution, habitat loss and climate heating have all conspired to endanger the snipe, and so many other mammals and insects.

Sadness and snipes have always gone together.  In the twelfth century the Japanese poet Saigyō wrote

Even one so free of passion
would be moved to sadness —
autumn evening
in a marsh
where snipes fly up.

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