Topographies of the Sacred

Extracts from Kate Rigby Topographies of the Sacred. The Poetics of Place in European Romanticism, (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2004).
Reprinted here with permission

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From Chapter ¬† 2, “The Rediscovery of Place,” (pp. 57-60)

Among English Romantic writers it was nonetheless not Coleridge but John Clare who went furthest in restoring a voice, and a more-than-human interest, to the genius loci of a particular place. This place, moreover, is valued by Clare not because of its views but because it was his home: namely, the country around Helpston in Northamptonshire, where he was born in 1797 and raised as a rural labourer like his parents. Even after acquiring limited fame and making a few trips to London as a “rural muse” he remained in Helpston until 1832 when he was persuaded to move, disastrously as it turned out, to a more commodious cottage four miles away in Northborough. The most significant of Clare’s early topographical poems pertains to Round Oak Waters, a stream flowing from an underground spring in the south-west corner of Royce Wood, the course and surrounds of which had been dramatically altered as a result of the enclosure of Helpston as decreed by Act of Parliament in 1809.

Despite Clare’s idiosyncratic spelling and rejection of punctuation, “The Lamentations of Round-Oak Waters” (circa 1818) begins conventionally enough.1 In keeping with the tradition of the pastoral elegy dating back to Theocritus, Clare’s melancholy poet, “[o]ppress’d wi’ grief a double share” (1), has retreated to nature to seek solace in song. Not unlike Milton in “Lycidas” (1637) or Shelley in “Adonais” (1821), Clare, it turns out, is mourning the death of a friend. He was Richard Turnill, a childhood companion who died young of typhus, who is named elliptically in the apostrophe, “O T-l, T-l dear should thou/To this fond Mourner be […]” (141-2). Less conventionally, this invocation of the deceased occurs fairly late in the poem. Initially it seems that the poet is simply bewailing his own miserable social condition, “Hurt friendless poor and starv’d,” the “sport” of “money’d men” (18, 21-3). This, the first-named moiety of the “double share” of grief referred to in the opening line, also has a biographical basis in Clare’s poverty and sense of isolation. What is really surprising about this poem, though, is the way that these self-preoccupied reflections are interrupted by the stream upon whose banks the poet had been pouring out his sorrow. Unlike Dyer’s “silent nymph,” the “genius” of Clare’s brook speaks, and it does so on its own account:

‘I am the genius of the brook
And like to thee I moan
By Naiads and by all forsook
Unheeded and alone’

As the spirit of the place proceeds to recount how the brook’s once verdant banks had been stripped bare, and the surrounding pastureland, meadows and moors turned over to the production of cash crops for the profit of private owners, the whole poem changes direction. Returning to the opening stanza, we find that what had at first appeared as a classic case of what John Ruskin would later term the ‘pathetic fallacy’, now demands to be taken literally:

My naked seat without a shade
Did cold and blealy shine
Which fate was more agreeable made
As sympathising mine

The bleakness of the poet’s physical environment does not represent a projection of the poet’s state of mind onto the natural world, as we might have previously supposed. It is, rather, an invitation to the reader to consider the plight of place itself, along with the suffering of those, human and otherwise, for whom it had hitherto provided pleasure, shelter and sustenance. The connotation of the title is thus also radically altered: these are not the lamentations of the poet by Round Oak Waters, but rather the lamentations of the brook itself. Overthrowing Dyer’s discourse of visuality, Clare repositions the place as subject rather than scene. Swerving away from the register of classicist pastoral towards the vernacular poetry of rural protest, moreover, Clare proceeds to have his “injur’d brook” (158) name the source of this devastation. This lies, we are assured, not with the “sweating slaves” (165), victims too, whose labor was exploited in the despoliation of the place, but rather with the moneyed landowners and those serving their interests in Parliament, who were responsible for decreeing the enclosure of Helpston.

In Clare’s radical recasting of the pastoral, this rural spot, far from providing consolation for human woes, is itself presented to us as wounded. Clare, to be sure, anthropomorphizes the brook, but he does so to surprisingly ecocentric effect. It is within this experience of wounded place that Clare recovers an understanding of genius loci that ten centuries of Christian antagonism to idolatry had apparently failed to erase entirely: the sense, that is, of an indwelling spirit of place that could be felt to cry out for justice when the land was abused. The land, however, needed defenders to plead its case within human society. It is as a lost ally, and potential mourner, that the genius of the brook recalls Clare’s deceased friend.2 And it is as its special friend and champion that the genius of the brook now addresses the poet, one whose own life had been so entwined with and nurtured by this place that in recalling its past felicity, he could protest what had now become of it and why. Not unlike Dyer, Clare concludes by alluding to the vanity of striving for material wealth in the face of the inevitability of death: ” ‘Will riches keep them from the grave?/Or give them rest in heaven?'” (195-6) Here, however, this point is not arrived at by a reflection upon the eternal cycles of nature, but rather upon the land’s vulnerability to socio-economic forces perceived as destructive of environmental, social and spiritual values.

This is, I believe, a key text for Clare. For it is here that he first articulates his major poetic project of the 1820s and 1830s. In responding to the call of the brook Clare discovers his own true calling, giving voice to the suffering of the land and in so doing also to his vocation as a poet. Few, if any, other authors of the Romantic period respond to the call of a wounded place as ecocentrically as Clare does. Wordsworth, it is true, refers in “Nutting” (1800) to “a spirit in the woods,” which he imagines to have reproved him when, as a child, he ravaged a bower of hazelnut trees.3Wordsworth’s woods, however, are not explicitly localized, and their indwelling spirit partakes more of the universal than the particular. Wordsworth did develop a sense of connection to a particular place. As I will argue later, however, he did so intentionally, as a “reinhabitant,” and neither he nor any other authors of this period articulate quite the feeling of indigeneity that we find in Clare: a feeling of connectedness with the place into which he was born, which he knows intimately, and which in turn knows him, such that to stray even a few miles out of his home territory was to find that “the very wild flowers seemd [ sic ] to forget [him].”4 Certainly none appear to have been so devastated by the experience of loss of place as was Clare, first through the changes wrought by the enclosure of Helpston; then by the increasing distance from his fellow villagers brought about by his status as a published poet and by his wider experience of the world beyond the parish bounds; and, finally, by his own departure from Helpston for Northborough and, not long after, from thence to the mental asylums at High Beech and Northampton, where he died in 1864. There is nonetheless something exemplary about the case of Clare, for it provides a powerful reminder that the rediscovery of place during the Romantic period was premised upon profound dislocation.

From: Ch. 6 “Verdant Veils and City Streets,” 237-40

First, though, let us return once again to Clare. “The Hedgehog” was one of a number of animal poems that he wrote between 1835 and 1837 following his move to Northborough. Not unlike Wordsworth, what Clare seems to have most valued about the countryside that he knew and loved was precisely that it was not entirely subject to human ordering and control. Indeed, most of his own “pastoral poesy” centres not on the doings of shepherds, cowherds, haymakers, and their like but on the great diversity of wild creatures who are shown going about their own busy and sometimes difficult lives in and around the human activities of the farming community. For Clare the song of the land was most definitely not Meeker’s “thoroughly domesticated score orchestrated solely around human themes”; his was rather a song of the coexistence of the wild and the tame, swamp and meadow, wildflower and cornfield, marten and lamb, mole and cow, insect and human. It was this coexistence that Clare portrayed as endangered by those changes associated with enclosure, which he rightly perceived as tipping the balance in the direction of a more intensive and extensive humanization of the rural environment.

This critical view of the new, however, is conjoined in Clare’s work with an equally critical view of some aspects of the old, above all in relation to the treatment of animals. In his poems on the marten, the fox, the badger, the hedgehog and the vixen, for example, Clare construes the pre-modern rural world as a place of violence, cruelty and blind prejudice, rather than as a pastoral idyll. It may be that the move to Northborough, to a place that was not his own, even though it was so close to the one in which he had dwelt hitherto, helped to give him a greater distance on rural life. Yet in many of his earlier poems as well, such as “Insects” (1819-32) or “The Nightingales Nest” (1825-30), Clare also foregrounds the efforts of wild creatures to evade persecution by humans. Some of the later animal poems still celebrate the wiliness and resilience of some animals in the face of human oppression: the hares who only come out to play surreptitiously at nightfall; the cunning of the old fox who pretends to be dead in order to escape his captors; the strength and courage of the badger engaged in mortal combat with the dogs that have been set upon him; the constant vigilance of the vixen as she endeavours to ensure that her young can snatch a moment of play in safety. Now, however, the existence of these wild creatures is shown to be more fraught, their survival less assured.

This is especially true in Clare’s poem on the hedgehog (Middle Period, 5, 363-4). The vulnerability of this small creature is suggested in the first line, which identifies the hedgehog’s dwelling place explicitly as a hideout:

The hedgehog hides beneath the rotten hedge
And makes a great round nest of grass and sedge
Or in a bush or in a hollow tree (1-3)

Clare proceeds to relate the local belief that hedgehogs collected crab apples on their spines in order to stockpile these and other fruits, such as blackthorn sloes, in a secret storehouse, “where magpie dabs/His wing at muddy dyke in aged root” (6-7). This image creates a subterranean connection between the hedgehog and the gypsies, who are said at the end of the stanza to hunt them for food, as they too would have competed with the local residents of the area in harvesting such wild fruits. Clare does not explicitly refute this story about hedgehogs, and it could be read as an instance of the wiliness that he so admired in wild creatures. However, close observer of the natural world that he was, it seems unlikely that Clare did not know that hedgehogs are primarily insectivores. As such, insect-hunting hedgehogs, like hedgehog-eating gypsies, were part of a food chain, which existed in at least partial independence of that created and sustained through farming and animal husbandry.5

Although Clare generally writes positively about gypsies, here his sympathies lie more with their prey. At the beginning of the second stanza, he nonetheless indicates that their hunting of hedgehogs was a matter not of wanton cruelty or gastronomic self-indulgence but of survival:

But they who hunt the fields for rotten meat
And wash in muddy dyke and call it sweet
And eat what dogs refuse where ere they dwell
Care little either for the taste or smell (15-18)

Clare contrasts this with the ruthless murder of hedgehogs by farmers on the grounds that they drank their cows’ milk dry. This imputation of theft, he asserts, is certainly a myth, for:

[. . .] they whove seen the small head like a hog
Rolled up to meet the savage of a dog
With mouth scarce big enough to hold a straw
Will neer believe what no one ever saw

Blinded by prejudice, and jealous of their rightful property, the rural community are shown to persecute those creatures whose unfamiliar nature and way of life (not unlike that of the itinerant people who pass through their neighbourhood) they have not even tried to understand:

But still they hunt the hedges all about
And shepherd dogs are trained to hunt them out
They hurl with savage force the stick and stone
And no one cares and still the strife goes on

In this work of eminently ecocentric counter-pastoral, Clare couples Romantic sentiment with the voice of enlightenment, adducing empirical evidence, as well as appealing to his readers’ compassion, in order to challenge traditional assumptions and practices that he views as cruel and barbaric: here savagery pertains not to the wild woods but to the pastoral environment of domestication. It seems, then, that while Clare was opposed to the enclosure of the old collectively worked open fields and common lands, there are some aspects of rural life that he would certainly like to have seen reformed.

Ironically, the planting of hedgerows to divide the smaller fields created by enclosure, which Clare abhorred, would have increased the available habitat for his embattled hedgehogs. There is, however, a deeper irony. Keith Thomas has shown that protests against cruelty to animals in Britain had risen dramatically during the previous century: not coincidentally, he suggests, during the very period when animals began to become more marginal as a means of production.6 At least in Europe, compassionate concern for the welfare of animals for their own sake, together with the new feeling for the natural world generally that lies at the heart of romanticism, thus appears to be a function of the shift towards industrial modernity. Industrialised society nonetheless depends upon an ever more intensive and extensive exploitation of nature. Thus, at the same time that direct cruelty to animals was becoming unacceptable, new regimes of frequently invisible, hence all the more insidious, systemic violence toward many species, both wild and domestic, were in the making.

Today hedgehogs are partially protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act in Britain, and nobody is likely to kill them either for food, or for nibbling on a (possibly “mad”) cow’s udder. Although a great many of them die accidentally on the roads, as a species, the European hedgehog has survived industrialization comparatively well, not least by finding a new niche in suburban parks and gardens (other creatures, such as pine martens, have not had that advantage, and have suffered more as a consequence). However, hedgehog numbers do appear to be declining in some parts of Britain, most likely as a consequence of the shift from pastoralism to intensive arable farming over the past thirty years, bringing the widespread destruction of habitat and the use of pesticides that kill their food supply and could also poison them indirectly.7 Today, the food chains of wild and domesticated species in Europe are interconnected, frequently to the peril of the former. Many might care; but the imperatives of industrial capitalist farming dictate that the “still the strife goes on.”

Clare, as we have seen, reserves a special place for wild creatures in his counter-pastoral poetry, providing them with a verbal refuge where they might, in a Heideggerian sense at least, be ‘saved’: a textual nesting place of sorts.8 But unless such poetry motivates its readers to ensure that these creatures continue to have safe places to feed, breed and play beyond the page, it will not succeed in saving them in the flesh. And within the horizon of the immanent ecology of the sacred informing Clare’s poetics of place, it is what happens in the flesh that matters most.


1. Clare, Early Poems , vol. 1, 228-34. Hereafter: EP.

2. “Nay I as well as he am griev’d/For oh I hop’d of thee/That hadst thou stay’d as I believed/Thou wouldst have griev’d for me” (145-8).

3. Wordsworth, Lyrical Ballads , 220.

4. This is how Clare recalls in his “Autobiography” the experience of getting lost on a walk as a child. In Clare, Prose of John Clare , 13. Jonathan Bate’s suggestion that “The Lamentations of Round Oak Waters” can be read as embodying a sense that the land itself might experience and express pain, such as that found traditionally among Australian Aborigines ( Song of the Earth , 165-6), finds support in Clare’s need to be recognized by the land. See also his letter to his publisher Taylor from early 1832 with reference to his imminent move to Northborough: “I have had some difficulties to leave the woods & heaths & favourite spots that have known me so long for the very molehills on the heath & the old trees in the hedges seem bidding me farewell […]” Clare, Letters of John Clare , 258. The idea that the land knows its own traditional owners, but will not recognize strangers to the place, is integral to the Aboriginal understanding of ‘country’ as the particular area of land, with all its inhabitants, human and otherwise, living and ancestral, to which one belongs and towards which one has a duty of care.

5. It is believed that the myth about hedgehogs stealing cows’ milk derives from the fact that they will often hunt out insects attracted by the warmth of a reclining cow: an interesting example of adaptation to the pastoral environment on the part of a wild animal. Cory, Animals of the British Isles , 87. Writing in the 1940s, Cory indicates that popular myths about hedgehogs were still leading to their persecution in the countryside. His conclusion (92) is very much in keeping with Clare’s: “Some day the fables will be killed by education, and the hedgehog will be given the protection he richly deserves.”

6. Thomas, Man and the Natural World , 181.

7. Mammal Society Fact Sheet: I am grateful to Richard Kerridge and Carolyn Smith for references on hedgehogs.

8. Preempting his subsequent articulation of a specifically Heideggerian ecopoetics in the final chapter of The Song of the Earth , Bate likens Clare’s poems themselves to the nests and shells that fill his verse as powerful images of home. Song of the Earth , 156.

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