Poetry: December/January

Poetry: December/January


THE SHEPHERD’S CALENDAR (1827) BY JOHN CLARE (1793-1864) is a month by month look at the scenery and activities of rural village life in the early nineteenth century. This Calendar of a country year offers a fascinating insight into a lost social history and the habits and customs of a long-vanished age. Clare’s closeness to detail and powers of observations about rural life have earnt him the praise and admiration of many high profile poets from Virginia Woolf to Seamus Heaney. Derek Walcott, for example, in his poem The Bounty, describes Clare as “torn, wandering Tom, stoat-stroker in his county/of reeds and stalk-crickets, fiddling the dank air/lacing his boots with vines, steering glazed beetles” fondly conjuring Clare’s and offering an explanation as to why he has been granted the title the Poet’s Poet. So by way of demonstration and to mark the season ahead we present the reader with December and one of the truly great poems about Christmas….

Christmas is come and every hearth Makes room to give him welcome now

E’en want will dry its tears in mirth And crown him wi’ a holly bough

Tho tramping ‘neath a winters sky O’er snow track paths and rhymey stiles

The huswife sets her spining bye

And bids him welcome wi’ her smiles

Each house is swept the day before

And windows stuck wi’ evergreens

The snow is beesom’d from the door

And comfort crowns the cottage scenes

Gilt holly wi’ its thorny pricks

And yew and box wi’ berrys small

These deck the unus’d candlesticks

And pictures hanging by the wall

Neighbours resume their anual cheer

Wishing wi smiles and spirits high

Clad christmass and a happy year

To every morning passer bye

Milk maids their christmass journeys go

Accompanyd wi favourd swain

And childern pace the crumping snow

To taste their grannys cake again

Hung wi the ivys veining bough

The ash trees round the cottage farm

Are often stript of branches now

The cotters christmass hearth to warm

He swings and twists his hazel band

And lops them off wi sharpend hook

And oft brings ivy in his hand

To decorate the chimney nook

Old winter whipes his ides bye

And warms his fingers till he smiles

Where cottage hearths are blazing high

And labour resteth from his toils

Wi merry mirth beguiling care

Old customs keeping wi the day

Friends meet their christmass cheer to share

And pass it in a harmless way Old customs

O I love the sound

However simple they may be

What ere wi time has sanction found

Is welcome and is dear to me Pride grows above simplicity

And spurns it from her haughty mind

And soon the poets song will be

The only refuge they can find


The shepherd now no more afraid

Since custom doth the chance bestow

Starts up to kiss the giggling maid

Beneath the branch of mizzletoe

That neath each cottage beam is seen

Wi pearl-like-berrys shining gay

The shadow still of what hath been

Which fashion yearly fades away

And singers too a merry throng

At early morn wi simple skill

Yet imitate the angels song

And chant their christmass ditty still

And mid the storm that dies and swells

By fits-in humings softly steals

The music of the village bells

Ringing round their merry peals

And when its past a merry crew

Bedeckt in masks and ribbons gay

The ‘Morrice danse’ their sports renew

And act their winter evening play

The clown-turnd-kings for penny praise

Storm wi the actors strut and swell

And harlequin a laugh to raise

Wears his hump back and tinkling bell

And oft for pence and spicy ale

Wi winter nosgays pind before

The wassail singer tells her tale

And drawls her christmass carrols oer

The prentice boy wi ruddy face

And ryhme bepowderd dancing locks

From door to door wi happy pace

Runs round to claim his ‘christmass box’

The block behind the fire is put

To sanction customs old desires

And many a faggots bands are cut

For the old farmers christmass fires

Where loud tongd gladness joins the throng

And winter meets the warmth of may

Feeling by times the heat too strong

And rubs his shins and draws away

While snows the window panes bedim

The fire curls up a sunny charm

Where creaming oer the pitchers rim

The flowering ale is set to warm

Mirth full of joy as summer bees

Sits there its pleasures to impart

While childern tween their parents knees

Sing scraps of carrols oer by heart

And some to view the winter weathers

Climb up the window seat wi glee

Likening the snow to falling feathers

In fancys infant extacy

Laughing wi superstitious love

Oer visions wild that youth supplyes

Of people pulling geese above

And keeping christmass in the skyes

As tho the homstead trees were drest

In lieu of snow wi dancing leaves

As tho the sundryd martins nest

Instead of ides hung the eaves

The childern hail the happy day

As if the snow was april grass

And pleasd as neath the warmth of may

Sport oer the water froze to glass

Thou day of happy sound and mirth

That long wi childish memory stays

How blest around the cottage hearth

I met thee in my boyish days

Harping wi raptures dreaming joys

On presents that thy coming found

The welcome sight of little toys

The christmass gifts of comers round

‘The wooden horse wi arching head

Drawn upon wheels around the room

The gilded coach of ginger bread

And many colord sugar plumb

Gilt coverd books for pictures sought

Or storys childhood loves to tell

Wi many a urgent promise bought

To get tomorrows lesson well

And many a thing a minutes sport

Left broken on the sanded floor

When we woud leave our play and court

Our parents promises for more

Tho manhood bids such raptures dye

And throws such toys away as vain

Yet memory loves to turn her eye

And talk such pleasures oer again

Around the glowing hearth at night

The harmless laugh and winter tale

Goes round-while parting friends delight

To toast each other oer their ale

The cotter oft wi quiet zeal

Will musing oer his bible lean

While in the dark the lovers steal

To kiss and toy behind the screen

The yule cake dotted thick wi plumbs

Is on each supper table found

And cats look up for falling crumbs

Which greedy childern litter round

And huswifes sage stuffd seasond chine

Long hung in chimney nook to drye

And boiling eldern berry wine

To drink the christmas eves ‘good bye’

John Clare Compiled and edited by Emma Trehane MA Ph.D

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