Margaret Grainger (ed.), The Natural History Prose Writings of John Clare

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natural history letter v8

1Feb 7

2I always think that this month the prophet of spring brings many 3beautys to the landscape tho a carless observer woud laugh at me for 4saying so who believes that it brings nothing because he does not 5give himself the trouble to seek them—I always admire the kindling9 pg 466freshness that the bark of the different sorts of trees & under wood 7asume in the forest—the 'foulroyce'1 twigs [del. kindle] kindling into 8a vivid color at their tops as red as [del. ?] wood piegons claws the 9ash with its grey bark & black swelling buds the Birch with its 10'paper rind' & the darker mottled sorts of hazle black alder2 with the 11greener hues of sallows willows & the bramble that still wears its 12leaves with the privet of a purple hue while the straggling wood 13briar3 shines in a brighter & more beautiful green even then leaves 14can boast at this season too odd forward branches in the new laid 15hedges4 of white thorn begin to freshen into green before the arum 16dare peep out of its hood or the primrose & violet shoot up a new leaf 17thro the warm moss & ivy that shelter their spring dwellings the 18furze too on the common wear a fairer green & ere & there an odd 19branch is coverd with golden flowers5 & the ling or heath6 nestling 20among the long grass below (coverd with the witherd flowers of last 21year) is sprouting up into fresh hopes of spring the fairey rings7 on pg 4722the pasture are getting deeper dyes & the water weeds8 with long 23silver green blades of grass9 are mantling the stagnant ponds in their 24summer liverys in fact I find more beautys in this month then I can 25find room to talk about in a letter & particulary as you prefer the 26living objects to the lands cape1—In this month the Mavis thrush2 27begins to build its nest it is about as large as the field fare & not 28much unlike it its song is very stunt3 & unvaried & seems like the 29song of a young bird while learning to sing but the season at which it 30sings always makes it welcome & beautiful for it begins very early & 31if its a open Winter it may be heard at the end of December & 32beginning of January it loves to frequent at this season old orchards 33& hedge borders in home-steads near the village when it can get 34shelter & cover as if it loved to treat the village with a song at such a 35dreary season as the spring advances its song ceases & it disappears 36to its more solitary haunts of woods & forrests were it generaly 37builds its nest beside a large tree on the twigs & water grains that 38shoot from the body its nest is made of the blades of dead grass moss 39& cowdung lined with warmer materials of wool & a finer sort of 40grass intermixd it often lays six eggs much like the black birds but 41larger of of a deeper blue green dusted with brun colored spots its 42nest has been often mistaken for the black birds but it is easily 43distinguishd by the more curious observer as the black bird4 uses 44moss on the out side & lines the inside with fine twitchy roots & hair 45while the mavis never forgets her dead ramping grass5 for the out 46side covering & a plentiful supply of wool within the wool is what 47bird nesting boys know it bye—the Thrush celebrated for its fine 48song6 is a small bird not much larger then a ground lark it does not 49begin its varied song till May which is said by some to equal the 50nightingales which it very much resembles tho it is not so various it 51builds its nest about the latter end of april & makes the out side of 52green moss & lines the inside with touch wood from decayd trees & 53cowdung which it plasters round in a very workman like manner & 54makes it as round as the spoon of a Ladle that dryes as hard as brick pg 4855after it is finished7 tho this may be thought to be a hard bed for its 56young [del. &] it uses no other lining it lays 5 & sometimes six eggs 57smaller then the black birds of a beautiful blue like the hedge- 58sparrows but thinly mottled at the large end with inky spots it mostly 59nay I might say always chuses the white thorn to build on & seeks 60the most retired places of the wood seldom venturing to hazard its 61nest in the hedge or near the side I have often remarkd an odd 62scircumstance respecting these birds in laying time which I never 63coud account for which is the frequent desertion of their nests after 64they were finished not only of one but of 19 out of twenty as if the 65birds had by a natural impulse joind8 their minds to leave their new 66made dwellings & migrate to other countys this does not appear to 67be the case every season but when it is so it seems to be general the 68year before last I found 12 nests in Oxey wood all left in this manner 69as if they all left off at the same instant it was before the cuckoo had 70mader9 her appearance or I shoud have laid the blame to her when 71this general desertion takes place the nests are always more numeros 72then at other times—but there are a[del. n] many of natures riddles 73not yet resolved—The long taild Titmouse calld with us Bumbarrel 74& in yorkshire pudding bags & feather pokes is an early builder of 75its nest it makes a very beautiful one in the shape of an egg leaving 76an entrance on one side like the wren it forms the outside of grey 77moss & lines it with great quantitys of feathers it lays a great 78number of very small eggs I have found them with 18 they are very 79small of a white color sprinkled with pink spots at the larger end1 80one might think that by the number of eggs these birds lay they 81woud multiply very vast2 [del. ?] but on the contrary they are not 82half so plentiful as other birds for the small hawks make a terrible 83havock among their young broods as soon as they leave their nests— 84its song is low & pretty [del. ? ? ?] the young ones that escape the 85school boy & hawk live in familys & never forsake their parents till pg 4986the next spring—they may be seen to the number of 20 in winter 87picking somthing3 off the twigs of the white thorn in the hedgerows4

Notes Settings

Notes

Editor’s Note
8 Taken from Pet. MS A49, pp. 51–3. Robinson and Summerfield, in Selected Poems and Prose, print ll. 5–13, 'I always admire … green', and ll. 14–24, 'odd forward … liverys'.
Editor’s Note
9 Growing brighter.
Editor’s Note
1 The literal translation, 'foul rush', is not particularly helpful. This almost certainly refers to Swida sanguinea, dogwood, which smells unpleasant, has bitter-tasting berries, and shows a striking red colour in the early spring; and this would be a first, but unfortunately unlocalized, Northants. county record (see Druce, p. 108). Euonymus europaeus, spindle, which Tibble suggests as an alternative (Poems, ii. 562), and Perring corroborates (p. 484), seems less likely because it is green-twigged and square-stemmed. In the poetic fragments of Pet. MS A18, p. 205 (see p. 31 above), Clare has confused the berries of the 'dog tree' (see Journal for 31 Oct. 1824) with the 'glossy' berries of Viburnum opulus, guelder-rose.
Editor’s Note
2 Perring (p. 483) gives this quotation, and one from Clare's Journal for 16 Mar. 1825, under Frangula alnus, alder buckthorn. He may be right about the Journal quotation since both Gerard and Hill in their Herbals give 'Black Alder' for this species. But F. alnus is very rare in the Clare district, and in this Letter Clare is describing common plants and the colour of their bark. He says, in fact, that the hazel bark is mottled and the alder (i.e. Alnus glutinosa) black.
Editor’s Note
3 Rosa arvensis. See 'The Woodman', l. 76, for a similar juxtaposition of field rose and privet.
Editor’s Note
4 Newly trimmed hedges. When over-grown hedges are 'laid' or 'plashed' by the hedger the longer poles are cut almost through at the base and then bent down (i.e. 'laid') along the length of the hedge to make it cattle-proof; see 'The Woodman', l. 4.
Editor’s Note
5 See 'Another walk in the fields', Pet. MS A30, p. 136:
  • & when I last sat on this hill of wild thyme
  • A picture now faded was then in its prime
  • Yon furze that are armd to protect as it were
  • The rabbits & birds from intrusions & fear
  • Were all in their dazzling full blossom & shone
  • As tho the wild heath had a sun of its own
  • The hind that were chopping them up for his fire
  • Een stood like a poet awhile to admire
Editor’s Note
6 Calluna vulgaris.
Editor’s Note
7 See 'The Fairy-rings' (I) and (II), Poems, ii. 138, 139.
Editor’s Note
8 Possibly Callitriche ssp., water-starworts.
Editor’s Note
9 Possibly Glyceria maxima, reed sweet-grass.
Editor’s Note
1 The particular to the general?
Editor’s Note
2 Turdus viscivorus, mistle thrush, commonly known as the storm cock. See 'The Missel-thrush's Nest', Poems, ii. 226.
Editor’s Note
3 Could read 'start'; but see Glossary.
Editor’s Note
4 See Pet. MS A46 list, 11. 235–7.
Editor’s Note
5 Probably Agrostis stolonifera, creeping bent, or could be Agropyron repens, common couch.
Editor’s Note
6 Turdus ericetorum.
Editor’s Note
7 See 'The Thrush's Nest', Poems, ii. 245.
Editor’s Note
8 Could read 'found'; but see Letter XIII, l. 34; Pet. MS A46 list, 1. 608. Compare the consultations of Thomson's 'stork-assembly' (The Seasons, 'Autumn', ll. 853–5) and Bewick's rooks (A Memoir of Thomas Bewick Written by Himself, ed. Iain Bain, 1975, p. 22).
Editor’s Note
9 For 'made'; Clare's pen is running ahead to the next word.
Editor’s Note
1 See 'The Bumbarrel's Nest', Poems, ii. 242.
Editor’s Note
2 Tibble (Prose, p. 165 n.) comments, 'unintentional slip, surely, for (fast.)'. I agree that Clare's meaning could be 'fast', but this could then be an intentional spelling, not a slip; he frequently used 'v' and 'f' interchangeably, and OED indicates that he was not alone in this. The meaning could equally well be 'vast' (i.e. profusely) which was used as an adverb in the eighteenth century.
Editor’s Note
3 Probably pecking at the buds, as the bigger tits do in winter.
Editor’s Note
4 See 'Emmonsail's Heath in Winter', Poems, ii. 146.
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