By Sara Fogarty Olmos
This piece contains strong language
‘Summer’ by the Helpstonian peasant poet John Clare arrived in my inbox, courtesy of the Poetry Foundation’s ‘Poem of the Day’, towards the end of the summer before my first term of University. It was only when I got to Durham and was hit by the heart-stopping loneliness, fear and boredom that came free with my Freshers’ goody-bag, that I bothered to read it.
In our ‘Introduction to Poetry’ module, we had been told that students benefited from reading poetry out loud. If I’m allowed to be a little bit wet, I have to agree; reading out loud not only helped Sara the Student see the music underpinning the words on the page, it also helped Sara the Homesick First Year feel a little less lonely as she sat in her college bedroom. Imbued with the erudition of my professors, I took to reading the poems I had been collecting in my book since 2018 OUT LOUD (well, whispering so that Emma, my next-door neighbour, didn’t think I was THAT much of a wanky English student). The poems were transformed, some (mostly my own) for the worse, as despite my attempts to hide it from Emma, I am THE wanky English student; I WRITE BAD POETRY, that’s right ladies! Some, however, definitely transformed for the better- if you haven’t already guessed, John Clare’s ‘Summer’ was one of them.
In my first year at Durham, I found myself far from family, friendless, in a plague-ridden kingdom (although, at that time the plague in question was Freshers’ flu), surrounded by reactionaries and the forces of Conservatism, abandoned by the sisterhood and utterly, utterly, utterly penniless with no kind-hearted benefactors. Whilst Mr. John Clare’s poem didn’t give me the two grand I was missing in rent, or the confidence I had lost as a result of finding that my state-school education had, in fact, left me floundering behind some of my privately educated peers, it DID give me an escape. I found solace in embodying the speaker of the poem; lulled by the poem’s sing-song cadence, I too rested in beauty.
2020’s summer could be said to have begun in March, with most students returning home early; and this time I was promised that this would be one of the worst summers of my life. So, John Clare had lied; he had hypnotized me with his beautiful words and lured me into his whitethorn trap where, we can only presume, he intended to smother me with his lover’s breast. But hey, pay no heed to the non-believers: lockdown and the months that followed proved to be, despite everything, one of the best summers of my life. This was largely due to the fact that my family had moved from Hadfield, a place accurately described by Hilary Mantel as a shithole (or, you know, words to that effect) to sunny, sunny Stretford. Once settled in the crack-den that was our new house, I felt that I was betraying our sweet Romantic Mr. John Clare by being so happy in my new urban surroundings.
I was far from the green rolling hills and the “fucking hell, that’s steep” hills of the High Peak; but I was close to my own lovers: Naureen, Halyna (and by extension Andre) and Tom, all of whom have lovely breasts, (perfect for laying weary heads on)! This is, of course, figurative: even if we didn’t have to keep our distance, my sweet bodacious lovers, sweet and bodacious though they are, would probably protest my leaning my head on their breasts (except maybe Halyna; that’s probably EXACTLY the type of thing she’d like, the filthy old man). And though I was far from the type of environment that Mr. John Clare would approve of, Stretford isn’t without its own natural beauty. I was able to do my figurative resting-on-breasts against the backdrop of the lush parks of Stretford (big up Victoria and Longford), the iconic Manchester Shipping Canal, filled with aggressive geese and canal rats (which are actually quite cute), and the deep, lovely waters of Sale Waterpark. And so, Mr. John Clare’s poem underwent a second metamorphosis. Before, ‘Summer’ was simply a way of escaping, but now, it was a reflection of the summer I had just spent in Stretford, surrounded by friends, family and, believe it or not, nature.
I now find myself back in the land of Tories and plague; but dutty, dirty Durham seems to have transformed a little. I’m no longer friendless, or desperately penniless; I’ve joined St. Aidan’s Int. Fem. Soc. (reinstated into the sisterhood, baby!) and I am, dare I say it, enjoying second year. It would be nice to finish there, but Durham has far to go: racism, classism, homophobia, transphobia and sexism still pervade.
In a similar way, ‘Summer’ is full of beauty and melody, but there is also this persistent, ominous drone lurking somewhere in the poem’s melody. The breaks from the otherwise regular rhythm, the speaker’s weariness and inability to sleep resist the idea of Clare’s poem as a simple idyllic presentation of summer. This is made clear to us right at the end, as we get the lines ‘I hunger at my meat and I daily fade away / Like the hedge rose that is broken in the heat of the day.’ Clare gives us a speaker that is in a state of exhaustion and deterioration, whilst Clare, himself was the victim of a steadily declining mental health.
However, I don’t think that this weariness is a simple reflection of Clare’s own mental state; Clare was a rebellious sort, he rebelled against the erasure of dialect in his poems, and he rebelled against the industrialisation of his beloved countryside. In light of this, I think there’s hope in those last lines; in the uncomfortable blaze of the summer’s midday sun, the hedge rose breaks, or in other words, blooms: once again there is beauty! Change and beauty prevail in spite, or maybe because, of pain and discomfort! Many students and members of staff have been choosing to make themselves uncomfortable by striking and speaking out against the injustices in our University community; if we continue, maybe THEN we will see the beauty of a fair and inclusive learning environment. Clare invites us both to the summer and to the revolution; rock on, Clare, baby!
Image: Andrew Hatton via Pixabay