John Clare's "Domestic Tree": Freedom and Home in "The Fallen Elm"
Timothy Ziegenhagen, Northland College
A complex expression of loss and anger, John Clare's poem "The Fallen Elm" speaks to feelings of powerlessness in the face of unchecked economic greed. Parliamentary enclosure and the development of new, scientifically-based agricultural practices (like crop rotation) changed the face of the poet's native Helpston landscape. In an effort to boost agricultural efficiency and to increase profits, large landowners leveled hills, rechannelled streams, and put up fences, growing hedgerows, and putting common lands under the plow. While "The Fallen Elm" describes the hidden costs of the loss of a single tree, it also explores the misuse of the rhetoric of freedom towards the privatization of the common lands through parliamentary enclosure. What was really lost as the result of this dispossession? How can enclosure in Clare's time connect with the drive towards privatization (of water rights, of intellectual property, of genetic codes) in our own? How can the loss of a beloved landscape affect one's sense of local history? By exploring these connections, students can come to a more full understanding of the complexity of Clare's great protest poem.
There are two steps an instructor might take when introducing students to the sense of loss pervading the first section of "The Fallen Elm." Using Clare's poem as a touchstone, the instructor might lead students in an analysis of the intimate connections they form with very particular natural landmarks (trees climbed, caves explored), helping them to consider more generally the ramifications of this intimacy. Such an exploration will help students better understand Clare's unique sense of place, how the poet's understanding of "home" encompasses a nascent ecological point of view. An instructor might also explore the more overt political content of "The Fallen Elm," which includes a fierce condemnation of the rhetoric of freedom; this rhetoric seeks to legitimize the destruction of the natural world and the enslavement of the rural poor. Modern students of Clare's work coming from rural areas near large cities—areas transformed from farmland into sprawling suburban housing developments—are quick to make connections between the enclosure so vividly depicted in Clare's poems and the rapid "Californication" (to use an Edward Abbeyism) taking place in their own backyards. The descriptions of change brought about by the agricultural revolution in nineteenth-century England may speak to their own experiences, in which Walmart and large box retailers appear in the midst of cornfields, and rapid suburban development swallows up family-owned century farms.
I. The Fallen Elm: The Loss of an Intimate Landmark
In recent years, much has been written about how Clare's poems reflect a proto-environmental awareness of natural systems (see McKusick's Green Writing as well as Bate's The Song of the Earth). Margaret Grainger's edition of the poet's natural history writings show his interest in depicting nature in prose as well as in poetry; impressed by the writings of Gilbert White, Clare hoped to record the natural phenomena he saw in the fields around Helpston, the small Northamptonshire town in which he lived. So precise were Clare's observations as a naturalist that Edmund Gosse complained the poet "was a camera, not a mind," suggesting that he viewed Clare's work as a collection of static images, frozen in time (qtd. in Storey 17). The essence of Clare's poetry, however, is movement, flux, process. Every new observation—a newly-discovered orchid variety, for example—affects how Clare perceives the world around him, and he delights in chronicling a world that changes from one moment to the next. John Barrell shows that in relation to the highly-structured visual landscapes of eighteenth-century nature poetry, Clare "developed a whole aesthetic of disorder" (152) in which the descriptive elements of a poem are "parts of the same complex impression, not just this and that, but this while that" (157). An ecologist by informal experience and careful observation, Clare describes not only a particular place, but a particular place at a unique moment in time, under distinct, novel conditions.
Clare's natural history writings are astonishing for their clarity of perception and their objective—one even might say scientific—way in which the poet records what he observes. These descriptions of natural phenemona are not static, and he excels at "utilizing the kinetic elements inherent in the picturesque vision. . . . Clare not only admits more detail into his work than most of his predecessors, he is also aware that those details are in constant mutation" (Brownlow 116). Clare's kinetic descriptions reflect living landscapes, made up of dynamic ecosystems, changing weather patterns, human and animal activities, plant growth and decay. His constant—and, some might say, obsessive—rewriting of local scenes, bird species, and plants evidences his view of nature in flux, in need of continual "updating."
To give a sense of the kinetic movement in Clare's work, the instructor might find it useful to center early discussions around how the poet "looks" at the natural world. Students could be asked to list the things that Clare sees in his poems, but also what he doesn't see: Which images stick out, and which are absent? What metaphors does Clare use, and how do these metaphors work to make the reader see natural phenomena in new ways? Nature writing tends to emphasize the visual, so students can be asked to analyze the "camera eye" of the writer; such class discussions can be speculative (especially if students have training in film theory!), but they can also help students begin to understand how Clare's poems emphasize natural systems from one poem to the next—like a series of windows framing dynamic images of the natural world. It's useful to look at bundles of related poems to build on this sense: an exploration of three bird poems together demonstrates Clare's "thick" description of habitat, how he portrays instinctual behaviors, the look of a crow as it crosses the afternoon sky.
Clare's writings display his strong emotional attachment to the landscape surrounding Helpston, a "rootedness" (no pun intended) and an awareness "of the relation of all creatures to a habitat in which the human observer is also implicated" (McKusick 80). To quote Edward Storey, "Clare's contact with the land was a physical one" (51). Such a connection is intimate, based on a day-to-day familiarity with a place, which is really the sum of its natural processes: The loss of a single life has a negative impact on the entire system, which becomes less diverse (and less resilient). While Clare was obviously no ecologist in the modern sense—the term ecology itself wouldn't even be coined till after his death—he nevertheless had a clear, intuitive sense of the value of a diverse ecosystem, and he could be very protective of animals, trees, streams, and even landforms. In a letter to his publisher John Taylor in 1821, Clare expresses his grief at the impending loss of a pair of old elm trees growing near his cottage:
my two favorite Elm trees at the back of the hut are condemned to dye it shocks me but tis true the saveage who owns them thinks they have done their best & now he wants to make use of the benefits he can get from selling them—O was this country Egypt & was I but a caliph the owner shoud loose his ears for his arragant presumption & the first wretch that buried his axe in their roots shoud hang on their branches as a terror to the rest—I have been several mornings to bid them farewell—had I £100 to spare I would buy their reprieves—but they must dye. . . . (qtd. in Bate 172)
Clare's shock at the loss of the two elms is heightened by the injustice of their deaths. Like an innocent man standing on the gallows, the trees are "condemned" to die and past "reprieve"; they must be cut because the owner wants the "benefits" of "selling them." Their usefulness to birds, or to humans desiring shade, is not considered. Such a domestic function is un-enclosable, and Clare's own emotional connection to these trees—while quite powerful—counts for nothing on a balance sheet. The poet's fantasy of cropping the ears of the "wretch" who would chop down the trees underscores the illegality of the act and links chopping trees with counterfeiting: Clare here suggests that the tree has some essential (and unenclosable) value that has been stolen by its greedy, coining owner.
Clare's "The Fallen Elm" memorializes a beloved tree and exposes the injustice perpetrated by an economic system that ignores its ecological—one could say its domestic—value, requiring it be cut down. By making the tree a part of his family, Clare argues for a new relationship between humans and living things, all part of a continuous ecological whole. The opening lines of the poem beautifully portray the tree as it leans closely over Clare's cottage, protecting the poet and his family and offering a kind of gentle companionship:
Old elm that murmured in our chimney top
The sweetest anthem autumn ever made
And into mellow whispering calms would drop
When showers fell on thy many-coloured shade
And when dark tempests mimic thunder made
While darkness came as it would strangle light
With the black tempest of a winter night
That rocked thee like a cradle to thy root,
How did I love to hear the winds upbraid
Thy strength without—while all within was mute.
It seasoned comfort to our hearts' desire,
We felt thy kind protection like a friend
And edged our chairs up closed to the fire,
Enjoying comforts that was never penned. (lines 1-14)
The lush consonance in this passage evokes a kind of Keatsian, luxurious ease (especially when read aloud). Indeed, Clare's letter to Taylor about the condemned elms was written around the time that Clare heard of Keats's death in Italy, and one wonders if the sonorous, Keatsian qualities in the above lines represent a kind of subtle elegy. The domestic images in the poem's first thirty-six lines underscore the fact that the tree gives both protection and comfort; the soft murmur through the chimney links the elm to tender (and attentive) parental care, a detail Clare reinforces by depicting the tree as a "cradle," a safe place protecting the human family from the violence of the elements. The elm is nature's "domestic tree" (line 18); its "homely bower" (line 21) attracts children, who build "playhouse rings of sticks and stone" (line 24) under its protective branches. Social psychologist M. Kirkby has researched the attraction of children to the canopies of trees, which provide a kind of refuge associated with the safety of a home environment (1-12). Indeed, Clare's pun on the word homely—with connotations of simplicity and the domestic—connects the elm in an intimate way with the poet's own cottage, so that tree and home become inextricably associated. The loss of the tree, Clare suggests, is intensely personal, a "domestic" loss—a death in the family.
Part of the tree's power is its tough longevity—it is the "sacred dower" of "time" (line 17) (again, one is reminded of Keats and his Grecian urn, the "bride" of "time"). Children play under its branches, and their games establish an associative link between comfort, the domestic, and nature. Such games—tree-climbing and apple gathering—perhaps domesticate nature on one level, but they also expand human zones of intimacy to include "wild" spaces. Early childhood exploration can lead to an almost sacramental relationship with particular locales, so that these locales gain the coloring of personality, heavily invested with an individual's history. A visit to a loved spot (like Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey," to give but one example) can become a kind of ritual, an opportunity for self-reflection. The seeming permanence of the tree enables the poet to form a specific and intimate bond—one steeped in his family's continuous history. The elm is "steadfast to [its] home" (line 20), taking a kind of ownership over the humans living under it, even as the humans take a kind of affectionate ownership over it. Its destruction thus makes Clare's own family more vulnerable. As Jonathan Bate writes, "the elm tree is a temporal as well as a spatial landmark [for Clare]. Because it was there when he was a boy, it guarantees the continuity of his own life" (174-175). Clare's sense of loss at the felling of the tree is related to the intimacy of place; the elm provides a "seasoned comfort," which implies its benefits are not ephemeral (they remain, even with the passing of seasons); these comforts also add a "seasoning" or texture to cottage life. The tree, in other words, is inextricably linked to the poet's conception of home—the cottage, the immediate fields, the Helpston parish. As is typical with Clare, there are no discrete boundaries between these different domestic spheres: They are all homes. Clare's sense of the domestic extends beyond legal ownership; after all, to love is to own, and to be owned. The very act of poetic composition is an assertion of tenancy and proprietorship—even of the fields themselves.
While twentieth-century Americans might be tenuously attached to particular landscapes—feeling, for instance, a generalized but vaguely nebulous affection for the Missouri Ozarks or Glacier National Park—it is much easier to feel an intimate connection with a very particular local spot, or, even more specifically, a landmark, like a tree, a rock outcropping, a stretch of lakeshore. In looking at "The Fallen Elm" in class, an instructor will find it useful to have students inventory the "domestic" images occurring throughout the opening half of the poem. Following Bate's suggestion in The Song of the Earth on how to read and understand "The Fallen Elm," students might be given a brief handout with quotes from Gaston Bachelard's evocative book The Poetics of Space, a philosophical study that explores how places become personally significant—invested with intimacy—to human beings. A discussion of the "poetics of space," in Gaston Bachelard's words, leads to an analysis of how landmarks become invested with personal history—how "a tree" becomes "the tree," and even "our tree." Exploring selections from Poetics in conjunction with "The Fallen Elm," students can be encouraged to look at the term "home" in its broadest definitions to see how particular places can become so important to people. Questions about the relationship one has with one's yard (and the trees in it!), the neighborhood stream, even a city and its landmarks, can help shed light on Clare's anger about enclosure.
Class discussions can also center around the relationship between place and the workings of the imagination. Natural landmarks, like Clare's elm, become associated with a sense of self, the psyche, even the powers of the imagination (a set of concerns common to Romantic poetry in general). Bachelard writes that beloved dwelling-places—from the house to the shell, to the tree—are all suggestive of protection. Such spaces are conducive to the play of the imagination. The "subtle shadings of our attachment for a chosen spot" reflect how "we inhabit our vital space...how we take root, day after day, in a 'corner of the world'" (emphasis added, 4). These spaces, Bachelard argues, form how one views oneself in relation to the larger world, providing space for the oneiric, the provision to dream. Like a tree, Bachelard suggests, humans must be rooted to fully engage this oneiric capacity, so closely linked to conceptions of intimacy and community. Within this framework, the removal of a tree involves a destruction of "vital space" that encourages creativity—a linkage that Clare himself explores in other poems. Seen in this light, enclosure destroys the landscape and the poet. In this set of associations, the destruction of the elm is also a murder of the human capacity to imagine and to create.
The significance of trees extends beyond the personal, or even—as in the case of "The Fallen Elm"—the familial; during a discussion of Clare's poem, students will quickly name off famous trees, some hundreds of years old, and many that have tremendous cultural significance. Indeed, almost every town has such a landmark tree around which the community imaginatively anchors itself. Invariably, these trees are linked to events in human history (battles, hangings, treaty signings), and they act as living validators or witnesses of commonly agreed-upon versions of the past. We see just such a living landmark in Clare's poem "Langley Bush," which describes a tree whose "trunk is nearly rotten through" but that still evokes memories of "Langley Court" (lines 16, 7), an informal kind of courtroom held under the tree's branches. Here, Clare makes an explicit connection between a tree and judicial proceedings, suggesting that the rule of law—and justice—are tied to the preservation of the land. Unfortunately, Langley Bush was chopped down, much to Clare's regret: the "old white thorn . . . had stood . . . full of fame . . . the Gipseys Shepherds and Herd men all had their tales of its history and it will be long ere its memory is forgotten" (By Himself 179). Clare here suggests that trees like Langley Bush, and indeed, groves and forests, belong not just to those who own them legally, but to everyone, including—and perhaps especially—the rural poor. In his late poem, "London Versus Epping Forest," the woods become a place of freedom. Walking through the forest, Clare muses, "I could not bear to see the tearing plough / Root up and steal the forest from the poor, / But leave to freedom all she loves untamed / The forest walk enjoyed and loved by all" (lines 11-14). John Goodridge and Kelsey Thornton have linked Clare's trespass into the heavily-wooded Burghley Park—where he first read Thomson's The Seasons—with freedom, imaginative play, and the composition of poetry: "It was a kind of Paradise for him, representing pastoral poetry, inspiration, nature, and the pleasurable" (91).
In addition to being catalysts for individual creativity, trees also are linked to the formation of community identity. Kit Anderson has explored the cultural significance of woods and "big old trees," showing how "charismatic megaflora" are "active participants in the ongoing creation of places and landscapes" (149):
Over time, as trees acquire symbolic meanings, even their images have power. Like all good symbols, trees are multivocal, giving them depth and endurance in human societies... The live oaks of Louisiana, so closely tied to plantation culture, turn out to have a much more complex and varied significance to people living with them today. The "sacred tree of the Maya" still has an aura of mystery, but its protection in modern Guatemala is often linked to its legal status as the national tree. Depending on where they grow and how they are presented to members of society, these trees can become integral to notions of home, nationality, ruling powers, ethnic identity, or region. (150)
In exploring "big old trees" like ceibas and live oaks, Anderson shows how it is a short step from viewing trees symbolically (in one view, potentially, a victim of human categories and metaphors) to granting them a kind of autonomy, worthy of an ethical stance typically only accorded to sentient beings. In "The Fallen Elm," the tree has achieved this state of discrete being, and Clare recognizes its right to exist, independent of human valuations. As a being worthy of ethical consideration, the tree's qualities—its willingness to give protection, its strength—cannot be taken for granted. The protection is bestowed, not accidentally given (by virtue of the elm's immobility). In a sense, Clare's tree becomes active in the lives of the humans (thus, it assumes in a discrete way a kind of ethical relation towards them)—it is a "domestic tree," and this fact adds force to Clare's anger in the second part of the poem. In short, the tree is not merely a victim of human avarice, it is betrayed.
The destruction of the elm tree is linked to the enclosure of the common lands. Even as the tree must be cut down for profit, the landscape must be parceled out and figuratively chopped up (literally "cut" by the plough). In "Remembrances," Clare imagines enclosure changing the face of the landscape so that it becomes almost unrecognizable to him: "Enclosure like a Bonaparte let not a thing remain, / It levelled every bush and tree" (67-68). In "Lament of Swordy Well," the landscape is eviscerated: "When grain got high the tasteless tykes / Grubbed up trees, banks and brushes" (59-60). In The Natural History of Selborne, Gilbert White describes the role trees play in "dispens[ing] their kindly never-ceasing moisture." Trees "imbibe a great quantity" of water, which, when released, "contribute[s] much to pools and streams" (147). The chopping down or "grubbing" of trees is prominent in Clare's enclosure poems, and, following White's lead, Clare shows that the removal of vegetation in "Lament" is linked to the desertification of the commons—the land itself, so torn up, is barely able to "bid a mouse to thrive" (154). Clare shows that more is at stake in "The Fallen Elm" than the loss of a single tree. Indeed, the idea of home can be expanded to include the entire Helpston parish, enclosed during the poet's twenties and finally made strange to him, a landscape "All levelled like a desert by the never-weary plough, / All banished like the sun where that cloud is passing now" ("Remembrances," lines 48-49).
II. The Elm's Betrayal and the Rhetoric of Freedom
Whereas the first part of "The Fallen Elm" dwells elegiacally on the tree's strength, longevity, and domesticity, the second part is a denouncement of how it is "betrayed" by the men who cut it down (line 28); appropriately, the tone of the poem changes from gentle affection to righteous anger. The nature of the elm's betrayal is complex. The men who take shelter from the elements under the tree's limbs are the same ones who want to see it chopped down: after all, the tree's size and age (and hence its ability to protect) make it profitable lumber. This betrayal—so shocking for its ingratitude—is made possible by the enclosers' "cant" (line 35), a type of shifty language that employs the rhetoric of freedom to linguistically reverse ideas of right and wrong:
Self-interest saw thee stand in freedom's ways,
So thy old shadow must a tyrant be;
Thou'st heard the knave abusing those in power,
Bawl freedom loud and then oppress the free;
Thou'st sheltered hypocrites in many a shower
That when in power would never shelter thee;
Thou'st heard the knave supply his canting powers
With wrong's illusions when he wanted friends,
That bawled for shelter when he lived in showers
And when clouds vanished made thy shade amends—
With axe at root he felled thee to the ground
And barked of freedom. O I hate the sound! (lines 39-50)
Here, the rhetoric of freedom used by the proponents of enclosure turns Clare's elm into a "tyrant," and the shade that had previously been protective becomes a threat. Even as a bee might be seen as a thief of pollen, or a weed a thief of water and fertilizer, the elm is here reconfigured as a transgressor, one that stands in the way of more efficient agricultural production. Its boughs intercept the sunlight meant for crops; its roots hold together the soil that must be cut by the plough.
The rhetoric of freedom "barked" by the enclosers (line 50) reconfigures Clare's elm, then, from a friendly "domestic tree" into a hindrance to economic progress. Clare's denunciation of the enclosers includes a strong critique of how language can be twisted to forward a repressive social agenda. "Freedom," in this case, is narrowly defined by "self-interest" and is closely tied to the rights of private (rather than communal) ownership. The tree's right to exist—and Clare's right to enjoy the tree's protection, as well as its fruit—is legally insignificant in the face of private property rights codified by parliamentary enclosure. However, Clare's poem demonstrates that this definition of freedom is in fact a kind of verbal legerdemain (based on "illusions") "bawled" by "hypocrites," "knave[s]," and "o'erbearing fools" (lines 46, 47, 43, 41, 55), who take advantage of an abstract word like "freedom" to pursue their exploitative agenda. The ancientness of the elm is contrasted to the short-term economic interests. A "disciple unto time" (line 48), the tree is a living reminder of the power of customary rights threatened by enclosure and the privatization of agricultural production. Clare reminds his reader that the elm's removal is symbolically linked to the destruction of the common lands and, by extension, the freedom of the rural poor to earn their customary subsistence livings. By exposing the enclosers "freedom" for what it really is, Clare shows that it is a "cant term of enslaving tools / To wrong another by the name of right" (lines 53-54).
Tim Fulford argues that Clare's elm—like William Cowper's Yardley Oak—is a powerful symbol of the English constitution: ancient, vital, and "capable of gradual change as a growth of English soil" (para. 1). As Cowper's "Yardley Oak" shows, such trees are powerfully evocative of English freedom—in contrast to perceived French despotism—and they are suggestive of English identity (and, for Cowper, personal identity as well). Located within a landscape itself pregnant with meaning, landmarks like Yardley Oak speak the "language of redemption," and Cowper mourns the "[d]estruction of rural beauty," a destruction that "threatens...selfhood." This loss is "not just of a place of security but of the very ground on which its ability to discover a language of redemption depends. To lose a familiar and therefore meaningful landscape is also to lose a saving language," a language emerging from natural forms and connected to freedom itself (para. 6). For Cowper, the destruction of landscape "becomes an exemplification that occurs when all linguistic sources of moral reparation have been destroyed" (para. 11). Fulford points out that Clare's "Fallen Elm" is a "narrative of imprisonment" (para. 15), in which the loss of the tree is a loss of a "selfmark" (para. 14)—a loss of the poet's connection to the land (and its national history) as well as his own personal identity. "Trapped in corrupted languages" (para. 15)—in the usurping, counterfeiting rhetoric of freedom and enclosure—Clare's is "a kind of poetry in which language is left on the point of breakdown and the poet at the end of madness rather than one of sublime egotism" (para. 16).
While the tree itself is felled, the image of the tree—reconstructed in Clare's poem—continues to assert its power as a symbol of common rights. Appropriately, this power extends beyond human language to one more universal, a language linked to the natural world and not legalistic jargon or "cant." A friend to both the mavis and the poet, the elm "owned a language by which hearts are stirred / Deeper than by a feeling clothed in word" (lines 31-32). The music of the elm—the sound of strong winds as they blow through its limbs—overpowers even Clare's ability to describe it: This language is an "anthem" (line 2) to Clare—a song filled with significance and emotion. The "comforts" the tree provides "was never penned" (line 14), indicating that they can't be captured (or "clothed," or enclosed) in words but also, perhaps, that they are so widely known that they don't need to be. Like the English constitution itself, unwritten but nevertheless providing tangible benefits to all citizens, these comforts are to be enjoyed as rights: not as "clothes," or adornments, but positive, tangible facts. It is no mistake that Clare links these customary rights to music. A fiddler himself, Clare understood well the role of music at community gatherings, where folk songs—passed down through generations—underscored the vital continuity of local traditions, given freely as an inheritance, like the common lands themselves.
Clare adeptly critiques the rhetoric of freedom in the second half of "The Fallen Elm," and he displays a sophisticated understanding of the relationship between language and power. In contrast to the "music-making elm," which speaks of comfort and freedom, the cant of the enclosers is brash and enslaving:
Thus came enclosure—ruin was its guide
But freedom's clapping hands enjoyed the sight
Though comfort's cottage soon was thrust aside
And workhouse prisons raised upon the site.
E'en nature's dwellings far away from men—
The common heath—became the spoiler's prey.
. . .
No matter—wrong was right and right was wrong
And freedom's bawl was sanction to the song.
. . .
As thou wert served, so would they overwhelm
In freedom's name the little that is mine.
And there are knaves that brawl for better laws
And cant of tyranny in stronger powers
Who glut their vile unsatiated maws
And freedom's birthright from the weak devours.
(lines 57-62, 65-66, 69-74)
While the elm "murmurs" comfort and reassurance, the enclosers offer only noise—they come with "clapping hands," and "bawl" for freedom. Clare is so effective here in evoking the din of the "bawl" accompanying these men that they seem to become little more than mouths (not unlike John Milton's "blind mouths" in "Lycidas"?)—"vile unsatiated maws." They literally eat up the "birthright" of the rural poor, "freedom," which is so closely linked to access to the commons. Such access was crucial, since the common lands were used for raising crops, grazing livestock, and foraging (nutritious foodstuffs, as well as herbs for folk medicines). With restricted access to such lands, Clare shows that his neighbors will literally eat less. The elm tree, the most visible guardian of these freedoms, is only an initial sacrifice.
Once the tree has gone, the cottage must go next; in its place will come the workhouse, the erection of which will complete the disenfranchisement of the Helpston locals. Of the workhouse itself, little needs be said. In 1844, Friedrich Engels writes that "these workhouses, or as the people call them, Poor Law Bastilles, is such as to frighten away everyone who has the slightest prospect of life without this form of public charity." They are the "most repulsive residence which the refined ingenuity of a Malthusian can invent," not much different than a "jail," and perhaps worse (284). Clare's writings make similar comparisons between workhouses and the loss of freedom. A victim of enclosure, the personified wetland Swordy Well "speaks for all who have been forced 'onto the parish'" (Lucas 38) and into "Pride's workhouse" ("Lament" line 77). The "workhouse prisons" in "The Fallen Elm" replace the open fields where (in another poem) "unbounded freedom ruled the wandering scene" ("The Moors" line 7). The image of the "domestic tree"—linked in the first half of Clare's poem to the comforts of home as well as the beneficence of nature—is displaced by an institutional dwelling place most undomestic, where husbands and wives could be separated from each other and, in some cases, children could be separated from parents. The cant of freedom, used by the enclosers in the second half of "The Fallen Elm" is instrumental, Clare asserts, in enslaving the poor. In demanding their right to own and use private property without restriction, these men overturn the inherited rights of the rural laboring class to common lands, which are "starving, exhausted and overworked" like the workers themselves (Sales 57).
In the end, Clare's poem becomes a linguistic assertion denying the enclosers a complete victory: the elm figuratively remains. In class discussions, students might be asked what Clare is trying to suggest about the power of his poetry versus the rhetoric of freedom he denounces. It is intriguing that Clare emphasizes the binary oppositions such rhetoric seeks to deploy (as in George Orwell's 1984): right becomes wrong, and wrong becomes right; freedom becomes slavery, and vice versa. The instructor who is not afraid of inviting controversy might push the issue to explore how contemporary world events—the economic politics of globalization, for instance—involve the manipulation of language to achieve unjust ends. What exactly is "free trade," and whom does it make more free? What is the relationship of free markets to the impoverishment of Third World nations? What comparisons can be drawn between the agricultural revolution in Clare's time and the "Green Revolution" of the 1960s and 1970s? While these questions might be a little open-ended, they enable students to make connections between Clare's own seemingly distant set of concerns and pressing issues of the contemporary moment.
John Clare writes, "[A]ll my favourite places have met with misfortunes" (By Himself 41). These loved spots—known by the poet since boyhood—have incalculable value; their enclosure heralds the destruction of traditional ways of life and of community history and identity (not to mention individual personal identity). Home and self, Clare suggests, are one and the same thing; remove birds, weeds, and butterflies "from their homes / Each beautious thing a withered thought becomes, / Association fades and like a dream; / They are but shadows of the things they seem" (lines 147-150). The loss of the elm tree is a highly personal one to Clare; once venerable, it becomes expendable in the face of so-called progress. However, Clare's poem exposes the rhetoric of those who would chop down the elm tree as hollow cant. The freedom they claim to champion is in fact little more than outright theft, an appropriation of the land and language (and, therefore, a type of counterfeiting). Their "right" to chop down the elm tramples on the rights of the tree (which Clare asserts as legitimate), as well as the right of the poet's family to survive, since the tree provided protection and comfort to them. The destruction of the elm—and the enclosure of the Helpston landscape—thus becomes analogous to an attack on the laborers and denizens of the town, and the "freedom" of the wealthy landowners derives from the enslavement of the rural poor.
Postscript on the Rhetoric of Freedom
Clare's denouncement of the rhetoric of freedom still has much relevance to the contemporary environmental movement, and "The Fallen Elm" is valuable in the classroom as a starting point to explore how language can be used to frame the debate between "developers," "conservationists," and "preservationists." The enclosers in Clare's poem "bawl" freedom in the service of agricultural "development," though Clare himself describes freedom in terms of preservation—keeping the common lands unenclosed and available for the rural poor to use. Clare's use of the term is bound up in several assumptions: that freedom is related to the land itself (not simply codified by written laws); that everyone has the right to access this land to earn a livelihood; that the privitization of land leads to social inequality, even slavery (here Clare follows Rousseau).
- The rhetoric of freedom is still important today in framing the debate about how public and private lands can be developed and utilized. In the 1980s and '90s, in the United States, proponents of the "wise use" movement employed the idea of "freedom" to combat perceived government over-regulation of economic development; along these same lines, "wise use" advocates attempted to portray environmental legislation (and environmentalists themselves!) as anti-democratic, even anti-American. To give but one example, the website Freedom.org provides a fascinating study in "wise use" ideology, rhetorically similar to the "cant" of Clare's enclosers (who equate privatization with freedom and common ownership with slavery). One news release promotes "Freedom Week" (beginning July 4th, 1998) and asserts that government regulation of public and private lands is "transforming America from the 'land of the free' to the home of the enslaved" ("Freedom Week Backgrounder"). In order to maintain freedom, this document asserts, the rights of private ownership must be strictly defended. Using terms every bit as confrontational as Clare's enclosers, the "Freedom Week" document refers to the "enemy" as those who hold values of "sustainability," which have "pushed aside the principles of personal responsibility and individual freedom." The idea that "[l]and, and the resources it contains, are assets held in common by all people" is "the enemy," as are "public policies such as the Endangered Species Act, [and] the Ecosystem Management policy." "Freedom Week," the document asserts, is a "coordinated strategic offensive" (a kind of ideological pre-emptive strike, one wonders?) to dismantle the concept of "sustainable development, or 'biodiversity enhancement'"—to assert the rights of private ownership, even when the broader public welfare is at risk.
For Further Reading, see also:
- Jonathan Bate's John Clare: A biography (Farrar, Straus, Giroux), a well-researched and sensitive account of the poet's life.
- "The Ecological Vision of John Clare" in James McKusick's Green Writing (St. Martins)
- John Clare in Context (Cambridge), a volume of Clare essays edited by Hugh Haughton, Adam Phillips, and Geoffrey Summerfield
- The John Clare webpage, edited by Simon Kovesi, at <www.johnclare.info>.
- John Clare Society Webpage, at<www.johnclare.org.uk>
- The John Clare weblog, at <www.johnclare.blogspot.com>
Anderson, Kit. Nature, Culture, & Big Old Trees: Live Oaks and Ceibas in the Landscapes of Louisiana and Guatemala. Austin: U of Texas P, 2003.
Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Boston: Beacon, 1968.
Bate, Jonathan. The Song of the Earth. Harvard: Harvard UP, 2000.
Barrell, John. The Idea of Landscape and the Sense of Place 1730-1840: An Approach to the Poetry of John Clare. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1972.
Brownlow, Timothy. John Clare and the Picturesque Landscape. Oxford: Clarendon, 1983.
Clare, John. "I Am," The Selected Poetry of John Clare. Ed. Jonathan Bate. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2003.
---. John Clare By Himself. Ed. Eric Robinson and David Powell. New York: Routledge, 2002.
---. The Letters of John Clare. Ed. J. W. and Anne Tibble. London: Routledge, 1951.
Engels, Friedrich. The Conditions of the Working Class in England. New York: Viking Penguin, 1987.
"Freedom Week Backgrounder." 10 Oct. 2004. <http://www.freedom.org/fweek>.
Fulford, Tim. "Cowper, Wordsworth, Clare: The Politics of Trees." The John Clare Society Journal 14 (1995). <http://human.ntu.uk/clare/fulford.html>.
Goodridge, John and Kelsey Thornton. "John Clare: the Trespasser." John Clare in Context. Eds. Hugh Haughton, Adam Phillips, Geoffrey Summerfield. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994.
Kirkby, M. "Nature as Refuge in Children's Environments." Children's Environments Quarterly 6 (1989): 1-12.
Lucas, John. John Clare. Plymouth: Northcote, 1994.
McKusick, James. Green Writing. New York: St. Martins, 2000.
Sales, Roger. John Clare: A Literary Life. New York: Palgrave, 2002.
Storey, Edward. A Right to Song: The Life of John Clare. London: Methuen, 1982.
White, Gilbert. The Natural History of Selborne. Ed. W. S. Scott. London: Folio Society, 1962.