In the cowslip pips I lie,
Hidden from the buzzing fly,
While green grass beneath me lies,
Pearled with dew like fishes' eyes,
Here I lie, a clock-o'-clay,
Waiting for the time o' day.
While the forest quakes surprise,
And the wild wind sobs and sighs,
My home rocks as like to fall,
On its pillar green and tall;
When the pattering rain drives by
Clock-o'-clay keeps warm and dry.
Day by day and night by night,
All the week I hide from sight;
In the cowslip pips I lie,
In the rain still warm and dry;
Day and night and night and day,
Red, black-spotted clock-o'-clay.
My home shakes in wind and showers,
Pale green pillar topped with flowers,
Bending at the wild wind's breath,
Till I touch the grass beneath;
Here I live, lone clock-o'-clay,
Watching for the time of day.
'Clock-o-clay' was an ancient local name for the ladybird and alluded to the idea you could tell the time by how long she would sit on your hand. More than that we no longer know.
In 2017 BBC Radio 4's In Our Time(1) explored John Clare's life and work and journalist Helen Nianias later shared some interesting thoughts on the programme:
'The first thing you’ll notice from Clare’s work – written in the 1800s and rich in Northamptonshire dialect – is how homogenised our language has become. The internet has trained us to think in memes and talk in slogans. Regional dialect has long been ridiculed. Clare’s combination of local dialect and homemade words adds an element of surprise to his poetry, sparking and exciting the imagination, particularly for someone unfamiliar with it: his lyrics tingle with fresh new experiences.“Clock-o’-clay” is a ladybird; “gulsh” the noise to describe the sound of a tree falling; the word “crumping” describes the sound a foot makes on fresh snow (a John Clare original); “prog” means to prod... So intimate was Clare with every tree, bush, practically every blade of grass in and around his village of Helpston, that he was able to create work that nobody else could have – even if they’d wanted to. Other poets such as John Keats would have overlooked the ragwort in a field, but Clare was watching and making notes.'(2)
In John Clare's day the fields and lanes between Helpston and Stamford were heavy with the honey-scent of cowslips at this time of year. Agricultural herbicides have long since decimated the pretty native flower, but here and there you can spot golden patches on roadside verges and it still thrives in Barnack's Hills and Hollows. A walk there on a warm, still May evening is a bitter-sweet reminder of one of the lost delights of springtime.
SOURCES AND ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
(1) 'John Clare', In Our Time © British Broadcasting Corporation, 2017
(2) 'What John Clare's Poetry Can Teach Us About Nature' by Helen Nianias © British Broadcasting Corporation, 2017