Environmental engagement student case study 3: Helpston 2010
Patrick Hodge, Oxford Brookes University, English
As a group of twelve, my Romantic Ecology classmates and I visited the home of Romantic poet John Clare, Helpston, on “the brink of the Lincolnshire fens,” as he described it. Our aim was to take the classroom outside, to the very Roman quarry whereupon Clare feels the private sufferings of the land. We travelled up by bus – a mutually agreed (relatively) ecologically-friendly mode of transport – and spent a blustery November day re-tracing the proto-ecological poet’s footsteps through the village and the surrounding countryside. We visited his cottage, his grave, the now nature reserve at Swaddywell Pit (subject of his poem, ‘The Lament of Swordy Well’) and perhaps equally appropriately – the local pub.
How it enhanced your learning and/or how your university studies affected your visit experience
A flock of dark-brown sheep looked on sullenly as sheep-skin Ugg boots were splashed as we trudged into the field. Heads bowed against the stiff wind, we skirted past the crash of the stone merchants and towards the Swaddywell Pit. We had read John Clare’s ‘Lament of Swordy Well’ both in class and back at Clare’s cottage-museum earlier on that day and the words of the prosopopoeic poem maintained a powerful effect on us all as we entered the nature reserve. Critic John Barrell has described the piece as “a dramatic monologue…spoken not by the genius of the place but by the place itself” (Barrell, p. 116) and reading the poem aloud as a group, perched on a cold chunk of limestone had an almost ritualistic feeling about it. Reading the land’s words nearly two hundred years later had a peculiar resonance, and despite our discussion of the anthropomorphising of the habitat, reading the final stanza as the yellow quarry trucks rolled by was extremely poignant. Capturing the destructive nature of the “stone pits’ delving holes” the persona of the poem, the land itself, speculates that in time its name alone will be “the whole that’s left of Swordy Well”—read today, these lines have an equally sobering impact as they would have had to Clare himself. Grasping at the meadow grasses, rushes and ferns transported us into Clare’s locality – the richness of detail was there for us to see, and ourselves celebrate. While the poet’s lamentations of “vile enclosure” may seem somewhat extraneous in today’s society, the deeply ecological core message is impelling when considered in relation to current environmental conditions.
Barrell, John, The Idea of Landscape and the Sense of Place, 1730-1840: an Approach to the Poetry of John Clare, (CUP, 1972).
Clare, John, Major Works, Eric Robinson (ed.), (Oxford World’s Classics, 2008).