O For a pleasant book to cheat the sway
Of winter – where rich mirth with hearty laugh
Listens and rubs his legs on a corner seat
For fields are mire and sludge – and badly off
Are those who on their pudgy paths delay
There striding shepherd seeking driest way
Fearing night’s wetshod feet and hacking cough
That keeps him waken till the peep of day
Goes shouldering onward and with ready hook
Progs oft to ford the sloughs that nearly meet
Across the lands – croodling and thin to view
His loath dog follows – stops and quakes and looks
For better roads – till whistled to pursue
Then on with frequent jump he hirkles through
Clare paints a classic English winter scene here – not the snow covered landscape, but a sodden one, perhaps between snows, or perhaps one like we’re having at the moment, continually swept by the winds and rains of the Atlantic. There’s something else classically English about the poem – the protagonists are man and dog. Every wandering rogue in Thomas Bewick’s woodcuts seems to have a canine companion, and so do many of the farm workers in Clare’s work. I’ve noted before the affinity between the works of these two men – both sought to capture the countryside in naturalistic detail, with warmth, humour and the observant eye of a countryman.
The concerns of the shepherd in the poem are both mundane, the stuff of everyday, and life or death – those ‘wetshod feet’ and that ‘hacking’ cough may sound like prosaic concerns, but they could also lead to the grave and he is right to fear them. Clare’s characters are neither grand Byronic gentlemen bestriding the world, nor Wordsworthian poet-protagonists surveying an inspiring landscape, but rather normal people making a living in the countryside. The shepherd, nevertheless, displays a kind of staunch, matter of fact resilience in the face of a bleak landscape. This provides a counterweight to other poems of Clare’s where the carefree joys of spring and summer are suddenly beset with blasts of despair.
I always enjoy the language in Clare, and this poem includes some lovely English dialect words. ‘Prog’ is easy enough to figure out – it means prod, or prong, or some kind of action in between, but the more guttural last consonant captures better the sound of wood poking wet mud. Then there is that ‘croodling’ dog. To croodle is to ‘shrink from cold’, and it has in it something of the word ‘cringe’, something of the word ‘huddle’ – although the dog has nothing to huddle against, something of the word ‘cold’, as if slurred through shivering lips, and an ‘ooh’ sound of a person or creature complaining of the cold. Of course, this sort of association has nothing to do with the kind of clever-clever word blending we groused about last post, but is something that comes through the natural formation of words with related sounds and meanings – for all we know ‘croodle’ may have been in use in Clare’s Northamptonshire for as long or longer than ‘cringe’ or ‘cold’. A last example is the word ‘hirkle’, a word to describe the dog’s leaping movement back to his master’s side, and which seems to encompass ‘hearken’, ‘hurtle’ and ‘hurdle’
I’m hirkling off myself now, anyway, to read a pleasant book to cheat the sway of winter.