‘The Shepherd’s Calendar’ is a set of pastoral poems from the early 1800s (it was first published in 1824) written by John Clare, a native of Helpston, near Peterborough in the English East Midlands. There is one poem for each month, varying in length from six to twenty pages, written mostly in rhyming couplets. Clare describes the weather and landscape for each month of the year and then gives a series of vignettes about animal, human and agricultural life in the month in question.
Clare was a keep observer of landscape, flora and fauna and had a knack for apt comparisons that makes his poetry particularly vivid. The East Midlands rural dialect comes through clearly, but to me, this just adds to the charm. I particularly enjoyed some of the archaic words he uses – one of the reasons I enjoy traditional folk songs too.
If you need a break from the sort of poetry that goes to great lengths to describe the details of the poet’s emotions, and you’re looking for something that focusses on the outer world instead, you will enjoy this book. I expect that fans of Robert Frost and Wendell Berry might find a kindred spirit in John Clare too.
One warning, though – Clare uses very little punctuation, and this can make it difficult at times to figure out where sentences begin and end. I found I needed to pay careful attention to this, otherwise the images kept washing over me like a flood until they overwhelmed me. I found it helpful to read with a pencil in hand, so that I could place a mark where I thought each sentence ended.
John Clare was born in 1793 and died in 1864. He struggled with mental illness and spent many years living in an asylum. Goodreads has this to say about him:
John Clare was an English poet, in his time commonly known as “the Northamptonshire Peasant Poet”, born the son of a farm labourer at Helpston (which, at the time of his birth, was in the Soke of Peterborough, which itself was part of Northamptonshire) near Peterborough. His poetry underwent a major re-evaluation in the late 20th century and he is often now considered to be one of the most important 19th-century poets.
For more information about him, see this Wikipedia page.