From rap-tapping to tootling: hearing nature in John Clare’s words
Born on the 13th of July, 1793, John Clare is noted for his nature poetry and for his lyrical descriptions of the English countryside and rural life. The son of a farm labourer, he was heralded in his day as a ‘peasant poet’, and his writings reflect a period of great change in Britain – from a predominantly agricultural country to an industrial nation. Clare witnessed with a heavy heart the enclosure of England’s countryside, the process by which common lands became private property in the name of social and economic process. There is a sorrowful sense in which Clare’s was a dying poetic voice.
Because of his role as a nature poetic, it’s to be expected that Clare’s many contributions to the Oxford English Dictionary should include countless dialect words. He is currently quoted as the earliest example of the word ‘’, an apparently derisive term for a country dweller, not unlike ‘’, and which stems from the meaning ‘one who gathers straw’ – it is not a term that Clare is likely to have coined, but he might well have been one of the first to write it down. He probably was, though, the inventor of ‘’, an adjective he uses on multiple occasions to describe areas of lawn or field with a great many – you guessed it – molehills. He also provides early examples for ‘’, a dialect word meaning to nibble or peck, ‘’, apparently meaning the kind of smile you might do whilst squinting, and ‘’, a dialect term for bashfulness or shyness. The first example of the verb ‘’, as in ‘to plop oneself down’, is taken from his poetry volume Village Minstrel, and he is first example of the word ‘’, used as an alternative to ‘toddle’ and meaning to walk with slow and unsteady steps.
Clare is quoted in examples of two now-common seasonal terms: ‘’ and ‘’. He writes in 1821 of a young man journeying ‘To meet the sun-tann’d lass he dearly loves’, and in 1827, in The Shepherd’s Calendar, of a schoolboy whom:
‘Is never at a loss for play
Making rude forms of various names,
Snow-men, or aught his fancy frames’
Clare’s Village Minstrel again provides a first example cited in the OED, this time for the adjective ‘’, a word that describes something that is making a ‘rap-tapping’ noise (the verb and noun forms of the word are older). Here, it is a drum: ‘The tuteling fife, and hoarse rap-tapping drum’. Clare was a committed advocate of , words that, when spoken, sound like the phenomena they attempt to describe, and the rolling rhythm of ‘rap-tapping’ makes it a fitting usage for a poet. Clare is also cited as an early variation of the imitative word ‘’, a squealing noise that sounds like a bird’s call, but he also used the similar sounding ‘’ to give a sense of a rook’s cry, which appears to be an original contribution to the dictionary. Indeed, it is tempting to imagine that Clare heard each creature in the wild differently – he is cited by the OED as an example of ‘’, which he uses for sparrow song, ‘’ for crickets, and ‘’ for the song of a robin. The latter Clare uses in both Poems of Descriptive of Rural Life and The Shepherd’s Calendar: ‘When tootling robins carol-welcomes sing’, and ‘To hear the robin’s note once more, Who tootles while he pecks his meal’.
Indeed, sound might be one of the most important and original aspects of Clare’s use of language. He didn’t just want his reader to see the countryside as he saw it, but he wanted them to hear it with their own ears. It seems appropriate to close by letting this aspect of Clare’s writing speak for itself. Here is his ‘Pleasant Sounds’, which was actually set out in his notebooks as prose:
The rustling of leaves under the feet in woods and under hedges.
The crumping of cat-ice and snow down wood rides, narrow lanes
and every street causeways. Rustling through a wood, or rather
rushing while the wind hallows in the oak tops like thunder. The
rustles of birds wings startled from their nests, or flying unseen into
The whizzing of larger birds over head in a wood, such as crows,
puddocks, buzzards &
The trample of roburst wood larks on the brown leaves, and the
patter of Squirrels on the green moss The fall of an acorn on the
ground, the pattering of nuts on the hazel branches, ere they fall
from ripeness. The flirt of the ground-larks wing from the stubbles,
how sweet such pictures on dewy mornings when the dew flashes
from its brown feathers.
(Manuscript version from The Natural History Prose Writings of John Clare, ed. Margaret Grainger. Oxford University Press, 1983)