The John Clare Plaque in Poet's Corner

At last Clare has received a highly significant symbol of the recognition he deserves for his contribution to the nation's poetic heritage - significant not least because many thousands of tourists from all over the world pass through this famous corner of the Abbey. Some who did not know Clare are bound to go away and enquire further. Clare visited Poets' Corner himself in early March 1820 (before he married Martha Turner in Gt Casterton, March 16th., 1820) after publication of Poems Descriptive on Jan. 16th. had made him famous almost overnight. What were his thoughts and feelings?  His reference to the visit in his autobiography amounts only to a bare mention (cf Autobiographical Writings, Ed. Robinson, OUP 1986, p130).

June 13th was one of the hottest days of a long heatwave and London was sweltering as one of the largest crowds the Abbey staff have seen attending such a dedication service assembled outside the Great West Door. It must have been around 90 degrees outside and we were glad to file into the relative cool of the Abbey, down the Nave past the memorial to Winston Churchill, past the nearby grave of the Unknown -Warrior, on to Poets' Corner.

Our great number and the small, awkward shape of Poets' Corner meant some did not see all of the proceedings. They began with the Dean leading the Collegiate Body in. Christopher Seal, new vicar of Helpston, was included in the procession. Michael Mayne, the Dean, gave by way of introduction a short account of how Clare came to take his place among the nation's most famous poets, then we sang Clare's hymn 'A stranger once did bless the earth'.

It was a very moving service in which Charles Causley read his poem ‘At the grave of John Clare’, followed by Ronald Blythe giving The Address, after which Ted Hughes, Poet Laureate, unveiled the memorial plaque and the two John Clare School pupils, Edward Vaughan (10) and Suzanne Oxbury (9), laid posies of wild flowers in front of it which had been gathered in Helpston by Daphne Faux the day before. Ted Hughes read Clare's 'The Nightingale's Nest' then Ronald Blythe formally requested:

'I ask you, Mr Dean, to receive into the safe custody of the Dean and Chapter, here in Poets' Corner, this Memorial Stone in honour of John Clare.'  At this point the Dean led us in prayer.

Now that Clare's memorial plaque was formally installed we all sat for the reading of a sequence of Clare's poems. Eric Robinson read: 'To John Clare', 'A Spring Morning',  'I hid my love when young' and 'A sea-boy on a giddy mast'. Then Edward Storey read: 'I am', 'A Vision', 'The Peasant Poet' and 'Song's Eternity'. Both readers gave of their best and it was a stirring experience. These powerful readings were followed by Martin Neary, Organist and Master of the Choristers of Westminster Abbey, playing 'Prelude’ by the 20th century composer William Harris.

In the final section of the service Charles Causley stepped once more to the microphone, this time to read 'Helpston', written following a second visit to Helpston 20 years after the visit which resulted in 'At the grave of John Clare'. The Dean then gave the Blessing and this truly memorable occasion drew to a close as the organist played S S Wesley's 'Choral Song and Fugue' and the Dean solemnly led the Collegiate Body in procession back to the West End of The Abbey. Members of the congregation then filed past the memorial.

There was a reception for invited guests of the Society given immediately after the service in the Jerusalem Chamber. We were well catered for by The Abbey and, had it not been for the departure of the two coaches at 8pm back to Cambridgeshire, many animated conversations would have continued. The whole event was an unqualified success and I'm sure all Clare Society members would like to thank members of the committee, staff of The Abbey, and all who worked to make the day the success it was.

Coverage of Clare's memorial dedication would be incomplete without some contribution from the membership. Douglas Pringle-Wilson, a member from Inverness who was unable to attend, sent this acrostic:

John Clare, your friends to keep your memory green,
Owning a debt we never can repay,
Have placed a tablet in a sacred shrine;
Now to that tribute I would add a line.

Countryside, and country scenes revive again.
Linnet and thrush: the waving fields of grain.
And those who lived and worked in sun and rain
Revived by you still go their rural way
Enriching us who read your poems today.

JCS Newsletter No. 25 (September 1989)


Charles Causley had this to say in his letter of thanks :
                                                                                                          19th July 1989

It was an honour to have been invited to take part in the ceremony in the Abbey last month. The event really was very moving, and the highlight for me was the placing of the wild flowers from Helpston by the memorial tablet. I do congratulate all those concerned in bringing a most wonderful idea to an entirely memorable reality.

                            All good wishes,

                                     Yours sincerely,

                                                 Charles Causley