Clare, Botany and Classification in the Early Nineteenth Century

The Centre for John Clare Studies

Clare, Botany and Classification in the Early Nineteenth Century

Cambridge University Botanic Garden

23 September 2014

It is part of our ambition as a Centre to try to cast new light on ways of thinking about Clare by collaborating with other research centres and collections, and for this first symposium we were delighted to be hosted and supported by the Cambridge University Botanic Garden.

Although Clare is perhaps best known as an advocate of wild nature, he loved his own cottage garden. He was also a dedicated botanist, and his work meticulously documents the natural world local to his home in Helpston, near Peterborough. This is not simply descriptive poetry: Clare’s was an intellectual interest in botany. In extant prose manuscripts, he writes about his struggles with the Linnaean system, for example, and through his patrons had access to the library at Milton Hall, from which he borrowed botanical texts; he also befriended Joseph Henderson, enthusiastic naturalist and Head Gardener at Milton. Although Clare’s Natural History of Helpstone (begun in 1824, taking the form of a series of letters) was not published until 1983, it is a concentrated example of the knowledge and the observational acuity which appears throughout his work. Despite all of this, relatively little scholarly work has focussed on Clare as a botanist. It therefore seemed appropriate to devote our first symposium to this topic.

As well as welcoming scholars with an interest in Clare, botany and related subjects we were fortunate to be able to draw on the expertise of those who have worked in the Garden, and the day included a fascinating tour of the glorious systematic beds.