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Featured Poem: Sheep in Winter by John Clare

Written by Rachael Norris, 9th December 2019

This week's Featured Poem is Sheep in Winter by John Clare, chosen by The Reader's Publications Manager, Grace Frame.

As a city-dweller, the experience of sheep in winter feels rather remote; something I don't feel particularly inclined to dwell on. Probably the closest I would get to it is from an image on a Christmas card: I have certainly seen cards which depict a flock of sheep, still and quiet and apparently safe out there on the landscape, but these exist to me in parallel with other images of distant times and cultures which might similarly be portrayed on a card at this time of year.

The poem brings these creatures to life, makes me be present with them, and also prompts me to wonder about the comparison between the sheep and the human boy. I would have thought the life of a sheep was very different to a human one, but the first two lines of the poem cause me to think again:

The sheep get up and make their many tracks

And bear a load of snow upon their backs

We are not with the shepherd here, who gets up in the morning to look after the sheep, but with the sheep themselves, who seem to have their own things to do, making tracks. I am reminded of the daily commute and of how quickly the day pulls us on with places to go and loads to carry. Suddenly, too, the image of the snow-covered sheep is not just a picturesque one, but it appeals to the senses: the snow is a weight, and feels cold against that warm wool.

The boy comes second. He, too, is battling with the cold, but he has more resources with which to do so. He ‘knocks his hands’ together, but when the sheep ‘try to shake their fleeces’, I imagine there is only so much snow that they can get to fall off. Neither do they have any way of warming up their ‘frozen meal’.

It is not that I feel the poet wants us to pity the sheep. I sense that maybe he admires them for keeping going. Most of the lines begin with ‘and’, as if one thing simply follows another, and there is no real reaction from the sheep to the things that are difficult. I am reminded of Wendell Berry who writes about ‘wild things’ ‘who do not tax their lives with forethought / of grief’. There might not be forethought, but there is no real regret here either.

But if some of those human traits are noticeably absent, the last line of the poem brings me back again to something recognisably familiar. The sheep ‘shun the hovel where they might be warm’. Caring for another being or creature can be difficult, because often you cannot force them to do what is best for them, even if you think you know what that is. ‘Shun’ is a strong word, and it is difficult for us to imagine why the sheep shun the hovel, but shun it they do.

As during this season we wrap up against the cold, and try to get the kids to put on their hats and gloves, this poem offers to bring to mind for us the pattern of nature in which many of the earth’s creatures will simply continue to ‘face the drizzling storm’.


Sheep in Winter

The sheep get up and make their many tracks

And bear a load of snow upon their backs,

And gnaw the frozen turnip to the ground

With sharp quick bite, and then go noising round

The boy that pecks the turnips all the day

And knocks his hands to keep the cold away

And laps his legs in straw to keep them warm

And hides behind the hedges from the storm.

The sheep, as tame as dogs, go where he goes

And try to shake their fleeces from the snows,

Then leave their frozen meal and wander round

The stubble stack that stands beside the ground,

And lie all night and face the drizzling storm

And shun the hovel where they might be warm.

by John Clare

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