13 July: John Clare - ‘The Midsummer Cushion’

'It is a very old custom among villagers in summer time to stick a piece of greensward full of field flowers & place it as an ornament in their cottages, which ornaments are called Midsummer Cushions’

Introduction to ‘The Midsummer Cushion’ by John Clare

John Clare was born in the 13th July 1793 in the small village of Helpston(e) in Northamptonshire. His parents were both illiterate, although his father was a well know local ballad singer with a large repertoire. Clare himself had only the rudiments of education. He started work on the land at the age of seven and his poor diet as a child meant he was only just over 5‘ tall. As a young man Clare discovered the poems of James Thomson, in particular the series called ‘The Seasons’ and he began to write for himself.

Clare’s state of mind was always fragile - and his emotional life was difficult. He fell in love with Mary Joyce the daughter of a well to do farmer who forbade their relationship, and eventually he married Patty Turner who stood by him through many trials and bore him numerous children. Clare came to the notice of the literati when he sold some of his poems to a bookseller to raise money to help his parents. He was then taken up by a number of wealthy men and given various pensions and bursaries to help him, but there was always a tension. Clare became a fish out of water, no longer an illiterate farm worker nor yet a bona fide member of the literary establishment.

He was institutionalised twice because of his mental delusions (at one time he thought he was Byron), the second incarceration lasting from 1841 until his death in 1864. Clare’s poems are like Samuel Palmer’s paintings; they portray an English Arcadia. But as Clare’s own life demonstrates, the rural paradise they seek to show is an illusion. Arcadia may be a comforting, and maybe even a necessary place to make a imaginary visit now and again, but we mustn’t make the mistake of over-romanticising the rural past.

Clare’s collection of poems ‘The Midsummer Cushion’ was not published in the form he intended until 1979. It’s wonderful; full of beautiful poems about the countryside and traditional life there. A midsummer cushion is basically a sort of flower arrangement set into a grassy or mossy cushion and used to decorate a church or a house, like a little portable garden. So what better a reason could there be to do something with some edible flowers? I’ve always messed around with herbs and flowers, growing them, making oils and vinegars and crystallizing them. So I’ve made a summer pudding - my midsummer cushion, decorated with edible flowers. Nothing could be more delightful.

Summer Pudding

I hesitate to give you instruction to make this, it’s so easy. Line a pudding basin with slices of good stale white bread. Take a collection of mixed fruit - raspberries, redcurrants and strawberries are my favourites. Warm them through in a pan with a couple of tablespoons of sugar until the juice runs. Put the fruit into the bread lined pudding bowl and reserve some of the juice. Put a piece of bread on as a lid, cover with a saucer and weigh the pudding down - I used a tin of tomatoes. Leave overnight. Turn out when ready to serve and use some of the reserved juice to touch up any bits of bread not coloured by the fruit. To decorate the 'cushion' I used honeysuckle, rose, heartsease and dame's rocket. What fun - and it tasted good too!

Here, courtesy of Jekka McVicar’s book “Good Enough to Eat’, is a list of some edible flowers you could use to decorate. Remove stalks and any seedy or hard polleny bits in the middle.

Hollyhocks, pot marigold, pinks, meadowsweet, fushia, day lilies, sunflower petals, sweet rocket, lavender, wild honeysuckle, sweet cecily, evening primrose, scented geraniums, white phlox, rose, nasturtium, valerian, violet, pansy. Most herb flowers are also edible.

'...I love to muse o’er meadows newly mown

Where withering grass perfumes the sultry air

Where bees search round with sad and weary drone

In vain for flowers that bloomed but newly there.....'

From ‘Summer Moods’ by John Clare (1793-1864)


Choclette said...

Oh poor John Clare, doesn't sound as though he had much of a life, must have made up for it by writing his wonderful poems.

Your Midsummer Cushion looks wonderful - cameras are just brilliant for being able to record all this creativity. Haven't used evening primrose flowers before, but have tons of them growing down on the plot so should try them. Had my first day lily of the year a couple of days ago. These are particularly good as they are tasty and substantial as well as pretty.

Emmalene said...

As always an informative and interesting post. Great-looking summer pudding too!

Sign of a genius being touched by 'madness' although in those days who knows if it was madness or just eccentricity?

Liz said...

True Emm, and being a very intelligent and sensitive soul in a rural community of labourers couldn't have been easy.

- I've been wondering too if different coloured day lilies taste different - I only have dark red ones - do they taste dark red?...

Choclette said...

Not sure I've ever had a red day lily - hum interesting!

Charlie said...

Can you really eat hollyhock flowers? I thought they were poisonous, or am I thinking of something else?
What a lovely post.

Liz said...

Hi Charlie
Thought I'd better check! Jekka McVicar 'Good Enough to Eat' pub by Kyle Cathie in 1997, page 18 and I quote: 'The flowers are delicious to eat having a light floral flavour which changes in description from person to person, plant to plant!'
She then gives a recipe for 'Hollyhock, Endive, Orange and Walnut salad', and says the flowers are stunning crystallised and make a very subtle flavoured syrup. Phew - had me worried for a moment, but I had copied it correctly.