The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something and tell what it saw in a plain way… To see clearly is poetry, prophesy and religion, all in one.
John Ruskin, Modern Painters III
Nature, art and work define the prism through which John Ruskin examined man’s place in the world, and he combined them with mathematical elegance. Art and work require nature as raw material, and through study and further engagement, art and nature will ask of the mind what work takes from the body, while nature and work, for Ruskin, provide the perfect subjects for art.
The last of these equations is demonstrated by the critical interest Ruskin took in the Pre-Raphaelites, and in J M W Turner. Born and raised at the poor end of the Thames fishing trade, Turner’s close observations of ‘black barges, patched sails’ and ‘weedy roadside vegetation’ were highly praised by Ruskin, who saw no other painter able to depict ‘the natural way things have of lying about.’  This sensitivity, and the rallying cry of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, to paint from nature and to reject classical and artificial notions of composition and beauty, chime with Ruskin’s revelation, aged twenty one, which overturned much of the nine years’ schooling he’d had in ‘the mannerisms and tricks’ of making a painting. One afternoon, ‘with no prospect whatever but a small aspen tree against the blue sky’, he saw the charm of ‘composition’ in the existing world, and the holistic learning journey of capturing it. ‘At last the tree was there, and everything that I had thought before about trees, nowhere.’ 
The poets and visual artists featured and discussed in this essay embrace this clarity of sight in their spark and rigour. Seamus Heaney’s sonnet “The Forge”  begins: ‘All I know is a door into the dark.’ Through the doorway, all we see and hear, such as ‘The unpredictable fantail of sparks / Or hiss when a new shoe toughens in water’, make the nearby ‘traffic flashing in rows’ sound tinny and ineffectual; while the juxtaposition of the modern road, where the blacksmith ‘recalls a clatter / Of hoofs’, provides a surface under which we seem to peer, as if through time, or perhaps not through time at all, but through our own surface layers, into what we are still made of.
“Coming Close”  by Philip Levine invites more direct contact, with a woman working the night shift at a buffer wheel. The work is dirty, hard and heavy, and has taken its toll on her body. She’s three hours, and many years in, her work is steady and conscientious, yet she’d resist it in a moment, should the chance come. Just before the end of the poem, we’re asked to imagine this:
… if by some luck the power were cut,
the wheel slowed to a stop so that you
suddenly saw it was not a solid object
but so many separate bristles forming
in motion a perfect circle …
Then she laughs and touches ‘the arm of your white shirt to mark / you for your own, now and forever.’
Philip Levine was born to a middle class family in Detroit in 1928.  When his father died, twelve years later, the insurance company found an excuse to deny the major part of the claim, and Levine saw his mother worn out by the effort of keeping the family fed, clothed and sheltered. When they were fourteen, he and his twin brother vowed never to ‘participate in the corporate business of this country, a business that appalled us by the brutality of its exploitation of the people we most loved.’  Poetry had taken hold of Levine a year or so earlier, when his burgeoning lust for words fused with feelings of deep resonance that arose from delving into backyard soil to make things grow, and nights spent in woodland. So nature and work were implicated from the start, and “Innocence”, a poem from his 1991 collection What Work Is, sets them in bitter opposition to each other. A team of workers have prepared an oak wood for a road to come through it, foliage and branches have been removed, then:
earthmovers gripped the chained and stripped trunks,
hunched down and roared their engines, the earth
held and trembled before it gave, and the stumps
howled as they turned their black, prized groins
skyward for the first times in their lives
Soon after the vow with his twin, Levine began working part-time in a soap factory, and for many years supported his higher education by road building, factory and delivery work, until writing and teaching at last provided a living. His poetry remains fascinated by the streets and people of Detroit. In What Work Is, we journey with ‘the faces on the bus … each sealed in its hunger / for … a lost life’ , to places where someone must put on ‘wide rubber hip boots, / gauntlets to the elbow, a plastic helmet / like a knight’s but with a little glass window’ , or yearn to ‘climb the shaking ladder to the roof / of the Nitro plant and tear off / my respirator and breathe the yellow air’ , then to school, where the monoculture sets in:
These are the children of Flint, their fathers
work at the spark plug factory or truck
bottled water in 5 gallon sea-blue jugs
to the widows of the suburbs. You can see
already how their backs have thickened 
In his youth, Levine believed that manual labour would leave his ‘mind and imagination free for writing’.  This mirrors Ruskin’s desire for St George’s Museum in Sheffield to inspire tired workers with ‘what is lovely in the life of Nature, and heroic in the life of Men.’ Situated on Walkley’s north facing hillside, where the furthest view looks northwest over the Peak District, ‘the mountain home of the museum’, as Ruskin described it, was chosen to draw local grinders up from the toxic air of Rivelin, Loxley and Neepsend valleys.  However, some knew a more sustained escape was needed.
By his mid-twenties, Levine had his share of residual minor injury, was disgusted by the divisive practises that drove industry, and the prospect of a life there, unassuaged by his dream to make poetry pay, would have been intolerable. Instead, for many decades until he died in February this year, writing and teaching gave him:
… some work
to do, something useful
and hard, and that they might please
their own need to be doing. 
A hundred years before Levine worked in factories, Sheffield grinders suffered severe damage to their respiration, digestion and posture; many were physical wrecks with terminal illnesses by the age of nineteen.  Rivelin knife grinder Benjamin Creswick was impeded by the symptoms of his trade while his family grew.  When St George’s Museum opened, in 1875, he was twenty-two, and its exhibits spurred him to try his hand; he discovered a talent for sculpture and invested in lessons. Before long he drew the attention of John Ruskin, who tutored him, helped find commissions, and paid him, weekly, for as long as necessary. Creswick became a sculptor of great national renown. He played a leading role in the Arts and Crafts movement, and held a senior position in Birmingham Art School for decades. Completing many public and private commissions, he made art from terracotta, marble and bronze, often portraying characters at tasks he’d performed and observed during his early working life.
It’s a credit to the zeal for authenticity Ruskin passed on in his training, that, with at least six children to support, Creswick initially turned down a major commission to illustrate the manufacture of hats, saying he knew nothing of the process. He was persuaded, after being allowed several weeks of study in the hat factory; and the friezes he made for the high street shop front, and factory entrance behind, have been called ‘a magnificent piece of Socialist realism, modelled without sentimentality but with great dignity.’  The hatters’ building no longer exists, but the scenes depicted on the Cutler’s Hall Frieze in London show the same strength and dignity. Creswick’s great granddaughter, visual artist Annie Creswick-Dawson, has said that the visual impact of the men’s stances, within sections and from one frame to another, remind her of the flow of the Rivelin.
I find this comparison thrilling for the way it taps into the parallels between man and nature that I strive to illuminate in poetry. From the realisations voiced by the teenage couple in “Star”, to the potency of how Sheffield’s fast rivers brought its famous industry to town, the connections flow. Poems of mine such as “Here I spill” and “River Memoir” imagine a river’s life in terms of a person’s, tracking attitudes and behaviour as they mature, suggesting also the harnessed power of a workforce. In poems like “Impasse” and “Contra Flow” the river stands in for the mind’s ability to break through and move on. “Flood Triptych: The Loxley” brings these notions together: as the harness breaks, human ingenuity turns against human, and devastation wrought by the river echoes a body’s internal struggle.
John Clare’s poetry pulls you into the midst of nature, where the work of flora, fauna and river seems never to be done. People are often peripheral: a cowboy on a gate, a distant seed-man sowing grain, or where ‘the cottage roof’s-thatch brown / Did add its beauty to the budding green’.  Clare observes from pathless land, inside a thicket, or by ‘little brooks that hum a simple lay / In green unnoticed spots’.  Removed from human lore, his poetry reveals the long rhythms of nature, while melding the immediacy of life, for its creatures and vegetation, with the breathless joy of the recorder. In “Sudden Shower”, a bee is one of the ‘little things around, like you and I’, who hurry for shelter, and his allegiance is palpable in this stanza from “Autumn”.
While from the rustling scythe the haunted hare
Scampers circuitous with startled ears
Pricked up, then squat, as by
She brushes to the woods
Where seeded grass breast-high and undisturbed
Form pleasant clumps through which the suthering winds
Softens her rigid fears
And lulls to calm repose.
Born in 1793, to a peasant family in the Northamptonshire village of Helpston, Clare grew up in similar poverty to Turner, with the same kind of exposure to his future material.  He went to school until he was eleven or twelve, after which money and location left no possibility for further education; yet Clare was a voracious scholar. He borrowed, or saved to buy, books on history, music, botany, maths; everything, that is, except Latin and grammar which he disdained. Already in the thrall of reading, writing and story, when he read The Seasons by James Thompson in his early teens, he was seized by the urgent desire to record his world as poetry, and did so obsessively from then on. His early inner life also has parallels with Levine’s, and the poetry of both are underpinned by deep-rooted threads of human equality and nature’s supremacy. They also share the endearing strategy of telling you their tale as though you were stood beside them. Here are some lines from Clare’s “The Nightingale’s Nest” :
Hark! there she is as usual – let’s be hush –
For in this blackthorn-clump, if rightly guessed,
Her curious house is hidden. Part aside
These hazel branches in a gentle way
And stoop right cautious ’neath the rustling boughs
The fields and gardens where Clare worked weren’t the factories of Creswick or Levine, yet in “The Lament of Swordy Well” he bears witness to the appetites of the revolution already underway in cities:
And me, they turned me inside out
For sand and grit and stones
And turned my old green hills about
And picked my very bones.
In poems like this, dedicated to the horror of land ownership which Enclosure ushered in, Clare rails at length against its fences, stop signs, ‘Grubbed up trees, banks and bushes’.  The packaging of land came to Helpston in 1806, Clare’s thirteenth year, and in “The Moors” there’s the sense of him having caught the last moments of ‘one eternal green / That never felt the rage of blundering plough’, whose ‘only bondage was the circling sky’, where boys picked mulberries, and shepherds found lost sheep. Intact forever, until ‘Enclosure came and trampled on the grave / Of labour’s rights and left the poor a slave’. This and a similar line in “The Village Minstrel”, where he ‘Marks the stopped brook and mourns oppression’s power’ – a line that could have been written somewhere in the world any year since – typifies his fluidity between a lost detail and the irrevocable hijacking of resources. His way of speaking for and as the landscape and its creatures makes his politics always personal, yet he is usually shedding light on an ugly facet of his nemesis. When “The Fallen Elm”, which always grew comfortingly close to his home, and ‘murmured in our chimney top / The sweetest anthem autumn ever made’, was felled without any warning, he notes the dangerous rhetoric of those who ‘Bawl freedom loud and then oppress the free’. He goes on:
And labour’s only cow was drove away.
No matter – wrong was right and right was wrong
And freedom’s bawl was sanction to the song.
– Such was thy ruin, music-making elm
Like Levine, Clare grew up at the brunt of great national hardship and severe class division. In Helpston, he struggled to make a living, nearly enlisted, even put up fences for the local squire – which always made him drink more and hardly write at all; then at twenty four, his family almost destitute, he travelled a few miles for work burning lime, which went to make mortar and fertiliser. It was during this employment that he resolved to change course: he approached a local bookseller and his twelve year journey to publication began.
This is no rags-to-riches tale. Clare held out for the best deal, and after his first collection was published in 1820, he enjoyed several years of acclaim as the Peasant Poet. During visits to London, though noticeably gauche, he made friends, some generous and loyal, of writers, artists, etc. There were more collections of his work, but inexperience and bad advice lost him money, and it’s likely that his wit and politics eluded much of his contemporary readership. When delays and charlatans had squandered his most accessible assets, his popularity waned. Meanwhile, the severity of his mental frailty, and homesickness when away, went unrecognised or misunderstood for too long. Conversely, he missed London friends and city life when he only connected with them by letter.
Three years after the publication of his first collection, Clare suffered his first bout of depression. This coincided with the death of a rural labouring class poet from Suffolk, a few decades his senior. Robert Bloomfield’s work had been immensely popular for a while, but the man had died penniless and losing his sanity. Fourteen years later, aged forty-four, John Clare was first certified insane. Failing mental health, manifesting in depression and erratic behaviour, had for a long time prevented him from making the best of his earnings, and made home life difficult. Now, it seems, his wife was concerned he would become violent. In his last few years at home, he could often only be calmed by one of his children talking gently with him about the countryside. He remained in mental health care and continued to write until his death in 1864. Here’s his sonnet, published in 1835, “To the Memory of Bloomfield”:
Sweet unassuming minstrel, not to thee
The dazzling fashions of the day belong:
Nature’s wild pictures, field and cloud and tree
And quiet brooks far distant from the throng
In murmurs tender as the toiling bee
Make the sweet music of thy gentle song.
Well, nature owns thee: let the crowd pass by,
The tide of fashion is a stream too strong
For pastoral brooks that gently flow and sing,
But nature is their source, and earth and sky
Their annual offering to her current bring.
Thy gentle muse and memory need no sigh,
For thine shall murmur on to many a spring
When their proud streams are summer-burnt and dry.
As is so often the case, in the 1870s much concern was expressed in Britain about the national debt. This didn’t, however, refer to the debt owed to the working urban and rural poor by the individuals making a fortune from the sweat on their thickening backs. Ruskin’s response was to call for a National Store, and St George’s Museum in Walkley was conceived to exhibit this collection of artefacts.  He deplored mass production and its attendant poverty of the human mind and body, and founded the Guild of St George to explore alternatives to industrial capitalism, encourage art and craft, and work toward greater class equality throughout the country. The museum in Walkley was one of its earliest projects. Unfortunately, several episodes of serious mental illness left John Ruskin unable to fully realise his hopes.
Currently, the Guild is funding a nine year programme at Sheffield’s Millennium Gallery, due to culminate later this year. Ceramicist Emilie Taylor was commissioned to produce work for Force of Nature; Picturing Ruskin’s Landscape, its 2012 exhibition.
Taylor has led a number of projects that encourage members of a community to make art from what binds them.  Several years ago, for instance, in Brown & White, recovering heroin and cocaine users employed a nostalgic framing to juxtapose their own images of addiction and safety. For Force of Nature, she drew on childhood memories of her father’s involvement in pigeon racing around their Rivelin Valley home, and the piece she made, “So High I Almost Touched the Sky”, is a pair of metre tall vases decorated with tender images of Skye Edge pigeon fanciers, their birds and surroundings. She fired them in an outdoor smokeless wood-fuelled kiln, built by the artists’ community at Manor Top, while pigeons flew high above. The impressive stature of these items, along with their capacity and fragility, are perfect for the men they depict. Indeed, for the whole workforce who keep everyone fed and sheltered without anyone’s name being known – because none of them are called Tesco or Adidas – and for the poets and artists spoken of here, who have seen something and wished to tell it.
A few years ago, Taylor was guest visual artist on a poetry walk led by Mark Doyle, and I was lucky enough to be on it. We left Upperthorpe Library to stand where Kelvin flats had been, and look out over Pitsmoor and Parkwood Springs. She gave out materials, talked to us about looking, not looking, and negative space, showed us methods to capture our version of the view. Then I was amazed to be led along Neepsend Valley to where derelict pigeon lofts are barely hidden by a thin stand of trees beside Penistone Road. “Flight from Cuthbert Bank” is the poem I wrote about the walk; here are its last two stanzas:
Ten years since the last
kept pigeon homed to here. Back five more decades
to before they razed Parkwood Spring and sucked
Neepsend dry: the valley not this fleck of factory,
a filament between car galleries
and abandoned hillside,
but like a Lowry vision: a flock
of men released by work clocks, to rise above
day’s end, the valley’s din, legacies of grind,
to hold the small bulk, feel its heat
pulse through feathers in cupped hands,
and send those tiny hearts and lungs
to claim their reach of sky.
Originally published on the Longbarrow Blog (31 August 2015). Fay Musselwhite’s poem ‘Flight from Cuthbert Bank’ appears in her collection Contraflow (Longbarrow Press, 2016).
 Ruskin, The Two Boyhoods, in Wilmer p146
 Ruskin quoted in Dearden, pp17-8
 from Door into the Dark, 1969
 Levine, What Work Is
 details of Philip Levine’s life are from Levine, The Bread of Time
 Levine, Bread, p113
 “Every Blessed Day”, Work
 “Fear and Fame”, Work
 “Burned”, Work
 “Among Children”, Work
 Levine, Bread, p114
 Price, p71
 “Possession”, Not This Pig
 details of Benjamin Creswick’s life are from Creswick-Dawson
 Creswick and Ruskin scholar Simon Ogden, quoted by Creswick-Dawson
 “The Village Minstrel”
 “The Eternity of Nature”
 details of John Clare’s life are from Bate, Biography
 “The Lament of Swordy Well”
 Notes about the Guild and the Museum are from the Guild’s website
 details of Emilie Taylor’s work are from her website
Sources and further reading (click on bold text for website links)
Bate, Jonathan, John Clare: A Biography. London: Picador 2003
Bate, Jonathan (ed.), John Clare: Selected Poems. London: Faber & Faber 2004
Dearden, James, An Illustrated Life of John Ruskin. Princes Risborough: Shire 2004
Engels, Friedrich, The Condition of the Working Class 1844
Guild of St George
Heaney, Seamus, Opened Ground: Poems 1966-96. London: Faber & Faber 1998
Levine, Philip, Not This Pig. Hanover: Wesleyan University Press 1963
Levine, Philip, The Bread of Time: Towards an Autobiography. New York: Alfred A Knopf 1993
Levine, Philip, What Work Is. New York: Alfred A Knopf 2012
Price, David, Sheffield Troublemakers. Stroud: Phillimore & Co 2008
Wilmer, Clive (ed). Unto This Last (collection of Ruskin’s essays). London: Penguin 1997