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Jack Clemo: clay country and Christianity

Jack Clemo, or ‘Poet of the Clay’, was a remarkable Cornishman and considered a significant figure in 20th century literature.

Clemo was born March 11, 1916, in Goonamarris, a village near St Austell, which would one day become the environment to inform his poetry and prose. Raised by his dogmatic mother he became increasingly religious and this faith is clear in his poems. Early in his life the poet became death and later, after leaving formal education at age 13, he lost his eye sight.

Biographer Luke Thompson, author of Clay Pheonix, confirmed that Clemo’s condition which affected his senses was a result of congenital syphilis. Like many Cornishmen his father travelled to the USA in search of work and found himself in Butte, Montana - a place partly famed for its brothels. His father later died in WW1 in 1917 leaving his mother to raise him and his disabled sister alone.

The congenital syphilis’ impact on Clemo’s life cannot be understated, however, despite his different ability he contributed significantly to the history of Cornish and British poetry. Themes of the clay country and Christianity are visible throughout his life’s work.

His early poems reflect the stark and manmade landscape which the china clay companies inflicted on the area. Clemo was interested in natures loss at the hands of man and its inevitable reclaiming of the Cornish environment.

The Flooded Clay-Pit

These white crags

Cup waves that rub more greedily

Now half-way up the chasm; you see

Doomed foliage hang like rags;

A flooded quarry

The whole clay-belly sags.

What scenes far

Beneath those waters: chimney-pots

That used to smoke; brown rusty clots

Of wheels still oozing tar;

Lodge doors that rot ajar.

Those iron rails

Emerge like claws cut short on the dump,

Though once they bore the waggon’s thump:

Now only toads and snails

Creep round their loosened nails.

Those thin tips

Of massive pit-bed pillars – how

They strain to scab the pool’s face now,

Pressing like famished lips

Which dread the cold eclipse.

Writing in the mid 20th century it's fascinating to see how the plant species has flourished in the area today just a few generations later; with tourist boards now advertising the former mining landscape as a walking trail.

As well as environmental themes Clemo communicates with readers his despair and suffering at attaining happiness, erotic mysticism and marriage. The Cornishman eventually found love and even moved out of county to be with his beloved wife Ruth Peaty. His poetry after marrying her changes to reveal an acceptance of love, sex and union-ship.

Jack Clemo died on 25 July 1994 in Weymouth, Dorest.

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