The Magazine

A Natural Poet

The unjustly neglected John Clare.

Dec 22, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 15 • By SUSAN BALEE
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John Clare
A Biography
by Jonathan Bate
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 672 pp., $40

"I Am"
The Selected Poetry of John Clare
edited by Jonathan Bate
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 344 pp., $17

THE EARLY NINETEENTH-CENTURY John Clare is the best English poet that hardly anyone reads. Or so, at least, contends Jonathan Bate, whose "John Clare: A Biography" has recently appeared, along with a new edition of poems by the Romantic poet: "'I Am': The Selected Poetry of John Clare." Bate, a distinguished Shakespeare scholar, claims to have discovered Clare through a love of nature poetry and his interest in the link between creativity and madness. He spent five years with Clare's copious literary remains and decided to act on his conviction that "John Clare is the one major English poet never to have received a biography worthy of his memory."

Born in 1793, Clare was a farm laborer who grew up in grinding poverty. He was the village oddity--a boy who revered learning, who preferred time alone with a book or long solitary rambles in nature. When he came to national attention in 1820 for his first collection, "Poems, Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery," his publishers lauded him as the English "peasant" poet, the counterpart of Scotland's Robert Burns.

It both helped and hurt Clare's reputation to be labeled a "peasant savant"--just as it both helped and hurt his reputation to be known as a "mad poet" when, later, stress unhinged his mind and he was committed to a lunatic asylum. He seemed a two-trick pony: a fellow who dashed off a few good verses despite the dirt under his fingernails and the demons beneath his brow. His most commonly anthologized poem, "Lines: I Am," written in the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum, begins:

I am--yet what I am, none cares or knows;
My friends forsake me like a memory lost:
I am the self-consumer of my woes--
They rise and vanish in oblivion's host
Like shadows in love-frenzied stifled throes--
And yet I am and live--like vapours tossed.

 

Like the other Romantics, Clare glorified the Individual--even this individual who cannot name himself. And like them, Clare celebrated childhood's innocence. Many of his poems are about memory and loss, intimations of mortality, the marvels of the natural landscape. He also captured the folk songs and tales of his region before they disappeared and enshrined the vernacular speech of his time and place. His poems crackle with local dialect: "pooty" means "snail shell," "crizzle" is "freeze," "flaze" is a smoky flame.

As woods were razed and the open fields around him enclosed by landowners, Clare rushed to record nature as he knew it before the fences went up. As his friends the gypsies were driven from their traditional camping grounds, Clare jotted down their stories and recorded their songs (a fiddler, he also taught himself how to write music). And the result is that his poems do capture the landscape. Indeed, he noted that John Keats, like "other inhabitants of great cities, often described nature as she appeared to his fancies and not as he would have described her had he witnessed the things he described." Clare's own "The Nightingale's Nest" thus offers a naturalist's counterpoint to Keats's mythologically inspired "Ode to a Nightingale."

Jonathan Bate argues that "the art of noticing was one of Clare's principal poetic gifts." A shepherd-boy looks up at the wild geese gabbling overhead and He marks the figured forms in which they fly / And pausing, follows with a wondering eye, / Likening their curious march in curves or rows / To every letter which his memory knows. Birds, fens, harvest suppers, haymaking, cowslips, and orchids populate Clare's work, their joys ceaselessly lamented, as in "Childhood":

When we look back on what we were
And feel what we are now,
A fading leaf is not so drear
Upon a broken bough,
A winter seat without a fire,
A cold world without friends
Doth not such chilly glooms impart
As that one word portends.

 

Poor Clare grew increasingly alienated from his childhood, his homeplace, and himself as he grew older. While a boy, he began working full-time--first as a farm laborer, later as a lime-burner. What money he earned had to support his parents and sister because of his father's rheumatism. His compensations he found first in nature, and then in women and alcohol. He retained an idealized image of a schoolgirl, Mary Joyce, whom he could never hope to marry. Late in his life, in the Northampton Asylum, he believed he was actually married to her as well as his real wife, Patty. He also believed he was Lord Byron (and wrote catchy, lewd revisions of "Don Juan" and "Childe Harold") and a prize fighter.