John Clare (1793–1864), dubbed the Peasant Poet of Northamptonshire when he created a sensation in early 1820s London, was a noted poet of the Romantic era, often concerned with the natural world he came to know well while living on a small English farm.
Long ranked among the minor English poets, Clare experienced a critical and even a popular resurgence beginning in the 1990s. This resurgence had roots both in Clare's work and in his biography. Clare, who grew up in a household with a father who could barely read and a mother who was illiterate, was a powerful user of the English language but one who was never comfortable with its grammatical conventions. In a modern society increasingly comfortable with spoken poetry rather than words on a printed page, Clare's work seemed newly significant. Public fascination likewise resulted from the fact that Clare was institutionalized in an asylum in later years. The precise nature of his illness is elusive, and his madness seems at least to have begun with his realization that he was at fundamental odds with the artistic culture in which he worked, and that life, as a result, was beginning to twist its way around him.
Had Hard, Rustic Upbringing
Clare was born on July 13, 1793, in Helpston (or Helpstone, as it was sometimes spelled at the time), a village in the English region of Northamptonshire. His father Parker Clare was a farm worker and, Clare wrote in an autobiographical sketch quoted in John Clare in Context, "one of fate's chance-lings who drop into the world without the honor of matrimony." Two of Clare's three siblings, including a twin sister, died in infancy, and Clare grew up in grinding rural poverty. He was working in the fields with his father by age 10. Clare's mother, despite her own illiterate state, was a believer in education, and Clare went to school with local tutors for about three months of the year—scanty by modern standards or by those of a noble youth in his own time, but enough to open a new world that was unknown to his peers. His early reading exercises consisted of working his way through the family Bible and prayer books.
When Clare was 13 he got a job as a potboy—a server of "pots" of liquor in a local tavern. For much of his life he would be a heavy drinker, with debatable results for his overall health. In his teens Clare did hard labor, much of it connected with enclosure—the fencing and hedging of common pasture land that over several centuries transformed the English countryside into something less free and more restricted by property rights. Clare dug ditches and cut hedges, and scholars believe that the enclosure process had a subtle but definite effect on his later poetry. While he was working, however, he was also composing poems in his head. Clare liked poetry from the start, and an uncle gave him a book of poems by John Pomfret when he was 11. Two years later he acquired a copy of a long and well-known nature poem cycle, James Thomson's The Seasons of 1730. The poem, he said (as quoted on the John Clare Page website), made his heart "twitter with joy." He dove over a wall at a local estate, Burghley House, and hid in a forested area so that he could read it undisturbed, and on his way home he composed his first poem, "The Morning Walk."
Clare worked as a gardener at Burghley house beginning around 1807, dodging his supervisors as he read and wrote poetry on the sly. He also wrote poetry on Sundays, skipping church to practice what he called the religion of the fields. Clare tried out his poems on his parents, at first claiming that they had been written by someone else but gradually gaining confidence. Clare's material circumstances did not improve during this period. He spent several years in the Northamptonshire Militia and worked as a limeburner, a filthy, dangerous job involving the incineration of limestone to produce a variety of useful agricultural and industrial chemicals. Clare fell in love twice, once with a farm girl named Mary Joyce, and then, in 1820, with Martha "Patty" Turner, who became his wife.
By that time, Clare had accumulated a collection of poems and spread his literary wings. In the town of Stamford he met a bookstore owner named Edward Drury and a local editor, Octavius Gilchrist. Drury sent him to London to meet a publisher cousin, John Taylor, who had issued some of John Keats's poetry. In 1820, Taylor published Clare's Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery. On the title page of the book he was billed as a Northamptonshire Peasant. The billing was an astute one, for the modern fascination middle-class audiences have for "roots" cultures is traceable to the early 19th century. With the Scottish dialect poems of Robert Burns and the Irish songs of Thomas Moore in the air, prospects looked bright for a talented young writer from rural England.
Found Admirers in London
Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery sold more than 3,000 copies in its first year, an astounding total for an unknown poet, and it was soon reprinted three times. Clare traveled to London and for the first time he encountered famous creative artists. He met the painter Edward Rippingille, and on subsequent trips the poet John Keats, the critic William Hazlitt, and the opium-eating essayist Thomas De Quincey, among others. Clare acquired several noble patrons who would later stick with him through difficult times. He quickly followed up his first book with The Village Minstrel and Other Poems, published in 1821. It was well received but did not become the sensation of the moment as his first book had.
Through the 1820s, Clare worked energetically on a variety of projects, most of which were never published. They are notable for their variety and their sheer quantity; Clare's lifetime output, even as he spent half his adult life in institutions, ran to thousands of pages. Much of what is known of his early life comes from his autobiographical Sketches in the Life of John Clare, which he began in 1821 but which remained unfinished. Clare also started a book called A Natural History of Helpstone and wrote a long satirical poem, The Parish, which cast a critical eye on small-town life. He began collecting the songs of ballad singers in the Helpston area, making him one of the very first close observers of what would now be known as folk music. Clare was also interested in the music of the gypsy or Romany people who moved through the area.
Indeed, Clare's father was a reasonably good tavern singer, and Clare felt close to musicians who passed down their songs by ear rather than writing them down. He often referred to traditional ballads or even adapted their words in his poetry. And his notebooks reveal a creative process more oriented toward his own thoughts than toward the model of the printed page. He rarely used punctuation, paid little attention to spelling, and used verbal patterns drawn from the local Northamptonshire dialect. Since so much of Clare's work was never published, modern editors have wrestled with the question of whether to standardize his writing when readying it for inclusion in new collections.
One Clare book that was published was The Shepherd's Calendar; with Village Stories and Other Poems, in 1827. That book, a sort of country calendar with poems, sold only 400 copies, which spelled financial trouble for Clare since he and his wife by that time had seven children. Clare became moody, wrangled with his publisher, and sometimes went on drinking binges. In 1828, frustrated by his prospects, he returned to farming.
Settled in Cottage
A cottage and a small plot of land on an estate in nearby Northborough, provided in 1832 by one of Clare's aristocratic admirers, gave him a temporary fresh start. Clare threw himself into writing a new set of poems, to be called The Midsummer Cushion, which he hoped would be judged on its merits rather than as the freakish product of an uneducated farmer. Soon, however, Clare's difficulties returned. His new farm was undercapitalized, and expenditures kept pace with or exceeded income. Orders for Clare's new book lagged, and it was finally published in 1835, after what Hugh Haughton and Adam Phillips in John Clare in Context called "mutually soul-destroying negotiations" with John Taylor, as The Rural Muse, in a heavily cut form.
Clare complained of writer's block and memory loss, and friends who visited him were disturbed to find him muttering incoherently. In 1837 Taylor led an intervention in which Clare was taken to the High Beech Asylum, a progressive institution that bore little resemblance to the hellholes to which the mentally ill were usually consigned. Clare had free run of the grounds and surrounding woods, and was able to write. Other signs, however, were less encouraging: he began to develop multiple personalities, sometimes saying that he was the poet Lord Byron or a boxer named Jack Randall. He began to describe Mary Joyce as his first wife, although the two had never been married.
Modern observers have disagreed as to the precise nature of Clare's illness; speculation about schizophrenia gave way to those involving more contemporary maladies. Some argued that Clare was not mentally ill at all. They found support in the fact that even Clare's most deranged communications seemed to make a kind of symbolic sense; Clare's illusion of being a boxer might have been intended as a way of saying he felt at odds with the world. It is also significant that Clare's poetry, although he wrote less while institutionalized, showed no decline in creativity. One of his most often anthologized poems, "I Am," dated from 1841, the last year of his first term in the asylum. "I am: yet what I am none cares or knows," Clare wrote. "My friends forsake me like a memory lost; I am the self-consumer of my woes."
In the summer of that year, Clare escaped from the asylum and walked the approximately one hundred miles to Northborough, recording his experiences in a manuscript titled Journey Out of Essex. He spent about five months with his family and was then taken to the Northamptonshire General Lunatic Asylum, where he spent the rest of his life. Clare wrote nearly 1,000 pages of poetry between 1861 and his death on May 20, 1864, and some of it filtered out to literary magazines and was published. Clare complained bitterly about his incarceration, and one often-quoted visitor (as for example by Haughton and Phillips) recorded that he said "they have cut off my head, and picked out all the letters of the alphabet—all the vowels and consonants—and brought them out through my ears; and then they want me to write poetry! I can't do it." Before his death, however, he wrote another famous poem, the quizzical "To John Clare."
Clare's poetry exerted an increasing fascination as the 20th century went on, especially as society in general began to wrestle with the nature of mental illness. Poet Theodore Roethke, who himself wrestled with mental demons, admired Clare, as did radio host and poetry anthology editor Garrison Keillor. Indeed, suggested Jeredith Merrin in The Southern Review, "the American audience may be especially primed now to enjoy Clare's poetry," which was subjective, rather undisciplined, and sometimes very sexy ("Lay by thy woollen vest. / Drape no cloak o'er thy breast: / Where my hand oft hath pressed / Pin nothing there: / Where my head droops to rest, / leave its bed bare," Clare wrote in one poem quoted by Merrin). Most important of all, Merrin argued, was the semi-oral nature of Clare's poetry in a time when spoken poetry, thanks to hip-hop music and poetry slams, was on the rise. Whatever the reason, Clare was the focus of numerous new editions and scholarly studies from the 1980s onward.
Bate, Jonathan, John Clare: A Biography, Picador, 2003.
Haughton, Hugh, et al., ed., John Clare in Context, Cambridge, 1994.
Contemporary Review, October 1997.
Southern Review, Autumn 2004.
Contemporary Authors Online. Gale, 2006. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, MI: Thomson Gale. 2006. http://galenet.galegroup.com.servlet/BioRC (January 23, 2006).
John Clare Page, http://www.johnclare.info (January 23, 2006).