John Clare (July 13, 1793 – May 20, 1864) was an English poet, in his time commonly known as "the Northamptonshire Peasant Poet", the son of a farm labourer, born at Helpston near Peterborough.
At the age of seven he was taken from school to tend sheep and geese; four years later he began to work on a farm, attending in the evenings a school where he is said to have learned algebra. Since his formal education was brief, but also because he politicised the relationship between regional dialects and the increasingly standardised English in literary use, Clare resisted the use of fully standard grammar and orthography in his poetry and prose. Many of his poems incorporate terms used locally in his Northhamptonshire dialect, such as 'pooty' (snail), 'lady-cow' (ladybird), 'crizzle' (to crisp) and 'throstle' (song-thrush).
In his early adult years, Clare became a pot-boy in the Blue Bell public house and fell in love with Mary Joyce; but her father, a prosperous farmer, forbade her to meet him. Subsequently he was gardener at Burghley House. He enlisted in the militia, tried camp life with gypsies, and worked in Pickworth as a lime burner in 1817, but in the following year he was obliged to accept parish relief. Malnutrition stemming from childhood would be the main culprit behind his 5-ft stature and contributed to his poor physical health later on.
Clare had bought a copy of Thomson's Seasons out of his scanty earnings and had begun to write poems. In an attempt to hold off his parents' eviction from their countryside home, Clare offered his poems to a local bookseller named Edward Drury. Clare eventually befriended the author of Seasons and introduced his poems to John Taylor of the publishing firm of Taylor & Hessey, which issued the Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery in 1820. This book was highly praised, and in the next year his Village Minstrel and other Poems were published.
He was greatly patronized; fame, in the shape of curious visitors, broke the tenor of his life, and he indulged more freely the convivial habits that he had formed: mainly alcoholism, in which Clare eloquently described as his "taste for ale". He had married in 1820 to a woman named Patty Turner, and an annuity of 15 guineas from Lord Exeter, in whose service he had been, was supplemented by subscription, so that Clare became possessed of £45 annually, a sum far beyond what he had ever earned; but new wants made his income insufficient, and in 1823 he was nearly penniless. The Shepherd's Calendar (1827) met with little success, which was not increased by his hawking it himself. As he worked again on the fields his health temporarily improved; but he soon became seriously ill. Lord Fitzwilliam presented him with a new cottage and a piece of ground, but Clare could not settle in his new home.
Clare began to find himself discontent with the fact that his style of poetry was no longer in the current "fashion", but also felt that he did not belong with other peasants. Clare once wrote "I live here among the ignorant like a lost man in fact like one whom the rest seemes careless of having anything to do with---they hardly dare talk in my company for fear I should mention them in my writings and I find more pleasure in wandering the fields than in musing among my silent neighbours who are insensible to everything but toiling and talking of it and that to no purpose." It is common to see the absence of punctuation in many of Clare's original writings, although many publishers felt the need to remedy this practice in the majority of his works.
His last and best work, the Rural Muse (1835), was noticed favorably by Christopher North and other reviewers, but this was not enough to support his wife and seven children. Clare's mental health began to worsen. As his alcohol consumption steadily increased and his dissatisfaction with his own identity, Clare's behavior became more erratic. A more notable instance of this behavior was demonstrated in his interruption of a performance of The Merchant of Venice, in which Clare verbally assaulted at Shylock. He was becoming a burden to Patty and his family, and in July 1837 he was finally removed to a private asylum (High Beech Private Asylum near Loughton in Epping Forest).
During his first few asylum years in Essex (1837-1841), Clare re-wrote famous poems by George Gordon Byron, turning his own 'Child Harold' into a lament for past lost love, and 'Don Juan A Poem' into an acerbic, misogynistic, sexualised rant redolent of an aging Regency Dandy. Recently scholars have toyed with the possiblity that rather than crude evidence that Clare was delusional, he found in Lord Byron someone who had the playful social and sexual freedoms of which he could only dream. Clare also took credit for Shakespeare's plays, claiming to be the Renaissance extraordinaire himself. "I'm John Clare now," the poet claimed to a newspaper editor, "I was Byron and Shakespeare formerly."
In 1841, Clare left the asylum in Essex, believing that he was to meet his first love Mary Joyce in the woods---Clare was convinced that he was married with children to her and Patty as well. He remained free, mostly at home in Helpston, for the five months to follow, but eventually Patty called the Doctors in, between Christmas and New Year in 1841, and Clare was committed to the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum. He remained here for the rest of his life, encouraged and helped to write. Here he wrote his most famous poem, "I Am", but many others besides. He died on the 20th of May, 1864, in his 71st year. His remains were returned to Helpston for burial in St Botolph’s churchyard. Today, children at the John Clare School, Helpston's primary, parade through the village and place their 'midsummer cushions' around Clare's gravestone, on his birthday, in honour of their most famous resident.
Clare's descriptions of rural scenes show a keen and loving appreciation of nature; his knowledge of the natural world went far beyond that of the major Romantic poets, and his love-songs and ballads charm by their genuine feeling. There is more to Clare than animals and rural prettiness, however. Although it is regularly observed that his poem I am shows a metaphysical depth on a par with his more illustrious contemporaries many of his pre-asylum poems deal with intricate play on the nature of linguistics, while his bird's nest poems illustrate the self-awareness, and obsession with the creative process that captivated the romantics in a truly individual style. Clare was relatively forgotten during the nineteenth century, but interest in his work was revived by Arthur Symons in 1908, Edmund Blunden in 1920 and John and Anne Tibble in their ground-breaking 1935 2-volume edition. Copyright to much of his work has been controlled since 1965 by the editor of the Complete Poetry (OUP, 9 vols., 1984-2003), Professor Eric Robinson, though some have contested this copyright claim. For a full list of recent reactions to the issue, see the 'copyright' section of The John Clare Page.
Poems by Clare (chronological)
- Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery. London, 1820.
- The Village Minstrel, and Other Poems. London, 1821.
- The Shepherd's Calendar with Village Stories and Other Poems. London, 1827
- The Rural Muse.* London, 1835.
Works about Clare (chronological)
- Martin, Frederick. The Life of John Clare.' 1865.
- Cherry, J. L. Life and remains of John Clare. 1873.
- Gale, Norman. Clare's Poems. 1901.
- Dendurent, H. O. John Clare: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1978.
- Brownlow, Timothy. John Clare and Picturesque Landscape. 1983.
- Haughton, Hugh, Adam Phillips, and Geoffrey Summerfield. John Clare in Context. Cambridge University Press, 1994.
- Goodridge, John, and Simon Kovesi, eds., John Clare: New Approaches John Clare Society, 2000.
- Bate, Jonathan. John Clare. London: Picador, 2003.
- Sinclair, Iain. Edge of the Orison: In the Traces of John Clare's 'Journey Out Of Nigga Land.'" 2005.
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