Poems of John Clare’s Madness
Ed: Geoffrey Grigson
published 1949 by Routledge and Keegan Paul
Not so much a review as a few notes for me after reading it:
I have finally managed to read and finish this book. Read it hot on the heels of ‘Life of John Clare’ by Frederick Martin (1856), Clare’s first biographer. This Geoffrey Grigson title, as you can guess, covers Clare’s years in the asylums. Firstly at High Beech, Epping from where he walked back to his house and family in Northborough and spent five months at home. During this period he failed to recover then slowly deteriorated, ebbing and flowing in his schizophrenic episodes. He was certified and taken to the new asylum at Northampton where he spent the rest of his life. Poetry and prose still flowing for most of that time though after 1842 critics say the quality of his writing lessened but still had many bursts of quality when his faculties allowed. He was in spasmodic but certain decline.
First four years were in High Beech where his output was thought by some to be his best. This may have been to the fact that he was well cared for, had food and could work in the gardens but also had freedom to wander the grounds and outside into Epping Forest with its woods and glades. Here also, in mall hamlets, local churches, with wildlife of all forms around and with the ability to keep his solitude or company as he wished. One might almost say his first good luck (!) after years of physical and mental hardship. The only stipulation that he returned each evening being kept to. He seemed relatively happy though he railed against’being locked in a prison, that he had no visitors’. Doors were not locked, visitors arrived and received and he was encouraged to write whenever. He wrote but like the tides, his dementia ebbed and flowed.
And he met with gypsies and perhaps realised he should be free, no doubt like them, and hit upon the plan to walk home. He walked for the 90 miles, being found by his wife just a few short miles from their ‘new’ home Northborough. A brief recovery of physical health after the gruelling walk, if not mental followed but then a further slipping away of the mind and his family was recommended he be certified.
He was taken, unwillingly, to the new asylum in Northampton.
He would have been welcomed back to Epping but it seems the Northampton authorities liked the idea of having a ‘celebrated local poet’ in their new establishment. And so it was.
He was still treated well and had his freedom but his mental condition continued its slow decline.
The first part of this book carries this outline of the man and his writing poetry. Moving into his being published and then delving deeper into his mental state. Psychiatric explanation is given but not too heavily, the stability of the man being sensed through his actions and reports of his well-being, or declines, from friends and doctors. His mental condition worsened dramatically a few years before his death but his physical health remained quite strong until his last few months, likely caused by a stroke. and his death, similarly.
The process and change of his poetry through the last twenty three years of his life can be followed through the next section of the book. None of his prose is included.
Most, if not all of these ‘asylum years’ poems (176) will have become available in other books since this one was published in 1949. It had many first-time published (100) and others that Grigson had edited (71) from MSS with newer/different understanding of Clare’s style than previous publications.
Grigson uses Kretschner’s case study of Holderlin as close comparison for Clare . This offers insights into his early mental condition and the trail of personality alterations over the years caused by his dementia. Grigson notes that Clare’s mental history can be followed through his poetry, especially the years at High Beech and more finally in the poems in the last few months of his life (in Northampton asylum).
Don Juan and Child Harold both long poems are here. Don Juan has a bitter edge to, it’s lines and overall tone shows a change, touches of vitriol. Releasing anger and regret and language not previously Clare’s. Some parts remind me of Villon, probably the rush and harshness of the verse. The ride is bumpy and often veers but carries you along, much more like a more modern collection, like wine mixed with blood, if I may mix a random metaphor.
Poem’s most well known are from this last period, being: A Vision( 1842), Song: Love Lies beyond the Tomb, An Invite to Eternity, I Am. The very last poem Clare wrote was Bird’s Nests. (1863). All these are now widely known and anthologised.
Grigson points to several occasions in Clare’s life where certain schemes for self-sufficiency or support from local landowners might have given him the peace of mind and freedom from heavy work and near self-starvation that would have staved off his illness. Or at least have lessened it’s impact to enable him to remain peacefully within his family. Never as easy or as simple as that, he seemed to have arrived on the poetry scene on the crest of a wave just as it crashed and was unable to cultivate an audience or capture their support. It seems his poetic style fell out of favour and his failure to ‘market’ himself, as his publisher and friend repeatedly advised him. Just as much as his pride that stopped him accepting ‘charity’, all added to his woes. The weight of poverty and sense of abandonment after brief success was too heavy. His physical weakness hastened his inability to support his large family even on the breadline. And of course, more complex issues threaded through his life and mind. Despite all his difficulties Clare believed in his poetry and that it would stand the test of time. Believed that though he may be dead and long forgotten his poetry would remain and be recognised. His belief, maybe his fixation that his poetry would remain was likely motivation for his carefully maintaining and collating his manuscripts despite the odd collection of scraps, sheets and ledgers they were written in.
So the poet slowly declined in mind but he still had those outbursts of poetry and was creative throughout a long life. We see from the texts in this book that Clare had fixations, delusions and sometimes rants but the poems are always interesting in themselves . Perhaps as insights to his struggle with himself, his sense of self and determination to retain a core. Some of his last poems are now considered his best. Those which show his determination to exist to the last.
This is probably not an easy book to find but fascinating to read. Having said that, the likelihood of further research, deeper understanding of Clare’s malady and more scouring of his MSS will have produced much more rigorous colour into the reading of his work since writing this title. Of course this helps lay an early course of understanding of Clare.
Grigson seems little impressed by the quantity or quality of the numerous poems and songs that Clare wrote with Scottish accents. However, in a recent book by Ronald Blythe. (At Helpston) we are reminded that Clare possessed volumes of Burns poetry and that itinerant Scottish workers would have been regular seasonal workers, especially in the Northamptonshire fields where Clare wandered in his earlire days. He would have been attracted to their way of life, their songs, music. Their accents would have been easily carried by Clare’s ear, as it had been for French. Many years later, in the quietude of the asylum grounds and the magnified recalling of his youth, despite mixing with his mis-firing faculties, he was well able to write lyrically in an accented way. Odd though it may seem without knowing those little twists of reason in the unreasoned.
Mary, his first (brief) love, his lost and enduring love, features frequently in his confusion as his first wife. Despite his knowing her for a very short time and being dismissed as a suitor by her father, a farmer. Another arrow in his mind that pierced deeply, like his poverty, like his brief visits to London as celebrity and then as a friend in need. And the loss of a public and failures to publish.
Despite all he had always known he had to be a poet. As a young, intelligent child he was swept away by the countryside around him and the poet’s books he discovered and owned, like Thompson, Bloomfield, Wordsworth, Milton, Byron, Burns and all the local or famous poets he could lay his hands on. Blessed or burdened, he lived as a poet and died a poet.
A Vision Written August 2nd 1844
I lost the love of heaven above,
I spurned the lust of earth below,
I felt the sweets of fancied love,
And he’ll itself my only foe.
I lost earth’s joys, but felt the glow
Of Heaven’s flame abound in me,
Till loveliness and I did grow
The bard of immortality.
I loved but woman fell away,
I hid from her faded fame,
I snatch’d the sun’s eternal ray
And wrote till earth was but a name.
In every language upon earth,
On every shore, o’er every sea,
I gave my name immortal birth
And kept my spirit with the free.
Almost twenty years later, his final poem:
Bird’s Nests Written 1863
‘Tis spring, warm glows the south,
Chaffinch carries the moss in his mouth
To filbert hedges all day long,
And charms the poet with his beautiful song;
The wind blows bleak o’er the sedge fen,
But warm the sun shines by the little wood,
Where the old cow at her leisure chews her cud.
The first Biography of Clare by Frederick Martin, 1864
Edmund Blunden helped him reappear in his 1924 publication.
And books on my shelf:
Professor and Anne Tibble’s biography of 1932 and their edited collection of Clare, 1935
John Clare, a biography by Jonathan Bate. Paper ed, Picador 2004
Birds Nest, edited by Anne Tibble. Almost titled as Clare’s last ever poem but Birds Nests not included in book.
The Midsummer Cushion, by John Clare: published by MidNAG as the book Clare planned but failed to get enough support to publish.
John Clare, The Living Year. By John Clare. Clare’s writings in date order through the year of 1841 Trent Editions, 1999
John Clare and the Place of Poetry by. Mina Gorji. 2008. Liverpool Uni Press An interesting study on Clare’s poetry and offering that Clare consciously styled himself as the ‘Peasant Poet’ for his place in literary history. Well worth reading for serious students.
There are many other works on Clare, especially over the last 15/20 Years.
He has even been praised as a poeticstar as highly as Shakespeare. A far cry from a man who had so little, except his poetry.