It is quite amazing that a poet who was recognised by many of his peers of the day, only briefly by his public at large, sank almost out of sight for a hundred years before climbing in stature to a pre-eminent position amongst poets some of whom surpassed him in his lifetime; and is now studied at A level plus degree level and researched widely.
The likes of Burns (with whom Clare felt a close affinity), Byron, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley and many others of his day may have retained their fame but none have grown in stature over the centuries as has Clare.
Born to an agricultural labourer family in Helpston. Educated at the local village school, he was a promising child who might have gone further as an apprentice but Clare found the rigour of such indoor work confining and seems to have needed the freedom of an outdoor life. He became a ploughboy. He found the poetry of Thompson and the work of Robert Bloomfield and his eye and brain turned to poetry. Not only that but also taking on his father’s interest in playing the fiddle and folk songs.
As well as roaming the countryside for between or during working hours, he became a collector of folk songs, learnt to play the fiddle, gained knowledge of gypsy music from visiting their camps. Taught himself to read and write music by reading music scores of tunes he knew so he could record the tunes he gathered. And wrote many poems as ‘songs’ for those tunes. I haven’t read that he wrote any new music, just collected what he heard. Travellers he met, drovers too, would have brought music from such as Scotland and other regions, in the way that music travels even today. Many happy hours seem to have been spent working as a pot-man at the Blue Bell Inn or just whiling away the hours with drinking, fiddling and song. These seem to have been sunny times for him, maybe helping lift his spirits.
One reason why he has become so well known may be that there is still so much to be discussed and discovered about the man. He was not highly educated, at a village school, though recommended as a very able student by the master. He was and continued to be, an avid reader and self-educating along the way in the wide range of books he could borrow or buy. At one point he had a whole library to select from where he worked as a gardener for a while. You may say he was unfortunate in his life for all the hardships he had to endure. The stress of poverty and physical hardship caused an eventual breakdown in his health and mind.
But we must remember that with a mind as sharp as his, we can see decisions that he made for himself. They may have been wrong at times, pride, unwillingness to change, and an element of diffidence or inferiority that held him back. I suspect a serious aspect for him was his (in)ability to support his family within the constraints of the work available to his small stature whilst maintaining his growing believe in himself as a poet. He had some small success on being published but not in volume or as income. A degree of fame without income was draining mentally, physically and also financially.
His family was supported to move to Northborough a very few miles from his village of Helpston but this was a difficult move for him personally and may have added to his slipping mental health. However this move did produce a whole raft of writing recently published as the ‘ Northborough Sonnets’
His years in asylums where his mental health was in difficulty actually produced some of his best poetry. Poetic form was in his blood and it is thankful that he was allowed pen and paper and that these were collected and kept safe. This was both in High Beech and again in Northampton Asylum after a brief spell of refusing writing materials. In these years his physical health was much improved, his stress levels most likely lessened by being away from his family. Though still to some degree because of his separation from family and especially his beloved Helpston environs; and need to be confined within a different, smaller area of grounds. (Epping Forest would have been an area he could have wandered but had not the fields and fens he loved.). At Northampton, when more settled, he would be allowed to visit the town and often sat in the precinct of All Saint’s Church.
Becoming frail they used a wheelchair for him, enabling him to sit in the asylum grounds. He had a stroke and died shortly after on 20th May 1864. He was buried at Helpston on 25th May.
His output is put at thousands of poems, large amounts of natural history prose, a brief autobiography, partly written humorous novel and rewriting of verses of the bible. His writings have been problematical in their ‘deciphering’ and dating put progress has been made in the last few years. More study will produce more insights and understanding. No doubt some deeper meanings will be sought from some verse. In many cases I believe he wrote what he saw, in minute detail, for us all to see. He was not ‘philosophical’ in his writings on nature, perhaps a little, later, in ‘personal’ verse. He wrote satire too, in scything detail, read The Parish and Don Juan at least for a sharper side to his tongue. Some say his stature in literature ranks with Shakespeare. His was a totally different vein to Shakespeare but it is not an idea I have much argument with.
Perhaps I wrote more than I intended but there is so much more to write! Clare’s poetry should be his memorial. I usually include lesser known lines where possible and these later poems, likely from 1860, are fitting:
The Peasant Poet
He loved the brook’s soft sound,
The swallow swimming by.
He loved the daisy-covered ground,
The cloud-bedappled sky.
To him the dismal storm appeared
The very voice of God;
And when the evening rack was reared
Stood Moses with his rod.
And everything his eyes surveyed,
The insects in the brake,
Were creatures God Almighty made,
He loved them for His sake–
A silent man in life’s affairs,
A thinker from a boy,
A peasant in his daily cares,
A poet in his joy.
To John Clare
Well, honest John, how fare you now at home?
The spring is come, and birds are building nests;
The old cock-robin to the sty is come,
With olive feathers and its ruddy breast;
And the old cock, with wattles and red comb,
Struts with the hens, and seems to like some best,
Then crows, and looks about for little crumbs,
Swept out by little folks an hour ago;
The pigs sleep in the sty; the bookman comes–
The little boy lets home-close nesting go,
And pockets tops and taws, where daisies blow,
To look at the new number just laid down,
With lots of pictures, and good stories too,
And Jack the Giant-killer’s high renown.
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 oblivious host,
Like shades in love and death’s oblivion lost;
And yet I am! and live with shadows tost
Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life nor joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;
And e’en the dearest- that I loved the best-
Are strange- nay, rather stranger than the rest.
I long for scenes where man has never trod;
A place where woman never smil’d or wept;
There to abide with my creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept:
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie;
The grass below- above the vaulted sky.