John Clare, the almost forgotten poet, became a Victorian by living long enough. He was born the son a farm labourer in 1793 in Helpstone, at that time in Northamptonshire, on the edge of the Fens. He left school at seven (in fact he can hardly be said have been schooled at all) but all the same made himself widely read. His first, and only, love was a village girl called Mary Joyce. They never married, perhaps because of her father although, at times, Clare blamed her too. He married a woman nicknamed Patty Turner but whose real name, strangely enough, was Martha, and he does seem to have thought of them as embodiments of their Biblical namesakes.
Until the mid-1960s not all of his work was known and for this reason, perhaps, Caroline Spurgeon doesn't include him in her book, Mysticism in English Literature, although he may well have qualified as a mystic, at least in his early years. Helpstone was his Eden, Mary his Eve. He was also born at a time when the Enclosure Acts were changing the countryside. When Mary deserted him and his landscape was being desecrated, it must have felt like the Fall and expulsion from the Garden, some commentators say. He worked as a labourer, at times even planting the hedges that were changing the landscape. In 1793 Helpstone (which is still a very small village) was of course even more deeply eighteenth century than London, and in many ways Clare remained an eighteenth-century man all his life. His first book of poetry, The Shepherd's Calendar, came out when he was thirty-four. He tried, and failed, to sell a second volume, The Midsummer Cushion, by subscription. A third book, The Rural Muse , came out in 1835. By then reading fashions had changed (he was billed as the Northamptonshire Peasant Poet), his market dried up, and he had to go back to labouring.
Naturally enough, most of his work is nature poetry, but he also had a sharp satirical eye for his society, and also a deep melancholy. This is from "Wood Pictures in Summer." (The spelling and the grammar are Clare's.)
The one delicious green that now prevades
The woods and fields in endless lights and shades
And that deep softness of delicious hues
That overhead blends — softens — and subdues
The eye to extacy and fills the mind
With views and visions of enchanting kind.
True as the church clock hand the hour pursues
He plods about his toils and reads the news
And at the blacksmiths shop his hour will stand
To talk of ÔLunun' as a foreign land
For from his cottage door in peace or strife
He neer went fifty miles in all his life.
Shrewdly he weighs up the important men of the parish as they meet to set the local rates, or taxes in "The Parish"):
With learning just enough to sign a name
And skill sufficient parish rates to frame
And cunning deep enough the poor to cheat
This learned body for debatings meet.
Thou art gone the dark journey
That leaves no returning
Tis fruitless to mourn thee
But who can help mourning
To think of the life
That did laugh on thy brow
In the beautiful past
Left so desolate now.
John Taylor, the publisher, not only corrected his spelling and grammar, he also thought he had the right to delete dialect words, often very expressive ones - croodle means to shrink and huddle up in the cold. Flusker is said of a bird when it suddenly flies up in a clatter of wings. Drowking is drooping with thirst or drought.
The John Clare Memorial, Helpston, Northamptonshire. [Click on thumbnail for larger image and additional information.]
After his lionising days were over, he went back to labouring — the FitzWilliams, a local landowning family, let him have a cottage on their estate in Northamptonshire — but now his old friends were shy of him and he never fitted in again. Already he was suffering from "the blue devils." In 1837 he admitted himself, voluntarily, as a patient into a home for people with mental problems in Epping Forest in Essex. At times he thought he'd married both Patty and Mary and so was in prison for bigamy. Sometimes he thought he was Byron, sometimes Burns, or a prize fighter. He wrote poetry, a lot of which is still with us, and was encouraged to do so. Then in 1841 he ran away — to rejoin Mary as he thought. A few months later he was certified insane and sent to the Northampton General Asylum where he stayed until he died in 1864. It was not a bad place, although whether it was typical or not I don't know. The asylum itself was large and eighteenth century with private gardens at the back. Nor was he locked up — he spent a lot of time sitting in the porch of All Saints' Church or wandering around the town and its ale houses (somebody has said he was no tea-drinker) writing verses about what he saw. The House Steward, W F Knight, not only encouraged him to write, he transcribed his work into two volumes. "I Am" and "A Vision," probably his two best known poems, were both composed there. "A Vision" (written in August, 1844) begins:
I lost the love of heaven above
I spurned the lust of earth below
I felt the sweets of fancied love
And hell itself my only foe.
Clare, John. Selected Poems and Prose. edited by Eric Robinson and Geoffrey Summerfield. Oxford University Press. Oxford, 1982.
Last modified 10 June 2009