Sunday, 20 September 2009

JOHN CLARE (13/7/1793 -20//1864) - They called it madness

Oh sweet John Clare, much maligned, poet, romantic, lover, I say genius.
He was born into abject poverty in a roadside tenement on the edge of Deeping Fen, Helpston, Northamptonshire (July 13 1793). He minded horses ,did odd jobs, learned his letters, fell in love, liked a drink, a good read, joined the militia, courted gypsies, an ordinary man .
He came across James Thomsons- "The Seasons" and began to write verses, full of streams of consiousness. I love it.
At his best he suggests the tiny detail of nature, nest and eggs of wild birds, insects in the pools, markings on leaves, "and full many in a nameless weed, neglected, left to run to seed," when in hot july " e'en the dew parched up from the teasels jointed cup" . He had the eye of a countryman and delighted, like a painter , to show the slightest detail of nature. His muse: ......... "sits her down. Upon the molehills little lap, Who feels no fear to stain her gown. And pauses by the hedgerows gap."
so sensitive, too sensitive for his times,they bloody well got him for this. This was the time of the enclosures, he wrote about their injustices ,
"It levelled every bush and tree and levelled every hill.
And hung the moles for traitors,
though the brook is running still,
It runs a naked stream cold and chill."
Perhaps they punished him for this , sure he fell into tormented love, but love alone is not a crime, is it ?
He married a local lass, Patty Turner , in 1820 and had 7 children. Unfortunately he liked a drink and was prone to depression. He also had not forgotten his first love, Mary (Joyce), who he clearly loved dearly, with perhaps too much devotion. Is not all true love blind, possibly today with some kind of therapy he could have left it behind.
In 1820 his first book was published- " poems descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery" and the following year, followed it up with "Village Minstrel and other Poems."
Similar to todays modern celebrities, courted by admirers, fans. Fame was a fickle game, they liked a good peasant poet at the time, yet as soon as the fad was 'passe' , he was dropped like a lead balloon. After pawing him with affection, they grew tired, yearning for a new sensation and deserted him.
This and poverty alienated him and his increasing devotion to a past flame was perhaps tippng him towards an edge, towards what today is termed a nervous breakdown. He internalised and drove himsef too hard, complaining of;
"a confounded lethargy of low spirit that prisses on me to such a degree that at times makes me feel as if my senses has a mind to leave me."
In 1837 he was cruelly sectioned, imprisoned. He became reborn, reaching further into his inner torment , his yearning for his lost love Mary. Isolated , in fear, he stated "I'm John Clare now "
" I was Byron and Shakespeare formerly". He was very self aware and became "a half mad melancholy dog".
Over the years he became prone to even more distraught thoughts , increasingly alienated from family, friends and love. He started to believe he was married to two wives . At this time asylums were essentially prisons. He turned himself into a warrior poet, fighting against tyranny and oppression, waging war on cant and lies. I believe he peeled away the veneer of civilised gentility and unveiled the lust, greed, envy ,deceit and malice that lay beneath.
"Never act hypocrisy " he wrote " for deception is the most obvious knavery in the world."
For years he had to mind his ' P's and Q's' amidst his love for nature and his two wives.
In 1841 he escaped, aided by his friends from the gypsy community, walking 100 miles back home to Northampton. It is worth noting that while walking home, not one person mistook him for an escaped lunatic. He returned to his wife , until someone grassed him up and he was returned to Northampton General Lunatic Asylum.
Here he remained for the rest of his life, isolated , talking to himself, leaving poems unfinished, undeciphered . He continued to write, and letters reveal a man in some kind of control, demonstrating tender passionate love. Twenty years of quality poetry proved this.
This was a time of slavery, this was also a time of trade in lunacy, when many were improperly locked up. A privatisation of madness, in Clare's case there was profit to be made.
Where once he had been independant and proud, he was powerless, dispossessed, forced into solitude,occassionally visited and treated like a freak and puppet. There was money to be made, poetry on tap.
Sure he suffered from delusions, but was he actually mad/insane? With pen or pencil in hand he wrote the most beautifull poetic effusions, no indication of insanity in his poems.
There was no attempt to cure him or discharge him, no therapy , lest this encouraged delusions, introspection or over excitement. His life passed by almost like an unbroked poetic dream.
Oh sweet John Clare, long may his stature grow. Let's never forget him. his sentiments echo today in these disturbing times, a metaphysical strength , a vision of truth.

I AM (sonnet)

I feel I am;- I only know I am,
And plod upon the earth, as dull and void:
Earth's prison chilled my body with its dram
Of dullness, and my soaring thoughts destoyed,
I fled to solitudes from passions dream,
I was a being created in the race
Of men disdaining bounds of place and time:-
A spirit that could travel o'er the space
Of earth and heaven, - like a thought sublime,
Tracing creation, like my maker, free,-
A soul unshackled - like eternity,
But now I only know I am,-that's all

Further reading
Jonathan Bate - John Clare, a Biography. picador 2003
Iain Sinclair- The edge of the Orison. Hamish Hamilton 2005
Alan Moore- Voices of the Fire- Victor Gollanz


  1. i really enjoyed this post... i'd only come across the name of John Clare from the edge of orison,which i've not got round to reading yet... x

  2. cheers, big admirer of Iain Sinclair's work, I find he is very good at emphathysing with the edge of things, laters