John Clare by William Hilton,
oil on canvas, 1820
|Born||13 July 1793
Helpston, Soke of Peterborough, Northamptonshire, England
|Died||20 May 1864 (aged 70)
Northampton General Lunatic Asylum, Northampton, England
|Notable works||Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery|
John Clare (13 July 1793 – 20 May 1864) was an English poet, the son of a farm labourer, who came to be known for his celebratory representations of the English countryside and his lamentation of its disruption. His poetry underwent a major re-evaluation in the late 20th century, and he is now often considered to be among the most important 19th-century poets. His biographer Jonathan Bate states that Clare was "the greatest labouring-class poet that England has ever produced. No one has ever written more powerfully of nature, of a rural childhood, and of the alienated and unstable self".
Clare was born in Helpston, six miles to the north of the city of Peterborough. In his lifetime, the village was in the Soke of Peterborough in Northamptonshire and his memorial calls him "The Northamptonshire Peasant Poet". Helpston now lies in the Peterborough unitary authority of Cambridgeshire.
He became an agricultural labourer while still a child; however, he attended school in Glinton church until he was 12. In his early adult years, Clare became a potboy 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 a gardener at Burghley House. He enlisted in the militia, tried camp life with Gypsies, and worked in Pickworth as a lime burner in 1817. In the following year he was obliged to accept parish relief. Malnutrition stemming from childhood may be the main culprit behind his 5-foot stature and may have contributed to his poor physical health in later life.
Clare had bought a copy of Thomson's The Seasons and began to write poems and sonnets. In an attempt to hold off his parents' eviction from their home, Clare offered his poems to a local bookseller named Edward Drury. Drury sent Clare's poetry to his cousin John Taylor of the publishing firm of Taylor & Hessey, who had published the work of John Keats. Taylor published Clare's 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 was published.
He had married Martha ("Patty") Turner in 1820. An annuity of 15 guineas from the Marquess of 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. Soon, however, his income became 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 in the fields his health temporarily improved; but he soon became seriously ill. Earl FitzWilliam presented him with a new cottage and a piece of ground, but Clare could not settle in his new home.
Clare was constantly torn between the two worlds of literary London and his often illiterate neighbours; between the need to write poetry and the need for money to feed and clothe his children. His health began to suffer, and he had bouts of severe depression, which became worse after his sixth child was born in 1830 and as his poetry sold less well. In 1832, his friends and his London patrons clubbed together to move the family to a larger cottage with a smallholding in the village of Northborough, not far from Helpston. However, he felt only more alienated.
His last work, the Rural Muse (1835), was noticed favourably 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 along with his dissatisfaction with his own identity, Clare's behaviour became more erratic. A notable instance of this behaviour was demonstrated in his interruption of a performance of The Merchant of Venice, in which Clare verbally assaulted Shylock. He was becoming a burden to Patty and his family, and in July 1837, on the recommendation of his publishing friend, John Taylor, Clare went of his own volition (accompanied by a friend of Taylor's) to Dr Matthew Allen's private asylum High Beach near Loughton, in Epping Forest. Taylor had assured Clare that he would receive the best medical care.
Clare was reported as being "full of many strange delusions". He believed himself to be a prize fighter and that he had two wives, Patty and Mary. He started to claim he was Lord Byron. Allen wrote about Clare to The Times in 1840:
It is most singular that ever since he came… the moment he gets pen or pencil in hand he begins to write most poetical effusions. Yet he has never been able to obtain in conversation, nor even in writing prose, the appearance of sanity for two minutes or two lines together, and yet there is no indication of insanity in any of his poetry.
Later life and death
During his first few asylum years in High Beach, Essex (1837–41), Clare re-wrote famous poems and sonnets by Lord Byron. His own version of Child Harold became a lament for past lost love, and Don Juan, A Poem became an acerbic, misogynistic, sexualised rant redolent of an ageing Regency dandy. Clare also took credit for Shakespeare's plays, claiming to be the Renaissance genius himself. "I'm John Clare now," the poet claimed to a newspaper editor, "I was Byron and Shakespeare formerly."
In 1841, Clare absconded from the asylum in Essex, to walk some 90 miles (140 km) home, believing that he was to meet his first love Mary Joyce; Clare was convinced that he was married to her and Martha as well, with children by both women. He did not believe her family when they told him she had died accidentally three years earlier in a house fire. He remained free, mostly at home in Northborough, for the five months following, but eventually Patty called the doctors in. Between Christmas and New Year in 1841, Clare was committed to the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum (now St Andrew's Hospital). Upon Clare's arrival at the asylum, the accompanying doctor, Fenwick Skrimshire, who had treated Clare since 1820, completed the admission papers. To the enquiry "Was the insanity preceded by any severe or long-continued mental emotion or exertion?", Dr Skrimshire entered: "After years of poetical prosing." He remained here for the rest of his life under the humane regime of Dr Thomas Octavius Prichard, who encouraged and helped him to write. Here he wrote possibly his most famous poem, I Am.
He died on 20 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 (which bears the inscriptions "To the Memory of John Clare The Northamptonshire Peasant Poet" and "A Poet is Born not Made") on his birthday, in honour of their most famous resident.
In his time, Clare was commonly known as "the Northamptonshire Peasant Poet". His formal education was brief, his other employment and class-origins were lowly. Clare resisted the use of the increasingly standardised English grammar and orthography in his poetry and prose, alluding to political reasoning in comparing "grammar" (in a wider sense of orthography) to tyrannical government and slavery, personifying it in jocular fashion as a "bitch". He wrote in his Northamptonshire dialect, introducing local words to the literary canon such as "pooty" (snail), "lady-cow" (ladybird), "crizzle" (to crisp) and "throstle" (song thrush).
In his early life he struggled to find a place for his poetry in the changing literary fashions of the day. He 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 an 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 work. Clare argued with his editors about how it should be presented to the public.
Clare grew up during a period of massive changes in both town and countryside as the Industrial Revolution swept Europe. Many former agricultural workers, including children, moved away from the countryside to over-crowded cities, following factory work. The Agricultural Revolution saw pastures ploughed up, trees and hedges uprooted, the fens drained and the common land enclosed. This destruction of a centuries-old way of life distressed Clare deeply. His political and social views were predominantly conservative ("I am as far as my politics reaches 'King and Country'—no Innovations in Religion and Government say I."). He refused even to complain about the subordinate position to which English society relegated him, swearing that "with the old dish that was served to my forefathers I am content."
His early work delights both in nature and the cycle of the rural year. Poems such as "Winter Evening", "Haymaking" and "Wood Pictures in Summer" celebrate the beauty of the world and the certainties of rural life, where animals must be fed and crops harvested. Poems such as "Little Trotty Wagtail" show his sharp observation of wildlife, though The Badger shows his lack of sentiment about the place of animals in the countryside. At this time, he often used poetic forms such as the sonnet and the rhyming couplet. His later poetry tends to be more meditative and uses forms similar to the folk songs and ballads of his youth. An example of this is Evening.
His knowledge of the natural world went far beyond that of the major Romantic poets. However, poems such as "I Am" show a metaphysical depth on a par with his contemporary poets and many of his pre-asylum poems deal with intricate play on the nature of linguistics. His "bird's nest poems", it can be argued, illustrate the self-awareness, and obsession with the creative process that captivated the romantics. Clare was the most influential poet, aside from Wordsworth, to practice in an older style.
Revival of interest in the 20th century
Clare was relatively forgotten during the later 19th 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 two-volume edition, while in 1949 Geoffrey Grigson edited Poems of John Clare's Madness (published by Routledge and Kegan Paul). Benjamin Britten set some of "May" from A Shepherd's Calendar in his Spring Symphony of 1948, and included a setting of The Evening Primrose in his Five Flower Songs.
Copyright to much of his work has been claimed since 1965 by the editor of the Complete Poetry, Professor Eric Robinson, though these claims were contested. Recent publishers have refused to acknowledge the claim (especially in recent editions from Faber and Carcanet) and it seems the copyright is now defunct.
The largest collection of original Clare manuscripts are housed at Peterborough Museum and Art Gallery, where they are available to view by appointment.
Altering what Clare actually wrote continued into the later 20th century; for instance, Helen Gardner amended not only the punctuation but also the spelling and grammar in the New Oxford Book of English Verse 1250–1950 (1972), which she edited.
Since 1993, the John Clare Society of North America has organised an annual session of scholarly papers concerning John Clare at the annual Convention of the Modern Language Association of America.
John Clare Cottage
The thatched cottage where he was born was bought by the John Clare Trust in 2005. In May 2007 the Trust gained £1.27m of funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund and commissioned Jefferson Sheard Architects to create a new landscape design and Visitor Centre, including a cafe, shop and exhibition space. The Cottage at 12 Woodgate, Helpston, has been restored using traditional building methods and is open to the public.
In 2013 the John Clare Trust received a further grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund to help preserve the building and provide educational activities for youngsters visiting the cottage.
Poetry collections 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.
- Sonnet. London 1841
- First Love
- Snow Storm.
- The Firetail.
- The Badger – Date unknown
Works about Clare (chronological)
- Martin, Frederick. The Life of John Clare. 1865.
- Cherry, J. L. Life and Remains of John Clare. 1873.
- Heath, Richard (1893). "John Clare". The English Peasant. London: T. Fisher Unwin. pp. 292–319.
- Gale, Norman. Clare's Poems. 1901.
- Wilson, June. Green Shadows: The Life of John Clare. 1951.
- Bond, Edward. The Fool. 1975.
- Dendurent, H. O. John Clare: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1978.
- Storey, Edward. A Right to Song: The Life of John Clare. London: Methuen, 1982.
- Brownlow, Timothy. John Clare and Picturesque Landscape. 1983.
- MacKenna, John: Clare: a novel – Belfast: The Blackstaff Press, 1993. ISBN 0-85640-467-5 (Fictional Biography)
- Haughton, Hugh, Adam Phillips, and Geoffrey Summerfield. John Clare in Context. Cambridge University Press, 1994. ISBN 0-521-44547-7.
- Moore, Alan, Voice of the Fire (Chapter 10 only), Great Britain: Victor Gollancz.
- Goodridge, John, and Simon Kovesi (eds), John Clare: New Approaches, John Clare Society, 2000.
- Bate, Jonathan. John Clare. London: Picador, 2003.
- Vardy, Alan B. John Clare, Politics and Poetry, London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003.
- Sinclair, Iain. Edge of The Orison: In the Traces of John Clare's "Journey Out of Essex", Hamish Hamilton, 2005.
- MacKay, John. Inscription and Modernity: From Wordsworth to Mandelstam. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006. ISBN 0-253-34749-1.
- Powell, David, First Publications of John Clare’s Poems. John Clare Society of North America, 2009.
- Akroyd, Carry, "Natures Powers & Spells": Landscape Change, John Clare and Me, Langford Press, 2009. ISBN 978-1-904078-35-7
- Allnatt, Judith, The Poet's Wife, Doubleday, 2010 (fiction). ISBN 0-385-61332-6.
- Foulds, Adam. The Quickening Maze, Penguin, 2010.
- Moore, DC, Town (Play)
- Geoffrey Summerfield, in introduction to John Clare: Selected Poems, Penguin Books, 1990, pp. 13–22. ISBN 0-14-043724-X.
- Sales, Roger (2002), John Clare: A Literary Life; Palgrave Macmillan, ISBN 0-333-65270-3.
- Bate, Jonathan (2003), John Clare: A biography; Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
- Louis Untermeyer, in A Treasury of Great Poems, English and American, from the Foundations of the English Spirit to the Outstanding Poetry of our Own Time with Lives of the Poets and Historical Settings Selected and Integrated, Simon and Schuster, 1942, p. 709.
- "Review 1". Rcpsych.ac.uk. 27 July 2007. Retrieved 27 February 2015.
- BBC article. Retrieved 12 September 2013.
- Geoffrey Summerfield, Hugh Haughton, Adam Phillips, John Clare in Context, Cambridge University Press, 1994, ISBN 0-521-44547-7, p. 263.
- Margaret Grainger (ed.), The Natural History Prose Writings of John Clare, Oxford English Texts, Oxford University Press, 1983, ISBN 0-19-818517-0, p. 34.
- "Festival celebrated poet's life and work". Rutland and Stamford Mercury. 15 July 2008. Retrieved 15 August 2012.
- Asked by his cousin and publisher John Taylor to correct a passage for publication, he answered: "I may alter but I cannot mend grammer in learning is like tyranny in government--confound the bitch ill never be her slave & have a vast good mind not to alter the verse in question..." (Letter 133). See Storey, Edward, ed. (1985). The Letters of John Clare. Oxford: Clarendon Press. p. 231. ISBN 9780198126690.
- Manjoo, Farhad (17 October 2003). "Man Out of Time by Christopher Caldwell". Slate. Retrieved 15 August 2012.
- Fowler, Alastair (1989). The History of English Literature. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. p. 250. ISBN 0-674-39664-2.
- Oxford University Press, 9 vols, 1984–2003).
- "The John Clare Page website 'copyright' section: full list of recent reactions to the copyright dispute". Johnclare.info. Retrieved 15 August 2012.
- John Goodridge (22 July 2000). "Poor Clare". The Guardian. Retrieved 12 July 2015.
- "Letter from Eric Robinson: Clare's rights". London: Books, The Guardian. 31 January 2003. Retrieved 15 August 2012.
- "MLA Session organized by the John Clare Society of North America". Johnclare.org. Retrieved 15 August 2012.
- Stephen Briggs, "Peterborough heritage sites gets big lottery boost", Peterborough Telegraph, 13 June 2013.
- "First Publications of John Clare’s Poems by David Powell". The John Clare Society of North America. 2009. Retrieved 15 August 2012.
- Michael Billington (23 June 2010). "Review of ''Town'' by D. C. Moore". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 15 August 2012.
|Wikisource has original works written by or about:
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to John Clare.|
- Works by John Clare at Project Gutenberg
- Works by or about John Clare at Internet Archive
- Works by John Clare at LibriVox (public domain audiobooks)
- The John Clare Society
- The John Clare Society of North America
- Clare Cottage, Helpston
- The John Clare Page, chronology, poems, images, essays, bibliography, press coverage, links, etc.
- The 1824 essay "Popularity in Authorship" introduced by the poet John Birtwhistle.
- John Clare's family researching and challenging stigma
- Archival material relating to John Clare listed at the UK National Archives
- Index entry for John Clare at Poets' Corner