“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 …” English poet John Clare wrote these lines in 1844 from the asylum in Northampton where he spent the final years of his life, after being committed there in 1841. His words testify to the terrifying loneliness of being at once physically imprisoned and also, on a psychological level, without edge.
Clare was born in Northamptonshire, England in 1793 to ailing and destitute field labourer parents. At the age of seven he began work as a goose and sheep herder. He had little schooling, although he was a fiddle player and a traditional singer, as was his father, and what schooling he had ended when he was eleven. Two years later, a local weaver lent him a book of poetry, and shortly afterward he began writing poems, often at the expense of his fieldwork. When Clare was 26 and still a manual labourer (as he remained, even after publication) a bookseller in the nearby town of Stamford came across some of his poems and sent them onto his cousin, John Taylor, a bookseller and publisher in London. Taylor went on to publish Clare’s first collection, Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery, which met with both commercial and critical success.
Unfortunately, the image crafted for him then by well-meaning, urban critics–that of the naive, salt-of-the-earth peasant, the “genuine” poor person, in touch with the land–left him little room to evolve. His subsequent, more complex and occasionally political works were, perhaps inevitably, less well-received. Unlike Shelley or Byron, he described, rather than fantasized. He also raged against social inequality, and enclosure, the process of enclosing and privatizing common lands which he had watched destroy his community and landscape from the age of 16 on, a process which “came and trampled on the grave/ Of labour’s rights and left the poor a slave.”
Nevertheless, the publication of his first book enabled him to marry, and to save his parents from the poorhouse. His subsequent move out of his native village of Helpston, along with his wife, Peggy, and their nine children, to a more secure home in a different village was less successful. Clare’s sense of himself and of reality itself became more porous, and he became increasingly obsessed with his first (dead) sweetheart, Mary, to the detriment of his own marriage. Peggy eventually had him committed to an asylum in Essex, from which he famously escaped on foot, travelling the hundred miles home in four days in the summer of 1841. After five months at home, however, he was committed again, this time to the Northampton asylum where he died, aged 70, leaving behind thousands of poems. His work remained under-appreciated for more than a century, until being rediscovered in the 1960s. Since then, his work has gradually received more and more attention–and been appropriated variously by activists of different stripes.
Unlike the Romantics, Clare viewed the natural world for what it was, and not as a grand metaphor for human experience. His poetry catalogues English rural life and land at a moment when both were under threat from the rise of industrial capitalism. It would be a terrible mistake, however, to view his work only as a kind of sentimental or anthropological record–his keen sense of irony, detail and music, and his unique and richly-inflected mix of dialect and elevated language all testify to his skill as a poet, and his work has the power to confound, chill and delight, even today.
Some of my ancestors on my mother’s side were Northamptonshire labourers. I’d like to think they may have known him, or seen him composing in a field or fiddling in an alehouse, the younger Clare, so full of eager intensity, somehow carrying the older Clare on his back, as both burden and witness.