In 1865, a year after John Clare’s death in the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum, Frederick Martin, a former amanuensis of Thomas Carlyle, published the first biography of the ‘peasant poet’. It laid the foundations, Jonathan Bate says in his new Life, ‘for both the enduring myths and some of the key truths about Clare’. Though there have been other biographies since Martin’s, Bate’s should finally disprove Dickens’s dismissal of it as a ‘preposterous exaggeration of small claims’, and consolidate Clare’s reputation as a major Romantic poet (it’s strange to remember that he was much more successful in his lifetime than Keats, with whom he shared a publisher).
Clare was discovered in 1819, when Edward Drury, a young Stamford bookseller, wrote to his cousin John Taylor, who was also a bookseller – what we would now call a publisher – and told him that he had discovered a wholly untutored genius:
Your hopes of good grammar and correct verse, depend on the inspiration of the mind; for Clare cannot reason; he writes and can give no reason for his using a fine expression, or a beautiful idea: if you read Poetry to him, he’ll exclaim at each delicate expression ‘beautiful! fine!’ but can give no reason: yet is always correct and just in his remarks. He is low in stature – long visage – light hair – coarse features – ungaitly – awkward – is a fiddler – loves ale – likes the girls– somewhat idle, – hates work.
As Bate says, this is condescending, but it also shows ‘terrific enthusiasm’. The last sentence of Drury’s letter, like a moment from Clare’s prose – or, I would imagine, his conversation – catches him, pinning on him the adjective ‘awkward’, which in the spelling ‘awkard’ Clare uses obsessively in his writings. (I’m less sure of Bate’s way with adjectives: he throws out a series of phrases – ‘dodgy reputation’, ‘stunningly powerful’, ‘morally high-fibre books’, ‘wonderfully accurate’ – which are too parlando for a serious biography.)
Clare left nearly ten thousand pages of manuscript writings – poems, autobiography, journals, letters, essays and natural history writings, as well as a substantial number of traditional songs, which he transcribed and collected. Four collections of poems – less than a quarter of his output – appeared in print during his lifetime: Poems, Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery(published in 1820, when he was 26), The Village Minstrel and Other Poems(1821), The Shepherd’s Calendar; with Village Stories, and Other Poems(1827) and The Rural Muse(1835). For a short time, he was celebrated as the English Burns, but his work hasn’t had Burns’s lasting popularity and in recent years it has been hard to find in paperback (Bate’s useful selection won’t be published in this country until his biography appears in paperback). One result of this neglect is that the circumstances of his life are not widely known.
Clare’s paternal grandmother, Alice Clare, was the daughter of the senior parish clerk at Helpston in Northamptonshire. In the early 1760s, she had a relationship with John Donald Parker, an itinerant Scottish fiddler and teacher who was working in the village school. On discovering she was pregnant, he disappeared and was never heard of again. Her son was christened for the absent father, and became a talented traditional singer, a gift he passed on to his own son, John, who also became an adept fiddler, like his grandfather. Clare felt an affinity with Robert Burns, collected songs as Burns did, and during his asylum years wrote a number of songs in the Scottish vernacular. Clare says in his autobiography that both his parents were ‘illiterate to the last degree’. Concerned to dispel the myths, Bate points out that the Clares, who formed a line of parish clerks, would have been among the most literate people in their village: Parker Clare could certainly read, although his wife, Ann Stimson, did not know a single letter of the alphabet and, like many country people, regarded printed texts as a form of witchcraft. At this time, Bate notes, illiteratemeant not ‘unable to read’ but ‘ignorant of polite letters’.
Clare and a twin sister were born on 13 July 1793, in a thatched tenement on Helpston High Street, next door to the Blue Bell public house. There were two bedrooms and two downstairs rooms: in Clare’s words, his childhood home was ‘as roomy and comfortable as any of our neighbours’. There was an apple tree in the garden, which, Clare says in his autobiography, ‘stood’ his father’s ‘friend many a year in the days of adversity by producing an abundance of fruit which always met with ready sale and paid his rent’. (Martin doesn’t mention the apple tree in his biography and describes the thatched cottage as a ‘narrow, wretched hut’.) Clare was baptised on 11 August 1793, by which time his sister was dead. Bate suggests that the search for something lost – ‘something innocent, female, and associated with childhood’ – was bound into Clare’s mental state and at the heart of his poetry. The family remembered his sister as Bessy, and talked enough about her to ‘ingrain’ her in Clare’s memory.
When times were hard his father withdrew him from school to save on fees; but, encouraged by two teachers, he read the Bible, the prayer book, penny chapbooks, an agricultural manual and an old book of essays that had lost its title page. He acquainted himself with ‘Mathematics Particularly Navigation and Algebra, Dialling, Use of the Globes, Botany, Natural History, Short Hand, with History of all Kinds, Drawing, Music’. He never studied ‘Grammer’, and always expressed a dislike of its ‘tyranny’, but he was good at maths, something which helped him in negotiations with publishers. The formative texts of his childhood and early youth were, inevitably, Pilgrim’s Progress and Robinson Crusoe, both of which he echoed in ‘To the Snipe’, a lyric whose isolated, islanded atmosphere and slough-like, ‘rude, desolate’ marshes build a distinctive form of Puritan anguish.
Bate begins his third chapter with an account of the most profound experience of Clare’s childhood. One morning he went to gather rotten sticks from the wood, then decided ‘to wander about the fields’. He gazed over the yellow furze of Emmonsales Heath, and imagined, he says in his autobiography, ‘that the world’s end was at the edge of the horizon and that a day’s journey was able to find it’. He thought that when he reached the brink of the world he would find a large pit, and would be able to look down and see the secrets of the universe. He spent the whole day rambling among the furze, ‘till I got out of my knowledge when the very wild flowers and birds seemed to forget me and I imagined they were the inhabitants of new countries’. Before morning seemed over, it was dark, and when by chance he found the right track and got back to his own fields everything appeared different. When he reached home he found his parents distressed and half the village out searching for him – a woodman had been killed by a falling tree and they feared he too had been hurt. This experience – analogous to Wordsworth’s childhood need to touch external objects in order to prove they weren’t mental and ideal – is behind one of Clare’s greatest poems, ‘Birds Nesting’:
To the worlds end I thought I’d go
And o’er the brink just peep adown
To see the mighty depths below.
Clare is thought of as a marginal, provincial poet, who inhabited a remote green world of heath, woodland, riverbank and marshland, but Bate draws attention to the richness of the cultural life around him. Stamford, to the northwest of Helpston, just over the county border into Lincolnshire, was no backwater. Books were published there; it had a theatre, musical evenings and a newspaper, the Stamford Mercury, ‘the articulate voice of eastern England’. In 1809 John Drakard established a rival newspaper, the Stamford News, edited by the radical journalist John Scott, who was later to edit the London Magazine. The village of Helpston itself was caught between two landed and political interests: Burghley Park was the seat of the Exeters, who were Tories, while the Milton Estate belonged to the Fitzwilliams, who were Whigs.
Clare’s horizon was set by the parishes that surround Helpston: Maxey, Etton, Glinton, Bainton, Northborough and Ufford. During his childhood, most of these villages had open fields, but in 1799 Bainton was enclosed. Ten years later, when he was 16, a Parliamentary Act was passed for ‘Inclosing Lands in the Parishes of Maxey with Deepingate, Northborough, Glinton with Peakirk, Etton, and Helpstone in the County of Northampton’. The principal purpose of enclosure was to increase profits, but the price of ‘Improvement’ was the loss of the commons and waste grounds, which according to the Act ‘yield but little Profit’. It took until 1820 to bring the enclosure fully into effect (nearby Castor stayed unenclosed until 1898). Laxton in Nottinghamshire remains as an example of how the English landscape used to look: wide open, unhedged, its spaciousness pushing beyond the horizon.
Clare was devastated by this violation of his natural and social environment. As Bate shows, the open-field system fostered a sense of community, the fields spread out in a wheel with the village at its hub. Enclosure thwarted Clare’s ‘open-field sense of space’, as John Barrell calls it in The Idea of Landscape and the Sense of Place, his seminal study of the poems, and imposed a more linear sense. Fences, gates and ‘no trespassing’ signs went up. Trees were felled and streams diverted so that ditches could follow a straight line.
Inclosure like a Buonaparte let not a thing remain,
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.
‘Remembrances’ is printed without punctuation in the six-volume Oxford edition, as are all the other poems, but Bate adopts light punctuation where the sense requires ‘some form of pointing’. In the last line of this passage the addition of the comma foregrounds the pause after ‘stream’, as Clare’s vernacular voice pushes honestly and severely against the metre and the couplet form (it would have been helpful if Bate had noted the way punctuation can alter cadence and rhythm, but like many biographers he usually employs quotations from the poems simply as narrative illustrations).
Bate follows E.P. Thompson in describing Clare as a poet of ‘ecological protest’, as well as a political poet angered by the destruction of ‘an ancient birthright based on co-operation and common rights’. A local farming family, the Turnhills, with whom Clare and his father were friendly and for whom they did labouring work, were forced from their home without compensation at the time of enclosure, and Clare also identified with the plight of the Gypsies who camped on the common and margins – the ‘waste’ grounds which became private property. Although use of the commons had been technically restricted to those who occupied certain properties, the unenclosed spaces were perceived as belonging to everyone. Controversially, Bate says that analysis of land-tax assessments and expenditure on parish relief suggests that more smallholders and tenant farmers in Helpston lost their land in the years immediately before the enclosure than in its aftermath, and that the labouring poor may have been ‘marginally better off’ as a result of enclosure.
There were other changes. Festival days – Plough Monday, for example – were abolished by those whom Clare termed the ‘vulgar tyrants of the soil’. Enclosure also infringed the right to roam, creating a claustrophobic environment, marked and ribbed by power and wealth. But Clare, unlike Burns, opposed those he called ‘the French Levellers’ – he saw the Revolutionaries as analogous to rapacious English enclosers – and in 1808 he joined the Eastern regiment of the Northampton militia. His military service involved only a few weeks of training, but he remained technically an enlisted man, and could have been called up between 1812 and 1816. He worked irregularly in these years with fencing and hedging gangs engaged in enclosure. The Clares’ cottage had been divided, and they now had only two rooms. Clare’s father wasn’t well, and from 1814 was in receipt of Parish Poor Relief. A few years later, the apple tree failed to bear fruit and they were unable to pay the rent. Around this time, Clare fell in love with Martha Turner (‘Patty’), who lived in a secluded cottage between Casterton and Pickworth and whose parents were socially a bit above the Clares.
Clare was already writing poetry, inspired by Thomson’s Seasons, which he had first read as a 13-year-old in a battered, fragmentary copy lent him by a Helpston weaver. Overwhelmed by Thomson’s Whig pastoral, Clare nagged his father for some money, and bought his own copy for the bargain price of a shilling. He didn’t want to be seen reading on a working day, so he climbed over the high wall round Burghley Park. Like the young Blake seeing a tree full of angels in the fields at Peckham Rye, this moment is part of literary folklore: ‘What with reading the book,’ Clare wrote in his autobiography, ‘and beholding the beauties of artful nature in the park, I got into a strain of descriptive rhyming on my journey home.’ He wrote a poem called ‘The Morning Walk’; a companion piece called ‘The Evening Walk’ followed soon after. He began to write poems in secret and to hide them in an old cupboard. One of the poets he admired was Robert Bloomfield, another ‘peasant poet’, who in 1800 had published a poem called The Farmer’s Boy, which sold 26,000 copies in three years and made its author £4000.
In 1818, Clare resolved to try to get his work published. It was a low point for him: he was lime-burning at Casterton, very short of money, concerned about his parents’ ill health and poverty, and in love with Patty Turner, but without the prospect of marriage. His only contact with the publishing world was J.B. Henson, a printer and bookseller in nearby Market Deeping. He showed Henson two of his earliest sonnets, ‘The Setting Sun’ and ‘To a Primrose’, together with a poem on the death of Chatterton. Henson agreed to get in touch with his London bookseller, but claimed the only viable means of publication would be by subscription. In order to get up a subscription list, there would have to be a prospectus with a specimen of Clare’s poetry. To print three hundred copies of the proposal, Henson would charge a pound. By working day and night at the limekiln, Clare saved the money. He then wrote the prospectus on a sheet of paper that was ‘crumpled and grizzled’ with lying in his pocket. He described his poems as a mixture of juvenile productions and the ‘offsprings of those leisure intervals which the short remittance from hard and manual labour sparingly afforded to compose them’. Henson demanded not just the agreed pound, but an extra five shillings for expenses. He said he would print the book as soon as a hundred subscribers had been signed up, but demanded an advance of £15 from Clare, who had, he said, ‘not 15 pence nor 15 farthings’ to call his own. It was then that Clare received a bill for 15 shillings from a Mr Thompson who kept a bookshop in Stamford High Street. He was selling up and wanted to settle his accounts. Clare now had a lucky break. The new owner of the bookstore was a young man called Edward Drury, whose father was a printer in Lincoln. Drury read Clare’s prospectus and saw an opportunity. He paid off Clare’s bill and went to see him. Clare had been about to go to Yorkshire in search of work – the family was two years behind with the rent and on the point of eviction – but Drury now began to send him advances on a volume of poems. Clare wrote through the winter and into the spring, sending Drury new poems and corrections to earlier ones. On 8 April 1819 ‘To the Glow-worm’ appeared in the Macclesfield Courier, a clumsy sonnet that began: ‘Tasteful Illuminations of the night’.
Drury gave Clare’s poems to his cousin John Taylor, who had worked for the booksellers who published Bloomfield’s Farmer’s Boy and had himself published Endymionin 1818. Taylor launched Clare in the London Magazine, which he founded. The first issue (1 January 1820) contained an article about Clare by Octavius Gilchrist: ‘Some Account of John Clare, an Agricultural Labourer and Poet’. It was at this time that fears about Clare’s mental health began to surface. Drury wrote to Taylor that he feared Clare would be ‘afflicted with insanity if his talent continues to be forced as it has been these 4 months past’. Drury noted how sensitive Clare was to criticism, and how even a small amount of alcohol left him with terrible hangovers, which in turn made him ‘melancholy and completely hypochondriac’.
On 15 January 1820, Clare’s first book appeared under the title Poems, Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery. He was described as ‘A Northamptonshire Peasant’. The edition of 1000 copies sold out within two months. A second edition of 2000 sold out before the year was over, and two more followed soon after. Taylor’s introduction, Bate argues, set the tone for the critical response to the volume. In it, Taylor told the story of Clare saving his shilling to buy The Seasons, and praised his distinctive use of a vernacular style and regional dialect. He presented Clare as a poet of immediate impressions and a child of nature, which, as Bate says, failed to honour his ‘breadth of reading and depth of formal artfulness’. Poems, Descriptivewas well received: both the Eclectic Review – a radical journal – and the reactionary Anti-Jacobin Reviewpraised it.
Clare was received at Milton Hall by the Fitzwilliams, who gave him money and advice, as well as blankets and other comforts for his parents. The family would provide Clare with financial assistance for the rest of his life. He also visited Burghley House, where he was kindly received by the Marquess of Exeter’s family. The Marquess immediately gave him an annuity of £15 a year. Clare also found patrons in Baron Radstock and Eliza Emmerson. In March he made his first visit to London, where his portrait was painted by William Hilton. Taylor and his business partner James Hessey gave a dinner for him, at which Clare met and became friends with Henry Cary, whose translation of Dante he draws on in ‘To the Snipe’. A week after returning to Helpston, he married Patty Turner, who was pregnant. An announcement of the wedding was placed in the London Magazine, and Hessey sent Clare a Cremona violin. When their first daughter, Anna Maria, was born, Clare and his wife moved into the tenement next door to his parents.
Despite the money that was beginning to come to Clare from the annuities, gifts from patrons, and remittances from Taylor and Hessey, he had to take up manual labouring in the summer of 1820. Among the stresses of literary fame was the postage he had to pay on the unwanted fan letters he received, not to mention the visits from well-wishers who turned up as he worked in the fields and lost him valuable hours. Others took him to the Blue Bell and got him drunk.
Clare and Taylor came under pressure from Baron Radstock and Eliza Emmerson to remove lines from Poems, Descriptivewhich expressed radical sentiments. (This episode is described by Alan Vardy in John Clare, Politics and Poetry. He also gives a detailed and in the main convincing account of Clare’s relationship with his other patrons, and with Taylor and Hessey.) Taylor wrote to Clare that he was ‘inclined to remain obstinate’, and told Emmerson that since 2000 copies of the third edition of Poems, Descriptivehad already been printed, it was too late to make any alterations. Taylor did, however, drop some poems which were thought indelicate. Though Clare was annoyed by this ‘medlars false delicacy’, Taylor treated him, Bate says, with exemplary fairness, offering a half-share of the profits and refusing to let Clare bind himself to the publishing firm in perpetuity. Arguing convincingly against those critics and scholars who see Taylor as an interfering editor, Bate defends his changes to Clare’s unpunctuated, irregularly spelled texts, and argues that Clare expected his editors to insert punctuation and correct his spelling. Bate persuades me that I was mistaken many years ago in criticising Taylor’s editing. He had to transcribe, correct, regularise and improve Clare’s manuscripts, whose ‘clutter, insertions and erasures’, as Bate notes, are an editor’s nightmare. It has taken the editors of the Oxford edition forty years to decipher, transcribe and publish Clare’s surviving manuscripts. (They opt to print the poems without punctuation.) Bate also addresses the question of the copyright to Clare’s manuscripts, which is claimed by his Oxford editor, Eric Robinson, who bought them for £1 in 1965.
Bate’s account of Clare’s relationship with Taylor convincingly shows that Clare often needed the stimulus of his publisher’s urgings: ‘If I cannot hear from John Taylor now and then I cannot rhyme.’ Taylor’s health was fragile and he could be distracted by the demands of his business, so this support wasn’t always forthcoming. Sometimes Clare wrote furiously day and night, at other times he was unable to put pen to paper. Bate suggests that he suffered from manic depression – he frequently wrote in his letters of ‘blue devils’. He felt alienated from his community, and his first son died while he was working on his second volume, The Village Minstrel. In a letter of 1822 to Taylor he complained:
I live here among the ignorant like a lost man in fact like one whom the rest seems careless of having anything to do with – they hardly dare talk in my company for fear I shoud mention them in my writings & I find more pleasure in wandering the fields then in musing among my silent neighbours who are insensible to every thing but toiling & talking of it & that to no purpose.
Clare was also, as he told Eliza Emmerson, ‘love-sick’ – he had had an affair – and worried about money.
On a visit to London in 1824 he watched Byron’s funeral moving up Oxford Street, and noted that it was the common people who were mourning him. Byron’s death marked the waning of the enormous popularity of poetry in England – a reaction was setting in. There was a severe commercial recession in which publishing was affected, and Taylor and Hessey ceased trading, though Taylor published The Shepherd’s Calendarin 1827.
While Clare was working on The Shepherd’s Calendar, which Bate rightly calls one of the great poems of the 19th century, he and Taylor became exasperated with each other. Towards the end of January 1826, Clare wrote to tell Taylor that he couldn’t cope with further delays and cross-purposes. Taylor wrote back saying that no progress could be made because the ‘July’ poem was ‘unfit for Insertion’ and the next day wrote:
Heretofore I have submitted, and apologized, and taken Blame to myself, – because I was resolved, if possible, to complete my Undertaking, whatever Pains it cost me: but your frank Censure has at last relieved me from my irksome Situation, and I must now as frankly tell you, that for the principal part of the Delay and for the present total Stop again, you are alone responsible – Look at the Vol. of MS. poems which I now send you, and show it where you will, and let any of your Friends say whether they can even read it. – I can find noonehere who can perform the Task besides myself. Copying it therefore is a Farce for not three Words in a Line on the Average are put down right, and the number omitted, by those whom I have got to transcribe it, are so great, that it is easier for me at once to sit down and write it fairly out myself – But suppose I attempt to do this; here I encounter another Difficulty: – The Poems are not only slovenly written, but as slovenly composed, and to make Good Poems out of some of them is a greater Difficulty than I ever had to engage with in your former Works, – while in others it is a complete Impossibility.
The letter ended: ‘Farewell, dear Clare, I am not less your Friend for speaking so freely.’ Vardy calls this letter ‘cruelly haranguing’, and says that ‘to lash out at Clare was cruel and dishonest,’ arguing that the arbitrariness of Taylor’s editorial decisions points to ‘the incompetence of a desperate and shattered man’. Five days later Taylor apologised for his tone. Clare wrote a new and much shorter poem for ‘July’, and The Shepherd’s Calendar; with Village Stories, and Other Poemswas published at the end of April 1827 (Vardy says that Taylor made a ‘mess’ of the text when he edited the manuscript, though he cites no evidence). It was a poor season for new books, Taylor complained, and the new Calendarhad ‘comparatively no sale’. It received some substantial and laudatory reviews, however, and the anonymous reviewer in the Literary Chronicle claimed that Clare had now made good his early promise to be the English equal of Burns. But Clare felt lonely, depressed and alienated. Echoing Exodus, a favourite biblical book, he wrote, ‘I am but as an alien in a strange land,’ and compared himself to Sisyphus, ‘the poor purgatorial convict of Grecian mythology’. He was becoming more and more obsessed with the memory of an early love, Mary Joyce. He wrote poems to her and she became a symbolic figure who incorporated other lost girls he may have known much more intimately than he ever knew her. The notion of Mary Joyce as his one true desire was a ‘convenient fiction’ of his poetry and his first biographers.
In the spring of 1829, the land steward at Burghley Park noted that Ford and Trigg were thrashing, Stanger minding the pigs, Henson and Isaac bringing in the malt and ‘Clare cutting a hedge’. In his letters we catch glimpses of him harvesting, and ‘revelling afterwards in Stamford’. We also glimpse his practical gifts when he responds to the long overdue accounts Taylor and Hessey sent him in August 1829. He had been busy with the harvest, and was not able to look at them in detail until November. There were six accounts, whose net result showed that Clare was in debt to Taylor and Hessey to the sum of just over £141 – the equivalent of three and a half years’ worth of his regular annuity and dividend payments, or nearly six years’ income from agricultural labour. Clare noticed several errors or sleights of hand. He pointed to these and to a number of other problems, and they were able to reach an agreement. At the beginning of January 1830, Taylor sent Clare a £10 note, which more than accounted for the half-yearly annuity due to him. It was a gesture of reconciliation, and the question of the money Clare owed was quietly dropped. But, Bate points out, one of the enduring myths about Clare has been that he was a victim of sharp financial practice on Taylor’s part.
Clare was always short of paper, which was very expensive: a blank folio notebook cost a week’s wages. Bate notes that whatever hardships the Clares had to endure, they ensured that their children had sixpenny chapbooks for Christmas. In the chaos of Clare’s papers, this little note survives:
Christmas Boxes promised my childern
Anna Valentine and Ornson
Eliza Cock Robin
Frederic Peacock at Home and Butterflyes Ball
John Dame Trott and her Cat
William Mother Hubard and her Dog
Sophy House that Jack Built
The Reform Bill of 1832 achieved nothing for the rural poor and riots in the countryside were brutally suppressed by executions, imprisonment and transportations. The Clares’ financial difficulties were symptomatic of a widespread economic crisis.
Then they had what looked like a stroke of good fortune. A cottage belonging to the Milton estate was available for rent in the village of Northborough, three miles from Helpston, and through the intervention of the local clergyman it was offered to Clare. It had a large garden, an established orchard and a grazing pasture, but the rent was £13 a year, several times what he was paying at Helpston. Northborough was an isolated, gossipy, introverted community, and the move desolated Clare, whose poem ‘The Flitting’ represents his sense of loss and bereavement at leaving ‘mine own old home of homes’ (Bate does not include this major poem in his selection).
Three years later, in July 1835, he published his fourth and last volume, The Rural Muse. Sales were slow, but reviews were uniformly favourable. As Bate points out, the volume was distinguished by a run of 86 sonnets, several of which used ‘a hitherto unattempted rhyme scheme’ (‘Evening Schoolboys’ rhymes abababcbcbcdcd, and ‘The Crab Tree’ rhymes ababacdcdefeff – Bate remarks that he knows of ‘no precedent for either scheme’). It was during this period that Clare wrote ‘To the Snipe’. In Taylor’s letters we catch glimpses of Patty Clare, his ‘comely’, tough wife, whom Taylor describes as ‘a very clever active woman’, who keeps ‘them all very respectable and comfortable, but she cannot manage to control her husband at times’. Taylor says in a letter to his sister (9 December 1835) that Clare’s mind ‘is sadly enfeebled’, and that he is ‘very violent, I dare say, occasionally’. In July 1837, he was committed to Allen’s private asylum in Epping Forest, ‘by authority of his wife’.
The poems collected in the final volume of Robinson’s Oxford edition cover the years of Clare’s success and the beginning of his failure and mental illness. His sense of desolation is evident throughout, in the ugly images of pollarded or ‘dotchel trees’, ‘bulky dotterel trees’ and an ‘old squatty oak’, which embody his sense of loss and dislocation. In ‘Wandering by the rivers edge’, a characteristically untitled poem, he employs the form of L’Allegro and Il Penserosolovingly to represent reeds, kingfishers, osiers, and a sinister hissing snake coiling in the flood, before describing trees ‘to stumpy dotterels lopt’ and then: ‘Oer treeless fens of many miles/ Spring comes & goes & comes again/& all is nakedness & fen.’ The social isolation, the pressure of his celebrity, the loss of a familiar, unenclosed landscape culminate in these alienated lines:
A scene that makes the cold achill
Large grounds bethronged with thistles brown
Shivering & madding up & down
Was but a bramble in the place
Twould be a sort of living grace
A shape of shelter in the wind
For stock to chew their cuds behind
But all is level cold & dull
& osier swamps with water full
The blasted bareness, the ‘cold achill’, ‘cold & dull’ and repeated ‘acold’ elsewhere in the poem pick up ‘Tom’s acold’ on the heath with Lear and the Fool, while the earlier image of ‘dithering’ thistles that ‘crowd the lane’ alludes to the violent disturbances of the early 1830s, when Clare wrote this poem. Just before the lines quoted, he writes of ‘dunghills hiding snake & toad’, meaning the rich farmers, placemen and recipients of clerical tithes.
That final hard uhsound in ‘full’ brings ‘dull’ back with added emphasis, striking a dank, hollow reverberation. The mention of the snake and the toad, and Clare’s use elsewhere in the poem of the word ‘puddock’, or kite, make it anti-pastoral, as does the Crabbean coldness and use of ‘dreary’, and the obsessive use of ‘rude’. Words such as ‘awkard’, ‘rawky’, ‘crizzled’, ‘clumbsy’, ‘crimped’, ‘chafe’, ‘grubbing’, ‘slur’, ‘prog’ (celebrated by Seamus Heaney), as well as ‘ragged’, ‘shabby’, ‘sour’, ‘stroked harls’ and the reference to the ‘muck that clouts a ploughman’s shoe’, are also markers of this significant aesthetic category. When Clare says in an untitled poem beginning ‘Good morning to ye honest swain’ that he goes ‘to dinner with the lark/Behind a stubble shock’, he is deliberately roughening the conventional lyric image. (Keats beautifully and subtly employs this strategy in ‘To Autumn’, where the clammy, bloody or deliberately mawkish images and effects code a republican politics, although this is still not accepted by many scholars).
In such poems Clare draws on Hazlitt’s essay ‘On Thomson and Cowper’ which he read in Lectures on the English Poets. Clare had met and admired Hazlitt, and would have been taken by his praise of Robert Bloomfield, who Hazlitt says ‘gives the simple appearance of nature, but he gives it naked, shivering and unclothed with the drapery of a moral imagination’. The shivering thistles are a version of that unclothed imagination. Hazlitt also praises Bloomfield as an ‘ingenious and self-taught’ poet, whose verse is distinguished for ‘delicacy, fruitfulness and naivety’. This primitivism is cherished by Clare, but alongside it is the anxiety that because the ploughman’s shoe fits him, he will be seen as for ever plodding homeward, not as a poet with a soodling, sauntering, rambling gait that makes him wholly, uniquely and confidently part of his habitat. Hazlitt remarked that it is not the ‘beautiful and magnificent alone’ that we admire in nature: ‘The most insignificant and rudest objects are often found connected with the strongest emotions.’ Clare’s ‘rude table & still ruder chair’ belong to this aesthetic. Milton’s modesty topos at the opening of Lycidas – ‘forced fingers rude’ – also informs Clare’s use of the adjective. He is a highly allusive, self-consciously literary author, not the simple, natural and authentic vernacular poet some of us earlier attempted to describe.
His allusiveness is evident in his use of the adjective ‘shaggy’, which appears five times in this volume, along with ‘shagged’ and ‘shag’, and which he associates with ‘tattered’, ‘ragged’, an ‘old smoked blanket’, and with the marvellous bad taste moment in his sonnet sequence ‘Turkeys’:
The turkey gobbles loud & drops his rag
& struts & sprunts his tail & drags
His wing on ground & makes a huzzing noise
The rough, deliberately rebarbative texture, the relished ugliness and love of dissonance are also present in the opening of ‘The Badger’, one of the finest poems in Bate’s selection:
The badger grunting on his woodland track
With shaggy hide & sharp nose scrowed with black
Roots in the bushes & the woods & makes
A great hugh burrow in the ferns & brakes
With nose on ground he runs a awkard pace
& anything will beat him in the race
‘Shaggy’ was used by Milton, Gray and others to abrade the Latinate, full-vowelled melody of their verse and, particularly in the late Augustan period, it was employed to signify the rude, northern barbarity Gray was drawn to. Scott uses it many times, and Thomson is remembering his native speech when he describes a hill in ‘Spring’ which is ‘shagged with mossy rocks’. In De Vulgari Eloquentia, Dante speaks of moulding Italian into the language of his epic, and uses the image of four different knaps of cloth to describe different kinds of word: pexa(‘combed-out’), lubrica(‘glossy’), yrsuta(‘shaggy’) and reburra(‘rumpled’). In Clare’s friend Henry Cary’s translation of the Inferno, the forest, which represents the Italian language in its unmoulded, variously provincial state, is described as ‘savage wild . . . robust and rough’ (‘selva selvaggia e aspra e forte’). This idea of savage shagginess, or vigorous dialect, is picked up when the badger is referred to in another Northborough poem about the marten, which has ‘badger hair long shagged’. It is a heroic emblem of Clare’s feelings as a poet in a rural community where he was the victim of jealousy and backbiting.
These feelings clearly contributed to his depression. In July 1841, after four years in the asylum, Clare made an escape – the journey out of Essex, which has entered literary folklore. Over four days, he walked the hundred miles back to Northborough. Still obsessed with Mary Joyce, he wrote two songs for her on his first night home. Patty was at first glad to have him back, and though Allen sent a man to persuade him to return to High Beech, she thought him so much better ‘that she wished to try him for a while’. Poem fragments from this period describe meadow lands which are ‘blea’ (exposed) and ‘flags’ (irises) that are ‘bleached and brown’ near more ‘dotterel’ trees. In December 1841, two local doctors certified his insanity for the second time, and he was admitted to the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum. He was placed among the ‘fifth class’, or ‘harmless patients’, and was allowed considerable freedom. He could walk into Northampton alone and became a well-known figure in the town. He chewed tobacco and smoked a clay pipe all the time, and had an ‘agreeableness of disposition’ which contrasted with the aggressiveness of many of the other inmates. Patty, as far as we know, never visited him during his 23 years in the asylum. In letters home, Clare refers to being in captivity ‘among the Babylonians’, and in conversation he claimed several identities – Byron, Shakespeare, Lord Nelson, various prizefighters. To an American visitor he claimed to have visited the United States and to have called on a New England poet called Corduroy who ‘dwelt in a beautiful cottage – a poet’s cottage, encircled by trees and flower-gardens. Hundreds of gentlemen and ladies, in their splendid carriages, came to see the poet’s cottage.’ Bate has tried without success to trace this American poet called Corduroy – a wild goose chase, because he is a projection of Clare’s own experience. In his poems, Clare uses that rough, ribbed, then relatively new material as an image for ploughed fields or trees (maple bark is ‘ribb’d like corderoy in seamy screed’) and for his identity as a peasant poet.
During the asylum years, Clare wrote some of his finest poems, among them ‘I Am’ (‘I Am – Yet what I am, none cares or knows;/My friends forsake me like a memory lost’), and ‘A Vision’:
I lost the love of heaven above,
I spurn’d the lust of earth below,
I felt the sweets of fancied love
And hell itself my only foe.
Clare never went home again, and, it seems, never tried to. He died during a heatwave in May 1864, ‘very helpless and quite childish’. He was ready to die, often saying in his last years, ‘I have lived for too long’ and ‘I want to go home.’ As he expresses it in the last stanzas of ‘A Vision’:
I lost earth’s joys, but felt the glow
Of heaven’s flame abound in me
‘Till loveliness and I did grow
The bard of immortality.
I loved but woman fell away
I hid me from her faded fame,
I snatch’d the sun’s eternal ray
And wrote till earth was but a name.
In every language upon earth,
On every shore, o’er every sea,
I gave my name immortal birth
And kept my spirit with the free.