John Clare

Finally reading Jonathan Bate's monumental biography of John Clare that is beautifully written and sets the 'peasant' poet in a richly detailed environment both natural and social.

One thing to emerge is the difference between merit immediately perceived and merit accumulated. Bate's describes a number of writers who enjoyed the flare of immediate popularity, only to fade, poets that captured the attention of the public whilst Coleridge and Wordsworth languished in the by ways, but of whom only the most specialist of scholars would now have heard (or indeed would pay any attention to: justified or no). It reminds me of Aesop's fable of the hare and the tortoise: acclaim is a fickle god.

Equally, I am struck about how the shaping of genius does not rely on genius, Clare's own reading (and reflection) was anchored in a diversity of texts, most of which have faded of view, and many of which were technical volumes concerning a host of subjects - from mathematics to herbal medicine. His reading was determined by a double availability - what was present in the small towns of rural Northamptonshire and what could be afforded by a labourer, often reduced to casual work by a combination of ill health and poetic fancy.

His was a tragic life - partly conditioned by the constrained acceptance of a genteel reading public that lauded and then faded in its interest and partly through the ravages of his ill health, most especially his latter mental instability.

Here is one of his great, late poems, written out of breakdown:

I Am

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,
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shades in love and death's oblivion lost;
And yet I am! and live with shadows tost

Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life nor joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life's esteems;
And e'en the dearest--that I loved the best--
Are strange--nay, rather stranger than the rest.

I long for scenes where man has never trod;
A place where woman never smil'd or wept;
There to abide with my creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept:
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie;
The grass below--above the vaulted sky.

And an earlier poem of acute natural and social observation...


The snow falls deep; the forest lies alone;
The boy goes hasty for his load of brakes,
Then thinks upon the fire and hurries back;
The gipsy knocks his hands and tucks them up,
And seeks his squalid camp, half hid in snow,
Beneath the oak which breaks away the wind,
And bushes close in snow-like hovel warm;
There tainted mutton wastes upon the coals,
And the half-wasted dog squats close and rubs,
Then feels the heat too strong, and goes aloof;
He watches well, but none a bit can spare,
And vainly waits the morsel thrown away.
Tis thus they live--a picture to the place,
A quiet, pilfering, unprotected race.


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