What is it about the sheer accumulation of detail in modern biography, tending to overwhelm interpretation, as it piles up, page on page? It feels like an endurance dance: do you get a prize if you reach the end without skipping?

Jonathan Bate is an excellent scholar and lucid writer with excellent critical judgement and his biography of John Clare is many ways wonderful but it left me dissatisfied. Partly this was the wave after wave of detail that never seems to cohere as more than the sum of its parts but mostly because of the lack of exploratory criticism of the work itself either in itself or in its context.

Nor was there a sense of speculative entrance into the mind and heart of his subject - this can be risky but is, I feel, ultimately necessary. It is as if a 'necessary' objectivity must stand outside with the details, not crossing into the intimacy of a ventured subjectivity.

But Clare does shine through - the extraordinary particular observation of nature that takes you with him entering the country of his heart (and his labour); and, the tragedy of his sad decline: captured in the asylum, alternating between lucidity and delusion (though, by all account, kindly treated for the age).


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