John Clare Essay - Clare, John (Poetry Criticism)

Clare, John (Poetry Criticism)


John Clare 1793–1864

English poet and prose writer. See also John Clare Literary Criticism.

For his vivid and exact descriptions of rural life and scenery, Clare is ranked with the foremost English nature poets. Attempts, however, to place him stylistically within the context of the first half of the nineteenth century have led to critical debate. While some commentators define Clare's importance with reference to the tradition of eighteenth-century descriptive verse, others emphasize the Romantic qualities of his poetry. Most recently, attention has been paid to the works of John Clare as unique poetic expressions in their own right.

Biographical Information

Clare grew up in the Northamptonshire village of Helpston, England, where the rustic countryside was to provide him with inspiration for most of his poetry. As the only son of impoverished field laborers, Clare spent his childhood on the farm working to help support his family. Consequently, his formal education was limited to three months a year, first at a small school in his native village and later at a school in nearby Glinton. Clare's poetic talent was nourished by his parents' knowledge of folk ballads as well as by his own reading of the works of the eighteenth-century poet James Thomson, whose long poem, The Seasons, inspired Clare to write verse. At age fourteen, Clare's formal education ended when financial hardship obliged him to obtain permanent employment outside his family. In 1809, while working at the Blue Bell Inn in Helpston, Clare fell in love with Mary Joyce, the daughter of a wealthy farmer. Mary's father quickly broke off the relationship because of Clare's inferior social status. Clare rebounded from this disappointment, eventually meeting, marrying, and having children with Martha ("Patty") Turner. However, the memory of his first love never left him, and Mary Joyce became the subject of many of Clare's poems.

In 1818 Clare tried to publish a volume of poems by subscription. Although the scheme proved unsuccessful, it attracted the attention of the influential London publisher John Taylor, who ultimately published Clare's first volume, Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery (1820). Despite this work's enormous popular success, the contemporary literary reaction to Poems was largely patronizing. While Clare's peasant background and minute descriptions of nature were favorably compared with those of Robert Burns and Robert Bloomfield, commentators criticized his grammatical inaccuracies and

provincial expressions. By the time Clare published his second volume of poetry, The Village Minstrel, and Other Poems (1821), the vogue for rural verse which had been responsible for the great success of Poems had diminished, and The Village Minstrel, and Other Poems, sold poorly, as did Clare's third work, The Shepherd's Calendar; with Village Stories, and Other Poems (1827).

During these years, Clare struggled to support his growing family on a small annuity from his earlier poems, augmented by seasonal gardening and field work. In 1832 under the auspices of a benevolent patron, Clare and his family moved from their small, crowded home in Helpston to a larger cottage in nearby Northborough. Although grateful to his patron for this new home, Clare profoundly missed the village of his childhood. With the failure in 1835 of his fourth volume, The Rural Muse, Clare's mental health collapsed. He began to believe that he was the poet Lord Byron or the famous boxer Jack Randall. He also grew convinced that his first love, Mary Joyce, was in fact his wife and that he lived in bigamy with his real wife, Martha Turner. In 1837 he was confined to a private asylum in High Beech. He escaped four years later and returned to Northborough. His physical health improved but his delusions persisted, and in 1841 he was taken to Northampton General County Lunatic Asylum, where he spent the remaining twenty-three years of his life.

Major Works

Clare's popular first publication, Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery, is a nostalgic lament for the open fields and common meadowlands of his boyhood: This common land, which had been used for centuries by peasants and farmers, was "enclosed," or fenced off, by an 1809 Act of Parliament and subsequently available only to those who owned it. His second volume, The Village Minstrel, and Other Poems, was similarly inspired by the countryside where he was born and raised. Clare's most famous work is The Shepherd's Calendar—a poem which vividly unfolds the months as they are lived and worked in the villages and farms of rural England. "Don Juan" and "Child Harold" were written after his mental collapse in 1835 and are derivative of Lord Byron's poems of the same names. In fact Clare wrote numerous poems during his asylum years, but only after his death did they receive close attention and serious critical scrutiny.

Critical Reception

The history of Clare criticism is marked by controversy and contention. Several key issues dominate the commentary, including: whether Clare's early or late work is his most distinguished; the influence of the Romantic poetic tradition on his work; and whether he was merely a descriptive poet or was also interested in conveying ideas. To add to the confusion, most of the work published in Clare's lifetime was heavily edited to reflect standard grammar and dialect. What is more, Clare's asylum poems—some of which are deemed his most powerful work—elicited little or no attention during his lifetime. Not until the twentieth century, for example, did poems such as "A Vision" and "Invite to Eternity" receive close study. While scholars continue to disagree over the merits of his early and late poetry and the relationship between his works and those of his predecessors and contemporaries, Clare's reputation as a leading nature poet has been firmly established.

Principal Works


Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery 1820

The Village Minstrel, and Other Poems 1821

The Shepherd's Calendar; with Village Stories, and Other Poems 1827

The Rural Muse 1835

Poems by John Clare 1908

John Clare: Poems Chiefly from Manuscript 1920

Madrigals and Chronicles: Being Newly Found Poems Written by John Clare 1924

The Poems of John Clare 1935

Poems of John Clare's Madness 1949

The Midsummer Cushion 1979

The Later Poems of John Clare, 1837-1864 1984

The Parish 1985

The Early Poems of John Clare, 1804-1822 1989

Other Major Works

Sketches in the Life of John Clare, Written by Himself (autobiography and sketches) 1931

The Letters of John Clare (letters) 1951

The Prose of John Clare (autobiography, journal, and essays) 1951


Janet M. Todd (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: '"Very copys of nature': John Clare's Descriptive Poetry", in Philological Quarterly, Vol. 53, No. 1, January, 1974, pp. 84-99.

[In the following excerpt, Todd argues that unlike the Romantic poets, who focused on humanity's spiritual response to nature, Clare described the pure or Edenic qualities of nature and the manner in which it falls victim to humanity's cruelty.]

In the early nineteenth century, there were two main poetic modes of presenting nature. The first was developed from the Georgic poetry of the eighteenth century and provided close, usually visual descriptions of natural things, without any explicit judgment or emotional response by the poet;...

(The entire section is 5699 words.)

Timothy Brownlow (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: "A Molehill for Parnassus: John Clare and Prospect Poetry," in University of Toronto Quarterly, Vol. XLVIII, No. 1, Fall, 1978, pp. 23-40.

[In the following excerpt, Brownlow contends that Clare and his detailed view of nature were unique in that he refused to view the landscape with condescension as the "topographical poets" did, nor did he attach human spirituality to nature as did the Romantic poets.]


Topographical poetry in the wide sense is as old as poetry itself, for poets have always felt the need to celebrate their environment, thereby giving their emotions 'a local habitation and a name.' Drayton's Poly-Olbion and...

(The entire section is 6239 words.)

Anne Williams (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "Clare's 'Gypsies,'" in The Explicator, Vol. 39, No. 3, Spring, 1981, pp. 9-11.

[In the following essay, Williams demonstrates how Clare uses poetic form, diction, and subject matter to overturn his readers' expectations of the picturesque in his poem "The Gypsies."]

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 gypsy 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;

(The entire section is 1018 words.)

Richard Lessa (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: "Time and John Clare's Calendar," in Critical Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 1, Spring, 1982, pp. 59-71.

[In the following excerpt, Lessa distinguishes between The Shepherd's Calendar and other pastoral poems of the era, observing that Clare's Calendar relies on precise realism in addition to an understanding of time as cyclical.]

John Clare's The Shepherd's Calendar is more descriptively calendar-like than any other pastoral poem that derives its essential structure from the differentiation of days, months or the seasons. The care and precision with which Clare characterises each month according to its weather, customary rural tasks and...

(The entire section is 5406 words.)

Edward Strickland (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: "Conventions and Their Subversion in John Clare's 'An Invite to Eternity,'" in Criticism, Vol. XXIV, No. 1, Winter, 1982, pp. 1-15.

[In the following excerpt, Strickland demonstrates how Clare subverts the tradition of the poetic 'invitation ' in his asylum poem "An Invite to Eternity. "]

In recent years several critics have re-examined the nature-poetry of John Clare in relation to the eighteenth-century topographical tradition and its Romantic revisions. This has helped to clarify the context of the better part of the "peasant poet's" corpus. But if Thomson and Cowper ranked among Clare's favorite poets, his favorite play was Macbeth, which he claims...

(The entire section is 5278 words.)

Vimala Herman (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: "How to See Things with Words: Language Use and Descriptive Art in John Clare's 'Signs of Winter,'" in Language and Style, Vol. 20, No. 2, Spring, 1987, pp. 91-109.

[In the following excerpt, Herman argues that contrary to popular critical belief, John Clare crafted his poems meticulously with the intention of achieving vivid images and heightened responses.]

That John Clare was a descriptive poet every reader of his poems would agree. That his descriptive skill was an unalloyed asset to his poetic art is a much more contentious issue. Thus, even the more enthusiastic appreciations of Clare's descriptive art are tempered with reservations, which echo Keats's...

(The entire section is 8653 words.)

John Lucas (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "England in 1830—Wordsworth, Clare, and the Question of Poetic Authority," in Critical Survey, Vol. 4, No. 1, 1992, pp. 62-66.

[In the following excerpt, Lucas compares a well-known and admired sonnet by Wordsworth with a little-known, radically unconventional sonnet by Clare and argues that it is time that both sonnets and their respective authors be granted the respect or "authority " that each deserve, but that only one has yet received. ]

In November 1830 Wordsworth set out from his home in Grasmere for Cambridge, where he was to stay for a night or two at his old college, Trinity. His route took him across the Pennines and through Derbyshire, and passed...

(The entire section is 2588 words.)

James C. McKusick (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: "John Clare and the Tyranny of Grammar," in Studies in Romanticism, Vol. 33, No. 2, Summer, 1994, pp. 255-77.

[In the following excerpt, McKusick traces the ongoing conflicts between Clare and his editors and patrons, many of whom rejected Clare's use of dialect in his poetry, insisted upon standardized spelling in his publications, and disapproved of his opinions upon landed wealth.]

John Clare has traditionally been regarded, rather patronizingly, as an uneducated Peasant Poet, exhibiting remarkable talent in minor poetic genres, but remaining something of a naif in matters of linguistic scholarship. Certainly it is true that Clare had little formal...

(The entire section is 8332 words.)

John Wareham (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: "Clare's 'The Awthorn,'" in The Explicator, Vol. 53, No. 1, Fall, 1994, pp. 197-200.

[In the following excerpt, Wareham asserts that with "The Awthorn," Clare strives to unite the "transience" and "perpetuity" of nature within a single poem, thereby presenting his own vision of transcendence.]

I love the awthorn well
The first green thing
In woods and hedges—black thorn dell
Dashed with its green first spring
When sallows shine in golden shene
These white thorn places in the black how green

How beautifully green
Though March has but begun
To tend primroses...

(The entire section is 1224 words.)

Further Reading


Blackmore, Evan. "John Clare's Psychiatric Disorder and Its Influence on His Poetry." Victorian Poetry 24, No. 3 (Autumn 1986): 209-28.

Diagnoses Clare's psychiatric malady and examines the ways in which it influenced the style and subjects of his poems.

Constantine, David. "Outside Eden: John Clare's Descriptive Poetry." In An Infinite Complexity: Essays in Romanticism, edited by J. R. Watson, pp. 181-201. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1983.

Explores Clare's relationship to his publishers and public, as well as to nature, his poverty, and his own...

(The entire section is 813 words.)