It has been said of Clare’s lyrics, of which “I Am” is perhaps the greatest, that they possess “a penetrating simplicity which neither requires nor permits of analysis.” In a sense, this is true. “I Am” is a cry from the depths, an utterance of terrible sorrow passing into an imagined calm that is as deep and absolute. Part of its power is its perfect directness; it is not a confession so much as a prayer, and its language is unmarred by sentimentality or ornament. It is perhaps too profound for literary criticism and strains the limits of secular literature. What does cast light on the poem—as is not the case with many poems—is the author’s biography.
Clare was a man who crossed many boundaries. Son of a semiliterate father and a wholly illiterate mother, he began life in terrible poverty. His schooling was meager and brief, and his first poems were written on chance scraps of paper while he worked as a farmer or laborer. When a collection of these poems was published in 1820, he came to the attention of a sympathetic nobleman who helped raise an annuity for his support. For a time, Clare was a celebrity, a kind of “natural wonder,” appealing in his uncouthness to the current taste among intellectuals for primitive genius. The farmer’s son toured London and met the literati, but the “peasant poet” soon found himself on the outs again trying to sell his books door-to-door.
At this time, an unhappy love affair of Clare’s youth began to haunt him. He began to have delusions, added to a serious drinking problem, so his family placed him in an asylum. Clare remained in various asylums for the last twenty-seven years of his life, writing poetry in the brief lucid intervals of his madness. The “living sea of waking dream” in “I Am” is a vivid image of a madhouse common room where patients act out delusions and fantasies that the sane experience only in dreams. Thus, the reader can now recognize that the oxymoron of “waking dream” is really no more than a matter-of-fact description of a terrible reality. The obsessive return to assertions of identity in “I Am” is the desperate affirmation of a self threatened by distintegration into madness, into “the nothingness of scorn and noise” from which the poet briefly emerges through the clarity and nobility of his poem.
Clare was not the only poet of humble origins in this time who found fame only to die miserably. Robert Burns, Robert Bloomfield, and William Thom suffered much the same fate. This group is sometimes known as the “unlettered poets,” and the name is indicative of the kind of condescension and half-comprehension they often encountered. Clare’s repeated “I am” may share something—but far more mournful—of Burns’s angry “a man’s a man for a’ that,” which Burns wrote in defiance of all the monied privilege and pretension he grew to hate. Having escaped the confines of their class, these poets had a need to assert their identities, because this assertion was all the identity they had: “I am—yet what I am, none cares or knows.”