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O soul-enchanting poesy,
Thou’st long been all the world with me.
—“The Progress of Rhyme”

John Clare was born on July 13, 1793, in the village of Helpston (Clare spells it Helpstone) in the Northamptonshire region of eastern England near the market town of Stamford. When he was about twelve, he left school to work with his father as an agricultural laborer, an occupation he continued intermittently much of his early life. In 1806 he read James Thomson’s poems in The Seasons (1730), and this marked a turning point in his ambitions. The enclosure of Helpston and neighboring parishes by the Parliamentary Act in 1809 reconfigured the landscape from a circle of common land radiating outward to a pattern of rectangles belonging to landowners who posted “No Trespassing” signs. Clare’s sense of rural harmony was violated by this change in the economic system, and he speaks of it bitterly in several poems.

Clare survived only meagerly by day labor and work as a lime-burner, but his fortunes were boosted by the publication in 1820 of Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery, a volume that was well received and was reprinted three times within a year. The success of Poems won him the patronage of two local aristocratic families, the Fitzwilliams and that of the Marquess of Exeter, and during a trip to London Clare had a subscription arranged by Lord Radstock and his portrait painted. Radstock’s wealthy friend Mrs. Eliza Emmerson became devoted to Clare and his work at this time, and a long friendship followed. In this year Clare also married Martha (Patty) Turner, whom he had met two years earlier and with whom he was to have eight children.

His second book, The Village Minstrel, and Other Poems, appeared in 1821 in two volumes, and Clare was soon socializing with such literary lions as Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt, and Thomas De Quincey. His next collection was delayed by his first struggles with depression from 1823 to1825 but was finally published in 1827 as The Shepherd’s Calendar, with Village Stories, and Other Poems. Severe depression afflicted Clare in the years from 1832 to 1837, and moving with his family from Helpston to Northborough village in 1832 only increased his alienation, despite his publication of The Rural Muse (1835) with Emmerson’s help.

Extreme depression, accompanied by hallucinations and irrational behavior, led to Clare’s confinement in July, 1837, at an asylum in Epping Forest, Essex, near London. For four years Clare remained generally free to roam around the grounds, but in July, 1841, he walked away from the asylum and covered the eighty miles to his home in Northborough on foot in four days. In December, 1841, he was once again certified insane and was committed to Northampton General Lunatic Asylum. For the next twenty years Clare continued to write, but not many poems were preserved after 1859, and after a dozen years of bad health—including strokes and dementia—Clare died of a stroke on May 20, 1864. He was buried in Helpston five days later.

Of the more than 3,500 poems Clare wrote, fewer than one-quarter of which were published in his lifetime, Jonathan Bate has selected about a 110 for this collection, with some represented only in part. Believing that earlier editors had created a textual mishmash of correction and alteration of Clare’s messy manuscripts, Bate explains that “this anthology is accordingly the first substantial selection from Clare’s entire oeuvre to be prepared according to the principles that the poet himself wished to be applied to his work.” Clare’s poetry displays a number of verse forms,...

(This entire section contains 1959 words.)

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almost always in enjambed iambic lines with few caesuras, and, while usually drenched in pastoral images and feelings, it sometimes breaks out in satire. Clare’s diction is straightforward but pleasurably punctuated with the colorful dialect words that he enjoyed. Bate’s glossary includes “crizzling = crisp, just frozen over”; “Jinny-burnt-arse = Jack o’-lantern”; and “soodles = saunters lazily by.”

Clare’s genius for a striking image appears immediately, in “Schoolboys in Winter,” one of the selections from “Early Poems.” As the boys race around on a cold day, blowing on their “numbed and clumpsing fingers till they glow,” they create shadows “That stride, huge giants, o’er the shining snow/ In the pale splendour of the winter sun.” Bate’s first selection from Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery is a fragment from “Helpstone,” Clare’s version in heroic couplets of the nostalgia for pre-enclosure days that Oliver Goldsmith had dramatized in “The Deserted Village.” Clare’s Eden has been violated, for “Now all’s laid waste by desolation’s hand,/ Whose cursed weapons level half the land.” Other poems in his first book include “Patty,” a paean to the pasture spot where he first met his future wife, Martha. In “What Is Life?” the answer becomes “An hourglass on the run,” and the sonnet titled “The Gypsies’ Evening Blaze” yearns for the simplicity of the simple life as depicted in the memorable image of “And now the swarthy sybil kneels reclined,/ With proggling stick she still renews the blaze,/ Forcing bright sparks to twinkle from the flaze.”

The Village Minstrel, and Other Poems reveals a greater formal variety, with the title poem being composed in Spenserian stanzas. The minstrel of the poem is young Lubin, “a peasant from his birth,” who, much like Clare himself, would often shun the rousing sports of his fellows “And tell how vales and shades did please his sight,/ And how the wind breathed music through each bough,/ And how in rural charms he did delight—.” (The anaphora in these lines is a common Clare device.) Despite his patriotism, Clare lamented the “curst improvement” that enclosure brought to Lubin’s beloved landscapes:

Tears dropt to memory of delights gone by:
The haunts of freedom, cowherd’s wattled bower
And shepherd’s huts and trees that towered high
And spreading thorns that turned a summer shower,
All captives lost and past to sad oppression’s

Clare’s first child, Anna Marie, born in 1821, becomes the “Sweet gem of infant fairy-flowers” in “To an Infant Daughter,” a tender address that warns not to “itch at rhymes.” “Lord help thee in thy coming years/ If thy mad father’s picture ’pears/ Predominant,” for “May thou, unknown to rhyming bother,/ Be ignorant as is thy mother.” Clare’s feeling for climate and weather emerges vividly in two other poems from The Village Minstrel. “The Last of March (Written at Lolham Brigs [Bridge])” deploys iambic tetrameter in eight-line stanzas rhyming ababbcbc, describing the snowstorms that “clothe the mossy wall/ And hourly whiten o’er the lea” but will soon yield to “April’s flowers and dappled skies.” In both its sound and its imagery, the lovely sonnet “To Autumn” challenges John Keats’s more famous poem on the same subject, and in its last lines it captures a sentiment common to many if not universal:

In thy dull days of clouds a pleasure comes,
Wild music softens in thy hollow winds,
And in thy fading woods a beauty blooms
That’s more than dear to melancholy minds.

In “The Parish” Clare creates Miss Peevish Scornful, a caricature who could have played a lead in one of Ben Jonson’s Humors comedies. “Brought up a lady,” and full of “high notions,” she rejected all the village swains until finally “At last grown husband-mad away she ran,/ Not with young Squire dandy, but the servant man.” A satire on “The Progress of Cant” reproves those who “turn from regular old forms as bad/ To pious maniacs regularly mad.” Inevitably, “The crazy flock believe and are depraved,/ And just in time turn idiots to be saved.” Bate’s third inclusion from “The Parish” is “The Overseer,” a caustic address to that village functionary whom Clare warns, “However high thy hated name may be,/ Death in the dust shall humble pride and thee.”

The Shepherd’s Calendar (1827), composed in rhymed iambic lines, some pentameter, some tetrameter, lacks the baroque language of Edmund Spenser’s chronicle of the annual cycle, but it offers Clare’s genius at capturing the whims of weather and domestic life in the pastoral cottage. In their evocation of the family’s snug security against nature howling outside, with “The shutter closed, the lamp alight,/ The faggot chopped and blazing bright,” certain passages in “January” suggest the “tumultuous privacy” described in a later, more famous, poem, John Greenleaf Whittier’s “Snowbound.” Clare’s fascination with this subject appears again in the exquisite sonnet “Snowstorm,” written at Northborough. This volume also contains “The Moors,” one of Clare’s bitterest expressions of his contempt for the Enclosure Acts. The moors had never known “the rage of blundering plough” until “Enclosure came and trampled on the grave/ Of labour’s rights and left the poor a slave.”

Clare wanted to call his fourth book “The Midsummer Cushion,” for a custom of gathering flowers in summer, but it was eventually published in 1835 as The Rural Muse, with fifteen poems omitted from the collection. Bate includes these ignored works and says they all belong together withThe Rural Muse as one work representing Clare’s maturity, “his most profound and accomplished explorations of his major themes.” Bate calls “The Progress of Rhyme” “the essence of Clare—an equivalent of [William] Wordsworth’s ‘The Prelude’” and pairs it with “Childhood,” also omitted from The Rural Muse, as epitomizing the poet’s genius. Besides offering another lovely personification of autumn (“Siren of sullen moods and fading hues”), The Rural Muse abounds with celebrations of wrens, sand martins, moorhens, nightingales, yellowhammers, skylarks, pettichaps (willow warblers), and even “the scent of blossomed beans.” The poems written at Northborough continue Clare’s observations of such as bumbarrels (long-tailed tits), snipes, field mice, martens, foxes, and badgers.

In 1837 Clare was committed to a private asylum in Essex, where he wrote his own long poem on “Child Harold,” described by Bate as “fragmentary and disorganized,” and a second Byronic impersonation, “Don Juan.” Under the heading “Poems and Prose Written at Northborough, Between Two Asylums,” Bate includes Clare’s story of his “escape from the madhouse,” as Clare calls it. It is a moving narrative of homesickness, hunger, physical debilitation, and a man in distress. At the end of his eighty-mile, four-day walk, Clare reports, “so here I am homeless at home and half gratified to feel I can be happy anywhere.” Edward Hirsch turns Clare’s experience into a brilliant poem, “Three Journeys.”

The final poems written in the Northampton asylum include the marvelous “Clock-a-Clay,” with its remarkable imagining of the ladybug’s kinesthetic sensations as she lies in the “cowslip’s peeps,” “Hidden from the buzzing fly.” There are others that deserve attention, such as the “Lines: ‘I Am’” and “Sonnet: ‘I Am,’” but no more heartbreaking plea ever sounded from a madhouse than “An Invite to Eternity.” Here is the first of four stanzas:

Say, wilt thou go with me, sweet maid,
Say, maiden, wilt thou go with me
Through the valley-depths of shade,
Of night and dark obscurity,
Where the path hath lost its way,
Where the sun forgets the day,
Where there’s nor light nor life to see,
Sweet maiden, wilt thou go with me?

It is not difficult to understand Robert Graves’s dust jacket confession: “I know Clare; I know him well. We have often wept together.”

Review Sources

Library Journal 128, no. 20 (December 15, 2003): 116.

London Review of Books, February 19, 2004, pp 17-20.

New Criterion 22, no 4 (December, 2003): 93-98.

Poetry 183, no. 3 (December, 2003): 177-178.

Publishers Weekly 250, no. 40 (October 6, 2003): 79-80.

Weekly Standard 9, no. 15 (December 22, 2003): 32-33.

The Poem

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“I Am” is a short poem of three six-line stanzas. Each stanza is regular iambic pentameter, rhyming ababab. The verse form is slightly unusual, not surprisingly for John Clare who experimented freely with different meters and forms. The poem begins with the simplest assertion of identity—“I am.” The reader knows only the bare fact of the speaker’s existence—no particulars are given. One does not learn who this speaker is and what his specific conditions are, though one is told in the first stanza that the speaker is friendless and forsaken. This speaker, paradoxically asserting his identity but providing no identification, repeats “I am” three times more in the opening stanza; however, he does so with qualifications that increasingly diminish his strange self-assertiveness. He tells the reader that no one cares who he is, that he has no one with whom to share his sorrows, and that he merely “lives,” tossed about as aimlessly as “vapours.” The aimlessness suggested by “vapour” in this final line of stanza 1 is powerfully reinforced by the enjambment, or running over, of the grammatical focus of its verb “tost” into the first line of stanza 2.

In the second stanza, the speaker is thrown helplessly “into the nothingness of scorn and noise.” This paradox of a “nothingness” that is noisy and scornful is immediately followed by the pure oxymoron of “waking dreams.” In this uncanny and contradictory world, the speaker likens himself to a shipwrecked sailor awash in a nightmare “sea” without a “sense of life or joys.” The speaker, drifting insensibly in this “nothingness,” now propounds his most fearsome paradox: Those whom he loves dearly are the most estranged from him. Although this stanza draws upon the conventional metaphor of shipwreck, with its suggestions of isolation and loneliness, there is evidence in this stanza that the speaker is not alone in his strange suffering. In fact, it appears that he suffers, in part, because he is not alone. Hostile (“scorn”) or indifferent (“strange”) witnesses may be present, but the speaker is separated from them as if lost at sea.

The concluding stanza confirms this, for the speaker now expresses a desire to escape to a world without men or women, without either joy or sorrow—a refuge of passive peace and detachment. This paradise is the past, the early years of childhood when the speaker imagines he was in unity with God and nature: “untroubling and untroubled.” In “I Am,” one encounters a nameless and faceless sufferer entertaining the impossible wish to return to the innocence of childhood. Exactly what and why he suffers is not known, but the terror and hopelessness of his sufferings are plain.

Forms and Devices

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John Clare was the son of poor English farmers. At various times, Clare was a farmhand, a militiaman, a kiln stoker, and a mendicant. His formal schooling was slight, and until late in life, his access to books was limited. One book Clare knew early and well was the Bible, and its influence is especially evident in “I Am.” The Psalms are perhaps the best analogue for Clare’s testament of sorrow, for like the Psalms, “I Am” is at once personal and impersonal, impassioned yet restrained. Like the Hebrew psalmist, who expressed his de profundis within a highly formal system of poetic parallelism, Clare closes his lyrical passion and despair in almost perfectly regular iambic pentameter. The speaker of the Psalms is often unidentified, as is the speaker in “I Am,” and both tell much about the speakers’ sorrows but little about the speakers themselves. The characteristic plea of the psalmist to be delivered from his “gathered enemies” is also echoed by the speaker of “I Am”: He is surrounded by “scorn” and “noise” and, finally, in the closing lines, looks toward God for his deliverance.

The opening phrase of the first stanza, “I am—yet what I am,” may allude to the divine tautology of Exodus, “I am that I am” (Exodus 3:14). If this is so, however, the allusion is ironic, for the speaker of this poem asserts his identity despairingly, emphasizing his impotence and helplessness. The speaker’s description of being “tost into the nothing of scorn and noise” recalls biblical language describing the damned thrown into hell: “cast into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:10). Finally, the idyllic image of the sleeping child “abiding” with God echoes the confidence of the psalmist who hopes to “abide before God for ever” (Psalms 61:7). Certainly, in a more general sense, the simplicity and grandeur that have so often been noted in this poem owe a debt to the lofty cadences of the King James Bible.

From another perspective, “I Am” is a poem intimately connected with the sensibilities of its own era, for it expresses with great intensity the Romantic conflict between innocence and experience, a theme central to the poetry of Clare’s contemporaries. Clare is often compared to William Blake, since both were mystics who suffered eventual madness, but there is a more significant link between them. Clare shares Blake’s Romantic exhaltation of childhood. In “I Am,” childhood is figured as paradise before the Fall, a region in which there is no man (Adam) and no woman (Eve), only the isolated consciousness alone with God. The poem’s speaker seeks to recover the infantile condition of moral neutrality and irresponsibility free of the knowledge of sexual distinctions and the emotional extremes of either joy or sorrow. Recognizing Clare’s Romantic division of innocence and experience, one can appreciate the terrible irony of his reiterated “I am,” for the poem is really a passionate longing after “I was.” For William Wordsworth, Clare’s other Romantic analogue, adult experience involves a falling away from the glories of childhood, a diminishment with compensations of greater knowledge; but for Clare, adult experience is a virtual hell from which the only escape is a fantasy of return to childhood, even to a prenatal unconsciousness.