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, 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...
(The entire section is 1929 words.)