(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

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.)

The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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 entire section is 444 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 542 words.)