John Clare’s childhood was spent laboring in the fields near his native village and in the “dame schools” that provided a rudimentary education for those of the rural poor who understood their value. Clare’s father was a ballad singer of some local note, and this early exposure to village folk culture, together with his bent for reading, provided a solid base for his later accomplishments. His interest in writing seems to have awakened at the age of sixteen when he acquired a copy of James Thomson’s narrative-descriptive poem The Seasons (1730, 1744). Finding time and opportunity to write at all, however, proved difficult. Unable to afford much paper, he recorded his earliest efforts on scraps kept in his hat; thus they were easily lost or damaged. The extremely long hours of an agricultural laborer and the distrust of learning among his fellow villagers restricted him further. Nevertheless, by his early twenties, he had assembled a fairly substantial body of work that he showed to a nearby storekeeper with literary connections in London. His first book, Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery, was brought out in 1820 by John Taylor, publisher of Charles Lamb and John Keats. It was an immediate success, going through four editions within a year. Taylor then published a second volume, The Village Minstrel, and Other Poems, in 1821, but its sales were disappointing. Clare’s first book had caught the very end of a craze for “peasant poets,” Over the next several years, he made a few trips to London, meeting and socializing with Lamb, William Hazlitt, Thomas De Quincey, and others. Nevertheless, problems quickly developed. He began to have disagreements with his publishers over the editing of his poems, the size of his family increased rapidly (he had married a local woman in 1820), and so did his debts. He could not seem to get an accurate or satisfactory explanation of how much of his royalties were needed to pay publishing expenses.
From then until 1837, Clare lived in Helpston almost without interruption, writing increasingly good poetry with almost no public recognition at all. A third volume, The Shepherd’s Calendar, was finished in 1823 but not published until four years later when it, too, sold poorly. He suffered from malnutrition and his mental health began to deteriorate. Regular employment was scarce in his region, and a move to a neighboring village in 1832 (to a cottage given him by a patron) did not substantially alter his prospects. His sense of place was so strong that he found it difficult to adjust to the move, and he grew increasingly deluded. In 1835, he managed to have a fourth volume published, The Rural Muse. The book was well received by the critics but did not sell well.
Finally, in late 1837, he was taken to Matthew Allen’s experimental asylum at High Beech, in the Epping Forest near London. There he was well-treated and recovered some of his physical health, but he wrote little for several years. In the spring of 1841, he began writing poetry again, and he escaped in July. He made his way home by walking for several days, surviving by eating grass along the roadside. Although he was not violent, he was clearly not sane, and in late 1841, he was again committed, this time nearer home at the asylum in Northampton. There he remained until his death in 1864 at the age of seventy. His asylum poetry was written almost entirely in the last few months at High Beech and during the brief stay at home and the first several years at Northampton. When a sympathetic asylum supervisor who had preserved his work departed in 1850, his deteriorating condition and lack of encouragement from the staff seemingly closed off his inspiration.