John Clare’s life is perhaps the most unusual of that of any major English poet. Born in 1793 into a family of impoverished farm workers who scratched a living from the only moderately productive fields of Northamptonshire in the English Midlands, Clare was able to achieve a level of poetic excellence that earned him the admiration of his country’s leading literary lights. After a short period of widespread fame and moderate fortune, however, Clare’s declining physical and mental health led to his incarceration in an asylum, where he spent his last years in uncomprehending silence.
Among the many strange aspects of Clare’s story is that it is only now that it has been accurately as well as perceptively told. A contemporary named Frederick Martin collected a good deal of information—much of it unreliable—and produced A Life of John Clare that appeared one year after its subject’s death in 1864. Little else of substance has been written concerning the life of an author whose work, on the other hand, has been painstakingly edited and published. Now this defect has been ably remedied with the appearance of Jonathan Bate’s authoritative John Clare: A Biography, a stylishly written and judiciously balanced appraisal of this intriguing literary figure.
Clare came from peasant forebears who for generations had worked as agricultural laborers, and one of the many mysteries surrounding him is how he, at an early age, formed the intention to become a poet. Although Clare did have some schooling between his fifth and eleventh years, it was so rudimentary that his writing would always be plagued by grammatical and spelling errors that severely taxed the goodwill of his editors and publishers. Despite the dual handicaps of a poor education and grinding poverty, Clare persevered with his versifying until he came to the attention of those who might be able to help him achieve the status of a professional poet. With the advantage of hindsight, one can see that Clare’s powerful urge to succeed foreshadows the manic outbursts that would eventually lead to his committal in mental institutions. Given his objective social and economic situation, however, it is probable that anyone less driven to achieve his goals would have been frustrated by the circumstances he had to overcome.
Bate makes the most of what little evidence attends the details of Clare’s youth and adolescence, augmenting these stray bits of factual information with broader considerations of historical themes and contexts and scrupulously avoiding those speculations of the “Clare must have thought” variety that lead excessively imaginative biographers astray. It is when Clare’s work begins to attract the notice of literary observers, however, that the narrative really hits its stride. One of the many valuable aspects of Bate’s biography is its meticulous account of how the sometimes conflicting motives of a bewildering number of well-wishers eventually brought Clare to widespread public notice.
The sheer oddness of a rustic peasant producing something that had at least the outward characteristics of poetry soon earned Clare a reputation as a regional curiosity. It was only when contemporaries with serious literary interests encountered his work that his career began to get under way. Clare had already contracted with a local printer for an edition of his poems—on onerous and excessively expensive terms—when Edward Drury, a young bookseller and aspiring man of letters, came across a prospectus Clare had written to attract interest in the volume. Drury immediately took it upon himself to help Clare financially as well as literarily, paying off a number of his debts and placing several poems in area newspapers. It was Drury’s recommendation of the poetry to the London publisher John Taylor that was his most important contribution to Clare’s success, as well as the first step in a remarkably complicated editorial history that constitutes a major challenge to Bate’s explanatory powers.
Bate passes this ordeal with consummate skill, setting down the emendations, squabbles, and misunderstandings caused by letters crossing in the mail in admirably patient and precise prose, but it is here that readers less than fascinated by such...
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