John Clare 1793-1864
English poet and prose writer. See also John Clare Poetry Criticism.
While there is no consensus among critics as to the relationship between his poetry and that of his predecessors and contemporaries, Clare is regarded by many critics as one of the foremost English nature poets. Inspired by the countryside in which he grew up, Clare wrote poetry filled with vivid and exact descriptions of rural life and scenery. Though he published only four books during his lifetime—Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery (1820); The Village Minstrel, and Other Poems (1821); The Shepherd's Calendar; With Village Stories, and Other Poems (1827); and The Rural Muse (1835)—Clare produced a body of work that has continued to be collected by numerous editors well into the latter half of the twentieth century. Much of the history of Clare criticism has been dominated by two varying approaches: while some commentators define his importance with reference to the tradition of eighteenth-century descriptive verse, others emphasize the Romantic qualities of his poetry. Modern scholars have also focused on the voices and styles of his “pre-asylum” verse as well as his “asylum” writings—which he composed during his more than twenty years of confinement in an insane asylum—and have argued the relative merits of each.
The son of Parker and Ann Stimson Clare, both impoverished farm laborers, Clare was born on July 13, 1793, in the rural village of Helpston, Northamptonshire, England, approximately eighty miles north of London. Because he had to work on the farm to help support his family, Clare attended school only three months a year, and his formal education ended when he was fourteen. He later studied at a night school and continued his education informally with other young men in the area. Although access to books was not easy, Clare read widely, including Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe and Izaak Walton's The Compleat Angler, both of which he counted among his favorites. As great an influence as these works were on Clare, though, the works of eighteenth-century descriptive poet James Thomson, particularly Thomson's Seasons, were even more so. Seasons, which Clare purchased when he was thirteen, inspired him to write his own poetry and strongly shaped his method of presenting the English countryside in his verses. Soon thereafter, to further support his family, Clare obtained employment at a local inn; there he met and fell in love with Mary Joyce, the daughter of a wealthy farmer. Although Mary's father quickly broke off the relationship because of her suitor's inferior social status, the memory of his first love never left Clare, and she became the subject of many of his love poems.
In 1818, Clare attempted to publish a volume of poems by subscription; though this attempt failed, the effort led him to meet Edward Drury, a local bookseller and cousin of John Taylor, the London publisher of John Keats and William Hazlitt. After reading Clare's poetry, Taylor agreed to publish his work without first soliciting subscriptions—the result was Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery, which was a popular success. Some of the more enthusiastic reviews contained pleas for financial support for Clare, and he found himself the recipient of a small annuity, which allowed him in 1820 to marry Martha Turner, whom he had met sometime earlier. Clare's next two volumes of poetry, however, did not enjoy the same success. By the time The Village Minstrel was published, the demand for rural verse had subsided and the book sold poorly. His third collection, The Shepherd's Calendar, was met with the same cool response as The Village Minstrel.
During this period, Clare was struggling to support his growing family on his annuity and sporadic income from gardening and fieldwork. In 1832, a benevolent patron, Lord Fitzwilliam, provided Clare's family with a larger home in Northborough, but this departure from the countryside of Helpston caused Clare a great deal of grief, which became the subject of two poems, “Decay” and “The Flitting.” Clare's fourth volume of poetry, The Rural Muse, was published in 1835 and, like his previous two books, was a failure. By this time, Clare's mental health had deteriorated; he began to experience delusions that he was the poet Lord Byron or the famous boxer Jack Randall, and that Mary Joyce was his first wife, while Martha Turner was his second. In 1837, he was confined to a private asylum in Essex, from which he escaped after four years. He returned to Northborough for five months, during which time he completed two long poems with titles borrowed from Lord Byron: “Don Juan” and “Child Harold.” Though his physical health improved, his delusions persisted, and in 1841 he was taken to the Northampton General County Lunatic Asylum. While there he wrote incessantly, but only a few of the poems he produced appeared in contemporary journals and newspapers. He died in relative obscurity at the Northampton Asylum in 1864, twenty-three years after his incarceration.
Clare's first book, Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery, includes a wide range of poetic themes, forms, and styles. Many of the poems are indicative of the direction his poetry was to take, introducing autobiographical elements and personal concerns such as the preservation of nature and the right of even the “uneducated” to have a poetic sensibility. The book met with a great deal of popular success, going through four editions and selling three thousand copies in its first year. The poems in The Village Minstrel also engage a variety of styles and subjects, but the general theme governing the book is the value of country sports and customs, with changes to the landscape and the economy as a result of the enclosure of previously common lands providing a complementary theme. The plight of the gypsies commands attention too, as it does in much of Clare's work. The sonnets of this volume demonstrate that Clare's experimentation in the form was already leading him toward his own distinctive style. Among the conventional addresses to personified abstractions such as Poverty, Hope, or Life, are scattered more concrete descriptive verses. “Summer Tints,” for example, comprises only one sentence, as do many of Clare's later, more accomplished sonnets. Inspired by Edmund Spenser, Clare's third collection, The Shepherd's Calendar, is a series of poems celebrating the months of the year. This picture of rural life relies on the rhythm of agricultural labor and the progress of the seasons. The reader's interest is sustained by the wealth of detail and by the variety of literary devices used to convey it. Each month displays its own structure: some are more narrative than others, some are apostrophes, others pictures of a typical day's activities in the month. Each has its own form of verse, too. Although many of them employ couplets, several—notably “February,” “April,” “November,” and “December”—have more intricate rhyme schemes and clearly defined stanzas.
The last of his works to be published during his lifetime, The Rural Muse is a collection of songs and what Clare called ballads (though as William Howard, writing in The Dictionary of Literary Biography, has pointed out, these are really narrative songs which did not attempt to imitate the traditional ballad); eighty-five sonnets; and several longer autobiographical poems. While institutionalized, Clare continued to write in a prolific manner, though only a few of his works were published in contemporary journals and newspapers. Most notable among these writings is the Lord Byron-influenced poem “Child Harold,” which consists of seventy-seven nine-line stanzas which are at times descriptive and at other times contemplative, interspersed with twenty-five lyrical outbursts variously labeled as songs or ballads. The subject broached in the opening line—“Real poets must be truly honest men”—is explored in the stanzas.
Clare's work received, and continues to receive, a wide range of critical responses. The publication of Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery was met with popular success, but mixed reviews. John Taylor, Clare's publisher, wrote the introduction to Poems, emphasizing the poverty-stricken conditions under which most of the poems had been written, and many modern critics argue that this played a large part in determining the immediate critical response to the book. Many contemporary reviewers were patronizing, criticizing Clare's grammatical inaccuracies and provincial expressions. John Gibson Lockhart, writing in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, while not overtly critical of Poems, expressed some doubt as to Clare's poetic “genius,” claiming that the “Northamptonshire peasant” had been the subject of some “enormous puffing” with regard to this reputation. Some reviewers, however, were so enthusiastic regarding Clare's work that they petitioned readers for financial support for him. Released just a year later, The Village Minstrel met with even fewer positive reviews. Ignoring advice from Taylor that he “elevate his views” in order to appeal to a wider audience, Clare continued to write about village and farming life, often utilizing the dialect of the region. Many critics found fault with his stylistic innovations. In the November 1, 1821, issue of The Monthly Magazine (London), a reviewer cited a number of criticisms, including Clare's “perpetually visible” lack of education, that led the reviewer to judge The Village Minstrel as, “at the utmost, a place above mediocrity.”
Contemporary critics have not reached any consensus regarding Clare's place in literary history. Many, while praising Clare's penetrating descriptions of nature, have noted that his poetry is devoid of the intellectual element that characterizes the works of John Keats and William Wordsworth. Others, however, have pointed to the diversity of literary voices in his works as well his deep concern for and love and understanding of the rural environment as evidence of his poetic skill and intellect. James C. McKusick, for example, calling Clare the first ecologically conscious writer in English literary history, has claimed that “[t]aken together, [Clare's] works convey a detailed knowledge of the local flora and fauna, an acute awareness of the interrelatedness of all life-forms, and a sense of outrage at the destruction of the natural environment.” Critics Eric Robinson and David Powell have echoed this emphasis on Clare's acute familiarity with and advocacy of the local environment and those inhabiting it—those whose very livelihoods were inextricably tied to the land: “Since Piers Plowman there has hardly been an authoritative voice in English literature to speak for the ploughmen, the threshers, the hedgers, shepherds, woodmen and horse-keepers until Clare began to write.” Another modern scholar, Lynn Pearce, has studied the many, varied voices of Clare's “Child Harold,” identifying the styles and tones of the contemptuous and defiant “Byronic aristocrat,” the naïve and simple “peasant exile,” and the divinely authoritative “Biblical” voice, among others. Other twentieth-century critics have argued that, despite the suggestion of many earlier reviewers, Clare was more than a simple observer of his surroundings; instead, they have pointed out, he constructed a complex relationship in his poetry between his real-life experience and his perception of these experiences, his recollections of past events, and his use of language and grammar.