John Clare 1793–1864
English poet and prose writer. See also John Clare Literary Criticism.
For his vivid and exact descriptions of rural life and scenery, Clare is ranked with the foremost English nature poets. Attempts, however, to place him stylistically within the context of the first half of the nineteenth century have led to critical debate. While some commentators define Clare's importance with reference to the tradition of eighteenth-century descriptive verse, others emphasize the Romantic qualities of his poetry. Most recently, attention has been paid to the works of John Clare as unique poetic expressions in their own right.
Clare grew up in the Northamptonshire village of Helpston, England, where the rustic countryside was to provide him with inspiration for most of his poetry. As the only son of impoverished field laborers, Clare spent his childhood on the farm working to help support his family. Consequently, his formal education was limited to three months a year, first at a small school in his native village and later at a school in nearby Glinton. Clare's poetic talent was nourished by his parents' knowledge of folk ballads as well as by his own reading of the works of the eighteenth-century poet James Thomson, whose long poem, The Seasons, inspired Clare to write verse. At age fourteen, Clare's formal education ended when financial hardship obliged him to obtain permanent employment outside his family. In 1809, while working at the Blue Bell Inn in Helpston, Clare fell in love with Mary Joyce, the daughter of a wealthy farmer. Mary's father quickly broke off the relationship because of Clare's inferior social status. Clare rebounded from this disappointment, eventually meeting, marrying, and having children with Martha ("Patty") Turner. However, the memory of his first love never left him, and Mary Joyce became the subject of many of Clare's poems.
In 1818 Clare tried to publish a volume of poems by subscription. Although the scheme proved unsuccessful, it attracted the attention of the influential London publisher John Taylor, who ultimately published Clare's first volume, Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery (1820). Despite this work's enormous popular success, the contemporary literary reaction to Poems was largely patronizing. While Clare's peasant background and minute descriptions of nature were favorably compared with those of Robert Burns and Robert Bloomfield, commentators criticized his grammatical inaccuracies and
provincial expressions. By the time Clare published his second volume of poetry, The Village Minstrel, and Other Poems (1821), the vogue for rural verse which had been responsible for the great success of Poems had diminished, and The Village Minstrel, and Other Poems, sold poorly, as did Clare's third work, The Shepherd's Calendar; with Village Stories, and Other Poems (1827).
During these years, Clare struggled to support his growing family on a small annuity from his earlier poems, augmented by seasonal gardening and field work. In 1832 under the auspices of a benevolent patron, Clare and his family moved from their small, crowded home in Helpston to a larger cottage in nearby Northborough. Although grateful to his patron for this new home, Clare profoundly missed the village of his childhood. With the failure in 1835 of his fourth volume, The Rural Muse, Clare's mental health collapsed. He began to believe that he was the poet Lord Byron or the famous boxer Jack Randall. He also grew convinced that his first love, Mary Joyce, was in fact his wife and that he lived in bigamy with his real wife, Martha Turner. In 1837 he was confined to a private asylum in High Beech. He escaped four years later and returned to Northborough. His physical health improved but his delusions persisted, and in 1841 he was taken to Northampton General County Lunatic Asylum, where he spent the remaining twenty-three years of his life.
Clare's popular first publication, Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery, is a nostalgic lament for the open fields and common meadowlands of his boyhood: This common land, which had been used for centuries by peasants and farmers, was "enclosed," or fenced off, by an 1809 Act of Parliament and subsequently available only to those who owned it. His second volume, The Village Minstrel, and Other Poems, was similarly inspired by the countryside where he was born and raised. Clare's most famous work is The Shepherd's Calendar—a poem which vividly unfolds the months as they are lived and worked in the villages and farms of rural England. "Don Juan" and "Child Harold" were written after his mental collapse in 1835 and are derivative of Lord Byron's poems of the same names. In fact Clare wrote numerous poems during his asylum years, but only after his death did they receive close attention and serious critical scrutiny.
The history of Clare criticism is marked by controversy and contention. Several key issues dominate the commentary, including: whether Clare's early or late work is his most distinguished; the influence of the Romantic poetic tradition on his work; and whether he was merely a descriptive poet or was also interested in conveying ideas. To add to the confusion, most of the work published in Clare's lifetime was heavily edited to reflect standard grammar and dialect. What is more, Clare's asylum poems—some of which are deemed his most powerful work—elicited little or no attention during his lifetime. Not until the twentieth century, for example, did poems such as "A Vision" and "Invite to Eternity" receive close study. While scholars continue to disagree over the merits of his early and late poetry and the relationship between his works and those of his predecessors and contemporaries, Clare's reputation as a leading nature poet has been firmly established.