John Clare attempted little systematically except poetry. He left manuscript drafts of several unfinished essays, and part of what was intended as a natural history of Helpston. He wrote two lengthy autobiographical essays, one of which was published in 1931: Sketches in the Life of John Clare, Written by Himself. The other appeared in a collection of his prose in 1951. He also left one year of a journal in which he recorded his reading and his speculations on religion, politics, and literature. His best-known essay is probably his “Journey Out of Essex,” an account of his escape from an asylum and his harrowing journey home on foot with no food or shelter; it has been published several times.
John Clare overcame obstacles that would have defeated most other people and became an important poet of the Romantic period in England. His family was illiterate and desperately poor though ambitious for their son to rise in the world. His formal schooling was minimal, and he lived all his life isolated from the literary currents of his day. His editors censored his work heavily, misled him about royalties, and were generally insensitive to what he was trying to do in his verse. He suffered for years from malnutrition and then from incurable mental illness. Despite everything, he not only was enormously prolific as a poet—more than three thousand poems in a fifty-five-year career that began at the age of sixteen—but also wrote a number of poems that may deservedly be called masterpieces. In particular, his descriptive poems have come to be recognized for their originality and anticipation of certain trends in twentieth century nature poetry. His dedication to poetry was intense, surviving, in addition to all other trials, the almost complete financial failure of three of the four books he published during his lifetime. His The Shepherd’s Calendar is one of the truest and most delightful evocations of English rural life ever written. The “animal” poems of his middle years (the most famous of which is probably “Badger”) are stark and powerful expressions of his increasing alienation and despair. He carried his dedication to poetry undiminished into confinement in an asylum, where he wrote poems which show his “sane” grasp of his own insanity. These later poems rise to a universality that has made them widely admired ever since some of them were published in 1873.
Clare was almost completely ignored by the critics until the commentary of Arthur Symons in 1908, and the first textually reliable selection of his poems did not appear until 1920. Even at that, the student of Clare must still exercise extreme caution when using certain editions. In particular, the largest existing selection of his poems, the most complete editions of his prose, and the only one of his letters (all edited by J. W. and Anne Tibble), as well as one of the two existing selections of his asylum poems (edited by Geoffrey Grigson), contain serious misprintings of the manuscripts on almost every page. Much better selections have appeared, published by the Oxford University Press. His reputation began to rise after the work of Symons and especially after the edition by Edmund Blunden in 1920. Much criticism and analysis has appeared since the centennial of Clare’s death in 1864, and his reputation has risen rapidly since then.
Bate, Jonathan. John Clare: A Biography. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003. Scholarly biography of the writer.
Blythe, Ronald. Talking About John Clare . Nottingham, England: Trent, 1999. A commentary on the relationship between the English rural writer and the places that inform his work. Includes passages on many...
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writers who are thematically associated with Clare.
Chilcott, Tim. “A Real World and Doubting Mind”: A Critical Study of the Poetry of John Clare. Hull, England: Hull University Press, 1985. The title of this volume is taken from Clare’s The Shepherd’s Calendar. Chilcott argues that the “real world” and the “doubting mind” are two distinct aspects of Clare’s poetry. Discusses the periods before and during his asylum stay. A challenging critical study recommended for readers familiar with Clare.
Chirico, Paul. John Clare and the Imagination of the Reader. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. This work examines Clare’s poetry, his early periodical publications, and scholarly studies by others about his writing. Also examined are his role in the literary world and his relationship with his publishers.
Clay, Arnold. Itching After Rhyme: A Life of John Clare. Tunbridge Wells, England: Parapress, 2000. A detailed biography with bibliographical references and index.
Houghton-Walker, Sarah. John Clare’s Religion. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2009. Discusses the religious aspect presented in Clare’s poetry in the context of pastoral poetry.
Storey, Edward. A Right to Song: The Life of John Clare. London: Methuen, 1982. A full-length biography sympathetic to Clare that looks at the complexity of his poetic landscapes. The thoroughly researched biography stays close to his works and is recommended for Clare scholars.
Storey, Mark. The Poetry of John Clare: A Critical Introduction. London: Macmillan, 1974. Explicitly an introduction, this volume traces the development of Clare’s poetry from his humble beginnings to his maturation. Chooses The Shepherd’s Calendar as the focal point for an examination of Clare’s mature descriptive technique. An appreciative study of Clare that highlights both the appeal and the variety of his work.
Vardy, Alan D. John Clare: Politics and Poetry. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. This profile examines the political and philosophical views of the poet and further investigates the role of his editor, John Taylor.