John Clare 1793 – 1864
I became interested in John Clare, I suppose, because I lived in Northamptonshire and that is where Clare was born — in the village of Helpstone (now Helpston) in the district known as the Soke of Peterborough in the north of the county. Helpston is now in fact just inside Cambridgeshire because of boundary changes.
Clare was the son of a farm labourer and became one himself while still a child. He received very little education and was later a potboy in a local pub and then a gardener at Burghley House. He taught himself to write poetry and had his first collection published as Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery in 1820. Further collections followed and Clare became celebrated in polite society as “The Northamptonshire Peasant Poet”. However, he suffered from financial difficulties all his life and that, plus heavy drinking, began to have an effect on his mental stability and his behaviour became more and more erratic. On one occasion he even interrupted a performance of The Merchant of Venice to berate Shylock. In 1837 he went voluntarily to an asylum in Essex, where he apparently believed that he was, in turn, Lord Byron and then Shakespeare. In 1841 Clare walked back to Northamptonshire to meet his first love, Mary Joyce, being convinced that he was actually married to her. In fact, Mary had died in a house fire some years previously. Clare was committed to the Northamptonshire County General Lunatic Asylum at the end of 1841 and remained there for the rest of his life.
Clare refused to conform to the increasingly standardised English of contemporary literature and used many idiosyncratic spellings and dialect words in his verse, most of which was concerned with the passing of the traditional rural way of life as industrialisation encroached. He was also capable of much more personal poetry as his most famous poem I am shows. This was written in 1844 or 1845, while Clare was in the asylum in Northampton. Here it is:
I am: yet what I am none cares or knows,
My friends forsake me like a memory lost;
I am the self-consumer of my woes,
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shades in love and death’s oblivion lost;
And yet I am, and live with shadows tost
Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life nor joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;
And e’en the dearest–that I loved the best–
Are strange–nay, rather stranger than the rest.
I long for scenes where man has never trod,
A place where woman never smiled or wept;
There to abide with my creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept:
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie,
The grass below–above the vaulted sky.
Clare’s cottage in Helpston has been restored to something what it was like in his day. It can be visited. There is more information here.