Abigail has taught writing and literature at various universities. She has an M.A. In literature from American University and an M.F.A. in English from The University of Iowa.
John Clare was born in 1793 in the English village of Helpston. His parents suffered from poor health and were desperately poor, relying on charity from a local church in order to survive. They also had to count on their young son to help with chores.
To assist his parents, Clare began herding geese and sheep when he was seven. This work turned out to be a wonderful experience for Clare: while following his animals across the heath, he met Mary Bains, a very old woman who knew all the traditional songs of their region. He loved hearing her sing and returned to the heath regularly. Memorizing the songs, Clare found that their rhythms and images of nature stayed with him. Their influence is evident in the poetry he later wrote.
When Clare was 12, his parents sent him to plow fields for a local farmer. Although smaller and frailer than most boys his age, he worked as hard as he could. He soon became ill with malaria, borne by the mosquitoes that bred on the land he tilled. When his fevers subsided, he returned to plowing, and soon began school in the evenings. Having their son in school delighted his parents, who hoped that education would help him escape poverty.
Clare exerted himself, working for hours to master mathematics and all the new subjects presented to him. He enjoyed reading, particularly stories about ghosts and magical creatures. He often sensed the presence of these supernatural beings as he walked alone through the countryside, closely observing plants, animals, and insects, whose sounds he later described as 'childhoods' humming joys.'
Clare's delight in nature continued as he grew older. In 1806, he started working at a tavern called the Blue Bell. He was responsible for buying supplies for the tavern in a nearby town. On his way there, he would often talk animatedly to the phantoms, dwarfs, and goblins he imagined lurked along the path. People often shouted insults at him, considering him mad.
One person, however, did not --a beautiful girl he met on his way to town. She was, as he described her years later, his 'buxom, bonny lass.' Attractive as he found her, Mary offered Clare far more than looks; she offered him a way out of his loneliness. She listened intently as he described the thoughts racing through his head. Little is known about Mary, aside from the poet's descriptions of her, which show Clare connected with Mary imaginatively more than with any other person.
Clare knew her for only half a year and was heartbroken when her father demanded that Mary stop seeing him. Mr. Joyce was a wealthy farmer and was appalled that his daughter had become involved with a boy from a poor family. Although Clare would never see him again, he clung to her memory throughout his life, as his poem 'To Mary' reveals:
Thy eyes are gazing upon mine,
When thou art out of sight;
My lips are always touching thine,
At morning, noon, and night.
Without Mary, Clare again felt isolated. He began to identify with other outsiders, in particular gypsies. Whether or not Clare actually spent time in a gypsy camp after losing Mary (his biographers have disagreed on this point), he clearly identified with gypsies. Like Clare, gypsies lived outside mainstream society and had an interest in the supernatural. Clare admired gypsies who, unlike him, could use their misfit status and belief in supernatural powers to stand up to their persecutors. As he wrote in The Village Minstrel:
Great depth of cunning gipseys do posses. . .
& when such weakness in a dame they find...
They mutter black revenge & force her to be kind.
Although a misfit, Clare soon found love again, this time with a girl named Martha Turner. He never seemed to love her as much as he did Mary, and he wed Martha only after learning she was pregnant. A few weeks after they married in 1820, she gave birth to a daughter named Anna Maria, the first of the couple's nine children.
Around the time that Clare first met Martha, he came across The Seasons, a book by Scottish poet James Thomson. The poet's descriptions of nature inspired Clare to write his own poems. He began by jotting down lines and parts of poems on tiny bits of paper. His family, however, objected to his poetry-writing--so much so that his mother gathered up all the scraps of paper with his verses and burned them.
Luckily for us, Clare quickly started to write again. He composed sonnets that depicted nature, and sometimes used odd regional words like 'crizzle,' meaning 'crisp.' His lyric poems--poems focusing on feelings and personal experience--circulated before their publication and gained many fans. Some wealthy admirers became his patrons, providing Clare with money that allowed him to finish his first collection of poetry within a few months.
In 1820, Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery was published. Immediately successful, Clare's book received praise for its lyrical language and beautiful imagery of nature. Dubbed the 'Northamptonshire Peasant,' Clare was now a celebrity: so many admirers piled into his home that Clare soon found it difficult to write.
Almost as quickly as they appeared, however, the admirers vanished. He was able to resume writing, but he soon found himself short of money again due to his expanding family and the decreasing sales of his books. When his second collection of poems, The Village Minstrel, was published in 1821, the book received little attention. His next book, The Shepherd's Calendar, was even less successful. Still, Clare continued to write poems throughout his life. Ironically, the poems that won Clare the highest acclaim were written only once his mental illness had destroyed every other aspect of his life.
Clare's depression, anxieties, and bouts of mania intensified to the point where he had to be institutionalized at High Beach Asylum in 1837. Run by a physician who believed in treating patients with kindness and giving them as much freedom as possible, the asylum was more pleasant than most in the 19th century, but Clare was extremely homesick and escaped in 1841. The trek home proved tortuous. As he later recalled in a journal, hunger forced him down on the ground, 'eating grass' like an animal.
He finally managed to get home, but he was confused and expected to find not Martha, but Mary--whom he now believed to be his wife. In reality, Mary Joyce--whom Clare had not seen since her father forced them apart--had died in 1838. When his family members told him this news, he did not believe them. His delusions worsened, and he was committed in 1841 to another institution, the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum. Tragically, Clare would remain there for almost 30 years, his health deteriorating, until his death in 1864.
In the many years of his confinement at Northampton, his delusions persisted: sometimes he imagined himself to be Shakespeare and sometimes a boxer. He also continued to believe that Mary was his wife, though even this delusion now offered little comfort. His sense of isolation tormented him, as his poem 'I Am!'--considered to be one of his best--expresses in its first line: 'I am--yet what I am none cares or knows,' a protest against his abandonment by those closest to him. In the third stanza, he concludes his poem by writing:
I long for scenes where man hath 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.
The abandonment Clare expresses at the beginning of the poem is eased by imagining childhood and the pleasures of the natural world. This transformation from sorrow to joy provides an example of the sublime: the imagination's ability to create beauty that is beyond the reach of ordinary experience.
Born into desperate poverty, John Clare began working as a child. Shepherding animals and plowing fields, Clare enjoyed being outside and found great joy in nature--a delight that would remain with him and provide a focus for the poems he would later write. While his first book of poetry was successful, his subsequent books were not. Clare suffered from despair and depression and spent much of his life institutionalized.
Sick, poor, brokenhearted, alienated and bipolar, Romantic poet John Clare is remembered for suffering intensely--so much so that we might expect his lyric poems to be filled with despair. Reading his work, though, we find exuberance more often than sorrow. In fact, Clare's poetry gives us a glimpse of the sublime--that sense of awe and reverence existing outside of ordinary experience.
In Clare's powerful images, we find an interest in nature that parallels our own--lending his work a distinctly contemporary appeal. Ironically, the poet who once was an outcast is now in the mainstream because of his concern for the natural world.
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