John Clare, peasant, lunatic, poet.

Reading between the lines.
Oct. 17 2003 11:44 AM

Man Out of Time

John Clare was once as famous a poet as John Keats. What happened?

(Continued from Page 1)

There is an ethic running through all of Clare's work that 19th- and 20th-century readers would not have seen as political, though we do. More than any of his predecessors, Clare has a relationship with nature, and it is a relationship between equals. Nature is an interlocutor, not just subject matter. The climax of Clare's elegant miniature quest-poem "The Nightingale's Nest" comes in the decision not to disturb the nest the poet has found. This ethic will not be to everyone's liking, but it is what separates Clare from his Romantic contemporaries. Although Bate never says it in so many words, he wishes to present Clare as our first Green poet.

Bate's book hedges certain of its conclusions, unfortunately. And, for a biography of an outdoor poet, this is a rather claustrophobic and airless book. Bate is not entirely to blame for this: Because Clare passed so much of his life among the illiterate and anonymous, we hear of the poet as a social creature only on the occasions when he crossed paths with fellow writers. Such occasions were rare and fleeting even when Clare was in vogue, and in the final years of his life they virtually ceased. But Bate makes the case for Clare's importance well and elicits a powerful sympathy for his subject. Where he most successfully emends the received wisdom is in his patient eroding of commonplace distinctions between the young and the old Clare, the sane and the mad Clare, the "nature" and the "madhouse" Clare—distinctions that never made a great deal of sense in the first place.

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Keats admired Clare but worried that in his poems "the Description too much prevailed over the Sentiment." Clare's editors were always trying to get him to go deeper: to treat nature not as such but as an occasion for introspection. In the haunting poems on identity and finitude that mark his asylum years, such as "An Invite to Eternity," this is precisely what he did. It is not certain what the nature of Clare's insanity was. Bate thinks some kind of bipolar disorder is a more likely explanation than schizophrenia or syphilis. Ultimately, though, Bate inclines toward Robert Graves' view that confinement was a price that Clare paid—willingly or not—for following the direction in which his writing took him.

To say that writing drove Clare crazy is to oversimplify. But Clare's mental health is difficult to judge in isolation from his poetry. Central to both is a blurring of the line between him and the world. The more he disappeared into—and confused himself with—the people and scenes around him, the more loudly he proclaimed, "I Am." It was, as Bate says, "at once a losing and a finding of his true self." Losing track of where one's self lets off and nature or literature picks up, as Clare does in "A Vision"—this comes close to the definition of insanity for a mid-19th-century Englishman. For us it is a given, merely one of the paradoxes of existence, if not always the most comfortable one.

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