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?

Book cover

Among English poets, John Clare has two distinctions: He was the poorest, and he was (with the possible exception of Christopher Smart) the craziest. To read him is to face the English class system from its most tragic facet. Clare, who was born in 1793 and died in 1864, scraped together a living as a bird-scarer, lime-burner, fiddler, gardener, haymaker, and "bum-tool" (to use his militia unit's slang for a jack-of-all-trades). He did real work for a living, not just until he was published, but for the whole of his working life. He wrote compulsively while on walks through local fields. The London grandees and literary curiosity-seekers who eventually beat a path to his cottage were an economic as well as a social imposition—they often cost him a day's labor.

At one point during his career, his publishers, Taylor and Hessey, earned more from Clare's books than they did from Keats'. But since Clare's death, critics have tended to view Clare as a combination of two minor poets: He squeaks into anthologies on the strength of a few minutely observed early pastoral poems, full of Northamptonshire dialect and weird bird names and sounds ("the sailing puddock's shrill peelew"); and of the vatic meditations he wrote while institutionalized, particularly the lines beginning "I Am."

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In a new book, John Clare: A Biography, the Shakespeare critic Jonathan Bate aims to revise our estimate of Clare significantly upward. Bate insists that much of what was best in Clare's work went unpublished—emerging, in some cases, only in the 1980s—and that much of what was published was bowdlerized by well-meaning editors and condescending patrons. If we look at Clare as just a limner of rural scenes and country walks on the one hand and a kind of Holy Fool or Foucaultian martyr on the other, he argues, we miss his social and philosophical depth.

Clare never learned proper spelling or grammar, signing letters to the editor as "A Northamptonshire Pheasant." But through the fog of his bad education and parochialism, we can clearly see brilliance—not "craftiness" or "dash" or any of the condescending adjectives that get applied to working-class intellectuals. His poems were discovered only when he offered them to a local bookseller for publication as a desperate (and successful) attempt to stave off his parents' eviction from their tenement.

Clare had a two-part means of supporting a wife and seven children, and both parts collapsed along with the British economy of the 1830s. Local literary nobles had given him a modest annuity, but this dwindled as interest rates fell. Clare's chances of eking out a living with day labor were eroded by his literary commitments. Straddling social classes proved even more stressful than juggling jobs. Clare's four visits to London—where he met Charles Lamb, Samuel Coleridge, William Hazlitt, and Thomas De Quincey—did not win him entrée into the nation's literary set, but they were sufficient to alienate him thoroughly from most of his fellow villagers. ("I live here among the ignorant like a lost man," he wrote. "They hardly dare talk in my company.")

The stress told on him. Clare had what he euphemistically called a "taste for ale" and suffered from intermittent "swoonings," which we would call panic attacks. ("My fears are agitated to an extreme degree and the dread of death involves me in a stupor of chilling indisposition.") Toward 1823, the shroud of depression descended on him, and it never really lifted. In 1830, visiting the theater as a guest of the Bishop of Peterborough, he grew so furious at Shylock in The Merchant of Venice that he began abusing him onstage. It wasn't an atypical outburst. Around his  44th birthday, he was admitted to the first of the two insane asylums where, with one short break, he would pass the rest of his life.

Once confined, Clare became more delusional. "Why, they have cut off my head and picked out all the letters in the alphabet," he complained. "All the vowels and all the consonants and brought them out through my ears." He claimed he had two wives (whether he really believed this is another question), and that the asylum was a bigamists' prison. He wrote pornographic parodies of Byron in which he speculated on the newly crowned Queen Victoria's "snuff box." Again, it is unclear whether Clare knew these were parodies or sincerely believed he was Lord Byron. "I'm John Clare now," the poet assured a newspaper editor. "I was Byron and Shakespeare formerly."

That his life was curious and sad does not necessarily make Clare a great poet. The usual verdict is that of Sir Leslie Stephen, who while admitting that Clare "has many exquisite descriptive touches, his poetry does not rise to a really high level and though extraordinary under the circumstances, requires for its appreciation that the circumstances should be remembered."

If Bate is right that Clare is a much deeper poet than he has ever been given credit for being, how is it that readers failed to notice this for a century and a half? Two explanations suggest themselves. First, publishers and patrons worked systematically to purge his poems of politics, in order to make them less rebarbative to the "genteel ladies" who were their biggest customers. Two of the best stanzas from his long poem "The Village Minstrel" were excised, on the grounds that they were "radical slang." Virtually everything that smacked of bawdiness got lopped off, too. A second factor clouding Clare's political views is the mostly Marxist-inspired cliché that has weighed on our intellectual life for a century-and-a-half, according to which "conservative" is taken as a synonym for "capitalist." Clare was an arch-conservative in many obvious ways. ("I am as far as my politics reaches 'King and Country'—no Innovations in Religion and Government say I.") He refused even to complain about the subordinate position to which English society relegated him, swearing that "with the old dish that was served to my forefathers I am content."

The widening reach of private property spoiled the dish. The drama of enclosure was just reaching Northamptonshire as Clare was writing. Much of his poetry assails the landowners who claim beloved landmarks as private property, eroding traditions. Clare hates the railway that is soon to bisect a favorite field. He damns those who have fenced in a local spring where generations of children gathered to drink sugar water. For Bate, the closest equivalent of Clare's politics is to be found in the pamphleteer William Cobbett, for whom "nostalgia for the supposedly settled rural order of the past is played off against the cruelty, selfishness, hypocrisy and avarice of improvers and 'new men.' "

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