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John Clare: A Biography
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003
672 pp., $40.00
348 pp., $28.00
Michael R. Stevens
The Lost World of John Clare
If the myth of the Romantic Poet must include single-minded devotion to the muse, a love of nature and its perfections, sensual dalliance, and more than a little dose of madness, then John Clare should be in the first rank, with his contemporaries Byron and Keats. Instead, he has long been a marginal figure in the pantheon of English verse, a quirky afterthought to the conversation. What Jonathan Bate's John Clare: A Biography establishes, in its copious detail and sensitivity to Clare's human plight, is the worthiness of Clare to stand in the first rank of English poets of any age. This sense is deepened by the presence of a companion volume edited by Bate, "I Am": The Selected Poetry of John Clare. What rings throughout both texts is the clear, sad voice of Clare, which grew ever sharper as success and sanity left him behind. Amidst the tragic web of biographical details, the power and clarity of that voice constantly resonates. Like a perplexed literary archaeologist, I ask myself, "How have we lost touch with such a voice for so long?"
Clare's legacy has long existed under the shadow of easy clichés: he was a poet of peasant origins (a relative rarity), and he spent the last 30 years of his life institutionalized for mental illness, probably what we would now call bipolarity (not so rare for a poet). In his beginning and his end, to borrow from T.S. Eliot, we find the focal points of his life. The beginning is less simple to navigate than it seems, since the class-consciousness that so dictated Clare's life is difficult for an American reader to fathom. We have a relatively egalitarian literary history, and some of our greatest writers have working-class roots. Not so in pre-Victorian England. The fame and infamy of Robert Burns, the great and greatly flawed Scottish poet who died young amidst alcoholism and sexual scandal, created a rather dubious niche at the end of the 18th century for the "peasant poet" among English writers. Bate deftly exposes the patronizing ...