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John Clare: A Biography
John Clare: A Biography
Jonathan Bate
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003
672 pp., 40.00

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"I Am": The Selected Poetry of John Clare
"I Am": The Selected Poetry of John Clare
John Clare
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003
344 pp., 28.00

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Michael R. Stevens

The Lost World of John Clare

In love with nature, haunted by madness

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 nature of such a label, more akin to "idiot savant" than heir of the English poetic tradition.

Despite a variety of endowments and trust funds set up for him by patrons, Clare remained near the poverty level throughout his life. However, he never launched into economic diatribes. Instead, the strength of his "peasant poetry" is a recurring lament of a different sort, namely, the changes taking place in the countryside of England during his lifetime, as the Enclosure Laws were enacted to eliminate common pasture land, and the fencing and hedging of private property forever altered the rural landscape.

Bate is insistent upon the lasting impact of this tension on a poet who so often wrote out of exuberance for the open-ended world of his youth: "In Clare's world, there was an intimate relationship between society and environment. The open-field system fostered a sense of community." Bate relates a telling incident after the publication of Clare's second volume, at the height of his fame, when one of his patrons, Lord Radstock, insisted that instances of what he called "radical Slang" be elided from the lead poem, "The Village Minstrel"by which he meant Clare's spirited attack on the Enclosure Laws. Among Clare's final poems before the onset of unshakeable depression are those that posit the situation of the countryside around him as analogous to his faltering psyche. Bate notes that "His poetry held his sense of personal loss together with indignation at the curtailment of ancient rights within his community. Save in memory and poetry, there was no road back to childhood, to the unenclosed commons, to Eden." This is borne out in the poetry of this phase: "On paths to freedom and to childhood dear / A board sticks up to notice 'no road here.' "

Clare's ultimate displacement from the roots that had been so critical to his poetry was, in a bitterly ironic twist, brought to pass through a well-meaning act of patronage on his behalf. Having lived his entire life in the small Helpston cottage in which he'd been born, and which he'd come to share with his wife and six children, Clare was offered by the local Marquess of Exeter a larger cottage with some attached land in the neighboring village of Peterborough. Bate describes the family's walk across those few miles, carrying all their belongings, as an exodus from which Clare never quite recovered. The move's effects are made clear in the poem "On Leaving the Cottage of My Birth," which begins as more dirge than elegy: "I've left mine own old home of homes, / Green fields and every pleasant place; / The summer like a stranger comes, / I pause and hardly know her face." This distress was not merely poetic. Soon after moving, Clare began to manifest the uncontrollable symptoms of mental illness that would land him in asylums for the rest of his life.

Despite these struggles with the overarching changes to the land he held so dear, or perhaps because such struggles had become so crucial to him, Clare was able to forge a wonderfully particular account of the natural world. This particularity, this attention to the real and actual, is in fact rather anti-Romantic, and it presages the later minimalism of Clare's asylum poems. Bate is very helpful in tracking this "development towards simplicity that marked the maturing of his poetic voice." In Clare's final published volume, The Rural Muse, many of the nature poems reveal what Bate identifies as "an immediacy unprecedented in Clareperhaps in any prior English poet." Hence, from "The Pettichap's Nest" come these brisk, vivid lines: "Built like a oven with a little hole / Hard to discover that snug entrance wins, / Scarcely admitting e'en two fingers in / And lined with feathers warm as silken stole."

The volume also contains a number of splendid sonnets that rival those of Wordsworth and even Keats, with whom Clare shared a publisher, though Keats died before they could be brought together. Fittingly, Clare's shrewd comment about Keats, that "his descriptions of scenery are often very fine but as it is the case with other inhabitants of great cities he often described nature as she appeared to his fancies and not as he would have described her had he witnessed the things he described," seems a measure of Clare's distinctiveness. He grew up, labored upon, and found his deepest resonances within the actual rural world that is nature as well as "Nature." Keats' nightingale, Shelley's skylark, seem a tad contrived in the presence of Clare's nests and wildflowers.

Unfortunately, such clarity came from within a broader context of delusion and brokenness. Our own age has come to see mental illness, with the attendant pharmaceutical culture, as a commonplace. But anyone who has pondered the plight of the mentally unstable in ages past, without medication and with only primitive asylum care, will catch the poignant note in Bate's narrative. Especially harrowing is the identification with Lord Byron that Clare embraced in his delusion, as he labored extensively to rewrite both Childe Harold and Don Juan in a voice disordered and misogynistic beyond any of Byron's own excesses. But the asylum years also reveal the strangest and most enduring aspect of Clare's versethe clear, bittersweet minimalist voice with which a handful of distinguished modern poets have identified, as Bate points out in his excellent final chapter on Clare's legacy. The most telling quote comes from John Ashbery, for whom "Clare's 'nakedness of vision' is a sign of his remarkable modernity."

This is how a poem like the justly famous sonnet "I Am" arises out of a mind troubled and disorderedbecause there is also the possibility of startling clarity when all else is burned away: "I feel I amI only know I am / And plod upon the earth as dull and void:/ Earth's prison chilled my body with its dram / Of dullness and my soaring thoughts destroyed." Still sharper, more keenly haunting is another poem also entitled "I Am," which bears the ominous lines: "I am the self-consumer of my woes" and "But the vast shipwreck of my life's esteem." Yet even this poem hearkens to a brighter time, a nostalgic place, before enclosure laws and failed dreams and the horror of insanity: "There to abide with my Creator, God, / And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept, / Untroubling and untroubled where I lie, / The grass belowabove, the vaulted sky."

This is what John Clare the "peasant poet," touched briefly with the breath of fame, displaced from the world that nurtured his original vision, eventually plagued by disease of the mind and isolation from all he held dear, this is what this little-known poet is capable of: sharp and sharply echoing expression of the ephemeral, fragile situation of a man within the world. No more apt explanation of his work exists than Clare's own description to a visitor at the asylum, who asked how he'd written his poetry: "He said that he 'kicked it out of the clods.' " That is the sort of verse, rooted to the earth, rendered bluntly and truly, that Clare has to offer. It's taken us a long time to notice, but we're better off late than never. Bate's volumes can help immeasurably as we make up for lost time.

Michael R. Stevens is assistant professor of English at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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