John Clare.

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WE are told in the introduction to a volume of
poems by John Clare, published in 1820, 'They are
the genuine productions of a young peasant, a day-
labourer in husbandry, who has had no advantages
of education beyond others of his class ; and though
poets in this country have seldom been fortunate
men, yet he is, perhaps, the least favoured by cir-
cumstances, and the most destitute of friends, of any
that ever existed.' If the writer of the introduction
had been able to look to the end of the career on
whose outset he commented, he would have omitted
the ' perhaps '. The son of a pauper farm -labourer,
John Clare wrote his earlier poems in the intervals of
hard manual labour in the fields, and his later poems
in lucid intervals in a madhouse, to which ill health,
over- work, and drink had brought him. In a poem
written before he was seventeen he had asked that
he might

Find one hope true to die at home at last,

and his last words, when he died in the madhouse,
were, ' I want to go home.' In another early poem
he had prayed, seeing a tree in autumn, that, when
his time came, the trunk might die with the leaves.
Even so reasonable a prayer was not answered.



In Clare's early work, which is more definitely the
work of the peasant than perhaps any other peasant
poetry, there is more reality than poetry.

I found the poems in the fields,
And only wrote them down,

as he says with truth, and it was with an acute
sense of the precise thing he was saying that Lamb
complimented him in 1822 on the 'quantity 1 of his
observation. It is difficult to know how much of
these early poems were tinkered for publication by
the too fastidious publisher Mr. Taylor, and what
is most smooth and traditional in them is certainly
not what is best. The ballads and love-songs have
very little value, and there is often a helplessness in
the language, which passes from the over-familiar
to the over-elevated. Later on he would not have
called the glow-worm 'tasteful illumination of the
night', nor required so large a glossary of pro-
vincialisms. As it is, when he is not trying to write
like Burns, or in any way not quite natural to him,
he gives us, in a personal and unusual manner, a
sense of the earth and living things, of the life of
the fields and farmyards, with a Dutch closeness,
showing us himself,

Toiling in the naked fields,
Where no bush a shelter yields,

in his hard poverty, and with his sensitiveness to
weather, not only as it helps or hinders his labour.
You see him looking up from it, looking and


listening, and noting down everything he has
observed, sometimes with this homely detail :

Now buzzing, with unwelcome din,

The heedless beetle bangs
Against the cow-boy's dinner-tin

That o'er his shoulder hangs.

No one before him had given such a sense of the
village, for Bloomfield does not count, not being
really a poet ; and no one has done it so well again
until a greater poet, Barnes, brought more poetry
with him. Clare's poetry begins by having some-
thing clogging in it; substance, and poetical sub-
stance, is there, but the poetry has hardly worked
its way out to freedom.

That it should have got so far on the way there
is one of the most astonishing things in literature.
These poems, in which there is so much that is
direct and novel, were scribbled on scraps of paper
in the intervals of a life which had never had what
is called a single * advantage '. John Clare was born,
says his biographer Martin, in 'a narrow wretched
hut, more like a prison than a human dwelling ; and
the hut stood in a dark, gloomy plain, covered with
stagnant pools of water, and overhung by mists
during the greater part of the year.' This hut was
in the little village of Helpston, which lies between
Stamford and Peterborough, and Clare was born
there, prematurely, and one of twins, on July 13,
1793. The father was dependent through ill health
on parish relief, and the chief food of the family was


potatoes and water-gruel. At seven years of age
Clare was sent to look after sheep and geese on the
heath, and at twelve worked in the fields, though
with hardly strength enough for the lightest labour.
When he was a very small child he had set out one
day to walk as far as the sky, that he might touch
it, and when he was older he fancied that there were
ghosts ready to attack him in the swamps, and as
he was seen reading books among his cattle, and
talking to himself, people thought him something
of a lunatic. His head had been filled with old
songs from the time he was seven, by an old woman
who kept the cows near where he kept the sheep,
and he had learned to read and write at night-
classes after his work was over, and had tried in vain
to learn algebra, as a kind of magic speech. He
fell in love with Mary Joyce, but her father, when
he found it out, would not let the ' beggar-boy ' see
her any more. She was never wholly out of his
mind, and came back finally into it long afterwards,
when he was mad, and seemed more actual than his
living wife.

He was thirteen when the sight of Thomson's
* Seasons ' showed him that he was a poet. He read
it twice through under the wall of the park, and
scribbled down on a piece of paper the lines which
were afterwards to come out as 'The Morning
Walk '. From that time he wrote verses on scraps
of paper, which he would stuff in a hole in the wall,
and his mother would use for lighting the fire. He


worked for some time among the gardeners in
Burghley Park, and was taken by them on their
drunken carouses, and would sometimes lie all night
in the open air in a drunken sleep. Then he ran
away, and at last went back to his home, where he
returned to farm work. He showed some of his
verses to a foolish person who asked him if he had
learned grammar. The endeavour to learn grammar
hindered him for some time from writing any more
verses, and then he enlisted in the makeshift army
that was to repel Bonaparte when he attacked
England, and soon came back helplessly with a
Paradise Lost and part of The Tempest. He again
fell in love, and as that came to nothing, joined the
Gypsies, who taught him to play the fiddle, but he
was not with them long. Then he found work at
a lime-kiln, where he had hard work, but enough
leisure to write half a dozen songs in the course of
a day. It was at this time, in 1817, that he met
Martha Turner, the ' Patty ' of some of his poems,
whom he married, after many hesitations and
differences, in 1820, a month before the birth of
a child.

Between the meeting with 'Patty 1 and his mar-
riage Clare had come to almost literal beggary, and
had put down his name, like his father, as a pauper
claiming relief from the parish. He had spent
a guinea in printing a hundred copies of a pro-
spectus, which he called 'Proposals for publishing
by Subscription a Collection of Original Trifles on


Miscellaneous Subjects, Religious and Moral, in
Verse, by John Clare of Helpston'. Only seven
subscribers could be found, and it seemed as if the
poems would never be printed, when by good luck
they fell into the hands of a Stamford bookseller
called Drury, who, after many delays, and against
the advice of a Rev. Mr. Twopenny, of the parish,
sent them up to his relative, Mr. Taylor, of the firm
of Taylor and Hessey, Keats' publishers, who saw
their value, announced them in the first number of
their new London Magazine^ and on January 16, 1820,
published 'Poems descriptive of Rural Life and
Scenery, by John Clare, a Northamptonshire Peasant \
with an introduction, written by Mr. Taylor,
which was almost an appeal for charity. The
success was immediate : praise in the Quarterly,
which had just attacked Keats, praise in all the
reviews ; Madame Vestris recites some of the poems
at Co vent Garden, and Rossini sets one of them to
music. Clare is taken to London and has a wild
week of dinner parties and theatres. In his own
neighbourhood lords have thrown guineas into his
lap and asked him to dinner, but in the servants'
hall ; here he dines by their side, dressed in a smock-
frock covered by a borrowed overcoat, and makes
good and helpful friends in Lord Radstock and the
kind, flighty Mrs. Emmerson ; and goes back to his
home, to be ceaselessly called out of the fields where
he is labouring by a succession of idle interviewers,
not yet deadly and professional. Subscriptions are


raised, the money is invested for him, and he finds
himself with an income of 4t5 a year.

On that income Clare thought he could live
without working. By day he wandered in the open
air or sat writing in the hollow of an old oak ; at
night he sat in the inn-parlour and received his
admirers. He bought Burns and Chatterton, and
people sent him books. In 1821 he brought out
a new book, The Village Minstrel, containing better
poems ; but the novelty had gone off, and readers,
after all, had been more interested in the peasant
than in the poet. He had already tempered that
'rustic Cockneyism, as little pleasing as ours of
London ', which Lamb was afterwards to counsel him
against, and he would no longer allow his publisher
to correct what he wrote, except in grammar or
spelling. In 1822 he went for the second time to
London, and stayed there long enough to get well
acquainted with London taverns and slums, and
to fall in love with Mile. Dalia, of the Regency
Theatre, and to write love-songs to the young wife
of old Gary, taking her to be his daughter, and
meaning it as a polite compliment. He met Gifford
and Murray, and supped with Lamb.

The freedom and gaieties of London had done
Clare no good. He wrote verses copiously, and
tried to make better bargains in selling them. But
he could get nothing, and the little money he had
dwindled away, and he stinted himself in food and
soon got seriously ill. Whenever he got a little


better he would sit out of doors, soaking himself in
sunlight, until he had brought on a relapse. At
last Mr. Taylor took him up to London, where he
began to recover, and would spend the whole day
looking out of a window on the ground floor into
Fleet Street. Through the glass he could for the
first time look calmly at the beautiful women who
seemed to him to make up the enchantment of
London. At Taylor's house he met Coleridge,
Lamb, Hazlitt, De Quincey ; and, getting into the
crowd at Byron's funeral, was knocked into the mud,
and his only good clothes were spoiled. On going
back to Helpston he gave up drink and lived on
bread and vegetables, which weakened him so much
that he was unable to do the draining and ditching
work which he had got with difficulty ; and, writing
to Taylor, he says : * I live here among the ignorant
like a lost man.'

The circumstances of Clare's life prevented him
from being what he had at least some of the impulse
to be a natural man whose thoughts came to him
in verse, and who put down his feelings just as they
came to him. He had an instinctive facility which
he sometimes took to be literal inspiration, and
obeyed too literally. At other times he forced
himself to write at full speed in the continually
deluded hope of making money. Sometimes his
poverty and his cares, sometimes drink, sometimes
what was almost starvation, prevented him from
writing at all. His pension of 4<5 was not enough


on which to keep himself, his wife, his children, his
father and his mother. Sometimes he could not get
work when he wanted it, and sometimes he had not
the strength to do it when he had got it. He took
every help and advice that was given to him, but
was never able to turn either to account.

The Village Minstrel had had little success ; The
Shepherd's Calendar, published in 1827, was almost
unnoticed. Clare went again to London, to be the
guest of Mrs. Emmerson, with whom he had ima-
gined himself to be so madly in love ; and in London
accepted the dubious advice of his publisher to buy
back the remainder of his books at cost price and to
hawk them himself about the country. He returned
home suddenly, coming back to the house in Strat-
ford Place and saying, 'I must go,' because in
walking over Primrose Hill he had come upon
a violet.

Clare tramped the country for twenty or thirty
miles a day, and at the most sold two or three
volumes in the course of a week. Then he adver-
tised that the books were to be bought at his
cottage, and was sometimes invited to the big towns
in the neighbourhood, and once walked as far as the
coast, and saw the sea for the first time, and the
sight kept him awake all night. Then came sickness,
and debts, and Clare tried to write for the annuals,
which he hated, and which sometimes forgot to pay
him ; and then, with the help of Allan Cunningham,
who was always a good friend to him, he took to


farming again, and for a year seemed to be almost
prosperous. Next year he began to sicken again,
and one of the ' noble patrons ', meaning it for the
best, gave him a pleasant new cottage at North-
borough, three miles from Helpston. To leave his
native place and the cottage where he had always
lived was more than he could bear. As the time
came near, he roamed about, muttering incoherently,
and the people thought he was going mad. When
he got to the new cottage he wrote one of the finest
of his lamentations over his old home. A seventh
child was born that winter, and Clare wept when he
saw it. Sickness returned to him, and his whole
mood seemed to change ; he would not go out, but
sat indoors reading theological books, and writing
paraphrases of Job and the Psalms. One day he
said that he had seen his old sweetheart pass the
window, and he wrote some lines to her, which he
showed to a friend, who rightly thought them
beautiful. But the friend did not know that Mary
had long been dead.

Clare now began to speak of himself in the third
person, and thought that his wife and children
were strangers. He recovered a little, and wrote
a pathetic letter to Taylor, wanting to consult
a certain doctor in London before it was too late.
'Mrs. Emmerson, I think, has forsaken me,' he
wrote. ' I do not feel neglect now as I have done ;
I feel only very anxious to get better.' No one
would give him the money to go to London and back,


and he gave up all effort, and was sometimes calm
and rational, and sometimes talked, as John Clare, to
Mary, treating his wife as if she were not there.
His new book of poems, The Rural Muse., was now
published, containing only a small selection from the
verse which he had written, and was generously
welcomed by John Wilson in BlackwoocTs Magazine
for August, 1835, and then dropped quietly out of

Meanwhile Clare began to show violent excitement,
and one night, when he had gone to the theatre at
Peterborough with the bishop's wife, he shouted at
Shylock from the box and tried to get upon the
stage. It was not at first realized that this was more
than a poet's eccentricity, but before long Earl
Fitzwilliam proposed that Clare should be sent to
the county asylum. At the same time Taylor offered
to send him to Dr. Allen's private asylum at High
Beach, in Epping Forest, where he was treated with
great kindness, and set to work in the garden, and
allowed to take long walks, often in the company of
Tom Campbell, the son of the poet. He wrote
a number of poems, some of them addressed to Mary.
In the early summer of 1841 he escaped from the
asylum and made his way homeward on foot. The
narrative which he afterwards wrote in the form of
a journal tells the whole story of the terrible journey
with marvellous precision. 'I seemed to pass the
milestones very quick in the morning,' he says, ' but
towards night they seemed to be stretched further


apart. 1 He started early on the morning of July 20,
without a penny in his pocket, and on the 23rd had
come nearly to the journey's end, when, as he says,

a cart met me, with a man, woman, and a boy in it.
When nearing me the woman jumped out and caught
fast hold of my hands, and wished me to get into the
cart. But I refused ; I thought her either mad or
drunk. But when I was told it was my second wife
Patty, I got in, and was soon at Northborough.
But Mary was not there, neither could I get any
information about her, further than the old story of
her having died six years ago. But I took no notice
of the lie, having seen her myself twelve months ago,
alive and well, and as young as ever. So here I am
hopeless at home.

He wrote a letter to Mary, calling her ' my dear wife ',
and saying, ' I have written an account of my journey,
or rather escape, from Essex, for your amusement.'

At Northborough Clare was visited by two country
doctors, who signed the certificate which was to shut
him up in the Northampton Asylum for the remain-
ing twenty-two years of his life, on the ground of
having spent ' years addicted to poetical prosings '.
In a letter dated March 8, 1860, now preserved in
the public library at Northampton, he wrote to
a Mr. Hopkins :

Dear Sir, I am in a madhouse. I quite forget
your name or who you are. You must excuse me,
for I have nothing to communicate or tell of, and
why I am shut up I don't know. I have nothing to
say, so I remain yours faithfully,



Neither wife nor children ever came to see him,
except the youngest son, who came once. He sat
most of the time in a recess in one of the windows,
looking out over the garden and the town, and would
sometimes sit under the porch of All Saints' Church,
watching the children play and looking up into the
sky. When he could no longer walk he was wheeled
into the garden, and before he died he crept once
or twice to the window, to look out. He died on
May 20, 1864, and was buried under a sycamore tree
at Helpston, as he had wished to be :

The grave below ; above, the vaulted sky.


It must not be assumed that because Clare is a
peasant his poetry is in every sense typically peasant
poetry. He was gifted for poetry by those very
qualities which made him ineffectual as a peasant.
The common error about him is repeated by Mr.
Lucas in his Life of Lamb : ' He was to have been
another Burns, but succeeded only in being a better
Bloom field. 1 The difference between Clare and
Bloom field is the difference between what is poetry
and what is not, and neither is nearer to or farther
from being a poet because he was also a peasant.
The difference between Burns and Clare is the
difference between two kinds and qualities of poetry.
Burns was a great poet, filled with ideas, passions,
and every sort of intoxication ; but he had no such


minute local lore as Clare, nor, indeed, so deep
a love of the earth. He could create by naming,
while Clare, who lived on the memory of his heart,
had to enumerate, not leaving out one detail, because
he loved every detail. Burns or Hogg, however, we
can very well imagine at any period following the
plough with skill or keeping cattle with care. But
Clare was never a good labourer ; he pottered in the
fields feebly, he tried fruitless way after way of
making his living. What was strangely sensitive in
him might well have been hereditary if the wild and
unproved story told by his biographer Martin is true :
that his father was the illegitimate son of a nameless
wanderer, who came to the village with his fiddle,
saying he was a Scotchman or an Irishman, and
taught in the village school, and disappeared one day
as suddenly as he had come. The story is at least
symbolic, if not true. That wandering and strange
instinct was in his blood, and it spoiled the peasant in
him and made the poet.

Clare is said to have been barely five feet in height,
' with keen, eager eyes, high forehead, long hair,
falling down in wild and almost grotesque fashion
over his shoulders.' He was generally dressed in
very poor clothes, and was said by some woman to
look 'like a nobleman in disguise'. His nerves were
not the nerves of a peasant. Everything that touched
him was a delight or an agony, and we hear continu-
ally of his bursting into tears. He was restless and
loved wandering, but he came back always to the


point from which he had started. He could not
endure that anything he had once known should be
changed. He writes to tell his publisher that the
landlord is going to cut down two elm trees at the
back of his hut, and he says : ' I have been several
mornings to bid them farewell.' He kept his reason
as long as he was left to starve and suffer in that hut,
and when he was taken from it, though to a better
dwelling, he lost all hold on himself. He was torn
up by the roots, and the flower of his mind withered.
What this transplanting did for him is enough to
show how native to him was his own soil, and how
his songs grew out of it. Yet the strange thing is
that what killed him as a human mind exalted him
as a poetic consciousness, and that the verse written in
the asylum is of a rarer and finer quality than any of
the verse written while he was at liberty and at home.
Clare educated himself with rapidity, and I am
inclined to doubt the stories of the illiterate condition
of even his early manuscripts. His handwriting, in
a letter written in 1825, enclosing three sonnets on
the death of Bloomfield, contained among the Bloom-
field Papers in the British Museum, is clear, ener-
getic, and fluent, very different from the painful and
incompetent copy-book hand of Bloomfield ; and the
only oddity is that the sonnets are not punctuated
(anticipating Mallarme), and that the sign for * and '
is put, whimsically enough, at the beginning of
a line. The pencil scribble on the back of a letter
dated 1818 of a poem published in 1820, is in no


sense illiterate. We know from Mrs. Emmerson's
letters in the Clare Papers in the British Museum
that by 1820 he was familiar with Percy's Reliques,
and in the same year she sends him Coleridge's and
Akenside's poems, and ' two volumes of miscellaneous
poems, which contain specimens from most of our
British bards'. In the same year, sending him
a Walker's Dictionary, she reminds him of 'those
authors you possess Blair, Addison, Mason, Young'.
In 1821 Taylor saw in his cupboard copies of Burns,
Cowper, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, and Crabbe.
And in a printed letter of 1826, addressed to Mont-
gomery, Clare says that he has ' long had a fondness
for the poetry of the time of Elizabeth', which he
knows from Ellis's Specimens of Early English Poets
and Ritson's English Songs. It was doubtless in
Ellis that he found some of the metres in which we
may well be surprised to find him writing as early as
1821 ; Villon's ballad metre, for instance, which he
uses in a poem in The Village Minstrel, and which he
might have found in poems of Henryson and other
Scottish poets quoted in Ellis. Later on, among
some poems which he wrote in deliberate imitation of
Elizabethan poets, we shall find one in a Wyatt
metre, which reads like an anticipation of Bridges.

Thus it cannot be said in Clare's very earliest
work we have an utterance which literary influences
have not modified. The impulse and the subject-
matter are alike his own, and are taken directly from
what was about him. There is no closer attention to


nature than in Clare's poems ; but the observation
begins by being literal ; nature a part of his home,
rather than his home a part of nature. The things
about him are the whole of his material, he does not
choose them by preference out of others equally
available; all his poems are made out of the in-
cidents and feelings of humble life and the actual
fields and flowers of his particular part of England.
He does not make pictures which would imply aloof-
ness and selection ; he enumerates, which means
a friendly knowledge. It is enough for him, enough
for his success in his own kind of poetry, to say them
over, saying, * Such they were, and I loved them
because I had always seen them so.' He begins any-
where and stops anywhere. Some simple moralising,
from the fall of leaves to the fading of man, rounds
a landscape or a sensation of autumn. His words are
chosen only to be exact, and he does not know when
he is obvious or original in his epithets. When he

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