John Clare.

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killed by kindness; and incidentally Radstock introduced him to the
strangely superficial-genuine lady Mrs. Emmerson, who was to be a
faithful, thoughtful friend to his family for many years to come. In
another direction, soon after Clare's return to Helpston, the retired
admiral did him a great service, opening a private subscription list
for his benefit: it was found possible to purchase "£250 Navy 5 Per
Cents" on the 28th April and a further "£125 Navy 5 Per Cents" a month
or so later. This stock, held by trustees, yielded Clare a dividend of
£18 15s. at first, but in 1823 this income dwindled to £15 15s.; and
by 1832 appears to have fallen to £13 10s. To the varying amount thus
derived, and to the £15 given yearly by the Marquis of Exeter,
a Stamford doctor named Bell - one of Clare's most energetic
admirers - succeeded in adding another annuity of £10 settled upon the
poet by Lord Spencer. But in the consideration of these bounties, it
is just to examine the actual financial effect of Clare's first book.
The publishers' own account, furnished only through Clare's repeated
demands in 1829 or thereabouts, has a sobering tale to tell: but so
far no biographer has condescended to examine it.

On the first edition Clare got nothing. Against him is entered the
item "Cash paid Mr. Clare for copyright p. Mr. Drury ... £20"; but
this money if actually paid had been paid in 1819. Against him also is
charged a curious "Commission 5 p. Cent... £8 12s.," while Drury and
Taylor acknowledge sharing profits of £26 odd.

On the second and third editions Clare got nothing; but to his account
is charged the £100 which Taylor and Hessey "subscribed" to his fund.
"Commission," "Advertising," "Sundries," and "Deductions allowed to
Agents," account for a further £51 of the receipts: and Drury and
Taylor ostensibly take over £30 apiece.

The fourth edition not being exhausted, the account is not closed: but
"Advertising" has already swollen to £30, and there is no sign that
Clare benefits a penny piece. Small wonder that at the foot of these
figures he has written, "How can this be? I never sold the poems
for any price - what money I had of Drury was given me on account of
profits to be received - but here it seems I have got nothing and
am brought in minus twenty pounds of which I never received a
sixpence - or it seems that by the sale of these four thousand copies
I have lost that much - and Drury told me that 5,000 copies had been
printed tho' 4,000 only are accounted for." Had Clare noticed further
an arithmetical discrepancy which apparently shortened his credit
balance by some £27, he might have been still more sceptical.

Not being overweighted, therefore, with instant wealth, Clare returned
to Helpston determined to continue his work in the fields. But fame
opposed him: all sorts and conditions of Lydia Whites, Leo Hunters,
Stigginses, and Jingles crowded to the cottage, demanding to see the
Northamptonshire Peasant, and often wasting hours of his time. One
day, for example, "the inmates of a whole boarding-school, located at
Stamford, visited the unhappy poet"; and even more congenial visitors
who cheerfully hurried him off to the tavern parlour were the ruin of
his work. Yet he persevered, writing his poems only in his leisure,
until the harvest of 1820 was done; then in order to keep his word
with Taylor, who had agreed to produce a new volume in the spring
of 1821, he spent six months in the most energetic literary labour.
Writing several poems a day as he roamed the field or sat in Lea
Close Oak, he would sit till late in the night sifting, recasting and
transcribing. His library, by his own enterprise and by presents from
many friends, was greatly enlarged, and he already knew not only the
literature of the past, but also that of the present. In his letters
to Taylor are mentioned his appreciations of Keats, "Poor Keats, you
know how I reverence him," Shelley, Hunt, Lamb - and almost every
other contemporary classic. Nor was he afraid to criticize Scott with
freedom in a letter to Scott's friend Sherwell: remarking also that
Wordworth's Sonnet on Westminster Bridge had no equal in the language,
but disagreeing with "his affected godliness."

Taylor and Hessey for their part did not seem over-anxious to produce
the new volume of poems, perhaps because Clare would not allow any
change except in the jots and tittles of his work, perhaps thinking
that the public had had a surfeit of sensation. At length in the
autumn of 1821 the "Village Minstrel" made its appearance, in
two volumes costing twelve shillings; with the bait of steel
engravings, - the first, an unusually fine likeness of Clare from
the painting by Hilton; the second, an imaginative study of Clare's
cottage, not without representation of the Blue Bell, the village
cross and the church. The book was reviewed less noisily, and a sale
of a mere 800 copies in two months was regarded as "a very modified
success." Meanwhile, Clare was writing for the _London Magazine_, and
Cherry tells us that "as he contributed almost regularly for some
time, a substantial addition was made to his income." Clare tells us,
in a note on a cash account dated 1827, "In this cash account there
is nothing allowed me for my three years' writing for the _London
Magazine_. I was to have £12 a year."

To insist in the financial affairs of Clare may seem blatant, or
otiose: actually, the treatment which he underwent was a leading
influence in his career. He was grateful enough to Radstock for
raising a subscription fund; he may have been grateful to Taylor
and Hessey for subscribing £100 of his own money; but what hurt and
embittered him was to see this sum and the others invested for him
under trustees. Indeed, what man would not, if possessed of any
independence of mind, strongly oppose such namby-pamby methods? It is
possible to take a more sinister view of Taylor and Hessey and their
reluctance ever to provide Clare with a statement of account; but in
the matter of Clare's funded property folly alone need be considered.

In October 1821, notably, Clare saw an excellent opportunity for the
future of his family. A small freehold of six or seven acres with a
pleasant cottage named Bachelor's Hall, where Clare had spent many an
evening in comfort and even in revelry, was mortgaged to a Jew for
two hundred pounds; the tenants offered Clare the whole property on
condition that he paid off the mortgage. Small holdings were rare in
that district of great landowners, and this to Clare was the chance
of a lifetime. He applied therefore to Lord Radstock for two hundred
pounds from his funded property; Radstock replied that "the funded
property was vested in trustees who were restricted to paying the
interest to him." It would have been, thought Clare, no difficult
matter for Radstock to have advanced me that small amount; and he
rightly concluded that his own strength of character and common sense
were distrusted by his patrons. Not overwhelmed by this, he now
applied to his publisher Taylor, offering to sell his whole literary
output for five years at the price of two hundred pounds. Taylor was
not enthusiastic. These writings, he urged, might be worth more, or
might be worth less; in the first case Clare, in the second himself
would lose on the affair; besides, there were money-lenders and legal
niceties to beware of; let not Clare "be ambitious but remain in the
state in which God had placed him." Thus the miserable officiousness
went on, and if Clare for a time found some comfort in the glass who
can blame him? In his own words, "for enemies he cared nothing, from
his friends he had much to fear." He was "thrown back among all the
cold apathy of killing kindness that had numbed him ... for years."

In May, 1822, Clare spent a brief holiday in London, meeting there the
strong men of the _London Magazine_, Lamb, Hood, and therest. From
his clothes, the _London_ group called him The Green Man; Lamb took a
singular interest in him, and was wont to address him as "Clarissimus"
and "Princely Clare." Another most enthusiastic acquaintance was a
painter named Rippingille, who had begun life as the son of a farmer
at King's Lynn, and who was now thoroughly capable of taking Clare
into the most Bohemian corners of London. Suddenly, however, news came
from Helpston recalling the poet from these perambulations, and he
returned in haste, to find his second daughter born, Eliza Louisa,
god-child of Mrs. Emmerson and Lord Radstock.

At this time, Clare appears to have been writing ballads of a truly
rustic sort, perhaps in the light of his universal title, The
Northamptonshire Peasant Poet. He would now, moreover, collect such
old ballads and songs as his father and mother or those who worked
with him might chance to sing; but was often disappointed to find that
"those who knew fragments seemed ashamed to acknowledge it ... and
those who were proud of their knowledge in such things knew nothing
but the senseless balderdash that is brawled over and sung at country
feasts, statutes, and fairs, where the most senseless jargon passes
for the greatest excellence, and rudest indecency for the finest wit."
None the less he recovered sufficient material to train himself into
the manner of these "old and beautiful recollections." But whatever
he might write or edit, he was unlikely to find publishers willing
to bring out. The "Village Minstrel" had barely passed the first
thousand, and the "second edition" was not melting away. Literature
after all was not money, and to increase Clare's anxiety and dilemma
came illness. In the early months of 1823, he made a journey to
Stamford to ask the help of his old friend Gilchrist.

Gilchrist was already in the throes of his last sickness, and Clare
took his leave without a word of his own difficulties. Arriving home,
he fell into a worse illness than before; but as the spring came on he
rallied, and occasionally walked to Stamford to call on his friend,
who likewise seemed beginning to mend. On the 30th of June, Clare was
received with the news "Mr. Gilchrist is dead." Clare relapsed into a
curious condition which appeared likely to overthrow his life or his
reason when Taylor most fortunately came to see him, and procured him
the best doctor in Peterborough. This doctor not only baffled
Clare's disease, but, rousing attention wherever he could in the
neighbourhood, was able to provide him with good food and even some
old port from the cellar of the Bishop of Peterborough.

At last on the advice of the good doctor and the renewed invitation of
Taylor, Clare made a third pilgrimage to London, and this time stayed
from the beginning of May till the middle of July, 1824. Passing the
first three weeks in peaceful contemplation of London crowds, he
was well enough then to attend a _London Magazine_ dinner, where De
Quincey swam into his ken, and the next week a similar gathering where
Coleridge talked for three hours. Clare sat next to Charles Elton and
gained a staunch friend, who shortly afterwards sent him a letter
in verse with a request that he should sit to Rippingille for his

His touch will, hue by hue, combine
Thy thoughtful eyes, that steady shine,
The temples of Shakesperian line,
The quiet smile.

To J. H. Reynolds he seemed "a very quiet and worthy yet enthusiastic
man." George Darley, too, was impressed by Clare the man, and for some
time was to be one of the few serious critics of Clare the poet. Allan
Cunningham showed a like sympathy and a still more active interest.
A less familiar character, the journalist Henry Van Dyk, perhaps did
Clare more practical good than either.

With these good effects of Clare's third visit to town, another may be
noted. A certain Dr. Darling attended him throughout, and persuaded
him to give up drink; this he did. The real trouble at Helpston was to
discover employment, for already Clare was supporting his wife, his
father and mother, and three young children. Farmers were unwilling
to employ Clare, indeed insulted him if he applied to them: and his
reticence perhaps lost him situations in the gardens of the Marquis of
Exeter, and then of the Earl Fitzwilliam.

In spite of disappointments, he wrote almost without pause, sometimes
making poems in the manner of elder poets (with the intention of mild
literary forgery), sometimes writing in his normal vein for the lately
announced "New Shepherd's Calendar"; and almost daily preparing two
series of articles, on natural history and on British birds. A curious
proof of the facility with which he wrote verse is afforded by the
great number of rhymed descriptions of birds, their nests and eggs
which this period produced: as though he sat down resolved to write
prose notes and found his facts running into metre even against his
will. As if not yet embroiled in schemes enough, Clare planned and
began a burlesque novel, an autobiography, and other prose papers:
while he kept a diary which should have been published. Clare had
been forced into a literary career, and no one ever worked more
conscientiously or more bravely. Those who had at first urged him to
write can scarcely be acquitted of desertion now: but the more and the
better Clare wrote, the less grew the actual prospect of production,
success and independence.

On the 9th of March, 1825, Clare wrote in his diary: "I had a very odd
dream last night, and take it as an ill omen ... I thought I had one
of the proofs of the new poems from London, and after looking at it
awhile it shrank through my hands like sand, and crumbled into dust."
Three days afterwards, the proof of the "Shepherd's Calendar" arrived
at Helpston. The ill omen was to be proved true, but not yet. Clare
continued to write and to botanize, and being already half-forgotten
by his earlier friends was contented with the company of two notable
local men, Edward Artis the archaeologist who discovered ancient
Durobrivae, and Henderson who assisted Clare in his nature-work. These
two pleasant companions were in the service of Earl Fitzwilliam. It
was perhaps through their interest that Clare weathered the hardships
of 1825 so well; and equally, although the "Shepherd's Calendar"
seemed suspended, did Clare's old patron Radstock endeavour to keep
his spirits up, writing repeatedly to the publisher in regard to
Clare's account. The hope of a business agreement was destroyed by the
sudden death of Radstock, "the best friend," says Clare, "I have met

Not long after this misfortune, Clare returned to field work for the
period of harvest, then through the winter concentrated his energy on
his poetry. Nor was poetry his only production, for through his friend
Van Dyk he was enabled to contribute prose pieces to the London press.
In June, 1826, his fourth child was born, and Clare entreated Taylor
to bring out the "Shepherd's Calendar," feeling that he might at least
receive money enough for the comfort of his wife and his baby; but
Taylor felt otherwise, recommending Clare to write for the annuals
which now began to flourish. This Clare at last persuaded himself to
do. Payment was tardy, and in some cases imaginary; and for the time
being the annuals were not the solution of his perplexities. He
therefore went back to the land; and borrowing the small means
required rented at length a few acres, with but poor results.

The publication of Clare's first book had been managed with excellent
strategy; Taylor had left nothing to chance, and the public responded
as he had planned. The independence of Clare may have displeased
the publisher; at any rate, his enthusiasm dwindled, and further to
jeopardize Clare's chances it occurred that in 1825 Taylor and Hessey
came to an end, the partners separating. Omens were indeed bad for
the "Shepherd's Calendar" which, two years after its announcement,
in June, 1827, made its unobtrusive appearance. There were very few
reviews, and the book sold hardly at all. Yet this was conspicuously
finer work than Clare had done before. Even "that beautiful
frontispiece of De Wint's," as Taylor wrote, did not attract
attention. The forgotten poet, slaving at his small-holding, found
that his dream had come true. Meanwhile Allan Cunningham had been
inquiring into this non-success, and early in 1828 wrote to Clare
urging him to come to London and interview the publisher. An
invitation from Mrs. Emmerson made thevisit possible. Once more then
did Clare present himself at 20, Stratford Place, and find his "sky
chamber" ready to receive him. Nor did he allow long time to elapse
before finding out Allan Cunningham, who heartily approved of his plan
to call on Taylor, telling him to request a full statement of account.
The next day, when Clare was on the point of making the demand, Taylor
led across the trail with an unexpected offer; recommending Clare to
buy the remaining copies of his "Shepherd's Calendar" from him at
half-a-crown each, that he might sell them in his own district.
Clare asked time to reflect. A week later, against the wish of Allan
Cunningham, he accepted the scheme.

Clare had had another object in coming to town. Dr. Darling had done
him so much good on a previous occasion that he wished to consult him
anew. On the 25th of February, 1828, Clare wrote to his wife: "Mr.
Emmerson's doctor, a Mr. Ward, told me last night that there was
little or nothing the matter with me - and yet I got no sleep the
whole of last night." Already, it appears, had coldness and dilemma
unsettled him. That they had not subdued him, and that his home life
was in the main happy and affectionate, and of as great an importance
to him as any of his aspirations, is to be judged from his poems
and his letters of 1828 and thereabouts. They show him as the very
opposite of the feeble neurotic who has so often been beworded under
his name:

20, STRATFORD PLACE, _March 21st, 1828._


I have been so long silent that I feel ashamed of it, but I have been
so much engaged that I really have not had time to write; and the
occasion of my writing now is only to tell you that I shall be at home
next week for certain. - I am anxious to see you and the children
and I sincerely hope you are all well. I have bought the dear little
creatures four books, and Henry Behnes has promised to send Frederick
a wagon and horses as a box of music is not to be had. The books I
have bought them are "Puss-in-Boots," "Cinderella," "Little Rhymes,"
and "The Old Woman and Pig"; tell them that the pictures are all
coloured, and they must make up their minds to chuse which they like
best ere I come home. - Mrs. Emmerson desires to be kindly remembered
to you, and intends sending the children some toys. I hope next
Wednesday night at furthest will see me in my old corner once again
amongst you. I have made up my mind to buy Baxter "The History of
Greece," which I hope will suit him. I have been poorly, having caught
cold, and have been to Dr. Darling. I would have sent you some money
which I know you want, but as I am coming home so soon I thought it
much safer to bring it home myself than send it; and as this is only
to let you know that I am coming home, I shall not write further than
hoping you are all well - kiss the dear children for me all round - give
my remembrances to all - and believe me, my dear Patty,

Yours most affectionately,


During this stay in London, Clare had had proofs that his poems
were not completely overlooked. Strangers, recognizing him from the
portrait in the "Village Minstrel," often addressed him in the street.
In this way he first met Alaric A. Watts, and Henry Behnes, the
sculptor, who induced Clare to sit to him. The result was a strong,
intensely faithful bust (preserved now in the Northampton Free
Library). Hilton, who had painted Clare in water-colours and in oils,
celebrated with Behnes and Clare the modelling of this bust, all three
avoiding a dinner of lions arranged by Mrs. Emmerson. On another
occasion, Clare found a congenial spirit in William Hone.

But now Clare is home at Helpston, ready with a sack of poetry to
tramp from house to house and try his luck. Sometimes he dragged
himself thirty miles a day, meeting rectors who "held it unbecoming
to see poems hawked about": one day, having walked seven milesinto
Peterborough, and having sold no books anywhere, he trudged home
to find Patty in the pains of labour; and now had to go back to
Peterborough as fast as he might for a doctor. Now there were nine
living beings dependent on Clare. At length he altered his plan of
campaign, and advertised that his poems could be had at his cottage,
with some success. About this time Clare was invited to write for "The
Spirit of the Age," and still he supplied brief pieces to the hated
but unavoidable annuals. Letters too from several towns in East
Anglia, summoning John Clare with his bag of books, at least promised
him some slight revenue; actually he only went to one of these places,
namely Boston, where the mayor gave a banquet in his honour, and
enabled him to sell several volumes - autographed. Among the younger
men, a similar feast was proposed; but Clare declined, afterwards
reproaching himself bitterly on discovering that they had hidden ten
pounds in his wallet. On his return home not only himself but the rest
of the family in turn fell ill with fever, so that the spring of 1829
found Clare out of work and faced with heavy doctor's-bills.

Intellectually, John Clare was in 1828 and 1829 probably at his
zenith. He had ceased long since to play the poetic ploughman; he had
gained in his verses something more ardent and stirring than he had
shown in the "Shepherd's Calendar"; and the long fight (for it was
nothing less) against leading-strings and obstruction now began to
manifest itself in poems of regret and of soliloquy. Having long
written for others' pleasure, he now wrote for his own nature.

I would not wish the burning blaze
Of fame around a restless world,
The thunder and the storm of praise
In crowded tumults heard and hurled.

There had been few periods of mental repose since 1820. His brain and
his poetic genius, by this long discipline and fashioning, were now
triumphant together. The declension from this high estate might have
been more abrupt but for the change in his fortunes. He had again
with gentleness demanded his accounts from his publisher, and when in
August, 1829, these accounts actually arrived, disputed several points
and gained certain concessions: payment was made from the editors of
annuals; and with these reliefs came the chance for him to rent a
small farm and to work on the land of Earl Fitzwilliam. His working
hours were long, and his mind was forced to be idle. This salutary
state of affairs lasted through 1830, until happiness seemed the only
possibility before him. What poems he wrote occurred suddenly and
simply to him. His children - now six in number - were growing up in
more comfort and in more prospect than he had ever enjoyed. But he
reckoned not with illness.

In short, illness reduced Clare almost to skin-and-bone. Farming not
only added nothing but made encroachment on his small stipend. In
despair he flung himself into field labour again, and was carried home
nearly dead with fever. Friends there were not wanting to send food
and medicine; Parson Mossop, having long ago been converted to Clare,
did much for him. Even so the landlord distrained for rent, and Clare
applied to his old friend Henderson the botanist at Milton Park. Lord
Milton came by and Clare was encouraged to tell him his trouble;
his intense phrases and bearing were such that the nobleman at once
promised him a new cottage and a plot of ground. At the same time, he
expressed his hope that there would soon be another volume of poems
by John Clare. This hope was the spark which fired a dangerous train,
perhaps; for Clare once again fell into his exhausting habit of poetry
all the day and every day. He decided to publish a new volume by

The new cottage was in the well-orcharded village of Northborough,
three miles from Helpston. It was indeed luxurious in comparison with
the old stooping house where Clare had spent nearly forty years, but
there was more in that old house than mere stone and timber. Clare
began to look on the coming change with terror; delayed the move day
after day, to the distress of poor Patty; and when at last news came
from Milton Park that the Earl was not content with such strange
hesitation, and when Patty had her household on the line of march, he

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Online LibraryJohn ClarePoems Chiefly from Manuscript → online text (page 2 of 13)