John Clare.

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"followed in the rear, walking mechanically, with eyes half shut, as
if in a dream." There was no delay in his self-expression.

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.
I miss the hazel's happy green,
The bluebell's quiet hanging blooms,
Where envy's sneer was never seen,
Where staring malice never comes.

This and many other verses, not the least pathetic in our language,
were written by John Clare on June 20th, 1832, on the occasion of his
moving out of a small and crowded cottage in a village street to
a roomy, romantic farmhouse standing in its own grounds. Was this
ingratitude? ask rather, is the dyer's hand subdued to what it works

Clare rapidly proceeded with his new collection of poems, destined
never to appear in his lifetime. In a thick oblong blank-book, divided
into four sections to receive Tales in Verse, Poems, Ballads and
Songs, and Sonnets, he copied his best work in a hand small but
clear, and with a rare freedom from slips of the pen. His proposals,
reprinted with a warm-hearted comment in the _Athenaeum_ of 1832, were
in these terms:

The proposals for publishing these fugitives being addressed to
friends no further apology is necessary than the plain statement of
facts. Necessity is said to be the mother of invention, but there
is very little need of invention for truth; and the truth is, that
difficulty has grown up like a tree of the forest, and being no longer
able to conceal it, I meet it in the best way possible by attempting
to publish them for my own benefit and that of a numerous and
increasing family. It were false delicacy to make an idle parade
of independence in my situation, and it would be unmanly to make
a troublesome appeal to favours, public or private, like a public
petitioner. Friends neither expect this from me, or wish me to do it
to others, though it is partly owing to such advice that I was induced
to come forward with these proposals, and if they are successful
they will render me a benefit, and if not they will not cancel any
obligations that I may have received from friends, public and
private, to whom my best wishes are due, and having said this much in
furtherance of my intentions, I will conclude by explaining them.

Proposals for publishing in 1 volume, F.c. 8vo, The Midsummer Cushion,
or Cottage Poems, by John Clare.

1st. The Book will be printed on fine paper, and published as soon as
a sufficient number of subscribers are procured to defray the expense
of publishing.

2nd. It will consist of a number of fugitive trifles, some of which
have appeared in different periodicals, and of others that have never
been published.

3rd. No money is requested until the volume shall be delivered, free
of expense, to every subscriber.

4th. The price will not exceed seven shillings and sixpence, and it
may not be so much, as the number of pages and the expense of the book
will be regulated by the Publisher.

In his new home Clare was for a time troubled with visitors; to most
he was aloof, but sometimes he spoke freely of his affairs. One
visitor who found him in the communicative mood chanced to be the
editor of a magazine, _The Alfred._ The denials of Clare, frankly
given to rumours of his new benefits (variously estimated between two
hundred and a thousand a year), were to this gentleman as meat and
drink; and _The Alfred_ for October the 5th, 1832, contained a violent
manifesto condemning publishers and patrons in the most fiery fashion
and apparently inspired by the poet himself. This did his cause much
damage, and Clare wrote to the perpetrator in anger: "There never
was a more scandalous insult to my feelings than this officious
misstatement.... I am no beggar; for my income is £36, and though
I have had no final settlement with Taylor, I expect to have
one directly." Clare ended by demanding a recantation. None was
forthcoming, and the effect on patrons and poet was unfortunate
indeed. Yet still he could write of himself in this uncoloured style:
"I am ready to laugh with you at my own vanity. For I sit sometimes
and wonder over the little noise I have made in the world, until I
think I have written nothing yet to deserve any praise at all. So
the spirit of fame, of living a little after life like a noise on a
conspicuous place, urges my blood upward into unconscious melodies;
and striding down my orchard and homestead I hum and sing inwardly
these little madrigals, and then go in and pen them down, thinking
them much better things than they are - until I look over them again.
And then the charm vanishes into the vanity that I shall do something
better ere I die; and so, in spite of myself, I rhyme on and write
nothing but little things at last."

With the gear that Mrs. Emmerson's kindness and activity had provided,
Clare kept his garden and ground in order; yet the winter of 1832 was
a time of great hardship and foreboding. His youngest son Charles was
born on the 4th of January, 1833; the event shook Clare's nerve more
terribly perhaps than anything before had done and he went out
into the fields. Late in the day his daughter Anna found him lying
unconscious, and for a month he had to keep his bed. As if to prove
the proverb "It never rains but it pours," subscribers to his new
volume hung back, and when spring had come they numbered in all
forty-nine. Clare submitted the work to the publishers, great and
small, but the best offer that he got depended on his providing in
advance £100 for the necessary steel engravings. And now Clare lost
all his delight in lonely walks, but sitting in his study wrote
curious paraphrases of "the Psalms, the Proverbs, and the Book of
Job." His manner towards those round him became apathetic and silent.
Even the news brought by his doctor - who prescribed Clare to his other
patients - that subscribers now were more than two hundred, seemed to
sound meaningless in his ears. But even these danger-signs seemed
discounted by the self-command and cheerfulness which Clare soon
afterwards regained; and ashamed of his misjudgment, Dr. Smith came to
the conclusion that he need visit Clare no more. An attack of insanity
immediately followed, during which Clare did not know his wife, his
children or himself.

From this heavy trance he awoke, bitterly aware of his peril. He wrote
at once to Taylor, again and again. "You must excuse my writing; but I
feel that if I do not write now I shall not be able. What I wish is to
get under Dr. Darling's advice, or to have his advice to go somewhere;
for I have not been from home this twelve-month, and cannot get
anywhere." ... "If I could but go to London, I think I should get
better. How would you advise me to come? I dare not come up by myself.
Do you think one of my children might go with me?... Thank God my wife
and children are all well." Taylor wrote once in mildly sympathetic
words, but probably thought that Clare was making much ado about
nothing. And here at least was the opportunity for a patron to save a
poet from death-in-life for five pounds. Nothing was done, and Clare
sat in his study, writing more and more paraphrases of the Old
Testament, together with series of sonnets of a grotesque, rustic
sort, not resembling any other poems in our language.

The "Midsummer Cushion" had been set aside, but Clare had submitted
many of the poems together with hundreds more to Messrs. Whittaker.
Largely through the recommendations of Mr. Emmerson, the publishers
decided to print a volume from these, picking principally those poems
which had already shown themselves respectable by appearing in the
annuals. One even written in 1820, "The Autumn Robin," was somehow
chosen, to the exclusion of such later poems as "Remembrances"
and "The Fallen Elm." With faults like these, the selection was
nevertheless a distinctly beautiful book of verse. In March, 1834,
Clare definitely received forty pounds for the copyright, and finally
in July, 1835, appeared this his last book, "The Rural Muse." Its
success was half-hearted, in spite of a magnificent eulogy by
Christopher North in _Blackwood's_, and of downright welcome by the
_Athenaeum_, the _New Monthly_ and other good judges. There was a slow
sale for several months, but for Clare there was little chance of new
remuneration. This he could regard calmly, for while the book was in
the press he had received from the Literary Fund a present of fifty

Clare's malady slowly increased. The exact history of this decline is
almost lost, yet we may well believe that the death of his mother on
the 18th of December, 1835, was a day of double blackness for him.
The winter over, Patty made a great fight for his reason, and at last
persuaded him to go out for walks, which checked the decline. Now he
became so passionately fond of being out-of-doors that "he could not
be made to stop a single day at home." In one of these roving walks he
met his old friend Mrs. Marsh, the wife of the Bishop of Peterborough.
A few nights later as her guest he sat in the Peterborough theatre
watching the "Merchant of Venice." So vivid was his imagination - for
doubtless the strolling players were not in themselves convincing - that
he at last began to shout at Shylock and try to attack him on the stage.
When Clare returned to Helpston, the change in him terrified his wife.
And yet, he rallied and walked the fields, and sitting on the window-seat
taught his sons to trim the two yew-trees in his garden into old-fashioned
circles and cones. The positive signs of derangement which he had given so
far were not after all conclusive. He had seen Mary Joyce pass by, he had
spoken to her, occasionally he as a third person had watched and discussed
the doings of John Clare and this lost sweetheart. He had surprised one or
two people by calling mole-hills mountains. One day, too, at Parson
Mossop's house he had suddenly pointed to figures moving up and down.
Under these circumstances, a Market Deeping doctor named Skrimshaw
certified him mad; and on similar grounds almost any one in the world
might be clapped into an asylum.

Hallucinations ceased for a few months, but Mrs. Clare had difficulty
in keeping outside interference at bay. Earl Fitzwilliam, in his
position of landlord, proposed to send the man who called mole-hills
mountains at once to the Northampton Asylum. When the summer came,
unfortunately, Clare's mind seemed suddenly to give way, and
preparations were being made for his admission to the county Asylum
when letters came from Taylor and other old friends in London,
proposing to place him in private hands. Clare was taken accordingly
on the 16th of July, 1837, to Fair Mead House, Highbeach, in Epping

Dr. Allen, the mild broad-minded founder of this excellent asylum, had
few doubts as to the condition of Clare's mind, and assured him an
eventual recovery. As with the fifty other patients, so he dealt with
Clare: keeping him away from books, and making him work in the garden
and the fields. Poetry, it is said, was made impossible for him, paper
being taken away from him; but it is not conceivable that Clare could
live apart from this kindest of companions for many months together.
Soon he was allowed to go out into the forest at his will, often
taking his new acquaintance Thomas Campbell, the son of the poet,
on these wood-rambles. His hallucinations do not appear to have
diminished, although they changed. He was now convinced that Mary
Joyce was his true wife - Patty was his "second wife." He had known
William Shakespeare, and many other great ones in person. Why such men
as Wordsworth, Campbell and Byron were allowed to steal John Clare's
best poems and to publish them as their own, he could not imagine.
John Clare was not only noble by nature but by blood also. - On such
rumoured eccentricities did the popular notion of his madness rest. It
would seem that anything he said was taken down in evidence against
him. How dared he be figurative?

On the other hand, Miss Mitford records figurative conversations not
so easily explained; his eye-witness's account of the execution of
Charles the First, "the most graphic and minute, with an accuracy as
to costume and manners far exceeding what would probably have been at
his command if sane," and his seaman's narrative of the battle of
the Nile and the death of Nelson in exact nautical detail. These
imaginations she compares to clairvoyance. Cyrus Redding, who left
three accounts of his visit, found him "no longer, as he was formerly,
attenuated and pale of complexion ... a little man, of muscular frame
and firmly set, his complexion fresh and forehead high, a nose
somewhat aquiline, and long full chin." "His manner was perfectly
unembarrassed, his language correct and fluent; he appeared to possess
great candour and openness of mind, and much of the temperament of
genius. There was about his manner no tincture of rusticity." Once
only during the conversation did Clare betray any aberration, abruptly
introducing and abandoning the topic of Prize-fighting, as though "a
note had got into a piece of music which had no business there."

Clare told Redding that he missed his wife and his home, the society
of women, and books. At last, having been in the private asylum four
years, he "returned home out of Essex" on foot, leaving Epping Forest
early on July 20, 1841, and dragging himself along almost without
pause until July 23. Of this amazing journey he himself wrote an
account for "Mary Clare," which is printed in full in Martin's "Life":
it is both in style and in subject an extraordinary document. The
first night, he says, "I lay down with my head towards the north, to
show myself the steering-point in the morning." On "the third day I
satisfied my hunger by eating the grass on the roadside which seemed
to taste something like bread. I was hungry and eat heartily till I
was satisfied; in fact, the meal seemed to do me good." And "there was
little to notice, for the road very often looked as stupid as myself."
At last between Peterborough and Helpston "a cart met me, with a man,
a 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 drunk or mad. But when I was told it
was my second wife, Patty, I got in, and was soon at Northborough."

Rest and home somewhat restored Clare's mind, and it was Patty's hope
and aim to keep him in his cottage. Though she attempted to keep paper
from him he contrived to write verse paraphrases of the prophetical
books, sometimes putting in between a song to Mary or a stanza of
nature poetry. At the end of August, round the edges of a local
newspaper he wrote the draft of a letter to Dr. Allen, of Highbeach,
which in the almost complete absence of documents for this period is
an important expression:


Having left the Forest in a hurry I had not time to take my leave of
you and your family, but I intended to write, and that before now. But
dullness and disappointment prevented me, for I found your words true
on my return here, having neither friends nor home left. But as it is
called the "Poet's Cottage" I claimed a lodging in it where I now am.
One of my fancies I found here with her family and all well. They met
me on this side Werrington with a horse and cart, and found me all but
knocked up, for I had travelled from Essex to Northamptonshire without
ever eating or drinking all the way - save one pennyworth of beer which
was given me by a farm servant near an odd house called "The Plough."
One day I eat grass to keep on my [feet], but on the last day I chewed
tobacco and never felt hungry afterwards.

Where my poetical fancy is I cannot say, for the people in the
neighbourhood tell me that the one called "Mary" has been dead these
eight years: but I can be miserably happy in any situation and any
place and could have staid in yours on the Forest if any of my friends
had noticed me or come to see me. But the greatest annoyance in such
places as yours are those servants styled keepers, who often assumed
as much authority over me as if I had been their prisoner; and not
liking to quarrel I put up with it till I was weary of the place
altogether. So I heard the voice of freedom, and started, and could
have travelled to York with a penny loaf and a pint of beer; for I
should not have been fagged in body, only one of my old shoes had
nearly lost the sole before I started, and let in the water and silt
the first day, and made me crippled and lame to the end of my journey.

I had eleven books sent me from How & Parsons, Booksellers - some lent
and some given me; out of the eleven I only brought 5 vols. here, and
as I don't want any part of Essex in Northamptonshire agen I wish you
would have the kindness to send a servant to get them for me. I should
be very thankful - not that I care about the books altogether, only it
may be an excuse to see me and get me into company that I do not want
to be acquainted with - one of your labourers', Pratt's, wife borrowed
[ ] of Lord Byron's - and Mrs. Fish's daughter has two or three more,
all Lord Byron's poems; and Mrs. King late of The Owl Public House
Leppit Hill, and now of Endfield Highway, has two or three - all Lord
Byron's, and one is the "Hours of Idleness."

You told me something before haytime about the Queen allowing me
a yearly salary of £100, and that the first quarter had then
commenced - or else I dreamed so. If I have the mistake is not of much
consequence to any one save myself, and if true I wish you would get
the quarter for me (if due), as I want to be independent and pay
for board and lodging while I remain here. I look upon myself as a
widow[er] or bachelor, I don't know which. I care nothing about the
women now, for they are faithless and deceitful; and the first woman,
when there was no man but her husband, found out means to cuckold him
by the aid and assistance of the devil - but women being more righteous
now, and men more plentiful, they have found out a more godly way to
do it without the devil's assistance. And the man who possesses a
woman possesses losses without gain. The worst is the road to ruin,
and the best is nothing like a good Cow. Man I never did like - and
woman has long sickened me. I should like to be to myself a few years
and lead the life of a hermit: but even there I should wish for her
whom I am always thinking of - and almost every song I write has some
sighs and wishes in ink about Mary. If I have not made your head weary
by reading thus far I have tired my own by writing it; so I will bid
you goodbye, and am

My dear doctor

Yours very sincerely


Give my best respects to Mrs. Allen and Miss Allen, and to Dr.
Stedman; also to Campbell, and Hayward, and Howard at Leopard's Hill,
or in fact to any one who may think it worth while to enquire about

Patty worked her hardest to keep Clare out of future asylums, but
it seems that her wishes were overridden. Dr. Allen let it be known
through the _Gentleman's Magazine_ and other publications that Clare
would in the ordinary way almost certainly recover: but the local
doctors knew better. On the authority of an anonymous "patron" the
doctor Skrimshaw who had previously found Clare insane now paid
him another visit, and with a certain William Page, also of Market
Deeping, condemned him to be shut up "After years addicted to poetical

Then one day keepers came, and a vain struggle, and the Northborough
cottage saw John Clare no more. He was now in the asylum at
Northampton, and the minds of Northamptonshire noblemen need no longer
be troubled that a poet was wandering in miserable happiness under
their park walls.

So far, the madness of Clare had been rather an exaltation of mind
than a collapse. Forsaken mainly by his friends - even Mrs. Emmerson's
letters ceased in 1837, - unrecognized by the new generation of writers
and of readers, hated by his neighbours, wasted with hopeless love,
he had encouraged a life of imagination and ideals. Imagination
overpowered him, until his perception of realities failed him.
He could see Mary Joyce or talk with her, he had a family of
dream-children by her: but if this was madness, there was method in
it. But now the blow fell, imprisonment for life: down went John Clare
into idiocy, "the ludicrous with the terrible." And even from this
desperate abyss he rose.

Earl Fitzwilliam paid for Clare's maintenance in the Northampton
Asylum, but at the ordinary rate for poor people. The asylum
authorities at least seemed to have recognized Clare as a man out
of the common, treating him as a "gentleman patient," and allowing
him - for the first twelve years - to go when he wished into
Northampton, where he would sit under the portico of All Saints'
Church in meditation. What dreams were these! "sometimes his face
would brighten up as if illuminated by an inward sun, overwhelming
in its glory and beauty." Sane intervals came, in which he wrote his
poems; and these poems were of a serenity and richness not surpassed
in his earlier work, including for instance "Graves of Infants" (May,
1844), "The Sleep of Spring" (1844), "Invitation to Eternity" (1848)
and "Clock-a-Clay" (before 1854). But little news of him went farther
afield than the town of Northampton, and the poems remained in
manuscript. A glimpse of Clare in these years is left us by a Mr.
Jesse Hall, who as an admirer of his poems called on him in May, 1848.
"As it was a very fine day, he said we could go and have a walk in the
grounds of the institution. We discussed many subjects and I found him
very rational, there being very little evidence of derangement.... I
asked permission for him to come to my hotel the next day. We spent
a few hours together. I was very sorry to find a great change in him
from the previous day, and I had ample evidence of his reason being
dethroned, his conversation being disconnected and many of his remarks
displaying imbecility: but at times he spoke rationally and to the
point." To Hall as to almost every other casual visitor Clare gave
several manuscript poems.

A letter to his wife, dated July 19th, 1848, gives fresh insight into
his condition:


I have not written to you a long while, but here I am in the land of
Sodom where all the people's brains are turned the wrong way. I was
glad to see John yesterday, and should like to have gone back with
him, for I am very weary of being here. You might come and fetch me
away, for I think I have been here long enough.

I write this in a green meadow by the side of the river agen Stokes
Mill, and I see three of their daughters and a son now and then. The
confusion and roar of mill dams and locks is sounding very pleasant
while I write it, and it's a very beautiful evening; the meadows are
greener than usual after the shower and the rivers are brimful. I
think it is about two years since I was first sent up in this Hell
and French Bastille of English liberty. Keep yourselves happy and
comfortable and love one another. By and bye I shall be with you,
perhaps before you expect me. There has been a great storm here
with thunder and hail that did much damage to the glass in the
neighbourhood. Hailstones the size of hens' eggs fell in some places.
Did your brother John come to Northborough or go to Barnack? His uncle
John Riddle came the next morning but did not stay. I thought I was
coming home but I got cheated. I see many of your little brothers and
sisters at Northampton, weary and dirty with hard work; some of them
with red hands, but all in ruddy good health: some of them are along
with your sister Ruth Dakken who went from Helpston a little girl.
Give my love to your Mother, Grandfather and Sisters, and believe me,
my dear children, hers and yours,

Very affectionately


Life went on with little incident for Clare in the asylum. To amuse
himself he read and wrote continually; in 1850 his portrait was
painted, and his death reported. In 1854 he assisted Miss Baker in her
"Glossary of Northamptonshire Words and Phrases," providing her with
all his asylum manuscripts and specially contributing some verses on
May-day customs. At this time an edition of his poems was projected,
and the idea met with much interest among those who yet remembered
Clare: but it faded and was gone. The "harmless lunatic" was at length
confined to the asylum grounds, and to the distresses of his mind

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Online LibraryJohn ClarePoems Chiefly from Manuscript → online text (page 3 of 13)