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by John Clare
I am: yet what I am none cares or knows,
My friends forsake me like a memory lost;
I am the self-consumer of my woes,
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shades in love and death's oblivion lost;
And yet I am, and live with shadows tost
Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life nor joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life's esteems;
And een the dearest -that I loved the best-
Are strange -nay, rather stranger than the rest.
I long for scenes where man has never trod;
A place where woman never smiled or wept;
There to abide with my creator, GOD,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept:
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie;
The grass below -above the vaulted sky.
There is no draft manuscript for these verses by the 'peasant poet' John Clare. What we do know is that they were written whilst he was in his early fifties and a patient in Northampton General Lunatic Asylum. Transcribed by the 'House Steward', William knight, 'I Am' was first published in The Bedford Times on New Year's day, 1848, after being sent to a mutual friend, the Bedfordshire watchmaker Thomas Inskip (in December 1846). There is some contextual evidence that the lines were penned even earlier in late '44 or in 1845 - by which time the writer had been residing in Northampton for three years.
If John Clare was to exhibit symptoms of mental instability it is hardly to be wondered at. Born the son of an impoverished farm labourer in Helpstone, Northamptonshire, he found employment (after a rudimentary local education) as a flail-thresher, horse-boy, plough-boy, under-gardener and lime-kiln worker. Aged eleven, his family's cottage was divided, by their new landlord, into four tenements - combined with an annual rent increase from two to three pounds! When he was sixteen an Act of Parliament enclosed the common land in Helpstone and - as he later wrote - 'trampled on the grave/ Of labours rights and left the poor a slave'. His first surviving poem, 'Helpstone', is dated that same year (1809). From his early teens Clare had written verses on whatever scraps of paper were to hand: magazines, newspapers, even discarded sugar-bags. He was 'taken up' by the London publisher John Taylor (Keats' publisher, among others) and their first book, Poems Descriptive of Rural Life, came out - to great acclaim - in 1820, the year of his marriage to Patty (nee Turner) with whom he would have eight children. Lionised by literary London society - where he was for a time the latest 'fad' - Clare seems to have been 'marketed' as much for his curiosity-value as for his poetry. Slowly the critical attention faded, and other productions - though possibly better-written - were commercial failures. This, coupled with a move from Helpstone (to Northborough, four miles away) affected Clare badly. Already victim of mood-swings, he began to have hallucinations and to complain of awful headaches. There are dark insinuations that he could be violent. Eventually, in 1837, when his wife could no longer cope, he was removed to High Beech, Essex, from where he escaped in 1841, walking all the way home to Northamptonshire. Once again certified as insane, he was admitted to Northampton's New Asylum (opened only three years earlier).
Clare seems not to have been violent at Northampton. Patients were divided into five classes proportionate to the severity of their symptoms and the degree of care required. The poet was in the 'fifth class' of private patients (those who received least supervision and whose payments, accordingly, were remitted at the lowest rate). These payments were received in part from a charitable fund and, in part, from Earl Fitzwilliam, a local aristocrat and long-term benefactor to Clare. Northampton General Lunatic Asylum (now 'St. Andrew's') was a state-of-the-art facility with hot water accessible in all parts of the building, galleries, day-rooms furnished to look as ordinary as possible, and a liberal regime under its first superintendents, doctors Prichard and Nesbitt. Clare was allowed to walk unaccompanied into town where he was often to be found sitting in the portico of All Saints church, usually with his notebook in his hand - always with his tobacco pouch. Occasionally, once in 1844 and again in '46 and '48, he would be confined to the asylum after over-partaking in the local ales. His services as a purveyor of verse seem to have been sought by the locals (especially around St. Valentine's day) and paid for with bribes of tobacco.
Of Clare's mental state at this time it is impossible to write with any exactitude. Less than two dozen letters survive from the period of his hospitalisation and, although these always show 'insight', there is also - as often as not - evidence of delusional ideation. Clare kept up an irregular correspondence with his family but appears never to have been visited by his wife, or to have seen any of his numerous grandchildren. Prolific in his output during the early years of his institutionalisation (Knight collected 800 of these 'Asylum Poems', of varying quality, over the five years prior to his own departure), Clare would lose the thread of his compositions if for any reason interrupted. His conversation, likewise, could be uneven. He'd developed a fixation with an old girl friend, Mary Joyce, whom he would describe as his 'first love and first wife' - and was unable, or unwilling, to acknowledge her death. Clare also suffered delusions that he was, at various times, (the prize-fighter) Jack Randall, Horatio Nelson, Shakespeare or Lord Byron, and would spend much time revising the latter's work.
Modern diagnostic practices shine little light on the poet's illness, which displays aspects of both schizophrenic, and bi-polar affective, disorders. Its aetiology is likewise confused (there is no evidence of any previous psychoses in his family) by all sorts of theories. Some experts have advocated the possibility of head trauma (Clare once fell from a tree), others advance the notion of vitamin-deficiency due to poor diet (he often lived with his family in considerable poverty), whilst others advocate the possibility of alcohol abuse or tertiary syphilis (again, there is some supporting evidence for these theses).
Clare's oeuvre has also been fraught with questions of editorial tinkering. Knight notes at the beginning of his collection that the poems were 'copied from the manuscripts as presented to me by Clare...the whole of them faithfully transcribed to the best of my knowledge from the pencil originals many of which were so obliterated that without referring to the Author I could not decipher'. The poems have never, completely, fallen into desuetude and have been espoused by such dissimilar commentators as Francis Palgrave, Arthur Symonds, Edward Thomas, Edmund Blunden and Geoffrey Grigson - all of whom sign-posted its virtues. More latterly Clare's work has become highly fashionable once again, with the likes of John Ashbery and Seamus Heaney thumbing a lift on to his belated bandwagon.
As the years in Northampton passed Clare's productivity lessened - although it never ceased entirely. His conversation was apt to become larded with obscenity and he became quite stout, often sitting in a favoured chair with views over the asylum's well-tended gardens. He seems to have grown more taciturn and, towards the end, suffered from a series of transient ischemic attacks (or 'mini-strokes') until his death, at the age of seventy, after well-over 22 years of institutional life. He'd more than once likened his surrounds to 'the Bastille'. He was to be buried in his beloved Helpstone via the good offices of the local church-warden, thereby narrowly avoiding the final indignity of a pauper's grave.
Bate, J., John Clare, A Biography, Picador (2003)
Clare, J. (Ed. Summerfield, G.) John Clare: Selected Poetry, Penguin (1990)
Storey, M. (Ed.) The Letters of John Clare, Oxford University Press (1988)
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