The outs and ins of ‘Mad’ John Clare

This year marks the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the death (20 May 1864) of English poet, ‘Mad’ John Clare, who died of a stroke, and was buried in Helpston, the village of his birth. Known in his time as a ‘peasant poet’ (a description he sometimes adopted himself), most of Clare’s life centred on the East Midlands region of Northamptonshire, its villages, people, its fields, forests, waterways and byways.

Born in 1793, he wrote in a largely self-educated style. He was son of an agricultural labourer and his illiterate wife, and was educated in a village school until joining the workforce at the age of twelve as a rural labourer. But he could read and write, and recalled his ‘first great book of any merit’ being a copy borrowed in childhood of Robinson Crusoe. Fortuitously, at the age of thirteen, he bought a book of poetry and determined to become a poet.

He did so, and wrote about nature and the rural communities and people and culture and traditions of which he was part, railing against the process of enclosures and the privatisation of commonlands, a disruptive, traumatic ‘smothering’ as he saw it:

Each little tyrant with his little sign
Shows where man claims, earth glows no more divine.
On paths to freedom and to childhood dear
A board sticks up to notice ‘no road here’
And on the tree with ivy overhung
The hated sign by vulgar taste is hung
As though the very birds should learn to know
When they go there they must no further go.
Thus, with the poor, scared freedom bade good-bye
And much they feel it in the smothered sigh,
And birds and trees and flowers without a name
All sighed when lawless law’s enclosure came …

In motion since the thirteenth century, the process of enclosures moved apace during Clare’s lifetime as capitalism concluded the transformation of rural populations into a rural working class, exiles to the growing industrial cities and fodder for the alienations of the factories. Between 1750 and 1850, some six million acres of common land, open fields, meadows, waste lands, were enclosed and privatised.

Clare did not regard the past and its transformation sentimentally in terms of some idealised Garden of Eden, but understood in a naïve, untutored way that something akin to alienation was being manufactured by this dispossession. With regard to rural flora and fauna, he recognised that an equilibrium  was being disrupted and that species that had developed an interdependence over time with one another and with traditional land usages, were having their relationships destroyed. There was an ecological dimension to Clare, with historian EP Thompson referring to him as ‘a poet of ecological protest’.

With regard to human society, Clare saw forms of local peoples’ traditions being swept away, and people becoming enslaved in a way that was new and unnatural, as a culture based on the seasons and the calendar was destroyed.  In itself this was more than just ‘culture’; Clare recognised intuitively that it was the bedrock of community – a social space where community was built independent of ‘masters’ and their political system.

Churchwardens Constables and Overseers
Makes up the round of Commons and of Peers
With learning just enough to sign a name
And skill sufficient parish rates to frame
And cunning deep enough the poor to cheat …

Long thought of as a ‘nature poet’, Clare was also a political writer.

Despite inadequate materials, during a  lifetime of writing Clare obsessively churned out some three and a half thousand poems: everything from short stanzas to long verse narratives, characterised by grammatical irregularities, erratic spelling, an absence of punctuation and capitalisation and the  use of his regional dialect.  He found publishers and editors, with whom he argued, and books of his poems were published – for a time he was known as the English Robert Burns. He also  collected the culture that was being destroyed – the folk songs, fiddle tunes, dances, customs and folklore – so that his work is now a rich repository of social history for researchers, as much as is the Rural Rides of  the more celebrated documenter William Cobbett (1763–1835).

But Clare also became depressed, experienced hallucinations and may have been violent, as he lived his rural life, married, had seven children, watched some of them die, deriving his income from rural labouring, ploughing, lime-burning, gardening, writing, royalties, patronage, and experienced a sense of himself as an outsider within his village community as he made a literary name and sought to generate a literature-based income. He mixed briefly suring visits to London with citified  intellectuals/writers like Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas de Quincey, William Hazlitt, Charles Lamb, but he was not at home in the ‘City sulphurously grey’.

From 1837 onwards, Clare spent the reminder of his life in lunatic asylums, at times believing he was Lord Byron, whom he greatly admired. Modern diagnosticians have variously sourced his mental health problems to a work-related head injury, malaria from the fens, and bipolar disorder. Whatever the case, his condition was probably exacerbated by his deeply felt awareness of the destruction and dispossession he recognised as coming with enclosure, rather as psychiatrist Franz Fanon diagnosed the indigenous mental health traumas caused by colonialism.

Traditionally Clare has made it into anthologies via his closely observed nature writing: evocative, fresh, immediate in their depictions of English rural flora and fauna, poems that create a sense of nature and being as if the reader was seeing the world in the ‘here and now’, wonderfully alive and bringing with it a restorative psychological energy. But this has tended to come at the expense of the political Clare, his politics, which were frowned on by supporters at the time, excised by editors until relatively recently.

So why bother with this poet today? He was no revolutionary, yet he was a critical voice, and there is an energising joy in hearing such people in the silences of history, voices for whom dissent and criticism was natural and fluent, simply part of being.

Besides, there was a refreshing, incisive modernity, perhaps cynicism, to his observations. As he noted of the ‘sameness’ of the professional political classes of his time:

The wigs and torys may be better classified perhaps by the terms outs & ins for be they wigs or torys in those situations the outs are always vociverators of ‘liberty’ ‘cruelty of taxation’ & ‘good of the people’ while the ins are inflexible tyrants & determined supporters of all that is oppressing & annoying to the people & benefiting to themselves & their connections

After the Second World War, interest in Clare grew, particularly in the wake of the work of the ‘history- from- below’ historians, and their increasing understandings of the impact of enclosures, and the nature and dimensions of nineteenth century rural dissent. Since the 1980s, critical interest in Clare has mushroomed. The full extent of his poetic achievement became progressively evident between 1984 and 2003 via publication of his complete works by Oxford University Press. Online there is an array of comment and analysis, and much of his poetry is available. For further reading see Jonathan Bate, John Clare: A Biography, Picador, London, 2003, and for Clare’s politics, Alan Vardy, John Clare, Politics and Poetry, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2003.

Rowan Cahill

Rowan Cahill is a sessional teaching academic at the University of Wollongong, and the co-author with Terry Irving of Radical Sydney (UNSW Press, 2013).

More by Rowan Cahill ›

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  1. I find it fascinating that Clare began to think he was Byron: a man who spoke against the death penalty for the ‘Luddites’ as a hereditary peer in the House of Lords, and who took on another people’s liberation struggle in Greece. Both, in a sense, acted differently from what was expected of their respective classes. One of the two had far more ways of escape available to him, of course. That Clare escaped ‘into’ Byron is at once sad and strangely appropriate.

    Thanks for this Rowan.

  2. The Clare described here would make a great Biopic – done by HBO with Clare in keeping it on the humble drag believing himself a Byronesque womaniser would be hilarious – and a scream if Shakespeare did it – and sadly, there is a sad parallel too to the ending of both poets’ lives. Thanks.

  3. Thank you ‘Penelope’ and ‘food for thought’; Clare was a late discovery for me…

  4. Yep, a true romantic, who sort of did and didn’t consist, politically, as evidenced in, perhaps, Clare’s most famous poem:

    I Am

    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 e’en 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 smil’d 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.

  5. A great piece – and by-the-by this bit is very apposite “…. forms of local peoples’ traditions being swept away, and people becoming enslaved in a way that was new and unnatural …”

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