John Clare was an English poet. The son of a farm labourer, he became known for his celebrations of the English countryside and sorrows at its disruption. His work underwent major re-evaluation in the late 20th century; he is now often seen as a major 19th-century poet. His biographer Jonathan Bate called Clare "the greatest labouring-class poet that England has ever produced. No one has ever written more powerfully of nature, of a rural childhood, and of the alienated and unstable self."
Clare was born in Helpston, 6 miles (10 km) to the north of the city of Peterborough. In his lifetime, the village was in the Soke of Peterborough in Northamptonshire and his memorial calls him "The Northamptonshire Peasant Poet". Helpston is now part of the City of Peterborough unitary authority.
Clare became an agricultural labourer while still a child, but attended school in Glinton church until he was 12. In his early adult years, Clare became a potboy in the Blue Bell public house and fell in love with Mary Joyce, but her father, a prosperous farmer, forbade them to meet. Later he was a gardener at Burghley House. He enlisted in the militia, tried camp life with Gypsies, and worked in Pickworth, Rutland as a lime burner in 1817. In the following year he was obliged to accept parish relief. Malnutrition stemming from childhood may have been the main factor behind his five-foot stature and contributed to his poor physical health in later life.
During his early asylum years in High Beach, Essex (1837–1841), Clare re-wrote poems and sonnets by Lord Byron. Child Harold, his version of Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, became a lament for past lost love, and Don Juan, A Poem an acerbic, misogynistic, sexualised rant redolent of an ageing dandy. Clare also took credit for Shakespeare's plays, claiming to be him. "I'm John Clare now," the poet told a newspaper editor, "I was Byron and Shakespeare formerly."
In July 1841, Clare absconded from the asylum in Essex and walked some 80 miles (130 km) home, believing he was to meet his first love Mary Joyce, to whom he was convinced he was married. He did not believe her family when they told him she had died accidentally three years earlier in a house fire. He remained free, mostly at home in Northborough, for the five months following, but eventually Patty called the doctors.
Between Christmas and New Year, 1841, Clare was committed to Northampton General Lunatic Asylum (now St Andrew's Hospital). On his arrival at the asylum, the accompanying doctor, Fenwick Skrimshire, having treated Clare since 1820, completed the admission papers. Asked, "Was the insanity preceded by any severe or long-continued mental emotion or exertion?" Skrimshire entered: "After years of poetical prosing."
His maintenance at the asylum was paid for by Earl Fitzwilliam, "but at the ordinary rate for poor people". He remained there for the rest of his life under the humane regime of Thomas Octavius Prichard, who encouraged and helped him to write. Here he wrote possibly his most famous poem, "I Am". It was in this later poetry that Clare "developed a very distinctive voice, an unmistakable intensity and vibrance, such as the later pictures of Van Gogh" possessed.
John Clare died of a stroke on 20 May 1864 in his 71st year. His remains were returned to Helpston for burial in St Botolph's churchyard, where he had expressed a wish to be buried.
Books by John Clare
John Clare was a farm labourer in the village of Helpstone, Northamptonshire, who became arguably England’s greatest nature poet. He rose to fame when his ‘Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery’ was published in 1820. His language preserves man...
In the ethereal verses of "The Old Year" by John Clare, time stands still as the beauty of nature intertwines with poignant reflections, taking readers on an enchanting journey through the seasons of life. "The Old Year" is a captivating poem by the...