Image by National Portrait Gallery Collection
About John Clare
John Clare, the son of a casual labourer, was born in Helpstone, Northamptonshire. His twin sister died a few weeks after their birth and he was brought up in poverty, only attending school very occasionally because his father couldn't keep up with the modest fees. Clare supported the family from a young age by working as a labourer in the fields. In 1820 he married Martha Turner, having parted from his first love, Mary Joyce, a sorrow which never left him.
'The Mouse's Nest' shows Clare's intense passion for the details of his world. He 'progs' (wonderful word for pokes) the ball of grass and out comes an old mouse who lives as tough a life (Clare doesn't need to tell us) as he does. Written in a period of drastic change and suffering caused by the enclosure of land, Clare's verse at this time celebrates the freedom that is lost. In 'The Nightingale's Nest', we are in the poem too, walking with Clare and sharing his experience: 'Hark! there she is as usual – let's be hush.'
These two poems celebrate living creatures without sentimentality or self regard. In ‘Badger’, Clare faces a more disturbing feature of country life: the badger is tormented by men and dogs but gives as good as he gets. The poem is full of snarling energy and a sense that Clare knows what persecution feels like.
Clare's early publications sold well and he was briefly famous as the Labourer Poet. But sales declined, and he became increasingly disturbed and difficult to live with. Finally, in 1837, he was admitted as insane to an asylum from which he escaped in 1841, walking home to Northamptonshire where he hoped to return to Mary Joyce, to whom he thought himself married. On the journey he lived on grass which he said tasted like bread. He was once more certified insane and spent the rest of his life in Northampton General Asylum where for a few years he wrote almost continually.
'A Vision' was written on August 1844 by Clare, who at this point thought Queen Victoria was his daughter. It is an extraordinary achievement, a dream of a perfect world disturbed by a sense of loss. And in the lyric 'I Am', this lonely incarcerated genius (‘Why I am shut up, I don't know’, he wrote) struggles to keep hold of his sense of self while longing both for lost childhood and the grave.
Soon after 'I Am', Clare stopped writing. He left instructions that nothing should be written on his gravestone except ‘Here Rest the Hope and Ashes of John Clare’. When he died in 1864, this wish, like so many wishes in his life, was ignored.
John Clare, Everyman Poetry, 1997
John Clare: Major Works (Oxford World's Classics,...