Then Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th edition, 1910-1911Scroll to "Now" essay

CLARE, JOHN (1793–1864)

CLARE, JOHN (1793–1864), English poet, commonly known as the Northamptonshire Peasant Poet, the son of a farm labourer, was born at Helpstone near Peterborough, on the 13th of July 1793. At the age of seven he was taken from school to tend sheep and geese; four years later he began to work on a farm, attending in the winter evenings a school where he is said to have learnt some algebra. He then became a pot-boy in a public-house and fell in love with Mary Joyce, but her father, a prosperous farmer, forbade her to meet him. Subsequently he was gardener at Burghley Park. He enlisted in the militia, tried camp life with gipsies, and worked as a lime burner in 1817, but in the following year he was obliged to accept parish relief. Clare had bought a copy of Thomson’s Seasons out of his scanty earnings and had begun to write poems. In 1819 a bookseller at Stamford, named Drury, lighted on one of Clare’s poems, The Setting Sun, written on a scrap of paper enclosing a note to his predecessor in the business. He befriended the author and introduced his poems to the notice of John Taylor, of the publishing firm of Taylor & Hussey, who issued the Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery in 1820. This book was highly praised, and in the next year his Village Minstrel and other Poems were published. He was greatly patronized; fame, in the shape of curious visitors, broke the tenor of his life, and the convivial habits that he had formed were indulged more freely. He had married in 1820, and an annuity of 15 guineas from Lord Exeter, in whose service he had been, was supplemented by subscription, and he became possessed of £45 annually, a sum far beyond what he had ever earned, but new wants made his income insufficient, and in 1823 he was nearly penniless. The Shepherd’s Calendar (1827) met with little success, which was not increased by his hawking it himself. As he worked again on the fields his health temporarily improved; but he soon became seriously ill. Lord Fitzwilliam presented him with a new cottage and a piece of ground, but Clare could not settle in his new home. Gradually his mind gave way. His last and best work, the Rural Muse (1835), was noticed by Christopher North alone. He had for some time shown symptoms of insanity; and in July 1837 he was removed to a private asylum, and afterwards to the Northampton general lunatic asylum, where he died on the 20th of May 1864. Clare’s descriptions of rural scenes show a keen and loving appreciation of nature, and his love-songs and ballads charm by their genuine feeling; but his vogue was no doubt largely due to the interest aroused by his humble position in life.

See the Life of John Clare, by Frederick Martin (1865); and Life and Remains of John Clare, by J. L. Cherry (1873), which, though not so complete, contains some of the poet’s asylum verses and prose fragments.

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& Now A 21st-century viewpointScroll to original Britannica article

CLARE, John (1793-1864) by Simon Kövesi

Everyone struggles with working-class and poor people being poets. At the extreme end of the social scale where we meet this peasant—and son of a whopstraw (thresher) no less—that struggle to accommodate is acute. Academics and scholars, readers and writers, don’t expect—or indeed aspire—to be wrestling with people with mud under their fingernails, hunger in their bellies or money-anxiety in their every waking hour. As many scholars have pointed out, the conjunction of poet with peasant is a misfit of high culture with low manual work, and Clare’s was a clod-hopping awkward entry into a mostly polite club. Unless a critic has a particular take on such a cultural phenomenon—or has sympathies already in line, or knowledge, experience or active awareness of critical class prejudice, which might moderate and inform the response—the sense of stumbling intrusion and failure to convince on the subject’s part, can overwhelm and flatten any critical assessment. At the other end of the spectrum, those who are committed to recovering poor poets from obscurity are prone to sanctifying hagiography, tub-thumping rage, and/or a prurient delicacy, all of which can be just as stultifying. And my description of broad trends is meant to be as relevant to the critical industry now, as it is to that of 1911—and indeed before. Class is awkward; Clare makes critics wobble; due to class, Clare had a rough time, and he still does.

John Clare
Hilton, William. John Clare. c. 1820-1821, © National Portrait Gallery, London Original image

The only words in the 1910-1911 Encyclopædia Britannica entry that offer any sense of the kind of poetry Clare wrote note that Clare’s descriptions of rural scenes show a keen and loving appreciation of nature, and his love-songs and ballads charm by their genuine feeling. This is pretty thin stuff, though in truth editor John Taylor’s introduction to Clare’s first volume of 1820 doesn’t lift far beyond this. There’s no evidence that the author of the Britannica entry read any of Clare’s poetry. In the same breath the entry slams down any literary success in prospect with the bin-lid line of but his vogue was no doubt largely due to the interest aroused by his humble position in life. That isn’t fair: there were many labouring-class poets publishing at the time (proving there was a vogue at least), who failed to arouse much interest at all, and from the start Clare was remarkable in being singled out for much more attention. Initially, more people bought into his talent than poo-pooed it, and sales of his first book were terrific in 1820, and began to slow in 1821. Clare’s aspirational dreams (and explicit poems about) a literary life with all the middle-class trappings and security he could imagine were rational responses to the sheer excitement of the very early 1820s.

I want to be fair to the author of the Britannica entry: early in the twentieth century there was not all that much Clare to go on. The four selections of poetry published in Clare’s lifetime had been supplemented in only incremental ways by that point, and the critical discourse had not been much boosted by two works of myth-making biography (1865 and 1873—the only books cited in the entry), which many, including Charles Dickens (in response to Frederick Martin’s 1865 effort), dismissed as puffing, over-claiming hack work. Indeed, although the nineteenth century had not altogether forgotten Clare, it is pretty remarkable that he is mentioned in the eleventh edition of Britannica at all. The entry turns to the significant moments in the life; and while we have some dates which have to be speculative, there’s nothing that is so factually wrong as to be laughable in the account of Clare’s youth, nor in the accounts of early happy accidents with reading and encounters with local literary types. Our Britannica author does pick out crucial moments on Clare’s unlikely road to print and his taste of fame. As they worked and met in the rambunctious and macho punning culture of London (which Clare revelled in), we might wish that John Taylor’s publishing partner was called Hussey, but alas, it was in fact HesseyJames Hessey, that is. In Clare’s own words, there seems to be no mention of the young poet-to-be looking after geese, but the noisy birds are pretty foundational in J. L. Cherry’s 1873 biography, a core source here. The important point is that Clare laboured for money from a very young age—whether it was herding geese or scaring crows does not matter so much. In Clare’s own account (to which our author does not have access) some of this labour—threshing especially—was horrific. A few more reviewers than just John Wilson reviewed Clare’s 1835 collection—and they were mostly positive notices too. But the account of Clare’s mental health and his residence in asylums from 1837 until his death has unfortunately not been extended all that much since Britannica was published. A lot of attention has been paid to the sometimes mystical asylum-period lyrics, and there is of course an ongoing fascination with Clare as a mad poet, and the Journey out of Essex when Clare escaped his first asylum in the summer of 1841 has been paid a huge amount of creative attention (in poems, memoirs, novels, films). But the evidence for any posthumous diagnosis of what actually ailed the poet, remains thin. In his 2003 biography, Jonathan Bate posits that Clare suffered bipolar disorder, which accounts for periods of manic activity followed by torpor and despair, and seems to be as convincing an account as any.

Clare’s bounteous passion for the natural world and for rural culture does emerge in his four lifetime poetry collections, but as I indicated, there’s no sense that our Britannica entry author has opened them. A contemporary entry would be able to draw on a much richer array of late twentieth-century scholarly editions of Clare and would perhaps focus less on the etiolated life; and there might be more on Clare’s standout polemics raging against poverty, on other poems charting man’s harm of the natural world, and of course on the poems fiercely opposed to the impact of enclosure. An account of Clare now would doubtless focus more on his detailed and learned botanical knowledge, his fastidious natural history prose accounts of all manner of flora and fauna (published long after 1910), and his poetic encomiums, to birds, trees, local ecosystems. Today, Clare’s increasingly-available archive has also been mined for its accounts of common custom, folk history, and rural work. Overall, an entry now would likely posit Clare as a hugely important proto-environmentalist: today it seems we read Clare as much to hear the sheer volume of birdsong at dawn when there were so many more birds in the sky, and so many more places in which they could nest, as we do for anything else. Clare’s poetic attentiveness to nature, and to its loss at the very beginnings of industrialisation, puts him in a unique situation still. His poverty, and his sometime cultural marginalisation, make him as ordinary as twenty-first century tarmac.

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