Previously in Soundings:
William Shakespeare, Sonnet 116 (October 27, 1999)
Emily Dickinson, "I cannot live with You" (April 14, 1999)
Robert Frost, "The Wood-Pile" (February 3, 1999)
Ben Jonson, "My Picture Left in Scotland" (November 25, 1998)
Walt Whitman, "As I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life" (October 8, 1998)
W. B. Yeats, "Easter 1916" (February 4, 1998)
Introduction by David Barber
Born a year after Shelley and two years before Keats, Clare belonged to the legendary generation that has come down to us in a package deal known as the English Romantic poets. You might say the deck was stacked against him from the start. Set beside the grand designs and exalted doctrines of the Romantic luminaries, the bulk of Clare's poetry can seem humble and even homely stuff, rough-hewn in its technique and backward-looking in its drift. And because Clare's dominant subject was nature in all its rampant glory, the ingrained tendency has been to cast him as a poor man's Wordsworth, a poet possessed with a canny eye for picturesque natural detail but sorely lacking in intellectual voltage or imaginative ambition.
This patronizing habit of writing off Clare as an unsophisticated epigone began in his own lifetime -- indeed, to judge by the facts of that life, any dutiful gradgrind would have concluded that Clare couldn't possibly have amounted to much of a poet at all. "Fair seedtime had my soul," Wordsworth declares early on in The Prelude, but Clare's germinating gift knew no such grace period. As the child of field laborers in the backwater village of Helpston, in the north of England, Clare's upbringing was so hardscrabble that he often had to scrawl out his verses on scraps of grocer's wrapping paper. His formal education ended at the age of thirteen. His parents were steeped in the old folk ballads but couldn't fathom their eldest son's literary aspirations -- the story goes that they were duly impressed with his poems only after Clare started pretending that he'd copied them out of books. "Dark creeping ivy, with thy berries brown/ That fondly twists on ruins all thine own," run the opening lines of one of his youthful poems. He might have been -- and in his oblique and wily fashion almost surely was -- invoking the defiant, uncultivated growth of his own poetic resources.
Perversely enough, it was Clare's lowly social station that for a spell vaulted him into public acclaim. His first book of verse, draped with the fashionably starchy title Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery, was brought out in 1820 by the printer John Taylor, better remembered today for publishing the early work of Keats. At the time, however, Clare outsold Keats by a country mile. A popular boomlet for English "peasant poetry" was just then peaking, and here appeared to be the genuine article: a rustic versifier piping his woodnotes wild, his lyrics a vibrant tableau of provincial customs, creatures, and weathers.
So commenced the short-lived celebrity of the "Green Man," a moniker that attached itself to Clare more by way of caricature than tribute. Whisked down to London by the enterprising Taylor for what amounted to a promotional book tour, Clare came clad in an incongruous grass-green coat, described by the poet Thomas Hood as "shining verdantly out from the grave-coloured suits of the literati." Those literati were already inclined toward the view that what they had on their hands was an inspired bumpkin, and his garb was the clincher. Little wonder, then, that the Green Man's day in the sun swiftly ran its course. Critics carped over his mulish disdain for conventional grammar and his earthy affection for provincial dialect. Other influential figures, Keats among them, chafed at his want of proper philosophical gravitas. The vogue for bucolic verse, meanwhile, began to wane. When Taylor brought out Clare's second collection, The Village Minstrel, in 1821, sales were merely respectable. It would take seven years -- and protracted sparring with Taylor over commas and colloquialisms -- for Clare to produce his next manuscript, The Shepherd's Calendar. The book, in twentieth-century parlance, was a bomb, as was the next, The Rural Muse, which appeared in 1835.
Clare would live for another thirty years, and he never stopped writing poems. But his publishing career was over, and his tribulations were only beginning. Life in his native village was increasingly a torment: Clare had married and started a family, but he failed to find steady work and was plagued by a variety of physical and mental afflictions, evidently including the dread "fen ague" -- a malarial ailment endemic to the marshy countryside so dear to him. It is speculated that he probably drank heavily; what can't be contested is that he grew progressively unhinged. In 1837 he was admitted to a mental asylum in Epping, and in the winter of 1841, having fled to rejoin his family over the summer, he was formally committed to the Northampton County Asylum. There he would remain for the last two decades of his life, diagnosed, in the words of the presiding physician, as unfit for society "after years addicted to poetical prosings."
Click on the names below to hear the readings of Clare's "I Am" (in RealAudio):|
(For help, see a note about the audio.)
It was at Northampton, most likely within his first two years as an inmate, that Clare composed what has become his best-known poem, a definitive lament simply and achingly called "I Am":
I am -- yet what I am, none cares or knows;The verse that has survived from Clare's years in the county asylum (and thanks to the good offices of a solicitous house steward, there is quite a lot of it) has often been classified as the "poems of John Clare's madness." An inescapable label under the circumstances, perhaps, and one that has surely contributed to the mythic veneer of this particular poem. Practically by itself, "I Am" has enshrined Clare's case history in Romantic lore, supplying us with an archetypal portrait of the artist as a terminally tortured soul. Just as insistently, it's a poem that seems to foreshadow the existential angst and social alienation that have come to be symptomatic of pained self-consciousness in our own age of anxiety, helping to paint Clare as an oracle of the modern identity crisis as well as a founding father of the so-called "confessional" school of poetry. Yet for all that, the tragic nimbus of dejection and derangement that now hovers over Clare's name is just another instance of facile typecasting, barely an improvement on the stick figure of a hapless rube in a gauche green coat. Pathology, it seems, has trumped the poetry.
All the more reason to launch a salvage operation. In truth, Clare is one of the least self-infatuated of poets, and one of the last that could be hauled up on charges of grandiose histrionics. For all its pent-up trauma, "I Am" is no breast-beating howl; neither is it the work of a poet reduced to taking dictation from his demons. Whatever might be speculated about Clare's mental state, the most disquieting aspect of "I Am" is its stark, unraving mindfulness: the delicately modulated syntactical conjunctions knitting together its first two stanzas, the nuanced precision of its semantic qualifications, the hammer blows of the title phrase repeated four times in the initial six lines, the agile alternating rhyme scheme that constrains its two sinuous periodic sentences, both coming to rest in resonantly tolling couplets. The sustained effect, a seemingly feverish stammering that converts itself into a stately flow of formal feeling, delivers up a more unsparing intimation of desolation than an overwrought tenor of expression might conceivably have called forth. From beginning to end, the poem's authenticity is borne out by its artistry, its exacting structural integrity indivisible from its excruciating psychological honesty.
And what to make of the momentous turn the poem takes in its closing stanza? A yearning for lost innocence, a prayer for redemption, a mystical epiphany of the peace that surpasses understanding -- it is all that, and something else besides. The image it leaves us with, a soul cradled in a prelapsarian landscape that is also a boundless dreamscape, opens a window onto the vista of Clare's whole imaginative world, a vision of nature so intimately and intensely apprehended as to take on a preternatural radiance. From this stanza, one can backtrack through the glades and meadows and thickets of Clare's earlier poems with a quickened appreciation for their concentrated particularity and numinous wonder, their understated dramatic verve and their kinetic immediacy. Where Clare is in his true element -- "the grass below, above the vaulted sky," and the madhouse walls nowhere in sight -- his writing exudes such palpable fluency and instinctive conviction that there's no question of its essential soundness, in every sense of the word.
(For help, see a note about the audio.)
David Barber is the assistant poetry editor of The Atlantic Monthly. His first collection of poems, The Spirit Level (1995), received the Terrence Des Pres Prize. His reviews and essays have appeared in The Atlantic and Atlantic Unbound, as well as other publications.
Christopher Ricks is a professor of English at Boston University. A scholar and critic, he is the author of many books and the editor, most recently, of the new edition of The Oxford Book of English Verse (1999) and a volume of
Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.