John Clare

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John Clare
John Clare.jpg
John Clare by William Hilton,
oil on canvas, 1820
Born13 July 1793 (1793-07-13)
Helpston, Northamptonshire, England
Died20 May 1864 (1864-05-21) (aged 70)
Northampton General Lunatic Asylum, Northampton, England
Notable worksPoems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery

Signature John Clare signature.svg

John Clare (13 July 1793 – 20 May 1864) 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. [1] His poetry underwent major re-evaluation in the late 20th century: he is now often seen as a major 19th-century poet. [2] 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." [3]



Early life

Clare was born in Helpston, 6 miles (10 km) to the north of the city of Peterborough. [4] 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 administered by the City of Peterborough unitary authority.

He became an agricultural labourer while still a child; however, he 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 her to meet him. Subsequently, he was a gardener at Burghley House. [5] 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. [6] Malnutrition stemming from childhood may have been the main factor behind his five-foot stature and have contributed to his poor physical health in later life.

Early poems

Clare had bought a copy of James Thomson's The Seasons and began to write poems and sonnets. In an attempt to hold off his parents' eviction from their home, Clare offered his poems to a local bookseller named Edward Drury, who sent them to his cousin, John Taylor of the publishing firm of Taylor & Hessey, who had published the work of John Keats. Taylor published Clare's Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery in 1820. This book was highly praised, and the next year his Village Minstrel and Other Poems was published. "There was no limit to the applause bestowed upon Clare, unanimous in their admiration of a poetical genius coming before them in the humble garb of a farm labourer." [7]

Middle life

Clare's birthplace, Helpston, Peterborough. The cottage was subdivided with his family renting a part. John Clare's birthplace, Helpston, Peterborough - - 217344.jpg
Clare's birthplace, Helpston, Peterborough. The cottage was subdivided with his family renting a part.

On 16 March 1820 he was married to Martha ("Patty") Turner, a milkmaid, in Great Casterton church. [8] An annuity of 15 guineas from the Marquess of Exeter, in whose service he had been, was supplemented by subscription, so that Clare became possessed of £45 annually, a sum far beyond what he had ever earned. Soon, however, his income became 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 in the fields his health temporarily improved; but he soon became seriously ill. Earl Fitzwilliam presented him with a new cottage and a piece of ground, but Clare could not settle in his new home.

Clare was constantly torn between the two worlds of literary London and his often illiterate neighbours; between the need to write poetry and the need for money to feed and clothe his children. His health began to suffer, and he had bouts of severe depression, which became worse after his sixth child was born in 1830 and as his poetry sold less well. In 1832, his friends and his London patrons clubbed together to move the family to a larger cottage with a smallholding in the village of Northborough, not far from Helpston. However, he only felt more alienated there.

His last work, the Rural Muse (1835), was noticed favourably by Christopher North and other reviewers, but this was not enough to support his wife and seven children. Clare's mental health began to worsen. As his alcohol consumption steadily increased along with his dissatisfaction with his own identity, Clare's behaviour became more erratic. A notable instance of this behaviour was demonstrated in his interruption of a performance of The Merchant of Venice , in which Clare verbally assaulted Shylock. He was becoming a burden to Patty and his family, and in July 1837, on the recommendation of his publishing friend, John Taylor, Clare went of his own volition (accompanied by a friend of Taylor's) to Dr Matthew Allen's private asylum High Beach near Loughton, in Epping Forest. Taylor had assured Clare that he would receive the best medical care.

Clare was reported as being "full of many strange delusions". He believed himself to be a prize fighter and that he had two wives, Patty and Mary. He started to claim he was Lord Byron. Allen wrote about Clare to The Times in 1840:

It is most singular that ever since he came... the moment he gets pen or pencil in hand he begins to write most poetical effusions. Yet he has never been able to obtain in conversation, nor even in writing prose, the appearance of sanity for two minutes or two lines together, and yet there is no indication of insanity in any of his poetry. [9]


Clare was a professing Anglican. [10] [11] Whatever he may have felt about liturgy and ministry, and however critical an eye he may have cast on parish life, Clare retained and replicated his father's loyalty to the Church of England. [12] He dodged the services in his youth and dawdled in the fields during the hours of worship, but he derived much help in later years from members of the clergy. He acknowledged that his father "was brought up in the communion of the Church of England, and I have found no cause to withdraw myself from it." If he found aspects of the established church uncongenial and awkward, he remained prepared to defend it: "Still I reverence the church and do from my soul as much as anyone curse the hand that's lifted to undermine its constitution". [13]

Much of Clare's imagery was drawn from the Old Testament (e. g."The Peasant Poet"). However, Clare also honours the figure of Christ in poems such as "The Stranger". [14]

Later life and death

Clare's grave in Helpston churchyard Grave John Clare.jpg
Clare's grave in Helpston churchyard

During his first few asylum years in High Beach, Essex (1837–41), [15] Clare re-wrote famous 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 became an acerbic, misogynistic, sexualised rant redolent of an ageing Regency dandy.[ citation needed ] Clare also took credit for Shakespeare's plays, claiming to be the Renaissance genius himself. "I'm John Clare now," the poet claimed to a newspaper editor, "I was Byron and Shakespeare formerly."[ citation needed ]

In 1841, Clare absconded from the asylum in Essex, to walk some 90 miles (140 km) home, believing that he was to meet his first love Mary Joyce; Clare was convinced that he was married to her and Martha as well, with children by both women.[ citation needed ] 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 in 1841, Clare was committed to the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum (now St Andrew's Hospital).[ citation needed ] Upon Clare's arrival at the asylum, the accompanying doctor, Fenwick Skrimshire, who had treated Clare since 1820, [16] completed the admission papers. To the enquiry "Was the insanity preceded by any severe or long-continued mental emotion or exertion?", Dr Skrimshire entered: "After years of poetical prosing." [17]

His maintenance at the asylum was paid for by Earl Fitzwilliam, "but at the ordinary rate for poor people". [18] He remained there for the rest of his life under the humane regime of Dr Thomas Octavius Prichard, who encouraged and helped him to write. Here he wrote possibly his most famous poem, I Am .[ citation needed ] 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. [1]

He died on 20 May 1864, in his 71st year. [18] His remains were returned to Helpston for burial in St Botolph's churchyard, where he had expressed wishes to be buried. [18]

Continued recognition

On Clare's birthday, children at the John Clare School, Helpston's primary, parade through the village and place their "midsummer cushions" around his gravestone (which bears the inscriptions "To the Memory of John Clare The Northamptonshire Peasant Poet" and "A Poet is Born not Made"). [19]


John Clare memorial, Helpston John Clare Memorial, Helpston, Peterborough - - 87487.jpg
John Clare memorial, Helpston

In his time, Clare was commonly known as "the Northamptonshire Peasant Poet". His formal education was brief, his other employment and class-origins were lowly. Clare resisted the use of the increasingly standardised English grammar and orthography in his poetry and prose, alluding to political reasoning in comparing "grammar" (in a wider sense of orthography) to tyrannical government and slavery, personifying it in jocular fashion as a "bitch". [20] He wrote in his Northamptonshire dialect, introducing local words to the literary canon such as "pooty" (snail), "lady-cow" (ladybird), "crizzle" (to crisp) and "throstle" (song thrush).

In his early life he struggled to find a place for his poetry in the changing literary fashions of the day. He also felt that he did not belong with other peasants. Clare once wrote:

"I live here among the ignorant like a lost man in fact like one whom the rest seemes careless of having anything to do with—they hardly dare talk in my company for fear I should mention them in my writings and I find more pleasure in wandering the fields than in musing among my silent neighbours who are insensible to everything but toiling and talking of it and that to no purpose."

It is common to see an absence of punctuation in many of Clare's original writings, although many publishers felt the need to remedy this practice in the majority of his work. Clare argued with his editors about how it should be presented to the public.

Clare grew up during a period of massive changes in both town and countryside as the Industrial Revolution swept Europe. Many former agricultural and craft workers, including children, moved away from the countryside to crowded cities, as factory work became mechanized. The Agricultural Revolution saw pastures ploughed up, trees and hedges uprooted, fens drained and common land enclosed. This destruction of a way of life centuries old distressed Clare deeply. His political and social views were predominantly conservative. ("I am as far as my politics reaches 'King and Country' – no Innovations in Religion and Government say I.") He refused even to complain about the subordinate position to which English society had relegated him, swearing that "with the old dish that was served to my forefathers I am content." [21]

His early work expresses delight in both nature and the cycle of the rural year. Poems such as "Winter Evening", "Haymaking" and "Wood Pictures in Summer" celebrate the beauty of the world and the certainties of rural life, where animals must be fed and crops harvested. Poems such as "Little Trotty Wagtail" show his sharp observation of wildlife, though "The Badger" shows his lack of sentiment about the place of animals in the countryside. At this time, he often used poetic forms such as the sonnet and the rhyming couplet. His later poetry tends to be more meditative and uses forms similar to the folk songs and ballads of his youth. An example of this is "Evening".

Clare's knowledge of the natural world went far beyond that of the major Romantic poets. However, poems such as "I Am" show a metaphysical depth on a par with his contemporary poets and many of his pre-asylum poems deal with intricate play on the nature of linguistics. His "bird's nest poems", it can be argued, illustrate the self-awareness, and obsession with the creative process that captivated the romantics. Clare was the most influential poet, apart from Wordsworth, to write in an older style. [22]

In a foreword to the 2011 anthology The Poetry of Birds, broadcaster and bird-watcher Tim Dee notes that Clare wrote about 147 species of British wild birds "without any technical kit whatsoever." [23]


The only Clare essay published (anonymously) in his lifetime was "Popularity of Authorship", a document of his predicament in 1824. [24] [25] Other essays written by Clare appeared in "Essays on Landscape", "Essays on Criticism and Fashion", "Recollections on a Journey from Essex", "Excursions with an Angler", "For Essay on Modesty and Mock Morals", "For Essay on Industry", "Keats", "Byron", "The Dream", "House or Window Flies" and "Dewdrops". [26]

Revived interest

Clare was relatively forgotten during the later 19th century, but interest in his work was revived by Arthur Symons in 1908, Edmund Blunden in 1920 and John and Anne Tibble in their ground-breaking 1935 two-volume edition, while in 1949 Geoffrey Grigson edited Poems of John Clare's Madness (published by Routledge and Kegan Paul). Benjamin Britten set some of "May" from A Shepherd's Calendar in his Spring Symphony of 1948, and included a setting of The Evening Primrose in his Five Flower Songs.

Copyright to much of his work has been claimed since 1965 by the editor of the Complete Poetry, [27] Professor Eric Robinson, although these claims were contested. Recent publishers have refused to acknowledge the claim (especially in recent editions from Faber and Carcanet) and it seems the copyright is now defunct. [28] [29] [30]

The largest collection of original Clare manuscripts is housed at Peterborough Museum and Art Gallery, where items are available to view by appointment.

Altering what Clare actually wrote continued into the later 20th century; for instance, Helen Gardner amended not only the punctuation but also the spelling and grammar in the New Oxford Book of English Verse 1250–1950 (1972), which she edited.

Since 1993, the John Clare Society of North America has organised an annual session of scholarly papers concerning John Clare at the annual Convention of the Modern Language Association of America. [31]

In 2003 the scholar Jonathan Bate published the first major critical biography of the poet. This has helped to maintain the revival in popular and academic interest in the poet. [32]

John Clare Cottage

The thatched cottage where Clare was born was bought by the John Clare Trust in 2005. [33] In May 2007 the Trust gained £1.27 million of funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund and commissioned Jefferson Sheard Architects to create a new landscape design and Visitor Centre, including a cafe, shop and exhibition space. The Cottage at 12 Woodgate, Helpston, has been restored using traditional building methods and is open to the public.

In 2013 the John Clare Trust received a further grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund to help preserve the building and provide educational activities for youngsters visiting the cottage. [34]

Poetry collections

In chronological order:


Works about Clare

The only known photograph of Clare, 1862 John Clare by WW Law.jpg
The only known photograph of Clare, 1862

In chronological order:

See also

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  1. 1 2 Summerfield, Geoffrey, ed. (1990). Selected Poems. Penguin Books. pp. 13–22. ISBN   0-14-043724-X.
  2. Sales, Roger (2002). John Clare: A Literary Life. New York City: Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN   0-333-65270-3.
  3. Bate, Jonathan (2003). John Clare: A biography. New York City: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. ISBN   978-0374179908.
  4. Foundation, Poetry (25 August 2019). "John Clare". Poetry Foundation. Retrieved 26 August 2019.
  5. "'Besom ling and teasel burrs': John Clare and botanising". University of Cambridge. 20 September 2014. Retrieved 22 July 2018.
  6. Louis Untermeyer, in A Treasury of Great Poems, English and American, from the Foundations of the English Spirit to the Outstanding Poetry of our Own Time with Lives of the Poets and Historical Settings Selected and Integrated, Simon and Schuster, 1942, p. 709.
  7. Martin, Frederick (2010) [1865]. "Preface". Life of John Clare. London, England: BiblioLife. ISBN   978-1140143451.
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  9. "Review 1". 27 July 2007. Retrieved 27 February 2015.
  10. Sarah Houghton-Walker, in John Clare's Religion, Routledge, p. 6.
  11. Clare, John (1986). The Parish . Penguin. pp. 6–8. ISBN   0670801127.
  12. Houghton-Walker, Sarah (2009). John Clare's Religion. Routledge. p. 11. ISBN   978-0754665144.
  13. Salter, Roger. "A Christian Consideration of John Clare – English Poet (1793–1864)". Virtueonline. Retrieved 24 April 2018.
  14. BBC article. Retrieved 12 September 2013.
  15. Geoffrey Summerfield, Hugh Haughton, Adam Phillips, John Clare in Context, Cambridge University Press, 1994, ISBN   0-521-44547-7, p. 263.
  16. Margaret Grainger (ed.), The Natural History Prose Writings of John Clare, Oxford English Texts, Oxford University Press, 1983, ISBN   0-19-818517-0, p. 34.
  17. 1 2 3 Clare, John. Blunden, Porter (ed.). Poems Chiefly From Manuscript. GUTENBERG EBOOK.
  18. "Festival celebrated poet's life and work". Rutland and Stamford Mercury. 15 July 2008. Retrieved 15 August 2012.
  19. Asked by his cousin and publisher John Taylor to correct a passage for publication, he answered: "I may alter but I cannot mend – grammer in learning is like tyranny in government – confound the bitch ill never be her slave & have a vast good mind not to alter the verse in question...." (Letter 133). See Storey, Edward, ed. (1985). The Letters of John Clare. Oxford: Clarendon Press. p. 231. ISBN   9780198126690.
  20. Manjoo, Farhad (17 October 2003). "Man Out of Time by Christopher Caldwell". Slate. Retrieved 15 August 2012.
  21. Fowler, Alastair (1989). The History of English Literature. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. p. 250. ISBN   0-674-39664-2.
  22. "Poet, activist, bird watcher: exploring John Clare as nature writer". 29 August 2017. Retrieved 24 April 2018.
  23. John Birtwhistle, "Occasion of the Essayinfo
  24. 'Popularity of Authorship'(1824)", European Magazine, vol. 1, no. 3, New Series, November 1825.
  25. Complete Works of John Clare (Illustrated), Delphi Poets Series version 1 2013 Extract
  26. Oxford University Press, 9 vols, 1984–2003).
  27. "The John Clare Page website 'copyright' section: full list of recent reactions to the copyright dispute". Retrieved 15 August 2012.
  28. John Goodridge (22 July 2000). "Poor Clare". The Guardian. Retrieved 12 July 2015.
  29. "Letter from Eric Robinson: Clare's rights". London: Books, The Guardian. 31 January 2003. Retrieved 15 August 2012.
  30. "MLA Session organized by the John Clare Society of North America". Retrieved 15 August 2012.
  31. Andrew Motion (18 October 2003). "Review: John Clare: A Biography by Jonathan Bate". The Guardian . Retrieved 26 January 2016.
  32. "Home". Retrieved 24 April 2018.
  33. Stephen Briggs, "Peterborough heritage sites gets big lottery boost", Peterborough Telegraph, 13 June 2013.
  34. "First Publications of John Clare's Poems by David Powell". The John Clare Society of North America. 2009. Retrieved 15 August 2012.
  35. Michael Billington (23 June 2010). "Review of ''Town'' by D. C. Moore". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 15 August 2012.
  36. Houghton-Walker, Sarah (6 May 2016). "John Clare's Religion". Routledge. Retrieved 24 April 2018 via Google Books.