The life and work of John Clare (1793-1864), reviewed by Cathy Nugent
John Clare was born 1793 in Helpstone, a small village once part of Northamptonshire, now Cambridgeshire. Known as the Peasant Poet he was also, marginally, one of the group of artists who became known as the Romantics. Clare was the son of a labourer, and also worked as a labourer, even as he attempted to make his living as a poet.
The great story of Clare's life and times was the effects of enclosure, highlighted in the poem we print here. By the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries, vast tracts of what had been common land - for use by all in a parish - had been "enclosed" by well-off landowners and made into fields suitable for more intensive cultivation.
Many families with little or no land of their own, who were employed as agricultural labourers, and relied on the use of common land, were left destitute. The labour that came with enclosure - farm work, the building of hedgerow and so on - was often itinerant in nature. Once again the lives of poor people were disrupted. Some flocked to new towns to find work only to experience different kinds of destitution and to become the victims of the 1834 Poor Law. They ended up in the workhouse.
The tragedy of enclosure - the damage to the landscape and to the social and emotional life of the people Clare knows - are touched upon to one degree or another in all of his work.
Writers from humble backgrounds, such as Clare, were fairly rare, although not unique, at this time. However, unlike, say, Robert Burns, Clare was never promoted in any way - invited to London, or given a job by a benefactor. Clare was always, therefore, considered as someone with "ideas above his station" - not least, unfortunately, in Clare's case, by the people of his own class. "I live here among the ignorant like a lost man," he said, "in fact like one whom the rest seems careless of having anything to do with - they hardly dare talk in my company for fear I should mention them in my writings..."
Clare's poetry was equally unappreciated by the so-called educated classes.
Despite early success - the London literati fawned over the Northamptonshire poet's first book of poems - Clare never won fame and fortune. Why is he not as well known as, say Wordsworth, who also wrote (extensively) about nature? Simply because Wordsworth, as a respectable middle-class man (for whom with maturity came political conservatism), was more able to take a place as a troubadour of the bourgeois establishment.
Clare just did not fit in. His style of writing, which used dialect, everyday speech patterns and language, was deemed "vulgar". His publisher eliminated dialect words and made the poems grammatical, according to the rather pretentious taste of the time. This incensed Clare, but he was not able to do anything about it, relying as he did on the patronage of the publisher.
Troubles followed Clare - poverty, personal loss and lack of success - and ground him down. After the failure of his fourth book, in 1835, he turned his back on reality - and lived more and more in the world of a lost boyhood. Some of his best poems date from this period. His friends, perhaps not understanding his sadness, decided to send him to a private mental home in Epping Forest, from which he ran away in 1841. Six months later, after lampooning the local gentry in The Parish, Clare was confined to Northampton General Lunatic Asylum, where he remained until his death in 1864.
by John Clare
There once were lanes in nature's freedom dropt,
- Lubin is a peasant, invented by Spenser, to depict someone with honest values, the son-of-the-soil etc. Clare sometimes likened himself to Lubin, although apparently he also disliked being dubbed the "Peasant Poet".