Posted by Nigel Humphreys on October 12, 2011 at 7:30 AM

CLARE COTTAGE (See photo album)

The reason I haven’t blogged for a number of weeks is simply that throughout this summer my writing has been focused solely on the new book. Its poetry is now in its 3rd incarnation and cooking nicely in my ‘oven’ file. The hope is that my present self-enforced estrangement will allow me to return to it with a critic’s eye so that I can have it on my publisher’s desk by the end of the year. Jonathan Wood is a gentleman publisher and I’m well suited to beavering away in his scriptorium. For him the need for success and recognition in a commercial sense takes a laudable sub-position to the creative process, the dasein of the opus and its struggle towards the perfection it will never reach since therein lies the tension which spawns the art. A conceptual integrity and the imaginative soar of the written word is what matters most to us both.

During this inter-regnum amongst other travels I recently visited Clare Cottage in Helpston, the birthplace of John Clare – the Northamptonshire ‘peasant poet’. Thanks to a substantial gift from the Lottery Fund a visitor centre was recently opened in 2009 and a life size statue of the poet commissioned to stand in the garden. One sees immediately that, like Keats, he was surprisingly small in stature – just 5 ft. I was told that his fen rock features – overshadowing brow, large blade of a nose and jemmy of a chin – have been muted by the sculptor so as not to frighten children. Well . . . he still looks grisly to me. His birthplace and where he lived for a considerable time as a married man and father has been furnished to reflect how it might have looked in his day – the Spartan furnishings of a poor family subsisting on poverty pay. The virtual authenticity of the tour is convincing and his poetry subbed as a guide from room to room.

Clare was not one of the greats, it has to be said. His main topic was the countryside in which he grew up, felicitously writing in the wake of the Lyrical Ballads. He met Coleridge on one of his rare London visits but there is no record of the encounter. He also met Lamb and Hazlitt and this countervail leads me to consider why John Clare is significant. Recognised poets tend to be well-educated. When Clare was writing in the early 19th century a classical education was a necessary weapon in the typical armoury of an aspiring writer. Wordsworth, Byron, Southey, Shelley, Keats and Coleridge all had comparatively privileged upbringings which allowed them the scope and time to develop their talent, and so it continued with most other establishment literati well into the 20th century. The vast majority of our nation’s Poet Laureates have been Oxbridge graduates and today most of our notable poets are academics with enough free time to nourish their art. Clare had no such opportunities. He was self-taught to the extent that his illiterate parents quickly realised that he was different from other children, that he had the gift of words. The kitchen table doubled as his desk between meals and many of his early poems would be secreted in cracks in the fabric of the cottage. He was a pot-boy in the Blue Bell, a gardener, a lime burner, lived for a time with gypsies and was eventually forced onto parish relief. His under-nourished upbringing may account to some extent for his stunted stature. Earning a living through manual labour would have taken most of his energy and yet he always wrote poetry. Eventually, in order to stave off his parent’s threatened eviction, his poems were sent to a publisher by way of the local bookseller. Taylor and Hessey (Keats’ publishers) were impressed. In 1820 they published his first collection: Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery. It was well received and a second collection followed quickly. He was paraded in London and his talent recognised.

I think we can say at this point that Clare had not only broken through but had broken a mould. Despite his unprivileged, working class background he produced poetry which was considered gilt-edged by the literary establishment of the day. This was some achievement by any standards against a background which constantly worked against his success. In this sense he is an inspirational figure to all who believe in and seek recognition for their poetry but whose near lifestyle, against a non-academic backcloth, is niggard of time and opportunity.

Sadly, it seems that Clare may have stretched himself beyond the horizon of his comfort zone during his four promotional London visits. One can imagine it all to clearly: the brusque Northamptonshire brogue breaking against the lacy vowels of the early 19th century literati, his workaday clothes in a continual war of attrition with the finery of the gentleman’s tailor, his granite manners milling the fine flour of society doyennes. He sought courage in drink but within a dozen years his rustic poetry fell out of favour. He became depressed - ‘the self-consumer of my woes’ - and suffered what today we would call an identity crisis - I am! and live with shadows tost.’ His depression eased him into madness to the extent that he was persuaded by his publisher to commit himself to an asylum. Through the patronage of the Marquis of Exeter and others he spent the last 27 years of his life in a Northampton General Lunatic Asylum but with the freedom to come and go within the town at will. His most famous poem I Am (appended below) written in the Asylum is a cri de coeur.

I conclude this little piece on John Clare with a wonderful irony. He is buried in Helpston graveyard, a small village just north-west of Peterborough, and on his tomb stone are written the words A POET IS BORN NOT MADE; only . . . the elements which he so often wrote about have erased the final ‘E’.

I Am

I am: yet what I am none cares or knows,
My friends forsake me like a memory lost;
I am the self-consumer of my woes,
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shades in love and death's oblivion lost;
And yet I am! and live with shadows tost

Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life nor joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life's esteems;
And e'en the dearest--that I loved the best--
Are strange--nay, rather stranger than the rest.

I long for scenes where man has never trod;
A place where woman never smil'd or wept;
There to abide with my creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept:
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie;
The grass below--above the vaulted sky

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