Clever, frail and tortured


No- I haven’t forgotten the Five Desert Island Poets. So far we’ve had Fanthorpe, Smith and Donne.

Number Four is John Clare. Never heard of him ? Doesn’t matter. He was almost forgotten until he had a sudden and well deserved revival thirty years ago.

John Clare was a countryman, born in Northamptonshire in 1798. The son of a farm labourer he was used to bad weather and poor food. He went to school, though, and soon became an avid reader. His first job was as potboy at he local pub, then he was a gardener and finally worked in the fields like his father. He had started writing by this time, imitating his favourite poets.

He married in 1820 and fathered seven children.

His first major work was “ “The Shepherd”s Calendar” in 1827, and, though it’s regarded as a major poem now, it flopped then. He was forced to hawk it round he villages himself. The stress of providing for a family, his own physical frailty, his feeling of isolation from his peers all led him to drink and depression, and in 1837 ( after some poetic success) he voluntarily entered a private asylum, where he stayed until 1841. Then he escaped back home- it didn’t work out- and he was admitted to Northampton General Lunatic Asylum ,where he stayed until his death in 1864.

There you have the bare bones of his life. Before we get on to his poetry, let’s consider the kind of world Clare lived in, for it was a very different one from our own.

To start with, there were fewer people in the street. The population of the UK in the eighteenth century was around 13 million, against the 70 plus million today. If there were fewer people around, then your relationships with the ones that were there would be all the more intense. You bumped into the same people day after day for all your life. Most people lived and died within a ten mile circle.

The only mass medium was the newspaper- and they were so expensive that their audience was limited to the affluent.

Society was a layer cake of different social classes, and Clare was pretty near the bottom.

Outside the cities, there was a silence that we cannot imagine. No traffic noise. No radio or tv. No digital media.

Life had not really changed for the agricultural labourer for hundreds of years

Keep that in mind when we come to look at his poems.

Which we are not going to do now- because (a) I don’t want to load you down with a great heap of words and (b) I’m typing this in a very cold room and my finger ends are turning blue with cold SO keep this frail, clever, tortured man at the back of your mind until we come back to him- and his poetry- another time.