Clare, John

born July 13, 1793, Helpston, near Peterborough, Northamptonshire, Eng.
died May 20, 1864, Northampton, Northamptonshire

British poet.

Clare grew up in extreme rural poverty, with little access to books, but he had a prodigious memory and absorbed folk ballads. His Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery (1820) brought a short period of celebrity, but later volumes, including The Shepherd's Calendar (1827) and The Rural Muse (1835), sold poorly. Suffering from penury and poor health, he fell prey to delusions and was placed in an asylum in 1837. After four years he briefly escaped; certified insane, he spent his final 23 years in another asylum, where he wrote some of his most lucid, lyrical poetry.

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▪ British poet
born July 13, 1793, Helpston, near Peterborough, Northamptonshire, Eng.
died May 20, 1864, Northampton, Northamptonshire

      English peasant poet of the Romantic school.

      Clare was the son of a labourer and began work on local farms at the age of seven. Though he had limited access to books, his poetic gift, which revealed itself early, was nourished by his parents' store of folk ballads. Clare was an energetic autodidact, and his first verses were much influenced by the Scottish poet James Thomson (Thomson, James). Early disappointment in love—for Mary Joyce, the daughter of a prosperous farmer—made a lasting impression on him.

      In 1820 his first book, Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery, was published and created a stir. Clare visited London, where he enjoyed a brief season of celebrity in fashionable circles. He made some lasting friends, among them Charles Lamb, and admirers raised an annuity for him. That same year he married Martha Turner, the daughter of a neighbouring farmer, the “Patty of the Vale” of his poems. From then on he encountered increasing misfortune. His second volume of poems, The Village Minstrel (1821), attracted little attention. His third, The Shepherd's Calendar; with Village Stories, and Other Poems (1827), though containing better poetry, met with the same fate. His annuity was not enough to support his family of seven children and his dependent father, so he supplemented his income as a field labourer and tenant farmer. Poverty and drink took their toll on his health. His last book, The Rural Muse (1835), though praised by critics, again sold poorly; the fashion for peasant poets had passed. Clare began to suffer from fears and delusions. In 1837, through the agency of his publisher, he was placed in a private asylum at High Beech, Epping, where he remained for four years. Improved in health and driven by homesickness, he escaped in July 1841. He walked the 80 miles to Northborough, penniless, eating grass by the roadside to stay his hunger. He left a moving account in prose of that journey, addressed to his imaginary wife “Mary Clare.” At the end of 1841 he was certified insane. He spent the final 23 years of his life at St. Andrew's Asylum, Northampton, writing, with strangely unquenched lyric impulse, some of his best poetry.

      His rediscovery in the 20th century was begun by Arthur Symons (Symons, Arthur)'s selection of 1908, a process continued by Edward Thomas (Thomas, Edward) and Edmund Blunden (Blunden, Edmund Charles) at a date when World War I had revived the earlier enthusiasm for a poetry of directly apprehended rustic experience.

Additional Reading
Eric Robinson and David Powell (eds.), The Early Poems of John Clare, 1804–1822, 2 vol. (1989), and The Later Poems of John Clare, 1837–1864, 2 vol. (1984); Mark Storey, The Poetry of John Clare: A Critical Introduction (1974); John Barrell, The Idea of Landscape and the Sense of Place, 1730–1840: An Approach to the Poetry of John Clare (1972).

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Universalium. 2010.

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