John Clare’s Selected Poems

Selected PoemsAlmost every day, I walk from the neighborhood I now live in – poor, crowded and dirty – to the neighborhood I grew up in, affluent and immaculately clean. On every block of my present neighborhood, graffiti can be found, and discarded cigarette butts or fast-food wrappers. Single homes in my old neighborhood are as large as some of the multi-unit dwellings here. But of the many contrasts between these two places, one in particular strikes me: the poorer neighborhood has no lawns, and few plants or flowers, whereas the affluent neighborhood, with its century-old homes, has tall, thick trees and luscious green lawns. Something in me responds, opens up, at the sight of those old trees and verdant lawns, as poor a substitute as they might be for the countryside. And I cannot be alone, for think how eager we are to escape the city, whether for the tranquility of the golf course or the chance to fish and hike and camp in the wilderness. John Clare, who lived almost his entire life in the English countryside, is nature’s poet, the voice of whatever in man disdains concrete and steel and feels freed by a rolling landscape or running stream.

For most of his life, Clare was also desperately poor, often reliant on the charity of his benefactors even for his writing supplies, and so it’s fitting that this volume opens with his “Address To Plenty,” who is described as “Giving most where none’s requir’d / Leaving none where most’s desir’d.” Clare writes from painful first-hand experience of poverty and privation:

Though all’s vain to keep him warm,
Poverty must brave the storm.
Friendship alone his only friend;
Granting leave to live in pain,
Giving strength to toil in vain;
To be, while winter’s horrors last,
The sport of every pelting blast.

To grant leave or give strength are positives that Clare’s verse inverts: the strength of the poor is wasted in toil, their only freedom is the freedom to suffer, and the very nature he so often exalts in his poetry becomes, for them, a torment.

And, to Want, sad news severe,
Of provisions getting dear:
While the Winter, shocking sight,
Constant freezes day and night,
Deep and deeper falls the snow,
Labour’s slack, and wages low.
These, and more, the poor can tell,
Known, alas, by them too well,
Plenty! oh, if blest by thee,
Never more should trouble me.

The winter months receive far less praise from Clare, who has personally felt the privation they inflict, but if winter suffering is borne unequally by the poor, the blessings of the warmer months are available to men of every class. The poetry that originally gave him his meagre fame, that attracted subscribers, dealt with the beauty of nature and the rural life, as well as its simplicity. Here is a representative sample, from the opening to his “Recollections After An Evening Walk,” one of his first published poems:

Just as the even-bell rang, we set out
To wander the fields and the meadows about;
And the first thing we mark’d that was lovely to view,
Was the sun hung on nothing, just bidding adieu:
He seem’d like a ball of pure gold in the west,
In a cloud like a mountain blue, dropping to rest;
The skies all around him were ting’d with his rays,
And the trees at a distance seem’d all on a blaze,
Till, lower and lower, he sank from our sight,
And the blue mist came creeping with silence and night.

Or these self-referential lines from “Shadows Of Taste”:

A pleasing image to its page conferred
In living character and breathing word
Becomes a landscape heard and felt and seen,
Sunshine and shade one harmonizing green
Where meads and brooks and forests basking lie,
Lasting as truth and the eternal sky.

These are not wholly impersonal poems; exactly what Clare notices, and what thoughts these objects spark, takes on special significance. But nor do they have the strong poetic I of Wordsworth or even Keats. This would come later.

Clare spent the final years of his life in an asylum, justly feeling himself forgotten by the world, and it is paradoxically in this environment that his poetry takes a marked turn towards the personal and the dark. There were hints of this in earlier poems, as in these lines from “Solitude”:

And man, to me a galling thing,
Own’d creation’s lord and king,
A minute’s length, a zephyr’s breath,
Sport of fate, and prey of death;
Tyrant of to-day, to-morrow gone;
Distinguish’d only by a stone,
That fain would have the eye to know
Pride’s better dust is lodg’d below

But his asylum years transformed his verse. Here is “I Am!,” his most anthologized poem and perhaps his most unique, relative to his other work:

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, 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.

In this, the final poem of the collection, composed while he was confined to his asylum, Clare gives us his most personal verse, unmediated by nature. In fact, it is now nature – the grass and the sky – that are the abstraction: not the objects prompting thought, but the objects of thought. And so, stripped of almost all ornament, here is Clare’s naked self, alone and forgotten in his lifetime, immortalized in his writing.