Friday, July 13, 2012

John Clare, English peasant poet

John Clare
It is the birthday of English peasant poet John Clare (1793), who wrote his most famous poem, I Am, in an insane asylum near the end of his life after struggling with mental illness for many years.

Clare's work celebrates the English countryside and laments the changes to it that occurred during the Industrial Revolution/Agricultural Revolution, when common land was fenced in, pastures were plowed and forests were cut. Clare delighted in nature and rural life, and such changes were distressing to him.

Clare grew up in a working-class family in Northamptonshire north of London, and worked in the fields as a child. He was educated in a church school until he was 12 years old, then worked in a tavern and later as a gardener in a 16th century country house. He served in the militia, lived with the gypsies, worked at a ceramic kiln, and lived on relief.

He wrote sonnets and poems in his off time, and when his parents faced eviction from their home, he tried to sell his poems to local bookseller to help them. The bookseller's cousin was a publisher and produced Clare's first book, Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery (1820), when he was 27 years old.

His former employer at the country house provided an annuity, and over the years various friends and patrons in London pooled resources to help him but in the end his was in poor health and suffered bouts of anxiety, stress, and depression. At the suggestion of friends, he admitted himself to a private asylum for a time and seemed to improve. But eventually he left, and lived at home for a few months.

His wife called in doctors as he showed signs of delusions and he was admitted to an asylum in Northampton, where he wrote his most famous poem, I Am.

He was virtually forgotten in the 18th century but scholars began to take interest in the early 20th century, and by the 1940s some of his work was being set to music by composer Benjamin Britten. Interest in England's greatest labor-class poet continues to grow.

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