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Clare, John

Category: Poet

John Clare (1793 –1864) was an English poet, the son of a farm labourer, who came to be known for poems of the English countryside. 

Clare grew up during a period of massive change in both town and countryside.  The Agricultural Revolution saw pastures ploughed up, trees and hedges uprooted, the fens drained and the common land enclosed. This destruction of a centuries-old way of life distressed Clare deeply. 

Although most of his poems appear superficially to be about the natural world, they include a great deal of symbolism.  Poems such as I Am show a great knowledge of the spiritual.

Clare was born in Helpston, six miles to the north of the city of Peterborough. He became an agricultural labourer while still a child; however, he attended school in Glinton church until he was twelve. In his early adult years, Clare became a pot-boy in the Blue Bell public house and fell in love with Mary Joyce; but her father, a prosperous farmer, forbade her to meet him. Subsequently he was a gardener at Burghley House. He enlisted in the militia, tried camp life with Gypsies, and worked in Pickworth as a lime burner in 1817. In the following year he was obliged to accept parish relief.


In an attempt to hold off his parents' eviction from their home, Clare offered his poems to a local bookseller named Edward Drury. Drury sent Clare's poetry to his cousin John Taylor. Taylor published Clare's Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery in 1820. This book was highly praised, and in the next year his Village Minstrel and other Poems were published.

Clare married Martha ("Patty") Turner in 1820.  The couple had seven children.  Although he received an annuity of 15 guineas from the Marquess of Exeter, in whose service he had been, his income became insufficient, and in 1823 he was nearly penniless.

Clare was constantly torn between the two worlds of literary London and his neighbours; between the need to write poetry and the need for money to feed and clothe his children.

Henry John Sylvester Stannard - Watching the chicks

 "I live here among the ignorant like a lost man, in fact like one whom the rest seemes careless of having anything to do with—they hardly dare talk in my company for fear I should mention them in my writings and I find more pleasure in wandering the fields than in musing among my silent neighbours who are insensible to everything but toiling and talking of it and that to no purpose."

He had bouts of severe depression, which became worse after his sixth child was born in 1830, and as his poetry sold less well. In 1832, his friends and his London patrons clubbed together to move the family to a larger cottage with a smallholding in the village of Northborough, not far from Helpston.

However, he felt only more alienated.

His last work, the Rural Muse (1835), was reviewed favourably, but this was not enough to support his wife and seven children. Clare's mental health began to worsen. As his alcohol consumption steadily increased along with his dissatisfaction with his own identity, Clare's behaviour became more erratic. In July 1837, on the recommendation of his publishing friend, John Taylor, Clare went of his own volition to Dr Matthew Allen's private asylum in Epping Forest.

Introduction to Rural Life

If Clare were alive today and receiving psychiatric treatment he would probably be diagnosed as suffering from manic depression” Jonathan Bate in 'John Clare'.

In 1841, Clare absconded from the asylum in Essex, to walk home, believing that he was to meet his first love Mary Joyce; Clare was convinced that he was married with children to her and Martha as well. Between Christmas and New Year in 1841, Clare was committed to the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum  He remained here for the rest of his life under the humane regime of Dr Thomas Octavius Prichard, encouraged and helped to write.

Here he wrote possibly his most famous poem, I Am.

He died on 20 May 1864, in his 71st year.


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