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John Clare was an English poet, the son of a farm labourer, who became known for his celebrations of the English countryside and sorrows at its disruption.Greatest Works of John Clare________________________________________Life and Remains of John Clare The Northamptonshire Peasant PoetPoemsPoems Chiefly From Manuscript
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The Premium Major Collection of John Clare
The Detailed Biography of John Clare
Life and Remains of John Clare The Northamptonshire Peasant Poet
Poems Chiefly From Manuscript
John Clare, (born July 13, 1793, Helpston, near Peterborough, Northamptonshire, England—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. 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’s selection of 1908, a process continued by Edward Thomas and Edmund Blunden at a date when World War I had revived the earlier enthusiasm for a poetry of directly apprehended rustic experience.
LIFE AND REMAINS
The "Northamptonshire Peasant Poet"
"And he sat him down in a lonely place, And chanted a melody loud and sweet."Tennyson.
To HIS EXCELLENCY, THE LORD-LIEUTENANT OF IRELAND.
Among the papers which John Clare, the "Peasant Poet" of our county, left behind him, was one in which he desired that the Editor of his "Remains" should dedicate them "to Earl Spencer, with the Author's last wishes."
That memorandum was written in the year 1825, when the poet was anticipating, to use his own words, a speedy entrance into "the dark porch of eternity, whence none returns to tell the tale of his reception."
These melancholy forebodings were not realized, for although in a few years Clare became dead to the world, he lived on in seclusion to a patriarchal age. Meanwhile the Earl Spencer to whom he desired that his "Remains" should be dedicated passed away, and the title descended first to your lordship's uncle, then to your lordship's father, and lastly to your lordship. But through all these years the Earls Spencer were the steadfast and generous friends of the unhappy Poet, nor did your lordship's bounty cease with his life, but was continued to his widow.
In dedicating this volume to your lordship, as I now do, I am complying with the spirit and almost with the very letter of poor Clare's injunction.
I am, with unfeigned respect,
Your lordship's most obedient servant,
The Editor begs the reader to believe that he under took the compilation of this volume with diffidence and trepidation, lest by any defect of judgment he might do aught to diminish the reputation which John Clare has always enjoyed with the lovers of pastoral poetry. He trusts that the shortcomings of an unskilful workman will be forgotten in admiration of the gems for which he has been required to find a setting.
Shortly after Clare's death his literary "Remains" came into the possession of Mr. Taylor, of Northampton. The MSS included several hundreds of hitherto unpublished poems, more than a thousand letters addressed to Clare by his friends and contemporaries, (among them Charles Lamb, James Montgomery, Bloomfield, Sir Chas. A. Elton, Hood, Cary, Allan Cunningham, Mrs. Emmerson, Lord Radstock, &c), diary, pocket books in which Clare had jotted down passing thoughts and fancies in prose and verse, a small collection of curious "Old Ballads" which he says he wrote down on hearing them sung by his father and mother, and numerous other valuable and interesting documents.
This volume has been compiled mainly from these manuscripts. The contents are divided into five sections, namely:—Life and Letters, Asylum Poems, Miscellaneous Poems, Prose Fragments, Old Ballads.
For much of the information relating to the Poet's earlier years the Editor is indebted to Mr. Martin's "Life of Clare," and the narratives of his youthful struggles and sufferings which appeared in the "Quarterly Review" and other periodicals at the time of the publication of his first volume. From that time the correspondence already mentioned became the basis of the biographical sketch, and was of the greatest value. In the few pages which relate to Clare's residence at Northampton, the Editor was enabled to write principally from personal knowledge.
It is almost incumbent upon him to add, that in several important particulars he dissents from Mr. Martin, but he will not engage in the ungracious task of criticizing a work to which he is under an obligation.
While an inmate of the Northampton County Lunatic Asylum, Clare wrote more than five hundred poems. These were carefully preserved by Mr. W. F. Knight, of Birmingham, a gentleman who for many years held a responsible office in that institution, and was a kind-hearted friend of the unhappy bard. From this pile of manuscripts the Editor has selected those which appear under the title of Asylum Poems. The selection was a pleasing, mournful task. Again and again it happened that a poem would open with a bright, musical stanza giving promise of a finished work not unworthy of Clare's genius at its best. This would be followed by others in which, to quote a line from the "Village Minstrel," were "Half-vacant thoughts and rhymes of careless form." Then came deeper obscurity, and at last incoherent nonsense. Of those which are printed, scarcely one was found in a state in which it could be submitted to the public without more or less of revision and correction.
The Miscellaneous Poems are chiefly fugitive pieces collected from magazines and annuals. One or two, referred to in the correspondence with James Montgomery, have been reprinted from the "Rural Muse," and there are a few which, like the Asylum Poems, have not been published before. "Maying; or, Love and Flowers," to which the Editor presumes specially to direct attention, is one of these.
The Prose Fragments are of minor literary importance, but they help to a knowledge and an understanding of the man. The Old Ballads have an interest of their own, apart from their association with Clare. The majority are no doubt what they purport to be, but in two or three instances Clare's hand is discernible.
'T is Spring, My Love, 't is Spring Love of Nature The Invitation To the Lark Graves of Infants Bonny Lassie O! Phoebe of the Scottish Glen Maid of the Wilderness Mary Bateman When Shall We Meet Again? The Lover's Invitation Nature's Darling I'll Dream Upon the Days to Come To Isobel The Shepherd's Daughter Lassie, I Love Thee The Gipsy Lass At the Foot of Clifford Hill To My Wife—A Valentine My True Love is a Sailor The Sailor's Return Birds, Why Are Ye Silent? Meet Me Tonight Young Jenny Adieu My Bonny Alice and Her Pitcher The Maiden I Love To Jenny Lind Little Trotty Wagtail The Forest Maid Bonnny Mary O! Love's Emblem The Morning Walk To Miss C…. I Pluck Summer Blossoms The March Nosegay Left Alone To Mary The Nightingale The Dying Child Mary Clock-a Clay Spring Evening The Swallow Jockey and Jenny The Face I Love So Dearly The Beanfield Where She Told Her Love Milking O' the Kye A Lover's Vows The Fall of the Year Autumn Early Love Evening A Valentine To Liberty Approach of Winter Mary Dove Spring's Nosegay The Lost One The Tell-Tale Flowers The Skylark Poets Love Nature—A Fragment Home Yearnings My Schoolboy Days Love Lives Beyond the Tomb My Early Home Mary Appleby Among the Green Bushes To Jane The Old Year
Maying; or, A Love of Flowers Two Sonnets to Mary The Vanities of Life March The Old Man's Lament Spring Flowers Poem on Death The Wanton Chloe The Old Shepherd To a Rosebud in Humble Life The Triumphs of Time To John Milton The Birds and St. Valentine Farewell and Defiance to Love The Gipsy's Song Peggy Band To a Brook
A Confession of Faith Essay on Popularity Scraps for an Essay on Criticism and Fashion Scraps for an Essay on Criticism
Adieu to My False Love Forever O Silly Love! O Cunning Love! Nobody Cometh to Woo Fare Thee Well Mary Neele Love Scorned By Pride Betrayed The Maiden's Welcome The False Knight's Tragedy Love's Riddle The Banks of Ivory
Bedlam cowslip: the paigle, or larger kind of cowslip. Bents: tall, coarse, rushy stems of grass. Blea: high, exposed. Bleb: a bubble, a small drop. Clock-a-clay: the ladybird. Daffies: daffodils. Dithering: trembling, shivering. Hing: preterite of hang. Ladysmock: the cardamine pratensis. Pink: the chaffinch. Pooty: the girdled snail shell. Ramping: coarse and large. Rawky: misty, foggy. Rig: the ridge of a roof. Sueing: a murmuring, melancholy sound. Swaly: wasteful. Sweltered: over-heated by the sun. Twitchy: made of twitch grass. Water-Hob: the marsh marigold.
John Clare, son of Parker and Ann Clare, commonly called "the Northamptonshire Peasant Poet," was born at Helpstone, near Peterborough, on the 13th of July, 1793. The lowliness of his lot lends some countenance to the saying of "Melancholy" Burton, that "poverty is the Muses' patrimony." He was the elder of twins, and was so small an infant that his mother used to say of him that "John might have been put into a pint pot." Privation and toil disabled his father at a comparatively early age, and he became a pauper, receiving from the parish an allowance of five shillings a week. His mother was of feeble constitution and was afflicted with dropsy. Clare inherited the low vitality of his parents, and until he reached middle age was subject to depressing ailments which more than once threatened his life, but after that time the failure of his mental powers caused him to be placed in circumstances favourable to bodily health, and in his old age he presented the outward aspect of a sturdy yeoman.
Having endowed Clare with high poetic sensibility, Nature capriciously placed him amid scenes but little calculated to call forth rapturous praises of her charms. "Helpstone," wrote an old friend of the poet, lately deceased, "lies between six and seven miles NNW of Peterborough, on the Syston and Peterborough branch of the Midland Railway, the station being about half a mile from the town. A not unpicturesque country lies about it, though its beauty is somewhat of the Dutch character; far-stretching distances, level meadows, intersected with grey willows and sedgy dikes, frequent spires, substantial watermills, and farm houses of white stone, and cottages of white stone also. Southward, a belt of wood, with a gentle rise beyond, redeems it from absolute flatness. Entering the town by the road from the east you come to a cross, standing in the midst of four ways. Before you, and to the left, stretches the town, consisting of wide streets or roadways, with irregular buildings on either side, interspersed with gardens now lovely with profuse blooms of laburnum and lilac."
The cottage in which John Clare was born is in the main street running south. The views of it which illustrate his poems are not very accurate. They represent it as standing alone, when it is in fact, and evidently always has been, a cluster of two if not of three tenements. There are three occupations now. It is on the west side of the street, and is thatched. In the illustration to the second volume of "The Village Minstrel" (1821), an open stream runs before the door which is crossed by a plank. Modern sanitary regulations have done away with this, if it ever existed and was not a fancy of the artist.
Clare, whose local attachments were intense, bewails in indignant verse the demolition of the Green:—
Ye injur'd fields, ye once were gay,When Nature's hand displayedLong waving rows of willows greyAnd clumps of hawthorn shade;But now, alas! your hawthorn bowersAll desolate we see!The spoiler's axe their shade devours,And cuts down every tree.
Not trees alone have owned their force,Whole woods beneath them bowed,They turned the winding rivulet's course,And all thy pastures plough'd.
Clare also wrote in the "Village Minstrel" in the following candid and artless strain, "a sort of defiant parody on the Highland poets", of the natural features of his native place:—
Swamps of wild rush-beds and sloughs' squashy traces,Grounds of rough fallows with thistle and weed.Flats and low valleys of kingcups and daisies,Sweetest of subjects are ye for my reed:Ye commons left free in the rude rags of nature,Ye brown heaths beclothed in furze as ye be,My wild eye in rapture adores every feature,Ye are dear as this heart in my bosom to me.
O native endearments! I would not forsake ye,I would not forsake ye for sweetest of scenes:For sweetest of gardens that Nature could make meI would not forsake ye, dear valleys and greens:Though Nature ne'er dropped ye a cloud-resting mountain,Nor waterfalls tumble their music so free,Had Nature denied ye a bush, tree, or fountain,Ye still had been loved as an Eden by me.
And long, my dear valleys, long, long may ye flourish,Though rush-beds and thistles make most of your pride!May showers never fail the green's daisies to nourish,Nor suns dry the fountain that rills by its side!Your skies may be gloomy, and misty your mornings,Your flat swampy valleys unwholesome may be,Still, refuse of Nature, without her adorningsYe are dear as this heart in my bosom to me.
That the poet's attachment to his native place was deeprooted and unaffected was proved by the difficulty which he found in tearing himself from it in after years, and it is more than probable that the violence which, for the sake of others, he then did to his sensitive nature aggravated his constitutional melancholy and contributed to the ultimate overthrow of his reason.
Clare's opportunities for learning the elements of knowledge were in keeping with his humble station. Parker Clare, out of his miserable and fluctuating earnings as a day labourer, paid for his child's schooling until he was seven years of age, when he was set to watch sheep and geese on the village heath. Here he made the acquaintance of "Granny Bains," of whom Mr. Martin, quoting, doubtless, from Clare's manuscript autobiography, says:—
"Having spent almost her whole life out of doors, in heat and cold, storm and rain, she had come to be intimately acquainted with all the signs of foreboding change of weather, and was looked upon by her acquaintances as a perfect oracle. She had also a most retentive memory, and being of a joyous nature, with a bodily frame that never knew illness, had learnt every verse or melody that was sung within her hearing, until her mind became a very storehouse of songs. To John, old Granny Bains soon took a great liking, he being a devout listener, ready to sit at her feet for hours and hours while she was warbling her little ditties, alternately merry and plaintive. But though often disturbed in the enjoyment of these delightful recitations, they nevertheless sank deep into John Clare's mind, until he found himself repeating all day long the songs he had heard, and even in his dreams kept humming:—
There sat two ravens upon a tree,Heigh down, derry O!There sat two ravens upon a tree,As deep in love as he and she.
It was thus that the admiration of poetry first awoke in Parker Clare's son, roused by the songs of Granny Bains, the cowherd of Helpstone."
From watching cows and geese, the boy was in due course promoted to the rank of team-leader, and was also set to assist his father in the threshing barn. "John," his father used to say, "was weak but willing," and the good man made his son a flail proportioned to his strength. Exposure in the ill-drained fields round Helpstone brought on an attack of tertiary ague, from which the boy had scarcely rallied when he was again sent into the fields. Favourable weather having set in, he recovered his health, and was able that summer to make occasionally a few pence by working overtime. These savings were religiously devoted to schooling, and in the following winter, he being then in his tenth year, he attended an evening school at the neighbouring village of Glinton. John soon became a favourite of the master, Mr. James Merrishaw, and was allowed the run of his little library. His passion for learning rapidly developed itself, and he eagerly devoured every book that came in his way, his reading ranging from "Robinson Crusoe" to "Bonnycastle's Arithmetic" and "Ward's Algebra." He refers to this in later life when he thus speaks of the "Village Minstrel":—
And oft, with books, spare hours he would beguile,And blunder oft with joy round Crusoe's lonely isle.
John pursued his studies for two or three winters under the guidance of the good-natured Merrishaw, and at the end of that time an unsuccessful effort was made to obtain for him a situation as clerk in the office of a solicitor at Wisbeach. After this failure he returned contentedly to the fields, and about this time found a new friend in the son of a small farmer named Turnill. The two youths read together, Turnill assisting Clare with books and writing materials. He now began to "snatch a fearful joy" by scribbling on scraps of paper his unpolished rhymes. "When he was fourteen or fifteen," to use his mother's own words, "he would show me a piece of paper, printed sometimes on one side and scrawled all over on the other, and he would say, 'Mother, this is worth silver and gold,' and I used to say to him, 'Ay, boy, it looks as if it wur,' but I thought he was only wasting his time." John deposited a bundle of these fragments in a chink in the cottage wall, whence "they were duly and daily subtracted by his mother to boil the morning's kettle," but we do not find that he was greatly disturbed by the loss, for being sympathetically asked on one occasion whether he had not kept copies of his earliest poems he replied that he had not, and that they were very likely good for nothing.
While he was yet in his early youth an important and, in some respects, a favourable change took place in the nature of his daily occupation. Among the few well-to-do inhabitants of Helpstone was a person named Francis Gregory, who owned a small public-house, under the sign of the Blue Bell, and rented besides a few acres of land. Francis Gregory, a most kind and amiable man, was unmarried, and kept house with his old mother, a female servant, and a lad, the latter half groom and half gardener. This situation, a yearly hiring, being vacant, it was offered to John, and eagerly accepted, on the understanding that he should have sufficient time of his own to continue his studies. It was a promise abundantly kept, for John Clare had never more leisure, and perhaps was never happier in his life than during the year that he stayed at the Blue Bell. Mr. Francis Gregory, suffering under constant illness, treated the pale little boy, who was always hanging over his books, more like a son than a servant, and this feeling was fully shared by Mr. Gregory's mother. John's chief labours were to attend to a horse and a couple of cows, and occasionally to do some light work in the garden or the potato field; and as these occupations seldom filled more than part of the day or the week, he had all the rest of the time to himself. A characteristic part of Clare's nature began to reveal itself now. While he had little leisure to himself, and much hard work, he was not averse to the society of friends and companions either, as in the case of Turnill, for study, or, as with others, for recreation; but as soon as he found himself to a certain extent his own master he forsook the company of his former acquaintances, and began to lead a sort of hermit's life. He took long strolls into the woods, along the meres, and to other lonely places, and got into the habit of remaining whole hours at some favourite spot, lying flat on the ground with his face towards the sky. "The flickering shadows of the sun, the rustling of the leaves on the trees, the sailing of the fitful clouds over the horizon, and the golden blaze of the sun at morn and eventide were to him spectacles of which his eye never tired, with which his heart never got satiated." (Martin.)
The age at which Clare's poetic fancies first wrought themselves into verse cannot be definitely fixed. We know from his steadfast friend and first editor, the late Mr. John Taylor, publisher to the London University, that his fondness for poetry found expression before even he had learnt to read. He was tired one day with looking at the pictures in a volume of poems, which he used to say he thought was Pomfret's, when his father read him one piece in the book to amuse him. This thrilled him with a delight of which he often afterwards spoke, but though he distinctly recollected the vivid pleasure which the recital gave him he could never recall either the incidents or the language. It may almost be taken for granted that so soon as Clare could write he began to rhyme. The Editor of this volume has before him the book in which the boy set down his arithmetical and geometrical exercises while a pupil of Mr. Merrishaw, and in this book are scribbled in pencil a few undecipherable lines commencing, "Good morning to ye, ballad-singing thrush." He was thirteen years old when an incident occurred which gave a powerful impulse to his dawning genius. A companion had shown him Thomson's "Seasons," and he was seized with an irrepressible desire to possess a copy. He ascertained that the book might be bought at Stamford for eighteenpence, and he entreated his father to give him the money. The poor man pleaded all too truthfully his poverty, but his mother, by great exertions, contrived to scrape together sevenpence, and the deficiency was made up by loans from friends in the village. Next Sunday, John rose long before the dawn and walked to Stamford, a distance of seven miles, to buy a copy of the "Seasons," ignorant or forgetful of the fact that business was suspended on that day. After waiting for three or four hours before the shop to which he had been directed, he learnt from a passer-by that it would not be re-opened until the following morning, and he returned to Helpstone with a heavy heart. Next day he repeated his journey and bore off the much-coveted volume in triumph. He read as he walked back to Helpstone, but meeting with many interruptions clambered over the wall surrounding Burghley Park, and throwing himself on the grass read the volume through twice over before rising. It was a fine spring morning, and under the influence of the poems, the singing of birds, and the bright sunshine, he composed "The Morning Walk." This was soon followed by "The Evening Walk," and some other minor pieces.
At the age of sixteen, if we may trust the account given by his early friend Mr. Octavius Gilchrist, in the "London Magazine" for January, 1820, Clare composed the following sonnet "To a Primrose":—
Welcome, pale primrose, starting up betweenDead matted leaves of oak and ash, that strewThe every lawn, the wood, and spinney through,'Mid creeping moss and ivy's darker green!How much thy presence beautifies the ground!How sweet thy modest, unaffected prideGlows on the sunny bank and wood's warm side!And where thy fairy flowers in groups are foundThe schoolboy roams enchantedly along,Plucking the fairest with a rude delight,While the meek shepherd stops his simple song,To gaze a moment on the pleasing sight,O'erjoyed to see the flowers that truly bringThe welcome news of sweet returning Spring.
As we have traced the poet's history down to his sixteenth year, the next incident of importance may be anticipated: of course he fell in love, and the object of his first and purest affection was Mary Joyce, daughter of a farmer at Glinton. Little is known of this episode excepting that the maiden was very beautiful, that after a few months of blissful intercourse their frequent meetings came to the knowledge of Mary's father, who sternly forbad their continuance, and that although "Patty," Clare's future wife, was the theme of some pretty verses, Mary Joyce was always Clare's ideal of love and beauty, and when thirty years afterwards, he lost his reason, among the first indications of the approaching calamity was his declaration that Mary, who had then long been in her grave, had passed his window. While under the influence of this delusion he wrote the poem entitled "First Love's Recollections," of which the following are the first two stanzas:—
First love will with the heart remainWhen all its hopes are bye,As frail rose-blossoms still retainTheir fragrance when they die;And joy's first dreams will haunt the mindWith shades from whence they sprung,As summer leaves the stems behindOn which spring's blossoms hung.
Mary! I dare not call thee dear,I've lost that right so long;Yet once again I vex thine earWith memory's idle song.Had time and change not blotted outThe love of former days,Thou wert the last that I should doubtOf pleasing with my praise.
Clare's engagement at the Blue Bell having terminated, a stone mason of Market Deeping offered to teach him his craft on payment of a premium which, though a very moderate sum, was far beyond the means of Parker Clare. A shoemaker in the village next offered to take him as an apprentice, on condition that Clare found his own tools, but the youth's aversion to the trade was too great to be overcome. After that his father applied to the head gardener at Burghley Park, who engaged Clare on the terms of a three years' apprenticeship, with eight shillings per week for the first year and an advance of one shilling per week in each succeeding year. The engagement was considered by Clare's father and mother to be a very fortunate and promising one, but it proved to be in a high degree prejudicial to his welfare. He was thrown into the society of a set of coarse- minded, intemperate fellows who insisted on his accompanying them in their frequent and forbidden visits to public houses in the neighbourhood. Mr. Martin informs us that it was the custom at Burghley to lock up at night all the workmen and apprentices employed under the head gardener, to prevent them from robbing the orchards, and that they regularly made their escape through a window. On several occasions Clare was overcome by drink and slept in the open air, with consequences to his delicate frame which may easily be imagined. It would appear that the head gardener set the example of habitual drunkenness to his subordinates, and that he was, moreover, of brutal disposition, which will account for the circumstance of the flight of Clare from Burghley Park, after he had been there nearly a year. Accompanied by a fellow-apprentice he walked to Grantham, a distance of twenty-two miles, and thence to Newark, where the youths obtained employment under a nurseryman. But Clare very shortly became homesick, and he returned to his parents in a state of complete destitution.
The most lamentable consequence of the roystering life which Clare led with the gardeners at Burghley was, that he acquired a fondness for strong drink with which he had to struggle, not always successfully, for years. That he did struggle manfully is evident from his correspondence, and at length, acting upon the advice of Dr. Darling, a London physician, who for a long time generously prescribed for him without fee or reward beyond the poet's grateful thanks, he abstained altogether. It will be seen hereafter that in all probability Dr. Darling's advice was given upon the supposition that Clare was able to procure a sufficient supply of nourishing food, when unhappily he was almost literally starving himself, in order that his family might not go hungry.
On returning from Nottinghamshire Clare took again to the work of a farm labourer, and the poetic fervour which had abated in the uncongenial society of Burghley once more manifested itself. After taking infinite pains to that end, he had the satisfaction of convincing his father and mother that his poetry was of somewhat greater merit than the half-penny ballads sold at the village feast; but his neighbours could not bring themselves to approve John's course of life, and they adopted various disagreeable modes of showing that they thought he was a mightily presumptuous fellow. His shy manners and his habit of talking to himself as he walked led some to set him down as a lunatic; others ridiculed his enthusiasm, or darkly whispered suspicions of unhallowed intercourse with evil spirits. This treatment, operating upon a sensitive mind and a body debilitated both by labour and scanty and unwholesome food, had the natural effect of robbing him of hope and buoyancy of spirits. In a fit of desperation he enlisted in the militia, and with other Helpstone youths was marched off to Oundle, a small town lying between Peterborough and Northampton. He remained at Oundle for a few weeks, at the end of which time the regiment was disbanded and Clare returned to Helpstone, carrying with him "Paradise Lost" and "The Tempest," which he had bought at a broker's shop in Oundle. This brings us down to 1812, when Clare was nineteen years old.
Little is known of Clare's manner of life for the next four or five years, excepting that he continued to work as a farm labourer whenever work could be found, that he tried camp life with some gipsies, and speedily had his romantic ideas of its attractiveness rudely dispelled, that he had a love passage or two with girls of the village and that he accumulated a large number of poems of varying degrees of excellence.
In 1817 he obtained employment as a lime burner at Bridge Casterton, in the neighbouring county of Rutland, where he earned about ten shillings per week. The labour was very severe, but Clare was contented, and during his stay at Bridge Casterton several of the best among his earlier poems were produced. It was probably this period of his life which he had in his mind when he said:—
I found the poems in the fields,And only wrote them down.
In the course of this year 1817 Clare fell in love with Martha Turner, the daughter of a cottage farmer living at a place called Walkherd Lodge, and this is the maiden who after the lapse of three or four years became his wife. "She was a fair girl of eighteen, slender, with regular features, and pretty blue eyes." Clare entered into this new engagement with passionate ardour, but the courtship ultimately took a more prosaic turn, and having once done so, there was little in the worthy but illiterate and matter-of-fact "Patty" to elevate the connection into the region of poetry. In his correspondence Clare more than once hints at want of sympathy on the part of those of his own household, and at one time domestic differences, for which there is reason to think he was mainly responsible, and which occurred when he was mentally in a very morbid condition, caused him to contemplate suicide. It is due, however, to the memory of "Patty" to say that Clare's latest volume of poems ("The Rural Muse," 1835) contains an address "To P * *" which is honourable to the constancy of both parties. It is as follows:—
Fair was thy bloom when first I metThy summer's maiden-blossom;And thou art fair and lovely yet,And dearer to my bosom.O thou wert once a wilding flower,All garden flowers excelling,And still I bless the happy hourThat led me to thy dwelling.
Though nursed by field, and brook, and wood,And wild in every feature,Spring ne'er unsealed a fairer bud,Nor found a blossom sweeter.Of all the flowers the spring hath met,And it has met with many,Thou art to me the fairest yet,And loveliest of any.
Though ripening summers round thee bringBuds to thy swelling bosom,That wait the cheering smiles of springTo ripen into blossom.These buds shall added blessings be,To make our loves sincerer,For as their flowers resemble theeThey'll make thy memory dearer.
And though thy bloom shall pass away,By winter overtaken,Thoughts of the past will charms display,And many joys awaken.When time shall every sweet remove,And blight thee on my bosom,Let beauty fade!—to me, my love,Thou'lt ne'er be out of blossom!
Although Clare's engagement to Martha Turner added to his perplexities, it was really the immediate moving cause of his determination to be up and doing. He resolved at length to publish a collection of his poems, and consulted Mr. Henson, a printer, of Market Deeping, on the subject. Mr. Henson offered to print three hundred copies of a prospectus for a sovereign, but he firmly declined the invitation of the poet to draw up that document. Clare resolutely set to work to save the money for the printer, and soon succeeded; but then there was the difficulty with regard to the composition of the address to the public. He could write poetry; that he knew; he had done so already, and he felt plenty more within; but prose he had never yet attempted, and the task was a really grievous one. This is his own account of his trouble, given in the introduction to the "Village Minstrel:"—
"I have often dropped down five or six times, to plan an address. In one of these musings my poor thoughts lost themselves in rhyme. Taking a view, as I sat beneath the shelter of a woodland hedge, of my parents' distresses at home, of my labouring so hard and so vainly to get out of debt, and of my still added perplexities of ill-timed love, striving to remedy all to no purpose, I burst out into an exclamation of distress, 'What is life?' and instantly recollecting that such a subject would be a good one for a poem, I hastily scratted down the two first verses of it, as it stands, and continued my journey to work." When he got to the limekiln he could not work for thinking of the address which he had to write, "so I sat me down on a lime scuttle," he says, "and out with my pencil, and when I had finished I started off for Stamford with it." There he posted the address to Mr. Henson. It ran as follows:—
"Proposals for publishing by subscription a Collection of Original Trifles on Miscellaneous Subjects, Religious and Moral, in verse, by John Clare, of Helpstone. The public are requested to observe that the Trifles humbly offered for their candid perusal can lay no claim to eloquence of composition: whoever thinks so will be deceived, the greater part of them being juvenile productions, and those of later date offsprings of those leisure intervals which the short remittance from hard and manual labour sparingly afforded to compose them. It is to be hoped that the humble situation which distinguishes their author will be some excuse in their favour, and serve to make an atonement for the many inaccuracies and imperfections that will be found in them. The least touch from the iron hand of Criticism is able to crush them to nothing, and sink them at once to utter oblivion. May they be allowed to live their little day and give satisfaction to those who may choose to honour them with a perusal, they will gain the end for which they were designed and the author's wishes will be gratified. Meeting with this encouragement it will induce him to publish a similar collection of which this is offered as a specimen."
The specimen was the "Sonnet to the Setting Sun," in which a comparison is drawn between sunset and the death of a Christian. The address was too artless, too honest, and the people of the Fens, taking Clare at his word, subscribed for exactly seven copies! The state of excitement, caused by mingled hopes and fears, in which Clare was at this time may be seen from the following extract from a letter to Mr. Henson:—"Good God! How great are my expectations! What hopes do I cherish! As great as the unfortunate Chatterton's were, on his first entrance into London, which is now pictured in my mind. And, undoubtedly, like him I may be building castles in the air, but time will prove it. Please to do all in your power to procure subscribers, as your address will be looked upon better than that of a clown. When two are got you may print it, if you please; so do your best."
But now fresh troubles came upon Clare in rapid succession. He quarrelled with Patty and was forbidden the house by her parents. He was discharged by his master on the probably well-grounded plea that he was writing poetry and distributing his address when he ought to be at work, and he was soon without a penny in the world. He returned to Helpstone and tried to get employment as a day labourer, but failed; the farmers, who had heard of the publishing project, considering that "he did not know his place." In this extremity he was compelled to apply for and accept relief from the parish. This was in the autumn of 1818, and Clare was twenty-five years old. Henson declined to begin the printing of the book unless Clare advanced the sum of L15, and this being impossible the negotiation fell through. Clare shortly afterwards, with the two-fold object of finding employment and obtaining relief from mental distraction by change of scene, was on the point of setting out for Yorkshire, when a copy of his prospectus fell under the notice of Mr. Edward Drury, a bookseller, of Stamford. Mr. Drury called upon Clare at his own home, and with difficulty induced him to show him a few of his manuscript poems. Having read, among others, "My love, thou art a nosegay sweet," he was unable to conceal his gratification, and told Clare, to the poor poet's intense delight, that if he would procure the return of the poems in the possession of Mr. Henson he would publish a volume and give Clare the profits after deducting expenses.
On this footing the poet became intimate with Mr. Drury, who frequently entertained him at his house. His letters to Clare are cordial, and disclose an honest desire to be of service to him, on which account it is the more to be regretted that, owing to a dispute which afterwards took place between Mr. Drury and Mr. Taylor, Clare's London publisher, Clare rather ungraciously separated himself from his early friend. He was clearly indebted to Mr. Drury in the first instance for the opportunity of emerging from obscurity into public notice, and also for introductions to Mr. Taylor and Mr. Octavius Gilchrist, both men of influence in literary circles, and both of whom took an active and genuine interest in the young poet. Mr. Taylor, as has been already stated, became his editor and publisher, and remained his faithful friend until after Clare had been lost to public view within the walls of a lunatic asylum.
Towards the end of 1819 Clare met Mr. Taylor at the house of Mr. Gilchrist, in Stamford, and the latter gentleman gave the following account of the interview in a patronizing and not very judicious article which appeared in the "London Magazine" for January, 1820:—
"Mr. Taylor had seen Clare, for the first time, in the morning; and he doubted much if our invitation would be accepted by the rustic poet, who had now just returned from his daily labour, shy, and reserved, and disarrayed as he was. In a few minutes, however, Clare announced his arrival by a hesitating knock at the door—'between a single and a double rap'—and immediately upon his introduction he dropped into a chair. Nothing could exceed the meekness, simplicity, and diffidence with which he answered the various enquiries concerning his life and habits, which we mingled with subjects calculated or designed to put him much at his ease. Of music he expressed himself passionately fond, and had learnt to play a little on the violin, in the humble hope of obtaining a trifle at the annual feasts in the neighbourhood, and at Christmas. The tear stole silently down the cheek of the rustic poet as one of our little party sang 'Auld Robin Gray.'"
Mr. Martin gives a somewhat different account of this interview. He states that the poet took decidedly too much wine, and that while under its influence he wrote some doggerel verses which Mr. Gilchrist had the cruelty to print in the article intended formally to introduce Clare to the notice of the English public. Mr. Gilchrist was an accomplished and warm-hearted man, and it was by his desire that Hilton, the Royal Academical, painted Clare's portrait for exhibition in London, but he presumed too much upon his social superiority, and his judgment was at fault in supposing that the poet was all meekness and diffidence. On one occasion he took him sharply to task for associating with a Nonconformist minister, and Clare warmly resented this interference and for a time absented himself from Mr. Gilchrist's house. A conciliation, however, soon took place, and the poet and the learned grocer of Stamford were fast friends until the death of the latter in 1823.
Clare's first volume was brought out by Taylor and Hessey in January, 1820. It was entitled "Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery," and contained an introduction from the pen of Mr. Taylor. In this preface the peculiarities of Clare's genius were described with force and propriety, his perseverance in the face of great discouragements was commended, and the sympathy and support of the public were invited in the following passage:—
"No poet of our country has shown greater ability under circumstances so hostile to its development. And all this is found here without any of those distressing and revolting alloys which too often debase the native worth of genius, and make him who was gifted with powers to command admiration live to be the object of contempt or pity. The lower the condition of its possessor the more unfavourable, generally, has been the effect of genius on his life. That this has not been the case with Clare may, perhaps, be imputed to the absolute depression of his fortune. When we hear the consciousness of possessing talent, and the natural irritability of the poetic temperament, pleaded in extenuation of the follies and vices of men in high life, let it be accounted no mean praise to such a man as Clare that with all the excitements of their sensibility to his station he has preserved a fair character amid dangers which presumption did not create and difficulties which discretion could not avoid. In the real troubles of life, when they are not brought on by the misconduct of the individual, a strong mind acquires the power of righting itself after each attack, and this philosophy, not to call it by a better name, Clare possesses. If the expectations of a 'better life,' which he cannot help indulging, should all be disappointed by the coldness with which this volume may be received, he can 'put up with distress, and be content.' In one of his letters he says, 'If my hopes don't succeed the hazard is not of much consequence: if I fall, I am advanced at no great distance from my low condition: if I sink for want of friends my old friend Necessity is ready to help me as before. It was never my fortune as yet to meet advancement from friendship: my fate has ever been hard labour among the most vulgar and lowest conditions of men, and very small is the pittance hard labour allows me, though I always toiled even beyond my strength to obtain it.' To see a man of talent struggling under great adversity with such a spirit must surely excite in every generous heart the wish to befriend him. But if it be otherwise, and he should be doomed to remediless misery,
Why, let the stricken deer go weep,The hart ungalled play,For some must watch, while some sleep,—Thus runs the world away."
Towards the end of January 1820, the Rev Mr. Holland of Northborough, the minister already referred to, called upon Clare with the joyful news that his poems had been published, and that the volume was a great success. Next day a messenger arrived from Stamford with an invitation to the poet to meet Mr. Drury and Mr. Gilchrist. They confirmed the favourable report made by Mr. Holland, and at length Clare had an opportunity of seeing the book which had caused him so many anxious days and sleepless nights. He made no attempt to conceal the honest pride he felt on receiving the congratulations of his friends, and acknowledged his obligation to Mr. Taylor for the editorial pains he had taken to prepare his manuscripts for the press, but he was deeply mortified at the tone of the "Introduction" in which Mr. Taylor dwelt, perhaps unconsciously, on Clare's poverty as constituting his chief claim to public notice.
The success of the "Poems" could scarcely be overstated. The eager curiosity of the public led to the first edition being exhausted in a few days, and a second was promptly announced. "The Gentleman's Magazine," the "New Monthly Magazine," the "Eclectic Review," the "Anti-Jacobin Review," the "London Magazine," and many other periodicals, welcomed the new poet with generous laudation. Following these came the "Quarterly Review," then under the editorship of the trenchant Gifford. To the astonishment of the reading public, the "Quarterly," which about this time "killed poor Keats," admitted a genial article on the rustic bard, and gave him the following excellent advice:—
"We counsel, we entreat him to continue something of his present occupations, to attach himself to a few in the sincerity of whose friendship he can confide, and to suffer no temptations of the idle and the dissolute to seduce him from the quiet scenes of his youth (scenes so congenial to his taste) to the hollow and heartless society of cities, to the haunts of men who would court and flatter him while his name was new, and who, when they had contributed to distract his attention and impair his health, would cast him off unceremoniously to seek some other novelty. Of his again encountering the difficulties and privations he lately experienced there is no danger. Report speaks of honourable and noble friends already secured: with the aid of these, the cultivation of his own excellent talents, and a meek but firm reliance on that good Power by whom these were bestowed, he may, without presumption, anticipate a rich reward in the future for the evils endured in the morning of his life."
The estimate formed by the writer of the liberality of Clare's patrons was exaggerated, and instead of there being no danger of his ever again having to encounter difficulties and privations he was scarcely ever free from them until the crowning privation had placed him beyond their influence.
The "Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery" were about seventy in number, including twenty-one sonnets. The volume opened with an apostrophe to Helpstone, in the manner of Goldsmith, and among the longer pieces were "The Fate of Amy," "Address to Plenty in Winter," "Summer Morning," "Summer Evening," and "Crazy Nell." The minor pieces included the sonnet "To the Primrose," already quoted, "My love, thou art a Nosegay sweet," and "What is Life?", a reflective poem produced under circumstances with which the reader has been made acquainted. The compositions last named are inserted here as examples of Clare's style at this early period of his career:—
My love, thou art a nosegay sweet,My sweetest flower I'll prove thee,And pleased I pin thee to my breast,And dearly do I love thee.
And when, my nosegay, thou shalt fade,As sweet a flower thou'lt prove thee;And as thou witherest on my breastFor beauty past I'll love thee.
And when, my nosegay, thou shalt die,And heaven's flower shalt prove thee,My hopes shall follow to the sky,And everlasting love thee.
And what is Life? An hour-glass on the run,A mist retreating from the morning sun,A busy, bustling, still repeated dream;Its length?—A minute's pause, a moment's thought;And happiness?—a bubble on the stream,That in the act of seizing shrinks to nought.
What are vain hopes?—The puffing gale of morn,That of its charms divests the dewy lawn,And robs each flow'ret of its gem,—and dies;A cobweb hiding disappointment's thorn,Which stings more keenly through the thin disguise.
And what is Death? Is still the cause unfound?That dark, mysterious name of horrid sound?—A long and lingering sleep, the weary crave.And Peace? where can its happiness abound?No where at all, save heaven, and the grave.Then what is Life?—When stripp'd of its disguise,A thing to be desir'd it cannot be,Since everything that meets our foolish eyesGives proof sufficient of its vanity.'T is but a trial all must undergo,To teach unthankful mortals how to prizeThat happiness vain man's denied to knowUntil he's called to claim it in the skies.
The following lines in the "Address to Plenty" have always been admired for their Doric strength and simplicity, and the vivid realism of the scene which they depict:—
Toiling in the naked fields,Where no bush a shelter yields,Needy Labour dithering stands,Beats and blows his numbing hands,And upon the crumping snowsStamps, in vain, to warm his toes.Leaves are fled, that once had powerTo resist a summer shower;And the wind so piercing blows,Winnowing small the drifting snows;
Clare used at first, without hesitation, the provincialisms of his native county, but afterwards, as his mind matured, he saw the propriety of adopting the suggestions which Charles Lamb and other friends made to him on this subject, and his style gradually became more polished, until in the "Rural Muse" scarcely any provincialisms were employed, and the glossary of the earlier volumes was therefore unnecessary.
The article in the "Quarterly" was, with the exception, perhaps, of the concluding paragraph just quoted, from the pen of Clare's friend and neighbour, Mr. Gilchrist, who wrote to Clare on the subject in the following jocular strain:—
"What's to be done now, Maester? Here's a letter from William Gifford saying I promised him an article on one John Clare, for the 'Quarterly Review.' Did I do any such thing? Moreover, he says he has promised Lord Radstock, and if I know him, as he thinks I do, I know that the Lord will persecute him to the end. This does not move me much. But he adds, 'Do not fail me, dear Gil, for I count upon you. Tell your simple tale, and it may do the young bard good.' Think you so? Then it must be set about. But how to weave the old web anew—how to hoist the same rope again and again—how to continue the interest to a twice-told tale? Have you committed any arsons or murders that you have not yet revealed to me? If you have, out with 'em straight, that I may turn 'em to account before you are hanged; and as you will not come here to confess, I must hunt you up at Helpstone; so look to it, John Clare, for ere it be long, and before you expect me, I shall be about your eggs and bacon. I have had my critical cap on these two days, and the cat-o'-nine-tails in my hands, and soundly I'll flog you for your sundry sins, John Clare, John Clare!
Given under my hand the tenth of the fourth month, anno Domini 1820."
Following close upon the complimentary criticisms in the principal monthlies, the condescension of the "Quarterly" completed the little triumph, and Clare's verses became the fashion of the hour. One of his poems was set to music by Mr. Henry Corri, and sung by Madame Vestris at Covent Garden. Complimentary letters, frequently in rhyme, flowed in upon him, presents of books were brought by nearly every coach,  and influential friends set about devising plans (of which more presently) to rescue him from poverty and enable him to devote at all events a portion of his time to the Muses. On the other hand, visitors from idle curiosity were far more numerous than was agreeable, and he was pestered with applications for autographs and poems for ladies' albums, with patronage and advice from total strangers, with tracts from well-meaning clergymen, and with invitations to lionizing parties. One of these communications was in its way a unique production, and for the entertainment of the reader a portion of it is here introduced:—
"The darksome daughter of Chaos has now enveloped our hemisphere (which a short time since was enubilous of clouds) in the grossest blackness. The drowsy god reigns predominantly, and the obstreperous world is wrapped in profound silence. No sounds gliding through the ambient air salute my attentive auricles, save the frightful notes which at different intervals issue from that common marauder of nocturnal peace—the lonesome, ruin-dwelling owl. Wearied rustics, exhausted by the toils of the day, are enjoying a sweet and tranquil repose. No direful visions appal their happy souls, nor terrific ghosts of quondam hours stand arrayed before them. Every sense is lost in the oblivious stream. Even those who on the light, fantastic toe lately tripped through the tangled dance of mirth have sunk into the arms of Tired Nature's sweet restorer, balmy sleep. Meditation, avaunt! Respected (tho' unknown) Sir,—Out of the abundant store of your immutable condescension graciously deign to pardon the bold assurance and presumptuous liberty of an animated mass of undistinguished dust, whose fragile composition is most miraculously composed of congenial atoms so promiscuously concentred as to personify in an abstracted degree the beauteous form of man, to convey by proxy to your brilliant opthalmic organs the sincere thanks of a mild, gentle, and grateful heart for the delightful amusement I have experienced and the instruction I have reaped by reading your excellent poems, in (several of) which you have exquisitely given dame nature her natural form, and delineated her in colours so admirable that on the perusal of them I was led to exclaim with extacy Clare everywhere excels in the descriptive. But your literary prowess is too circuitously authenticated to admit of any punctilious commendation from my debilitated pen, and under its umbrageous recess, serenely segregated, from the malapert and hypochondriachal vapours of myopic critics (as I am no acromatic philosopher) I trust every solecism contained in this autographical epistle will find a salvable retirement. Tho' no Solitaire, I am irreversibly resolved to be on this occasion heteroclitical. I will not insult your good sense by lamenting the exigencies of the present times, as doubtless it always dictates to you to be (whilst travelling through the mazy labyrinth of joy and sorrow) humble in the lucent days of prosperity and omnific in the tenebricous moments of adversity."
Clare's claim to the title of poet having been established, his noble neighbours at Milton and Burghley invited him to visit them. At Milton Park he was graciously received by Earl Fitzwilliam and Lord and Lady Milton, after he had dined with the servants. A long conversation on his health, means, expectations, and principles was held, and he was dismissed with a very handsome present—an earnest of greater favours to come.
The visit to the Marquis of Exeter was equally gratifying. His lordship made himself acquainted with the state of the poet's affairs, and having read a number of unpublished effusions which Clare had taken with him, told him that it was his intention to allow him an annuity of fifteen pounds for life. The delight of the poor bard may be imagined without difficulty, for now he doubted not he could reconcile Patty's parents to the long hoped-for marriage, and deliver his mistress from anxieties which had for some time made life almost intolerable. He dined in the servants' hall. About the same time Clare also visited by invitation General Birch Reynardson, of Holywell Park—
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