John Clare, 150 years on

20140519-031615 pm-54975528.jpgIn case you have overlooked it, I thought I’d point out that today marks 150 years since the death of the poet John Clare (1793 – 1864). Clare’s reputation and popularity has waxed and waned, both during his lifetime and since his death, and though his work is more and more subject to critical scrutiny it is still enjoyed by a fairly limited range of readers; he’s certainly not as well-known as some of his contemporaries. Yet as a man and as a poet, he is notable on several counts, and his poetry still speaks to many readers.

Clare was a labouring-class poet, a man with little formal education and one whose life and work were centred around the countryside of his birth, in Northamptonshire. Not only are his poems beautiful, evoking the countryside he feared was vanishing in times of increasing industrialisation, but he is 20140520-075919 pm-71959890.jpgimportant as a working-class poet, one whose poetic drive allowed him to overcome social deprivation in order to write, with an authentic voice which demonstrates his understanding of and feeling for poetics, in style, content and the movement of his poems. I’m not a Clare expert but I love reading his poems and discovering new ones; the immediacy and freshness of the moments captured in ‘Country Letter’, for example, or the passion for the world around him in ‘A World for Love‘ can hardly fail to move. Clare’s enthusiasm is always palpable.

He wrote not just poetry but also essays and journals with remarkable articulacy, offering modern readers a glimpse of his world. Another aspect of his life which has intrigued modern readers is his struggle with madness, ending his days in a lunatic asylum. What most moved me about this is the story of his long walk home after his escape from the asylum in Essex, searching for his lost love and the lost rural idyll of his dreams. As Jonathan Bate writes in his excellent biography of Clare, ‘No one has ever written more powerfully of nature, of a rural childhood, and of the alienated and unstable self’.

The virtual exhibition ‘John Clare 150‘ demonstrates why Clare is still so important, particularly in the ways in which his work continues to inspire. To get a taste of Clare’s long-lost rural world, I offer you an extract from May in his ‘Shepherd’s Calendar’, celebrating the month in which the world begins to blossom and children can play outside again:

COME, Queen of Months! in company
With all thy merry minstrelsy:—
The restless cuckoo, absent long,
And twittering swallows’ chimney-song;
With hedge-row crickets’ notes, that run
From every bank that fronts the sun;
And swarthy bees, about the grass,
That stop with every bloom they pass,
And every minute, every hour,
Keep teazing weeds that wear a flower;
And Toil, and Childhood’s humming joys!
For there is music in the noise
When village children, wild for sport,
In school-time’s leisure, ever short
Alternate catch the bounding ball;
Or run along the church-yard wall,
Capp’d with rude figured slabs, whose claims
In time’s bad memory have no names;
Or race around the nooky church;
Or raise loud echoes in the porch;
Throw pebbles o’er the weather-cock,
Viewing with jealous eyes the clock;

You can read more of the poem, and other works by Clare, here. The John Clare Society also has more information and runs some excellent events.

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One thought on “John Clare, 150 years on

  1. On the evening of National Poetry Day each year (held early in November), a local enthusiast – Peter Mulligan – organises readings of Clare’s poems in the porch of All Saints’ here in Northampton. This is the porch shown in your first illustration of Clare in old age. It was where he sat each day for some years, walking in from St Andrew’s Hospital (the “lunatic asylum”).

    As it’s November, the readings carry on indoors!

    St Andrew’s was also the final home of Lucia Joyce, James Joyce’s daughter, who is buried in Kingsthorpe Cemetery in Northampton (at the bottom of my street!) and Peter also organises readings and songs at her grave each Bloomsday. It’s said that Samuel Beckett was a regular visitor to her grave (and to Northampton County Cricket ground – where he had played first-class cricket for Trinity College Dublin).

    Not far from Lucia’s grave is that of Violet Gibson – “the Woman who Shot Mussolini” in 1926 (merely grazing his nose) – also from St Andrew’s.

    Cheers,

    Ian

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