- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 6, 2003

When John Clare (1793-1864) visited London in the spring of 1820, he was a cause celebre. His first volume of poems had just been published to great acclaim, and Clare — an agricultural laborer who had never before set foot outside of the county of Northamptonshire, let alone in the capital — dined with aristocrats and even had his portrait painted. When he departed at the end of the week, he was more famous than his fellow poet John Keats.

Clare then returned home to the rural village of Helpston. Home was a four-room tenement cottage he shared with his parents, his sister, and his new wife Patty and their baby daughter. Despite the support he received from his editors and patrons, Clare had to do manual work in the fields to feed his growing family (Patty went on to have eight more children).

As his fame ebbed and his poverty became starker, Clare experienced more severe bouts of depression. At the age of 44 he was institutionalized, and lived out the rest of his days in lunatic asylums, forgotten by the literary establishment that had once feted him.

Such a life, as Jonathan Bate observes in his splendid new biography of Clare, invites myth-making. The first, and perhaps most enduring, myth to arise was that Clare was an artless “child of nature,” barely literate and unfamiliar with poetic tradition.

It is true that Clare’s mature voice was utterly original. Many of his finest poems relay, in fresh, vigorous language, the keen-eyed observations he made while pursuing his favorite hobbies: country walking, fishing, “botanising” (searching out unusual plants) and bird-watching. While the Romantic poets were admiring the grand vistas of the Alps from afar, Clare was putting his local landscape under the microscope, delicately evoking the flight of a robin or “the blue-bell’s quiet hanging blooms.”

A poem like “The Nightingale’s Nest” conveys a sense of his miniaturist’s art: “Deep adown / The nest is made, a hermit’s mossy cell. / Snug lie her curious eggs in number five / Of deadened green or rather olive-brown, / And the old prickly thorn-bush guards them well.”

Clare was the first major English poet to capture authentic rural life. “For centuries, well-to-do poets had played the role of swain and made pretty love to imaginary shepherdesses. Clare gives the feel of what it was really like to sweat in the fields,” writes Mr. Bate. His intimate connection to the land he worked was a crucial part of his talent. But as Mr. Bate demonstrates, despite having only a grade-school education, Clare read deeply in the works of major British poets such as Burns, Byron and James Thomson (author of “The Seasons,” a long pastoral poem), and learned from their achievements.

Another common misconception is that Clare was taken advantage of — driven mad, even — by selfish, squabbling editors. The truth is more complicated. John Taylor and Augustus Hessey became interested in Clare early in his career, and their editorial relationship with him spanned many years. Far from taking advantage of Clare, they (Taylor especially) did their best to promote his reputation and to polish the manuscripts he sent them, which often verged on incoherence, since Clare never learned standard spelling or grammar.

Besides, the poet was no dupe. He wanted his editors to present his work in the most accessible — that is, saleable — form possible, and eagerly solicited their advice (and on occasion rejected it). Although some of their editorial decisions seem wrongheaded in retrospect, many more were enlightened. Mr. Bate untangles all this very judiciously. When sales of Clare’s later collections dropped off, it had more to do with the shrinking market for poetry, Mr. Bate argues, than with his editors’ disputes.

If Clare’s editors didn’t drive him mad, who or what did? Mr. Bate sensitively addresses the subject of Clare’s mental illness. “Posthumous psychiatric diagnosis is a dubious activity,” he warns. “Madness is of an age, not for all time … Medical disorders, especially those of a psychosomatic nature, are influenced by the ways in which they are conceptualized and treated.”

With this caveat, Mr. Bate goes on to conclude that Clare “conforms to the classic pattern … of manic depression.” Intriguingly, environmental factors associated with poverty may have been partly to blame: As the author points out, vitamin deficiency caused by a poor diet can affect the brain and nervous system, and malaria — which can produce hallucinations — was endemic in the marshy areas of Northamptonshire.

Mr. Bate never romanticizes the grinding rural poverty in which the Clare family lived. At times, unable to afford writing supplies, the poet had to scribble verses on strips of bark using homemade ink. When he was removed to an asylum, his standard of living actually improved, and he grew fat.

My sole complaint is that Mr. Bate should call Clare a “hero” for coping with mental illness and deprivation. Yes, Clare was resilient, but if any hero emerges from this biography it’s his wife Patty, who raised their large family and nursed Clare’s parents through old age, while enduring her husband’s drinking, mood swings and philandering. Whatever his gifts as a poet, he did not excel as a husband (though he was a very loving father).

Nevertheless, it is Clare’s love of his native countryside that comes through most powerfully in this volume. “As Clare matured [as a writer], his poems became more local,” remarks Mr. Bate. “Paradoxically, it is through the very quality of locality that he achieves his universality.” His best work is replete not only with the vivid particulars of the Helpston landscape — a favorite elm tree, a beloved stream — but also with fragments of the dialect spoken there: wonderful words like “crizzling” (crisp), “lathy” (slender) and “soodle” (to saunter lazily).

Being cut off from this landscape was probably the worst loss of Clare’s life. A sense of unrootedness haunts the poetry of Clare’s asylum years, as in the famous lyric “I Am”: “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 oblivion’s host …” Thanks to Mr. Bate’s biography, Clare will no longer be remembered as a mere madman or prodigy, but will be granted his rightful place in the canon as England’s preeminent poet of nature.

JOHN CLARE: A BIOGRAPHY

By Jonathan Bate

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $40, 648 pages


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