Who was John Clare?
Termed as the ‘poet of the labouring class’, John Clare’s contribution to the poetry has made him a prominent figure of the 19th-century poetry. His descriptive writings were appreciated by readers and critics alike for its portrayal of nature and his own vulnerable self.
He wrote several poems and prose pieces but unfortunately, they reached the audience only after his death.
The early life of John Clare
Born in the town of Helpston, near the city of Peterborough, he has quite a difficult life. Coming from a peasant family, he had limited means and had to start working as a labourer in the fields from a young age.
He received little formal education where he attended a day school in Glintonchrurch for a few months every year till he was 12. This is where he met a student Mary Joyce and fell in love with her but later separated. He would eventually dedicate several works of his to Mary.
He was severely malnourished as a child and that became the cause of the decline of physical health in his later years. He had to do numerous odd jobs to make a living which ranged from being a gardener, working with Gypsies and as a lime burner.
Works of John Clare
Clare went on to marry one Patty Turner and have seven children. However, his financial condition did not improve. While he continued to do jobs of manual labour, he wrote his first work called ‘The Morning Walk’ inspired by James Thompson’s ‘Seasons’.
To receive an honest assessment, he would read out his poems to his parents under a different name and took their comments to improve his work.
His first set of verses was published as ‘Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery (1820)’. His powerful illumination of rural life while describing his desolation was unique in itself. The book became instantly popular and sold three thousand copies.
His ‘The Shepherd’s Calendar’ was also well received by the public. His last work, ‘The Rural Muse’ published in 1835 was favoured by various critics and reviewers but it was not enough to ease his financial burden.
Later life of John Clare
With the responsibility to support his wife and seven children, Clare was restricted to find multiple jobs to make ends meet. The pressure of it started to affect his mental health and resulted in alcoholism and erratic behaviour.
Eventually, his fears turned into hallucinations and in July 1837 decided to admit himself in Dr Matthew Allen’s private asylum in Epping Forest on the recommendation of his publisher and friend, John Taylor.
Clare lived at the asylum for about 4 years but feeling homesick, decided to escape in 1841. He ended up walking all the way to Northborough. He described this journey in the form of prose addressed to his imaginary wife ‘Mary Clare’.
He was certified insane the same year and was admitted to St. Andrew’s Asylum in Northampton where he spent 23 years.
Towards his final years, he became delusional and started to assume himself to be Lord Byron and Shakespeare from previous lives. Clare continued writing feverishly throughout his time at St. Andrews and that is when he wrote some of his best works such as ‘I Am’. He died of a stroke at the age of 71.
Writing Style of John Clare
Known as the ‘quintessential Romantic poet’, John Clare was a genius stuck between societal pressure and financial burdens. This made him feel alienated in his own surroundings and this desolation was poured through his writings. Although he came from a humble background with limited formal education, his writing made him stand out.
Instead of using the standardised English Grammar and orthography, he compared the rules of grammar to rules of a tyrant and refused to abide by them.