The life of John Clare, offering as it does so much opportunity for sensational contrast and unbridled distortion, became at one time (like the tragedy of Chatterton) a favourite with the quillmen. Even his serious biographers have made excessive use of light and darkness, poetry and poverty, genius and stupidity: that there should be some uncertainty about dates and incidents is no great matter, but that misrepresentations of character or of habit should be made is the fault of shallow research or worse. We have been informed, for instance, that drink was a main factor in Clare's mental collapse; that Clare "pottered in the fields feebly"; that on his income of "L45 a year … Clare thought he could live without working"; and all biographers have tallied in the melodramatic legend; "Neither wife nor children ever came to see him, except the youngest son, who came once," during his Asylum days. To these attractive exaggerations there are the best of grounds for giving the lie.
John Clare was born on the 13th of July, 1793, in a small cottage degraded in popular tradition to a mud hut of the parish of Helpston, between Peterborough and Stamford. This cottage is standing to-day, almost as it was when Clare lived there; so that those who care to do so may examine Martin's description of "a narrow wretched hut, more like a prison than a human dwelling," in face of the facts. Clare's father, a labourer named Parker Clare, was a man with his wits about him, whether educated or not; and Ann his wife is recorded to have been a woman of much natural ability and precise habits, who thought the world of her son John. Of the other children, little is known but that there were two who died young and one girl who was alive in 1824. Clare himself wrote a sonnet in the London Magazine for June, 1821, "To a Twin Sister, Who Died in Infancy."
Parker Clare, a man with some reputation as a wrestler and chosen for thrashing corn on account of his strength, sometimes shared the fate of almost all farm labourers of his day and was compelled to accept parish relief: at no time can he have been many shillings to the good: but it was his determination to have John educated to the best of his power. John Clare therefore attended a dame-school until he was seven; thence, he is believed to have gone to a day-school, where he made progress enough to receive on leaving the warm praise of the schoolmaster, and the advice to continue at a nightschool—which he did. His aim, he notes later on, was to write copperplate: but there are evidences that he learned much more than penmanship. Out of school he appears to have been a happy, imaginative child: as alert for mild mischief as the rest of the village boys, but with something solitary and romantic in his disposition. One day indeed at a very early age he went off to find the horizon; and a little later while he tended sheep and cows in his holiday-time on Helpston Common, he made friends with a curious old lady called Granny Bains, who taught him old songs and ballads. Such poems as "Childhood" and "Remembrances" prove that Clare's early life was not mere drudgery and despair. "I never had much relish for the pastimes of youth. Instead of going out on the green at the town end on winter Sundays to play football I stuck to my corner stool poring over a book; in fact, I grew so fond of being alone at last that my mother was fain to force me into company, for the neighbours had assured her mind … that I was no better than crazy…. I used to be very fond of fishing, and of a Sunday morning I have been out before the sun delving for worms in some old weed-blanketed dunghill and steering off across the wet grain … till I came to the flood-washed meadow stream…. And then the year used to be crowned with its holidays as thick as the boughs on a harvest home." It is probable that the heavy work which he is said to have done as a child was during the long holiday at harvesttime. When he was twelve or thirteen he certainly became team-leader, and in this employment he saw a farm labourer fall from the top of his loaded wagon and break his neck. For a time his reason seemed affected by the sight.
At evening-school, Clare struck up a friendship with an excise-man's son, to the benefit of both. In 1835, one of many sonnets was addressed to this excellent soul:
Turnill, we toiled together all the day,
And lived like hermits from the boys at play;
We read and walked together round the fields,
Not for the beauty that the journey yields—
But muddied fish, and bragged oer what we caught,
And talked about the few old books we bought.
Though low in price you knew their value well,
And I thought nothing could their worth excel;
And then we talked of what we wished to buy,
And knowledge always kept our pockets dry.
We went the nearest ways, and hummed a song,
And snatched the pea pods as we went along,
And often stooped for hunger on the way
To eat the sour grass in the meadow hay.
One of these "few old books" was Thomson's "Seasons", which gave a direction to the poetic instincts of Clare, already manifesting themselves in scribbled verses in his exercise-books.
Read, mark, learn as Clare might, no opportunity came for him to enter a profession. "After I had done with going to school it was proposed that I should be bound apprentice to a shoemaker, but I rather disliked this bondage. I whimpered and turned a sullen eye on every persuasion, till they gave me my will. A neighbour then offered to learn me his trade—to be a stone mason,—but I disliked this too…. I was then sent for to drive the plough at Woodcroft Castle of Oliver Cromwell memory; though Mrs. Bellairs the mistress was a kind-hearted woman, and though the place was a very good one for living, my mind was set against it from the first;… one of the disagreeable things was getting up so early in the morning … and another was getting wetshod … every morning and night—for in wet weather the moat used to overflow the cause-way that led to the porch, and as there was but one way to the house we were obliged to wade up to the knees to get in and out…. I staid here one month, and then on coming home to my parents they could not persuade me to return. They now gave up all hopes of doing any good with me and fancied that I should make nothing but a soldier; but luckily in this dilemma a next-door neighbour at the Blue Bell, Francis Gregory, wanted me to drive plough, and as I suited him, he made proposals to hire me for a year—which as it had my consent my parents readily agreed to." There he spent a year in light work with plenty of leisure for his books and his long reveries in lonely favourite places. His imagination grew intensely, and in his weekly errand to a flour-mill at Maxey ghosts rose out of a swamp and harried him till he dropped. This stage was hardly ended when one day on his road he saw a young girl named Mary Joyce, with whom he instantly fell in love. This crisis occurred when Clare was almost sixteen: the fate of John Clare hung in the balance for six months. Then Mary's father, disturbed principally by the chance that his daughter might be seen talking to this erratic youngster, put an end to their meetings. From this time, with intervals of tranquillity, Clare was to suffer the slow torture of remorse, until at length deliberately yielding himself up to his amazing imagination he held conversation with Mary, John Clare's Mary, his first wife Mary—as though she had not lived unwed, and had not been in her grave for years.
But this was not yet; and we must return to the boy Clare, now terminating his year's hiring at the Blue Bell. It was time for him to take up some trade in good earnest; accordingly, in an evil hour disguised as a fortunate one, he was apprenticed to the head gardener at Burghley Park. The head gardener was in practice a sot and a slave-driver. After much drunken wild bravado, not remarkable in the lad Clare considering his companions and traditions, there came the impulse to escape; with the result that Clare and a companion were shortly afterwards working in a nursery garden at Newark-upon-Trent. Both the nursery garden and "the silver Trent" are met again in the poems composed in his asylum days; but for the time being they meant little to him, and he suddenly departed through the snow. Arrived home at Helpston, he lost some time in finding farm work and in writing verses: sharing a loft at night with a fellow-labourer, he would rise at all hours to note down new ideas. It was not unnatural in the fellow-labourer to request him to "go and do his poeting elsewhere." Clare was already producing work of value, none the less. Nothing could be kept from his neighbours, who looked askance on his ways of thinking, and writing: while a candid friend to whom he showed his manuscripts directed his notice to the study of grammar. Troubled by these ill omens, he comforted himself in the often intoxicated friendship of the bad men of the village, who under the mellowing influences of old ale roared applause as he recited his ballads. This life was soon interrupted.
"When the country was chin-deep," Clare tells us, "in the fears of invasion, and every mouth was filled with the terror which Buonaparte had spread in other countries, a national scheme was set on foot to raise a raw army of volunteers: and to make the matter plausible a letter was circulated said to be written by the Prince Regent. I forget how many were demanded from our parish, but remember the panic which it created was very great. No great name rises in the world without creating a crowd of little mimics that glitter in borrowed rays; and no great lie was ever yet put in circulation without a herd of little lies multiplying by instinct, as it were and crowding under its wings. The papers that were circulated assured the people of England that the French were on the eve of invading it and that it was deemed necessary by the Regent that an army from eighteen to forty-five should be raised immediately. This was the great lie, and then the little lies were soon at its heels; which assured the people of Helpston that the French had invaded and got to London. And some of these little lies had the impudence to swear that the French had even reached Northampton. The people were at their doors in the evening to talk over the rebellion of '45 when the rebels reached Derby, and even listened at intervals to fancy they heard the French rebels at Northampton, knocking it down with their cannon. I never gave much credit to popular stories of any sort, so I felt no concern at these stories; though I could not say much for my valour if the tale had proved true. We had a crossgrained sort of choice left us, which was to be found, to be drawn, and go for nothing—or take on as volunteers for the bounty of two guineas. I accepted the latter and went with a neighbour's son, W. Clarke, to Peterborough to be sworn on and prepared to join the regiment at Oundle. The morning we left home our mothers parted with us as if we were going to Botany Bay, and people got at their doors to bid us farewell and greet us with a Job's comfort 'that they doubted we should see Helpston no more.' I confess I wished myself out of the matter. When we got to Oundle, the place of quartering, we were drawn out into the field, and a more motley multitude of lawless fellows was never seen in Oundle before—and hardly out of it. There were 1,300 of us. We were drawn up into a line and sorted out into companies. I was one of the shortest and therefore my station is evident. I was in that mixed multitude called the battalion, which they nicknamed 'bum-tools' for what reason I cannot tell; the light company was called 'light-bobs,' and the grenadiers 'bacon-bolters' … who felt as great an enmity against each other as ever they all felt against the French."
In 1813 he read among other things the "Eikon Basilike," and turned his hand to odd jobs as they presented themselves. His life appears to have been comfortable and a little dull for a year or two; flirtation, verse-making, ambitions and his violin took their turns amiably enough! At length he went to work in a lime-kiln several miles from Helpston, and wrote only less poems than he read: one day in the autumn of 1817, he was dreaming yet new verses when he first saw "Patty," his wife-to-be. She was then eighteen years old, and modestly beautiful; for a moment Clare forgot Mary Joyce, and though "the courtship ultimately took a more prosaic turn," there is no denying the fact that he was in love with "Patty" Turner, the daughter of the small farmer who held Walkherd Lodge. In the case of Clare, poetry was more than ever as time went on autobiography; and it is noteworthy that among the many love lyrics addressed to Mary Joyce there are not wanting affectionate tributes to his faithful wife Patty.
Maid of Walkherd, meet again,
By the wilding in the glen….
And I would go to Patty's cot
And Patty came to me;
Each knew the other's very thought
Under the hawthorn tree….
And I'll be true for Patty's sake
And she'll be true for mine;
And I this little ballad make,
To be her valentine.
Not long after seeing Patty, Clare was informed by the owner of the lime-kiln that his wages would now be seven shillings a week, instead of nine. He therefore left this master and found similar work in the village of Pickworth, where being presented with a shoemaker's bill for L3, he entered into negotiations with a Market Deeping bookseller regarding "Proposals for publishing by subscription a Collection of Original Trifles on Miscellaneous Subjects, Religious and Moral, in verse, by John Clare, of Helpstone." Three hundred proposals were printed, with a specimen sonnet well chosen to intrigue the religious and moral; and yet the tale of intending subscribers stood adamantly at seven. On the face of it, then, Clare had lost one pound; had worn himself out with distributing his prospectuses; and further had been discharged from the lime-kiln for doing so in working hours. His ambitions, indeed, set all employers and acquaintances against him; and he found himself at the age of twenty-five compelled to ask for parish relief. In this extremity, even the idea of enlisting once more crossed his brain; then, that of travelling to Yorkshire for employment: and at last, the prospectus which had done him so much damage turned benefactor. With a few friends Clare was drinking success to his goose-chase when there appeared two "real gentlemen" from Stamford. One of these, a bookseller named Drury, had chanced on the prospectus, and wished to see more of Clare's poetry. Soon afterwards, he promised to publish a selection, with corrections; and communicated with his relative, John Taylor, who with his partner Hessey managed the well-known publishing business in Fleet Street. While this new prospect was opening upon Clare, he succeeded in obtaining work once more, near the home of Patty; their love-making proceeded, despite the usual thunderstorms, and the dangerous rivalry of a certain dark lady named Betty Sell. The bookseller Drury, though his appearance was in such critical days timely for Clare, was not a paragon of virtue. Without Clare's knowing it, he acquired the legal copyright of the poems, probably by the expedient of dispensing money at convenient times—a specious philanthropy, as will be shown. At the same time he allowed Clare to open a book account, which proved at length to be no special advantage. And further, with striking astuteness, he found constant difficulty in returning originals. In a note written some ten years later, Clare regrets that "Ned Drury has got my early vol. of MSS. I lent it him at first, but like all my other MSS. elsewhere I could never get it again…. He has copies of all my MSS. except those written for the 'Shepherd's Calendar.'" Nevertheless, through Drury, Clare was enabled to meet his publisher Taylor and his influential friend of the Quarterly, Octavius Gilchrist, before the end of 1819.
By 1818, there is no doubt, Clare had read very deeply, and even had some idea of the classical authors through translations. It is certain that he knew the great English writers, probable that he possessed their works. What appears to be a list of books which he was anxious to sell in his hardest times includes some curious titles, with some familiar ones. There are Cobb's Poems, Fawke's Poems, Broom's, Mrs. Hoole's, and so on; there are also Cowley's Works—Folio, Warton's "Milton," Waller, and a Life of Chatterton; nor can he have been devoid of miscellaneous learning after the perusal of Watson's "Electricity," Aristotle's Works, Gasse's "Voyages," "Nature Display'd," and the European Magazine ("fine heads and plates"). His handwriting at this time was bold and hasty; his opinions, to judge from his uncompromising notes to Drury respecting the text of the poems, almost cynical and decidedly his own. Tact was essential if you would patronize Clare: you might broaden his opinions, but you dared not assail them. Thus the friendly Gilchrist, a high churchman, hardly set eyes on Clare before condemning Clare's esteem for a dissenting minister, a Mr. Holland, who understood the poet and the poetry: it was some time before Gilchrist set eyes on Clare again.
The year 1820 found Clare unemployed once more, but the said Mr. Holland arrived before long with great news. "In the beginning of January," Clare briefly puts it, "my poems were published after a long anxiety of nearly two years and all the Reviews, except Phillips' waste paper magazine, spoke in my favour." Most assuredly they did. The literary world, gaping for drouth, had seen an announcement, then an account of "John Clare, an agricultural labourer and poet," during the previous autumn; the little cloud, no bigger than a man's hand, in a little while seemed to usurp the whole sky—or in other terms, three editions of "Poems Descriptiveof Rural Life and Scenery" were sold between January 16 and the last of March. While this fever was raging among the London coteries, critical, fashionable, intellectual, even the country folk round Helpston came to the conclusion that Clare was something of a phenomenon. "In the course of the publication," says Clare, "I had ventured to write to Lord Milton to request leave that the volume might be dedicated to him; but his Lordship was starting into Italy and forgot to answer it. So it was dedicated to nobody, which perhaps might be as well. As soon as it was out, my mother took one to Milton; when his Lordship sent a note to tell me to bring ten more copies. On the following Sunday I went, and after sitting awhile in the servants' hall (where I could eat or drink nothing for thought), his Lordship sent for me, and instantly explained the reasons why he did not answer my letter, in a quiet unaffected manner which set me at rest. He told me he had heard of my poems by Parson Mossop (of Helpston), who I have since heard took hold of every opportunity to speak against my success or poetical abilities before the book was published, and then, when it came out and others praised it, instantly turned round to my side. Lady Milton also asked me several questions, and wished me to name any book that was a favourite; expressing at the same time a desire to give me one. But I was confounded and could think of nothing. So I lost the present. In fact, I did not like to pick out a book for fear of seeming over-reaching on her kindness, or else Shakespeare was at my tongue's end. Lord Fitzwilliam, and Lady Fitzwilliam too, talked to me and noticed me kindly, and his Lordship gave me some advice which I had done well perhaps to have noticed better than I have. He bade me beware of booksellers and warned me not to be fed with promises. On my departure they gave me a handful of money—the most that I had ever possessed in my life together. I almost felt I should be poor no more—there was L17." Such is Clare's description of an incident which has been rendered in terms of insult. Other invitations followed, the chief practical result being an annuity of fifteen pounds promised by the Marquis of Exeter. Men of rank and talent wrote letters to Clare, or sent him books: some found their way to Helpston, and others sent tracts to show him the way to heaven. And now at last Clare was well enough off to marry Patty, before the birth of their first child, Anna Maria.
Before his marriage, probably, Clare was desired to spend a few days with his publisher Taylor in London. In smock and gaiters he felt most uncertain of himself and borrowed a large overcoat from Taylor to disguise his dress: over and above this question of externals, he instinctively revolted against being exhibited. Meeting Lord Radstock, sometime admiral in the Royal Navy, at dinner in Taylor's house, Clare gained a generous if somewhat religiose friend, with the instant result that he found himself "trotting from one drawing-room to the other." He endured this with patience, thinking possibly of the cat killed by kindness; and incidentally Radstock introduced him to the strangely superficial-genuine lady Mrs. Emmerson, who was to be a faithful, thoughtful friend to his family for many years to come. In another direction, soon after Clare's return to Helpston, the retired admiral did him a great service, opening a private subscription list for his benefit: it was found possible to purchase "L250 Navy 5 Per Cents" on the 28th April and a further "L125 Navy 5 Per Cents" a month or so later. This stock, held by trustees, yielded Clare a dividend of L18 15s. at first, but in 1823 this income dwindled to L15 15s.; and by 1832 appears to have fallen to L13 10s. To the varying amount thus derived, and to the L15 given yearly by the Marquis of Exeter, a Stamford doctor named Bell—one of Clare's most energetic admirers—succeeded in adding another annuity of L10 settled upon the poet by Lord Spencer. But in the consideration of these bounties, it is just to examine the actual financial effect of Clare's first book. The publishers' own account, furnished only through Clare's repeated demands in 1829 or thereabouts, has a sobering tale to tell: but so far no biographer has condescended to examine it.
On the first edition Clare got nothing. Against him is entered the item "Cash paid Mr. Clare for copyright p. Mr. Drury … L20"; but this money if actually paid had been paid in 1819. Against him also is charged a curious "Commission 5 p. Cent… L8 12s.," while Drury and Taylor acknowledge sharing profits of L26 odd.
On the second and third editions Clare got nothing; but to his account
is charged the L100 which Taylor and Hessey "subscribed" to his fund.
"Commission," "Advertising," "Sundries," and "Deductions allowed to
Agents," account for a further L51 of the receipts: and Drury and
Taylor ostensibly take over L30 apiece.
The fourth edition not being exhausted, the account is not closed: but "Advertising" has already swollen to L30, and there is no sign that Clare benefits a penny piece. Small wonder that at the foot of these figures he has written, "How can this be? I never sold the poems for any price—what money I had of Drury was given me on account of profits to be received—but here it seems I have got nothing and am brought in minus twenty pounds of which I never received a sixpence—or it seems that by the sale of these four thousand copies I have lost that much—and Drury told me that 5,000 copies had been printed tho' 4,000 only are accounted for." Had Clare noticed further an arithmetical discrepancy which apparently shortened his credit balance by some L27, he might have been still more sceptical.
Not being overweighted, therefore, with instant wealth, Clare returned to Helpston determined to continue his work in the fields. But fame opposed him: all sorts and conditions of Lydia Whites, Leo Hunters, Stigginses, and Jingles crowded to the cottage, demanding to see the Northamptonshire Peasant, and often wasting hours of his time. One day, for example, "the inmates of a whole boarding-school, located at Stamford, visited the unhappy poet"; and even more congenial visitors who cheerfully hurried him off to the tavern parlour were the ruin of his work. Yet he persevered, writing his poems only in his leisure, until the harvest of 1820 was done; then in order to keep his word with Taylor, who had agreed to produce a new volume in the spring of 1821, he spent six months in the most energetic literary labour. Writing several poems a day as he roamed the field or sat in Lea Close Oak, he would sit till late in the night sifting, recasting and transcribing. His library, by his own enterprise and by presents from many friends, was greatly enlarged, and he already knew not only the literature of the past, but also that of the present. In his letters to Taylor are mentioned his appreciations of Keats, "Poor Keats, you know how I reverence him," Shelley, Hunt, Lamb—and almost every other contemporary classic. Nor was he afraid to criticize Scott with freedom in a letter to Scott's friend Sherwell: remarking also that Wordworth's Sonnet on Westminster Bridge had no equal in the language, but disagreeing with "his affected godliness."
Taylor and Hessey for their part did not seem over-anxious to produce the new volume of poems, perhaps because Clare would not allow any change except in the jots and tittles of his work, perhaps thinking that the public had had a surfeit of sensation. At length in the autumn of 1821 the "Village Minstrel" made its appearance, in two volumes costing twelve shillings; with the bait of steel engravings,—the first, an unusually fine likeness of Clare from the painting by Hilton; the second, an imaginative study of Clare's cottage, not without representation of the Blue Bell, the village cross and the church. The book was reviewed less noisily, and a sale of a mere 800 copies in two months was regarded as "a very modified success." Meanwhile, Clare was writing for theLondon Magazine, and Cherry tells us that "as he contributed almost regularly for some time, a substantial addition was made to his income." Clare tells us, in a note on a cash account dated 1827, "In this cash account there is nothing allowed me for my three years' writing for the London Magazine. I was to have L12 a year."
To insist in the financial affairs of Clare may seem blatant, or otiose: actually, the treatment which he underwent was a leading influence in his career. He was grateful enough to Radstock for raising a subscription fund; he may have been grateful to Taylor and Hessey for subscribing L100 of his own money; but what hurt and embittered him was to see this sum and the others invested for him under trustees. Indeed, what man would not, if possessed of any independence of mind, strongly oppose such namby-pamby methods? It is possible to take a more sinister view of Taylor and Hessey and their reluctance ever to provide Clare with a statement of account; but in the matter of Clare's funded property folly alone need be considered.
In October 1821, notably, Clare saw an excellent opportunity for the future of his family. A small freehold of six or seven acres with a pleasant cottage named Bachelor's Hall, where Clare had spent many an evening in comfort and even in revelry, was mortgaged to a Jew for two hundred pounds; the tenants offered Clare the whole property on condition that he paid off the mortgage. Small holdings were rare in that district of great landowners, and this to Clare was the chance of a lifetime. He applied therefore to Lord Radstock for two hundred pounds from his funded property; Radstock replied that "the funded property was vested in trustees who were restricted to paying the interest to him." It would have been, thought Clare, no difficult matter for Radstock to have advanced me that small amount; and he rightly concluded that his own strength of character and common sense were distrusted by his patrons. Not overwhelmed by this, he now applied to his publisher Taylor, offering to sell his whole literary output for five years at the price of two hundred pounds. Taylor was not enthusiastic. These writings, he urged, might be worth more, or might be worth less; in the first case Clare, in the second himself would lose on the affair; besides, there were money-lenders and legal niceties to beware of; let not Clare "be ambitious but remain in the state in which God had placed him." Thus the miserable officiousness went on, and if Clare for a time found some comfort in the glass who can blame him? In his own words, "for enemies he cared nothing, from his friends he had much to fear." He was "thrown back among all the cold apathy of killing kindness that had numbed him … for years."
In May, 1822, Clare spent a brief holiday in London, meeting there the strong men of the London Magazine, Lamb, Hood, and therest. From his clothes, the London group called him The Green Man; Lamb took a singular interest in him, and was wont to address him as "Clarissimus" and "Princely Clare." Another most enthusiastic acquaintance was a painter named Rippingille, who had begun life as the son of a farmer at King's Lynn, and who was now thoroughly capable of taking Clare into the most Bohemian corners of London. Suddenly, however, news came from Helpston recalling the poet from these perambulations, and he returned in haste, to find his second daughter born, Eliza Louisa, god-child of Mrs. Emmerson and Lord Radstock.
At this time, Clare appears to have been writing ballads of a truly rustic sort, perhaps in the light of his universal title, The Northamptonshire Peasant Poet. He would now, moreover, collect such old ballads and songs as his father and mother or those who worked with him might chance to sing; but was often disappointed to find that "those who knew fragments seemed ashamed to acknowledge it … and those who were proud of their knowledge in such things knew nothing but the senseless balderdash that is brawled over and sung at country feasts, statutes, and fairs, where the most senseless jargon passes for the greatest excellence, and rudest indecency for the finest wit." None the less he recovered sufficient material to train himself into the manner of these "old and beautiful recollections." But whatever he might write or edit, he was unlikely to find publishers willing to bring out. The "Village Minstrel" had barely passed the first thousand, and the "second edition" was not melting away. Literature after all was not money, and to increase Clare's anxiety and dilemma came illness. In the early months of 1823, he made a journey to Stamford to ask the help of his old friend Gilchrist.
Gilchrist was already in the throes of his last sickness, and Clare took his leave without a word of his own difficulties. Arriving home, he fell into a worse illness than before; but as the spring came on he rallied, and occasionally walked to Stamford to call on his friend, who likewise seemed beginning to mend. On the 30th of June, Clare was received with the news "Mr. Gilchrist is dead." Clare relapsed into a curious condition which appeared likely to overthrow his life or his reason when Taylor most fortunately came to see him, and procured him the best doctor in Peterborough. This doctor not only baffled Clare's disease, but, rousing attention wherever he could in the neighbourhood, was able to provide him with good food and even some old port from the cellar of the Bishop of Peterborough.
At last on the advice of the good doctor and the renewed invitation of Taylor, Clare made a third pilgrimage to London, and this time stayed from the beginning of May till the middle of July, 1824. Passing the first three weeks in peaceful contemplation of London crowds, he was well enough then to attend a London Magazine dinner, where De Quincey swam into his ken, and the next week a similar gathering where Coleridge talked for three hours. Clare sat next to Charles Elton and gained a staunch friend, who shortly afterwards sent him a letter in verse with a request that he should sit to Rippingille for his portrait:
His touch will, hue by hue, combine
Thy thoughtful eyes, that steady shine,
The temples of Shakesperian line,
The quiet smile.
To J. H. Reynolds he seemed "a very quiet and worthy yet enthusiastic man." George Darley, too, was impressed by Clare the man, and for some time was to be one of the few serious critics of Clare the poet. Allan Cunningham showed a like sympathy and a still more active interest. A less familiar character, the journalist Henry Van Dyk, perhaps did Clare more practical good than either.
With these good effects of Clare's third visit to town, another may be noted. A certain Dr. Darling attended him throughout, and persuaded him to give up drink; this he did. The real trouble at Helpston was to discover employment, for already Clare was supporting his wife, his father and mother, and three young children. Farmers were unwilling to employ Clare, indeed insulted him if he applied to them: and his reticence perhaps lost him situations in the gardens of the Marquis of Exeter, and then of the Earl Fitzwilliam.
In spite of disappointments, he wrote almost without pause, sometimes making poems in the manner of elder poets (with the intention of mild literary forgery), sometimes writing in his normal vein for the lately announced "New Shepherd's Calendar"; and almost daily preparing two series of articles, on natural history and on British birds. A curious proof of the facility with which he wrote verse is afforded by the great number of rhymed descriptions of birds, their nests and eggs which this period produced: as though he sat down resolved to write prose notes and found his facts running into metre even against his will. As if not yet embroiled in schemes enough, Clare planned and began a burlesque novel, an autobiography, and other prose papers: while he kept a diary which should have been published. Clare had been forced into a literary career, and no one ever worked more conscientiously or more bravely. Those who had at first urged him to write can scarcely be acquitted of desertion now: but the more and the better Clare wrote, the less grew the actual prospect of production, success and independence.
On the 9th of March, 1825, Clare wrote in his diary: "I had a very odd dream last night, and take it as an ill omen … I thought I had one of the proofs of the new poems from London, and after looking at it awhile it shrank through my hands like sand, and crumbled into dust." Three days afterwards, the proof of the "Shepherd's Calendar" arrived at Helpston. The ill omen was to be proved true, but not yet. Clare continued to write and to botanize, and being already half-forgotten by his earlier friends was contented with the company of two notable local men, Edward Artis the archaeologist who discovered ancient Durobrivae, and Henderson who assisted Clare in his nature-work. These two pleasant companions were in the service of Earl Fitzwilliam. It was perhaps through their interest that Clare weathered the hardships of 1825 so well; and equally, although the "Shepherd's Calendar" seemed suspended, did Clare's old patron Radstock endeavour to keep his spirits up, writing repeatedly to the publisher in regard to Clare's account. The hope of a business agreement was destroyed by the sudden death of Radstock, "the best friend," says Clare, "I have met with."
Not long after this misfortune, Clare returned to field work for the period of harvest, then through the winter concentrated his energy on his poetry. Nor was poetry his only production, for through his friend Van Dyk he was enabled to contribute prose pieces to the London press. In June, 1826, his fourth child was born, and Clare entreated Taylor to bring out the "Shepherd's Calendar," feeling that he might at least receive money enough for the comfort of his wife and his baby; but Taylor felt otherwise, recommending Clare to write for the annuals which now began to flourish. This Clare at last persuaded himself to do. Payment was tardy, and in some cases imaginary; and for the time being the annuals were not the solution of his perplexities. He therefore went back to the land; and borrowing the small means required rented at length a few acres, with but poor results.
The publication of Clare's first book had been managed with excellent strategy; Taylor had left nothing to chance, and the public responded as he had planned. The independence of Clare may have displeased the publisher; at any rate, his enthusiasm dwindled, and further to jeopardize Clare's chances it occurred that in 1825 Taylor and Hessey came to an end, the partners separating. Omens were indeed bad for the "Shepherd's Calendar" which, two years after its announcement, in June, 1827, made its unobtrusive appearance. There were very few reviews, and the book sold hardly at all. Yet this was conspicuously finer work than Clare had done before. Even "that beautiful frontispiece of De Wint's," as Taylor wrote, did not attract attention. The forgotten poet, slaving at his small-holding, found that his dream had come true. Meanwhile Allan Cunningham had been inquiring into this non-success, and early in 1828 wrote to Clare urging him to come to London and interview the publisher. An invitation from Mrs. Emmerson made thevisit possible. Once more then did Clare present himself at 20, Stratford Place, and find his "sky chamber" ready to receive him. Nor did he allow long time to elapse before finding out Allan Cunningham, who heartily approved of his plan to call on Taylor, telling him to request a full statement of account. The next day, when Clare was on the point of making the demand, Taylor led across the trail with an unexpected offer; recommending Clare to buy the remaining copies of his "Shepherd's Calendar" from him at half-a-crown each, that he might sell them in his own district. Clare asked time to reflect. A week later, against the wish of Allan Cunningham, he accepted the scheme.
Clare had had another object in coming to town. Dr. Darling had done him so much good on a previous occasion that he wished to consult him anew. On the 25th of February, 1828, Clare wrote to his wife: "Mr. Emmerson's doctor, a Mr. Ward, told me last night that there was little or nothing the matter with me—and yet I got no sleep the whole of last night." Already, it appears, had coldness and dilemma unsettled him. That they had not subdued him, and that his home life was in the main happy and affectionate, and of as great an importance to him as any of his aspirations, is to be judged from his poems and his letters of 1828 and thereabouts. They show him as the very opposite of the feeble neurotic who has so often been beworded under his name:
20, STRATFORD PLACE, March 21st, 1828.
MY DEAR PATTY,
I have been so long silent that I feel ashamed of it, but I have been so much engaged that I really have not had time to write; and the occasion of my writing now is only to tell you that I shall be at home next week for certain.—I am anxious to see you and the children and I sincerely hope you are all well. I have bought the dear little creatures four books, and Henry Behnes has promised to send Frederick a wagon and horses as a box of music is not to be had. The books I have bought them are "Puss-in-Boots," "Cinderella," "Little Rhymes," and "The Old Woman and Pig"; tell them that the pictures are all coloured, and they must make up their minds to chuse which they like best ere I come home.—Mrs. Emmerson desires to be kindly remembered to you, and intends sending the children some toys. I hope next Wednesday night at furthest will see me in my old corner once again amongst you. I have made up my mind to buy Baxter "The History of Greece," which I hope will suit him. I have been poorly, having caught cold, and have been to Dr. Darling. I would have sent you some money which I know you want, but as I am coming home so soon I thought it much safer to bring it home myself than send it; and as this is only to let you know that I am coming home, I shall not write further than hoping you are all well—kiss the dear children for me all round—give my remembrances to all—and believe me, my dear Patty,
Yours most affectionately,
During this stay in London, Clare had had proofs that his poems were not completely overlooked. Strangers, recognizing him from the portrait in the "Village Minstrel," often addressed him in the street. In this way he first met Alaric A. Watts, and Henry Behnes, the sculptor, who induced Clare to sit to him. The result was a strong, intensely faithful bust (preserved now in the Northampton Free Library). Hilton, who had painted Clare in water-colours and in oils, celebrated with Behnes and Clare the modelling of this bust, all three avoiding a dinner of lions arranged by Mrs. Emmerson. On another occasion, Clare found a congenial spirit in William Hone.
But now Clare is home at Helpston, ready with a sack of poetry to tramp from house to house and try his luck. Sometimes he dragged himself thirty miles a day, meeting rectors who "held it unbecoming to see poems hawked about": one day, having walked seven milesinto Peterborough, and having sold no books anywhere, he trudged home to find Patty in the pains of labour; and now had to go back to Peterborough as fast as he might for a doctor. Now there were nine living beings dependent on Clare. At length he altered his plan of campaign, and advertised that his poems could be had at his cottage, with some success. About this time Clare was invited to write for "The Spirit of the Age," and still he supplied brief pieces to the hated but unavoidable annuals. Letters too from several towns in East Anglia, summoning John Clare with his bag of books, at least promised him some slight revenue; actually he only went to one of these places, namely Boston, where the mayor gave a banquet in his honour, and enabled him to sell several volumes—autographed. Among the younger men, a similar feast was proposed; but Clare declined, afterwards reproaching himself bitterly on discovering that they had hidden ten pounds in his wallet. On his return home not only himself but the rest of the family in turn fell ill with fever, so that the spring of 1829 found Clare out of work and faced with heavy doctor's-bills.
Intellectually, John Clare was in 1828 and 1829 probably at his zenith. He had ceased long since to play the poetic ploughman; he had gained in his verses something more ardent and stirring than he had shown in the "Shepherd's Calendar"; and the long fight (for it was nothing less) against leading-strings and obstruction now began to manifest itself in poems of regret and of soliloquy. Having long written for others' pleasure, he now wrote for his own nature.
I would not wish the burning blaze
Of fame around a restless world,
The thunder and the storm of praise
In crowded tumults heard and hurled.
There had been few periods of mental repose since 1820. His brain and his poetic genius, by this long discipline and fashioning, were now triumphant together. The declension from this high estate might have been more abrupt but for the change in his fortunes. He had again with gentleness demanded his accounts from his publisher, and when in August, 1829, these accounts actually arrived, disputed several points and gained certain concessions: payment was made from the editors of annuals; and with these reliefs came the chance for him to rent a small farm and to work on the land of Earl Fitzwilliam. His working hours were long, and his mind was forced to be idle. This salutary state of affairs lasted through 1830, until happiness seemed the only possibility before him. What poems he wrote occurred suddenly and simply to him. His children—now six in number—were growing up in more comfort and in more prospect than he had ever enjoyed. But he reckoned not with illness.
In short, illness reduced Clare almost to skin-and-bone. Farming not only added nothing but made encroachment on his small stipend. In despair he flung himself into field labour again, and was carried home nearly dead with fever. Friends there were not wanting to send food and medicine; Parson Mossop, having long ago been converted to Clare, did much for him. Even so the landlord distrained for rent, and Clare applied to his old friend Henderson the botanist at Milton Park. Lord Milton came by and Clare was encouraged to tell him his trouble; his intense phrases and bearing were such that the nobleman at once promised him a new cottage and a plot of ground. At the same time, he expressed his hope that there would soon be another volume of poems by John Clare. This hope was the spark which fired a dangerous train, perhaps; for Clare once again fell into his exhausting habit of poetry all the day and every day. He decided to publish a new volume by subscription.
The new cottage was in the well-orcharded village of Northborough, three miles from Helpston. It was indeed luxurious in comparison with the old stooping house where Clare had spent nearly forty years, but there was more in that old house than mere stone and timber. Clare began to look on the coming change with terror; delayed the move day after day, to the distress of poor Patty; and when at last news came from Milton Park that the Earl was not content with such strange hesitation, and when Patty had her household on the line of march, he "followed in the rear, walking mechanically, with eyes half shut, as if in a dream." There was no delay in his self-expression.
I've left mine own old home of homes,
Green fields and every pleasant place;
The summer like a stranger comes;
I pause and hardly know her face.
I miss the hazel's happy green,
The bluebell's quiet hanging blooms,
Where envy's sneer was never seen,
Where staring malice never comes.
This and many other verses, not the least pathetic in our language, were written by John Clare on June 20th, 1832, on the occasion of his moving out of a small and crowded cottage in a village street to a roomy, romantic farmhouse standing in its own grounds. Was this ingratitude? ask rather, is the dyer's hand subdued to what it works in?
Clare rapidly proceeded with his new collection of poems, destined never to appear in his lifetime. In a thick oblong blank-book, divided into four sections to receive Tales in Verse, Poems, Ballads and Songs, and Sonnets, he copied his best work in a hand small but clear, and with a rare freedom from slips of the pen. His proposals, reprinted with a warm-hearted comment in theAthenaeum of 1832, were in these terms:
The proposals for publishing these fugitives being addressed to friends no further apology is necessary than the plain statement of facts. Necessity is said to be the mother of invention, but there is very little need of invention for truth; and the truth is, that difficulty has grown up like a tree of the forest, and being no longer able to conceal it, I meet it in the best way possible by attempting to publish them for my own benefit and that of a numerous and increasing family. It were false delicacy to make an idle parade of independence in my situation, and it would be unmanly to make a troublesome appeal to favours, public or private, like a public petitioner. Friends neither expect this from me, or wish me to do it to others, though it is partly owing to such advice that I was induced to come forward with these proposals, and if they are successful they will render me a benefit, and if not they will not cancel any obligations that I may have received from friends, public and private, to whom my best wishes are due, and having said this much in furtherance of my intentions, I will conclude by explaining them.
Proposals for publishing in 1 volume, F.c. 8vo, The Midsummer Cushion, or Cottage Poems, by John Clare.
1st. The Book will be printed on fine paper, and published as soon as a sufficient number of subscribers are procured to defray the expense of publishing.
2nd. It will consist of a number of fugitive trifles, some of which have appeared in different periodicals, and of others that have never been published.
3rd. No money is requested until the volume shall be delivered, free of expense, to every subscriber.
4th. The price will not exceed seven shillings and sixpence, and it may not be so much, as the number of pages and the expense of the book will be regulated by the Publisher.
In his new home Clare was for a time troubled with visitors; to most he was aloof, but sometimes he spoke freely of his affairs. One visitor who found him in the communicative mood chanced to be the editor of a magazine, The Alfred. The denials of Clare, frankly given to rumours of his new benefits (variously estimated between two hundred and a thousand a year), were to this gentleman as meat and drink; and The Alfred for October the 5th, 1832, contained a violent manifesto condemning publishers and patrons in the most fiery fashion and apparently inspired by the poet himself. This did his cause much damage, and Clare wrote to the perpetrator in anger: "There never was a more scandalous insult to my feelings than this officious misstatement…. I am no beggar; for my income is L36, and though I have had no final settlement with Taylor, I expect to have one directly." Clare ended by demanding a recantation. None was forthcoming, and the effect on patrons and poet was unfortunate indeed. Yet still he could write of himself in this uncoloured style: "I am ready to laugh with you at my own vanity. For I sit sometimes and wonder over the little noise I have made in the world, until I think I have written nothing yet to deserve any praise at all. So the spirit of fame, of living a little after life like a noise on a conspicuous place, urges my blood upward into unconscious melodies; and striding down my orchard and homestead I hum and sing inwardly these little madrigals, and then go in and pen them down, thinking them much better things than they are—until I look over them again. And then the charm vanishes into the vanity that I shall do something better ere I die; and so, in spite of myself, I rhyme on and write nothing but little things at last."
With the gear that Mrs. Emmerson's kindness and activity had provided, Clare kept his garden and ground in order; yet the winter of 1832 was a time of great hardship and foreboding. His youngest son Charles was born on the 4th of January, 1833; the event shook Clare's nerve more terribly perhaps than anything before had done and he went out into the fields. Late in the day his daughter Anna found him lying unconscious, and for a month he had to keep his bed. As if to prove the proverb "It never rains but it pours," subscribers to his new volume hung back, and when spring had come they numbered in all forty-nine. Clare submitted the work to the publishers, great and small, but the best offer that he got depended on his providing in advance L100 for the necessary steel engravings. And now Clare lost all his delight in lonely walks, but sitting in his study wrote curious paraphrases of "the Psalms, the Proverbs, and the Book of Job." His manner towards those round him became apathetic and silent. Even the news brought by his doctor—who prescribed Clare to his other patients—that subscribers now were more than two hundred, seemed to sound meaningless in his ears. But even these danger-signs seemed discounted by the self-command and cheerfulness which Clare soon afterwards regained; and ashamed of his misjudgment, Dr. Smith came to the conclusion that he need visit Clare no more. An attack of insanity immediately followed, during which Clare did not know his wife, his children or himself.
From this heavy trance he awoke, bitterly aware of his peril. He wrote at once to Taylor, again and again. "You must excuse my writing; but I feel that if I do not write now I shall not be able. What I wish is to get under Dr. Darling's advice, or to have his advice to go somewhere; for I have not been from home this twelve-month, and cannot get anywhere." … "If I could but go to London, I think I should get better. How would you advise me to come? I dare not come up by myself. Do you think one of my children might go with me?… Thank God my wife and children are all well." Taylor wrote once in mildly sympathetic words, but probably thought that Clare was making much ado about nothing. And here at least was the opportunity for a patron to save a poet from death-in-life for five pounds. Nothing was done, and Clare sat in his study, writing more and more paraphrases of the Old Testament, together with series of sonnets of a grotesque, rustic sort, not resembling any other poems in our language.
The "Midsummer Cushion" had been set aside, but Clare had submitted many of the poems together with hundreds more to Messrs. Whittaker. Largely through the recommendations of Mr. Emmerson, the publishers decided to print a volume from these, picking principally those poems which had already shown themselves respectable by appearing in the annuals. One even written in 1820, "The Autumn Robin," was somehow chosen, to the exclusion of such later poems as "Remembrances" and "The Fallen Elm." With faults like these, the selection was nevertheless a distinctly beautiful book of verse. In March, 1834, Clare definitely received forty pounds for the copyright, and finally in July, 1835, appeared this his last book, "The Rural Muse." Its success was half-hearted, in spite of a magnificent eulogy by Christopher North in Blackwood's, and of downright welcome by the Athenaeum, the New Monthly and other good judges. There was a slow sale for several months, but for Clare there was little chance of new remuneration. This he could regard calmly, for while the book was in the press he had received from the Literary Fund a present of fifty pounds.
Clare's malady slowly increased. The exact history of this decline is almost lost, yet we may well believe that the death of his mother on the 18th of December, 1835, was a day of double blackness for him. The winter over, Patty made a great fight for his reason, and at last persuaded him to go out for walks, which checked the decline. Now he became so passionately fond of being out-of-doors that "he could not be made to stop a single day at home." In one of these roving walks he met his old friend Mrs. Marsh, the wife of the Bishop of Peterborough. A few nights later as her guest he sat in the Peterborough theatre watching the "Merchant of Venice." So vivid was his imagination—for doubtless the strolling players were not in themselves convincing—that he at last began to shout at Shylock and try to attack him on the stage. When Clare returned to Helpston, the change in him terrified his wife. And yet, he rallied and walked the fields, and sitting on the window-seat taught his sons to trim the two yew-trees in his garden into old-fashioned circles and cones. The positive signs of derangement which he had given so far were not after all conclusive. He had seen Mary Joyce pass by, he had spoken to her, occasionally he as a third person had watched and discussed the doings of John Clare and this lost sweetheart. He had surprised one or two people by calling mole-hills mountains. One day, too, at Parson Mossop's house he had suddenly pointed to figures moving up and down. Under these circumstances, a Market Deeping doctor named Skrimshaw certified him mad; and on similar grounds almost any one in the world might be clapped into an asylum.
Hallucinations ceased for a few months, but Mrs. Clare had difficulty in keeping outside interference at bay. Earl Fitzwilliam, in his position of landlord, proposed to send the man who called mole-hills mountains at once to the Northampton Asylum. When the summer came, unfortunately, Clare's mind seemed suddenly to give way, and preparations were being made for his admission to the county Asylum when letters came from Taylor and other old friends in London, proposing to place him in private hands. Clare was taken accordingly on the 16th of July, 1837, to Fair Mead House, Highbeach, in Epping Forest.
Dr. Allen, the mild broad-minded founder of this excellent asylum, had few doubts as to the condition of Clare's mind, and assured him an eventual recovery. As with the fifty other patients, so he dealt with Clare: keeping him away from books, and making him work in the garden and the fields. Poetry, it is said, was made impossible for him, paper being taken away from him; but it is not conceivable that Clare could live apart from this kindest of companions for many months together. Soon he was allowed to go out into the forest at his will, often taking his new acquaintance Thomas Campbell, the son of the poet, on these wood-rambles. His hallucinations do not appear to have diminished, although they changed. He was now convinced that Mary Joyce was his true wife—Patty was his "second wife." He had known William Shakespeare, and many other great ones in person. Why such men as Wordsworth, Campbell and Byron were allowed to steal John Clare's best poems and to publish them as their own, he could not imagine. John Clare was not only noble by nature but by blood also.—On such rumoured eccentricities did the popular notion of his madness rest. It would seem that anything he said was taken down in evidence against him. How dared he be figurative?
On the other hand, Miss Mitford records figurative conversations not so easily explained; his eye-witness's account of the execution of Charles the First, "the most graphic and minute, with an accuracy as to costume and manners far exceeding what would probably have been at his command if sane," and his seaman's narrative of the battle of the Nile and the death of Nelson in exact nautical detail. These imaginations she compares to clairvoyance. Cyrus Redding, who left three accounts of his visit, found him "no longer, as he was formerly, attenuated and pale of complexion … a little man, of muscular frame and firmly set, his complexion fresh and forehead high, a nose somewhat aquiline, and long full chin." "His manner was perfectly unembarrassed, his language correct and fluent; he appeared to possess great candour and openness of mind, and much of the temperament of genius. There was about his manner no tincture of rusticity." Once only during the conversation did Clare betray any aberration, abruptly introducing and abandoning the topic of Prize-fighting, as though "a note had got into a piece of music which had no business there."
Clare told Redding that he missed his wife and his home, the society of women, and books. At last, having been in the private asylum four years, he "returned home out of Essex" on foot, leaving Epping Forest early on July 20, 1841, and dragging himself along almost without pause until July 23. Of this amazing journey he himself wrote an account for "Mary Clare," which is printed in full in Martin's "Life": it is both in style and in subject an extraordinary document. The first night, he says, "I lay down with my head towards the north, to show myself the steering-point in the morning." On "the third day I satisfied my hunger by eating the grass on the roadside which seemed to taste something like bread. I was hungry and eat heartily till I was satisfied; in fact, the meal seemed to do me good." And "there was little to notice, for the road very often looked as stupid as myself." At last between Peterborough and Helpston "a cart met me, with a man, a woman and a boy in it. When nearing me the woman jumped out, and caught fast hold of my hands, and wished me to get into the cart. But I refused; I thought her either drunk or mad. But when I was told it was my second wife, Patty, I got in, and was soon at Northborough."
Rest and home somewhat restored Clare's mind, and it was Patty's hope and aim to keep him in his cottage. Though she attempted to keep paper from him he contrived to write verse paraphrases of the prophetical books, sometimes putting in between a song to Mary or a stanza of nature poetry. At the end of August, round the edges of a local newspaper he wrote the draft of a letter to Dr. Allen, of Highbeach, which in the almost complete absence of documents for this period is an important expression:
MY DEAR SIR,
Having left the Forest in a hurry I had not time to take my leave of you and your family, but I intended to write, and that before now. But dullness and disappointment prevented me, for I found your words true on my return here, having neither friends nor home left. But as it is called the "Poet's Cottage" I claimed a lodging in it where I now am. One of my fancies I found here with her family and all well. They met me on this side Werrington with a horse and cart, and found me all but knocked up, for I had travelled from Essex to Northamptonshire without ever eating or drinking all the way—save one pennyworth of beer which was given me by a farm servant near an odd house called "The Plough." One day I eat grass to keep on my [feet], but on the last day I chewed tobacco and never felt hungry afterwards.
Where my poetical fancy is I cannot say, for the people in the neighbourhood tell me that the one called "Mary" has been dead these eight years: but I can be miserably happy in any situation and any place and could have staid in yours on the Forest if any of my friends had noticed me or come to see me. But the greatest annoyance in such places as yours are those servants styled keepers, who often assumed as much authority over me as if I had been their prisoner; and not liking to quarrel I put up with it till I was weary of the place altogether. So I heard the voice of freedom, and started, and could have travelled to York with a penny loaf and a pint of beer; for I should not have been fagged in body, only one of my old shoes had nearly lost the sole before I started, and let in the water and silt the first day, and made me crippled and lame to the end of my journey.
I had eleven books sent me from How & Parsons, Booksellers—some lent and some given me; out of the eleven I only brought 5 vols. here, and as I don't want any part of Essex in Northamptonshire agen I wish you would have the kindness to send a servant to get them for me. I should be very thankful—not that I care about the books altogether, only it may be an excuse to see me and get me into company that I do not want to be acquainted with—one of your labourers', Pratt's, wife borrowed [ ] of Lord Byron's—and Mrs. Fish's daughter has two or three more, all Lord Byron's poems; and Mrs. King late of The Owl Public House Leppit Hill, and now of Endfield Highway, has two or three—all Lord Byron's, and one is the "Hours of Idleness."
You told me something before haytime about the Queen allowing me a yearly salary of L100, and that the first quarter had then commenced—or else I dreamed so. If I have the mistake is not of much consequence to any one save myself, and if true I wish you would get the quarter for me (if due), as I want to be independent and pay for board and lodging while I remain here. I look upon myself as a widow[er] or bachelor, I don't know which. I care nothing about the women now, for they are faithless and deceitful; and the first woman, when there was no man but her husband, found out means to cuckold him by the aid and assistance of the devil—but women being more righteous now, and men more plentiful, they have found out a more godly way to do it without the devil's assistance. And the man who possesses a woman possesses losses without gain. The worst is the road to ruin, and the best is nothing like a good Cow. Man I never did like—and woman has long sickened me. I should like to be to myself a few years and lead the life of a hermit: but even there I should wish for her whom I am always thinking of—and almost every song I write has some sighs and wishes in ink about Mary. If I have not made your head weary by reading thus far I have tired my own by writing it; so I will bid you goodbye, and am
My dear doctor
Yours very sincerely
Give my best respects to Mrs. Allen and Miss Allen, and to Dr. Stedman; also to Campbell, and Hayward, and Howard at Leopard's Hill, or in fact to any one who may think it worth while to enquire about me.
Patty worked her hardest to keep Clare out of future asylums, but it seems that her wishes were overridden. Dr. Allen let it be known through the Gentleman's Magazine and other publications that Clare would in the ordinary way almost certainly recover: but the local doctors knew better. On the authority of an anonymous "patron" the doctor Skrimshaw who had previously found Clare insane now paid him another visit, and with a certain William Page, also of Market Deeping, condemned him to be shut up "After years addicted to poetical prosings."
Then one day keepers came, and a vain struggle, and the Northborough cottage saw John Clare no more. He was now in the asylum at Northampton, and the minds of Northamptonshire noblemen need no longer be troubled that a poet was wandering in miserable happiness under their park walls.
So far, the madness of Clare had been rather an exaltation of mind than a collapse. Forsaken mainly by his friends—even Mrs. Emmerson's letters ceased in 1837,—unrecognized by the new generation of writers and of readers, hated by his neighbours, wasted with hopeless love, he had encouraged a life of imagination and ideals. Imagination overpowered him, until his perception of realities failed him. He could see Mary Joyce or talk with her, he had a family of dream-children by her: but if this was madness, there was method in it. But now the blow fell, imprisonment for life: down went John Clare into idiocy, "the ludicrous with the terrible." And even from this desperate abyss he rose.
Earl Fitzwilliam paid for Clare's maintenance in the Northampton Asylum, but at the ordinary rate for poor people. The asylum authorities at least seemed to have recognized Clare as a man out of the common, treating him as a "gentleman patient," and allowing him—for the first twelve years—to go when he wished into Northampton, where he would sit under the portico of All Saints' Church in meditation. What dreams were these! "sometimes his face would brighten up as if illuminated by an inward sun, overwhelming in its glory and beauty." Sane intervals came, in which he wrote his poems; and these poems were of a serenity and richness not surpassed in his earlier work, including for instance "Graves of Infants" (May, 1844), "The Sleep of Spring" (1844), "Invitation to Eternity" (1848) and "Clock-a-Clay" (before 1854). But little news of him went farther afield than the town of Northampton, and the poems remained in manuscript. A glimpse of Clare in these years is left us by a Mr. Jesse Hall, who as an admirer of his poems called on him in May, 1848. "As it was a very fine day, he said we could go and have a walk in the grounds of the institution. We discussed many subjects and I found him very rational, there being very little evidence of derangement…. I asked permission for him to come to my hotel the next day. We spent a few hours together. I was very sorry to find a great change in him from the previous day, and I had ample evidence of his reason being dethroned, his conversation being disconnected and many of his remarks displaying imbecility: but at times he spoke rationally and to the point." To Hall as to almost every other casual visitor Clare gave several manuscript poems.
A letter to his wife, dated July 19th, 1848, gives fresh insight into his condition:
MY DEAR WIFE,
I have not written to you a long while, but here I am in the land of Sodom where all the people's brains are turned the wrong way. I was glad to see John yesterday, and should like to have gone back with him, for I am very weary of being here. You might come and fetch me away, for I think I have been here long enough.
I write this in a green meadow by the side of the river agen Stokes Mill, and I see three of their daughters and a son now and then. The confusion and roar of mill dams and locks is sounding very pleasant while I write it, and it's a very beautiful evening; the meadows are greener than usual after the shower and the rivers are brimful. I think it is about two years since I was first sent up in this Hell and French Bastille of English liberty. Keep yourselves happy and comfortable and love one another. By and bye I shall be with you, perhaps before you expect me. There has been a great storm here with thunder and hail that did much damage to the glass in the neighbourhood. Hailstones the size of hens' eggs fell in some places. Did your brother John come to Northborough or go to Barnack? His uncle John Riddle came the next morning but did not stay. I thought I was coming home but I got cheated. I see many of your little brothers and sisters at Northampton, weary and dirty with hard work; some of them with red hands, but all in ruddy good health: some of them are along with your sister Ruth Dakken who went from Helpston a little girl. Give my love to your Mother, Grandfather and Sisters, and believe me, my dear children, hers and yours,
Life went on with little incident for Clare in the asylum. To amuse himself he read and wrote continually; in 1850 his portrait was painted, and his death reported. In 1854 he assisted Miss Baker in her "Glossary of Northamptonshire Words and Phrases," providing her with all his asylum manuscripts and specially contributing some verses on May-day customs. At this time an edition of his poems was projected, and the idea met with much interest among those who yet remembered Clare: but it faded and was gone. The "harmless lunatic" was at length confined to the asylum grounds, and to the distresses of his mind began to be added those of the ageing body. Hope even now was not dead, and a poor versifier but good Samaritan who saw him in 1857 printed some lines in the London Journal for November 2lst asking the aid of Heaven to restore Clare to his home and his poetry (for he seems to have written little at that time); a gentleman who was in a position to judge wrote also that in the spring of 1860 his mind was calmer than it had been for years, and that he was induced to write verses once more. But Clare was sixty-seven years old; it was perhaps too late to release him, and perhaps he had grown past the desire of liberty. On the 7th of March he wrote to Patty, asking after all his children and some of his friends, and sending his love to his father and mother (so long since dead); signing himself "Your loving husband till death, John Clare." On the 8th he wrote a note to Mr. Hopkins: "Why I am shut up I don't know." And on the 9th he answered his "dear Daughter Sophia's letter," saying that he was "not quite so well to write" as he had been, and (presumably in reply to some offer of books or comforts) "I want nothing from Home to come here. I shall be glad to see you when you come." In the course of 1860 he was photographed, and that the Northampton folk still took an interest in their poet is proved by the sale of these likenesses; copies could be seen in the shops until recent years. But that Clare might have been set at large seems not to have occurred to those who in curiosity purchased his portrait. A visitor named John Plummer went to the asylum in 1861, and found Clare reading in the window recess of a very comfortable room. "Time had dealt kindly with him," he wrote. "It was in vain that we strove to arrest his attention: he merely looked at us with a vacant gaze for a moment, and then went on reading his book." This was possibly rather the action of sanity than of insanity. Yet Plummer did his best, in Once a Week and elsewhere, to call attention to the forgotten poet, who was visited soon afterwards by the worthy Nonconformist Paxton Hood, and presently by Joseph Whitaker, the publisher of the "Almanack."
Clare became patriarchal in appearance; and his powers failed more rapidly, until he could walk no longer. A wheel-chair was procured for him, that he might still enjoy the garden and the open air. On Good Friday in 1864 he was taken out for the last time; afterwards he could not be moved, yet he would still manage to reach his window-seat; then came paralysis, and on the afternoon of May the 20th, 1864,
His soul seemed with the free,
He died so quietly.
His last years had been spent in some degree of happiness, and from officials and fellow-patients he had received gentleness, and sympathy, and even homage. It has been said, not once nor twice but many times, that in the asylum he was never visited by his wife, nor by any of his children except the youngest son, Charles, who came once. That any one should condemn Patty for her absence is surely presumptuous in the extreme: she was now keeping her home together with the greatest difficulty, nor can it be known what deeper motives influenced relationships between wife and husband, even if the name of Mary Joyce meant nothing. That the children came to see their father whenever they could, the letters given above signify: but, if the opportunities were not many, there were the strongest of reasons. Frederick died in 1843, just after Clare's incarceration: Anna in the year following: Charles the youngest, a boy of great promise, in 1852: and Sophia in 1863. William, and John who went to Wales, went when occasion came and when they could afford the expense of the journey: Eliza, who survived last of Clare's children and who most of all understood him and his poetry, was unable through illness to leave her home for many years, yet she went once to see him. The isolation which found its expression in "I Am" was another matter: it was the sense of futility, of not having fulfilled his mission, of total eclipse that spoke there. N. P. Willis, perhaps the Howitts, and a few more worthies came for brief hours to see Clare, rather as a phenomenon than as a poet; but Clare, who had sat with Elia and his assembled host, who had held his own with the finest brains of his time and had written such a cornucopia of genuine poetry now lying useless in his cottage at Northborough, cannot but have regarded the Northampton Asylum as "the shipwreck of his own esteems."
Clare was buried on May 25th, 1864, where he had wished to be, in the churchyard at Helpston. The letter informing Mrs. Clare of his death was delivered at the wrong address, and did not eventually reach her at Northborough before Clare's coffin arrived at Helpston; scarcely giving her time to attend the funeral the next day. Indeed, had the sexton at Helpston been at home, the bearers would have urged him to arrange for the funeral at once; in his absence, they left the coffin in an inn parlour for the night, and a scandal was barely prevented. A curious superstition grew up locally that it was not Clare's body which was buried in that coffin: and among those who attended the last rite, not one but found it almost impossible to connect this episode with those days forty years before, when so many a notable man was seen making through Helpston village for the cottage of the eager-eyed, brilliant, unwearying young poet who was the talk of London. After such a long silence and oblivion, even the mention of John Clare's name in his native village awoke odd feelings of unreality.
The poetry of John Clare, originally simple description of the country and countrymen, or ungainly imitation of the poetic tradition as he knew it through Allan Ramsay, Burns, and the popular writers of the eighteenth century, developed into a capacity for exact and complete nature-poetry and for self-expression. Thoroughly awake to all the finest influences in life and in literature, he devoted himself to poetry in every way. Imagination, colour, melody and affection were his by nature; where he lacked was in dramatic impulse and in passion, and sometimes his incredible facility in verse, which enabled him to complete poem after poem without pause or verbal difficulty, was not his best friend. He possesses a technique of his own; his rhymes are based on pronunciation, the Northamptonshire pronunciation to which his ear had been trained, and thus he accurately joins "stoop" and "up," or "horse" and "cross"—while his sonnets are free and often unique in form. In spite of his individual manner, there is no poet who in his nature-poetry so completely subdues self and mood and deals with the topic for its own sake. That he is by no means enslaved to nature-poetry, the variety of the poems in this selection must show.
His Asylum Poems are distinct from most of the earlier work. They are often the expressions of his love tragedy, yet strange to say they are not often sad or bitter: imagination conquers, and the tragedy vanishes. They are rhythmically new, the movement having changed from that of quiet reflection to one of lyrical enthusiasm: even nature is now seen in brighter colours and sung in subtler music. Old age bringing ever intenser recollection and childlike vision found Clare writing the light lovely songs which bear no slightest sign of the cruel years. So near in these later poems are sorrow and joy that they awaken deeper feelings and instincts than almost any other lyrics can—emotions such as he shares with us in his "Adieu!":
I left the little birds
And sweet lowing of the herds,
And couldn't find out words,
Do you see,
To say to them good-bye,
Where the yellowcups do lie;
So heaving a deep sigh,
Took to sea….
In this sort of pathos, so indefinable and intimate, William Blake and only he can be said to resemble him.