John Clare: A Biographyby Jonathan Bate
The long-awaited literary biography of the supreme "poets' poet"
John Clare (1793-1864) is the greatest labouring-class poet that England has ever produced. No one has ever written more powerfully of nature, of a rural childhood, and of the alienated and unstable self, but until now he has never been the subject of a comprehensive literary/b>
The long-awaited literary biography of the supreme "poets' poet"
John Clare (1793-1864) is the greatest labouring-class poet that England has ever produced. No one has ever written more powerfully of nature, of a rural childhood, and of the alienated and unstable self, but until now he has never been the subject of a comprehensive literary biography.
Here at last is his full story told by the light of his voluminous work: his birth in poverty, his work as an agricultural labourer, his burgeoning promise as a writer--cultivated under the gaze of rival patrons--then his moment of fame in the company of John Keats and the toast of literary London, and finally his decline into mental illness and his last years confined in asylums. Clare's ringing voice--quick-witted, passionate, vulnerable, courageous--emerges in generous quotation from his letters, journals, autobiographical writings, and his poems, as Jonathan Bate, the celebrated scholar of Shakespeare, brings the complex man, his beloved work, and his ribald world vividly to life.
Jonathan Bate is the author of The Genius of Shakespeare and The Song of the Earth. He is Leverhulme Research Professor of English Literature at the University of Warick.
A Booklist Editors' Choice
John Clare (1793-1864) is the greatest working-class poet that England has ever produced. No one has written more powerfully of nature, of a rural childhood, and of the alienated and unstable self, but until now he has never seen the subject of a comprehensive literary biography.
Here, at last, is his story, revealed by the light of his voluminous work: his birth in poverty, his work as an agricultural laborer, his burgeoning promise as a writer cultivated under the gaze of rival patrons, his moment of fame in the company of John Keats as the toast of literary London, and finally his decline into mental illness and confinement in asylums. Clare's ringing voice—quick-witted, passionate, vulnerable, courageous—emerges through generous quotation from his letters, journals, autobiographical writings, and poems, as Jonathan Bate, the celebrated scholar of Shakespeare, brings the complex man, his beloved work, and his ribald world vividly to life.
"[An] engrossing volume . . . Bate makes Clare's life as fascinating for us today as it was for Victorians, and his scholarship corrects the mistakes of earlier biographers without clogging the narrative. By surveying a broad selection of his subject's work, he sustains his contention that Clare ought to be considered a major poet. His unaffected diction, blessedly unencumbered by the ornate conventions of his time, sounds contemporary . . . In this groundbreaking biography and the judicious selection of poems [made by Bate] in 'I Am', John Clare's voice carries across the centuries and speaks to us as freshly as the unspoiled nature he loved."—Phoebe Pettingell, The New Leader
"Splendid . . . It is Clare's love of his native countryside that comes through most powerfully in this volume . . . 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 pre-eminent poet of nature."—Amanda Kolson Hurley, The Washington Times
"Perceptive."—Adam Kirsch, Bookforum
"Bate's thorough and lively [study] provides a more nuanced view both of Clare's psychological complexity as a person and of the possibilities for artistic and intellectual development available in the milieu of Clare's upbringing than has hitherto been available."—Eric Gudas, The Bloomsbury Review
"One of the challenges for [Clare's] biographer is to establish a living sense of the diverse realms he inhabited as agricultural worker, fashionable poet, foundering literary celebrity, and mental patient. Another is to trace the development of Clare's crystalline poetic vision, which unerringly focused and deepened itself while his beloved Northamptonshire landscape, his financial prospects, his literary status and even, at last, much of his personality, fell apart round him. Jonathan Bate's biography, the first full-scale life to appear since 1932, succeeds splendidly on both counts, not only making generous use of Clare's own wonderful prose and verse but adding historical perspective and a constant, intelligent probing . . . One of the strengths of John Clare: A Biography is its refusal to propose easy answers to any of the questions raised by Clare's life. Bate has an essayist's ability to walk around a problem, interrogating it from various sides . . . Clare's is an extraordinary story, both disturbing and inspiring. Jonathan Bate tells it in considerable detail and this is a big book, with a level of detail and intricacy of argument which demand stamina from the reader. But its seriousness, compassion, and lightness of touch make it highly readable."—Grevel Lindop, The Times Literary Supplement
"Fascinating . . . For more than a century, Clare has been hailed as a victim—of an uncultivated upbringing, of ignorant editors, of brutal doctors, even of the demon of poetry itself. The story of the divinely endowed poetic genius martyred by his gift is hard to resist, but Bate undertakes to dispel these notions, revealing the breadth of Clare's knowledge, the purposefulness of his writing style (he wouldn't take criticism, even from Keats), and his reliance on the generosity and intelligence of his editor, John Taylor. Bate's exploration of these myths is as compelling as his debunking of them. He richly describes the social and cultural life in 19th century England, specifically the presentation of Clare's 'peasant poet' persona, the political pressures Clare faced while receiving aid from wealthy aristocratic patrons, and the 19th century understanding and treatment of mental illness, which, to Clare's benefit, had recently undergone a transformation to a more humane form. Since his life seemed to beg for an explanation and his work espoused no ideology or agenda—merely the quiet appreciation of the natural world—Clare has been a kind of blank slate on which later generations project their own identities. Through scrupulous historical research, at times dizzying in its attention to detail, Bate avoids this pitfall, illuminating rather than obscuring Clare's personality and his poetry. His intimate and definitive account of Clare's life accomplishes more than most biographies could hope to: It gives us plenty of reasons to turn to the poet's verse."—Jason Baskin, Newsday
"An appropriately ample and properly judicious biography. It rises from a passionate conviction in Clare's genius, and spreads into a calm appraisal of his experience. But there's cleverness in this calm: Bate knows the sadness of Clare's story has led previous writers to make false claims, or to agitate the clear spirit of his writing with their own well-meant heat. His own tactic is to take nothing for granted, to stay as close as possible to Clare's own intentions, to resist the temptation to read all the poems as being strictly autobiographical, and to admit ignorance where ignorance exists . . . Bate wisely makes space for a thematic approach, winding chapters on (among other things) heredity, childhood, social environment, and friendship around the hard facts of birth, family, and so on. Far from making Clare seem vague, this has the good effect of allowing him to be in a kind of dream. It's a dream which combines elements of bliss—the
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John ClareA BIOGRAPHY
By JONATHAN BATE
FARRAR STRAUS AND GIROUXCopyright © 2003 Jonathan Bate
All right reserved.
Dr Skrimshire also had an answer to the question 'What are the supposed causes of Insanity?' He noted that they were 'hereditary'. There is no sure ground for this claim, but there is no doubt that the public image of Clare as 'the Northamptonshire Peasant Poet' was heavily dependent on his humble heredity.
Here is how the story begins in the first biography of him:
Some thirty years previous to the birth of John, there came into Helpston a big, swaggering fellow of no particular home, and, as far as could be ascertained, of no particular name: a wanderer over the earth, passing himself off, now for an Irishman, and now for a Scotchman. He had tramped over the greater part of Europe, alternately fighting and playing the fiddle; and being tired awhile of tramping, and footsore and thirsty withal, he resolved to settle for a few weeks, or months, at the quiet little village. The place of schoolmaster happened to be vacant, perhaps had been vacant for years; and the villagers were overjoyed when they heard that this noble stranger, able to play the fiddle, and to drink a gallon of beer at a sitting, would condescend to teach the A B C to their children. So 'Master Parker,' as the great unknown called himself for the nonce, was duly installed schoolmaster of Helpston. The event, taking place sometime about the commencement of the reign of King George the Third, marks the first dawn of the family history of John Clare.
According to biographer Frederick Martin, 'the tramping schoolmaster' soon made the acquaintance of the pretty daughter of the parish clerk. Her name was Alice Clare. She had to walk through the schoolroom each day on her way to wind the church clock. As skilled with words as with his fiddlestick, Master Parker seduced her, and on discovering that the girl was pregnant, he quit the village. The parish clerk's daughter gave birth to a boy, who was given his mother's surname but christened for the absent father. Such, says Martin, was the origin of Parker Clare, father of John Clare.
The original source for this story-minus the colourful narrative embroidery that Martin always added-was the autobiographical 'Sketches in the Life of John Clare':
My father was one of fate's chancelings who drop into the world without the honour of matrimony-he took the surname of his mother, who to commemorate the memory of a worthless father with more tenderness of lovelorn feeling than he doubtless deserved, gave him his surname at his christening, who was a Scotchman by birth and a schoolmaster by profession and in his stay at this and the neighboring villages went by the name of John Donald Parker-this I had from John Cue of Ufford, an old man who in his young days was a companion and confidential to my run-a-gate of a grandfather, for he left the village and my grandmother soon after the deplorable accident of misplaced love was revealed to him, but her love was not that frenzy which shortens the days of the victim of seduction, for she lived to the age of 86.
Old John Cue had once been head-gardener to Lord Manners of nearby Ufford Hall. He remembered Clare's renegade grandfather as a man of somewhat mysterious identity, an outsider and a wanderer, a rogue and a lady's man, but also a teacher of letters.
It does not matter whether the transmission of these attributes to John Clare was genetic or part of the family folklore. Either way, we will see the shade of old John Donald Parker in Clare's own life-the unstable identity and the sense of exile, but also the sexual activity and the commitment to reading and writing. Genetically speaking, three-quarters of Clare belonged to Helpston and the immediate neighbourhood, while the other quarter was Scots. He felt an affinity with Robert Burns. In the asylum years, he wrote in many different voices, one of which was the Scottish vernacular.
Clare, who was usually wry and uncensorious when writing of sexual matters, calls the seduction nothing more than a 'deplorable accident of misplaced love'. He clearly admired the robust common sense of his grandmother, who got on with her (long) life and did not pine for what was lost. He himself lacked the gift of putting the past readily behind him.
Hard labour on the land was written into the very name of the family: Clare derives from clayer, one who manures or marls agricultural land. The soil in the fields of some of the parishes around Helpston is heavy, clayey, difficult to work. 'I cannot trace my name to any remote period,' wrote Clare, 'a century and a half is the utmost and in this I have found no great ancestors to boast in the breed-all I can make out is that they were Gardeners, Parish Clerks and fiddlers'. His own talents were not so very different from those of his ancestors. He was trained as a gardener and became a fine fiddler. And parish clerks would, by definition, have been able to use a pen.
There seem to have been at least two Clare families in the village of Helpston in the early eighteenth century. A John Clare became senior parish clerk. For this reason, his name often appears in the parish register as a witness at weddings. He had a careful writing hand. He was buried in June 1781, aged about eighty. He and his wife Alice (née Gorge) had eleven children, at least four of whom died in infancy or early childhood. Their daughter Alice, who succumbed to the charms of John Donald Parker, was born in 1737 and died on 1 January 1820, the very day on which a London literary magazine published a profile of her grandson and the news that his first book would soon be published. Longevity was in the Clare genes.
The birth in 1765 of Parker Clare was not recorded in the Helpston register. Perhaps the parish clerk was ashamed of the illegitimacy. But Parker was brought up in his grandparents' home in the village. In adult life he was employed on a day-to-day basis as a farm labourer, and was especially known as a thresher. Considerable physical strength was required to wield the flail that separated grain from husk and straw, so when Parker developed rheumatism in his later years, he found it increasingly hard to earn a living. He did not take well to immobility. As a young man he had been a noted wrestler in the village sports. He would come to share with his son an obsession with professional prize-fighting, a world known as the Fancy. A glimpse of their conversations on the subject may be caught from one of Clare's letters to a London friend: 'as soon as he knew I was writing to you [he] reminedded me to be sure and ask you to tell us who wins in Curtis's and Jones's Battles to day and if you take in any of the daily papers which contains the fights we should be very much obliged to you for the loan of one'.
In October 1792, Parker Clare married Ann Stimson, fourth of the six children of John and Elizabeth Stimson of Castor, a village beyond the open land of Emmonsales Heath, some five miles to the south. John Stimson was a 'town shepherd', responsible for the local landowners' livestock, which grazed on the common fields and wastelands. His stewardship seems to have extended to Marholm, closer to Helpston, for it was in that parish's church that his daughter's wedding took place. At thirty-five, Ann Stimson was eight years her husband's senior and swarthy in appearance. She was sometimes ill-tempered. Her parents were probably relieved to see her leave home, even though a casual labourer such as Parker Clare was not an especially attractive match. Given her age, Ann could not have hoped to have a large family. She conceived twins immediately.
'Both my parents was illiterate to the last degree,' Clare would remark. The statement's bluntness and grammatical roughness have served the myth of Clare as child of nature, a pure untutored genius. However, in the eighteenth century illiterate meant not 'unable to read' but 'ignorant of polite letters'. The Clares who formed a line of parish clerks would have been among the more literate of the Helpston villagers. Parker could certainly read. He owned a Bible, but preferred 'the superstitious tales that are hawked about a sheet for a penny, such as old Nixon's Prophesies, Mother Bunch's Fairy Tales, and Mother Shipton's Legacy'. A poor man does not spend his hard-earned pennies on broadsheets if he is incapable of reading them. Ann Stimson, by contrast, did not know a single letter of the alphabet and, like many country people, regarded book-learning as a kind of witchcraft.
It was through his father that Clare first encountered storytelling and folk songs. Best of all, Parker Clare liked ballads. Over a horn of ale at the Blue Bell public house-conveniently situated next door to his cottage-he would boast to his friends that he could sing or recite over a hundred of them. Clare could recollect his father's 'tolerable good voice' and how he would be called upon to entertain the company during many a convivial evening. Parker's son grew up to become not only a teller of tales in verse, but also a highly accomplished musician and collector of songs and tunes. In all probability he was the earliest folk-song collector in southern England. His poetry grew out of an oral tradition that was fully alive in his village and his childhood home.
In the autumn of 1792 Parker and his bride moved into a steep-roofed thatched tenement on Helpston High Street. It was there that Ann gave birth to the twins in the heat of the following July. They had four rooms at their disposal, two up and two down, for which they paid a rent of thirty shillings a year. One bedroom would have been occupied by old Alice Clare, Parker's mother, and the other by Parker, Ann and the children. The bedrooms were reached by a ladder leading up to a trap-door.
Though there was no proper stairway, to have two rooms downstairs was a comparative luxury. Clare said that his childhood home was 'as roomy and comfortable as any of our neighbours'. He 'never felt a desire to have a better'. Often he drew comfort from the thought of home: in an early sonnet he remembered how he would stand watching the light-blue smoke pour from the chimney and think of his family gathered round the fire within. His eye would be drawn to the yellow flowers of the leeks grown in the thatch as a charm against lightning. In a letter he wrote fondly of his snug 'hut': it was so low that if you stood outside and held a walking stick in the air you could reach the upstairs window; you had to stoop to enter the front door, the chimney corner was open to the sky and the hearth always full of soot; but all in all it felt solid and homely with its thick walls and absorbent thatch. His favourite place was a 'corner chair' by the fire-though 'when the rain comes down the chimney it often falls plump on the book I am reading and I am forced to put away the book till the rain is gone'.
There was a large garden. Parker Clare dug vegetables before and after work each day. The family owed much to a Golden Russet apple tree, as Clare explained years later: 'the tree is an old favourite with my father and stood his friend many a year in the days of adversity by producing an abundance of fruit which always met with ready sale and paid his rent.' In better times, Clare sent some of the apples clown to his publisher in London: 'their peculiar flavour makes them esteemed here but how your cockney pallets are I know not yet'.
John Clare and his twin sister were born on 13 July 1793. Into what sort of a world did they arrive?
The year had begun with the people of France putting their king on trial for treason. Louis XVI was executed on 21 January. Within three weeks the French republic had declared war on Britain. By summer, the navy was busy in action. On 9 July, William Waldegrave -who later became the first Baron Radstock-celebrated his fortieth birthday aboard a man-of-war he was captaining in the Mediterranean. On the day of Clare's birth, a little-known young poet of radical sympathies and high ideals watched from the Isle of Wight with sorrow in his heart as the British fleet gathered in the Solent. His name was William Wordsworth. That evening in Paris one of the leaders of the revolutionary Jacobins, Jean Paul Marat, was stabbed to death in his bath by Charlotte Corday.
In July 1793 London saw a spate of arson attacks and countless Jacobinical handbills circulated in the streets. In Oxford it was business as usual-the Earls Fitzwilliam and Spencer attended a grand ceremony for the installation of a new University chancellor-but in Cambridge a Mr John Cook was tried and imprisoned for uttering seditious words against king and government.
Some forty miles north of Cambridge stands the mellow-stoned market town of Stamford, where in mediaeval times there had been a short-lived attempt to establish a third English university. This was a region of great houses and estates, owned by the British counterparts of those French aristocrats who were daily being dispatched to the guillotine by Marat's compatriots: the Spencer seat at Althorp; Milton Park, the principal southern residence of the Fitzwilliams; and, most imposing of all, Burghley House, built for Queen Elizabeth's chief minister and now the home of his descendant, the tenth Earl of Exeter. Burghley is on the southern outskirts of Stamford, Helpston four and a half miles further along the same road.
In the week of Clare's birth, the Stamford Mercury reported (overoptimistically) that 'the unfortunate delusion that had overspread France is fast dissipating'. But for the people of the village, war and revolution were far away. There was trouble closer to home: a depressed rural economy. Northamptonshire wheat was fetching a price well below the national average. The Mercury listed a higher-than-usual number of bankruptcies, auctions of bankrupts' possessions, and creditors' meetings.
Everywhere people were saying that something had to be done about the state of British agriculture. A correspondent in the July Gentleman's Magazine proposed a design for a new drill-plough which would reduce the necessity for superfluous men and horses. He informed readers of other devices he had in hand-a machine for dibbling corn, a pedometer for measuring land.
The government was also seeking to measure and to improve. Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger was working towards the institution of a national Board of Agriculture. Its remit was announced the following month: to inquire into the ownership of land, the state of the soil, livestock, crops and their rotation, the use of ploughs and other machines.
Excerpted from John Clare by JONATHAN BATE Copyright © 2003 by Jonathan Bate. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
John Clare (1793-1864) lived all his life in rural Northamptonshire. He is widely celebrated as one of England's great nature and folk-life writers.
Jonathan Bate is the celebrated author of Shakespeare and Ovid (1993) and The Genius of Shakespeare (1997). He is Leverhulme Research Professor and King Alfred Professor of English at the University of Warwick.
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