John Clare was an English poet, belonging to the Romantic school, known for his vivid and lyrical descriptions of the rural English countryside. He is often referred to as a ‘peasant poet’ as he was a poor agricultural farm worker forced to live a life of obscurity, devoid of any joys of recognition. His poems were primarily about the beauty of nature, rural life, and suffering. He was born into a family of illiterate farm labourers and received little formal education. He himself started working as a farmer at an early age to support his family. Along with doing manual jobs, he started writing nature poetry describing the pristine beauty of rural England and of his sadness at its destruction. As a young boy, he fell in love for the first time with a girl named Mary whose wealthy father would not allow them to meet. The heartbreak further added to the hardships and tragedies he had already suffered in his young life. His first published volume of poems ‘Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery’ was well received and created a sensation. However, he was not destined to a life of fame or prosperity and could never again repeat the success with his other works.
Childhood & Early Life
John Clare was born in Helpston, a village in England, into the family of farm labourers. His father’s name was Parker Clare. He received little formal education and attended school only till he was 12.
He had to become a farm labourer while still a child in order to support his poor family.
His family struggled to make ends meet, and in order to make a living, young John worked as a waiter, a gardener, and a farm hand. But in spite of doing various odd jobs, he still had to accept parish relief.
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Clare liked to read and had a copy of Thomson’s Seasons. Inspired by the poet, he began to write his own poems and sonnets. He sold his first volume of poems to a local bookseller who sent it to the publishing firm, Taylor & Hessey.
His first poetry book, ‘Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery’ was out in 1820. This book was critically acclaimed and became a big success. He was particularly appreciated for the lucid language and vivid descriptions of nature and her elements.
Following the success of his first book, he traveled to Londen where he met other writers and poets like John Keats, William Hazlitt, and Thomas De Quincey.
He published his second book, ‘Village Minstrel and Other Poems’ in 1821. Even though it was well received by his readers, it failed to live up to the success of his debut book.
Throughout the 1820s, he wrote on a variety of topics, exploring different genres, though he never published the majority of his works. He had begin work on his autobiography, ‘Sketches in the Life of John Clare’, which he was never able to finish.
As a poet, he was more focused on creativity of his expressions than on the formal rules of the written word. He rarely used punctuations, misspelled many words, and used terms borrowed from the local dialect in his poems.
He published his next book, ‘The Shepherd's Calendar with Village Stories and Other Poems’ in 1827, but was able to sell only a few copies. By now, he had a large family to feed and was under immense financial stress. He developed a drinking problem and his health also began to deteriorate.
Embroiled in financial and health problems, he published his last work, ‘The Rural Muse’ in 1835. The book received positive reviews but could not generate enough sales to sustain Clare financially. As a result, his drinking problem worsened and he began to have mental problems.
On realizing that he had serious psychological issues, Clare went of his own accord to Dr Matthew Allen's private asylum High Beach near Loughton in 1837, where he was assured of the best medical care. He absconded from the asylum in 1841 and traveled back to his home.
He was later committed to the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum where he continued writing poems until his death in 1864. It was at this asylum that he wrote his most famous poem, ‘I Am’, which was published in 1848.
His first published work, ‘Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery’ (1820) became an unexpected success and sold more than 3000 copies in its first year—an astounding achievement for a first time poet. It was reprinted three times.
Ironically, he wrote his best known poem, ‘I Am’ during his stay in an asylum for patients with mental illness when he was feeling isolated from his family and friends. In the poem, he reasserts that he will find peace in death through his love of the natural world. The poem was written in 1844-45 and published in 1848.
Personal Life & Legacy
As a young man he was in love with a girl named Mary Joyce with whom he could not have a relationship because of her father’s disapproval. But ,he never forgot her, and years later, in a state of delirium he claimed that she was his first wife.
He married Martha ("Patty") Turner in 1820. The couple had nine children, many of whom died in their infancy. The family lived a miserable life racked by poverty, made worse by his mental problems and alcohol consumption.
The sad life of this romantic poet began with a tragedy, his twin sister died in her infancy in spite being born a healthy baby.
He suffered from chronic malnourishment during his growing years which resulted in his poor health throughout life.
During his later years, he had delusions that he was Lord Byron and Shakespeare in previous lives.