John Clare: a biography, by Jonathan Bate

A peasant poet's harvest
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

My life hath been one chain of contradictions/ Madhouses Prisons wh-re shops..."

When the poet John Clare (1793-1864) wrote these lines in the summer of 1841, he was resident in an asylum. Partly metaphorical though they are (as he had never been in prison), the first line sums him up: unresolvable contradictions fractured his life. He was a largely uneducated farm labourer who could read and write verse when literature was still policed by the middle classes. He defended his solitude, but was miserable when denied human society. He had periods when he could not stop writing, and others when his "fickle hussy" of a muse deserted him.

His native world was rural Northamptonshire, but he loved London life and wished it would move closer to his village of Helpston. His first volume of 1820 was a smash hit and he was courted and cherished by the established literati of his day - Coleridge, De Quincey, Hazlitt, Lamb, among them - yet quickly descended into poverty and malnutrition as sales and interest evaporated. His poems were published in newspapers agitating for political reform at the same time that conservative rags were asking for his work.

Clare was utterly and innocently devoted in his verse to idealised lovers, but in life repeatedly unfaithful to his wife, with passing fancies and prostitutes. He had an acute sense of mortality which empowered his most delicate and intimate nature poetry, but which also made him a nervous, paranoid, anxious and febrile hypochondriac. He eventually was to suffer horrifying hallucinations of "blue devils" hounding him, but also envisioned a female guardian angel. He was a lover of open fields who ended up in an asylum. This, then, is a life more complex than most, and a tricky one for a biographer.

One of the great strengths of this groundbreaking work is that it does not attempt to resolve Clare's contradictions. Rather than dismissing his editors as pernicious and censorious, his patrons as moralising and intrusive, Jonathan Bate enables us to see for the first time the complex development of the poet's relationships with such figures as his publisher John Taylor (who also published Keats) and his self-appointed PR manager, Lord Radstock. Also, for the first time it is clear just how communal Clare's writing became. He would send poems to friends in London for advice, show them to literary circles in Stamford and Peterborough, meet people in the pub to discuss his work. The Wordsworthian construction of poetry is that it is produced in a solitary overflow of powerful feeling. While Clare would often compose on long rambling walks, his drafting and rewriting, his seeking the opinions of others, became a devilishly collaborative process. This process exasperated Taylor and has left a tangled textual maze for editors today.

Clare thought grammar a tyranny, and argued vociferously and drunkenly with Charles Lamb over linguistic standardisation. In others' recollections of these tussles at boozy dinners thrown by Taylor, Clare is not a scared rabbit, paralysed by the dazzling headlights of punning conversation (which has been the sense up to now), but instead a writer willing to fight his linguistic corner, denouncing "all philology as nothing but a sort of man-trap for authors".

Clare wrote poetry in his own Northamptonshire vernacular style, following Robert Burns, James Hogg and Robert Bloomfield in a rich and briefly fashionable tradition of poetry with a regional accent. But still he wanted, needed, his editors to polish his verse for publication. Bate is comprehensive in his coverage of Clare's publishing pro- cess, but a little dismissive of his political intentions. Clare himself said that he hated politics and was as suspicious of campaigning parties as of organised religion.

Indeed, his independence seems to have kept him out of group activity. But he was always angry about class distinctions, about the neglect and abuse of the poor. He wanted a government-funded school in every village, changes in taxation and an enhanced sense of the importance of the natural world. He deplored the industrialisation of rural land in the enclosure acts, the associated loss of common rights, and bemoaned the intrusion of the new railways.

He read newspapers and corresponded with leading lights and radicals from all walks of literate life. For Bate to say that Clare became political "almost without realising it" denies Clare any political agency. Just as he was more inclined to write a poem about a wild weed than a cultivated rose, Clare was attentive to working-class culture and customs, which most poetry ignored or patronised.

What Clare quickly realised was that he was set apart by his artistic endeavours. Villagers were concerned about his solitary musings, worried that they might end up in one of his poems. Much as he celebrated folk custom and rural life in his work, Clare would be the first to acknowledge that village life is never private.

Wealthy tourists who sought out the local celebrity could be equally unwelcome, particularly if they asked rude questions about it being true that Clare and his wife conceived their first child in a pigsty. His two-bedroom cottage in Helpston was dank and overcrowded, filled with his wife, his parents and six marauding children. It was difficult to find space to think, let alone write. He pined for the stimulus and space of his visits to London, while feeling guilty about his trips to the seedier theatres, where he may well have contracted a venereal disease which exacerbated his poor health and overwhelming sense of guilt. As Bate repeatedly confirms, Clare had a rapacious sex-drive.

This biography provides the most extensive and informed account of Clare's mental health to date. Bate's conclusion is that Clare suffered from an affective bipolar disorder. He was a manic depressive whose condition was made much worse by a combination of malnutrition, alcohol, stress, medical treatments and, possibly, malaria. He complained of pains in the genitals, in the stomach, of feeling faint, of headaches, of perennial exhaustion. Eventually his behaviour was too much for his wife, and his patrons paid for his confinement, first in Essex, then in Northampton, from 1841 till his death in 1864.

Even in such harsh circumstances, Clare never stopped writing poetry and the legacy of his productivity amounts to more than 3,000 poems, reams of natural history, essays, letters and journals. Bate has explored all of this prodigious output and the even more dizzying array of associated documentary materials. Still, the biography's highlights appear when it casts new light on a poem. Poetry is as centrally important to this biography as it was to Clare, and rightly so.

It concludes with a courageous agenda-setting appendix on the current use and abuse of Clare by editors. Clare's manuscripts were often unpunctuated and sent to his editor, John Taylor, in a very unfinished state. Taylor would edit the work thoroughly before publishing it, standardising grammar, spelling and punctuation, much of which Clare was happy for him to do. Taking Clare's occasional anger about grammar and spelling as a cue, 20th-century editors have decided to transcribe Clare's raw originals, in a "textually primitive" manner.

Bate thinks they are wrong to publish Clare without any editorial changes. He contests that they have made Clare "look different from every other poet in the English language", and have effectively ghettoised his work. This argument is crucial in formulating the way Clare is presented. Likewise, this magnificent biography will be central to our appreciation of the poet for many years to come.

Simon Kövesi teaches at Oxford Brookes University and edits the John Clare Page (