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John Clare's "I Am"

by Mike Miller

"I'm John Clare now. I was Byron and Shakespeare formerly."
- John Clare (Grigson 43)

"I yam what I yam, and that's all that I yam. I'm Popeye the Sailor
- Popeye the Sailor Man

While John Clare enjoyed success as a "peasant poet" in his early career, sagging sales and consistent tragedy eventually led to several sanitarium stays, during one of which he thought he was Lord Byron and rewrote several of his works. However the final fanatic gesture of Clare before permanent institutionalization was an eighty-mile sojourn to visit a dead ex-girlfriend in July of 1841. Perhaps a healthy regimen of spinach would have stabilized the distraught Clare during his journey, but rather a diet of "grass by the roadside" verified the poet's delirium. A visit by the Reverend Charles Mossop to Clare's chaotic household became a recommendation for the tranquility of the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum. With Dr. William Page and Dr, Fenwick Skirmish certifying a certifiably insane poet, John Clare left his home on December 29 of 1841 for Northampton where he would spend the remaining twenty-three years of his life. This was the third and final time Clare would be uprooted from his home. While the asylum afforded numerous luxuries to Clare, such as visits from friends and visits into the local town, the loneliness of institutional life ensured an increasingly agonizing stay until his death on May 20, 1864.

While the anguish of the mental hospital would take its toll on Clare's sanity, it could not affect his passion and productivity of poetry. Here his easy-going lyrical style contributed to the creation of a massive amount of smaller pieces with few attempts at longer works. Clare's poetry had become brief bursts of inspiration completing only one long piece, "The Rhapsody," during his asylum years. These tumultuous final years would yield some of Clare's best and worst works, including the renowned "I Am."

The year 1844 is considered a landmark year for both Clare's career and health due to the production of some of Clare's finer (and more stable) works. The milestone "A Vision," dated August 2, suggests that Clare understood this work to be significant since he went to the trouble of documenting the date of composition. While this work was momentous as a culmination of a long line of developing thought, it is not the final word for Clare. He would proceed to write "I Am" sometime after this piece in either the end of 1844 or 1845.

The circumstances surrounding the birth of "I Am" is enigmatic. First, there is the difficulty of pinpointing an exact text and chronology for the piece due to its original composition. House Steward of the asylum W. F. Knight, employed from April 1845 to January 30 of 1850, transcribed the piece for Clare. At the beginning of the two volume, 800 piece collection of Clare's work, Knight notes, "Copied from the Manuscripts as presented to me by Clare . . . the whole of them faithfully transcribed to the best of my knowledge from the pencil originals many of which were so obliterated that without referring to the Author I could not decipher" (Tibble 378-9.) While that account would sound completely credible as to the verisimilitude of the transcriptions, Knight soon cautions that the works may be incomplete. He says, "Some pieces will be found unfinished, for Clare will seldom turn his attention to pieces he has been interrupted in while writing" (Tibble 379.) "I Am" appears to have closure, yet nobody is absolutely sure if this was a truly "finished" work.

Knight's friend Thomas Inskip began a correspondence with Clare and was able to publish several of these pieces in the Bedford Times between 1847 and 1849. "I Am" was one of these pieces, published in December of 1847. However Inskip received "I Am" from Knight in December of 1846, accompanied by the poem "Graves of Infants" which was certainly produced in June of 1844. Unfortunately very few of the pieces are dated, including "I Am," so there is a great deal of uncertainty as to the precise moment of creation this particular work.

Further confusing the origin of "I Am" is John Clare's history with editorial revision. Clare is notorious for receiving an inordinate amount of alteration from his editors, especially the infamous John Taylor. Due to Clare's simple upbringing and education, a large number of misspellings and grammatical errors would commonly permeate his manuscripts. However, Taylor is often alleged of abusing his editorial power, to which Zachary Leader remarks, "Nowhere in the writing of the English Romantic period do questions of [editorial] imposition figure more prominently than in the revision of the poems of John Clare, the work mostly of Clare's publisher, John Taylor." (Leader 206.) To the contrary Edwin Robinson, editor of Clare's authoritative modern reproduction, The Late Poems of John Clare, claims in his introduction that he would present "John Clare in his natural state and not John Clare scrubbed and spruced up for inspection by the Board of Guardians" (Robinson 23.) Such a reactionary statement about pieces that are assumedly immune to editorial revision implies the politics which have always pervaded Clare's work. While "I Am" arrived after the departure of Taylor, it is entirely possible that between Knight, Inskip, and the miscellaneous others that handled it throughout its publication that the piece may have been altered by one who thought they could improve on the peasant poet's poem.

While the order of documents of Knight's transcripts help locate the time of writing, this poem is ultimately positioned not necessarily for its evolution of previous ideas, but rather various patterns of similar poetry which surround the work, both thematically and structurally. Throughout the Northampton pieces the common theme of an idyllic life arises. Beneath the surface of poetry are identical themes of love triumphant, addressed to both casual acquaintances of the past and his true love, Mary Joyce. Dreams of a perfect world would become reality for the increasingly mad Clare, and poetry of the mind would supplant the harsh memories of life. Yet there is always the undeniable undercurrent of loss and lament in the would-be fantasies. Clare tried to forget, but could not. While "A Vision" is the culmination of several ideas which result in definitive statements about Clare's asylum life, "I Am" is a deeper exploration of the turmoil of sanitarium life, as well as a darker piece that investigates newer dimensions in Clare's turbulent life. The rejection of the world in "A Vision" is now utilized for a more mature voice that dispenses the sagacity of a world-weary writer. "I Am," along with the contemporary and comparable pieces, "An Invite to Eternity," and "Come Hither Ye Who Thirst," are addressed to the empathizing sufferers of a surprisingly cruel world.

Within the isolation and misunderstanding of asylum life, Clare is able to cope via tranquil memories of a forgotten peace due to the basics of individuality and a love for nature. In "I Am" Clare clings desperately to the last remnants of self-composure, a singularity within the world, as he would detail in a short piece about self-identity. He says:

Forget not thyself & the world will not forget thee ... forget thyself & the world will willingly forget thee till thou are nothing but a living-dead man dwelling among shadows and falsehood. (Storey 191)

This attitude empowers Clare to compose these works, in which all share the similarly unpredicated sentiment "I am." Clare does not endeavor to complete the short sentence with what he necessarily is, but rather covers the minimal requirements for existence. Though an Eden before the fall would be ideal, Clare understands the primal truth that as long as he is, he lives.


Chilcott, Tim. A Real World & Doubting Mind,: A Critical Study of the Poetry of John Clare. England: Hull University Press, 1985.

Grigson, Geoffrey. Poems of John Clare's Madness. London:Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd., 1949

Leader, Zachary. Revision and Romantic Authorship. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.

Lucas, John. John Clare. Plymouth: Northcote House Publishers Ltd., 1994.

Robinson, Eric. The Later Poems of John Clare. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989.

Storey, Mark. The Poetry of John Clare. London: The Macmillan Press Ltd., 1974.

Tibble, J.W. and Anne. John Clare: A Life. London: Michael Joseph Ltd., 1972.