John Clare's "I
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
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
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
Within the isolation and misunderstanding
of asylum life, Clare is able to cope via tranquil memories of
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
and falsehood. (Storey 191)
This attitude empowers Clare
to compose these works, in which all share the similarly unpredicated
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
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.