Thursday, 30 August 2012

The Poet, John Clare

One of my favourite books is The Poet's Wife by local author, Judith Allnatt. Last year I attended a workshop which Judith held at my writing group and I was also one of a group which visited Helpston, John Clare's birth place. Judith accompanied us on our visit this summer as part of the annual Lowdham Book Fair. The Poet's Wife looks at life from John Clare's family's point of view. It's filled with beautiful descriptive narrative about the surrounding countryside and tells of the difficult struggles and love for her family, Clare's wife Patty had to cope with.

John Clare was born on 13th July 1793. He was the son of a farm labourer who became an English poet. As he worked on the land in his early years, he grew to love his surroundings and nature, celebrating this close bond with the countryside through his poetry.

Early Spring

The Spring is come, and Spring flowers coming too,
The crocus, patty kay, the rich hearts' ease;
The polyanthus peeps with blebs of dew,
And daisy flowers; the buds swell on the trees;
While oer the odd flowers swim grandfather bees
In the old homestead rests the cottage cow;
The dogs sit on their haunches near the pail,
The least one to the stranger growls 'bow wow,'
Then hurries to the door and cocks his tail,
To knaw the unfinished bone; the placid cow
Looks oer the gate; the thresher's lumping flail
Is all the noise the spring encounters now.

John Clare

My favourite book of poetry

As a child, John Clare worked as an agricultural labourer throughout the growing seasons. Despite limited schooling at Glinton School until he was twelve, he was an eager student and learned how to read and write. He became a pot washer at the local pub, The Bluebell. It was here that he fell in love with Mary Joyce, the daughter of a prosperous farmer. The farmer didn't believe that John was good enough for Mary and forbade him to meet her. Subsequently he became a gardener at Burleigh House, enlisted in the militia and worked as a lime burner in 1817.

Below is a photograph I took of the poet's thatched cottage. It was bought by the John Clare Education and Environment Trust in 2005. Inside is a small cafe which sells books and delicious home-made cakes. The rest of the house has been turned into a museum about Clare's life and works.

John Clare's cottage in Helpston

John Clare's poetry was inspired from his love of the English countryside. I think this is why I enjoy his work so much. If you've followed my blog, I occasionally include some poems I've written and more often than not, they include descriptions from nature.

To prevent his parents' eviction from their home, John offered his poems to a local bookseller who forwarded them on to John Keat's publishers, Taylor and Hessey. Taylor published Clare's first book of poetry entitled, Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery. in 1820. His book was hugely praised but his following books, 'Village Minstrel and Other Poems' and 'The Shepherd's Calender' didn't achieve the same success.

John Clare's cottage kitchen

In 1820, John married Martha (Patty). By 1823 he was nearly penniless as his subsequent books of poetry met with little success. His health began to suffer and he had bouts of severe depression. His last work, Rural Muse in 1832, achieved a little more success but not enough to support his wife and seven children. His behaviour became more erratic and in 1837, on the recommendation of his publishing friend, John Taylor, Clare went of his own volition to a private asylum in Epping Forest.

During his first few years here, John Clare's mental health deteriorated. He re-wrote famous poems and sonnets by Lord Byron and took credit for Shakeseare's plays, declaring, 'I'm John Clare now, but I was Byron and Shakespeare formally.'

He was a short man, standing no taller than five foot. I am five foot six inches and this life-sized statue tells its own story! His slight stature was likely due to malnutrition stemming from childhood which led to poor health in later life.

Life-size statue of John Clare

In 1841, John Clare absconded from the asylum in Essex and walked eighty miles home. His mind was unstable as he still believed he was married to both his unrequited love, Mary Joyce and his wife Patty. Mary Joyce had actually died years earlier in a house fire and had never been aware of Clare's feelings for her.

John Clare found his way home and lived with Patty for the next five months until his behaviour deteriorated sufficiently for her to call in the doctors. Clare was committed to Northampton General Lunatic Asylum (now St. Andrew's). He remained there for the rest of his life, until his death in 1864. His remains were returned to Helpston for burial in St Botolph's church yard. Judith Allnatt read some of his poetry in the cool echoing church whilst the sun shone brightly outside upon John Clare's tomb stone. It was a memorable and atmospheric half hour. Even to this day, school children from the village where he is buried, annually lay flowers at his graveside in remembrance.

John Clare's grave stone


  1. A wonderful poet with a very sad end.
    About thirty years ago I saw a production by the RSC in Stratford upon Avon (in their studio space venue)about John Clare (played by the actor James Hazeldine) his poetry and declining mental health.

  2. I'd really like to have seen that Carol. If only he knew how much his poetry is loved in the new millennium! Thanks for popping by. xx

  3. That was fascinating, thanks, Ange. I always think his poetry was never as lauded as some of the others and he tends not to be so well known which is a shame.

  4. I didn't know any of this. What a fascinating story, Angela.

  5. Lovely to 'see' you both again, Keith and Rosemary. Glad you enjoyed hearing about John Clare and hope you're both well. xx

  6. Really interseting piece Ange - how poignnat the statue is. I have a copy of Judith Allnat's book and look forward to reading it.