John Clare was born 13 July, Helpston, Northants, a year after Percy Bysshe Shelley
and two years before John Keats
. His twin sister Bessy died in infancy. As Clare was the child of field laborers in the backwater village of Helpston, in the north of England, his upbringing was according to his recollection so threadbare he often had to write verses on scraps of grocer's wrapping paper. His father however, a flail thresher
, could recite over a hundred country folk ballads and songs and his mother also sang and told traditional stories for the entertainment of Clares and his kin.
On his 11th birthday, he receives from his uncle (employed as a lowly drover
) a tattered copy of Pomfret's Poems
, which his father reads to him, stimulating his love of verse
Clare is employed as a ploughboy
by one Mrs Bellairs of Woodcroft Castle. Several employments rejected (the apprenticeship
s offered are all too expensive). He travels far to the village of Wisbech for an interview with the esteemed
Counsellor Bellamy, but Clare is still a shy boy who has travelled little, and fails to impress him.
Clare’s formal education
was officially ended, at the age of thirteen. His parents simply couldn't fathom their eldest son's literary aspirations
– and they were appreciative of his poems only after Clare started pretending that he'd copied them out of books. Clare described a heedless childhood
, and early attempts at verse, which frequently mistaken by his illiterate
mother as attempts at learning to read. She apparently, but without malice, would use his penned sheafs as firelighters. He also works as a potboy
for Francis Gregory, the landlord of the Blue Bell Inn, in Helpston, right next to his home. Around this time Clare also got his hands on a copy of K. Thomson's Seasons
, which makes his heart 'twitter with joy'. This inspires him to write (and keep) a serious poem for the first time ('The Morning Walk'
Now age 14, it is clear Clare is developing a certain inward gaze. From his boyhood, he had been of a solitary
disposition. He spoke at ease with gypsies and wanderers, but was misunderstood and isolated by the village. He knew, in vivid almost telepathic detail, the sights and sounds of the woods and fens around his native Helpstone
. And the works of natural history
(the list of Northamptonshire Birds, for example) even written simply out of amateur enthusiasm, are acknowledged works of ornithological
reference. Around this time he also worked as a gardener
at Burghley House.
Attempts to enlist in the Nottinghamshire Militia at
Joins Northamptonshire Militia at Oundle.
at Great Casterton and Pickworth in
Rutland; meets Martha ('Patty') Turner, his future wife.
Meets Drury's cousin John Taylor
at Stamford. Earl Spencer grants him a £10 annuity.
1820: Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery
(nice title, no?
by Taylor and Hessey. 1,000 copies of first edition
go to press, with four
editions later that year. His first book of verse, printed by John Taylor
(who is better remembered today for publishing the early work of John Keats
). At the time, however, Clare outsold Keats by a country mile. The Marquis of Exeter (owner of Burghley
House) grants him 15 guinea
s a year for life. Visits London
acquires Lord Radstock
, Mrs Emmerson as patrons. William Hilton
paints his portrait and he visits Holywell
. Marries Martha Turner; first child, Anna Maria, born.
1821: The Village Minstrel
published by Taylor and Hessey.
Second child dies in infancy.
Second visit to London: meets Charles Lamb
, William Hazlitt
Third child, Eliza Louise born. Death of Octavius
Fourth child, Frederick, born. Third visit to London:
meets Samuel Taylor Coleridge
, Thomas de Quincey
. Begins his Journal and
Birth of fifth child, John.
1827: The Shepherd's Calendar with Village Stories and
published, with its public reception best summed up by his friend, the artist, Edward Rippingville
: "When I look at the work, which I do often, and think of the 40 pounds as the poet's reward, I feel ashamed of the age in which I live, and of the world of which I constitute a unit!"
Fourth visit to London: bronze bust of him cast by
Henry Behnes Burlowe
. Birth of seventh child, William Parker.
Visits Boston, Lincs.
Birth of eighth child, Sophia.
1832: The Midsummer Cushion
completed, but remains
unpublished (until 1979). Moves with his family to Northborough
a few miles from Helpston.
Birth of ninth child, Charles.
1835: The Rural Muse
, Clare's last book, was published - and though he lived another thirty years, and never stopped writing, his publishing career was over, and the tribulations were only beginning. Life in his native village was increasingly a torment
: Clare had married and started a family, but he failed to find steady work and was plagued by a variety of physical and mental afflictions, evidently including the dread "fen ague
" -- a malarial
ailment endemic to the marshy countryside so dear to him. To make matters worse he drank heavily and as a result grew progressively unhinged
By the 1830s, the vogue for rural poetry had passed. At about the same time his mental state
started deteriorating. Admitted to High Beach Asylum, Epping Forest,
suffering from delusions. Clare was moved to Allen's asylum at High Beech, Epping Forest. He could not have fallen into better hands. Matthew Allen was a sympathetic and emancipated medical superintendent, and Clare was encouraged to continue writing, and was permitted to wander in the forest.
(July) Mary Joyce dies, unmarried, at 41, while Clare
is at High Beech. On his return, he steadfastly refuses to
believe she is dead.
(July) Clare breaks out of the High Beech asylum and walks 80 miles home to
Northborough, surviving by "eating the grass by the
roadside" (described in the 'Journey Out of Essex
(December) is committed to Northampton General Lunatic Asylum and
remains there for his last 23 years. He continued to write, the majority of his poems bearing a direct and childlike purity, although his letters are constantly deranged
, and in his life he was more concerned about his imaginary life as prize fighter
, than as a poet: "I once had something to do with poetry," he told a visitor, "a long while ago; but it was no good. "He visited the town of Northampton frequently, and used to rest in a favorite seat under the portico
of All Saints Church, contentedly chewing tobacco, sitting taciturnly for hours.
Death of his eldest daughter, Anna Maria.
W.F. Knight becomes Asylum
Steward, Dr Nesbitt
. Knight transcribes many of Clare's poems in the
Death of his father, Parker, aged 82.
Death of his youngest son, Charles.
Dr Edwin Wing becomes Superintendent of Northampton
(20 May) dies at Northampton; is brought home and
buried at Helpston.
Sources & further reading:
John Clare By Himself, ed. Eric Robinson
(Ashington and Manchester: Mid-NAG and Carcanet, 1996).
John Clare, The Journals, Essays and Journey out of Essex, ed. Anne Tibble
(Manchester: Carcanet, 1980).
John Clare: Poems of the Middle Period, 1822-1837, eds. Eric Robinson, David Powell and P. M. S. Dawson
(Oxford: Clarendon, four volumes, 1996-8).
The Later Poems of John Clare, eds. Eric Robinson, David Powell and Margaret Grainger
(Oxford: Clarendon, two volumes, 1989).
The Letters of John Clare, ed. Mark Storey (Oxford: Clarendon, 1985).
Edward Storey, A Right to Song: The Life of John Clare, (London, 1986).
Mark Storey, ed., Clare: the Critical Heritage (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973).
Anne and J. W. Tibble, John Clare: A Life, (Southampton, 1932; revised edition London, 1972).