English poet John Clare (1793–1864) was born in Helpstone, Northamptonshire where he spent most of his life. The son of an agricultural worker, he was forced to go to work at an early age.
The publication of his first volume of poetry, Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery (1820), brought him fame and a degree of financial security. His later works were less successful. He suffered bouts of severe depression, suffered from delusion and was committed to a lunatic asylum. He spent 26 years of his life in one asylum or another. He left High Beach Asylum in Epping Forest in July 1841 and walked 80 miles back home, to be later described in his book Journey Out of Essex. Locked away in a lunatic asylum didn't stop his writing and he continued to write poetry, becoming increasingly influenced by the work of Byron. Whilst in an asylum Clare thought himself to be both William Shakespeare and Lord Byron.
John Clare had a foot in two worlds, fashionable, literati London and the illiterate poor of his village. As a consequence he belonged in neither.
I live here among the ignorant like a lost man in fact like one whom the rest seemes careless of having anything to do with – they hardly dare talk in my company for fear I should mention them in my writings and I find more pleasure in wandering the fields than in musing among my silent neighbours who are insensible to everything but toiling and talking of it and that to no purpose.
In 1820, at the age of 26, Clare's first collection of poetry Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery was published by John Taylor a London bookseller. It was an immediate success and Clare became known as the 'peasant poet'. However, his subsequent collections The Village Minstrel (1821), The Shepherd's Calendar (1827) and The Rural Muse (1835) sold badly and Clare sank into alcoholism and his mental health deteriorated.
It was the purchase of Seasons with money he could barely afford that led to John Clare writing poetry and it was Thomson who helped get Clare published in 1820, the same year Clare married Patty Turner.
In 1837 Clare was admitted to an asylum in Epping, Essex. However, in 1841 he escaped and walked all the way back to Northborough in the hope that he would be reunited with his childhood sweetheart Mary Joyce. Shortly after he was transferred to Northampton General Lunatic Asylum - an institution where he was to spend the last 23 years of his life. Clare continued to write poetry until the end of his life. While in Northampton Asylum he wrote the famous, desolate and introspective 'I Am'.
Clare described life in an asylum as "the purgatorial hell and French Bastille of English liberty, where harmless people are trapped and tortured until they die". Though ironically, this is where some of his best work was written, locked away from his beloved countryside.
John Clare is best known for his accounts of village and rural life and most importantly for documenting the changes that were happening to the countryside, open heaths being enclosed.
His works include Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery (1820), The Village Minstrel and Other Poems (1821), The Shepherd's Calendar (1827), and The Rural Muse (1835).
One of his best loved poems 'I am', does not deal with rural life, rather is a short, highly introspective piece, written whilst in an asylum. Peggy Reynolds in Adventures in Poetry on BBC Radio 4, explored the background, effect and lasting appeal of 'I Am' by John Clare. [Broadcast Sunday 7 December 2008, repeated Saturday 13 December 2008]
John Clare lies buried in St Botolph's churchyard in Helpston. In 1989 he was honoured with a plaque in 'Poets' Corner' in Westminster Abbey. There is also a memorial to him in the village of Helpston.
On his death, Clare's wife Patty was forced to sell the copyright to his works in order to survive. A copyright that has been claimed by an American Professor, a claim that is refuted by many scholars. Those not to have benefitted from his work are John Clare's descendants.
John Clare lived in a cottage in Helpstone next to the Blue Bell Pub. The cottage has been purchased by The John Clare Trust and it is hoped the cottage will be open to the public in 2009. It was in the Blue Bell Pub that John Clare worked as a pot boy. It was also here that he met the first love of his life Mary Joyce, but it was not to be, her father a wealthy landowner forbade her to associate with John Clare, then a poor peasant.
A collection of original John Clare manuscripts is housed at Peterborough Museum.
Almost as delusional as Clare himself, since 1965 Professor Eric Robinson has been claiming copyright for the works of Clare. A claim no one takes seriously but Robinson. [see Poor Clare and Clare's rights]