John Clare (1793-1864) lived in the early 19th century and became briefly famous as the Northamptonshire Peasant Poet. He wrote thousand of poems and songs, and was a good violinist, but is best know today for one very powerful poem called ‘I Am’, which appears in many anthologies. Yet he was not merely an illiterate Peasant Poet, although it is true that he was born into poverty in a cottage in the village of Helpston, near Stamford and now just inside Cambridgeshire (the cottage is seen above in the banner; the Clare family lived in a small part of it). In fact he walked two miles down the road to a school in nearby Glinton, set up in the vestry of the church of St Benedict to the left of the altar. He learned to read and write with ease, and was good at maths, and the handwriting in his manuscripts, often criticized for their lack of punctuation, shows elegant flourishes,
He often walked into Stamford, passing over this bridge after walking through the grounds of Burghley House (here he had worked as a gardener) through what is still an idyliic river scene. But he must have felt out of place in this elegant stone town in his rough working clothes, for a modern statue outside his cottage shows him with gnarled hands, greatcoat, and the heavy working boots of an agricultural labourer. Yet somehow out of pure genius he wrote poems of striking originality
Yet Clare was always an alien. After some literary success, in London he felt an outsider; in Helpston the villagers found him odd. Some beer in a favourite pub, like the Hole in the Wall in Stamford, must have been the only respite, and he was often drunk.
He coined the phrase “self-identity”, which clearly he craved as his literary career faltered.
For it was an impossible leap from the back-breaking poverty of the lime kiln to the elegance and aristocratic life at Burghley or to the Eton College of his contemporary Shelley. Instead, in 1837 he was admitted to the asylum at High Beech in Essex, where he stayed for four years. Famously, he escaped from this second building and walked for 4 days to his new home in Northborough, near Glinton, living on roadside grass. He said he was going to see his two wives, both Patty and Mary (the latter was in fact already dead).
After a brief period at home he was sent to the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum where he remained until his death 23 years later. In the two asylums he often acted strangely. To suit the occasion, and his listeners, he believed he was Shakespeare, had fought as Napoleon, and also Lord Byron. In his mind he had been a personal friend to all the great poets, and wrote a letter which counts as one of the saddest ever:
But he also wrote hundreds of remarkable poems, including I Am, written around 1848 after 7 years in the asylum. When it is understood that this short but powerful work was written in the asylum it comes alive with poignancy, and from the tragic paradox of Clare’s life. The “I”, his self-identity, is precarious. It must be read and heard differently.