Growing up near Northampton, the “peasant poet” John Clare was a mysterious figure from my childhood. The town’s reference library had odd books and records dedicated to him and in a picture his face in old age was like a wall of moss, with fuzzy outlines. The town church had a seat with a plaque above it saying he used to sit there in his dotage and watch the world go by. The local psychiatric hospital was where he spent many years before his death, locked in his dreams. Taken together, these elements created a haunting picture in my young mind.
Of course, in those days John Clare was not the figure of international study he has become today. One or two of his more accessible poems had been anthologised of course (“I am”), but he remained a writer on the fringes of society, more a curiosity than a creator of great works. His fans were fanatical but few in number.
Sometimes we forget that the internet was originally created to allow researchers and scholars to share their work and their thoughts with one another. And the reputation of John Clare grew through this medium as lone students and widely dispersed fans found each other over several years to share their devotion. As a result, he is now very popular in American universities.
His gnomic poems and new editions of his once dusty letters became available online as the word grew. Papers and fresh viewpoints began to circulate. At last, the peasant poet was feted like an aristocrat.
Dipping into his deceptively simple letters at random, I came across the following gem, with its typically eccentric spelling:
Tuesday 1 February 1825
A beautiful morning…took a walk in the fields …saw some birch poles in the quick fencing and fancyd the bark of birch might make a good substitute for Paper… it is easily parted in thin lairs and one shred of bark round the tree would spilt into 10 or a dozen sheets and I have tryd it and find it receives the ink very easily
He was a great walker, one of his most famous excursions being a long journey from an asylum in Essex back to his beloved home village of Helpstone in Northamptonshire. Travelling at this pace, he sought to walk himself back to sanity, meeting and talking with many people along the way, studying the minutiae of nature every step he took.
That’s how I like to remember him best, walking his way from madness to home and sanity when the power of nature was almost too much for him to bear, as it could be many times a day in his early life. In a poem from that time it is clear he could hear and feel every raindrop that fell on a lonely flower in the middle of a deserted wood and, as the above extract shows, see writing material on the very surfaces of the trees he encountered. Multum in parvo, as the Romans used to say.