Poetry was his addiction.

–Jonathan Bate, from the introduction to ‘I Am’: The Selected Poetry of John Clare

John Clare (1793-1864) gets three entries in the OBVV–something less than 1/1000th of his total output, about 3,500 poems, according to Jonathan Bate. #34 dates to sometime in the mid-1840s while he was, in fact, committed to the Northampton County Asylum. (This wasn’t the first time, either. The prose account of his earlier escape from a different asylum is pretty amazing.) This is actually a fairly famous poem, though it’s usually talked about today as “I am”–though it’s not the “I Am” sonnet, as you’ll see:

I am! yet what I am who cares, or knows?

My friends forsake me like a memory lost.

I am the self-consumer of my woes;

They rise and vanish, an oblivious host,

Shadows of life, whose very soul is lost,

And yet I am–I live–though I am toss’d

 

Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,

Into the living sea of waking dream,

Where there is neither sense of life, nor joys,

But the huge shipwreck of my own esteem

And all that’s dear. Even those I loved the best

Are strange–nay, they are stranger than the rest.

 

I long for scenes where man has never trod–

For scenes where woman never smiled or wept–

There to abide with my Creator, God,

And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept,

Full of high thoughts, unborn. So let me lie,–

The grass below; above, the vaulted sky.

Damn, I love this poem. I should  note, of course, that I’ve kept the wording and punctuation as they are in the OBVV; there are a number of variations from what Bate, using a somewhat different editorial principle, has in his collection. This is not insignificant in terms of Clare studies, where editing and the ownership of the edited works are much in doubt. You can read all about it on Wikipedia. Here you can also read about Clare’s pretty fantastically varied life as the much-celebrated (and fetishized) “Peasant Poet.”

I first encountered Clare in a graduate seminar a few years back that paired him with Coleridge and Shelley. I had a hard time getting into his poetry then–my interests were in a different place and I was mostly trying to figure out Kant’s Analytic of the Sublime and Coleridge in general. Coming back to it now, though, I’m just really struck by the beauty of the thing, which is why I’m sharing it here.

Of course, Clare by now has been pretty firmly reclaimed by Romanticists (in a much more forceful and concerted way than, say, Landor). One exception in this regard may be Isobel Armstrong, who considers Clare and Matthew Arnold together in a chapter in Victorian Poetry. (I think this was an argument about masculinity, but I’m kind of fuzzy on its contours.) Nevertheless, thinking through all these issues in relation to Clare can be kind of headspinning–how do you classify someone who was so marginal to so many of these circles yet who occasionally/often better expresses the ideals of those circles than their central exponents. (You want language as it is really spoken by men? You got it.) On some levels he appears to be sui generis. On others he seems to have absorbed the poetry of his time (and of the eighteenth century) better than anyone else. It’s hard for me to think of this poem as being contemporaneous with the Tennyson of the 1840s. The dude outlived Wordsworth by fourteen years, but he did so in a lunatic asylum. And so on.

So, instead of doing all this headspinning–the Romanticists can have that for today–I’ll just go back to what’s really important here. This poem is amazing, right up there, for me, with Coleridge’s “Dejection: An Ode.”

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