John Clare(1793-1864) and His Famous Poems

circa 1840: English 'nature' poet John Clare (1793-1864). Clare spent much of his life destitute, and died in Northampton General Asylum. Original Artwork: Engraving after Hilton. (Photo by Edward Gooch Collection/Getty Images)

John Clare(1793-1864) the son of a labourer, was born in Helpstone, Northamptonshire, a neighbourhood to which he remained deeply attached, where he worked a hedge-setter and day labourer.

In 1820 he published Poeme Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery, and in the same year married Martha Turner, having parted from his first love Mary Joyce, a sorrow which troubled him throughout his life. His highly successful first volume brought him transient fame and was followed by The Village Minstrel (1821), The Shepherd’s Calendar (1827), and The Rural Muse (1835).

In 1832 he left his native cottage for Northborough, only 4 miles away, but the move, to one so deeply attached to place, was disturbing and reinforced the theme of loss in his work. In 1837 he was admitted as insane to an asylum in High Beach, Epping. He escaped in 1841, walking home to Northamptonshire in the delusion that he would there be reunited with Mary, to
whom he thought himself married. He was once more certified insane, and spent the rest of his life in Northampton General Asylum, where he was allowed much freedom and rewrote some of Lord Byron’s most notable works (he claimed that ‘I was Byron and Shakespeare formerly. At different times…I’m different persons’).

The declining sales of his work may have contributed to his mental troubles, for by the 1830s the vogue for rural poetry and ‘ploughman’ poets such as Robert Burns and Robert Bloomfield was passing; and Clare’s work remained little read until the later 20th century when various new editions of his poetry, autobiographical prose, and letters made it available once more, together with much previously unpublished work.

Clare is now recognized as a poet of great truth and power; his much-anthologized asylum poems have perhaps tended to obscure the real nature of his gifts, and recently more attention has been paid to his highly personal evocations of landscape and place. His best poetry demonstrates a complex sensibility and fine organization and has been variously read as laments for lost love and talent, for the death of rural England, or for lost innocence.

Ronald Blythe labelled Clare ‘England’s most articulate village voice’ and many poets, including Edmund Blunden, Geoffrey Grigson, and Cecil Day-Lewis, have written of their admiration for his work and contributed towards his fuller recognition. The standard scholarly edition, gen. ed. Eric Robinson appeared in nine volumes between 1984-2003 and the best life is Jonathan Bate, John Clare: A Biography (2003). The Letters of John Clare, ed. M. Storey, was published in 1985.

His biographer Jonathan Bate called Clare “the greatest labouring-class poet that England has ever produced. No one has ever written more powerfully of nature, of a rural childhood, and of the alienated and unstable self.”

Poetry Collection of John Clare:

In chronological order:

  • Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery. London, 1820
  • The Village Minstrel, and Other Poems. London, 1821
  • The Shepherd’s Calendar with Village Stories and Other Poems. London, 1827
  • The Rural Muse. London, 1835
  • Sonnet. London 1841
  • First Love
  • Snow Storm.
  • The Firetail.
  • The Badger – Date unknown