1838 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Clare

S. C. Hall, in The Book of Gems. The Modern Poets and Artists of Great Britain (1838) 162.



JOHN CLARE was born at Helpstone, near Peterborough, Northamptonshire, in 1793. His father was a day labourer; and the Poet was acquainted with Poverty long before he associated with the Muse. His manhood has been doomed to a lot an severe, and it would seem that want is his only prospect in old age; for modern legislation has deprived him even of the hope" on which he reckons, in one of his early poems, as "last resource,"

To claim the humble pittance once a-week,
Which justice forces from disdainful pride.

The story of his life presents, perhaps, one of the most striking and affecting examples that the history of unhappy genius has ever recorded; illustrating in a sad and grievous manner the misery produced by the gift of mind in a humble station, — by great thoughts nourished in unfitting places. If ever the adage which tells us that a Poet is born a Poet, has been practically realized, it is in the case of the peasant of Northamptonshire. If ever the pursuit of knowledge under difficulties has been made clear beyond a doubt, it is in his case. It is our melancholy task to add — if ever the oft-denied assertion, that genius is but the heritage of woe, maybe placed beyond controversy, it is in this instance also. By working "over-hours," he contrived to earn enough to pay for learning to read; the savings of eight weeks sufficed to obtain a month's "schooling;" and his first object having been achieved, his next was to procure books. A shilling made him the master of Thomson's Seasons; and he immediately began to compose poetry: but for some time afterwards, being unable to master funds to procure paper, he was compelled to entrust to his memory the preservation of his verses. He lived in the presence of Nature, and worshipped her with a genuine and natural passion: "the common air, the sun, the skies;" the "old familiar faces" of the green fields, with their treasures of blade and wild flower, were the sources of his inspiration; and the people-their customs, their loves, their griefs, and their amusements — were the themes of his verse. Thus he went on, making and writing poetry, for thirteen years, "without having received a single word of encouragement, and without the most distant prospect of reward." Perhaps his destiny would have been happier had he never encountered either. Accident, however, led to the publication of a volume of his Poems: it passed through several editions, and brought money to the writer; a few "noble" patrons doled out some guineas; and we believe that something like an annuity was purchased for the Poet; — several other volumes followed; but the public no longer sympathized when they ceased to be astonished, — and latterly we imagine, not only has the writer received nothing for his productions, but the sale of them has not sufficed to pay the expenses of their publication.

Clare has, we understand, made an unsuccessful, indeed a ruinous, attempt to improve his condition, by farming the ground he tilled; and has for some years existed in a state of poverty, as utter and hopeless as that in which he passed his youth. He has a wife and a very large family; and it is stated to us, that at times his mind gives way under the sickness of hope deferred. His appearance, when some years ago it was our lot to know him, was that of a simple rustic; and his manners were remarkably gentle and unassuming. He was short and thick, yet not ungraceful, in person. His countenance was plain but agreeable; he had a look and manner so dreamy, as to have appeared sullen — but for a peculiarly winning smile; and his forehead was so broad and high, as to have bordered on deformity. Further, we believe that in his unknown and uncherished youth, and in his after-days when some portion of fame and honour fell to his share, he maintained a fair character, and has subjected himself to no charge more unanswerable than that of indiscretion in applying the very limited funds with which he was furnished after the world heard of his name, and was loud in applause of his genius. It is not yet too late for a hand to reach him; a very envied celebrity may he obtained by some wealthy and good "Samaritan;" — Strawberry Hill might be gladly sacrificed for the fame of having saved Chatterton.

We do not place him too high when we rank John Clare at the head of the Poets who were, and continued to be, "uneducated," according to the stricter meaning of the term. The most accomplished of British Poets will not complain at finding him introduced into their society: — setting aside all consideration of the peculiar circumstances under which he wrote, he is worthy to take his place among them.