JOHN CLARE was that which, I have shown, Ebenezer Elliott was not — an "uneducated" poet I was not acquainted with Robert Bloomfield, who, somewhat before my time, "made a name" and attracted "patronage." He is now almost forgotten: "The Farmer's Boy" is covered with dust on the bookshelves.
Poor John Clare! His posthumous fame is not greater than that of Bloomfield, but his destiny in life was less auspicious. He was born "a Northamptonshire peasant." Happier would it have been for him if, from his birth to his death, his aim had been no higher than to win honours at a ploughing match.
A transitory renown was given him when, in 1820, his first book of poems was printed. He was much "talked about;" the Quarterly Review praised him; Rossini set his verses to music; and Vestris sung them. During a brief visit to the metropolis he was made a lion in certain small coteries; his transitory glory was succeeded by utter and withering neglect; he was consigned to a poverty he had been taught to abhor; and in 1864 he died in the lunatic asylum of the town with which his name is inseparably associated. He was an aged man at his death, having been born at Helpstone in 1793.
I knew him — poor fellow! — in 1826 or 1827, and printed in the Amulet some of the best of his poems — notably, "Mary Lee." But, unhappily, I was ignorant of the untoward circumstances in which he was placed. At a later period, introducing some of his poems, with a brief memoir of him, into the "Book of Gems" (1838), I detailed the sad story of his life. I described him as living in penury, if not want; with no other prospect for old age but that which he gloomily foreboded in one of his early poems,—
To claim the early pittance once a week,
Which justice forces from disdainful pride;
and I appealed for some help that might diminish his desolation — writing, "It is not yet too late: although he has given indications of a brain breaking up, a very envied celebrity may be obtained by some wealthy and good Samaritan who would rescue him from the Cave of Despair;" adding, "Strawberry Hill might be gladly sacrificed for the fame of having saved Chatterton!"
That appeal brought to me a letter from the Marquis of Northampton. His lordship intimated that though he did not think very highly of Clare, he considered it would be a disgrace to the county of Northampton "to leave him in the state in which I had represented him to be;" and suggested the publication of a volume of his poems, of which he himself would take ten or twenty copies! The plan was not carried out; and if the Marquis gave any aid of any kind to the peasant-poet, the world, and I verily believe the poet himself, remained in ignorance of the amount.
At the time of my acquaintance with him he was in the prime of life: short, thick, and stubbed of person, with a singularly large head, much out of proportion to his body. His manners were not coarse, but certainly rough; he had not been raised by the Muse he worshipped out of the position to which he was born; indeed, he never left it, for although he changed from that of a day labourer for bread to that of the holder of a small farm, his own, he was during the whole of his career hardly a grade removed from the rude companions with whom he associated. He seemed, however, essentially amiable, and naturally good; and none of the habits of low society were at any time his. He was a good husband and father; for he wedded early a young girl of his own rank, and the theme of his earlier loves and aspirations.
There was nothing at all assuming in his manners; he did not appear expectant or desirous that his writings should raise him above the humble calling of a bread-winner of the soil. In short, he was a rustic, neither less nor more, to whom had been given a gift that seemed to excite his own wonder.
Poor fellow! his was a sad life — "Despondency and madness." He was not buried in a pauper's grave, although he died a pauper in a public hospital. A small subscription obtained for him a fitter resting-place. His last words were, "I want to go home." They carried his body home — to the graveyard of his native village; and his soul was conveyed to that home where Lazarus has his good things, and likewise Dives his evil things.