Born into rural poverty in 1793, John Clare spent all the early years of his life in and around the village of Helpston between Stamford and Peterborough in eastern England. As an adult, he was only five feet tall. It is believed that this small stature was the result of malnutrition. Records of 1818 show that in that year he requested and received charitable support - what was known as "parish relief".
He had little formal education but as an agricultural labourer he learnt a great deal about the natural world that surrounded him. He was in tune with it and knew its vocabulary and seasonal rhythms intimately. Sometimes he would scribble down his primitive early verse on tree bark as he couldn't afford to buy paper.
The door to publishing may have been forever closed to him had he not stumbled accidentally upon "Seasons" by the eighteenth century Scottish poet James Thompson. It inspired Clare to show some of his own poems to a book seller in nearby Stamford. Co-incidentally the bookseller's cousin worked in publishing in London.
One thing led to another and in 1820 Clare's collection, "Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery" was published. It was a massive turning point in his life. You might say that he was in the right place at the right time. Middle class England had developed an appetite for new literature and as industrial towns and cities drew in farm workers and other country folk there was an associated longing for some kind of lost rural idyll.
Clare's poems celebrated the countryside and as the nineteenth century advanced he became a minor national celebrity, The income he received from his pastoral writing allowed him to just about keep his head above water. However, neither he nor his publisher or his many fans had reckoned on Clare's painful descent into mental ill-health.
He died in an Essex asylum at the age of seventy one, his body being returned for burial to the churchyard in distant Helpston.
|John Clare by William Hilton|
& below an example of Clare's poetry...
I love to see the old heath's withered brake
Mingle its crimpled leaves with furze and ling,
While the old heron from the lonely lake
Starts slow and flaps its melancholy wing,
An oddling crow in idle motion swing
On the half-rotten ash-tree's topmost twig,
Beside whose trunk the gypsy makes his bed.
Up flies the bouncing woodcock from the brig
Where a black quagmire quakes beneath the tread;
The fieldfares chatter in the whistling thorn
And for the awe round fields and closen rove,
And coy bumbarrels, twenty in a drove,
Flit down the hedgerows in the frozen plain
And hang on little twigs and start again.
By John Clare
"awe" - hawthorn berries
"bumbarrels" - long tailed tits
"closen" - small enclosed fields