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I Am: John Clare

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Uploaded on Sep 23, 2011

My reading of John Clare's ironically most-anthologised - and in many ways most atypical poem is more angry than most. I cannot see how Clare can have failed to be in a state of fury with the publishing establishment which promoted him as a celebrity "peasant poet" and then dropped him like a hot coal when literary fashions turned maudlin and sentimental. It could only have rubbed salt into the wounds when Clare discovered that Tennyson - his manifest inferior in literary merit - was living in comparative luxury close by the first lunatic asylum to which he was sent: High Beech in Epping Forest. Clare escaped that asylum - with or without the assistance of the local gypsies we shall never know - and walked all the way back home along the present-day A1 to Northborough, convinced that he would be greeted with open arms by his two wives: his lawful wife Patty, and his childhood sweetheart Mary, who had died without his knowledge in a house-fire the year before.

Clare was sent on to a second asylum in Northampton, from which he would never return. At both these institutions, he would have received a daily scriptural diet, and he made good use of it in this poem, converting the claim to divinity expressed by Christ in the Gospel of John -- "I AM that I AM" -- into a personal credo of a very different kind. The poem revisits many of Clare's accustomed themes (the untrustworthiness of human beings, the reliability of natural systems to run their course, the nostalgia engendered by memories of even the most labour-intensive childhood), but his greatest theme of all is condensed into a single phrase; "the grass below". The Old Testament king David, as Clare had pointed out in an earlier poem, did not outlive the moss pillow upon which he laid his head whilst he was composing the Psalms. The sublime survives the longest in the neglected and marginal things.

Clare had an instinctive sympathy for the minute and the insignificant. This sympathy is often misunderstood by those modern critics who are Clare's intellectual and observational inferiors as an inclination to be "over-descriptive": a trait which is singularly lacking from this poem, but which is a defining feature of many of his others. One can only conclude that Clare had better eyesight than most of his critics, and than most of his contemporaries, both in the literal sense, and in the metaphorical. Here, that keen observational skill is trained not so much on the natural world -- whose cycles hinge on death, but at least are predictable -- but on a society which was corrupt and neglectful of some of its greatest minds. Tennyson struggled to turn King Arthur and Lancelot into heroes in a poem the length of a novel; Clare could do it to an ant, a harvest-mouse, a nightjar or a hedgehog in the space of a sonnet.

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