John Clare

(1793—1864) poet, farm labourer, and naturalist

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poet, the son of a labourer, was born in Helpstone, Northamptonshire, where he worked as a hedge‐setter and day labourer. In 1820 he married Martha Turner, having parted from his first love, Mary Joyce, a sorrow which troubled him throughout his life. His successful first volume, Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery (1820), 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 four 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, whence 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. By the 1830s the vogue for rural poetry and ‘ploughman’ poets such as Burns and R. Bloomfield was passing; and Clare's work remained little read until the 20th cent. 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 poems (‘Remembrances’, ‘The Flitting’, ‘Decay’) demonstrate a complex sensibility and fine organization, and have been variously read as laments for lost love and talent, for the death of rural England, or for lost innocence. Unlike many poets from a similar background, he insisted to his publisher John Taylor that he would continue to write in his own language, dialect, and idiosyncratic grammar. His Poems (1935), Prose (1951), and Letters (1951) were edited by J. W. and A. Tibble; The Shepherd's Calendar, ed. E. Robinson and G. Summerfield, appeared in 1964; and his Later Poems (ed. E. Robinson and D. Powell, with M. Grainger) in 1984.

Subjects: Literature.

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