I am

The British poet John Clare was never meant to be anything but a farmer, according to his father. History would show, that Clare would live to be a poet and became the most important labouring-class poet of his time. This is the poem I am.


John Clare
John Clare. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

John Clare – the Northamptonshire Peasant Poet

The title John Clare (July 13 1793 – May 20 1864) was given him based on his heritage. Just like his father, Clare became a farm labourer. Even as a child. When he wasn’t working, he attended school in Glinton Church. His education stopped when he was twelve years old. He then started working as waiter in the tavern Blue Bell (pot boy). Here he fell in love for this first time. However, the father of his sweetheart forbade his daughter (Mary Joyce) to spent time with Clare.

His second job was a position as a gardener at Burghley House. After that he hold a few temporary jobs. He was constantly dealing with health issues, due to malnutrition in his early life. Around this time, he bought a book written by James Thomson (The seasons). He was so greatly inspired, that he began to write poetry. The reason for him to publish his work, was more a necessity. His parents were forced out of their house and in an attempt to stop this, Clare tried to sell his poems to Edward Drury. This was a bookseller with contacts in the literary world. His cousin, John Taylor, was one of the publishers of the work of John Keats and he was interested in the work he received. Clare’s work was published in the book Poems descriptive of rural life and scenery. A year later, another book – entitled Village minstrel and other poems – was published. There was much attention for the work of Clare. Many people found it to be very interesting that a farm boy was able to write such fine words. In the same year this book was published, he married Martha Turner (1820).

Even though his books were a success, his financial situation did not change for the better. In 1823, he was going through rough times. It wasn’t until 1827, that he was able to publish new work: The shepherd’s calendar. This book wasn’t quite the success he hoped for. He was forced to work in the fields again and this had a heavy toll on his life. He was in constant struggle between work, illness and how to feed his children. This lead to a severe depression. By 1830, his fame was fading. Two years later he was helped by friends to move to a bigger cottage in Northborough. Here he wrote his last book – Rural muse (1835). This book was applauded by critics, but it didn’t mean that his financial situation would improve. His behaviour caused a crisis in his marriage. He was eventually taken into a private asylum, where he could receive medical care. Here he made clear that he was a prize fighter and had two wives. He also claimed that he was in fact no other than Lord Byron.

In the asylum, Clare took it upon himself to re-write the works of Byron. He began to take credit for work he did not wrote, such as the works of William Shakespeare. In 1841 he escaped the asylum, to meet his first love, Mary Joyce. He walked for 140 kilometres, before he was told by her family that she died a few years earlier. He would then return home to Northborough. He was then admitted to another asylum; The Northampton General Lunatic Asylum. His doctor wrote in the admission papers, that his condition was caused by nothing more than writing poetical prosing for years. The doctor at the asylum, Dr. Thomas Octavius, encouraged him to write more. He then wrote the poem which we cover today: I am.

At the age of 70, on May 20 1864, Clare died. He was buried at St. Botolph’s churchyard. His gravestone holds the text:

“To the Memory of John Clare The Northamptonshire Peasant Poet… A poet is Born not Made.”


I am

John Clare

John Clare

I am: yet what I am none cares or knows
My friends forsake me like a memory lost,
I am the self-consumer of my woes—
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shadows in love’s frenzied, stifled throes—
And yet I am, and live—like vapors tossed

Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life or joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;
Even the dearest, that I love the best,
Are strange—nay, rather stranger than the rest.

I long for scenes, where man hath never trod,
A place where woman never smiled or wept—
There to abide with my Creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept,
Untroubling, and untroubled where I lie,
The grass below—above the vaulted sky.

Analysis of I am

When taking the medical condition of Clare in consideration, it’s almost impossible to believe that he wrote this poem. Or is it? Is this the Clare who believed, that his friends did not really know who he was? Or the one who thought he was just alone. This is the poet who asks to be relieved from his sorrows and maybe wants to end his life. This is clearly someone who is suffering from a severe depression.

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