That Sweet Flute, John Clare

Today is the birthday of poet John Clare (1793-1864).

19th-century English poet John Clare

Born at Helpston, a village of Northamptonshire, Clare was the child of a poor, mostly illiterate field-laboring family. While himself working in the fields, Clare said that he wrote verses "for downright pleasure in giving vent to my feelings" (kind of like us modern-day folks, with our at-work blogging, hm?). His Poems Descriptive of Rural Life (1820) was critically praised, and he had some resulting success and popularity. However, his subsequent publications of poetry were failures.

In 1837, the sensitive Clare lost his mind, and he was put into an asylum, where he spent most of the rest of his life. It wasn't all bad; he could roam the countryside at will, and he was encouraged to write more poetry. In fact, some of the poems we consider Clare's "best" were composed in his times of madness. Many of his earlier poems celebrate and honor simple, rustic life (Clare was actually known as the "Peasant Poet"). His later poems, written in the asylum, are often poignantly introspective.

American poet Mary Oliver has written a wonderful poem of artists gone mad, which begins with the line, "That sweet flute John Clare .." and which I've posted here.

Today I'm sharing "I Am," which Clare wrote in 1848, more than a decade after he was committed.


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 vapours tossed

Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life nor 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 has 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.


Read more of Clare's biography at poetryconnection.


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