The John Clare Exhibition


A large portrait greets you, as you enter the room.
The ardent young poet, hair tousled;
eyes heavenward for inspiration.
Reports described him already suffering
“. . . fits of enthusiastic rhyming.”
He had scribbled his verse on bags of sweets;
on the grease-stained wrappings of butter.
Seen his mother use them as kindle for the fire,
or to boil water in the kettle.

He railed against the evils of “enclosure”:
the corralling of land, formerly free to all.
His words, his spirit, now themselves enclosed,
enshrined in glass cases; shrouded in dim lighting.
But this enclosure is intended as benign;
protecting the faded writing.

His own enclosure was not so benign:
within the walls of the Northamptonshire
Lunatic Asylum, suffering from
that most heinous of maladies:
“. . . years of poetical prosing.”

A final image: the harmless lunatic,
aged, balding, but essentially the same
innocent features as in the youthful portrait –
allowed by his warders to sit
in the portico of All Saint’s Church,
and gaze, placidly, at the passers-by.

A series of questions hang in the air,
as you stare at his reticent death mask.
Success and sadness, metre and madness;
unanswerable questions, but, still, you ask.

John Clare (1793-1864) was a poet who gained a degree of fame, mainly for his nature poems, at a time when there was a vogue for rural poetry and “ploughman poets”.  He was the son of a labourer, born in the Northamptonshire village of Helpstone, where he spent his early years working as a hedge-setter and day labourer.  After gaining success as a poet in the 1820’s and 30’s, he, sadly, was certified insane in 1841 and spent the rest of his life in Northampton General Asylum.

Helpstone  is actually not far from Peterborough, where I’ve been living for the past 25 years, and Clare is often spoken of as a Peterborough poet.  When I saw that Peterborough Museum had an exhibition devoted to John Clare, I felt obliged to give it a visit – partly out of guilt, due to my lack of knowledge of a well-known poet who had lived so close-by.  The poem above is an attempt to describe my feelings and impressions, as I walked around the exhibition.

I was struck by the contemporary descriptions of him “suffering” from “fits of enthusiastic rhyming” and “years of poetical prosing”.  It was almost as if Clare had been thrown into a lunatic asylum merely for practising the art of poetry!  I realize the situation must have been much more complex than that, and Clare must have experienced various mental problems.  Nonetheless, it reminded me of the fact that poets have often been regarded as “idle dreamers”, and society as a whole tends to be not so well-disposed towards them.


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