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The Peasant Poet

John Dugdale in the Guardian’s Saturday books review (May 17th) laments the fact that while the BBC’s celebration of the centenary of the birth of Dylan Thomas seems to have kicked off six months early it looks as if the 150th anniversary of the death of another British poet who celebrated nature will pass unmarked on British radio and television. John Clare, who died on May 20th, 1864 at Northampton General Lunatic Asylum, was, according to his biographer Jonathan Bate, “the greatest labouring-class poet that England has ever produced. No one has ever written more powerfully of nature, of a rural childhood, and of the alienated and unstable self”.

Clare is not to be entirely forgotten, but, as Dugdale points out, the planned commemorative events seem to be taking place only in places associated with his life: in other words he is being celebrated as a local poet rather than as a significant British poet. Dugdale suggests that this may be because he “lacks poetic imitators and advocates: contemporary nature poems are rare, and the best authors who write them – Alice Oswald, Kathleen Jamie – are neither followers of Clare nor members of the small tribe of poet-broadcasters”.

We should perhaps note at this point that Clare has not been entirely forgotten in Ireland: Brian Maye wrote an excellent Irishman’s Diary in The Irish Times very recently about him, stressing in particular the social context in which he wrote his poems:

The countryside to which he was so close and the nature about which he wrote so lovingly and with such a keen eye underwent massive upheaval in the early 19th century. Acts of Enclosure from 1809 to 1820 gave landowners permission to fence off the fields, heaths, woods and commons upon which many of the rural poor depended for a living. Ancient trees and hedges were uprooted, rivers were canalised and the fens were drained.
This destruction of a centuries-old way of life and the changes that it brought distressed Clare greatly. “Inclosure came and trampled on the grave / Of labour’s rights and left the poor a slave … / And birds and trees and flowers without a name / All sighed when lawless law’s enclosure came.”

Clare is perhaps most anthologised today for his poem “I Am!” I first read this in either very late childhood or early adolescence and I think it was the first poem (as opposed to verse) whose particular music affected me – I was a precocious child but have fallen away since. The sense of melancholy is certainly part of the appeal and the unrelenting focus on self: just the thing for a young snip barely out of short pants on whom the sad but not entirely unpleasant truth is beginning to dawn that he is more sensitive than his parents.

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 shades in love and death’s oblivion lost;
And yet I am! and live with shadows tost

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;
And e’en the dearest ‑ that I loved the best ‑
Are strange ‑ nay, rather stranger than the rest.

I long for scenes where man has never trod;
A place where woman never smil’d 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.

Brian Maye's Irishman' Diary is at http://bit.ly/1lU4frm