Friday, December 14, 2007

John Clare - I am

In his 40s, Clare began to suffer from delusions. He spent the last 25 or so years of his life in an insane asylum.* During that period, he wrote about 900 poems.

'I Am'

I feel I am; - I only know I am,
And plod upon the earth, as dull and void:
Earth's prison chilled my body with its dram
Of dullness, and my soaring thoughts destroyed,
I fled to solitudes from passions dream,
But strife persued - I only know, I am,
I was a being created in the race
Of men disdaining bounds of place and time:-
A spirit that could travel o'er the space
Of earth and heaven, - like a thought sublime,
Tracing creation, like my maker, free, -
A soul unshackled - like eternity,
Spurning earth's vain and soul debasing thrall
But now I only know I am, - that's all.

There's a more famous "I Am" poem on a similar theme, available from this useful book review of a recent Clare biography. It's inevitably tempting to read these poems with pity, as a symptom of Clare's illness. But the condition described seems universal to me, and the result, the fundamental sense of identity, profound.

Clare the rustic nature poet has seemed like a minor poet to many critics, although not to me. But the "I Am" poems, and a number of others from his long life in the asylum, seem to me to obviously be the work of a major writer, ranking with Keats and Shelley.

I've been using the thick Oxford Major Works, because I own a copy, but the recent "I Am": The Selected Poetry of John Clare might be a better choice for most readers who want to spend some time with Clare.

* What is the connection between English poets of the 18th and 19th century and mental illness? The casualty list is horrifying - Cowper, Collins, Smart. Less severely, Swift, Johnson, Blake. A strange phenomenon.

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