Friday, September 5, 2014

I am

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 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.

Why on earth have I included this in my collection? It goes with the comment I made some few pages ago, that we have foolishly and lazily created a Canon of Culture that excludes much of the great work and many of the great artists. In the English Canon Clare stands alongside Blake and William Morris and D. H. Lawrence as the great template of anti-culture, a totally uneducated peasant who had the gall to enter culture by the front door, when clearly he should have come to the tradesman's back-entrance, the way he did when he worked as a gardener at Burghley House; a farm labourer's son from Northamptonshire, who enlisted in the militia rather than becoming an officer by dint of pedigree and having gone to Eton; a man who lived among gypsies, worked as a lime burner, at one stage of his life was forced to beg alms from the parish; a man who wrote poetry only to get the money to prevent his debt-ridden parents from being evicted from his house. And then, having forced his grubby way into the elite provenance of the leisured classes, this man of no education had the impudence, or was it the temerity, to write in dialect, without proper punctuation or correct spelling; and worse, berated the bourgeoisie and the wonders of their industrial revolution; and worser still, trudged through the Reform Club in his marsh-boots singing of the glories of the rural life, when the man didn't even have a country estate to retreat to at the weekends. How dare he presume to be remembered or anthologised at all!

By the end of his life – the last twenty-three years of which were passed in an asylum for the mentally incurable - Clare was forgotten and ignored, even by those few who had taken notice of the five-foot malnutritious pipsqueak in his lifetime. That he is still remembered by a few today owes much to Edmund Blunden, who admired him as a Romantic and rated him higher than Wordsworth, and to Benjamin Britten, who set some of Clare's "A Shepherd's Calendar" as part of "The Driving Boy" in his "Spring Symphony".

But still, why on earth have I included this in my collection – this poem, I mean, rather than this poet? Because in creating the great Canon of Culture, this single poem of Clare's is the one that gets remembered, anthologised, set for school examinations; and it is an awful poem, a horrible suicide-note of a poem, a self-pitying whine like the complaint of a schoolboy who has been bullied, and who does not recognise his own collaboration in his victimhood. O woe is me, he moans. No one loves me, he snivels. And when he sounds his note of transcendence, when he seeks to rise above it all – his answer is escapism. I run away to nature, he proclaims, because trees don't call me peasant and badgers don't call me pipsqueak. Give me the fantasy of God, he prays, because I really cannot take reality.

I hate this poem. I hate the fact that this is the solitary example of his great oeuvre that is remembered - almost as if, by remembering this travesty, he will be instantly and justifiably dismissed by those whose bourgeois upbringing requires them to dismiss him. You see, they can see, this is the sort of thing he wrote, we don't know stuff like this in our magnificent Canon. 

So I have included it, the inverse of a banned poem (a really bad exemplar can destroy a man's reputation, and so removes him far more effectively than banning him, which tends to get him re-instated through the underground), precisely so that future readers should know the name John Clare, and use this as a springboard to go away and find the work for which he deserves to be immortalised. As always, Poetry Foundation and Poem Hunter are the places to start, though there aren't many at either, and few of the best.

My personal recommendations are... but no, you don't need my recommendations. Explore, and read, and choose your own.

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