John Clare

John Clare (1793-1864), the only known photo of Clare, taken 1862 by W.W.Law – and cover image of Jonathan Bate’s 2003 definitive biography of the poet, drawing from William Hilton’s portrait of 1820

John Clare was born on this day.

Allen Ginsberg, 1n 1985, talking to his Naropa students:

“I was reading a poet called John Clare, who was in a nut house and who, in order to cure his insane tendency towards religious abstraction, (or depression, actually, not related, but some kind of abstraction), in his old age, in the nut house, began writing nature poems, which are composed almost one-hundred percent completely of the most fantastical detailed description of the delicate facts of nature (birds and bees and flowers) that almost any poet has ever done. In fact, to an extreme that’s extreme like it’s nutty, but beautiful – but of course not really balanced, but it’s a good example of it anyway..”

and, some five years earlier:

“John Clare – anybody ever hear of him?  the mad Clare?  He’s an interesting figure because, following Wordsworth, he tries to be grounded and down-to-earth and humble and straightforward, but he’s also a mad man. So he has this… he tries.. there’s this grounding, which is quite real and intelligent and at the same time,  hopeless lost.. I think (possibly alcoholic) lyrics from the bughouse..”

He goes on to read two representative  classic poems of Clare’s. – “Farewell”.  and “I Am” :


Farewell to the bushy clump close to the river
And the flags where the butter-bump hides in forever;
Farewell to the weedy nook, hemmed in by waters;
Farewell to the miller’s brook and his three bonny daughters;
Farewell to them all while in prison I lie—
In the prison a thrall sees naught but the sky.

Shut out are the green fields and birds in the bushes;
In the prison yard nothing builds, blackbirds or thrushes.
Farewell to the old mill and dash of waters,
To the miller and, dearer still, to his three bonny daughters.

In the nook, the larger burdock grows near the green willow;
In the flood, round the moor-cock dashes under the billow;
To the old mill farewell, to the lock, pens, and waters,
To the miller himsel’, and his three bonny daughters.

“Actually, it’s beautiful. Whether he’s in the prison jail or the bug house and looking out, he’s got tremendous grasp of everyday reality outside, as well as a tremendous grasp on a manifestation of his own saddest emotions, not being out there and just a total farewell forever.”

And then the next, “I Am”:


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 or joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;
Even the dearest that I loved the best
Are strange—nay, rather, stranger than the rest.

I long for scenes where man hath 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.

“- It’s poignant”

“It’s sort of insane, but interestingly insane”, he declares in the 1995 class (that also includes readings of several other of Clare’s poems)

We’ll draw your attention to the John Clare Society, “founded in 1981 to promote a wider and deeper knowledge of this remarkable poet”

and to the The John Clare Weblog, a wonderful ongoing resource and attention.

The annual John Clare Society Festival will take place once again this year in England in Helpston, near Peterborough, (Clare’s  birthplace), starting with the Midsummer Cushions Ceremony, at St Botolph’s churchyard tomorrow afternoon (Friday). The theme for the Festival this year will be “John Clare and the Spirit of Place”. The festival will continue over the weekend.


  1. In the late 1970s I facilitated a weekly poetry writing workshop in a state mental health facility in Indianapolis, IN for about 18 months. It was the richest “teaching” experience I ever had.

  2. I have fiddle friends in the UK who are celebrating his birthday today – birthday was 13th, celebrating 15th. I have been trying to find a livestream to their celebration in Northants, England. Came across your acknowledgement. So fine that people are still thinking about him. He walked so many miles in the UK with his fiddle and his words.

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