The Peasant Poet

Peter Batten celebrates John Clare…

I am! yet what I am none cares or  knows,

My friends forsake me like a memory lost…

These lines are from the poem, “I am”, which, over the past sixty years, has been read and admired by more and more people. They were written by John Clare, known in his own time as ‘The Peasant Poet’.
Recently, I joined the John Clare Society which has been formed to encourage the understanding and appreciation of his poetry. At Cambridge University the English Faculty now has a special study group devoted to him. From these sources I hope to learn much more about his life and his poetry.

In fact, I already know quite a lot. From 1959-1961 I was the Adult Education Tutor for the Village College at Glinton in Cambridgeshire, a village very close to Helpston, where Clare was born in 1793. The villages he names in his poems and letters are quite familiar to me. During those years I learned something of his unhappy life, his marriage, and his final years in Northampton’s Asylum. As I read more of his poetry I began to feel that he had been unjustly overlooked by the historians of our literature.

Let me explain. As poets, novelists, dramatists pass into history an accepted hierarchy emerges. In the case of our literature, after the ‘Romantic’ era, from 1750 – 1850, it became accepted that the major poets had been Wordsworth and Coleridge, Keats and Shelley, plus Lord Byron, whose poetry had been so admired across Europe. But this short list ignores three major talents. First, from Scotland, the unique Robert Burns; then William Blake, so influential both in Art and Poetry; and, finally, John Clare.

Victorian watercolour circa 1840 reputed to be John Clare Artist unknown
Victorian watercolour circa 1840 reputed to be John Clare
Artist unknown

In the second half of the 20th century awareness and appreciation of his work grew substantially. Therefore he joined Burns and Blake to form a group of ‘outsiders’, whose work is considered to be just as important as that of the five who were so admired by the Victorians. My own studies as a teacher of literature have led me to agree with this revaluation.

During this year I have had the pleasure of presenting two selections from Clare’s poetry to the Brighton Poetry for Pleasure group. They meet every Monday at the Cornerstone Community Centre in Hove to hear readings from a wide selection of poetry. During the Brighton Festival in May I was able to attend an event sponsored by the John Clare Society which celebrated his heroic final journey back to Northamptonshire. As a result I met the composer Terence Deadman, who has set several of Clare’s finest poems to music. The most challenging is his setting of the poem I quoted above.

I continue to study Clare’s poetry and his life, but I treasure one memory from the days when I was just becoming acquainted with Clare’s poetry. The Village College at Glinton had an annual verse-speaking competition. I was given the task of preparing a class of 12-13 year olds to read a poem to the competition audience. I chose Clare’s great poem “Badger”. This was not a popular choice with the Warden of the College or with several of the children. I persevered and eventually a presentable reading was achieved. I suspect at that time only a handful of those present knew anything about Clare, but I am proud that I achieved my aims: thirty local children spent a few hours learning and speaking John Clare’s words; an audience of about six hundred local people heard those words; I believe they all felt the emotion Clare had expressed.

I wonder how many of the children remember the Badger and John Clare today?

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