Hazel Fort’s Thoughts on John Clare – ‘His Life, His Loves, His Poetry’

We had a fascinating meeting on 6th May led by Dr Valerie Pedlar who told us about the poet, John Clare. It came as a surprise to many of us to know that there is a thriving John Clare Society which produces a regular journal.

The life and works of this poet are both entrancing and tragic. His poetry – contributions of which were beautifully read by John Sharp – ran into four published volumes with many more unpublished. They celebrated his love of nature and his love of the female sex; many actually beginning with, ‘I love’. A lot of his poetry was written in the dialect which he grew up with and which introduced words and phrases into the English language:

‘Frit at the bowd ear…’

And ‘crizzle’ (meaning to crisp up)

are both strongly suggestive of his native accent, being brought up in the villages of the Peterborough area.

His ballad to Mary Joyce, his first love, is tender:

‘I would steal a kiss but I dare not presume….

A whole summer’s day would I kiss thee Mary.’

His wife, Patty, was, like Mary, smitten but, like Mary, her father disapproved strongly of Clare: he, a poor farmhand’s boy, and they relatively successful. Clare’s success as a poet was owed to his London publisher, John Taylor, and two prominent patronesses.

Alas, Clare was dogged by a type of depression known today as bi-polar and was committed albeit kindly into two mental asylums. There he roamed the woods and dales exploring his love of nature and continuing to write. In his deluded state, he imagined he was Shakespeare and Lord Byron whose poetry he savagely parodied. He continued to write sketches and prose but his poetry surpasses these mediums.

The cottage where he lived is maintained by the Society and a statue of him may be seen. He was surprisingly small and the statue is hung about by birds, rabbits and his fiddle representing his love of music and nature. A portrait of him hangs in the National Gallery showing him sensitive and somewhat wistful. His depression was, as I have said, tragic, but we have those catalogues of his work which we can read and appreciate: not a simple ‘Northamptonshire peasant’ but a genius.

Hazel Fort

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