The poetry and madness of John Clare

In early 1860, a poetry fan from London called James Hipkins wrote to Dr. Wing, the superintendent of the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum, inquiring after the welfare of one of the inmates, the nature poet John Clare. The sixty-six-year-old poet’s reply is one of the last things he wrote:

March 8th 1860
Dear Sir
I am in a Madhouse & quite forget your Name or who you are you must excuse me for I have nothing to commu[n]icate or tell of & why I am shutup I dont know I have nothing to say so I conclude
yours respectfully

John Clare

Clare had been in the asylum for eighteen years, having previously spent four years in a private asylum in Essex. He had not once seen his wife in that time; three of his seven surviving children had died; his work had fallen into neglect, and his reputation, such as it was, focussed on his status as a peasant and as a lunatic. Jonathan Bate, in his biography, “John Clare” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; $40), says of the Hipkins letter that “this is a voice not of madness but of quiet despair.” I’m not sure that he’s right—not caring whom you’re writing to or why you’re in a madhouse would be despair; not knowing is surely closer to insanity—but a reader can feel, and like, Bate’s empathy with Clare, his willingness to imagine the texture of his plight. / John Lanchester, The New Yorker 27.10.03

Hier ein in der Anstalt geschriebenes Gedicht des Dichters:

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 vapors 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 love 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.

Hier können Sie das Gedicht in drei verschiedenen Audioversionen hören (Realplayer).

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