John Clare Biography
CLARE, JOHN (1793–1864), an English poet, was born 13 July 1793, at Helpstone, a village halfway between Peterborough and Stamford.
John Clare had a twin sister who died before him. His father, Parker Clare, was a floor labourer in receipt of parish relief. After a short time at an infant school he was put, in his seventh year, to keep sheep and geese on the common, where he learnt old songs from ‘Granny Bains,’ the village cowherd. Before he was twelve he was employed in threshing. In the winter evenings he attended a school at Glinton, four or twelve miles from his home, and got into algebra.
For a year (about 1808) he was employed as outdoor servant by Francis Gregory, landlord of the ‘Blue Bell’ at Helpstone, who encouraged him to read such literature as came in his way, chiefly of the chapbook kind. Here he fell in love with Mary Joyee, whose father, a well-to-do farmer, put a stop to their intercourse.
He came across a copy of Thomson’s ‘Seasons,’ and managed to raise a shilling and a half with which, after two walks to Stamford, he bought the book. He next obtained a place as under-gardener at Burghley Park, the seat of the Marquis of Exeter, where he got into bad company, who taught him to drink and whose brutality induced him to run away after eleven months. He found work at Helpstone, read the ‘Seasons’ assiduously, and began to write verses of his own.
He was discouraged for a time by a futile attempt to study grammar, which a friend had represented as an essential preliminary to poetry. His songs were still up lauded by a convivial set of villagers, with some of whom he enlisted (1812) in the militia, which he accompanied to Oundle. In the disbandment of the regiment. he returned to his father’s with two or three odd volumes of poetry.
A Promising Start
He had another luckless love affair, joined some gipsies for a time, and at last, in 1817 got work at a lime-kiln. Out of nine shillings a week he saved enough to buy a large blank paper book from a Mr. Henson of Market to be filled with his poems. In the autumn of 1817 he fell in love with Martha Turner, a pretty girl of eighteen. Her parents, who were ‘cottage farmers,’ objected to Clare’s poverty, and his suit languished. Towards the end of the year he got Mr. Henson to print a prospectus for a collection for a collection of ‘Oriental Trifles by John Clare.’ A ‘Sonnet to the Setting Sun’ was added as a specimen. Henson at last agreed to print the volume if a hundred subscribers could be obtained and 10 shillings advanced. That was impossible. Clare was soon discharged by his employer for wasting his time in scribbling; his parents had become paupers, and he had himself to apply for relief to the parish. Only seven subscribers were obtained for his book. Clare, almost in despair, thought of leaving his home to seek for work.
Meanwhile, in the spring of 1819 Mr. Drury, a bookseller of Stamford, saw a letter written by Clare to a Mr. Thompson, his predecessor in business. The note was wrapped ‘in a halfsheet of dirty foolscap paper, on which was penned “The Setting Sun.” Drury thought highly of the poem; showed it to Mr. R. Newcomb, proprietor of the ‘Stamford Mercury;’ went with Newcomb two days later to Helpstone to visit Clare, and suggested the publication of a volume of Clare’s poems. Drury was at first discouraged by some unfavourable criticisms, but he placed the poems before John Taylor (of the firm of Taylor & Hessey), who saw merit in them and decided to publish them. Taylor went to Stamford and saw Clare at the house of Octavius Gilchrist, then residing at Stamford. Gilchrist, by Taylor’s desire, wrote an account of the interview for the first number of the ‘London Magazine’ (January 1820), which in 1821 passed into the hands of Taylor & Hessey. Clare had now found employment, and during 1819 received good advice and substantial help from Drury. The volume called ‘Poems, descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery, by John Clare, a Northamptonshire peasant,’ was published 16 Jan. 1821, and at once succeed. Clare was praised by all the reviewers, the ‘Quarterly,’ of May 1820, in an article written by his friend Gilchrist, with additions by Gifford, confirming the general verdict. His poems were recited by Madame Vestris at Covent Garden, and one of them was set to music by Rossini. Lord Fitzwilliam and his son, Lord Melton, asked him to Melt on Park, and the Marquees of Exeter gave him an annuity of 15 guineas for life. At these grand houses he dined in the servants’ halls.
Marriage and Success
Clare now married Martha Turner (16 March 1820). Their first child was born a month later, and it seems that Clare’s fidelity had wavered and been only confirmed by the admonitions of Drury. He appears, however, to have been for the rest of his life a good husband and father. The married pair lived in the old cottage at Helpstone with his parents.
Clare spent a few days in London with a brother-in-law of Gilchrist in April 1820. He dined at his publisher’s table, met men of letters, and was perhaps less comfortable than in the servants hall. He was embarrassed by a consciousness of his rustic clothes and manners, but made valuable friendships with Lord Kadstock and Mrs. Emmerson, who managed to put him at his ease. Clare returned, to be visited by many admirers, wise and foolish. Dr. Bell of Stamford, a retired surgeon of literary tastes, saw him after his return, and persuaded Taylor to get up a subscription for the benefit of Clare, with whose case Taylor joined that of Keats. Lord Fitzwilliam gave 100 pounds, Taylor & Hessey an equal amount. A sum of 420 pounds, 12 shillings was invested from the fund, and produced about 20 pounds. a year. Lord Spencer, at Bell’s solicitation, promised another ten pounds a year for life ; and thus with Lord Exeter’s annuity Clare had 45 pounds a year secured to him, a sum that far eclipsed what he had thus far earned.
Financial and Personal Struggles
In September 1821 appeared Clare’s second book, ‘The Village Minstrel and other Poems,’ in 2 vols. The success was very moderate, a fact attributed by Clare’s biographers to any cause but the obvious one, that the previous success had been greatly due to the author’s position. Curiosity was now satisfied, and Clare’s popularity declined. A visit to London in the spring of 1822 brought him the acquaintance of Thomas Hood, of H. T. Cary, the translator of Dante, and of an artist named Rippingille, who led him into some foolish dissipations. Clare paid two later visits to London (from May to July 1824, and from February to March 1828). In 1824 he saw Coleridge, Lamb, De Quincev, and Hazlitt, and mime a valuable friendship with Allan Cunningham. On the advice of Dr. Darling he became a total abstainer for some years; a system, it is said, rather injurious when combined with enforced abstinence from nourishing food.
Clare was still miserably poor. His later literary efforts were commercial failures. In 1822 some of his songs were set to music by Crouch, and separately issued without advantage to him. His ‘Shepherd’s Calendar,’ more carefully polished than his previous works, appeared in 1827, after long delays, without success. Clare, like more experienced authors, thought the publishers to buume, and had some unpleasant correspondence with Taylor, who seems to have been really kind and judicious. When he was in London in 1828, Taylor offered to let him sell the remaining copies of the ‘Shepherd’s Calendar’ for his own profit. On returning, Clare advertised in the papers and hawked his books over the country to little purpose. He was entertained by admirers at Boston, but retreated from a public dinner, though his friends put a gift of 10 pounds in his bag. He afterwards contributed to annuals, especially Allan Cunningham’s. According to Mr. Martin he found that stone-breaking would have been on the whole more profitable, but Mr. Cherry gives a rather better report. In 1825 he sent a poem to James Montgomery in imitation of Quarles and Wither. Montgomery published it in the ‘Iris’ (15 Feb. 1825), and was inclined to believe it a genuine old poem. While helpless in the trade of literature, he was not more successful in the work from which he was distracted by writing. An attempt to secure a cottage with seven acres broke down, his trustees not having authority for such an investment, and his publisher declining to advance the money on the security of future work.
Gilchrist died in 1823, and the shock helped to bring on a serious illness. Lord Radstock died in 1825. Clare got occasional employment as a farm labourer. He starved himself to procure good food for his family ; and his little library, chiefly of presentation copies, gave his cottage an appearance of comfort which helped to conceal his real distress. The servants at Milton Park (Lord Fitzwilliam’s), Artis, an antiquarian butler, and Henderson, a botanist, were his friends and promised to get him some place on the estates. He took a small farm in 1827, which led to failure. Mossop, the vicar of Helpstone, was kind to him, and he was patronised by Mrs. Marsh, wife of the bishop of Peterborough. He took another farm in 1829 and succeeded better, till a bad season and an illness in 1831 brought fresh difficulties. A sixth child was born in 1830, and a seventh in January 1833. Lord Fitzwilliam who had sent Dr. Smith to attend him, gave him a new cottage at Northborough, three miles from Helpstone, in May 1832. He left his miserable home with great reluctance writing a pathetic poem on the occasion. Dr. Smith was now trying to get a new volume published by subscription. It was published Mr. How as ‘The Rural Muse,’ in July 1835, and brought him 40 pounds. The Literary Fund gave him 50 pounds about the same time (Cherry, pp. 11 5-16). Wilson, writing as “Christopher North” praised him warmly in ‘Blackwood’s Magazine’ for August 1835.
Decline and Death
Meanwhile Clare’s health, never strong, was breaking down under frequent illness and continued privation. He showed symptoms of mental disease, and on a visit to Mrs. Marsh a decided fit of insanity showed itself during a performance of the ‘Merchant of Venice’ at the theatre. In July 1837 he was removed to a private asylum at Fairmead House in Epping Forest, where Dr. Allen, the proprietor, received him for a nominal sum. He still wrote verses, and was kindly treated and allowed to ramble in the forest. Cyrus Redding saw him, and found him calm and apparently sane. His early passion for Mary Joyce revived, and he became possessed with the desire to see her again. On 20, July 1841 he rambled off under this impression and found his way back to Northborough, which he reached in a state of utter exhaustion (23 July). He wrote a curious account of his adventure, published by Martin (pp. 282-9). He was now sent to the county lunatic asylum at Northampton. He was quiet and harmless, and used to sit under the portico of All Saints’ Church. He gradually became infirm, and died quietly, 20 May 1864. He was buried at Helpstone 25 May, the expenses of the funeral being paid by the Hon. G. W. Fitzwilliam (see Cherry, 128 n.) His wife died 5 Feb. 1871.
A memorial was placed over his grave, and another (in 1869) in the village of Helpstone.
This biography is adapted from the Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900 entry written by Leslie Stephen, which draws heavily on contemporary sources and original documents
For additional information you can check out The John Clare Society or, should you be in the neighborhood, you can visit Clare Cottage, Helpston to see how the poet lived and learn more about the environment of rural 19th century England.
You can also read Clare’s work February courtesy of EIL, or visit The John Clare Page, to read more of his work including his 1824 essay “Popularity in Authorship” introduced by the poet John Birtwhistle.