I Am

After reading an example of his verse in last week’s weekend Guardian, I decided to buy a book of Selected Poems (in the wonderful Everyman edition for only £3!) by John Clare in Blackwell’s while I was in Oxford on Saturday. I’m ashamed to say I was completely unfamiliar with his work until then. His biography is unusual for a 19th Century poet, in that he was not from a wealthy background, was largely self-educated, and had no private income. In later life he suffered from a depressive illness, endured a number of nervous breakdowns and was, at various times, confined to an asylum. Not highly regarded in his lifetime, his reputation was revived in the 20th Century and he is now considered to be one of the finest poets of his generation.

This, probably his most famous poem, was written by Clare in 1844 or 1845, while he was confined in the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum. In a style highly reminiscent of Byron, it speaks most movingly of the sense of alienation his illness has brought upon him and how he yearns for peace and solitude.

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 shades in love and death’s oblivion lost;
And yet I am! and live with shadows tost

Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life nor joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;
And e’en the dearest–that I loved the best–
Are strange–nay, rather stranger than the rest.

I long for scenes where man has never trod;
A place where woman never smil’d 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.


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