I Am – by John Clare

Yesterday’s edition of Words and Music, entitled Village Minstrel, was inspired by the poems of John Clare, so I couldn’t resist a quick post to encourage people who missed the programme to listen to it online. It’s not just about Clare’s poetry, and the choice of music inspired by it, but also gives a vivid insight into the harshness of country life in the early 19th Century and the brutality of a legal system that could sentence a man to death for the theft of half a crown.

John Clare’s biography is very 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 think I know what he means.

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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: