Skip to content

“Untroubling and untroubled”: Notes on a poem by John Clare

August 5, 2011

The Blue Bell Inn. Clare lived in the cottage next door. Photo by "uplandswolf" (at Flickr).

The following anthology piece laid hold of me when I encountered it, some decades ago now, in Arthur Quiller-Couch‘s Oxford Book of English Verse. It’s by John Clare, of course, born into poverty in 1793 in Helpstone, a village named as if somehow for the purpose of bringing about, in the ripeness of time, such a poet as him.

Clare’s father was on parish relief, and his twin sister died in infancy. At age seven Clare was “put to keep sheep and geese,” in the inimitable prose of The Dictionary of National Biography, “where he learnt old songs from ‘Granny Bains,’ the village cowherd.” In about 1808 (here the DNB equivocates) Clare took employment as “an outdoor servant” with Francis Gregory, “landlord of the ‘Blue Bell'” in Helpstone. (I find, on inquiry, that the Blue Bell remains open for business to this day, at #10 Woodgate, Helpston, as it is now spelled, in Peterborough.) Here Clare had the first of his unfortunate love affairs (with a young lass named Mary Joyce), but, what’s more important, began reading James Thomson’s The Seasons.

Detail, introduction to "Poems descriptive of Rural Life..."

His next job, as “under-gardener at Burghley Park, seat of the Marquis of Exeter,” as the DNB tells us, put him in “bad company, who taught him to drink and whose brutality induced him to run away after eleven months.” The pronoun “whose,” I take it, refers to the bad company, not to the Marquess of Exeter. A stint in the local militia amounted to nothing, nor did “another luckless love affair,” and the now-journeyman poet returned in poverty to his father, “joined some gipsies for a time” (again, our DNB), and eventually took a job at a limekiln. He courted one Martha Turner, but her parents “objected to Clare’s poverty, and his suit languished,” and, adding insult to injury, he “was soon discharged by his employer [at the limekiln] for wasting his time in scribbling.” But wasted time it certainly wasn’t and, on January 16, 1820, the firm of Taylor & Hessey published Poems, descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery, by John Clare, a Northamptonshire peasant. The introduction made much of the latter fact: “though Poets in this country have seldom been fortunate men, yet he is, perhaps, the least favoured by circumstances, and the most destitute of friends, of any that ever existed.” Clare’s poverty sold him, and, his suit now no longer languishing, he married Martha “Patty” Turner on March 16, 1820. The DNB takes care to inform us that “their first child was born a month later.” It seems “that Clare’s fidelity had wavered.” Jonathan Bate‘s biography makes clear that it wavered often enough to occasion considerable worry that gossip might tarnish Clare’s reputation—as it had tarnished Robert Burns‘s—on entering the literary world with his forthcoming Poems. But nonetheless he proved “a good husband and father,” reports the DNB, at least until began the troubles of which the poem printed below is so unforgettable a record.

Clare’s mental illness first manifested itself publicly when “a decided fit of insanity showed itself during a performance of The Merchant of Venice,” as the DNB phrases it. In their edition of the poems (done for Oxford), Eric Robinson and David Powell report that “the nature of Clare’s illness has never satisfactorily been established. There seem to have been epileptiform incidents in his early life, experiences during his visits to London which suggest a shaky hold upon reality, confusion about his relationship to Mary Joyce, nightmares, some bouts of heavy drinking, and the suggestion, by Clare himself, that he might have been venereally infected.” Robinson and Powell continue: “The account of Clare’s escape from [the asylum at] High Beach,” where he was first confined, and whence he returned to Helpstone, “is a strange mixture of dream-world, literary reminiscence, and realistic reporting. There are the first recorded signs that Clare is not sure of his own identity. Is he Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver, Queen Victoria’s father, or just a battered piece of flotsam? Clare himself is not sure. The two major undertakings of this period,” the editors point out, “are ‘Child Harold’ and ‘Don Juan,’ names which suggest still another persona for Clare”—that is to say, Lord Byron. Both poems are in fact “concerned with Clare’s struggle to know who he is.” After making his way back to Helpstone, where he stayed awhile, both vexed and vexing, he was (voluntarily) confined to the Northamptonshire County General Lunatic Asylum, where he remained until his death. (Incidentally, the asylum is now called St. Andrew’s Hospital and contains a ward named for Clare.)

But now the text of the poem known to us simply as “I Am”:

John Clare, as painted by William Hilton in 1820, the year his first volume of poetry appeared. Now in the National Portrait Gallery.

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 oblivion’s host,
Like shadows in love’s frenzied stifled throes
And yet I am, and live—like vapours tost

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 loved 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.

Clare read the Bible when a child, and, while in the asylum where he wrote these lines, he composed also verse paraphrases of several books of the Bible, including Job and Exodus.  I doubt whether we can entirely rule out some possible echo of Exodus 3:13-14 in that first “iamb” of the poem: “And Moses said unto God, Behold, when I come unto the children of Israel, and shall say unto them, The God of your fathers hath sent me unto you; and they shall say to me, What is his name? what shall I say unto them? And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you.” But I’m no more certain what to make of such an allusion, if allusion it is, than Clare is sure of what to make of himself. Who knows but that something of the tautological self-involution of “I am that I am” bears on the poem, with a slightly bitter tang of irony? Clare is “the self-consumer of [his] woes,” after all. He is what he is, which is—well, none can say “what” he is, and none “cares.” That initial “I am,” with its un-predicated copulative grammar, opens the poem up with pained wonder.

And isn’t there something a bit queer in that second line? The primary sense is plain: “None either knows what I am or cares about me; I am left to suffer alone.” But the woes consume him as much as he consumes them. The “burning bush” of Exodus 3 (if that chapter stands somewhere dimly back of Clare’s “I am”) doesn’t consume itself, of course; that’s the point. So the allusion—if it is one, and I raise the point only as an avowedly whimsical possibility—has a double irony. God says to Moses from the non-self-consuming burning bush “I am.” But the consumption, alone, of one’s woes, and the self that those woes themselves now consume—beyond this lies no land of milk and honey.

Interesting that he should say “yet what I am none cares or knows,” as against “yet who I am,” given that Clare had fallen quite genuinely into a quandary as to his identity (Crusoe? the Queen’s father? Byron? Shakespeare?). We can say this on evidence internal to the poem, though what we know of his madness only confirms the fact. I mean, the man speaking here (and we may as well call him John Clare) is included in that “none,” at least as to “knowledge” of what he is, if not as to “care” about, and for, what he is. (At about the same time he composed a sonnet on the same theme: loss, or dislocation, of identity.)  To have become a “what” rather than a “who”: that’s one kind of problem. Another kind is that he feels, or perhaps complains, that he’s not being attended to: “I exist. I am the poet John Clare, the man who added luster to Helpstone, the man who gave it a name. I was only half in jest when I  suggested to my publisher that I ought someday to have a claim on the laureateship. And yet no-one gives a tinker’s dam(n) what I am or who I am.” We have the pained wonder I spoke of, the loss of identity, the abjection; but we have also the claim on our (or his intimates’) “cares.” “Attend to me” is among the things implicitly said here. One ought never underestimate the capacity of the mad to feel neglected. I think I’m not unduly influenced by what we know of Clare’s madness when I find a weird, very subtle, and quite ironic hint of grandiosity in the poem, which would take us back to that equivocal “I am.”

Then comes the strangeness of the second line: “My friends forsake me like a memory lost.” To forsake someone is an act of deliberation; it is a thing one does. To “lose” a memory,” on the other hand, is involuntary. There’s no agency about it. In fact, the whole point is that in losing hold of a memory one’s agency is frustrated. I think the ambiguity is consequential. The poem wavers between, on the one hand, recrimination of Clare’s intimates, those who now “forsake” him and his un-predicable “I am,” and, on the other hand, a sympathetic understanding of why they may no longer be either able or inclined to help a man so utterly beyond the pale. The poem operates both inside and outside the madness of its author, both without and with a purchase on that madness.

And then the next line falls:

I am the self-consumer of my woes—
They rise and vanish in oblivion’s host . . .

The woes “rise”; that’s bad. But they “vanish,” too. (I can’t avoid feeling some connection, by the way, between the idea of “self-consumption” and the idea of this “oblivion.”) But we have to do with “oblivion’s host.” The primary meaning is of a multitude of woes. But “host” is a complex word in English, all the more when brought into the orbit of the word “consumption” and of the concept of “self-consumption.” Let me risk a real vagary, if only for the nonce: the possibility that the liturgical connotations of “host” may hang about the word as here deployed. Clare’s biographer tells us that he had no Latin. He may or may not have known that the word derives from “hostia”: “victim,” usually of a “sacrificial” nature. Hence the application of “host” to the bread of the sacrament of communion, which involves us in the “consumption” of woes (i.e., the passion of Christ), suffered by the sacrificial Lamb that the “I Am” of the Old Testament sent down as One of his Three Persons only then to “forsake” Him(self) on the cross (Matthew 27:46: “And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?“)

Whatever the case, we have our “oblivion”: “The state or fact of forgetting or having forgotten; forgetfulness; (also) freedom from care or worry” (O.E.D. 1a). Clare’s woes rise out of and vanish into “oblivion”: the “memory lost” that Clare’s “I am” has now become for those who “forsake” him (and who therefore have so much the less to care or worry about, damn them). The poem works all the way through the word “oblivion,” with the effect of lodging Clare and his suffering so fully in the mind as to make both un-forgettable.

Following are several ways to read the lines: “I am the self-consumer of my woes— / They rise and vanish in oblivion’s host“:

a) “I alone ‘consume’ (eating my heart out, so to speak) my ‘woes,’ which rise up out of and vanish back into the multitude (‘host’) of things forgotten (i.e., in ‘oblivion’); among which host of things I am myself one.”

b) “I am sacrificed, forsaken, in having been forgotten or left to myself” (the rhyme joining “lost” to “host” nicely connects the ideas).

c) “I am become my own martyr and consume myself in woe, even as woe consumes me. I suffer for those who forsake me: even the ‘dearest’ now show themselves strangers to me. And this poem is a record of my passion.” (The doctrine of the Trinity makes these general ideas available—makes the possibility of them available, I should say; the word “host,” in its sacramental sense, also fetches them in, whether advertently or inadvertently.)

William Empson, in his fully bearded years.

I don’t think we must, or rightly can, say that all of these readings are not possible. Their simultaneous, their dubious, presence—one vying for precedence, and now another—accounts for the affecting strangeness of the lines. I say so at the risk that attends all attempts at Emponisan close reading (as in his commentary on Shakespeare’s line “Bare ruin’d choirs where late the sweet birds sand”): namely, the risk of seeming over-clever by half for the sake of seeming so. But no matter. We have here to do with an uncommonly gifted poet who went mad. His mind is bound to be a remarkable clutter. The poem tells us so. But to the woes again.

I am the self-consumer of my woes—
They rise and vanish in oblivion’s host,
Like shadows in love’s frenzied stifled throes
And yet I am, and live—like vapours tost

Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams . . .

So, he consumes woes that consume him. He may not know, nor none may know, what he is apart from the fact of his suffering. That the woes “vanish” into “oblivion’s host” ought to afford some solace; off they go, like “memories lost” into that “host” which is either (as I’ve intimated) a teeming multitude of woes in which no one woe might distinguish itself (hence the oblivion, the forgetting); or which is, after the Latin hostia, an emblem of sacrifice, and of the most celebrated passion in Christendom. Whatever the case, the woes are now “like shadows.” What casts these shadows? The shadow of a thing is its insubstantial double. Does this mean that far more substantial woes stand back of these, casting them as shadows? Memories lost, perhaps? I say so because these woeful “shadows,” after first rising and vanishing into oblivion’s host, remain. They haunt Clare—that’s another meaning of the “shade” in our English “shadow.” The woes may “shadow” him, too, if we allow its verbal sense any operative presence: they dog him. And well they might, given that the woes are not like just any “shadow” but like “shadows in love’s frenzied stifled throes.” This specifies them peculiarly, and we can infer from the line (what we know from the biography) that Clare was in fact shadowed, dogged, haunted by his youthful love affair with Mary Joyce, which was both frenzied in intensity and stifled in execution. Then there are all the other throes into which his youthful loves had thrown him. He felt forsaken; he did forsake (he even considered forsaking Martha “Patty” Turner after getting her with child out-of-wedlock); his grandmother had been forsaken in her pregnancy. That’s biography, but the poem tells us what we must know: that these shadowy woes that shadow him have tormented erotic coordinates: to be at once “frenzied” and “stifled” in “love’s throes” goes hard with anyone, a fortiori so with one who, although he “is,” doesn’t know “what” he is. Object-less love from a subject-less position.

Which brings me to another point. Never has a poet written more in propria persona than Clare does in “I am.” But his problem, a problem made thematic in the poem, is that no persona is available to be in propria. “I am” is written in propria non-persona, or maybe in propria personae. Anyway, we can hardly read the poem apart from the biographical non-identity it implies: John Clare’s identity—the one he lost, the one whose woes are either keenly felt, vividly present and memorable, or else consigned to oblivion’s host (the poem has it both ways because Clare had it both ways, fractured self that he’d become). The poem certainly licenses us to fetch in what we know of him, and not because it works in what would so much later be called a “confessional” mode. The poem invites us to complete the identity of which it is a fractured record. The poem solicits its reader’s help. It pleads.

For that matter, the poem helps itself insofar as it creates one important and unforgettable “identity” for Clare: the much celebrated mad poet who was once the much celebrated peasant poet. Interesting, here, to bear in mind that “I am” was published (in several venues local to Clare’s asylum) while Clare was very much alive, from a transcription made by his minder. (It appeared first in The Bedford Times on January 1, 1848, a paper based in a town almost equidistant from Northampton Asylum, where Clare was confined, and from Helpstone—no one place among the three is more than thirty to forty miles from the other.) The poem’s solicitations were once as immediate as now they are literary-historical. “Would somebody ‘care’ so much as to tell me ‘what’ I am?—tell me what’s become of the celebrity ‘peasant’ poet who was more famous in the 1820s than John Keats, the poet who was once the talk of London, a place he hated on his first visit there because it wasn’t Helpstone?” And who, having read the preface to Poems, Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery, will not recall that preface when reading “I am”—or suppose that Clare himself did not recall it even as he wrote “I am”? “Though Poets in this country have seldom been fortunate men, yet [Clare] is, perhaps, the least favoured by circumstances, and the most destitute of friends, of any that ever existed.” A sad irony, to be sure, but “I am” recapitulates Clare’s great debut, the debut that brought even the loftiest of the local gentry to his humble doorstep (and far more fan mail, delivered postage due, than he’d have preferred). Again:

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 . . .

Why not spell it out? Clare has finally become what he was first “advertised” to be: the most famous “least favored by circumstance” poet in England, and the one (as he saw it) “most destitute of friends.” “I am what I was, or was said to be.” Indeed: “I am that I am.” Strange how the poem privately circulates in and out of, both constitutes and dissipates, the “John Clare” made publicly available in 1820. And so we have these ruminations, written in a madhouse, copied out by W.F. Knight (Clare’s aforementioned minder and amanuensis), and printed in the local papers to be read by those who “knew” Clare best, or anyway those who were supposed once to have known him best—readers for whom “I am” is an astonishing, regressive (and transgressive) act of nostalgia:

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.

What is this rural fantasy but Clare’s cherished and now dislocated Helpstone, no help to him at all now, and re-imagined as un-peopled?—as his locative and private Garden of Eden where (as with Andrew Marvell) he might walk without a mate (woman is the devil in the details here, as is the “love” that implies her unwanted presence, with its “frenzied, stifled throes”: ban her smiles and tears alike). The long work that opened Poems, Descriptive of Rural Life is written in homage to, and takes its title from, a perhaps vanishing Helpstone (Clare hated what enclosure would do to it); and written also not without inevitable reference to Oliver Goldsmith‘s “Deserted Village” (so inevitable was that celebrated precedent that Clare jealously worried lest he be mistaken for having imitated Goldsmith). But now, here it all is: the rural, grassy “scenes” of his childhood, the ones he gave so unforgettably to all of England in his early works, but now de-populated and Clare’s alone, whoever and whatever “John Clare” may be. Not merely “forsaken like a memory lost,” Clare does, in “I am,” his fair share of forsaking, especially in those unmistakable touches of misogyny. The longing is for a place where “men” never “trod,” true, but all the more, I think, for a place untainted either by a woman’s affection or grief: he loves his Mary Joyce, but he wants her not (or maybe I should say he loves his Mary Joyces but wants them not).

But I’ve not dealt with the difficult intermediary stanzas:

I am the self-consumer of my woes—
They rise and vanish in oblivion’s host,
Like shadows in love’s frenzied stifled throes
And yet I am, and live—like vapours tost

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 loved the best
Are strange—nay, rather, stranger than the rest.

Notice that the comparative “like vapours” at first seems to work as does “like shadows,” shadows and vapors alike being insubstantial, ethereal.* And the two comparatives are alike in that Clare and his woes are affiliated: one can’t disentangle a “self” from the “suffering” that constitutes the self, that makes that self a thing experienced and experience-able. But of course now we have not to do with the “woes” in their particulars but with what they sum up: Clare himself, or anyway the self-proclaimed identity-less speaker speaking as John Clare. He—like his woes, even as his woes—”rises,” with that initial “I am,” only then to wonder at his non-self-hood again: “And yet I am,” where “yet” means both “still,” as in continuance, and also “nevertheless” (it is the “yet” both of duration and of logic). This un-clarifiable Clare now, like his woes, as if identical with his woes, vanishes after his arising, not like “shadows” into “oblivion’s host,” but “like vapours tost / Into the nothingness of scorn and noise.” “Oblivion” finds its complement in “nothingness,” of course, just as “shadows” finds its complement in “vapours.” The suffering self that speaks is at least coherent enough to know that it has been “tost” into “the nothingness of scorn and noise.” And mustn’t there be an agent to do the tossing? I feel, here, another note of recrimination, as in the accusatory “my friends forsake me.” Bad enough to be forsaken. But to be “tossed” into the nothingness of scorn, or into the scorn of nothingness (it works both ways)—well, this is worse.

1792 portrait of William Cowper (1731-1800) by Lemuel Francis Abbott (c. 1760-1802). Now in the National Portrait Gallery, London.

And when the “nothingness,” by apposition and metaphor, becomes more specific (it is now a “sea of waking dreams,” complete with the “shipwreck” of all that he’d ventured and “esteemed”);—when this happens one can’t help but think of that other renowned poem of madness, which Clare and everyone else read and re-read: William Cowper‘s “The Castaway.” Cowper’s drowning sailor is “wash’d headlong from on board” in a storm; he falls off the ship, notwithstanding that he’s called a castaway (that’s part of the disturbing ambiguity of the poem—this blending of “man overboard” and “castaway,” of mere accident and the idea of being deliberately spurned). But whatever or whomever Clare is gets “tost” overboard, not “washed headlong.” This intensifies the idea of being “forsaken.” In identifying with his man overboard as he watches his mates—helpless, owing to the weather, the currents, the elements, to assist him—Cowper at least allows for some measure of forgiveness. His mates “delay not to bestow” such “succor” as they can in the midst of the storm; they are “pitiless perforce,” which is to say, the elements force their hand. They can’t turn the ship round (though, again, one feels some recrimination here: the men cannot be without “pity” simply because it’s not within their power to rescue the man). In any case, the dominant idea in Cowper’s poem seems to be this: “I am beyond help; none can help me even if he would.” Whereas in “I am” the idea is that Clare has been tossed into the sea, and not only into the sea, but into a sea of “scorn”: the tossers are mockers also (much worse than “pitiless perforce”). Quite literally he is cast away, as of no worth: to be scorned is to be worse than forsaken, or at any rate the scorn adds insult to injury. Bitterness motivates these lines, a bitterness of which Clare is not entirely in control (for how could he be?).

Consider this line again: “Into the nothingness of scorn and noise.” “Scorn” (let’s say) is a special kind of “noise,” at least to those subject to it (i.e., to contempt, mockery, etc.). But then there is “noise” in the sense information theorists now give it—everything that, though present in this or that message, means nothing, does no execution, bears no significance. And the “I” speaking, the “Clare” speaking, partakes of that, too, once he’s “tost” away (though the “noise” is a thing every bit as internal or intrinsic to him as not: it is already a part of his confused, “vaporous” identity before anyone tosses him off). And insofar as he is aware of being not merely “troubled” but “troubling” (inevitably to others) this Clare—this “I” who “is”—himself becomes a source of noise. The “noise” in the poem we are even now reading is a part of the “trouble.” For the metaphors are confused and confusing. How can one “toss” a “vapour” (or, if we keep things passive, how may a “vapour” be “tossed”?). And, moreover, how can one toss a vapour into a nothingness that is also a sea, and for that matter “a sea of waking dreams”? Psychosis might well be called a state of “waking dream” (insofar as psychosis involves an inability to discriminate the imagined from the actual, the radically peculiar from the socially agreed-upon); the psychotic most certainly is “adrift,” and also “wrecked.” There’s no noise in that message; it’s fairly clear.

No, the “noise” comes in the way the poem never “decides”—decision would require the agent who is forthrightly stated as unavailable—on a governing metaphor. The poem never governs or quite disciplines its metaphors. We have toss-able vapors. We have the “sea” of “waking dreams” into which a non-impersonated person, a person become “vaporous,” may be “tossed” (and by whom or by what?). The phrase “waking dreams” is sensible in contexts having to do with psychosis. But it may also mean dreams that wake us, keep us awake, or anyway dreams that keep us in some hypnogogic state (as nightmares can: this poem is a record of a nightmare, or is itself a vestige of many nightmares, to which we know Clare to have been subject). The phrase may indicate a species of insomnia: states of sleep-deprivation are not without their dreams. Or it may simply be paradoxical (not at all unfitting, here).

Then there is the “noise” created by the way the poem wavers between, on the one hand, accusation (“I am forsaken; I am cast away; therefore others, especially women, are responsible for my woes”) and, on the other hand, the mere expression of “woes.” I feel the recrimination most keenly in these lines: “Even the dearest that I loved the best / Are strange—nay, rather, stranger than the rest.” That is: “Those who should be closest to me, and therefore least likely to forsake me, or toss me over, are stranger to me, more estranged from me, than those I never met” (this can either be a bitter accusation or a simple statement of fact: the “noise” in the system of the poem prevents our saying which). The poem wavers also between focusing more on the fact of being “troubled” and the self-recriminating awareness of being a trouble to others—of “troubling” others, as the mad most certainly do (they cannot help but induce woes in others, and very often treat others with unwarranted scorn and contempt, such as might motivate the slight note of misogyny I spoke of earlier).

But what of that last imaginary recourse to God? Here it is again:

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.

If anyone “knows” or “cares” who the “I” speaking here is—who Clare is—well, then, surely its/his Creator must know. I have spoken already of how this stanza weirdly evokes a rural, “village green” sort of landscape associated with the (pre-enclosure) Helpstone of Clare’s youth, the Helpstone of which he wrote in the opening section of Poems, Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery, the Helpstone Clare put on the literary map of England, the Helpstone to which his fame, upon publication of his first book, brought a fair number of pilgrims. I have spoken of the slight note of misogyny at work here (some of Clare’s later poems take that misogyny to an extreme), and also of the regressive motives (the return to childhood). One more thing I would notice: namely, the equivocal presence of two ideas, the sweet “sleep” of childhood and the “long sleep” of death. The second is quietly intimated, or perhaps not so quietly: “abiding with God” is one way to speak euphemistically of death. And the “vaulted sky” is not merely a poetic commonplace, and not merely suggestive of certain architectural features sometimes associated with cathedrals. The “vault” in the word “vaulted” can also be a crypt, as in O.E.D. sense 3b: A” burial chamber (originally with arched roof), usually altogether or partly under ground.” At last, it is as if Clare can only find his identity, can only place himself, in death, an annihilation of his worldly, temporal, and bodily “self” and a realization of his other-worldly, immortal and dis-embodied “self.” In short, the wish is for the “I am” that Christians believe they most are because a Creator who wishes to be known as “I Am” made them.

N.B.: For the John Clare Cottage Trust, click here. And for the John Clare Society, click here. I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that the text of “I am” exists only in the Knight transcription. Powell and Robinson, editors of the Oxford edition of the late poems, point out that Knight’s hand is at times difficult to make out; some scholars read “oblivion’s host” as “oblivious host,” and I have seen it so rendered. But Powell and Robinson give us “oblivion’s host,” and I think they certainly must be right.

* Among the personae Clare is known to have adopted toward the height of his madness is Robinson Crusoe. I wonder, at times, whether something of that persona haunts “I am.” We know Robinson Crusoe to have been a favorite of the young Clare. We have, in “I am,” that “vast shipwreck”; we have his being “tost” like a “vapour” into a “sea” [of waking dreams]; we have his “shadowy” woes, and so on. And then we have this, from Further Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, a passage of which I only became aware when looking into the O.E.D. entry for “vapour,” where it is cited: “I have often heard persons of good judgment say that all the stir that people make in the world about ghosts and apparitions is owing to the strength of imagination, and the powerful operation of fancy in their minds; that there is no such thing as a spirit appearing, or a ghost walking; that people’s poring affectionately upon the past conversation of their deceased friends so realises it to them that they are capable of fancying, upon some extraordinary circumstances, that they see them, talk to them, and are answered by them, when, in truth, there is nothing but shadow and vapour in the thing, and they really know nothing of the matter.” For my part, I think it would be quite a bit of far-fetching to bring this passage from Defoe to bear on “I am,” which is why I here consign it by asterisk to a footnote. But “there is nothing but shadow and vapour in the thing” strikes a note at least worth registering here.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

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 )

Google+ photo

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

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 372 other followers

%d bloggers like this: