A topical Featured Poem this week, On Seeing Two Swallows Late in October by John Clare.
A celebrated English poet, John Clare was born in July 1793, the son of a farm labourer. He was renowned for writing about the English countryside and advocating it’s protection.
Clare’s biographer, Jonathan Bate said that he was:
“…the greatest labouring-class poet that England has ever produced. No one has ever written more powerfully of nature, of a rural childhood, and of the alienated and unstable self.”
John Clare was born near Peterborough, becoming a agricultural labourer while still a child though he did attend school until the age of 12. He had various occupations as a potboy at a local public house, a gardener at Burghley House, a soldier, lime burner and even tried a spell of living on a Gypsy camp. He suffered poor physical health throughout his life and in 1818 he was obliged to accept parish relief.
Having bought a copy of James Thomson’s The Seasons, Clare began to write poems and sonnets of his own. When his parents faced eviction in 1820, he offered these poems to a local bookseller named Edward Drury, who forwarded them to his cousin John Taylor at Taylor & Hessey who had published the work of John Keats. Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery was published in 1820 and was highly praised.
The following year Clare’s Village Minstrel and Other Poems also appeared. These collections brought in little money however and by 1823 Clare and his wife Patty were nearly penniless. He turned to fieldwork again but soon became seriously ill. He was torn between his two worlds, that of literary London and his mostly illiterate neighbours, feeling the need to write poetry but also, more urgently, the need to feed and clothe his family. He suffered bouts of severe depression, exacerbated further by worsening sales.
In 1823 his friends and London patrons clubbed together to move Clare, his wife and seven children to a larger, more comfortable cottage in the village of Northborough, not far from Helpston, but this only left Clare feeling more alienated.
His last work, Rural Muse, published in 1835, was favourably received but it did little to improve the family’s finances. By this point Clare’s consumption of alcohol had steadily increased and his behaviour had become more erratic. On one occasion, Clare interrupted a performance of The Merchant of Venice and verbally assaulted Shylock.
Having become a burden to his family and on the recommendation of his publishing friend Taylor, Clare went into Matthew Allen’s private asylum near Loughton where he was assured of the best medical care. While there, Clare was reported to have been ‘full of many strange delusions, claiming to have two wives, and at one point, to be both Shakespeare and Lord Byron, whose poetry he rewrote in different styles. In 180 Allen wrote of John Clare:
“It is most singular that ever since he came… the moment he gets pen or pencil in hand he begins to write the most poetical effusions. Yet he has never been able to obtain in conversation, nor even in writing prose, the appearance of sanity for two minutes of two lines together, and yet there is no indication of insanity in any of his poetry.”
In 1841, Clare left the asylum, walking some 90 miles home in search of his first love, Mary Joyce, who he believed to be his wife. He remained at home in Northborough for five months before Patty called the doctors. He was taken to Northampton General Lunatic Asylum where he remained for the rest of his life under the humane regime of Dr Thomas Octavius Prichard, who encouraged and helped him to write. Clare died on May 20 1864 at the age of 71.
On Seeing Two Swallows Late in October
But, little lingerers, old esteem detains
Ye haply thus to brave the chilly air
When skies grow dull with winter’s heavy rains
And all the orchard trees are nearly bare;
Yet the old chimneys still are peeping there
Above the russet thatch where summer’s tide
Of sunny joys gave you such social fare
As makes you haply wishing to abide
In your old dwelling through the changing year.
I wish ye well to find a dwelling here,
For in the unsocial weather ye would fling
Gleanings of comfort through the winter wide,
Twittering as wont above the old fireside,
And cheat the surly winter into spring.