20 May 2019

20th May 1864 - John Clare dies


The poet John Clare died at 4:55pm on 20th May 1864 in Northampton General Asylum, in which he had been many years an inmate.

John was born in the village of Helpstone, and his father was a farm labourer. John, a gifted boy, paid for his own schooling in the evening by work as a ploughboy in the day. On being shown Thomson's poetry book Seasons, Clare worked extra to get a shilling and then walked miles to buy a copy. He was so excited by the poems, and started to write his own poetry. He knew country ways, and birds and animals better than any poet, and wrote of these, and of love. He had loved and lost his first love, as her father banned the poor ploughboy from seeing his daughter, and then married his second love, and had a number of children. His poems got good reviews and he became well known as the Northamptonshire Peasant Poet, and earned money from his writing. The way was not always smooth.

He wrote in one poem I love to walk the fields; they are to me A legacy no evil can destroy.

But then the hallucinations began which gradually got worse until those who loved him decided that some restraint was needed and he was sent to a private asylum in High Beach, Essex from 1837–41 . So he was taken from the village and the life he loved so well.

He escaped and walked the 80 miles back to his home village and tried to find his first sweetheart, for whom he still had a lasting love. But she had died in a fire while he was at the asylum. He stayed at the village for some months until his wife and others decided that he needed care again, and he was taken to Northampton General Asylum where he lived for the rest of his life. He continued to write poetry, making perfect sense in verse, whereas he apparently made little sense otherwise. There was thought to be madness in the family as the cause of insanity was put down as hereditary by one doctor, and too much poesy by another.

Thankyou to the obituary in The Bedfordshire Times and Independent - 4th June 1864 for some of the details - found in the British Newspaper Archive. Thankyou to the Mental Health Timeline for the date.

First Love's Recollections

First love will with the heart remain
When all its hopes are by,
As frail rose blossoms still retain
Their fragrance till they die;
And joy's first dreams will haunt the mind
With shades from whence they sprung,
As Summer leaves the stems behind
On which Spring's blossoms clung.

Mary, I dare not call thee dear,
I've lost the right so long,
Yet once again I vex thine ear
With memory's idle song.
had time and change not blotted out
The love of former days
Thou wert the last that I should doubt
Of pleasing with my praise.

When honied tokens from each tongue
Told with what truth we loved,
How rapturous to thy lips I clung
Whilst nought but smiles reproved;
But now methinks if one kind word
Were whispered in thy ear
Thou'dst startle like an untamed bird
And blush with wilder fear.

How loath to part, how fond to meet
Had we two used to be;
At sunset with what eager feet
I hastened on to thee.
Scarce nine days passed ere we met
In Spring, nay wintry weather;
Now nine years' suns have risen and set
Nor found us once together.

Thy face was so familiar grown,
Thyself so often by,
A moment's memory when alone
Would bring thee to mine eye;
But now my very dreams forget
That witching look to trace;
Though there thy beauty lingers yet
It wears a stranger face.

I felt a pride to name thy name
But now that pride hath flown,
My words e'en seem to blush for shame
That own I love thee on.
I felt I then thy heart did share
Nor urged a binding vow;
But much I doubt if thou couldst spare
One word of kindness now.

And what is now my name to thee,
Though once nought seemed so dear?
Perhaps a jest in hours of glee
To please some idle ear;
And yet like counterfeits with me
Impressions linger on
Though all the gilded finery
That passed for truth is gone.

Ere the world smiled upon my lays,
A sweeter meed was mine-
Thy blushing look of ready praise
Was raised at every line,
But now methinks thy fervent love
Is changed to scorn severe
And songs that other hearts approve
Seem discord to thine ear.

When last thy gentle cheek I pressed
And heard thee feign adieu,
I little thought that seeming jest
Would prove a word so true.
A fate like this hath oft befell
E'en loftier hopes than ours;
Spring bids full many buds to swell
That ne'er can grow to flowers.

John Clare (all rights reserved)

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