There was snowfall in April, a blanket for their sins,

but brighter days ahead will offer up new kings,

those of truth and trust will fore and rid us of the pain,

and never will they chance to hurt my love again.

 

(c) Copyright Gavin Edge 2008

The Fascinating Story of John Clare - One of England's Greatest Poets

On the 11th October 2008 we broke our journey in a small village called Helpston, parking just opposite the memorial on the crossroads.  It was a planned visit on the way home following a week in Norfolk as in our party were three generations of the direct descendents of John Clare (their Great, Great,.. Grandfather).  I'd been told the story of her famous Ancestor by my new partner and I was fascinated to discover the tale of his life and works.  John Clare's story gripped me straight away as there are elements that I think we should learn from today.  I had recently become a Governor of an NHS Trust that deals with Mental Health issues and one of the recent agenda items was a campaign to challenge stigma.  One of the ways of promoting awareness is the publication of a collection of poems by the Trust to raise funds for the Challenging Stigma campaign (if you require any further information about the book email info@cwp.nhs.uk ).  One of my reasons for becoming involved with the Trust is encapsulated in the verse at the top of the page.  After this I met my new partner and I am sure her Great x3 Grandfather would be immensely proud of her kindness and strength of character.  She is named Clare in his memory.

We first visited the village church St. Botolph's just a couple of hundred yards from the memorial.  Here we found John Clare's grave and more information about his life.  We were lucky enough to meet the lady who runs an art shop in the village and she explained to us about the renovation of John Clare's cottage and the work of the John Clare Trust.  Eagerly, we walked back past the memorial and crossed the road to find the cottage next to the Blue Bell public house.  The cottage was in full renovation and surrounded by scaffolding, at the rear was a new oak timber framed building that will become the new visitor information centre.  This is planned to open summer 2009.

John Clare was an agricultural labourer whilst still at school, which he left at the age of 12.  The same age as his twin Great x4 Grandsons on the day of the visit.  We were told he later worked in the Blue Bell pub next door to his home.  It appears though that he unfortunately developed too much of a 'liking for ale' and alcoholism may have been a contributory factor to his later illness.

John Clare bought James Thomson's ' Seasons ' with money he could barely afford and this seems to have been his catalyst for writing poetry, and it was eventually Thomson himself who helped get Clare's work published in 1820 ('Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery').  In the same year Clare married Patty Turner.  Despite doing well for a few years poverty soon returned into his life and he suffered serious illness.  He was given a new home by Earl Fitzwilliam but couldn't settle.  He felt as though he no longer belonged in the company of other peasants and yearned for better literary company, this no doubt contributed his depression.  He was not without friends though and they clubbed together to move him to a larger cottage not far from Helpston but this actually made him feel more alienated.  In 1835 he wrote his last work ('Rural Muse') before the onset of the deterioration in his mental health.  At this time he had a wife and seven children.  It appears he became increasingly unhappy with his own identity and his alcohol consumption increased.  He became erratic and an increasing burden to his wife Patty and family.  In 1837 he was admitted to a private Asylum in Essex from where he eventually left one day and walked 'home', but then was eventually committed to the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum in 1841 where he was encouraged and continued to write poetry - maybe even his best work in 'I Am'.  I've little doubt that once in the clutches of the Asylum there would have been little hope of recovery for him and no doubt the circumstances he was under further contributed to his, and his families problems.  He remained in the Asylum until he died in 1864.  I can only imagine the torment that a creative mind would have gone through being incarcerated for over 23 years in such a place.  He described it as "the purgatorial hell and French Bastille of English liberty, where harmless people are trapped and tortured until they die".

His wife Patty was forced to sell the copyright to his works in order to survive and an American Professor, Eric Robinson claims to hold the copyright to some of Clare's poems although this seems to be contested by scholars.  John Clare's descendants do not seem to have benefitted at all from his talents - no doubt a legacy he would have wished.

Creative minds are born - they are also sometimes much misunderstood.  Now is a time to change all that.  Stigma is, in the main, caused by a lack of understanding and knowledge - don't propagate it by missing your chance to learn more.  John Clare's description of 'harmless people trapped and tortured' is as true today as when he said it - some are physically incarcerated as he was, others trapped by the bounds of adverse reaction and ignorance.  You can make a difference if you have the inclination and the 'Time to Change' campaign will soon be reaching out nationally.  I am no longer a Governor, but if you reside in the Cheshire and Wirral region of the UK you should become a free member ( Join CWP here ) and have a voice.  Please also visit the 'Time to Change' campaign website, discover more and get involved to help end discrimination.  What else have you got to do today that will make you feel proud?

By Gavin Edge, Oct 2008.

 

John Clare Memorial, Helpston

 

John Clare, the Northamptonshire

Peasant Poet

A Native of this Village

Born July 13th 1793

Died May 20th 1864

 

John Clare's grave in St. Botolph's

Church Cemetery, Helpston

 

3 Generations of John Clare's direct descendants view the renovation of his former cottage.

John Clare's family view the former
home of their ancestor.

Plaque in Poet's Corner Westminster Abbey
Plaque in Poet's Corner
Westminster Abbey

It is a testament to John Clare himself that despite his problems he could still produce everlasting works whilst suffering the hell of a 19th century Asylum.  He is commemorated with a plaque in Poet's Corner in Westminster Abbey and I think John Clare's 'voice' can still reach out to help.  He was in tune with nature and human emotion, and he wrote for the people about his reality.  Jonathan Bate has written the definitive Biography of John Clare's life, a copy of which I myself purchased for my Clare from the helpful lady in the Helpston art shop.  A biography most worthy.

 

THE GRAVE ITS MORTAL DUST MAY KEEP

WHERE TOMBS AND ASHES LIE

DEATH ONLY SHALL TIMES HARVEST REAP

FOR CLARIS CANNOT DIE.

                                      CLARE       (taken from the Helpston Memorial)

 

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Paperback version below...

2009 Man Booker Prize nominated story: The Quickening Maze

 

Other John Clare titles:

 

If you have a friend or relative that might enjoy a John Clare book or two (or any other product that Amazon offer) why not send them an Amazon gift certificate of any value between £5 and £500.  The gift certificate can be emailed, posted free by Amazon or you can print yourself and give the certificate personally.

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External links:

Hollywood star Patrick Stewart a weather station at the John Clare Cottage in October 2009... click here for BBC Report...

'The Quickening Maze' shortlisted for Man Booker Prize... click here for BBC Newsnight Review...

Opening of the John Clare Cottage Museum and Educational Centre July 2009... click here for BBC Look East Report...