Poem Guide

John Clare: “To John Clare”

A Romantic poet imagines a better life, where he never grew up.
John Clare

Some poets use verse to praise relatives who share their first or last names: John Dryden’s “To My Honored Kinsman, John Driden,” for example, begins “How blessed is he, who leads a Country Life, / Unvexed with anxious Cares, and void of Strife!” Poets have also dispensed advice to themselves, as in Ben Jonson’s “An Ode to Himself” (“Come leave the loathéd stage / And the more loathsome age”). “To John Clare” is neither kind of poem; it’s stranger and sadder than either. In it, the adult writer addresses—and even imagines that he could become—a happier version of himself, one who might still be a child.

Clare probably wrote the poem in 1860, having been committed to the Northampton Asylum for 18 years. Clare may have suffered from what we would now call bipolar disorder; he had been confined to asylums since he was 44. Before his first confinement, in Essex, Clare had enjoyed attention during the 1820s as the peasant poet of Northamptonshire, who wrote closely and beautifully of rural life. Even at the peak of his early career, though, Clare could never make a living from his writing and earned most of his money through farm labor and low-status occupations such as lime burning. He knew hard work—but he loved (as we now say) the outdoors.

In “To John Clare,” Clare, living away from home, calls himself, or someone much like himself, “honest,” a word so complicated that the great critic William Empson devotes three chapters of a long book to it (The Structure of Complex Words). The word has connotations of independence, truth telling, and naturalness, implying a man (almost always a man) who could be frank about his own desires. An “honest John” is a trustworthy Englishman who makes an honest living, neither pauper nor aristocrat. Clare greets this man as an informal equal in a confined, aging poet’s impossible, fraternal encounter with his happiest possible self, first as an adult and then as a child. 

That alternate-universe version of John Clare perhaps never acquired the ambition that led the actual Clare, in his teens, to poetry. This real Clare was—when not depressed—astonishingly prolific, writing hundreds of sonnets along with much longer poems; some acquaintances thought his writing had driven him mad. The home of this “John Clare,” however, includes no literature for adults, only stories for boys. The first eight lines have no literature at all; they record the continuance of the natural world, the normal events of an English spring.

In many of his sonnets, Clare used innovative and original rhyme schemes; this one rhymes ababab (nests rhymes with breast and best) and cdcdcece (go rhymes with blow and, in Clare’s English, with too). The rhyme scheme inverts the traditional octave and sestet, as if to suggest that something is backward or upside-down in the poet’s life. (Other sonnets with inverted rhyme schemes include Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Work without Hope,” in which spring has come for the birds and the flowers but not for Coleridge.)

Spring comes to this honest John: this poem tells him so. Birds nest, a male robin visits the farm, and Clare observes not only his red breast but also his drab feathers. The rooster who mingles with hens chooses not one but “some,” being as lusty—but not as frustrated—as Clare himself, who, in confinement, wrote love poems to dozens of women and girls. After mating, the rooster gets hungry. He craves “little crumbs,” but they have been taken by “little folks”: perhaps removed by children with brooms or by faeries but most likely eaten by mice, which need them more than a well-fed rooster would. Is the rooster unsatisfied, unable to lose himself and unable to get what he wants, like the real John Clare and unlike “honest John” and the human child?

Sketching ideal types—“the old cock,” “the pigs,” “the little boy”—Clare includes both the specific descriptions for which he first became known and the generic personages associated with 18th-century poetry, in which typical animals do typical things. Clare said he began to love poetry when he encountered, at 13, James Thomson’s long poem The Seasons: in Thomson’s “Spring,” “The Black-bird whistles from the thorny Brake: / The mellow Bullfinch answers from the Grove.” The poet John Clare has been imagining himself in a place filled with barnyard animals, an image familiar to modern urban and suburban readers, if not from visits to farms, then from picture books in which happy pigs oink and well-fed cows say “moo.”  Such picture books, along with other playthings for “the little boy,” are where Clare’s sonnet goes.

In doing so, it turns away from one traditional bounty of spring: fertility. When Thomson’s birds sing, “‘Tis Love creates their Melody, and all / This Waste of Music is the Voice of Love.” Later their chicks hatch, grow up, and take flight. But Clare turns away from the sexual life of the cock robin, associated with the “honest John” of the first section, toward the pre- or non-sexual child, perhaps a son or grandson of this “honest John” and toward this child’s delights.

This child delights most in books. A bookman, an itinerant seller of books, would have been the only source for secular books available to a rural household in the England of Clare’s childhood. Many writers take childhood reading as a matter of course: the question, for them, is which books children should read. But Clare’s mother was illiterate, and compulsory universal primary schooling was decades away. The poet John Clare would have grown up surrounded by people who could not read for pleasure, if at all. As Clare’s biographer Jonathan Bate emphasizes, it was a real achievement for such a poor family to inculcate literacy in the children, which the Clare parents did in part through making pleasure reading available: “Whatever hardships John and Patty had to endure,” Bate writes, “they ensured that their children had sixpenny chapbooks for Christmas.”

This “little boy” need not wait for Christmas: he gets new “numbers” this spring and prefers them to “tops and tawes.” “Tawes” or “taws,” could be strips of leather attached to sticks, used by children to make tops spin. At least one edition of Clare’s works, (Geoffrey Grigson’s, from 1950) defines “taws” as marbles: another portable game and a dialect word from the part of England Clare knew. Where he simply names nonverbal children’s games, Clare takes the time to describe the reading, as a child would: “lots of pictures, and good stories too.”

And not just any stories. “Jack the Giant-killer” is, of course, a proletarian hero, toppling a literally superior man’s—or giant’s—estate. Clare’s modern admirers often highlight the peasant poet’s sometimes-radical sympathies, his sense that poor people see no justice in systems that govern them. “Jack” is even a nickname for people named John. Bate emphasizes these sympathies but notes Clare’s aversion to political violence. Fairy-tale violence, though, was a different matter, made suitable for a child’s fantasy of a just world, one in which Clare himself could have climbed fame’s beanstalk up to permanent “renown.”

We may think of fairy tales as obviously fit for kids, but in the early 1800s, when Clare was a child, writers argued about them. Are fairy tales bad for young minds that require improvement? Or, as Jean-Jacques Rousseau claimed to believe, is it dangerous for children to read at all? The “new number,” Clare implies, is just as natural as the pig’s sleep, the cock’s crow; losing themselves in imaginative adventures is simply what human beings—at least young human beings—do.

That defense was hardly Clare’s alone. William Wordsworth exclaimed in The Prelude (1805):

Oh, give us once again the wishing-cap
Of Fortunatus, and the invisible coat
Of Jack the Giant-killer, Robin Hood,
And Sabra in the forest with St. George!
The child, whose love is here, at least doth reap
One precious gain—that he forgets himself. (Book 5: lines 341-46) 

Wordsworth thought fairy-tales better for children than explicitly moralized instruction books, but he could wax ambivalent about reading in general: some of his most famous early poems urge readers to get up and walk outdoors. Is something wrong with a pastime that diverts a boy from active play? Is something very right with it if it encourages him to leave birds’ nests alone, rather than collecting them (which is what “home-close nesting” probably means)? Perhaps both: Clare makes a point of showing that this child prefers to read “where daisies blow,” that is, in the open air.

Wordsworth’s defense of fairy-tales reacts against educators and writers who wanted children’s reading to yield clear morals or to cultivate pious adults: “A wiser spirit is at work for us,” Wordsworth advised, “even in our most unfruitful hours.” (5: 360, 364) Clare’s earlier poems celebrate children’s rural games. This late sonnet also avoids the moral or point which Clare (like Wordsworth in The Prelude) did not want children’s lives or their games or their reading to possess.

What about adult life? Does it have a point? Is it worth living if we can remain instead in a pre-sexual, Edenic childhood? “To John Clare” suspects that the answer is “no”: better to be the boy, diverted by Jack the Giant-killer, than to be the rooster who gets the hens but misses the crumbs. (Even worse than both to be the confined John Clare.)

Perhaps adult fantasies and children’s tales need not be kept apart. As the scholar Alan Richardson points out, popular literature in the 18th century “did not as strictly differentiate between an adult sensibility and a pristine children’s realm” nor was the differentiation absolute even in Clare’s own youth. Clare’s father, Parker, “was very fond of the superstitious tales hawked for a penny,” the poet recalled. Yet the world of this “John Clare” is the world of a child; it mentions no adults after “honest John.”

The poem also presents an inverted world to which time brings nothing bad. Over one hundred years after Clare died, Stan Lee said that he wanted Marvel Comics to offer “the illusion of change”: the heroes might die and be resurrected, but they would never grow old. That is something like the promise of Clare’s imagined spring, and Clare, like any adult who enjoys tales of Jack the Giant-killer, knows that it can’t last.

Or does he? “To John Clare” sounds homely, homey, nostalgic, and aspirational: it seems to describe a place the real Clare, the author of the poem, wishes he could see. Like “To John Driden,” like Alexander Pope’s “Ode on Solitude,” the sonnet belongs in the ancient tradition of praise for a rural retreat. Not counting the, to, and the like, the sonnet repeats six words: sty, little, look, cock, and (in rhyming position) come and home. Many sonnets repeat no significant words at all; Clare’s restricted vocabulary, his high degree of repetition, adds to the coziness, to the sense of a child’s world in which Clare could belong. Yet the sonnet is also disorienting; it’s not clear to readers, and may not have been clear to the poet himself, just who hailed whom.

For example, why would the poet tell his addressee what goes on around the addressee’s house? Or is the addressee’s home not the home of cock robin? Is the author instead reporting his own springtime sights, as if to ask this other John Clare whether things are similar where he lives?  Though most readers believe that the poet addresses himself, or an alternate version of himself, he might—as Bate notes—have been writing to his grown son. John Junior, a railway worker, sometimes called Jack, was born in 1826, so would have turned 34 in 1860; he survived till 1911 and had at least six children. John Junior visited his poet-father John Senior in the asylum in July 1848; the poet wrote the next day to his wife, Patty, “I was glad to see John yesterday, and should like to have gone back with him for I am very weary of being here—You might come and fetch me away for I think I have been here long enough.” “To John Clare” came 12 years after that.

The provenance of “To John Clare,” even more than most of Clare’s late poems, leads us to ask what was illusion and what was delusion, what the poet John Clare really believed. Other poems of his last decades suggest that Clare thought he was married to two women at once, his real wife, Patty, and his childhood love, Mary Joyce; in Essex, he sometimes fancied that he was Lord Byron. Was he writing, in “To John Clare,” to his alternate self? Was he writing to a grown son for whom he projected a happy family? Or to the “real” John Clare, having decided that the man in Northampton Asylum was an impostor, unreal? He voiced such beliefs in letters, speaking of “this sad non-identity” or, in his most famous single poem, “I Am!,” imagining himself beyond the grave. “I wish I was the wild woodbine … I wish I was what I am not,” he wrote in another asylum poem.

Most of those later poems survive only in transcripts made by W.F. Knight, the steward of Northampton Asylum from 1845 until 1850. “To John Clare,” however, appeared—with Clare’s spellings corrected, his punctuation made standard—in two local newspapers, in Stamford and Peterborough, England, in 1861. Clare’s manuscript (which has “Jack the jiant killer”) also survives. The manuscript, typically, also has no periods or commas. Editions of Clare are subject to unusually rancorous dispute, with one group of editors preferring to print exactly what Clare’s hand wrote and others believing that Clare wanted his editors to correct faulty spellings and insert punctuation, though he of course balked when they tried to change more than that.

The poet whose posthumous life includes alternate, incompatible version of his poems imagined, in this late sonnet, incompatible versions of himself. In “To John Clare,” the poet imagines a happy other John Clare, one who has left neither farm life nor childhood, who takes undiminished delight in childhood things, along with a son, or a grandson, who can do the same. The poet also imagines readers whose delight in reading does not depend on the process that moves works from conception to manuscript to salable print, a process like that by which children grow into adults. Instead, the poem concludes with the result of that process: existing stories that arrived fully printed, finished, ready for us to enjoy. We can lose ourselves there, even if we can never go home.

Originally Published: September 10th, 2015

Stephanie (also Steph; formerly Stephen) Burt is a poet, literary critic, and professor. In 2012, the New York Times called Burt “one of the most influential poetry critics of [her] generation.” Burt grew up around Washington, DC and earned a BA from Harvard and PhD from Yale. She has published four collections of poems: Advice...

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