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John Clare once quoted some verses of Byron and Shakespeare to the editor of the Northampton Mercury and claimed he had written them. When the editor questioned Clare about this strange plagiarism, Clare responded: "I'm John Clare now. I was Byron and Shakespeare formerly. At different times, you know, I'm different people." Far from a clever or witty tale of influence, Clare's comments were, simply put, the ravings of a mad man. As it turns out, this little chat supposedly took place sometime in the late 1840s, during Clare's second stint in an insane asylum. Yes, we said second.
But Clare wasn't always a mad man, that's for sure. In the 1820s he was something of a minor literary celebrity, famous for books of poetry, such as Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery (1820) and the Village Minstrel, and Other Poems (1821), that dealt with the rural English countryside in a rustic, peasant language (most modern editions of Clare include a glossary explaining strange words like "croodle" and "flusker").
While the English reading public was hungry for poets of Clare's ilk (poor, rural laborers, apparently uneducated but possessed of tremendous poetic gift) in the first decades of the 1800s, the vogue eventually faded. By the early 1830s Clare found himself selling a lot fewer books than he had ten years earlier. In the mid-1830s, or possibly earlier, Clare began experiencing delusions, anxiety, and depression. The problem intensified to the point that he voluntarily entered an insane asylum in 1837. He escaped four years later and walked more than 80 miles (yes, 80!) back to his wife and children. He was eventually committed to another asylum in 1842, where he lived until his death in 1864.
Now, even when Clare's his mind deteriorated, he wasn't exactly a murderous lunatic or anything like that, just a guy with serious delusions that nineteenth-century mental health experts were unable to diagnose (even today, nobody is exactly sure what specific malady plagued Clare's mind). In fact, Clare wrote voluminously during his asylum years, although none of this vast store of poetry was published until after his death.
This brings us to "I Am," undoubtedly Clare's most famous poem (we think it might be his best too). Clare probably wrote this poem around in 1844 or 1845, which means he wrote it during trip number 2 to the asylum. While it possibly refers to the decaying state of Clare's mind (old friends seem strange, language seems like noise), the poem is also a beautiful description of loneliness and change. Even as his friends have begun to desert him or treat him as if he were dead, the speaker insists on reaffirming the fact that he is alive, that he "is" (and we're just assuming that the speaker is a "he" here). It is the extreme sadness brought on by this loneliness that partly accounts for his death wish in the poem's final stanza.
Oh and by the way, just in case you're wondering, when we say death wish, we're not talking about this awesome Charles Bronson movie from 1974.
Boy kids can be really mean to each other can't they? Especially those tweens. Usually around the ages of twelve to fourteen, they start forming little cliques and including and excluding people at their will. You've probably seen something like this before. For example, little Johnny hangs out with Billy and Bobby every day, before school starts, at break, at lunch, and after school. Then one day Billy and Bobby decide out of the blue that they don't really like Johnny anymore. They shun him. All of a sudden, Johnny is all alone; he hangs out by himself before class, at break, during lunch, and after school. He looks so sad, and probably wants to just crawl away and hide somewhere.
If you've ever experienced anything like this (and we hope you haven't), then you know what we're talking about. And you also know kind of what John Clare is talking about in "I Am." Now, granted, Clare isn't writing from the standpoint of a middle-schooler, but his feelings of loneliness and abandonment are applicable to many situations.
Just like little Johnny, our speaker finds himself bereft (deprived) of friends. "My friends forsake me like a memory lost" (2) he exclaims; those that he loves "the best" have become "strange" (11-12). They treat him like he doesn't even exist, as if he were a complete non-entity. This is why he keeps reaffirming the fact that he's alive (he says "I Am" at least four times, and uses the letter "I" a bunch more). He wants his friends to know that he's still around, and still has feelings.
And those feelings are really hurt, so hurt, in fact, that the speaker longs for death in the poem's final stanza. Now, obviously it's not just because his friends have deserted him that the speaker feels so icky, but also because his life just isn't what it used to be. It's now all one big "shipwreck" (10). Abandonment, change—these things can make a person just wanna get away (like in the Southwest commercials!).
At Least We Know Where He's Buried, Right?
Clare's page at poet's graves also includes a short bio.
"I Am": The Origins
Sheesh, we had no idea the history of "I Am" was this complicated.
Clare's Collected Poems
Well, they're supposedly all here. We're not so sure though.
A Cozy Little Place
Here's the website for the John Clare Cottage, Clare's home for many years.
A Whole Society, Eh?
Here's the website for the John Clare Society.
Clare and Patrick Stewart
Wait wasn't this dude in Star Trek: The Next Generation?
Well, maybe this is what it would have looked like if they had video back then.
We think the candle is a nice touch!
Dramatic Reading, Take II
The emo-factor is off the charts here!
Ricks on Clare
The great Christopher Ricks, professor and critic, reads "I Am."
Spall on Clare
Ah, a nice British voice reading the poem. That's as it should be. Rafe Spall is the star of a hilarious British sitcom: Pete vs. Life. Here he is being much more serious.
Hey, There Handsome!
Check out a famous painting of Clare.
What's With That Look on His Face?
Here's a drawing of Clare as an old man.
House or Asylum?
Here's a drawing of High Beech Private Asylum, where Clare was resident from 1837 to 1841, when he escaped.
Northampton Lunatic Asylum
This is where Clare lived for the last twenty three years of his life (now called St. Andrew's Hospital) as it looked in the nineteenth century. Hey we wouldn't mind living here!
Pinsky on Clare
Poet Robert Pinsky briefly discusses Clare and "I Am" on Slate.com
Clare's Spirit Still Abides.
Read an article from the Village Tribune, a magazine produced by and for the modern inhabitants of the villages where Clare lived, that summarizes his life and importance.
This is the best contemporary biography of John Clare, by Jonathan Bate.
Google books link to Frederick Martin's Life of John Clare, published in 1865. An important work, but it's also full of many false claims.