The life of John Clare represents a trajectory of cliched Romanticism: a peasant boy begins to write his rough but brilliant rural verses, is taken up by literary and aristocratic admirers, achieves a few seasons' fame, and then declines into poverty and, ultimately, madness. The conclusion of Jonathan Bate's admirably passionate biography of Clare makes clear that the poet's life was inextricably bound up with the cruelties of the class system, rural poverty and commercial fashion.
Clare was born in Helpstone, Northamp-tonshire, in 1793. Though irregularly schooled, his early and promiscuous enthusiasm for reading was encouraged by various teachers. He began to write his own verses, on any paper he could find, while working as an agricultural labourer. Noticed by local and then London-based literary men, and vigorously promoted on the (somewhat hyped) basis that he was an uneducated peasant, Clare became as famous as Keats (and for a period outsold him). His Poems, Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery (1820) sold thousands of copies. Clare was suddenly a literary celebrity, wined and dined by the London literati, dizzied with expectations.
Subsequent volumes fared less well; his third sold 400 copies. Despite the financial assistance of his patrons, he had to return to labouring to support his large family. He was frequently ill, and eventually his mental faculties declined terribly. (Bate offers possible causes, from a childhood fall to sexual infections picked up from prostitutes.) In 1837, he was placed in a mental institution, where - barring one escape in which he walked 100 miles home - he was to remain until his death, in 1864.
Clare was by no means unique as a plebeian poet: ever since Stephen Duck, a thresher, was taken up by the court of Queen Caroline in the 1730s, there had been a number of such figures. Scotland had Burns, and publishers were keen to find an English equivalent. Although his origins (and idiosyncrasies of dialect and punctuation) were played up by his publishers to invest him with a Romantic exoticism, the grim reality of Clare's rural life was mostly removed from the poems. What the patrons and public wanted were simple rural descriptions and sentiments.
Some of Clare's most political work was not published until the century after his death. (Fyfield Books' John Clare: a champion for the poor, with an excellent introduction by Eric Robinson, is a useful collection of such pieces.) And one passage that was published in Poems Descriptive was later removed under pressure from his patrons - dismissed by one as "radical slang". More earthy material was excised on the grounds of propriety.
However, Clare cannot easily be categorised as a radical. He maintained that he was unpolitical, patriotic, passionate about the monarchy and suspicious of "innovations in politics and religion". He objected to the Enclosures Acts because they meant rural traditions and standards of living were being destroyed, not by the old aristocracy but by the new commercial classes and the gentrified clergy and farmers. Yet his work also testifies to an instinctive and reasoned support for the underdog: the Irish, slaves, gypsies, labourers, the homeless. Since the 1960s, Clare has been refashioned in accordance with modern political and environmental concerns, much as he was created to fulfil his age's appetite for idealised rustic simplicity and "untutored" genius.
For decades, the media have portrayed poetry as alternating between states of boom and bust: recently between "new rock'n'roll" and "crisis". These perennial falsehoods now emerge in the argument that "poetry lost its audience" in the early 1920s because of modernism. To read Bate on "the collapse of the poetry market" a century earlier, and the pitifully low readership before that ("sales of Keats's poems still had not reached 500"), is to realise that there has seldom if ever been a mass audience for poetry. As Bate remarks, "Taylor [Clare's London publisher] replied that many people had bought the first book because it was the talk of the town and out of sympathy for Clare's circumstances. This time the purchasers were 'the real Admirers of Poetry', whose 'numbers are very few'." It was ever thus. Bate's fine biography inadvertently reminds us that questions of poetic value will always be a matter separate from the vicissitudes of commerce and the fickleness of liter- ary fashion. Clare himself prophetically remarked that "neglect is the only touchstone by which true genius is proved".
Robert Potts co-edits the Poetry Review