John Clare was an English poet and son of a farm labourer. His work celebrates the English countryside but his main fame didn’t arrive until the Twentieth century. He was born in Helpston, Cambridgeshire, England on 13th July 1793 and died in Northampton, England on 20th May 1864 aged 70.
“Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery” (1820)
“The Village Minstrel, and Other Poems” (1821)
“The Shepherd’s Calendar with Village Stories” (1827)
“The Rural Muse” (1835)
John Clare was born on 13th July 1793 in Helpston, Northamptonshire, England. He had a twin sister, Bessie but she died as an infant. (Helpston is now a suburb of the City of Peterborough, Cambridgeshire). His father was a farm labourer and Clare worked on a farm as a child.
1798: He attends a local “Dame School” run by a local, Mrs Bullimore.
1800: He moves on to Glinton Church school where he is taught by Mr Seaton.
1803: James Merrishaw takes over as Clare’s teacher.
1804: His drover uncle sends him a copy of Pomfret’s Poems which his father reads out loud to him. This gives him a love of poetry for the rest of his life.
1805: He works as a ploughboy at Woodcroft Castle for Mrs Bellairs. Most of the apprenticeships offered to him are too expensive for his family to pay and he has an interview with Mr Bellamy of Wisbech but fails to get a job.
1806: He works at the Blue Bell Inn next door in Helpston collecting glasses for the Landlord Francis Gregory. He buys “The Seasons” by the Scottish poet James Thomson with his wages. This inspires him to write his own material and his first poem is considered to be “The Morning Walk”. He falls in love with Mary Joyce, the daughter of a wealthy farmer, but her father forbids them to meet because of his lowly status.
1807: He gets a job as an under gardener at Burghley House in Stamford, Lincolnshire.
1808: He is not paid much and is forced to accept parish relief as he is always hungry. He attempts to join the Militia at Newark in order to escape.
1809: He writes his first dated poem, “Helpstone”, the old name for Helpston.
1812: He joins the Northamptonshire Militia at Oundle in north Northamptonshire.
1816: He is back working as a gardener at Burghley House.
1817: He is employed as a lime burner at Great Casterton with Pickworth in Rutland and meets Martha Turner, who is known as “Patty”.
1818: He is on good terms with Edward Drury, a bookseller in Stamford and converses with Octavius Gilchrist the editor of the local newspaper.
1819: Earl Spencer gives him a £10 a year grant.
1820: John Keat’s publisher John Taylor is Drury’s cousin and the two are introduced. His first book of poems, “Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery” is published by Taylor, and one thousand copies are printed. He marries Martha Turner, a milkmaid on 16th March at the Church of St Peter and St Paul in Great Casterton.Their first child, Anna Maria, is born later in the year. The Marquis of Exeter, who owns Burghley House grants him 15 guineas a year for life and on a visit to London he gains the patronage of Lord Radstock and Mrs Emmerson as well. He has his portrait painted by William Hilton. Now quite famous he becomes known as the “Northamptonshire Peasant Poet”.
1821: His next published book is “The Village Minstrel, and Other Poems” again published by Taylor and Hessey. Their second child dies in infancy.
1823: Their third child, Eliza Louise, is born. Despite their income from benefactors it is not enough and they are still experiencing hard times.
1824: Their fourth child, Frederick, is born. Clare meets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Thomas de Quincey in London. He begins his Journal. The only essay by him to be published in his lifetime, “Popularity of Authorship”, comes out anonymously and describes his financial predicament.
1825: Lord Radstock dies ending his allowance.
1826: Birth of John, their fifth child.
1827: Their sixth child dies in infancy. “The Shepherd’s Calendar with Village Stories and Other Poems” is published but achieves little success and he has to work in the fields again. Because of this he becomes seriously ill and Earl William Fitzwilliam gifts him a cottage and some land.
1828: He sits for a bronze bust cast by Henry Behnes Burlowe in London. Birth of seventh child, William Parker. He visits Boston, Lincs.
1830: Birth of their child, Sophia.
1832: He completes “The Midsummer Cushion” but cannot get it published as his work is now not popular. The family move to Northborough, a few miles from Helpston after friends and London patrons send him money. However, he is even less happy there.
1833: Birth of son, Charles.
1835: His last book to be published is “The Rural Muse” which gains more favourable reviews but sales are not enough to support his wife and seven children. He begins to drink more and his mental health begins to get worse. On one occasion in London he interrupts a performance of William Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” by shouting at Shylock.
1837: In July he is becoming too much for his family to cope with due to his delusions and on the advice of his publisher Taylor he admits himself to Doctor Matthew Allen’s private asylum near Loughton in Epping Forest, Essex. He had started to claim he was Lord Byron and rewrote some of his poems as well as insisting he had written some of Shakespeare’s plays.
1838: In July his first love Mary Joyce dies unmarried in a house fire at the age of 41. Clare was insistent that she was one of his two wives and refuses the believe that she is dead.
1841: In July he runs away from High Beech and walks 80 miles home to Northborough eating plants by the roadside expecting to see Mary when he gets there. He doesn’t believe his family when they tell him she is dead and eventually his wife Patty calls the doctor. Clare is committed to Northampton General Lunatic Asylum in December with his maintenance being paid for by Earl Fitzwilliam. He is looked after by Thomas Octavius Pritchard who encourages him to continue writing and remains there for the last 23 years of his life.
1843: His eldest son, Frederick dies.
1844: His eldest daughter, Anna Maria dies. He writes “I am” in the Asylum.
1845: W.F. Knight, a steward at the asylum, writes out many of Clare’s poems.
1846: His father dies.
1852: His youngest son, Charles dies.
1858: Dr Edwin Wing becomes Superintendent of asylum.
John Clare died of a stroke on 20th May 1864 in Northampton, England. He was buried in Saint Botolph’s Churchyard at Helpston.