John Clare’s Genius

John Clare and the Folk Tradition

by George Deacon
London: Francis Boutle, 400 pp., £15.00 (paper)
John Clare
John Clare; drawing by David Levine


In heaven, too,
You’d be institutionalised.
But that’s all right—
If they let you eat and swear
With the likes of Blake,
And Christopher Smart,
And that sweet man, John Clare.

—“Heard in a Violent Ward,” Theodore Roethke

Roethke’s “sweet man,” John Clare (1793–1864)—loved, like Blake and Smart, for a perceived wisdom in his madness—has long been an honored presence among the poets of the English language. Of the English, Edmund Blunden, Geoffrey Grigson, and James Reeves were among his editors, and Auden (who borrowed words from John Clare in his “Letter to Lord Byron”) put him into at least three anthologies. Of the Irish, Patrick Kava-nagh and Michael Longley wrote poems about him, while Tom Paulin and Seamus Heaney (as we shall see) turned him into a quasi-political figurehead.

As to America, the examples are numerous. After Roethke, there was a hippie Clare (as there was a hippie Blake) in the American Sixties. Yvor Winters loved Clare and it was presumably under his influence that Robert Pinsky and Robert Hass came to read and admire him. Then there is a New York School Clare to be encountered in John Ashbery’s poem “For John Clare” (the inspirer of many other poems with similar dedications1 ) and in his charming, more recent Norton lectures.2

There we learn that it was Clare’s prose fragment “House or Window Flies” that started Ashbery examining the possibilities of what he calls “prosaic poetry” (I would have assumed that the models were French). Since the prose poem is so popular a form in the States today, it is worth examining this influential fragment in full:

These little indoor dwellers, in cottages and halls, were always entertaining to me; after dancing in the window all day from sunrise to sunset they would sip of the tea, drink of the beer, and eat of the sugar, and be welcome all the summer long. They look like things of mind or fairies, and seem pleased or dull as the weather permits. In many clean cottages and genteel houses, they are allowed every liberty to creep, fly, or do as they like; and seldom or ever do wrong. In fact they are the small or dwarfish portion of our own family, and so many fairy familiars that we know and treat as one of ourselves.

The strangeness of this description might be attributed by some to the fact that it was transcribed in the madhouse to which Clare was confined. But for Ashbery, madness does not come into it. Rather it is a case of

a kind of nakedness of vision that we are accustomed to, at least in America, from the time of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, down to Robert Lowell and Allen Ginsberg. Like these poets, Clare grabs hold of you—no, he doesn’t grab hold…

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