by John Clare, 1793-1864
"I Am," Clare's best-known poem, was first published in the Bedford Times (i.e. of Bedford, England) on New Year's Day 1848. It had been written at some point between Christmas 1841 and Christmas 1846. At the earlier of those dates, Clare had been admitted to Northampton General Lunatic Asylum (later St. Andrew's Hospital), one mile east of Northampton, England, as a "fifth class" or "harmless" patient. He was allowed to walk into Northampton alone, and used to sit for hours in the portico of All Saints' Church, in the center of town.
Northampton is my home town. I was born there, and spent the first 18 years of my life there. The quite extensive grounds of St. Andrew's Hospital were right next to the boys' secondary school I attended from 1956 to 1963. John Clare was a local poet, the "Northamptonshire peasant poet." (Though you will get an argument from Northamptonshire people about that, as Clare's home village of Helpston was technically in the Soke of Peterborough, which belongs either to Northamptonshire, or to Huntingdonshire, or to neither, depending on whom you ask.) In spite of that, I don't recall hearing much about Clare in my schooldays, and never read much of his poetry until I was an adult.
Clare's life makes depressing reading. There is a decent biography by Jonathan Bate (2003). One's natural assumption is that if Clare had been left alone in his village, instead of being introduced to fame and expectation, he might have been happier. In fact it is plain from Bate's book that Clare was constitutionally unhappy, and would have had a wretched life under any circumstances. Bate:
… He longed at once for both childhood and the grave.
Plato tells in the Symposium of how when we are engendered we are split in two, with the result that we spend our lives wandering the earth in pursuit of our lost other half: such is the origin of desire. More than any other writer, Clare — the poet of circular motions — lived out this Platonic quest. Perhaps that was because he was in a more literal sense split at birth, due to the early death of his twin sister. In "Lines: I Am," he imagines himself back into an unbroken circle (a womb?) where he is himself without his cares. He finds a place anterior to the smiles and tears of erotic desire, the longed-for home where he was one with his other half who never grew to be a woman.
[Note: This poem is sometimes titled "Lines: I Am" to distinguish it from a different poem Clare wrote, a sonnet, also titled "I Am." However, this is the one everyone knows, and most anthologies (including The New Oxford Book of English Verse, 1972, from which I have taken the text) list it under the title "I Am."]
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• Text of the poem
I am: yet what I am none cares or knows,
My friends forsake me like a memory lost;
I am the self-consumer of my woes,
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shades in love and death's oblivion lost;
And yet I am, and live with shadows tost
Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life nor joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life's esteems;
And e'en the dearest — that I loved the best —
Are strange — nay, rather stranger than the rest.
I long for scenes where man has never trod,
A place where woman never smiled or wept;
There to abide with my creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept:
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie,
The grass below — above the vaulted sky.