The Tragedy of John Clare

Ever noticed that many poets tend to lead tragic lives?  As a case in point consider the English poet John Clare (l793-l864).

He was the son of a poor farmworker, had little education–only about 3 months a year until he was 12, an age at which he was already working hard at “correcting” his poems.  At 26 he was married and had eight children.  His first book, published in London in 1820, made him the literary sensation of the year.  His next two, though better, failed to sell.  By 1837 the physical and mental strain of rural drudgery proved too much:  Clare was taken into a benevolent private asylum.  When he left four years later he walked home–80 miles in less than 4 days–still confused about his identity (sometimes thinking he was Byron, sometimes a prize-fighter).  He spent the rest of his life in a new and progressive asylum, was well treated, allowed some liberty, and encouraged to write.  Many poems he wrote remained unpublished until the 1950s.  The following was published in 1920, 56 years after his death.

Here’s a sample of his work:


When midnight comes a host of dogs and men

Go out and track the badger to his den,

And put a sack within the hole, and lie

Till the old grunting badger passes by.

He comes and hears–they let the strongest loose.

The old fox hears the noise and drops the goose.

The poacher shoots and hurries from the cry,

And the old hare half wounded buzzes by.

They get a forked stick to bear him down

And clap the dogs and take him to the town,

And bait him all the day with many dogs,

And laugh and shout and fright the scampering hogs.

He runs along and bites at all he meets:

They shout and hollo down the noisy streets.

He turns about to face the loud uproar

And drives the rebels to their very door.

The frequent stone is hurled where’er they go;

When badgers fight, then everyone’s a foe.

The dogs are clapped and urged to join the fray;

The badger turns and drives them all away.

Though scarcely half as big, demure and small,

He fights with dogs for hours and beats them all.

The heavy mastiff, savage in the fray,

Lies down and licks his feet and turns away.

The bulldog knows his match and waxes cold,

The badger grins and never leaves his hold.

He drives the crowd and follows at their heels

And bites them through–the drunkard swears and reels.

The frighted women take the boys away,

The blackguard laughs and hurries on the fray.

He tries to reach the woods, an awkward race,

But sticks and cudgels quickly stop the chase.

He turns again and drives the noisy crowd

And beats the many dogs in noises loud.

He drives away and beats them every one,

And then they loose them all and set them on.

He falls as dead and kicked by boys and men,

Then starts and grins and drives the crowd again;

Till kicked and torn and beaten out he lies

And leaves his hold and cackles, groans, and dies.

Published in: on December 12, 2009 at 10:40 AM  Leave a Comment  

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