A Monty Python sketch some years ago featured John Cleese as a yokel perched on a village wall, expatiating earnestly to camera on the vital sociological role played by village idiots such as himself in the rural community. From time to time a party of tourists would pass by, at which point Cleese would break off his erudite discourse and begin lolling about and grimacing for their benefit.
There is a touch of Cleese about the career of John Clare, the "Northamptonshire peasant poet" of the 19th century who was "discovered" by literary London, lionised and celebrated, and then allowed to drop back into obscurity. Like Cleese, Clare seems to have done an ironic double-take on his own emblematic status. He grew accustomed to the gentry's carriages drawing up at his cottage door when he was in the fields, knowing he would be called in and lose a day's wages. If he finally went mad, it was not because of delusions of grandeur. To write about your socially modest background, like Dickens or Lawrence, is usually to write yourself out of it, as the very act of writing puts you beyond the pale of what you are recording. But this was less true of Clare, partly because his celebrity was short-lived.
Clare was not even lucky enough to be a peasant. A peasant typically owns and works his own patch of land, whereas Clare was born into the agricultural proletariat of Helpston in Northamptonshire and made a frugal living as thresher, ploughboy, gardener, field worker, soldier and lime burner. His family had to share an outdoor privy with a whole row of neighbours, but there were some cultural compensations. There was a rich oral tradition of folk song and storytelling in the area, and Clare grew up to become a highly accomplished musician and collector of ballads. Jonathan Bate, in this formidably well-researched biography, considers that he was probably the earliest folk-song collector in the south of England.
Despite his harsh life, Clare was in the right place at the right time. His personal sense of loss and alienation coincided with the land enclosures, economic depression in the countryside and the final destruction of the old rural traditions of cooperation and common rights. Everyone's childhood fades, but Clare's did so literally. In collecting stories and ballads, then, he became a vital memorialist of a way of life that was on the wane.
His poetry belongs to a culture of rural resistance as well as to the annals of eminent English writing.
We have all learnt to be sceptical of the organic society, about which (as Raymond Williams once sardonically remarked) the only certain fact is that it is always gone. But the Helpston villagers did sing and tell stories while working in the field, as well as preserving their seasonal sports and customs. Clare - who hung out with gypsies, knew their lore and spoke their dialect - never romanticised village life; rather, as Bate says, he "reinvented the pastoral tradition of poetry in a mode of dirty realism".
Nor was he altogether a revolting peasant: politically speaking, he combined a passionate championship of the poor with a scorn for revolution and a dash of traditional deference. In a conservative radicalism typical of English culture, it was the grasping nouveau riche he detested, not the landowning grandees.
Clare snatched a little schooling (he felt physically sick when he encountered something he could not understand), and began to write poetry in his work breaks. Unlike Byron or Shelley, one of his major problems was shortage of paper. He was, however, no artless child of nature, but a widely read, technically adroit artist. Caught between polite letters and the oral tradition, his verse matches in quality that of the major Romantics, yet draws on vernacular speech and has trouble with conventional grammar. Like Thomas Hardy and a range of major English writers, Clare's writing springs from a fertile collision of cultures.
It also reveals an astonishingly delicate sense of natural detail. In fact, Clare is one of the few English rural poets for whom nature is not a sublimely transcendent reality, whether as cosmic hierarchy or world spirit, but rather this stray shrubby bush in this contingent corner of a field. As Seamus Heaney has noted, Clare is entranced by the "inexorable one-thing-after-anotherness of the world". His vision is intensely material and naturalistic, which is not for the most part true of English nature poetry. He does not see nature in ideological or metaphysical terms. If he loves to look at it, it is largely because it is his home, not because it constitutes an aesthetic landscape for spiritual contemplation. That, by and large, is the town dweller's or day-tripper's view of the countryside.
It is a spectacle to be consumed, rather than a working society.
Clare scrambled into print with the help of a publisher, came to the notice of one or two well-disposed noblemen and made a trip to London. He was astonished by the number of finely dressed women on the street and had to be told they were prostitutes. He met a number of luminaries in polite society and the literary world, although his literary backers had to work hard to prevent these encounters from knocking the rough edges off him. His bluntness and lack of polish were valuable commodities that needed to be cultivated. Clare, by contrast, expected his editors to correct his spelling and inset the odd piece of punctuation, a device of which his writing is largely innocent.
The Clare craze passed, and the man himself, now back home in his village, lapsed gradually into madness. Bate claims that he would probably be classified today as a manic depressive. He was afflicted all his life by one psychosomatic-sounding disorder after another, was stunted and undernourished and an alarmingly heavy drinker. He also suffered from what Bate discreetly calls "a dangerous propensity for instant infatuation" and was haunted by guilt about playhouses and prostitutes, sexual perversion and venereal disease.
In the end, a doctor testified that Clare had gone insane "after years addicted to poetical prosing", and he was confined in a lunatic asylum.
During his confinement, he sometimes believed that he was Lord Byron, and sometimes that he had previously been both Byron and Shakespeare: "that is," as he observed, "the same person with different names". Even the most robust defenders of the essential unity of English literature might be reluctant to push things quite that far. He died in 1864, a stout, elderly man with beetling white eyebrows, a strong jaw and a high-domed forehead, and narrowly avoided a pauper's burial.
John Clare: A Biography is a wonderfully lucid, erudite work, which it is hard to imagine will ever be surpassed. In attractively self-effacing style it delivers its harrowing narrative without a single superfluous flourish, rash speculation or tremor of emotional self-indulgence. Indeed, the book reflects something of the simplicity and emotional integrity of Clare's own writing.
Bate is so immersed in his subject that he knows who lived in the poet's village and even what happened to some of them, but his deep affection for his subject is laced with an admirable judiciousness. This is a monumental study of a writer of genius, but also of a vital sector of English social history.
Terry Eagleton is professor of cultural theory, Manchester University.
John Clare: A Biography
Author - Jonathan Bate
Publisher - Picador
Pages - 648
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 0 330 371061