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Title: The Life of John Clare
Author: Martin, Frederick
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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       *       *       *       *       *


Some forty years ago, the literary world rapturously hailed the
appearance of a new poet, brought forward as 'the Northamptonshire
Peasant' and 'the English Burns.' There was no limit to the applause
bestowed upon him. Rossini set his verses to music; Madame Vestris
recited them before crowded audiences; William Gifford sang his praises
in the 'Quarterly Review;' and all the critical journals, reviews, and
magazines of the day were unanimous in their admiration of poetical
genius coming before them in the humble garb of a farm labourer. The
'Northamptonshire Peasant' was duly petted, flattered, lionized, and
caressed--and, of course, as duly forgotten when his nine days were
passed. It was the old tale, all over. In this case, flattery did not
spoil the 'peasant;' but poverty, neglect, and suffering broke his heart.
After writing some exquisite poetry, and struggling for years with fierce
want, he sank at last under the burthen of his sorrows, and in the spring
of 1864 died at the Northampton Lunatic Asylum. It is a very old tale, no
doubt, but which may bear being told once more, brimful as it is of human

The narrative has been drawn from a vast mass of letters and other
original documents, including some very curious autobiographical memoirs.
The possession of all these papers, kindly furnished by friends and
admirers of the poet, has enabled the writer to give more detail to his
description than is usual in short biographies--at least in biographies
of men born, like John Clare, in what may truly be called the very lowest
rank of the people.

London, _May_, 1865.

       *       *       *       *       *






































       *       *       *       *       *



On the borders of the Lincolnshire fens, half-way between Stamford and
Peterborough, stands the little village of Helpston. One Helpo, a
so-called 'stipendiary knight,' but of whom the old chronicles know
nothing beyond the bare title, exercised his craft here in the Norman
age, and left his name sticking to the marshy soil. But the ground was
alive with human craft and industry long before the Norman knights came
prancing into the British Isles. A thousand years before the time of
stipendiary Helpo, the Romans built in this neighbourhood their
Durobrivae, which station must have been of great importance, judging
from the remains, not crushed by the wreck of twenty centuries. Old urns,
and coins bearing the impress of many emperors, from Trajan to Valens,
are found everywhere below ground, while above the Romans left a yet
nobler memento of their sojourn in the shape of good roads. Except the
modern iron highways, these old Roman roads form still the chief means of
intercommunication at this border of the fen regions. For many
generations after Durobrivae had been deserted by the imperial legions,
the country went downward in the scale of civilization. Stipendiary and
other unhappy knights came in shoals; monks and nuns settled in swarms,
like crows, upon the fertile marsh lands; but the number of labouring
hands began to decrease as acre after acre got into the possession of
mail-clad barons and mitred abbots. The monks, too, vanished in time, as
well as the fighting knights; yet the face of the land remained silent
and deserted, and has remained so to the present moment. The traveller
from the north can see, for thirty miles over the bleak and desolate fen
regions, the stately towers of Burleigh Hall--but can see little else
beside. All the country, as far as eye can reach, is the property of two
or three noble families, dwelling in turreted halls; while the bulk of
the population, the wretched tillers of the soil, live, as of old, in mud
hovels, in the depth of human ignorance and misery. An aggregate of about
a hundred of these hovels, each containing, on the average, some four
living beings, forms the village of Helpston. The place, in all
probability, is still very much of the same outer aspect which it bore in
the time of Helpo, the mystic stipendiary knight.

Helpston consists of two streets, meeting at right angles, the main
thoroughfare being formed by the old Roman road from Durobrivae to the
north, now full of English mud, and passing by the name of Long Ditch, or
High Street. At the meeting of the two streets stands an ancient cross,
of octangular form, with crocketed pinnacles, and not far from it, on
slightly rising ground, is the parish church, a somewhat unsightly
structure, of all styles of architecture, dedicated to St. Botolph.
Further down stretch, in unbroken line, the low huts of the farm
labourers, in one of which, lying on the High Street, John Clare was
born, on the 13th July, 1793. John Clare's parents were among the poorest
of the village, as their little cottage was among the narrowest and most
wretched of the hundred mud hovels.  Originally, at the time when the
race of peasant-proprietors had not become quite extinct, a rather roomy
tenement, it was broken up into meaner quarters by subsequent landlords,
until at last the one house formed a rookery of not less than four human
dwellings. In this fourth part of a hut lived the father and mother of
John, old Parker Clare and his wife. Poor as were their neighbours, they
were poorer than the rest, being both weak and in ill health, and partly
dependent upon charity. The very origin of Parker Clare's family was
founded in misery and wretchedness. Some thirty years previous to the
birth of John, there came into Helpston a big, swaggering fellow, of no
particular home, and, as far as could be ascertained, of no particular
name: a wanderer over the earth, passing himself off, now for an
Irishman, and now for a Scotchman. He had tramped over the greater part
of Europe, alternately fighting and playing the fiddle; and being tired
awhile of tramping, and footsore and thirsty withal, he resolved to
settle for a few weeks, or months, at the quiet little village. The place
of schoolmaster happened to be vacant, perhaps had been vacant for years;
and the villagers were overjoyed when they heard that this noble
stranger, able to play the fiddle, and to drink a gallon of beer at a
sitting, would condescend to teach the A B C to their children. So
'Master Parker,' as the great unknown called himself for the nonce, was
duly installed schoolmaster of Helpston: The event, taking place sometime
about the commencement of the reign of King George the Third, marks the
first dawn of the family history of John Clare.

The tramping schoolmaster had not been many days in the village before he
made the acquaintance of a pretty young damsel, daughter of the
parish-clerk. She came daily to wind the church clock, and for this
purpose had to pass through the schoolroom, where sat Master Parker,
teaching the A B C and playing the fiddle at intervals. He was as clever
with his tongue as with his fiddlestick, the big schoolmaster; and while
helping the sweet little maiden to wind the clock in the belfry, he told
her wonderful tales of his doings in foreign lands, and of his travels
through many countries. And now the old, old story, as ancient as the
hills, was played over again once more. It was no very difficult task for
the clever tramp to win the heart of the poor village girl; and the rest
followed as may be imagined. When spring and summer was gone, and the
cold wind came blowing over the fen, the poor little thing told her lover
that she was in the way of becoming a mother, and, with tears in her
eyes, entreated him to make her his wife. He promised to do so, the
tramping schoolmaster; but early the next day he left the village, never
to return. Then there was bitter lamentation in the cottage of the
parish-clerk; and before the winter was gone, the poor man's daughter
brought into the world a little boy, whom she gave her own family name,
together with the prefixed one of the unworthy father. Such was the
origin of Parker Clare.

What sort of existence this poor son of a poor mother went through, is
easily told. Education he had none; of joys of childhood he knew nothing;
even his daily allowance of coarse food was insufficient. He thus grew
up, weak and in ill-health; but with a cheerful spirit nevertheless.
Parker Clare knew more songs than any boy in the village, and his stock
of ghost stories and fairy tales was quite inexhaustible. When grown into
manhood, and yet not feeling sufficiently strong for the harder labours
of the field, he took service as a shepherd, and was employed by his
masters to tend their flocks in the neighbourhood, chiefly in the plains
north of the village, known as Helpston Heath. In this way, he became
acquainted with the herdsman of the adjoining township of Castor, a man
named John Stimson, whose cattle was grazing right over the walls of
ancient Durobrivae. John Stimson's place was taken, now and then, by his
daughter Ann--an occurrence not unwelcome to Parker Clare; and while the
sheep were grazing on the borders of Helpo's Heath, and the cattle
seeking for sorrel and clover over the graves of Trajan's warriors, the
young shepherd and shepherdess talked sweet things to each other,
careless of flocks and herds, of English knights and Roman emperors. So
it came that one morning Ann told her father that she had promised to
marry Parker Clare. Old John Stimson thought it a bad match: 'when
poverty comes in at the door, love flies out of the window,' he said,
fortified by the wisdom of two score ten. But when was ever such wisdom
listened to at eighteen!

The girl resolved to marry her lover with or without leave; and as for
Parker Clare, he needed no permission, his mother, dependent for years
upon the cold charity of the workhouse, having long ceased to control his
doings. Thus it followed that in the autumn of 1792, when Robespierre was
ruling France, and William Pitt England, young Parker Clare was married
to Ann Stimson of Castor. Seven months after, on the 13th day of July,
1793, Parker Clare's wife was delivered, prematurely, of twins, a boy and
a girl. The girl was healthy and strong; but the boy looked weak and
sickly in the extreme. It seemed not possible that the boy could live,
therefore the mother had him baptized immediately, calling him John,
after her father. However, human expectations were not verified in the
twin children; the strong girl died in early infancy, while the sickly
boy lived--lived to be a poet.

Of _Poeta nascitur non fit_ there never was a truer instance than in the
case of John Clare. Impossible to imagine circumstances and scenes
apparently more adverse to poetic inspiration than those amidst which
John Clare was placed at his birth. His parents were the poorest of the
poor; their whole aim of life being engrossed by the one all-absorbing
desire to gain food for their daily sustenance. They lived in a narrow
wretched hut, low and dark, more like a prison than a human dwelling; and
the hut stood in a dark, gloomy plain, covered with stagnant pools of
water, and overhung by mists during the greater part of the year. Yet
from out these surroundings sprang a being to whom all life was golden,
and all nature a breath of paradise. John Clare was a poet almost as soon
as he awoke to consciousness. His young mind marvelled at all the
wonderful things visible in the wide world: the misty sky, the green
trees, the fish in the water, and the birds in the air. In all the things
around him the boy saw nothing but endless, glorious beauty; his whole
mind was filled with a deep sense of the infinite marvels of the living
world. Though but in poor health, the parents were never able to keep
little John at home. He trotted the lifelong day among the meadows and
fields, watching the growth of herbs and flowers, the chirping of
insects, the singing of birds, and the rustling of leaves in the air. One
day, when still very young, the sight of the distant horizon, more than
usually defined in sharp outline, brought on a train of contemplation. A
wild yearning to see what was to be seen yonder, where the sky was
touching the earth, took hold of him, and he resolved to explore the
distant, unknown region. He could not sleep a wink all night for eager
expectation, and at the dawn of the day the next morning started on his
journey, without saying a word to either father or mother. It was a hot
day in June, the air close and sultry, with gossamer mists hanging thick
over the stagnant pools and lakes. The little fellow set out without food
on his long trip, fearful of being retained by his watchful parents.
Onward he trotted, mile after mile, towards where the horizon seemed
nearest; and it was a long while before he found that the sky receded the
further he went. At last he sank down from sheer exhaustion, hungry and
thirsty, and utterly perplexed as to where he should go. Some labourers
in the fields, commiserating the forlorn little wanderer, gave him a
crust of bread, and started him on his home journey. It was late at night
when he returned to Helpston, where he found his parents in the greatest
anxiety, and had to endure a severe punishment for his romantic
excursion. Little John Clare did not mind the beating; but a long while
after felt sad and sore at heart to have been unable to find the
hoped-for country where heaven met earth.

The fare of agricultural labourers in these early days of John Clare was
much worse than at the present time. Potatoes and water-porridge
constituted the ordinary daily food of people in the position of Clare's
parents, and they thought themselves happy when able to get a piece of
wheaten bread, with perhaps a small morsel of pork, on Sundays. At this
height of comfort, however, Parker Clare and his wife seldom arrived.
Sickly from his earliest childhood, Parker Clare had never been really
able to perform the work required of him, though using his greatest
efforts to do so. A few years after marriage, his infirmities increased
to such an extent that he was compelled to seek relief from the parish,
and henceforth he remained more or less a pauper for life.
Notwithstanding this low position, Parker Clare did not cease to care for
the well-being of his family, and, by the greatest privations on his own
part, managed to send his son to an infant school. The school in question
was kept by a Mrs. Bullimore, and of the most primitive kind. In the
winter time, all the little ones were crowded together in a narrow room;
but as soon as the weather got warm, the old dame turned them out into
the yard, where the whole troop squatted down on the ground. The teaching
of Mrs. Bullimore did not make much impression upon little John, except a
slight fact which she accidentally told him, and which took such firm
hold of his imagination that he remembered it all his life. There was a
white-thorn tree in the school-yard, of rather large size, and the
ancient schoolmistress told John that she herself, when young, had
planted the tree, having carried the root from the fields in her pocket.
The story struck the boy as something marvellous; it was to him a sort of
revelation of nature, a peep into the mysteries of creation at the works
of which he looked with feelings of unutterable amazement, not unmixed
with awe. But there was little else that Mrs. Bullimore could teach John
Clare, either in her schoolroom or in the yard. The instruction of the
good old woman was, in the main, confined to two things--the initiation
into the difficulties of A B C, and the reading from two books, of which
she was the happy possessor. These books were 'The Death of Abel' and
Bunyan's 'Pilgrim's Progress.' Their contents did not stir any thoughts
or imaginings in little John, whose mind was filled entirely with the
pictures of nature.

When John Clare had reached his seventh year, he was taken away from the
dame-school, and sent out to tend sheep and geese on Helpston Heath. The
change was a welcome one to him, for, save the mysterious white-thorn
tree, there was nothing at school to attract him. Helpston Heath, on the
other hand, furnished what seemed to him a real teacher. While tending
his geese, John came into daily contact with Mary Bains, an ancient lady,
filling the dignified post of cowherd of the village, and driving her
cattle into the pastures annually from May-day unto Michaelmas. She was
an extraordinary old creature, this Mary Bains, commonly known as Granny
Bains. Having spent almost her whole life out of doors, in heat and cold,
storm and rain, she had come to be intimately acquainted with all the
signs foreboding change of weather, and was looked upon by her
acquaintances as a perfect oracle. She had also a most retentive memory,
and being of a joyous nature, with a bodily frame that never knew
illness, had learnt every verse or melody that was sung within her
hearing, until her mind became a very storehouse of songs. To John, old
Granny Bains soon took a great liking, he being a devout listener, ready
to sit at her feet for hours and hours while she was warbling her little
ditties, alternately merry and plaintive. Sometimes the singing had such
an effect that both the ancient songstress and her young admirer forgot
their duties over it.  Then, when the cattle went straying into the pond,
and the geese were getting through the corn, Granny Bains would suddenly
cease singing, and snatching up her snuff-box, hobble across the fields
in wild haste, with her two dogs at her side as respectful aides-de-camp,
and little John bringing up the rear. But though often disturbed in the
enjoyment of those delightful recitations, they nevertheless sunk deep
into John Clare's mind, until he found himself repeating all day long the
songs he had heard, and even in his dreams kept humming--

  'There sat two ravens upon a tree,
  Heigh down, derry, O!
  There sat two ravens upon a tree,
  As deep in love as he and she.'

It was thus that the admiration of poetry first awoke in Parker Clare's
son, roused by the songs of Granny Bains, the cowherd of Helpston.


The extreme poverty of Parker Clare and his wife compelled them to put
their son to hard work earlier than is usual even in country places. John
was their only son; of four children born to them, only he and a little
sister, some six years younger, having remained alive; and it was
necessary, therefore, that he should contribute to the maintenance of the
family, otherwise dependent upon parish relief. Consequently, John was
sent to the farmer's to thrash before he was twelve years old, his father
making him a small flail suited to his weak arms. The boy was not only
willing, but most eager to work, his anxious desire being to assist his
poor parents in procuring the daily bread. However, his bodily strength
was not equal to his will. After a few months' work in the barn, and
another few months behind the plough, he came home very ill, having
caught the tertiary ague in the damp, ill-drained fields. Then there was
anxious consulting in the little cottage what to do next. The miserable
allowance from 'the union' was insufficient to purchase even the
necessary quantity of potatoes and rye-bread for the household, and, to
escape starvation,--it was absolutely necessary that John should go to
work again, whatever his strength. So he dragged himself from his bed of
sickness, and took once more to the plough, the kind farmer consenting to
his leading the horses on the least heavy ground. The weather was dry for
a season, and John rallied wonderfully, so as to be able to do some
extra-work, and earn a few pence, which he saved carefully for
educational purposes. And when the winter came round, and there was
little work in the fields, he made arrangements with the schoolmaster at
Glinton, a man famed far and wide, to become his pupil for five evenings
in the week, and for as many more days as he might be out of employment.
The trial of education was carried on to John Clare's highest
satisfaction, as well as that of his parents, who proclaimed aloud that
their son was going to be a scholar.

Glinton, a small village of about three hundred inhabitants, stands some
four or five miles east of Helpston, bordering on the Peterborough Great
Fen. It was famous in Clare's time, and is famous still, for its
educational establishments, there being three daily schools in the place,
one of them endowed. The school to which John went, was presided over by
a Mr. James Merrishaw. He was a thin, tall old man, with long white hair
hanging down his coat-collar, in the fashion of bygone days. It was his
habit to take extensive walks, for miles around the country, moving
forward with long strides, and either talking to himself or humming soft
tunes; on which account his pupils styled him 'the bumble-bee.' The old
man was passionately fond of music, and devoted every minute spared from
school duties and his long walks, to his violin. To the more promising of
his pupils Mr. James Merrishaw showed great kindness, allowing them,
among other things, the run of his library, somewhat larger than that of
ordinary village schoolmasters. John Clare had not been many times to
Glinton, before he was enrolled among these favourites of Mr. Merrishaw.
Being able already to read, through his own exertions, based on the
fundamental principles instilled by Dame Bullimore, little John dived
with delight into the treasures opened at the Glinton school, never tired
to go through the somewhat miscellaneous book stores of Mr. Merrishaw. In
a short while, the young student was seized with a real hunger for
knowledge. He toiled day and night to perfect himself, not only in
reading and writing, but in some impossible things which he had taken
into his head to learn, such as algebra and mathematics. Coming home late
at night, from his long walk to school, he astonished and not a little
perplexed his poor parents by crouching down before the fire, and
tracing, in the faint glimmer of a burning log, incomprehensible signs
upon bits of paper, or sometimes pieces of wood. Far too poor to buy even
the commonest kind of writing paper, John was in the habit of picking up
shreds of the same material, such as used by grocers and other village
shopkeepers, and to scratch thereon his signs and figures, sometimes with
a pencil, but oftener with a piece of charcoal. Perhaps there never was a
more unfavourable study of mathematics and algebra.

For two winters and part of a wet summer, John Clare went to Mr.
Merrishaw's school at Glinton, during short intervals of hard labour in
the fields. At the end of this period a curious accident seemed to give a
sudden turn to his prospects in life. A maternal uncle, called Morris
Stimson, one day made his appearance at Helpston, having been previously
on a visit to his father and sisters at Castor. Uncle Morris was looked
upon as a very grand personage, he holding the post of footman to a
lawyer at Wisbeach, and as such clad in the finest plush and broadcloth.
Being duly reverenced, the splendid uncle in his turn thought it his duty
to patronize his humble friends, and accordingly was kind enough to offer
little John a situation in his master's office. There was a vacancy for a
clerk at Wisbeach, and Uncle Morris was sure his nephew was just the man
to fill it. John himself thought otherwise; but was immediately overruled
in his opinion by father, mother, and uncle. A boy who had been to Mr.
Merrishaw's for ever so many evenings; who could read a chapter from the
Bible as well as the parson, and who was drawing figures upon paper night
after night: why, he was fit enough to be not only a lawyer's clerk, but,
if need be, a minister of the church. So they argued, and it was settled
that John should go to Wisbeach, and be duly installed as a clerk in the
office just above the pantry in which dwelt Uncle Morris. Mr. Morris
Stimson did not stop at Helpston longer than a day; but, before leaving,
made careful arrangements that his nephew should follow him to Wisbeach
precisely at the end of seven days.

Those were stirring seven days in the little hut of Parker Clare. The
poor mother, anxious to assist to the best of her power in her son's rise
in life, ransacked her scanty wardrobe to the utmost, to put John in what
she deemed a proper dress. She mended all his clothes as neatly as
possible; she made him a pair of breeches out of an old dress, and a
waistcoat from a shawl; and then ran up and down the village to get a few
more necessary things, including an old white necktie, and a pair of
black woollen gloves. Thus equipped, John Clare started for Wisbeach one
Friday morning in spring--date not discoverable, but supposed to be
somewhere about the year 1807. The poor mother cried bitterly when John
shook hands for the last time at the bottom of the village; the father
tried hard to hide his tears, but did not succeed; and John himself,
light-hearted at first, had a good cry when he turned his face at Elton,
and got a final glimpse of the steeple of Helpston church. Beyond Elton
John Clare had never been in his life, and it was with some sort of
trembling, mixed with a strong feeling of homesickness, that he inquired
his way to Peterborough. His confusion was great when he found that the
people stared at him on the road; and stared the more the nearer he
approached the episcopal city. No doubt, a thin, pale, little boy, stuck
in a threadbare coat which he had long outgrown, and the sleeves of which
were at his elbows; with a pair of breeches a world too large for his
slender legs; with a many-coloured waistcoat, an immense pair of woollen
gloves, a white necktie, and a hat half a century old, was a rare sight,
even in the fen country. Poor John, therefore, had to march into
Peterborough followed by the curious eyes of a hundred male and female
idlers, who opened doors and windows to see him pass along. Happily the
trial was not a long one, for, having discovered his way to the Wisbeach
boat, he ran to it as fast as his legs would carry him, and, fairly on
board, ensconced himself behind a bale of goods. Oh, how he repented
having ever left Helpston, in the fatal ambition of becoming a lawyer's

The journey from Peterborough to Wisbeach, in those days, was by a Dutch
canal boat--a long narrow kind of barge, drawn by one horse, with a large
saloon in front for common passengers, and a little room for a possible
select company behind, near the steersman. The boat only ran once a week,
on Friday, from Peterborough to Wisbeach, returning the following Sunday;
and, as far as it went, the passage was cheap as well as convenient--the
charge for the whole distance of twenty-one miles being but
eighteen-pence. But John Clare, fond though he was of water, and trees,
and green fields, did not much enjoy the river journey, his heart being
big with thoughts of the future. What the great lawyer to whom he was
going would say, and what replies he should make, were matters uppermost
in his mind. To prepare for the dreaded interview John at last set
himself to compose an elaborate speech, on the model of one which he had
seen in the 'Royal Magazine' at Mr. Merrishaw's school. The speech,
however, was not quite ready when the boat stopped at Wisbeach, landing
John Clare, together with the other passengers. One more source of
trouble had to be overcome here. When the young traveller inquired for
the house of Mr. Councillor Bellamy, the people, instead of replying,
stared at him. 'Mr. Councillor Bellamy? _You_ are not going to Mr.
Bellamy's house?' said more than one of the Wisbeach citizens, until poor
John got fairly frightened. He was still more frightened when he at last
arrived before the house of Mr. Councillor, and found that it was a
stately building, bigger and nobler-looking than any he had ever entered
in his life. He had not courage enough to ring the bell or knock at the
door, but stood irresolute at the threshold. At last John ventured a
faint tap at the door; and, luckily, Uncle Morris appeared in answer to
the summons, and welcomed the visitor by leading him down into the
kitchen, where the board was spread. 'I have told master about your
arrival,' said Uncle Morris; 'and meanwhile sit down to a cup of tea. Do
not hang your head, but look up boldly, and tell him what you can do.'
John sat down to the table, yet was unable to eat anything, in fear and
trembling of the things to come. It was not long before Mr. Councillor
Bellamy made his appearance. Poor John tried hard to keep his head erect
as ordered, and made a convulsive effort to deliver himself of the first
sentences of his prepared speech. But the words stuck in his throat.
'Aye, aye; so this is your nephew, Morris?' now said Mr. Councillor
Bellamy, addressing his footman. 'Yes, sir,' replied the faithful
servant; 'and a capital scholar he is, sir.' Mr. Councillor glanced at
the 'scholar' from the country--at his white necktie, his little coat,
and his large breeches. 'Aye, aye; so this is your nephew,' Mr.
Councillor repeated, rubbing his hands; 'well, I _may_ see him again.'
With this Uncle Morris's master left the room. He left it not to return;
and John Clare had never in his life the honour of seeing Mr. Councillor
Bellamy again. There next came an order from the upper regions to make
Morris's nephew comfortable till Sunday morning, and to put him, at that
time, on board the Peterborough boat for the return journey. The behest
of Mr. Councillor was duly executed, and John Clare, on the following
Sunday evening, after three days' absence, again walked into his father's
cottage at Helpston, a happier and a wiser lad. He had discovered the
great truth that he was not fit for the profession of the law.


The mother cried for joy when her John again entered the little cottage;
but the father welcomed him with a melancholy smile. John himself, though
with a little mortified vanity, felt rather pleased than otherwise. His
good sense told him that this journey to Wisbeach had been but a fool's
errand, and that, in order to rise in the world, he had to look into
other directions than to a lawyer's office. He therefore fell back with a
strong feeling of contentment into his old occupation, holding the
plough, carting manure to the field, and studying algebra. In the latter
favourite labour he was much assisted by a young friend, whose
acquaintance he had made at Glinton school, named John Turnill, the son
of a small farmer. The latter, having a little more money at his command
than his humble companion, was able to purchase the necessary books, as
well as a modest allowance of paper and pencils, the gift of which threw
John Clare into ecstasies of delight. With Master Turnill, the attachment
to mathematics and algebra was a real love, though it was otherwise with
Clare, who pursued these studies solely out of ambition, and with a hope
of raising himself in the world. The desire to improve his position
became stronger than ever after his return from Wisbeach. The sneers of
the people who met him during the journey had sunk deep into his
sensitive mind, and he determined to make a struggle for a better
position. How far mathematics and the pure sciences would help him on the
road he did not trouble himself to consider; he only had a vague notion
that they would lead him to be a 'scholar.' So he toiled with great
energy through the algebraic and mathematical handbooks purchased by
friend Turnill, often getting so warm on the subject as to neglect his
dinner-hour, in brown studies over the _plus_ and _minus_, squares,
cubes, and conic sections. Every evening that he could possibly spare he
walked over to Turnill's house, near Elton, regardless of wind, rain, and
snow, and regardless even of the reproaches of his kind parents, who
began to be afraid of his continued dabbling in the occult arts. However,
little John stuck to his algebra, and it was nearly two years before he
discovered that he was as little fit to be a mathematician as a lawyer's

Meanwhile, and before the algebraic studies came to an end, there
occurred a somewhat favourable change in the circumstances of John Clare.
Among the few well-to-do inhabitants of Helpston was a person named
Francis Gregory, who owned a small public-house, under the sign of the
'Blue Bell,' and rented, besides, a few acres of land. Francis Gregory, a
most kind and amiable man, was unmarried, and kept house with his old
mother, a female servant, and a lad, the latter half groom and half
gardener. This situation, a yearly 'hiring,' being vacant, it was offered
to John, and eagerly accepted, on the understanding that he should have
sufficient time of his own to continue his studies. It was a promise
abundantly kept, for John Clare had never more leisure, and, perhaps, was
never happier in his life than during the year that he stayed at the
'Blue Bell.' Mr. Francis Gregory, suffering under constant illness,
treated the pale little boy, who was always hanging over his books, more
like a son than a servant, and this feeling was fully shared by Mr.
Gregory's mother. John's chief labours were to attend to a horse and a
couple of cows, and occasionally to do some light work in the garden or
the potato field; and as these occupations seldom filled more than part
of the day or the week, he had all the rest of the time to himself. A
characteristic part of Clare's nature began to reveal itself now. While
he had little leisure to himself, and much hard work, he was not averse
to the society of friends and companions, either, as in the case of
Turnill, for study, or, as with others, for recreation; but as soon as he
found himself, to a certain extent, his own master, he forsook the
company of his former acquaintances, and began to lead a sort of hermit's
life. He took long strolls into the woods, along the meres, and to other
lonely places, and got into the habit of remaining whole hours at some
favourite spot, lying flat on the ground, with his face toward the sky.
The flickering shadows of the sun; the rustling of the leaves on the
trees; the sailing of the fitful clouds over the horizon, and the golden
blaze of the sky at morn and eventide, were to him spectacles of which
his eye never tired, with which his heart never got satiated. And as he
grew more and more the constant worshipper of nature, in any of her
aspects, so his mind gradually became indifferent to almost all other
objects. What men did, what they had done, or what they were going to do,
he did not seem to care for, or had the least curiosity to know. In the
midst of these solitary rambles from his 'Blue Bell' home, the news was
brought of some extraordinary discoveries at Castor, his mother's native
village. It was news which, one might have thought, would fire the
imagination of any man gifted with the most ordinary understanding. In a
part of the township of Castor called Dormanton Fields, the greater part
of the vast ruins of Durobrivae were discovered: temples and arches
crumbled into dust; many-coloured tiles and brickwork; urns and antique
earthen vessels; and coins, with, the images of many emperors--so
numerous that it looked as if they had been sown there. To reconstruct
the ancient Roman city, to people it anew with the conquerors of the
world, was a task at once undertaken by zealous antiquarians; yet Clare,
though he heard the matter mentioned by numerous visitors to the 'Blue
Bell,' and had plenty of time for investigation, took so little interest
in it as not even to attempt a walk to the city of ruins, on the borders
of which he was feeding his cattle. Now, as up to a late period of his
life, a bunch of sweet violets was worth to John Clare more than all the
ruins of antiquity.

While at the 'Blue Bell' John gradually dropped his algebra and
mathematics, and began to read ghost-stories. The reason of his leaving
the 'sciences called pure' was the discovery that the further he
proceeded on the road the more he saw his utter incapacity to
understand and to master the subjects. His friend and guide, John
Turnill,--subsequently promoted to a post in the excise--was equally
unable to throw light into the darkness of _plus_ and _minus_, and after
a few last convulsive struggles to get through the 'known quantities'
into the unknown regions of _x_, _y_, and _z_, he gave it up as a
hopeless effort. The spare hours henceforth were devoted to studies of a
very different kind, namely, fairy tales and ghost stories. Under the
roof of the 'Blue Bell' no other literature was within his reach, and he
was quite content to draw temporary nourishment from it. Scarcely any
books but these highly spiced ones, stuffed in the pack of travelling
pedlars, ever found their way to Helpston. There was 'Little Red
Riding-hood,' 'Valentine and Orson,' 'Sinbad the Sailor,' 'The Seven
Sleepers,' 'Mother Shipton,' 'Johnny Armstrong,' 'Old Nixon's Prophecy,'
and a whole host of similar 'sensation' stories, printed on coarse paper,
with a flaming picture on the title-page. John Clare scarcely knew that
there were any other books than these and the few he had seen at Glinton
school in existence; he had never heard of Shakespeare and Milton,
Thompson and Cowper, Spenser and Dryden; and, therefore, with the natural
eagerness of the young mind just awoke to its day dreams, eagerly plunged
into the new realm of fancy. The effect soon made itself felt upon the
ardent reader, fresh from his undigested algebraic studies. He saw ghosts
and hobgoblins wherever he went, and after a time began to look upon
himself as a sort of enchanted prince in a world of magic. He had no
doubt whatever about the literal truth of the stories he read; the
thought of their being mere pictures of the imagination not entering his
mind for a moment. It was natural, therefore, that he should come to the
conclusion that, as the earth had been, so it was still peopled with
fairies, dwarfs, and giants, with whom it would be his fate to come into
contact some time or other. So he buckled his armour tight, ready to do
battle with the visible and invisible world.

Opportunity came before long. Among his regular duties at the 'Blue Bell'
was that of fetching once a week flour from Maxey, a village some three
miles north of Helpston, near the Welland river. The road to Maxey was a
very lonely one, part of it a narrow footpath along the mere, and the
superstition of the neighbourhood connected strange tales of horror and
weird fancy with the locality. In the long days of summer, John Clare,
who had to start on his errand to the mill late in the afternoon, managed
to get home before dark, thus avoiding unpleasant meetings; but when the
autumn came, the sun set before he left Maxey, and then the ghosts were
upon him. They always attacked him half way between the two villages, in
a low swampy spot, overhung by the heavy mist of the fens. Poor John
battled hard, but the spirits nearly always got the upper hand. They
pulled his hair, pinched his legs, twisted his nose, and played other
tricks with him, until he sank to the ground in sheer exhaustion.
Recovering himself after a while, the fairies then let him alone, and he
staggered home to the 'Blue Bell,' pale and trembling, and like one in a
dream. His good friend and master, Francis Gregory, wondering at the
haggard look of the lad, thought he was going to have another attack of
the tertiary ague, and spoke to his parents; but John, in his silent
mood, said it was nothing, and begged to be left alone. So they let him
have his way, and he continued his weekly errands to Maxey, with the same
result as before. At last, when thoroughly wearied of this repetition of
supernatural terrors, he hit upon an ingenious plan for breaking the
chain connecting him with the invisible world. The plan consisted in
concocting, on his own part, a story of wonders; a story, however, 'with
no ghost in it.' Now a king, and now a prince--in turn a sailor, a
soldier, and a traveller in unknown lands--John himself was always the
hero of his own story, and, of course, always the lucky hero. With his
vast power of imagination, this calling up of a new world of bright
fancies to destroy the lawless apparitions of the air had the desired
effect, and the ghosts troubled John Clare no more on his way to and from
the mill.

Nevertheless, his constant reading of fairy tales, with incessant play on
the imagination and surexcitation of the mind, was not without leaving
its ill effect upon the bodily frame. John sickened and weakened visibly,
and his general appearance became the talk of the village. His long
solitary roamings through the woods and fields, his habits of reading
even when tending the cattle, and his apparent dislike to hold converse
with any one, were things which the poor labourers, young and old, could
not understand; and when, as it happened, people met him on the road to
Maxey in the dark, and heard that he was talking to himself in a loud
excited manner, they set him down as a lunatic. Some few of the coarsest
among the youngsters went so far as to greet him with volleys of abuse
when he happened to come near them, while the old people drew back from
him as in disgust. His sensitive feelings suffered deep under this
treatment of his neighbours, which might have had the worst consequences
but for one great event which suddenly broke in upon him. John Clare fell
in love.

  'Love took up the glass of Time, and turned it in his glowing hands;
  Every moment, lightly shaken, ran itself in golden sands.
  Love took up the harp of Life, and smote on all the chords with might;
  Smote the chord of Self, that, trembling, pass'd in music out of

John Clare's first love--the deepest, noblest, and purest love of his
whole life--was for 'Mary,' the Mary of all his future songs, ballads,
and sonnets. Petrarch himself did not worship his Laura with a more
idealized spirit of affection than John Clare did his Mary. To him; she
was nothing less than an angel, with no other name than that of Mary;
though vulgar mortals called her Mary Joyce, holding her to be the
daughter of a well-to-do farmer at Glinton. John Clare made her
acquaintance--if so it can be called what was the merest dream-life
intercourse--on one of his periodical journeyings to and from the Maxey
mills. She sat on a style weaving herself a garland of flowers, and the
sight so enchanted him that he crouched down at a distance, afraid to
stir and to disturb the beautiful apparition. But she continuing to sit
and to weave her flowers, he drew nearer, and at last found courage to
speak to her. Mary did not reply; but her deep blue eyes smiled upon him,
lifting the humble worshipper of beauty into the seventh heaven of bliss.
And when he met her again, she again smiled; and he sat down at her feet
once more, and opened the long pent-up rivers of his heart. Mute to all
the world around him, he to her for the first time spoke of all he felt,
and dreamt, and hoped. He told her how he loved the trees and flowers,
and the singing nightingales, and the lark rising into the skies, and the
humming insects, and the sailing clouds, and all the grand and beautiful
works of nature. But he never told her that he thought her more beautiful
than ought else in God's great world. This he never said in words, but
his eyes expressed it; and Mary, perhaps, understood the language of his
eyes. Mary always listened attentively, yet seldom said anything. Her
eyes hung upon his lips, and his lips hung upon her eyes, and thus both
worshipped the god of love.

The sweet dream lasted full six months--six glorious sunlit months of
spring and summer. Then the father of Mary Joyce heard of the frequent
meetings of his daughter with John Clare, and though looking upon both as
mere children, he sternly forbid her to see 'the beggar-boy' again. His
heart of well-to-do farmer revolted at the bare idea of his offspring
talking with the son of one who was not even a farm-labourer, but had to
be maintained as a pauper by the parish. Explaining this great fact to
his blue-eyed daughter, he deeply impressed its terrible importance upon
her soft little heart, making her think with a sort of shudder of the
pale boy who told her such pretty stories. Perhaps Mary nevertheless
preserved a lingering fondness for her little lover's memory, for though
many wooed her in after life, she never wedded, and died a spinster. As
for John Clare, he fretted long and deeply, and all his life thought of
Mary Joyce as the symbol, ideal, and incarnation of love. With the
exception of a few verses addressed to 'Patty,' his future wife, the
whole of Clare's love poetry came to be a dedication and worship of Mary.
As yet, in these youthful days of grief and affection, he wrote no
verses, though he felt a burning desire to give vent to his feelings in
some shape or other. Having lost his Mary, he carved her name into a
hundred trees, and traced it, with trembling hand, on stones, and walls,
and monuments. There still stands engraven on the porch of Glinton
churchyard--or stood till within a recent time--a circular inscription,
consisting of the letters, 'J. C. 1808,' cut in bold hand, and
underneath, in fainter outline, the name 'Mary.'


Just before quitting the 'Blue Bell,' at the end of his twelve months'
service, another important event took place in the life of John Clare.
One morning, while tending his master's cattle in the field, a farmer's
big boy, with whom he had but a slight acquaintance, showed him a copy of
Thomson's 'Seasons.' Examining the book, he got excited beyond measure.
It was the first real poem he had ever seen, and in harmony as it was
with all his feelings, it made upon him the most powerful and lasting
impression. Looking upon the book as a priceless treasure, he expressed
his admiration in warm words, asking, nay, imploring the possessor to
lend it him, if only for an hour. But the loutish boy, swollen with
pride, absolutely refused to do so; it was but a trumpery book, he said,
and could be bought for eighteen-pence, and he did not see why people who
wanted it should not buy it. The words sunk deep into John Clare's heart;
'Only eighteen-pence?' he inquired again and again, doubting his own
ears. The big boy was quite sure the book cost no more than
eighteen-pence; he had himself bought it at Stamford for the money, and
could give the name and address of the bookseller. It was information
eagerly accepted by John, who determined on the spot to get the coveted
poem at the earliest opportunity. His wages not being due at the moment,
he hurried home to his father in the evening, entreating the loan of a
shilling, as he himself possessed but sixpence. But Parker Clare, willing
though he was to gratify his son, was unable to render help on this
occasion. A spare shilling was not often seen in the hut of the poor old
man, dependent chiefly upon alms, and in want, not unfrequently, of the
bare necessaries of life. But the loving mother could not listen to her
son's anxious entreaty without trying to assist him, and by dint of
superhuman exertions she managed to get him sevenpence. The fraction
still wanting to complete the purchase-money of the book was raised by
sundry loans at the 'Blue Bell,' and John waited with eagerness for the
coming Sunday, when he would have time to run to Stamford. The Sunday
came--a Sunday in spring; and he was up soon after midnight, and stood
before the bookseller's shop in Stamford when the eastern clouds assumed
their first purple hue. John Clare patiently waited one hour, two hours,
three hours, yet the treasure store which contained Thomson's 'Seasons'
remained closed. Tremblingly he asked a boy who came along the street at
what time the shop would be opened: 'It will not be open at all to-day,
for it is Sunday, rejoined the other. Then John went home in bitter
sorrow to Helpston, not knowing how to get the much-coveted book. On the
way, a bright thought struck him. If he could but raise twopence, in
addition to the capital already acquired, he thought he could manage the
matter. So by making extraordinary efforts, he got his twopence, and then
held a long conversation with the cowherd of a neighbouring farmer.
Clare's occupation on the following morning was to take his master's
horses to the pasture, and he offered the cowherd the sum of one penny to
look after the horses for him, and one more penny for 'keeping the
secret.' The bargain was struck, after an animated discussion, in which
the conscientious cowherd strove hard to get a total reward of
threepence, so as to be able to keep the secret for any length of time.
But John was inflexible, for strong reasons of his own, and thus gained
the victory.

During the night from Sunday to Monday, John Clare could not shut his
eyes for sheer anxiety. The questions whether the bookseller would have
any copies left of the wonderful poem; whether it could really be bought
for eighteen-pence; and whether the big farmer's boy did not mean the
whole story as a hoax, occupied his mind all night long. It seemed so
improbable to him, on reflection, that a book containing the most
exquisite verses could be bought for little more than the common fairy
tales of the hawkers, and it seemed still more improbable that, being
sold so cheap, there would be any books left for sale, that he at last
inwardly despaired of getting the book. Thereupon he had a good long cry
in the silence of the night, when all the village was asleep; and the
crying closed his eyelids, too, for sheer weariness. And when he roused
himself again there was a faint glow in the sky; so he rushed down to the
stables, took out his horses, and led them to the pasture, awaiting the
arrival of his confederate. The latter came at length, and, having given
over his horses, John set off in a sharp trot, skipping over the seven or
eight miles to Stamford in little more than an hour. The bookseller's
shop, alas, was still closed; but the people in the streets told the
eager inquirer that the shutters would be taken down in about an hour and
a half. John, therefore, sat down in quiet resignation on the door-step,
counting the quarters of the chiming clock. At last there was a noise
inside the house, a rattling of keys and drawing of bolts. The bookseller
slowly opened his door, and was immensely astonished to see a little
country lad, thin and haggard, with wild gleaming eyes, rush at him with
a demand for Thomson's 'Seasons.' Was there ever such a customer seen at
Stamford? The good bookseller was not accustomed to excitement, for the
old ladies who dealt at his shop bought their hymn-books and manuals of
devotion without any manifestations of impatience, and even the young
ones, though they asked for Aphra Behn's novels in a whisper, came in
very quietly and demurely. Who, then, was this queer, haggard-looking
country boy, who could not wait for Thomson's 'Seasons' till after
breakfast, but was hovering about the shop like a thief? The good
bookseller questioned him a little, but did not gain much satisfactory
information. That his little customer was servant at the 'Blue Bell;' had
hired himself to Master Gregory for a year; had a father and mother
maintained by the parish; and had seen Thomson's 'Seasons' in the hands
of a farmer's boy--that was all the inquisitive bookseller could get at;
and, indeed, there was nothing more to tell. However, the Stamford
shopkeeper was a man of compassion, and seeing the wan little figure
before him, resolved upon a tremendous sacrifice. So he told Clare that
he would let him have Thomson's 'Seasons' for one shilling: 'You may keep
the sixpence, my boy,' he exclaimed, with a lofty wave of the hand. John
Clare heard nothing, saw nothing; he snatched up his book, and ran away
eastward as fast as his legs would carry him. 'A queer customer,' said
the shopkeeper, finishing to take down his shutters.

The sun had risen in all his glory when John Clare was trotting back from
Stamford to Helpston. Every now and then he paused to have a peep in his
book. This went on for a mile or two, after which he could contain
himself no longer. He was just passing along the wall of the splendid
park surrounding Burghley Hall, the trees of which, filled with melodious
singers, overhung the road. The village of Barnack in front looked dull
and dreary; but the park at the side was sweet and inviting. With one
jump, John was over the wall, nestling, like a bird, among some thick
shrubs in the hedge. And then and there he read through Thomson's
'Seasons'--read the book through twice over, from beginning to end. And
the larks and linnets kept singing more and more beautifully; and the
golden sun rose higher and higher on the horizon, illuminating the
landscape with a flood of light, a thousandfold reflected in the green
trees and the blue waters of the lake. John Clare thought he had never
before seen the world so exquisitely beautiful; he thought he had never
before felt so thoroughly happy in all his life. He did not know how to
give vent to his happiness; singing would not do it, nor even crying. But
he had a pencil in his pocket and a bit of crumpled paper, and,
unconscious almost of what he was doing, with a sort of instinctive
movement, he began to write--began to write poetry. The verses thus
composed were subsequently printed, but with great alterations, under the
title, 'The Morning Walk.' What Clare actually wrote on his crumpled bit
of paper was, probably, very imperfect in form, and not fit to be seen
till thrice distilled in the crucible of his future 'able editor.'

John Clare felt intensely joyful when returning to Helpston from his long
morning walk. He did not mind being taken to task by his indulgent
employer for having, for the first time, neglected his duty; did not mind
the reproaches of his fellow-servant as to his having broken his compact.
The cowherd justly argued that, after the solemn agreement to look after
the horses for three hours on payment of one penny, and to keep the
secret for another penny, it was unfair to burthen him with the
responsibility of the guardianship, as well as the secret, for more than
half a day. Seeing the justice of the claim, John Clare, in the fulness
of his heart, gave his brother cowherd the sixpence, which the kind
bookseller at Stamford had presented him with. However, though generously
paid, the cowherding youth was unable to keep the terrible secret for
more than a day. The next morning he told his sweetheart, in strict
confidence, that Clare had got into an immense fortune, and was running
up and down to Stamford to buy books and 'all sorts of things.' Before it
was evening, the whole village knew the story, and a hundred fingers were
pointed at Clare while he walked down the street. He was greatly blamed
on all sides: blamed, in the first instance, for allowing himself to be
drawn away by the sprites and their nameless chief, and, as was supposed,
accepting gold and silver from them; and blamed still more for not
sharing his fortune with his poor parents. There were those who had seen
him, on the brink of the mere, holding converse with the Evil One; they
had actually witnessed the passing of the glittering coin, 'which fell
into his hands like rain drops.' Clare's poor old father and mother did
not believe these stories; yet even they shuddered when their son entered
the little hut. It was clear John could not remain long at Helpston.
There was danger in being a poet on the borders of the fen regions.


When the yearly engagement at the 'Blue Bell' came to an end, there was
serious consultation between John and his parents as to his future course
of life. He was too weak to be a farm labourer; too proud to remain a
potboy in a public-house; and too poor to get apprenticed to any trade or
handicraft. John himself would have liked to be a mason and stone-cutter,
which trade one Bill Manton, of Market Deeping, who had a reputation far
and wide for setting up gravestones, was ready to teach him. Bill Manton
was a big swaggering fellow, who, vibrating constantly to and fro between
tavern and graveyard, hinted to John that in becoming his apprentice he
would have to write the mortuary poetry as well as to engrave it upon
stone; and the notion was so pleasing that he made a desperate effort to
get initiated into the art and mysteries of stone-cutting. But the
obstacles were insurmountable, for Bill Manton wanted a premium of four
pounds, which Clare's parents had no more means of raising than so many
millions. There was another chance for learning a trade in the offer of
one Jim Farrow, a hunchback, who proposed to teach John the art of
cobbling gratis, the sole condition being that the apprentice should
provide his own tools. The few pence necessary for this purpose might
have been obtained, and the poet might have taken to the calling of St.
Crispin, but that he showed a great aversion to the trade. The prospect
of passing his whole life in a narrow cabin, mending hobnailed boots, was
one he could not face, and he strongly expressed his wish of rather
remaining servant in a public-house than submitting to this necessity.
One more resource remained, which was to become a gardener's apprentice
at Burghley Park, the seat of the Marquis of Exeter, where such a place
happened to be vacant. The mere mentioning of the name Burghley Park had
charms of its own to John Clare; and although the situation was but a
poor one as regarded pay, he eagerly expressed his willingness to apply
for it. To make success more sure, old Parker Clare resolved to accompany
John in making the application. Accordingly, one morning, father and son,
dressed in their very best, made their appearance at the park gates,
inquiring for the head gardener of the noble Marquis. After a long delay
they were ushered into the presence of the great man. Parker Clare, in
whose eyes a head-gardener was quite as important a personage as a
prince, took off his hat and bowed to the ground, and the example was
followed, in great trepidation of mind, by John. This evidently pleased
the high functionary, and he condescended to engage John Clare on the
spot. The terms were that John should serve an apprenticeship of three
years, receiving wages at the rate of eight shillings per week for the
first year, and a shilling more each successive year; out of which sum he
would have to provide his board and all other necessaries except
lodgings. The arrangement seemed a most advantageous one both to John and
his father, and poor old Parker wept tears of joy when returning to
Helpston, and informing his wife of the brilliant future in store for
their offspring. He was now, they thought, on the high road to fortune.

However, it was an evil day for John when entering upon his service at
Burghley Park. The visions of poetry which swept across his mind when
first lying under the trees of the park, and, with Thomson's 'Seasons' in
hand, surveying the beautiful scenery, soon took flight, to give way to a
reality more dreary and more corrupt than any he had yet witnessed. John
Clare had not been many weeks in his new place, before he found that his
master, the head-gardener, was but a low, foul-mouthed drunkard, while
his fellow-apprentices and the other workmen sought pride in rivalling
their chief in intemperance and dissipation. It was the custom at
Burghley Park to lock up all the workmen and apprentices employed under
the head-gardener during the night, to prevent them robbing the orchards.
The men did not much relish the confinement in a narrow house, and
therefore got into the regular habit of making their escape, at certain
days in the week, to a neighbouring public-house, which they reached by
getting out of the window of their garden-house prison, and climbing over
the park fence. The tavern at which the jolly gardeners held their
carousals was kept by one 'Tant Baker,' formerly a servant at Burghley
Park, and now retailing fermented liquors under the sign of 'The
Hole-in-the-Wall.' To go to the 'Hole-in-the-Wall' was one of the first
proposals made to John after he had entered upon his service, and though
he at first showed some reluctance, his scruples were soon overcome by
the persuasion of his companions, who made the greater effort for this
purpose, as they were afraid that by leaving him behind he would become a
tell-tale. The young apprentice, in consequence, paid his regular visits
with the others to the public-house; and it was not long before he came
to like Tant Baker's strong ale as well, if not better, than his
companions. Thus John Clare became accustomed, in some measure, to
intemperate habits. Not unfrequently he took such a quantity of drink at
the 'Hole-in-the-Wall' as to be completely stupified, and disabled to
reach his sleeping-place for the night. He would then lie down under any
hedge or tree, sleeping off his intoxication, and creeping home, in the
early morning, to Burghley Park. Debasing as were the moral effects of
this course of life, the physical consequences were not less disastrous.
Several times, after having made his bed on the cold ground, John Clare
found on awaking his whole body, covered as with a white sheet, the
result of the cold dews of the night. Rheumatic complaints followed,
permanently enfeebling a body weak from infancy.

The unhappy course of Clare's life was aggravated by the conduct of those
under whom he served. The head gardener, a confirmed drunkard, thought it
nevertheless beneath his dignity to get intoxicated at the
'Hole-in-the-Wall,' but sought his alcoholic refreshments at a more
aristocratic public-house in the neighbouring town. He often caroused at
Stamford so long and so late, that his spouse got impatient at her lonely
residence, and despatched one messenger after the other to bring her
truant lord home. The policy of the wife, however, was defeated by her
drunken husband. He made it a rule of keeping the envoys sent to him, and
plying them with strong drink till they were more unable to report their
own than his movements. Poor little John, unfortunately, was often sent
on these errands, which led to his being made drunk one night at
Stamford, by his master, and the next evening, by his fellow-workers, at
the way-side 'Hole-in-the-Wall.' What would have become of him had this
wretched career been pursued long, is easy to imagine; but, happily, the
state of things was brought to an end shorter than at first calculated
upon. The drunken master was likewise a brutal master, and, to escape his
insults and occasional violence, one of the gardeners, bound by a long
engagement, resolved to run away; and, having taken a certain liking to
John, persuaded him to become a companion in the flight. This was when
John Clare had been about eleven months at Burghley Park, and, by the
terms of his agreement with the head gardener, would have had to remain
an apprentice for above two years longer. However, he did not think
himself bound by the contract, and early one morning in autumn--date
again uncertain, but probably about the year 1809, Clare now full
sixteen--he scrambled through the window with his companion, and
furtively quitted Burghley Park and the service of the Marquis of Exeter.
Already on the evening of the same day he repented his rash act. His
companion in the flight took him on a long trot to Grantham, a distance
of twenty-two miles, where the two lodged at a small beerhouse, and Clare
fancied that he was fairly out of the world. Having not the slightest
notions about geography, or topography either, he believed he had now
arrived at the confines of the habitable earth, and with but little
chance of ever seeing his parents again. The thought brought forth tears,
and he wept the whole night. On the next morning, the two fugitives tried
to find work at Grantham, but did not succeed, so that they were
compelled to tramp still further, towards Newark-upon-Trent. Here they
were fortunate enough to obtain employment with a nurseryman named
Withers, who gave them kind treatment, but very small wages. John,
meanwhile, had got thoroughly home-sick, and the idea of being an immense
distance away from his father and mother did not let him rest day or
night. Not daring to speak to his companion, for fear of being retained
by force, he at last made up his mind again to run away from his
employer, this time alone. It was beginning to get winter; the roads were
partially covered with snow, and swollen streams and rivers interrupted
on many points the communication. Nevertheless, John Clare started on his
home journey full of courage, though absolutely destitute of money and
clothing, leaving part of the latter, together with his tools, at his
master's house. During the two or three days that it took him to reach
Helpston, he subsisted upon a crust of bread and an occasional draught of
water from the nearest stream, while his lodgings were in haystacks on
the roadside. His heart beat with tumultuous joy when at last he beheld
the loved fields again, and the village where he was born. And when the
door swung back which led into the little thatched hut, and he saw his
mother and father sitting by the fire, he rushed into their arms, and
fairly frightened them with the outburst of his affection.

There now remained nothing for John Clare but to fall back upon his old
way of living, and to seek a precarious existence as farm-labourer. This
was what he resigned himself to accordingly, only changing his occupation
now and then, as circumstances permitted, by doing odd jobs as a shepherd
or gardener. It was a very humble mode of life, and its remuneration
scarce sufficient to purchase the coarsest food and the scantiest
clothing; but it was, after all, the kind of existence which seemed most
suited to the habits and inclinations of the strange youth, now growing
into manhood. His intense admiration and worship of nature could not
brook confinement of any sort, even such as suffered within the vast
domain of Burghley Park. While gardener at the latter place, his poetical
vein lay entirely dormant; he was never for a moment in the mood of
writing nor even of reading verses. Perhaps the habits of dissipation
into which he had fallen had something to do with this; yet it was owing
still more to the position in which he was placed; The same scenery which
had inspired him to his first poetical composition, when viewed in the
glowing light of a beautiful morning in spring, left him cold and
uninspired ever after. He often complained to his fellow-labourers, that
he could not 'see far enough:' it was as if he felt the rattling of the
chain, which bound him to the spot. A yearning after absolute freedom,
mental as well as physical, was one of his strongest instincts through
life, and not possessing this, he appeared to value little else. It was a
desire, or a passion, which nearly approached the morbid, and gave rise
to much that was painful in the subsequent part of his existence.

Once more a farm-labourer at Helpston, John Clare was all his own again.
Thomson's 'Seasons' never left his pocket; he read the book when going to
the fields in the morning, and read it again when eating his humble meal
at noonday under a hedge. The evenings he invariably spent in writing
verses, on any slips and bits of paper he could lay hold of. Soon he
accumulated a considerable quantity of these fugitive pieces of poetry,
and wishing to preserve them, yet ashamed to let it be known that he was
writing verses, he hid the whole at the bottom of an old cupboard in his
bedroom. What made him more timid than ever to confess his doings to
either friends or acquaintances, was their entire want of sympathy,
manifested to him on more than one occasion. It sometimes happened, on a
Sunday, that he would take a walk through the fields, in company with his
father and mother, or a neighbour; and seeing something particularly
beautiful, an early rose, or a little insect, or the many-hued sky, John
Clare would break forth into ecstasies, declaiming, in his own
enthusiastic way, on what he deemed the marvellous things upon this
marvellous earth. His voice rose; his eyes sparkled; his heart bounded
within him in intense love and admiration of this grand, this
incomprehensible, this ever-wonderful realm of the Creator which men call
the world. But whenever his companions happened to listen to this
involuntary outburst of enthusiasm, they broke out in mocking laughter. A
rose was to them a rose, and nothing more; an apple they valued higher,
as something eatable; and, perhaps, over plum-pudding they would have got
enthusiastic, too. As it was, poor John was a constant butt for all the
shafts of coarse ridicule; even his own parents, to whom he was attached
with the tendered affection, and who fully returned his love, did not
spare him. Old Parker Clare shook his head when he heard his son
descanting upon the beauties of nature, and reproved him on many
occasions for not using his spare time to better purpose than scribbling
upon little bits of paper. Parker Clare's whole notion of poetry was
confined to the halfpenny ballads which the hawkers sold at fairs, and it
struck him, not unnaturally, that the things being so cheap, it could not
be a paying business. This important fact he lost no occasion to impress
upon his son, though with no result whatever.

While the father was not sparing in his attacks upon John's poetical
manifestations, the mother, on her part, was active in the same
direction. She had discovered her son's hiding-place of the curious slips
of paper which engrossed his nightly attention, and, to make an end of
the matter at once, the good woman swept up the whole lot one morning,
and threw it in the chimney. Very likely there was in her mind some
intuitive perception of the fact that her son's poems 'wanted fire.' John
was greatly distressed when he found his verses gone; and more still when
he discovered how the destruction happened. To prevent the recurrence of
a similar event, he conceived the desperate plan of instilling into his
parents a love of poetry. He boldly told them, what he had hitherto not
so much as hinted at, that he was writing verses 'such as are found in
books,', coupling it with the assertion that he could produce songs and
ballads as good as those sold at fairs, so much admired by his father.
Parker Clare again shook his head in a doubting mood, expressing a strong
disbelief of his offspring's abilities in writing poetry. Thus put upon
his mettle, John resolved to do his best to change the scepticism of his
father, and having written some verses which he liked, and corrected them
over and over again into desirable smoothness, he one evening read them
to his astonished parents. But the result was thoroughly disappointing.
So far from admiring his son's poetry, Parker Clare expressed his strong
conviction that it was mere rubbish, not to be compared to the half-penny
songs of the fairs. John was much humbled to hear this; however, he
carried within himself a strong belief that his verses were not quite
valueless, and therefore resolved upon one more test. Hearing the
constant vaunting of the cheap ballads, he made up his mind to try
whether his father was really able to distinguish between his own verses
and those in print. Accordingly, when he had finished another
composition, he committed it to memory, and rehearsed it to his parents
in the evening, pretending to read it from the print. Then his father
broke out in the delightful exclamation: 'Ah, John, my boy, if thou
couldst make such-like verses, that would do.' This was an immense relief
to the poor scribbler of poetry. He now saw clearly that his father's
want of confidence was in him, the writer, and not in his writings.
Henceforth, he made it his regular habit of reciting his own poetry to
his parents as if reading it from a book, or printed sheet of paper. The
habit, though it was strictly a dishonest proceeding, proved to him not
only a real source of pleasure, in hearing his praises from the lips of
those he loved most, but it also served him as a fair critical school.
Whenever he found his parents laugh at a sentence which he deemed very
pathetic, he set himself at once to correct it to a simpler style;
whenever they asked him for an explanation of a word, or line, he noted
it down as ill-expressed, or obscure; and whenever either his father or
mother asked for a repetition of a song which they had heard before, he
marked the slip of poetry so honoured as a success. And all these
successful slips of paper John Clare placed in a crevice between his bed
and the lath-and-plaster wall; a hole so dark and unfathomable as to be
beyond the reach of even his sharp-eyed mother, always on the look-out
for manuscript poetry to light the fire.

Having gained the surreptitious approval of his verses by his parents,
John Clare began to be moved by a slight and almost unconscious feeling
of ambition. Hitherto he had written poetry solely for the sake of
pleasing himself, but he now was stirred by anxiety to discover what
value others set upon his writings. The crevice in his bed-room,
jealously guarded since his mother's grand _auto-da-fé_, and as yet
undiscovered by the watchful maternal eye, contained a few dozen songs
and ballads, descriptive of favourite trees, and flowers, and bits of
scenery, and, after long brooding within himself, John resolved upon
showing these pieces to an acquaintance. The person selected for this
confidence was one Thomas Porter, a middle-aged man, living at a lonely
cottage at Ashton Green, about a mile from Helpston. He was one of those
individuals, described, in a class, as 'having seen better days;'
besides, a lover of books, of flowers, and of solitary rambles. Their
tastes coinciding so far, John Clare and Thomas Porter had become
tolerably intimate friends, the former making it a point to visit, almost
every Sunday, the little cottage at Ashton Green. Having wound his
courage up to the point, John at last, with much secret fear and
trembling, showed to his friend the best specimens of his poetry, asking
for his opinion on the same. Mr. Thomas Porter, though a very
good-natured man, was somewhat formal in his habits, scrutinizing, with
visible astonishment, the little pieces of paper--blue, red, white, and
yellow, having served the manifold purposes of the baker and tallow
chandler before being helpful to poetry--which were submitted to his
judgment. Seeing his young friend's disappointed look at the examination,
he promised to give his opinion about the poetry in a week, namely, on
the following Sunday. The week seemed a long one to John Clare, and he
was almost trembling with excitement when again approaching the door of
the small cottage of Ashton Green. He trembled still more at the first
question of Mr. Thomas Porter:--'Do you know grammar?' It was useless for
John to profess that he did know so much as the meaning of the word
grammar; or whether it signified a person or a thing. Then Mr. Thomas
Porter began to frown. 'You cannot write poetry before you know grammar!'
he sternly exclaimed, handing the many-coloured slips of paper back to
his poor friend. John Clare was humiliated beyond measure: he felt like
one having committed a dreadful, unpardonable crime. Because the sense of
the words was not at all clear to him, he was the deeper impressed with
the consciousness of the heinous misdeed of having written verses without
knowing grammar. So he resolved to know grammar, even should he perish in
the attempt.

To ask Mr. Thomas Porter by what means he could get to know grammar, he
had not the courage: the ground was burning under his feet in the little
cottage at Ashton Green. John Clare, therefore, took his farewell without
seeking further information, and hurried off to the house of a lad with
whom he had been at Mr. Merrishaw's school. Did he know where or what
grammar was? Yes, the lad knew; he had plunged into grammar at Mr.
Merrishaw's, instead of into algebra and the pure sciences. But he could
not tell how to learn grammar, except through one very difficult work,
bound in leather, and called 'The Critical Spelling-book.' To get this
wonderful book now became the all-absorbing thought of John Clare. Penny
after penny was hoarded by immense exertions, and the greatest frugality,
approaching to a want of the necessaries of life. The two shillings for
the 'Critical Spelling-book' were saved at length, and John once more
made his way to the Stamford bookseller, as eager as when in quest of
Thomson's 'Seasons.' He was lucky enough to get 'Lowe's Critical
Spelling-book' at once; but, having got it, underwent a fearful
disappointment. Reading it under the hedge on the roadside, in his
anxiety to possess the contents; reading it at his noonday meal; and
reading it again at the evening fireside--the more he read it, the less
could he understand it. Algebra and the pure sciences had puzzled him
infinitely less than this awful grammar. Worthy Mr. Lowe's 'Critical
Spelling-book,' happily forgotten by the present generation, instilled
knowledge on the good old plan of making it as dark and mysterious as
possible. There was, first, a long preface of twenty-two pages, in which
Mr. Lowe deprecated all other spelling-books whatever, especially those
of his very dear friends and fellow-teachers, Mr. Dixon, author of the
'English Instructor;' Mr. Kirkby, the learned writer of the 'Guide to the
English Tongue;' Mr. Newberry, creator of the 'Circle of the Sciences;'
Mr. Palairet, the famous compiler of the 'New English Spelling-book;' and
Mr. Pardon, author of 'Spelling New-Modelled.' Having gone through the
painful task of deprecating his friends, with the annexed modest
statement that the 'Critical Spelling-book' would be found superior to
any other work of the kind, past, present, or future, Mr. Lowe proceeded
to give his own rules, distinguished 'by the greatest simplicity. Through
the first chapter, treating of 'monosyllables,' John Clare made his way,
with some trouble; but the second, entering the field of 'polysyllables,'
brought him to a stop. Read as he might, poor John could not understand
the ever-changing value of 'oxytones,' 'penacutes,' 'ternacutes,'
'quartacutes,' and 'quintacutes,' and was still more bewildered when he
found that even after having got through all these hard words, there was
a still harder tail at the end of them, in the shape of 'exceptions from
the spelling-book--sounds of letters and syllables, some of which are
more simple, and may conveniently be learnt by a single direction, others
more complex, and may better be explained by being cast into phrases.'
Finding it absolutely impossible to get over the oxytones, he shrunk back
from the quartacutes and quintacutes as beyond the reach of an ordinary
human being, and gave up the study in despair. He next put 'Lowe's
Critical Spelling-book' into the old cupboard where his mother used to
look after his poems--for culinary purposes. But the good housewife never
burnt the 'Critical Spelling-book;' it being, probably, too tough for
her, in all its hide-bound solidity. As for John Clare, he entirely
failed in learning grammar and spelling, remaining ignorant of the sister
arts to the end of his days.


The failure of his attempt to learn grammar, and the firm belief in the
words of Mr. Thomas Porter that grammar was indispensable to poetry, for
some time preyed upon the mind of John Clare. He lost all his pleasure in
scribbling verses, either at home or in the fields, careless even of the
praise which his parents had got into the habit of bestowing upon his
pretended readings from the poets. This lasted for nearly a year, at the
end of which time his own hopefulness, coupled with the natural buoyancy
of youth, drove him again to his old pursuits. His spirits were raised
additionally by the encouragement of a new friend, the parish-clerk of
Helpston. The rumour had spread by this time that John was 'a scholar,'
and was 'writing bits of books on paper,' and though the _vox populi_ of
Helpston thought not the better of John for this acquirement, but rather
condemned him as a practically useless creature, the parish-clerk, being
teacher also of the Sunday-school, and, as such, representative of
learning in the village, held it to be his duty to take notice of and
patronize the young man. He went so far as to call upon Clare, now and
then, with much condescension, and having glanced, in a lofty sort of
way, at the rainbowed slips of paper, already submitted, with such
unhappy results, to the judgment of Master Porter, he promised to 'do
something' for his young friend and pupil. The something, after a time,
turned out to be an introduction to Lord Milton, eldest son of the Earl
Fitzwilliam, with whom the worthy Sunday-school teacher professed to be
on very intimate terms. John Clare, at first, was very unwilling to
thrust himself upon the notice of any such high-born personage; but the
united persuasion of his parents and the obliging new friend broke his
reluctance. A day was fixed, accordingly, for the visit to the noble
lord, residing at Milton Park, half way between Helpston and
Peterborough. After infinite trouble of dressing, the memorable
waistcoat, with cotton gloves, and white necktie, which had made the
journey to Wisbeach, being again put into requisition, John Clare and his
patron started one fine morning for Milton Park. The stately porter at
the lodge, after some parley, allowed them to pass, and they reached the
mansion without further misadventure. His lordship was at home, said the
tall footman in the hall; and his lordship would see them immediately, he
reported, after having delivered the message of the two strangers.
Trusting the 'immediate,' John Clare and his friend waited patiently one
hour, two hours, three hours; they saw the sun culminate, and saw the sun
set, and still waited with becoming quietness. At last, when it was quite
dark, the news came that his lordship could not see them this day, but
would be glad to meet them some other time. Thereupon John Clare and the
Sunday-school teacher left Milton Park and went back to Helpston,
slightly sad, and very hungry.

To John Clare this first attempt to gain high patronage was profoundly
discouraging; but not so to the worthy parish-clerk, whose experience of
the world was somewhat larger. The latter induced his young friend to
make another trial to meet Lord Milton, and, the thing being better
planned, they were successful this time--as far, at least, as the mere
meeting was concerned. Having discovered that the noble lord was in the
habit of occasionally visiting some outlying farms, the shrewd clerk
waylaid his lordship, and, together with his young friend, burst upon him
like an apparition. Breaking out into glowing praise of John Clare, which
made the latter blush like a maiden, the parish-clerk finished by pulling
from his pocket a bit of antique pottery, unearthed somewhere in the
grounds between Helpston Heath and Castor. Lord Milton smiled, and
handing the bearer some loose cash, accepted the gift, not forgetting to
state that he would remember the young man thus favourably introduced to
his notice. John Clare instinctively comprehended the meaning of all
this, and went home and made a silent vow never more to seek patronage in
cotton gloves, with a white necktie, and never more to trust his
grandiloquent friend and patron, the parish-clerk.

The failure of all his attempts to raise himself from his low condition,
drove John Clare into a desponding mood. Weak in body, and suffering
under continuous ill-health, his work as a farm-labourer brought him
scarce sufficient remuneration to procure the coarsest food and the
scantiest clothing, while it left him without any means whatever to
assist his parents in their great distress, so that they had to continue
recipients of meagre parish relief. Throughout, Clare had an innate
consciousness of being born to a freer and loftier existence, and thus
deeply felt the burthen of being condemned to the fiercest struggle with
poverty and misery. The bitter feeling engendered by this thought he
surmounted, most frequently, by flying into his favourite realm of
poetry; but often enough the moral strength failed him for the task, and
he sank back in utter hopelessness. More and more was this the case at
this period. He was now verging upon manhood, and with it came, as nobler
aspirations, so baser passions and desires. To these he fell a prey as
soon as he threw aside his slips of paper and pencil, in consequence of
Thomas Porter's sharp rebuke, and the utter failure to master 'Lowe's
Critical Spelling-book.' For many months after, he neither read, nor made
the slightest attempt to write verses, and the idle hours threw him again
into evil company, similar to that from which he had escaped at Burghley
Park. There were, among the labourers of Helpston, two brothers of the
name of John and James Billings, who lived, unmarried, at a ruinous old
cottage, nicknamed Bachelors' Hall. Both were given to poaching, hard
drinking, and general rowdyism, and fond, besides, of meeting kindred
spirits, of the same turn of mind, at the riotous evening assemblies in
their little cottage. Hitherto, John Clare's passion for poetry had kept
him constantly at home, the nightly companion of his poor parents; but no
sooner had he weaned himself from his verses, when he fled to the Hall.
To his ardent temper, there was a great charm in the wild, uproarious
meetings which took place every evening, accompanied by as much
consumption of ale as the purses of the lawless fraternity would allow.
Poaching, to most of them, proved a source of considerable gain, not less
than a pleasant excitement, and the money thus freely acquired was as
freely spent in drink and debauchery. Though pressingly invited, Clare
could not be made to join in the stealing of game; he was too deep a
lover of all creatures that God had made, to be able to hurt or destroy
even the least of them wilfully. But although unwilling to commit
slaughter himself, he was not at all disinclined to share in its fruits,
and it was not long before he became the leader at the frequent drinking
bouts at Bachelors' Hall. Shy and reserved on ordinary occasions, he was
at these meetings the loudest of loud talkers and singers, the fumes of
vanity, together with those of alcohol, exerting their combined
influence. Reciting his verses to merry companions, he earned warm and
enthusiastic applause, and for the first time in his life deemed himself
fully and justly appreciated. That this fancied road to fame was, after
all, the dreariest road to ruin, poor John Clare did not see, and,
perhaps, could scarcely he expected to see.

Fortunately, at this critical period of Clare's life an event occurred
which, though it drove him for the moment into company almost worse than
that of Bachelors' Hall, at the same time afforded the means for his
rescue. It was in the spring of 1812, Clare now in his nineteenth year,
that great efforts were made throughout the kingdom to raise the local
militia of the various counties, in view of getting, through this source,
recruits for the regular army. Veterans, with red noses and flying
ribbons on their hats, kept tramping from one end of the country to the
other, making every pothouse resound with tales of martial glory, and
fearful accounts of 'Bony.' Even into remote Helpston the recruiting
sergeant penetrated, taking up his quarters at the 'Blue Bell,' and with
much political wisdom honouring the convivial meetings at Bachelors' Hall
with occasional visits. John Clare's heart was stirred within him when,
for the first time, he heard of golden deeds of valour in the field, and
how men became great and famous by killing other men. The eloquent
recruiting sergeant rose to his full height when drawing the accustomed
figure of 'Bony,' with horns and tail, swallowing a dozen babies at
breakfast. John Clare, with other of his fellows at the Bachelors' Hall,
got into a holy rage at the crimes of 'Bony,' vowing to enter the list of
avenging angels. The veteran with the red nose took his audience at the
word, tendering to each of them a neat silver coin, and enlisting them in
the regular militia. John was the foremost to take his shilling, and
though his heart misgave him a little when thinking the matter over in
the cool of the next morning, he had no choice but to take the
red-blue-and-white cockade and follow the sergeant. The latter managed to
enlist a score of young fellows from Helpston, and the whole village
turned out when he marched them off to Peterborough. Old Parker Clare and
his wife shed tears on bidding their son farewell, fearing it might be a
farewell for ever. As to John, his pride only prevented him from joining
in their lamentation, for his mind was by no means easy regarding the
consequences of his rash endeavour to become a hero. He deeply felt his
own irresolution to commit acts of heroism, even such inferior ones as
the killing of small game; and he asked himself with terror how he would
fare when put face to face with such great tigers as 'Bony' and his men.
The thought was anything but pleasant, and he was relieved from it only
by joining the horse-play of his riotous companions, and ransacking the
stores of the roadside taverns. Having reached Peterborough, the whole
troop of aspirant warriors was taken before a magistrate to swear
fidelity to King George the Third, after which Clare and his fellow-men
had quarters assigned to them at the various beer-houses of the episcopal
city. For a week or longer, their daily business, in the service of King
George the Third, was to get drunk, to parade the streets singing and
shouting, and to fight with the watchmen of the town. John Clare,
thinking the matter over in his daily musings, wondered at the curious
road laid down for people who wished to become heroes.

The Helpston group of warriors having been joined by other clusters from
various parts of the county of Northampton, the whole regiment of raw
recruits was marched along, one fine morning, to Oundle. Here they were
drawn up in a body, some thirteen hundred strong, and divided into
companies, according to size. John Clare, being among the smallest of the
young heroes, scarce five feet high, was put into the last company, the
fifth in number. These preliminaries being duly arranged, the thirteen
hundred had to exchange their smock-frocks, jackets, and blouses, for the
regulated red coat and trousers. Unfortunately, the official distributor
of these articles paid no attention whatever to the stature and physical
conformation of the recipients, nor even to their division into
different-sized companies, but threw out his uniforms like barley among
the chickens. The consequences were of the most ludicrous kind. Nearly
all the big men got coats which fitted them like strait-laced jackets,
while the little ones had garments which hung upon their shoulders in
balloon fashion. John Clare was more unlucky than any of his warrior
brethren. His trousers, apparently made for a giant, were nearly as long
as his whole body, and though he drew them up to close under his arms,
they still fell down, by many inches, over his shoes. To prevent his
tumbling over them, like a clown in the pantomime, he held up his
pantaloons with one hand, while with the other he kept his helmet from
falling in the mud. This wonderful headpiece was as much too small for
the big-brained recruit as the other parts of the uniform were too large,
and it required the most careful balancing to keep it in a steady
position on the top of the crown in a quiet atmosphere while, in any
little gust of wind, it was indispensable to ensure the equilibrium with
outstretched arm. All this was easy enough while John Clare went through
his first martial exercises: nothing more simple, while learning the
goose-step, than to hold his big trousers with one hand and his tight
helmet with the other. But at the end of four weeks, his superiors gave
John Clare a gun, and with it came blank despair. He did not know in the
world how to hold his trousers, his gun, and his headpiece at one and the
same time. Puzzling over the matter till his brain got dizzy, he at
length resolved upon a notable expedient. He tucked his nether garments
into his shoes, thereby giving the upper portion of them a bag-like
appearance, while he exchanged his helmet for another of larger
dimensions, in the possession of a thin-headed brother recruit. The new
headpiece was a good deal too large, which, however, was easily remedied
by a stuffing of paper and wood shavings, so that henceforth, unless the
wind blew too strong, the ingenious young soldier had, at least, one of
his two hands to himself. This would have been an immense benefit under
ordinary circumstances; but unfortunately, in the case of John Clare, and
as if to damp his military ardour, it also turned out a source of
unqualified regret. The corporal under whose immediate orders he was
placed, a prim and lady-like youngster, took an aversion to John, partly
on account of the bag-trousers, and partly because of the stuffings of
his helmet, a fraction of which not unfrequently escaped its confinement,
and hung down, in stiff wooden ringlets, over his pale cheeks. At this
the dandy-corporal sneered, and his sneers growing louder on every
occasion, John Clare, at the first favourable opportunity, knocked him
down with his unoccupied right hand. The offence, amounting to a crime,
was at once reported to the captain, and Clare expected momentarily to be
thrust into the black-hole, to be tried by court-martial, and perhaps to
be shot. But, singularly enough, nothing, after all, came of the whole
affair. The serious breach of military discipline was entirely overlooked
by the authorities of the Northamptonshire militia, who probably thought
the whole body of men not worth looking after, the greater number of them
consisting of a mere collection of the lowest rabble. In consequence of
strong remonstrances made by the good people of Oundle about the
insecurity of their property, and even their lives, the thirteen hundred
warriors were disbanded soon afterwards, and never called together again.
John Clare thereupon left his quarters at the 'Rose and Crown,' where he
had been tolerably well treated by the owners, a widow and her two
daughters, and, with a joyful heart, returned to Helpston. He came home
somewhat richer than he left, for he brought back with him a second-hand
copy of Milton's 'Paradise Lost,' an odd volume, with some leaves torn
out, of Shakespeare's 'Tempest,' both works purchased at a broker's shop
at Oundle, and, over and above these acquisitions, a knowledge of the
goose step.


The few weeks' martial glory which John Clare enjoyed had the one good
effect of weaning him from the roisterous company at the Bachelors' Hall,
and bringing him once more to his former peaceful studies. While a
recruit in the militia, he had seen so much of rioting and debauchery, on
the part of the vilest of his companions, as to be cured from all desire
to follow in their footsteps, and he now made the firm vow to lead a more
respectable life for the future. A change of scenery, too, had cured him
of the all-absorbing fear that he should never be able to write poetry,
for want of grammar, and the proper understanding of 'Lowe's Critical
Spelling-book.' It seemed to him, on reflection, that, as he could make
himself understood in speaking to his fellow men without knowing grammar,
he would be able to do so likewise in writing. He therefore began, more
eagerly than ever, to collect small strips of paper, and to fill them
with verses on rural scenery, fields, brooks, birds, and flowers. His
daily occupation, as before, consisted in working as an out-door farm
labourer, and doing occasional odd jobs in gardening and the like, which,
though it was barely sufficient to maintain him, had the to him
inestimable advantage of leaving him completely his own master. This was
the more valuable to John Clare at the present moment, in consequence of
an affair which occurred soon after his return from Oundle, and which was
nothing less than his falling in love, for the second time in his life.
He met, saw, and was conquered by Elizabeth Newton, the daughter of a
wheelwright, at Ashton, a small hamlet close to Helpston. She was but a
plain girl, but possessed of all the arts of coquetry; and though John
Clare did not care much for her at first, she gradually entangled him
into fervent affection, or what he held to be such. It was not Platonic
love, by any means, like that for sweet Mary Joyce; and less so on the
part of the lass than on that of her lover. John, as always, so at his
meetings with Elizabeth Newton, was shy, reserved, and bashful, while she
was frank and forward, professing to be deeply in love with him. This had
the desired effect upon John Clare, whose easily-touched heart could not
withstand the charms and wiles of female enchantment. Having got her
lover thus far, Elizabeth began to talk of marriage, at the mentioning of
which word John felt somewhat startled. His old studies in arithmetic
brought to his mind the difficulties there must be in keeping a
matrimonial establishment upon ten shillings a week, the average amount
of his income, not only for the time, but in all probability for years to
come, if not for his whole life. Elizabeth, on her part, did not share
these arithmetical apprehensions, in consequence of which there were
quarrels, bickerings, and misunderstandings without end. To please his
Elizabeth, John Clare was made to go frequently to the house of father
Newton, the wheelwright, a curious old man, who was constantly reading in
the Bible and trying to find out the meaning of the Apocalypse. He had
quotations upon every subject, none of which, however, showed John
clearly how to get over the great difficulty of keeping a wife upon nine,
or at the best ten, shillings a week. Seeing that her lover was unwilling
to do the one thing she wanted, Elizabeth Newton at last jilted him
openly, telling him, before a number of other girls, that he was but a
faint-hearted fool. After this, she refused to see him again, although
John Clare would have been willing to renew the acquaintance, and even,
if necessary, to marry her. He felt, now she had parted from him, and,
probably, because she had parted from him, a strong affection for the
girl, not to be overcome by many inward struggles. For a short time he
sank into melancholy, from which he roused himself, however, by a new

On Helpston Heath and the neighbouring commons there were always some
gypsy tribes in encampment, the two largest of them being known by the
names of 'Boswell's crew,' and 'Smith's crew.' While out on his solitary
rambles, John Clare made the accidental acquaintance of 'King Boswell,'
which acquaintance, after being kept up by the interchange of many little
courtesies and acts of kindness, gradually ripened into a sort of
friendship. John Clare thought the dark-eyed gypsies far more intelligent
than his own working companions in the fields, and he was attracted to
them, besides, by their fondness for and knowledge of plants and herbs,
as well as their love of music. Expressing a wish to learn to play the
fiddle, the most expert musicians of King Boswell's crew at once began to
teach him the art, in their own wild way, without notes or other
scientific aid, but with the net result that he was able to perform to
his own satisfaction in the course of a few months. He now became a
constant visitor at King Boswell's tent, which he only neglected during
his courtship with Elizabeth Newton. This being broken off, in his grief
of unrequited affection John Clare was seized with a real passion for the
wild life of his gypsy friends, and resolved to join them in their
wanderings. He actually carried out this resolve, and enrolled himself as
a member of Boswell's crew for a few days; but at the end of this period
left them with much internal disgust. The poetry of gypsy life utterly
vanished on close examination, giving way to the most disagreeable prose.
Accustomed as John Clare was to humble fare under a poor roof, his nerves
could not stand the cookery at King Boswell's court. To fish odds and
ends of bones, bits of cabbage, and stray potatoes from a large iron pot,
in partnership with a number of grimy hands, and without so much as a
wooden, spoon, seemed unpleasant work to him, not to be sweetened by all
the charms of black eyes and a tune on the fiddle. He therefore told his
new friends that he could not stop with them; at which they were not very
sorry, seeing in him but a poor hand for making fancy baskets and
stealing young geese. Thus King Boswell and his secular friend parted to
their mutual satisfaction, John Clare returning once more to his
accustomed field and gardening operations. However, the poet, all his
life long, did not forget the gypsies; nor did they forget him. Whenever
any of 'Boswell's crew,' or, in their absence, their first cousins of
'Smith's crew' happened to be near John Clare, on a Saturday evening,
after he had drawn his weekly wages, they did not fail to pay him a
friendly visit, singing some new song to the ancient text of 'Auld lang


The short trial of gypsy life was not sufficient to make John Clare
forget his troubles of love, and he began to think seriously of his
further prospects in life. He would have been but too happy to ask
Elizabeth Newton to become his wife; but having seen so much of poverty
in the case of his parents, he had a natural dread to start in the same
career, with the workhouse for ultimate goal. While thus given up to
reflections on his life, there came an offer which appeared to be most
acceptable. A fellow labourer of the name of Gordon, who had been once
working at a lime-kiln, with good wages, proposed to him to seek the same
employment, and to act as a guide and instructor in the matter. John
Clare consented, and starting with his friend, in the summer of 1817, the
two were lucky enough to find work not far off, near the village of
Bridge Casterton, in Rutlandshire. By dint of very severe labour, Clare
managed to earn about ten shillings a week, a part of which he carefully
hoarded, with the firm intention of attempting a new start in life, by
the aid of a little capital.

The first investment of the small sum thus acquired led to rather
important results. Having collected a considerable quantity of verses,
and safely carried them off from the old hiding-place at Helpston, John
Clare resolved to copy a selection, comprising the best of them, into a
book, so as to preserve his poetry the more easily. With this purpose in
view he went to the next fair at Market Deeping, and after having gone,
with some friends, through the usual round of merry-makings, called upon
a bookseller and stationer, Mr. Henson, to get the required volume of
blank paper. Mr. Henson had no such article in stock, but offered to
supply it in a given time, which being agreed on, particulars were asked
as to the quantity of paper required, and the way in which it should be
ruled and bound. In reply to these questions, John Clare, made talkative
by a somewhat large consumption of strong ale, for the first time
revealed his secret to a stranger. He told the inquirer that he had been
writing poetry for years, and having accumulated a great many verses,
intended to copy them into a book for better preservation. The bookseller
opened his eyes at the widest. He had never seen a live poet at Market
Deeping, yet fancied, somehow or other, that the species was of an
outward aspect different from that of the tattered, half-tipsy,
undersized farm labourer who was standing before him. Though an active
tradesman, willing to oblige people at his shop, Mr. Henson could not
help hinting some of these sceptic thoughts to his customer, and
feelingly inquired of him whether it was 'real poetry' that he was
writing. John Clare affirmed that it was real poetry; further explaining
that he wrote most of his verses in the fields, on slips of paper, using
the crown of his hat as a desk. This was convincing; for the hat, on
being inspected, certainly showed abundant marks of having been employed
as a writing-desk, and even bore traces of its occasional use as a
camp-stool. Doubts as to John Clare being a poet were now impossible; and
Mr. Henson willingly agreed to furnish a book of white paper, strongly
bound, fit for the insertion of a vast quantity of original poetry, at
the price of eight shillings. When parting, the obliging bookseller
begged as a favour to be allowed to inspect one of his customer's poems,
promising to keep the matter as secret as possible. The flattering
request was promptly acceded to, and in a few days after, there arrived
by post at Market Deeping two sonnets by John Clare, which he had
recently composed. One of these was called 'The Setting Sun;' and the
other 'The Primrose.' Mr. Henson, who was no particular judge of sonnets,
thought them very poor specimens of poetical skill, the more so as they
were ill-spelt, and without any attempts at punctuation. He threw the
poems aside at once, and wrote to the poet that he might have his blank
paper book on paying the stipulated eight shillings. So the matter rested
for the present.

John Clare's labours as a lime-burner at Bridge Casterton were of the
most severe kind. He was in the employ of a Mr. Wilders, who exacted
great toil from all his men, setting them to work fourteen hours a day,
and sometimes all the night long in addition. Nevertheless, Clare felt
thoroughly contented in his new position, being delighted with the
beautiful scenery in the neighbourhood, and happy, besides, in being able
to earn sufficient money to send occasional assistance to his parents.
When not engaged at work, he went roaming through the fields far and
wide, always with paper and pencil in his pocket, noting down his
feelings in verse inspired by the moment. It was the time when his
poetical genius began to awaken to full life and consciousness. He began
writing verses with great ease and rapidity, often composing half-a-dozen
songs in a day; and though much of the poetry thus brought forth was but
of an ephemeral kind, and of no great intrinsic value, the exercise,
combined with extensive reading of nearly all the old poets, contributed
considerably to his development of taste. Sometimes he himself was
surprised at the facility with which he committed verses to paper, on the
mere spur of the moment. It was on one of these occasions that the
thought flashed through his mind of his being endowed with poetical gifts
denied to the majority of men. This was a perfectly new view which he
took of himself and his powers, and it helped to give him immense
confidence. Timid hitherto and entirely distrustful of his own abilities,
he now felt himself imbued with strength never known, and under the
impulse of this feeling determined to make another attempt to rise from
his low condition. The idea occurred to him of printing his verses, and
of coming openly before the world as a poet. Each time he had written a
new verse with which he was pleased, his confidence grew; though his
hopes fell again when he set himself thinking the matter over, and
dwelling upon the difficulties in his way. This inward struggle lasted
nearly a year, in the course of which there occurred another notable
event, which in its consequences grew to be one of the most important of
his whole life.

Every Sunday afternoon, the labourers at Mr. Wilder's lime-kiln were in
the habit of visiting a small public-house, at the hamlet of Tickencote,
called 'the Flower Pot.' Thirsty, like all of their tribe, they spent
hours in carousing; while John Clare, after having had his glass or two,
went into the fields, and, sitting by a hedge, or lying down under a
tree, surveyed the glories of nature, feasting his eyes upon the
thousandfold beauties of earth and sky. It was on one of these Sunday
afternoons, in the autumn of 1817--Clare now past twenty-four--that he
saw for the first time 'Patty,' his future wife. She was walking on a
footpath across the fields, while he was lying in the grass not far off,
dreaming worlds of beauty and ethereal bliss. Patty stepped right into
his ideal realm, and thus, unknown to herself, became part and parcel of
it. She was a fair girl of eighteen, slender, with regular features, and
pretty blue eyes; but to Clare, at the moment, she seemed far more than
fair, slender, and pretty. He watched her across the field, and when she
disappeared from sight, John Clare, almost instinctively, climbed to the
top of a tree, to discover the direction in which she was going. His
courage failed him to follow and address her, though he would have given
all he possessed to have one more glance at the sweet face which so
suddenly changed his poetical visions into a still more poetical reality.
However, the shades of evening were sinking fast; John Clare could not
see far even from the top of his tree, to which he clung with a lover's
despair, so that the beautiful apparition was soon lost to him. Sleep did
not come to his eyes in the following night; and the slow hours of
lime-burning the next day only passed on in making projects how he would
go to the field near the 'Flower Pot,' and try to meet his sweet love
again. He went to the field, but she came not; not the following day, nor
the second, nor the whole week. John Clare began to think the fair face
which he had seen, and with which he had fallen in love at first sight,
was after all, but the vision of a dream.

More than two weeks passed, and John Clare, with his fiddle under his
arm, one evening made his way to Stamford, to play at a merry meeting of
lime-burners the tunes which the gypsies had taught him. While walking
along the road, the vision burst upon him a second time in not to be
mistaken reality. There again was the fair damsel he had seen walking, or
floating, across the greensward on the Sunday eve; as fair and trim as
ever, though this time not in her Sunday dress. John Clare, with much
good sense, thought it useless to climb again upon a tree; but summing up
courage, followed his vision, and, after a while, addressed her in timid,
soft words. What gave him some courage for the moment was, that being on
a festive excursion, he had donned his very best garments, including a
flowery waistcoat and a hat as yet free from the desk service of poetry.
The fair damsel, when thus addressed in the road, smiled upon her
interlocutor; there could be no doubt, his words, and, perhaps, his
waistcoat and new hat, found favour in her eyes. And not only did she
allow him to address her, but permitted him even to accompany her to her
father's cottage, some four miles off. Thither accordingly went John
Clare, in an ecstacy of delight; feeling as if in heaven and playing
merry gypsy-tunes to the winged angels. He wished the four miles were
four hundred; and when arrived at the paternal door with his fair
companion, and she told him that he must leave her now, it seemed to him
as if it had been but a minute since he met her. He looked utterly
dejected; but brightened up when she told him that her name was Martha
Turner, that her father was a cottage farmer, and that the place where
they were standing was called Walkherd Lodge--which perhaps, she
whispered, he would find again. It sounded as if the fiddle under his arm
was again making music to the bright angels. John Clare was in heaven;
but the poor lime-burners at Stamford did not think so, that evening,
when they had to dance without a fiddle.

After seeing his sweet companion disappear behind the garden-gate; after
hearing the door of the house open and shut, and watching the movement of
the lights within the house for an hour or two, John Clare at last turned
his back upon Walkherd Lodge, and went the way he came. The road he
trotted along, with his feet on good Rutlandshire soil, but his head
still somewhat in the clouds, got gradually more and more narrow, till it
ended at a broad ditch, with, a dungheap on the one side and a haystack
on the other. It was now that John perceived for the first time that he
had lost his way. While walking along with Martha Turner, he no more
thought of marking the road than of solving riddles in algebra, and,
besides a faint consciousness that he was coming somewhere from the east
and going to the west, he was utterly lost in his topography. However,
under the circumstances, it seemed no great matter to John to lose his
way, and rather pleasant than otherwise to sleep in a haystack within a
mile of the dwelling of Martha Turner. On the haystack, accordingly, he
sat down with great inward satisfaction, and, the moon having just risen,
pencil and paper were got out of the pocket, by the help of which, in
less than half an hour, another love-song was finished. But though the
day was warm and comfortable, John felt too restless to sleep. So he
cleared the ditch before him with one jump, and pursued the journey
further inland, where lights appeared to be glimmering in the distance.
Onward he trotted and leaped, over hedges and drains, across ploughed
fields, through underwood and meadows, around stone-quarries and
chalk-pits. At last, after a wild race of four or five hours, he sank
down from sheer exhaustion. There was soft, mossy grass under his feet,
and a sheltering tree above, and he thought it best to stop where he was
and to compose himself to sleep. The heavy eyelids sank without further
bidding, and for several hours his soul took flight into the land of
dreams. When he awoke, the moon was still shining, but not far above the
western horizon. Looking around, he perceived something bright and
glittering near him, similar to the bare track beaten by the sheep in hot
weather. To follow this path was his immediate resolve, as sure to lead
to some human habitation, if only a shepherd's hut. He was just going to
rise, but still on the ground, when one of his feet slipped a short
distance, in the direction of the silvery line, and he heard the clear
splash of water under him. At the same moment, the last rays of the moon
disappeared from above the horizon. John Clare shuddered as if the hand
of death was upon him. Creeping cautiously towards the neighbouring tree,
and clasping both his arms around it, he awaited daybreak in this
position. At length, after hours which seemed endless, the burning clouds
appeared in the east. He once more looked around him, and found that he
was lying on the brink of a deep canal, close to the River Gwash. One
turn of the body in its restless dreams; one step towards the tempting
silvery road of night, would have made an end for ever of all the
troubles, the love and life and poetry, of poor John Clare.


Soon after his first meeting with Martha Turner, at the beginning of
October, 1817, John Clare left Bridge Casterton, hand went to Pickworth,
a village four miles off, in a northerly direction, where he found
employment in another lime-kiln, belonging to a Mr. Clerk. The reason he
quitted his old master was that the latter lowered his wages from nine to
seven shillings per week, which reduction John Clare would not submit to.
Though content, throughout his life, to live in the humblest way, he had
two strong reasons, at this moment, for wishing to earn moderately good
wages, so as to be able to save some money. The first was that he had set
his heart on having a new suit of clothes, including an olive-green coat.
As young maidens sigh for a lover, and as children long for sweetmeats,
so John Clare had set his heart for years on having an olive-green coat.
For this wonderful garment he was 'measured' soon after returning from
Oundle and martial glory, under the agreement, carefully stipulated with
the master tailor, that it was to be delivered only on cash payment. But
he had never yet been able to raise the necessary fifty shillings,
although the olive-green coat was dearer to his heart than ever before.
However, there was one still dearer object, for the carrying out of which
he wanted to save money, namely, the attempt to get some of his verses
printed. His chief impulse, in this respect, was not-so much literary
vanity, but a strong desire to get the judgment of the world on his own
secret labours. As yet, though with an intuitive perception of the
intrinsic worth of his poetry, he had no real faith in himself. The
intimation of Thomas Porter, respecting the necessity of grammar, still
weighed heavily upon his mind, and the cold reception which his verses
met with at the hands of the bookseller of Market Deeping greatly
contributed to weaken the belief in the value of his writings.
Nevertheless, the old spirit of faith urging him again and again, he had
more than once renewed his communications with Mr. Henson, and repeated
visits to Market Deeping at last produced a sort of treaty between
bookseller and poet. Mr. Henson agreed to print, for the sum of one
pound, three hundred prospectuses, inviting subscribers for a small
collection of 'Original Trifles by John Clare.' The price of the volume
was to be three shillings and sixpence, 'in boards;' and Mr. Henson
promised that, as soon as one hundred subscribers had given in their
names, he would begin to print the book, at his own risk. This treaty,
the result of several interviews, and much anxiety on the part of John
Clare, was settled between the interested parties in the month of
December, 1817.

A more excited time than that which now followed, Clare had never seen in
his life. He was in love over head and ears, and had to pay frequent
visits to his mistress at Walkherd Lodge; he had to think of saving money
for his long-desired olive-green coat--more than ever desired now for
presentation at the Lodge; and, last not least, he had to work overtime
to get the one pound sterling required for the printing of the three
hundred prospectuses. In short, he had to labour harder than ever, in
order to gain more money; and, yet, at the same time, required more
leisure than ever, both for writing verses and love-making. To reconcile
these opposite wants, he took to night-work, in addition to daily labour,
risking his health and almost his life to gain a few shillings and to
have an occasional glimpse at his sweet mistress. His love prospects did
not appear to be very promising, at first. As for Martha Turner herself,
she rather encouraged than otherwise the attentions of the young
lime-burner; her parents, however, were strongly and energetically
opposed to the courtship. Dignified cottage-farmers, renting their
half-a-dozen acres of land, with a cow on the common, and a pig or two,
they thought their pretty daughter might look higher in the world than to
a mere lime-burner with nine shillings a week. Besides, there was another
lover in the wind, of decidedly better prospects, who had already gained
the ear of the parents, and was backed by all their influence. It was a
young shoemaker from Stamford, with a shop of his own; a townsman dressed
in spotless broadcloth on all his visits to Walkherd Lodge, and of
manners considered aristocratic. Martha herself wavered slightly between
the shoemaker and the lime-burner; the former was not only well-dressed
but good-looking, to neither of which externals John Clare could lay any
pretensions. The only advantage possessed by him over his rival was that
he pleaded his cause with all the zeal and ardour of a man deeply
enamoured, and this, as always, so here, carried the day finally. There
was some languid indifference in the addresses of the loving shoemaker,
to punish which Martha Turner threw herself into the arms of John Clare.
So far, things were looking prosperous at the Pickworth lime-kiln, during
the first months of 1818.

Meanwhile, the poetical aspirations of John Clare had made little
progress. Mr. Henson, of Market Deeping, insisted that the poet should
write his own prospectus, or 'Invitation to Subscribers,' and Clare
trembled at the bare idea of undertaking such a formidable work. Easy as
it was to him to compose scores of verses every day, in the intervals of
the hardest manual labour, he had never attempted, in his whole life, to
write a single line in prose, and therefore could not bring himself, by
any exertion, to go through the new task. Day after day he tormented his
head to find words how to begin the required prospectus, but invariably
with the same negative result. Often it happened that, when trying to
write down the first line of the 'Invitation,' his thoughts involuntarily
lost themselves in rhyme, till finally, instead of the desired 'Address
to the Public,' there stood on paper, much to his own surprise, an
address to the primrose or the nightingale. Thus, one morning, when going
to his work, in deep thoughts of poetry, prospectuses, love, and
lime-burning, the reflection escaped his lips, 'What is life?' and, as if
driven by inspiration, he instantly sat down in a field, and, on a scrap
of coarse paper, wrote the first two verses of the poem, subsequently
published under the same title. Clare's poetical genius threatened to
master even his own will.

At length, however, after infinite trouble and exertion, he managed to
get the dreaded prospectus ready. Having saved the pound with which to
pay the printer, he firmly determined to make a final attempt to write
prose, in some form or other, and to send it off to Market Deeping, in
whatever shape it might turn. At this time he was in the habit of
working, sometimes at Mr. Clerk's lime-kiln at Pickworth, and sometimes
at a branch establishment of the same owner, situated at Ryhall, three
miles nearer towards Stamford. Firm in his determination to produce a
prospectus, he started one morning for Ryhall, and, arrived at his place
of labour, sat down on a lime-scuttle, pencil in hand, with the hat as
ever-ready writing-desk. For once, the prose thoughts flowed a little
more freely, and after a strong inward effort, the following came to
stand upon paper:--

'Proposals for publishing by Subscription a Collection of Original
Trifles on miscellaneous subjects, religious and moral, in Verse, by John
Clare of Helpston. The Public are requested to observe that the Trifles
humbly offered for their candid perusal can lay no claim to eloquence of
poetical composition; whoever thinks so will be deceived, the greater
part of them being Juvenile productions, and those of later date
offsprings of those leisure intervals which the short remittance from
hard and manual labour sparingly afforded to compose them. It is hoped
that the humble situation which distinguishes their author will be some
excuse in their favour, and serve to make an atonement for the many
inaccuracies and imperfections that will be found in them. The least
touch from the iron hand of Criticism is able to crush them to nothing,
and sink them at once to utter oblivion. May they be allowed to live
their little day and give satisfaction to those who may choose to honour
them with a perusal, they will gain the end for which they were designed
and their author's wishes will be gratified. Meeting with this
encouragement it will induce him to publish a similar collection of which
this is offered as a specimen.'

The writing of this paper--presented here as originally written, with the
correction only of the spelling, and the insertion of a few stops and
commas--took Clare above three hours, and having finished it, and read it
over several times, he thought he had reason to be pleased with his
performance. A third reading increased this satisfaction, in the fulness
of which he determined to send the prospectus at once to the printer.
Accordingly, he sat down upon his lime-scuttle, fastened the paper
together with a piece of pitch, scraped from an old barrel, and directed
it, in pencil, to 'Mr. Henson, bookseller, Market Deeping.' This
accomplished, he started off in a trot to the post-office at Stamford. On
the road, new doubts and scruples came fluttering through his mind. Was
it not a foolish act, after all, that he, a poor labourer, the son of a
pauper, should risk a pound of his hard earnings in the attempt to
publish a book? Would not the people laugh at him? Would they not blame
him for spending the money on such an object, instead of giving it to his
half-starving parents? Such were the doubts that crossed his mind. But,
on the other hand, he considered that success might possibly attend his
efforts; that, if so, it would be the means of raising his parents, as
well as himself, from their low situation; and that, whatever the result,
it would show the world's estimate of his own doings--either encourage
him in writing more verses, or cure him of a silly propensity. This last
reflection, and a thought of the fair girl he loved, decided the matter
in his own mind. He sprang up from the stone heap, where he had sat
buried in reflections, and pursued his way to Stamford. His face was
burning with excitement, and, entering the town, he fancied everybody was
looking at him, with a full knowledge of his vainglorious errand. The
post-office was closed, and the clerk at the wicket demanded one penny as
a fee for taking in the late letter. John Clare fumbled in his pockets,
and found that he had not so much as a farthing in his possession. In a
rueful voice he asked the man at the wicket to take the letter without
the penny. The clerk glanced at the singular piece of paper handed to
him, the pencilled, ill-spelt address, the coarse pitch, instead of
sealing-wax, at the back, and with a contemptuous smile, threw the letter
into a box at his side. Without uttering another word, he then shut the
door in Clare's face. And the poor poet hurried home, burying his face in
his hands.


In about a week after the despatch of the pitch-sealed letter, there came
a reply from Mr. Henson, of Market Deeping. It intimated that the
prospectuses, with appended specimen poem, were nearly ready, and would
be handed over to John Clare, on a given day, at the Dolphin inn,
Stamford. Accordingly, on the day named, Clare went over to Stamford, his
heart fluttering high with expectations. When Mr. Henson handed him the
'Address to the Public,' with the 'Sonnet to the Setting Sun' on the
other side, both neatly corrected and printed in large type, he was
beside himself for joy. In its new dress, his poetry looked so charmingly
beautiful, that he scarcely knew it again. His hopes rose to the highest
pitch when he found that the admiration of his printed verses was shared
by others. While they were sitting in the parlour of the Dolphin inn,
drinking and talking, there came in a clerical-looking gentleman, who,
after having listened a while to the conversation about the forthcoming
volume of poetry, politely inquired for the title of the book. Mr.
Henson, with business-like anxiety, at once came forward, explaining all
the circumstances of the case, not forgetting to praise the verses and
the writer to the skies. The gentleman, evidently touched by the recital,
at once told Mr. Henson to put his name down as a subscriber, giving his
address as the Rev. Mr. Mounsey, Master of the Stamford Grammar-school.
John Clare was ready to fall on the neck of the kind subscriber, first
admirer of his poetry; but prudently restraining himself, he only mumbled
his thanks, with an ill-suppressed tear in his eye. After having made
arrangements for the circulation of the prospectuses, boldly undertaking
to distribute a hundred himself, John Clare then went back to his
lodgings at Pickworth, dancing more than walking.

The first bright vision of fame and happiness thus engendered was as
short as it was intense. It was followed, for a time, by a long array of
troubles and misfortune, making the poor poet more wretched than he had
ever been before. Soon after his meeting with Mr. Henson at the Dolphin
inn, he had a quarrel with his mistress, and a more serious disagreement
with her parents, followed by a harsh interdict to set his foot again
within the confines of Walkherd Lodge. A few weeks subsequently, his
master discharged him, under the probably well-justified accusation that
he was neglecting his work, scribbling verses all day long, and running
about to distribute his prospectuses. This discharge came in the autumn
of 1818, and put Clare to the severest distress. The expenses connected
with his poetical speculation had swallowed up all his hoardings, and
left him absolutely without a penny in the world. After several
ineffectual efforts to find work as a lime-burner either at Pickworth or
Casterton, he bethought himself to seek again employment as a
farm-labourer, and for this purpose went back to Helpston. His parents,
now quite reduced to the mercies of the workhouse, and subsisting
entirely upon parish relief, received him with joy; but nearly all other
doors were shut against him. The wide-spread rumour that he was going to
publish a book, had created a great sensation in the village, but, so far
from gaining him any friends, had raised up a host of jealous detractors
and enemies. Among the most ignorant of the villagers, the cry prevailed
that he was a schemer and impostor; while the better-informed people,
including the small farmers of the neighbourhood, set him down as a man
who had taken up pursuits incompatible with his position. Perhaps the
latter view was not an altogether unjust one; at any rate, the farmers,
all of them people of small means, acted upon good precedent in refusing
John Clare work, after he had been discharged, by his last employer, for
gross neglect of duty. It was in vain that Clare offered to do 'jobs,' or
work by contract; his very anxiety to get into employment, of whatever
kind it might be, was held to be presumptuous, and all his offers and
promises met with nothing but distrust. In this frightful state of
things, there was only one resource remaining to John Clare, to escape
starvation--to do as his parents, and beg a dry loaf of bread from the
tender mercies of the parish. His name, accordingly, was enrolled in the
list of paupers.

But as if the cup of his distress was not yet full enough, John Clare,
while reduced to this lowest state of misery, got a note from Mr. Henson,
of Market-Deeping, informing him that the distributed prospectuses had
only brought seven subscribers, and that the scheme of printing the poems
would have to be dropped entirely, unless he could advance fifteen pounds
to meet the necessary expenses. To Clare, this information sounded like
mockery. To ask him, while in absolute want of food, to raise fifteen
pounds, appeared to him an insult--which probably it was not meant to be.
Mr. Henson, the printer and bookseller, had very little knowledge of the
actual state of his correspondent, and looking upon the whole scheme of
publishing poetry as the driest matter of business, addressed Clare as he
would have any other customer. This, however, was not the way in which
the deeply-distressed poet viewed the proceedings. He gave way to his
feelings in a very angry letter, after despatching which he sank into
deep despondency. It seemed to him as if he had now made shipwreck of his
life and all his hopes.

Recovering from this sudden access of grief, he made a fresh resolve. At
twenty-five, men seldom die of despondency--not even poets. John Clare,
too, decided not to give up the battle of life at once, but prolong it a
short while by becoming a soldier. However, he was afraid to add to the
distress of his father and mother by informing them of this plan, and,
therefore, left home under the pretence that he was going to seek work.
It was a fine spring morning--year 1819--when he took once more the road
to Stamford. Passing by Burghley Park, he was strongly reminded of that
other sunny day in spring when he came the same way with Thomson's
'Seasons' in hand; when he was seized with the sudden passion for poetry,
and when he wrote his first verses under the hedge of the gardens, fall
of joy and happiness. And he pondered upon the sad change which had taken
place in these ten years. He had written many more verses--far better
verses, he fully believed; and yet was poorer than ever, and more
wretched and miserable than he had imagined he could possibly be. Thus
ran the flow of his thoughts: sad and gloomy, though not without an
undercurrent of more hopeful nature. There was a deep-rooted belief in
his heart that the poems he had written were not entirely worthless, and
that notwithstanding the coldness and antipathy of the world,
notwithstanding his own poverty and wretchedness, the day would come when
their value would be appreciated. The new sanguine spirit took more and
more hold of him while looking over the hedge into the park, and around
on the fields, smiling in their first green of new-born loveliness, and
enlivened with the melodious song of birds. Once more, his heart was
warmed as of old, and he sat down under a tree, to compose another song.
It was a poem in praise of nature, gradually changing into a love-song;
and while writing down the lines, his heart grew melancholy in thoughts
of his absent mistress, his sweet 'Patty of the Vale,' separated from
him, perhaps, for ever. To see her once more, before enlisting as a
soldier, now came to be the most ardent desire of his heart.

The shades of evening were sinking fast, when John Clare reached Bridge
Casterton, on his way to Walkherd Cottage. He was just in view of the
smiling little garden in front of the house, when a figure, but too well
known, crossed has path. It was Patty. She wanted to speak, and she
wanted to fly; her lips moved, but she did not utter a word. Clare, too,
was lost, for a minute, in mute embarrassment; but, recovering himself,
he rushed towards her, and with fervent passion pressed her to his heart.
Patty was too much a child of nature not to respond to this burst of
affection, and for some minutes the lovers held each other in sweet
embrace. They might have prolonged their embrace for hours, but were
disturbed by calls from the neighbouring lodge. The anxious parent within
heard words, and sounds, and stifled kisses, and doubting whether they
came from the shoemaker, sent forth shrill cries for Martha to come in
without delay. But darkness made Patty bold; she assured her mother that
there was 'nobody,' accompanying the word by another kiss. Then, with
loving caress, she tore herself from Clare's arms, flying up the narrow
path to the cottage. John Clare was transfixed to the spot for a few
minutes, and, having gazed again and again at the rose-embowered
dwelling, made his way back to Stamford, joyful, yet sad at heart. On the
road, close to Casterton, he met some old acquaintances of the lime-kiln,
going to the same destination, intent on an evening's drinking bout. John
was asked to join, and after some reluctance, consented. The lime-burners
had their pockets well-filled for the night, and the jug of ale went
round with much rapidity. When gaiety was at the culminating point, a
tall gentleman, in the uniform of the Royal Artillery, joined the merry
company. The jug passed to him, and he returned the compliment by
ordering a fresh supply of good old ale. Now the talk grew fast and loud,
opening the sluices of mutual confidence. John Clare loudly proclaimed
his intention of becoming a soldier, ready to fight his way up to

'Do you mean it?' inquired the tall gentleman in uniform.

'Of course I do,' retorted John, somewhat nettled at the incredulity of
his neighbour.

'Well, if you really mean it,' resumed the artilleryman, 'take that

John, without hesitation, took the shilling. After which, he fell fast

When he awoke, the next morning, he found that he was lying on a bench,
behind a long table, strewn with jugs, bottles, and glasses. The room was
filled with fumes of tobacco and stale beer, through which the sun shone
with a dull uncertain light. Rubbing his eyes, Clare jumped from his hard
couch, and in a moment was out of doors. The first person he met in the
passage was the military gentleman of the previous evening. John Clare
was astonished; and so was the man in uniform. John was surprised to find
the gentleman so very tall, and the gentleman was surprised to find John
so very small--two facts observed by neither of them at the convivial
table the evening before. The man in uniform was the first to recover his
astonishment, and, approaching Clare with a cordial shake of the hand,
expressed his regret that, in the excitement of the previous night,
things should have happened which would not have occurred otherwise. But
it was not likely that one of his Majesty's officers in the artillery
would take an advantage of such an accident, keeping as a recruit a
friend who, he was sure, meant the whole only a joke. A burden fell from
John's heavily-oppressed heart when he heard these words. Of course, it
was only a joke, he muttered forth; and the proof of it was that he kept
the shilling intact, just as it had been given to him. With which he
handed the potent coin back to the tall gentleman. It was the identical
shilling he had received; there could he no mistake, inasmuch as it was
the only shilling he had had in his possession for many a day. The man in
uniform smiled; smiled still more when John Clare searched in his
pockets, withdrawing a much-creased, dirty-looking piece of paper.
'Original Trifles,' exclaimed the tall gentleman; reading the paper; 'Ah,
I thank you, thank you very much. Not in my line.' Which saying, he
vanished behind the counter of the tap-room. John Clare was lost, as to
many other things, so to the Royal Artillery.

In a very uncertain mood, his head still somewhat heavy, John Clare took
his way back to Helpston. He congratulated himself of having had a very
lucky escape from a kind of servitude for which, of all others, he was
most unfit; and yet, notwithstanding this piece of good fortune, he felt
by no means easy in his mind. What to do next? was the great question he
was unable to solve, and which got more intricate the more he thought of
it. While giving the spur to his reflections for the hundredth time, he
ran against an old fellow-labourer from Helpston, a man named Coblee. The
latter was exactly in the same position as John Clare. He had no work,
and wanted very much to get a living; but did not know how to get it.
Talking the matter over, the two agreed temporarily to join their
efforts, under the supposition that such a partnership might possibly be
useful to both--as, indeed, it could not make their position worse. This
matter settled, plans came to be proposed on both sides. To leave
Helpston, and leave it immediately, was a point at once agreed upon; but
next came the more difficult matter, as to subsequent proceedings. John
Clare was in favour of going northward, into Yorkshire, which county he
had heard spoken of as one of milk and honey; while friend Coblee was
anxious to seek work in an easterly direction, in the fen-country, where
he had some friends and acquaintances. There was great waste of good
arguments on both sides, until friend Coblee's experience suggested to
decide the matter by a toss. Being the fortunate possessor of a
halfpenny, he produced it forthwith, and chance was called upon for an
answer. It declared in favour of John, whereupon Coblee--a man seemingly
born to be a lawyer--raised various minor questions. He argued that as
the subject was one of high importance, it ought not to be left to the
decision of a single toss; and, moreover, chance itself, and not the
winner, ought to declare in which direction they ought to go. After
protracted discussion, the final settlement of the question was postponed
to the following day, a Sunday--a very important Sunday in the life of
John Clare.

Early on the Sunday morning, the two friends met, as agreed upon, at
Bachelors' Hall, the general club and meeting place of the young men of
Helpston. The news that Clare and Coblee were on the point of leaving the
village together, to seek fortune in distant places, had spread rapidly,
and attracted a large number of old friends and acquaintances. Clare was
not a popular man, but Coblee was; and to honour the latter, various
bottles were brought in from the neighbouring public-house. Due justice
having been done to the contents of these flasks, the discussion
respecting the final consultation of Dame Fortune was renewed, and
happily brought to an end. It was proposed by the brothers Billing,
tenants of the Hall, and adopted by a majority of votes, that a stick
should be put firmly in the ground, in the middle of the room, and that
they should dance around it in a ring till it fell from its erect
position. The way in which it fell was to indicate the direction in which
the two emigrants were to go. John Clare and Coblee both promised to
abide by this award, the latter specially agreeing not to raise any minor
questions afterwards. All this having been duly arranged, the stick was
put into the clay, the circle was formed, and the visitors at Bachelors'
Hall began their dance. They danced fast and furiously; danced like men
with a great object before them, and empty bottles behind. Suddenly a
loud knocking was heard at the gate. The stick stood still upright, and
there was a moment's pause in the dance. 'John Clare must come home at
once,' said a shrill little voice outside; 'there are two gentlemen
waiting for him: two real gentlemen.' 'Shall I go?' inquired John. 'Go,
by all means,' dictated the elder of the Bachelor Brothers, 'we will wait
for you.' They waited long, but John did not return.


The two 'real gentlemen,' who were waiting at the little cottage, wishing
to see John Clare, were Mr. Edward Drury, bookseller, of Stamford, and
Mr. R. Newcomb, a friend of the latter, proprietor of the _Stamford
Mercury_. Mr. Drury, who had not been long established in business,
having but a short time before bought the 'New Public Library' in the
High Street, from a Mr. Thompson, had heard of John Clare in a rather
singular manner. One day, while still in treaty about the business, there
came into the 'New Public Library,' a gaunt, awkward-looking man, in the
garb of a labourer, yet with somewhat of the bearing of a country squire.
Addressing Mr. Thompson, he told him, in a haughty manner, that there
would be 'no debts paid at present,' and 'not until the poems are out.'
The man who said this was Mr. Thomas Porter, of Ashton, the friend of
John Clare, and propounder of the awful question concerning grammar and
the spelling-book. Though severe upon his young poetical friend, he
nevertheless remained attached to him with true devotion, and latterly
had assisted him in the distribution of prospectuses and other errands
relating thereto. It was on one of these excursions that he came to the
'New Public Library,' in Stamford High Street. John Clare had been so
extravagant, while burning lime at Pickworth, as to take in a number of
periodical publications, among them the _Boston Inquirer_, and getting
into debt on this account, to the amount of fifteen shillings, which he
was unable to pay after his dismissal from the lime-kiln, Mr. Thompson
had written several urgent letters demanding payment. In reply to one of
these, Clare despatched his friend Thomas Porter to Stamford, instructing
him to pacify his angry creditor, and to deliver to him some prospectuses
of the 'Original Trifles.' It was in order to be the more effective that
Thomas Porter adopted a haughty tone, quite in keeping with his tall
gaunt figure; and, talking in a lofty manner of his friend the poet,
almost repudiated the right of the bookseller to ask for payment of his
little debt. The proprietor of the 'New Public Library,' a quick-tempered
man, got exceedingly irritated on hearing this language. Speaking of John
Clare in the most offensive terms, he took the prospectuses and threw
them on the floor, at the same time ordering Thomas Porter out of his
shop. The long wiry arms of John Clare's tall friend were about reaching
across the counter and pulling the little shopkeeper from his seat, when
Mr. Drury interfered. He had listened to the dialogue with intense
astonishment, being quite bewildered as to the meaning of the terms poet,
lime-burner, and swindler, all applied to one person, of whom it was
clear only that he was a friend of the gaunt man. When the latter had
taken his leave, pacified by much politeness and many kind words from Mr.
Drury, an explanation was sought and obtained. Mr. Thompson, still
trembling with rage, informed his successor in the business, that the
lime-burning rogue had pretensions to be a poet, and wanted to swindle
people out of their money under pretext of publishing a volume of verses.
Picking up one of the prospectuses, Mr. Drury saw that this, in a sense,
was the case. But examining the 'Address to the Public,' he could not
help thinking that it was a prospectus singularly free from all
indications of puffing, and less still of roguery. Indeed, he thought
that he had never seen a more modest invitation to subscribe to a book;
or one which, in his own opinion, was more unfit to attain the object
with which it was written. The writer evidently depreciated his work
throughout, and took the lowliest and humblest view of his own doings.
That such a very unbusiness-like address could not possibly secure a
dozen subscribers, Mr. Drury knew but too well; but this made him the
more anxious to get some further knowledge of the modest author. He
accordingly paid the debt of fifteen shillings to the delighted Mr.
Thompson, and put Clare's prospectus in his pocket-book; and, having got
somewhat at home in his new business, settling the most urgent matters
connected with the transferment, started on a visit to Helpston, in
company with a friend.

Entering the little cottage, the two visitors, though they expected to
see poverty, were greatly surprised at the look of extreme destitution
visible everywhere. Old Parker Clare, now a cripple scarcely able to
move, was crouched in a corner, on what appeared to be a log of wood,
covered with rags; while his wife, pale and haggard in the extreme, was
warming her thin hands before a little fire of dry sticks. It was Sunday;
but there was no Sunday meal on the table, nor preparations for any
visible in the low, narrow room, the whole furniture of which consisted
of but a rickety table and a few broken-down chairs. The astonishment of
Mr. Drury and his friend rose when John Clare appeared on the threshold
of his humble dwelling. A man of short stature, with keen, eager eyes,
high forehead, long hair, falling down in wild and almost grotesque
fashion over his shoulders, and garments tattered and torn, altogether
little removed from rags--the figure thus presented to view was
strikingly unlike the picture of the rural poet which the Stamford
bookseller had formed in his own mind. John Clare, shy and awkward as
ever, remained standing in the doorway, without uttering a word; while
Mr. Drury, on his part, did not know how to address this singular being.
The oppressive silence was broken at last by the remark of Drury's
friend, that they had come to subscribe to the 'Original Trifles,' a few
manuscript specimens of which, he said, they would be glad to see. John
Clare did not like the remark, nor the patronizing tone in which it was
uttered, and bluntly informed the inquirer that nearly all his verses
were in the possession of Mr. Henson, of Market-Deeping, who had agreed
to print them. The further question as to how many subscribers he had for
his poems, irritated Clare still more, eliciting the answer that this was
a matter between him and Mr. Henson. Mr. Drury, with superior tact, now
saw that it was high time to change the conversation, which he did by
asking leave to sit down, and exchange a few words with 'Mr. Clare' and
his parents. Addressing old Parker Clare and his wife in a friendly
manner, stroking the cat on the hearth, and sending a little boy,
lounging about the door, for a bottle of ale, he at last succeeded in
breaking the ice.

To win confidence, Mr. Drury began giving an account of himself. He told
John Clare that he had taken the shop of Mr. Thompson, at Stamford, and
having found among the papers some prospectuses of a book of poetry, with
a specimen sonnet, he had felt anxious to pay a visit to the author.
After awarding some high praise to the sonnet of the 'Setting Sun,' he
next asked Clare whether the publication of the poems had been definitely
agreed upon between him and Mr. Henson, of Market-Deeping.

'No,' answered John Clare, beginning to be won over by the frankness of
his visitor. To further questions, carefully worded, he replied, that as
yet he had only seven subscribers--nominally seven; in reality only one,
the Rev. Mr. Mounsey, of the Stamford Grammar-school--and that Mr. Henson
refused to commence printing the poems, unless the sum of fifteen pounds
was advanced to him.

There now was a moment's pause, broken by Mr. Drury, who said, addressing
Clare, 'Well, if you have made no agreement with Mr. Henson, and will
entrust me with your poems, I will undertake to print them without any
advance of money, and leave you the profits, after deducting my

John Clare's heart rose within him when he heard these words, and but for
the pompous man at Mr. Drury's side, he would have run up and pressed the
good bookseller to his heart. 'Yes, you shall have all my papers,' he
eagerly exclaimed; 'shall have them as soon as I get them back from
Market-Deeping. And I can show you a few verses at once.' Which saying,
he left the room, returning in a few minutes with a queer bundle of
odd-sized scraps of paper, tied round with a thick rope, and scribbled
over, in an almost illegible manner, in all directions. At the top of the
bundle was a poem, beginning, 'My love, thou art a nosegay sweet,' which
Mr. Drury had no sooner deciphered, than he shook Clare warmly by the

'I think that will do,' he exclaimed, with some enthusiasm, looking at
his companion.

The latter fancied he ought to say something. 'Mr. Clare, I shall be
happy to see you to dinner, any of these days,' he exclaimed, with a
dignified nod and gracious smile. Thereupon, both Mr. Drury and Mr.
Newcomb took their farewell, Clare once more promising that he would take
his papers to the 'New Public Library,' as soon as obtained from

On the threshold, Mr. Newcomb was seized with a new idea. 'If you get the
manuscripts from Deeping, Mr. Clare, we shall be glad to see you,' he
exclaimed; 'if not, we can say nothing further about the matter.' Thus
the friendly visitor got rid of the overwhelming fear of giving a dinner
to a poor man for nothing. However, John Clare never in his life troubled
Mr. Newcomb of Stamford for a dinner.

Disagreeable, and almost offensive, as the conversation of one of his
visitors had been to John Clare, he was very much pleased with that of
the other. For Mr. Edward Drury he felt a real liking, and deeming the
proposition which the latter had made exceedingly liberal, he at once set
to work carrying the proposal into execution. Fearing that Mr. Henson
might, possibly, put obstacles in his way, John persuaded his mother to
go to Market-Deeping and fetch his poems. The good old dame gladly
fulfilled her son's wish, and the next morning trudged over to the
neighbouring town. Clever diplomatist, like all ladies, young or old, she
managed to get, with some difficulty, her son's bundle of many-coloured
papers, in the midst of which stuck, like the hard kernel in a soft plum,
a stout, linen-bound book. John, over-anxious now to possess his verses,
awaited the result of the journey half-way between Deeping and Helpston,
near the village of Maxey. Here both mother and son sat down in a field,
the latter examining his paper bundle with great care. It was all right;
nothing was missing, not even the pitch-sealed document containing the
prospectus of the 'Original Trifles.' Joyful at heart, the two went back
to the little cottage, already expanded, in John's imagination, into a
large comfortable house. The first difficulty of getting them printed
overcome, the success of his poems was to John Clare a matter of no doubt
whatever. His fancy painted to him, in glowing colours, what honour they
would bring him, what friends, and what, worldly reward. He would be
enabled to get a nice dwelling for his old parents, abundance of good
cheer for them, and abundance of good books for himself. And then--his
heart swelled at the thought--he would be able to carry home his beloved
mistress, his 'Patty of the Vale.' The idea made him dance along the
road; and he kissed his mother, and the good old dame began dancing, too,
all through the green fields, in which the birds wore singing, and the
flowers bending their faces in the wind.

On the following morning, John Clare walked to Stamford with his papers,
handing them over to Mr. Drury. The latter presented him with a guinea,
as a sort of purchase-money 'on hand,' encouraging him, at the same time,
to write more verses, and to complete all the remaining manuscript poetry
in his possession, John went home elated with joy, promising to return to
Stamford at the end of a week. To John Clare it was a week of joy, while
Mr. Edward Drury, on his part, felt somewhat uneasy in his mind. He was a
man of good education, a relative of Mr. John Taylor--head of the
formerly eminent publishing firm of Taylor and Hessey, Fleet Street,
London--but, though with fair natural gifts, and a lover of poetry, was
not exactly a judge of literary productions. John Clare's sonnet 'To the
Setting Sun,' which had first attracted his attention, looked well in its
printed and corrected form; but the rest of the manuscript poems, when he
came to look over them, appeared to him to possess little or no value.
Written on dirty bits of coarse paper, ill-spelt, full of grammatical
blunders, and without any punctuation whatever, it required, indeed, a
judge of more than ordinary capacity to pronounce on the intrinsic
poetical value of these productions. Mr. Drury, having spent a day in
scanning over the uncouth papers, began to feel very uneasy, doubting
whether he had not promised too much in agreeing that he would print
them, and also whether he had not paid too dear for them already in
giving John Clare a guinea. Full of these doubts, yet not wishing to make
a mistake in the matter, he resolved to submit the question to a higher
tribunal. One of his customers, the Rev. Mr Twopenny, incumbent of Little
Casterton, had the reputation of a most learned critic, having published
various theological and other treatises; and he being the only literary
man known to Mr. Drury in or near Stamford, the owner of the 'New Public
Library' resolved to make his appeal to him. Clare's rough bundle of
verses accordingly found its way to Little Casterton parsonage, to the
great surprise of the learned minister, who, though deep in theology,
Hebrew, and Greek, knew, probably, much less of the value of English
verse than even Mr. Drury. This, however, did not prevent the learned man
from giving an opinion, for having examined the blurred and somewhat
unclean MSS. submitted to him, and finding them full of many blunders in
grammar and spelling, he expressed himself in a decisive manner to the
effect that the so-called poetry was a mere mass of useless rubbish. Mr.
Edward Drury felt much downcast when he received this oracular note,
which happened to come in on the very morning of the day arranged for the
second visit of the poet of Helpston.

When John Clare came into the shop in High Street, joyful and excited,
with another large bundle of rope-tied poetry under his arm, Mr. Drury
received him with a somewhat elongated face. Instead of expressing a wish
to see the new manuscripts, he told his visitor, after some hesitation,
that unexpected circumstances prevented him from carrying out the
promised publication of the poems at the moment, and that he would have
to postpone it for some time. John Clare was ready to burst out crying;
the blow came so unexpectedly that he did not know what to think of it.
Although with little experience of the world, he saw perfectly well, from
Mr. Drury's manner, that something unfavourable had occurred to produce a
change respecting the poems. After a short pause, summoning up courage,
he pressed his patron to explain the matter. Thereupon the letter of the
Rev. Mr. Twopenny was handed to Clare. He read it over; read it once,
twice; and then grasped the counter to prevent himself from falling to
the ground. It was the first harsh literary criticism the poor poet had
to submit to in his life. The blood rushed to his face; his hands
clinched the fatal letter, as if to annihilate its existence. After a
while, he could not contain himself any longer, but bursting into tears,
ran out of the shop. Good-natured Mr. Drury saw that he had made a
mistake--perhaps a great, and certainly a cruel mistake. He rushed after
his humble friend, and brought him back to the shop, and into the parlour
behind, there soothing him as best he could. It was easy to persuade John
Clare that the Rev. Mr. Twopenny's opinion was, after all, but the
opinion of one man; that men differed much in almost everything, and in
nothing less than the value they set upon poetry. The remarks were so
evidently true, that the much-humbled poet brightened up visibly;
brightened up still more when Mr. Drury got a bottle of old ale from the
cupboard and began filling two glasses. Viewed through this medium, the
future looked much more cheery to John Clare; the world, there seemed no
doubt, would appreciate good poetry, though the Rev. Mr. Twopenny did
not. Having got his poetical friend into this happy mood, Mr. Drury
talked to him seriously and sensibly. He advised John Clare to seek work
immediately, either as a farm-labourer or lime-burner, and to devote only
his spare time to the writing of verses. As to the verses already
written, he promised to lay them before other judges, and to publish
them, at any rate, more or less corrected and altered. This, too, sounded
hopeful, and when John Clare shook hands with the owner of the 'New
Public Library' in the High Street of Stamford, he thought he was a good
deal nearer his long cherished object than he had ever been before.


Acting upon Mr. Drury's advice, John Clare, at the end of a few days,
visited his former employer, Mr. Wilders, at Bridge Casterton, who, upon
his earnest application, set him to work at once, first as a gardener,
and, after a while, as labourer in one of his lime-kilns. Here John
stayed the whole of the spring and summer of 1819; in many respects one
of the most pleasing periods of his whole life. At the end of each day's
hard work, he visited his beloved mistress at Walkherd Lodge, with whom
he was becoming very intimate--too intimate, alas!--while the spare hours
of morning, noon, and evening were devoted to poetry, and the whole of
Sunday to reading and music. Mr. Drury, beginning to feel more and more
sympathy with his young friend, invited him to spend every Sunday at the
shop in the High Street, unrestrained by any forms and ceremonies
whatever, and acting entirely as his own master. John Clare accepted the
first invitation with some shyness; but before long felt himself fully at
home at his friend's house, examining the books, maps, and pictures
spread out before him with a blissful enjoyment never before known. The
Sunday visits to Stamford, after a while, became to him such an intense
delight that he could scarcely await the happy day, and even neglected
his love affairs in its expectation. There were no visits to Walkherd
Lodge on Saturday evenings, when John went early to bed, in order to rise
earlier the next morning. The Sunday found him awake hours before the
cock had sounded the alarm, and many a time he had got over the two miles
of road from Casterton to Stamford, and stood in front of the 'New Public
Library,' before even the sun had risen. Good-natured Mr. Drury now had
to get out of bed, let his friend into the shop, and compose himself as
best he could, to sleep again. John now read for an hour or two; but when
he thought his friend had slept long enough, he took up his fiddle,
safely kept among the books, and began playing a merry gypsy tune. This
had the invariable effect of bringing Mr. Edward Drury, passionately fond
of music, down to his books and his friend, and, coffee having been
prepared, the long day of talking, reading, and fiddling set in for both.

While these proceedings were going on, the fate of Clare's poems had been
decided; unknown, however, to the poet. Mr. Drury, after the very
unfavourable judgment of the Rev. Mr. Twopenny, resolved upon sending his
odd bundle of verses to London, to get the final opinion of his
experienced relative, Mr. John Taylor, the publisher of Fleet Street. Mr.
Taylor, a talented author as well as bookseller, at a glance perceived
the true poetic nature of John Clare. He saw that, under an uncouth garb,
there were nameless beauties in the verses submitted to him; a wealth of
feeling, and a depth of imagination seldom found in poetic descriptions
of the external aspects of nature. Mr. Taylor saw--perhaps somewhat
dimly, but still he saw--that Clare was one of the born poets of the
earth; a man who could no more help singing, than birds can keep from
pouring forth their own harmonious melodies. But he saw also that John
Clare's works were diamonds which wanted polishing, and this labour he
resolved to undertake. He informed Mr. Drury of his intention to bring
out the poems under his own editorship and supervision, telling him to
encourage John Clare to devote himself more and more to the study of
style and grammar, as well as to the improvement of his general
education. Mr. Drury, who, by this time, knew his young friend
intimately, hesitated to communicate Mr. Taylor's advice and directions.
Thoroughly acquainted with the excitable nature of the poet, he feared
that, in launching him again on a sea of expectations, which, after all,
might remain unfulfilled, he would do far more harm than good, and he
therefore resolved to keep his imagination in leading-strings. He told
John Clare that Messrs. Taylor and Hessey were willing to publish his
poems, Mr. Taylor himself making the necessary grammatical and other
corrections; but that the success of the publication, as of all other
books, being doubtful, he must not, for the present, indulge in too
sanguine hopes of gaining either fame or fortune through his book. John
was quite content with this information, and kept on steadily in his
course; reading and fiddling the first day, and making love and burning
lime the other six days of the week.

The love-making, after a while, took a turn not entirely creditable to
the interested parties. Having re-established his confidential
intercourse with Martha Turner, yet not won the good graces of her
parents, who more than ever favoured the suit of the rival shoemaker,
John induced his sweetheart to meet him at places where she should not
have gone, and made proposals to which she should not have listened. Poor
Patty, loving not wisely but too well, did go and did listen to her
lover, with the ordinary sad consequences. The sequel was as usual. She
got sad and he got cold; and her complaints becoming numerous and
frequent, he left her and began flirting with other girls, trying to
persuade himself that he was the injured party, inasmuch as Patty's
parents treated him with scorn and contempt. An accidental occurrence, in
the summer of 1819, contributed much to make him forgetful of his moral
obligations. At a convivial meeting of lime-burners, held at a Stamford
tavern, Martha Turner, who was present, frequently danced with another
man, which so irritated John Clare that he, in his turn, paid his
attentions to a young damsel of the neighbourhood, known as Betty Sell,
the daughter of a labourer at Southorp. Betty was a lass of sixteen,
pretty and unaffected, with dark hair and hazel eyes; and her prattle
about green fields, flowers, and sunshine, of which she seemed
passionately fond, so intoxicated John that he got enamoured of her on
the spot. It was a mere passing fancy; but to revenge himself upon Patty
for coquetting, as he thought, with others, he did not go near her, and,
at the end of the entertainment, accompanied Betty Sell to her home, some
three miles distant The quarrel, thus commenced, did not end soon. Patty
was angry with John; and John, in consequence, renewed his attentions to
Betty Sell. Not long, and his first liking increased to a feeling akin to
real love. Betty was so sweet and artless in her doings and sayings, and,
above all, hung with such evident fondness on every word of her admirer
about his life and his struggles, his intense admiration of nature, his
poetry, and his hopes of rising in the world through his poetry, that the
susceptible heart of John Clare soon got inflamed to ardent devotion of
his new mistress. His infatuation rose to such a height that he neglected
even his visits to Mr. Drury, preferring, for once in his life, glowing
eyes and lips to verses, music, and books. The Stamford bookseller was
somewhat surprised on missing his young friend and his fiddle on several
subsequent Sundays, and on inquiring the cause, was met by replies more
or less unsatisfactory. Taking a real interest in John's welfare, Mr.
Drury thereupon determined to get at the bottom of the affair, and
succeeded in discovering the secret one evening, after a merry supper.
Having taken an unusual quantity of drink, John Clare became
confidential, and his friend learnt all that was to be learnt respecting
Martha Turner and Betty Sell. Like an honourable man, Mr. Drury was not
slow in catechising John, telling him in a severe tone that unless he
returned to his old love and gave up all acquaintance with the new, he
would withdraw his friendship from him, as a creature unworthy of it.
This had a deep effect upon Clare, and though the immediate promise of
reform made by him, was not fulfilled to the letter, his life, for the
next seven or eight months, was a constant struggle between duty and
affection, in which duty at last got the upper hand.

After the severe admonition of his friend and patron, John renewed his
frequent visits to the 'New Public Library,' spending not only his
Sundays, but many evenings of the week at the shop in Stamford. It was on
one of these evenings that he was startled by the appearance of a
sedate-looking gentleman, in spectacles, who went up to him with much
ceremony, inquiring whether he had the pleasure to address Mr. John
Clare. John, very confused, scarcely knew what to answer, until Mr. Drury
came up, introducing the visitor as Mr. John Taylor, of London, the
editor and publisher of his poems. A lengthened conversation followed,
which, though it seemed to delight Mr. Taylor, was not by any means
pleasant to the shy and awkward poet. Deeply conscious, as always, of his
defective education, his rustic mode of expressing his thoughts, and,
most of all, his tattered and dirty garments, he had scarcely the courage
to look Mr. Taylor in the face, but kept hiding himself in a corner,
looking for an opportunity to escape from the room. The opportunity,
however, did not come, and worse afflictions remained behind. After Mr.
Taylor was gone, and John had settled down to his favourite books, a
servant appeared in the shop, inviting Clare to visit the house of Mr.
Octavius Gilchrist, a few doors from the 'New Public Library.' John was
fairly inclined to run away, as soon as he heard the message; but found
that escape was not so easy. Mr. Drury told him that it was a matter, not
of pleasure, but of duty; that Mr. Gilchrist was a very influential man
in the literary world; that at the house of Mr. Gilchrist he would meet
Mr. Taylor, and that the success of his first volume of poems depended,
to a certain extent, upon this interview. This ended all opposition on
the part of Clare. He allowed himself to be dragged, like a lamb, into
Mr. Gilchrist's house, which, though it was but a grocer's shop on the
ground-floor, seemed to him a most magnificent dwelling. The drawing-room
was lighted with wax candles, and was full of gilded paintings, carpets
and fine furniture, amidst which his dirty clothes, fresh from the
lime-kiln, appeared entirely out of place. Nevertheless, he was
graciously received by Mr. and Mrs. Gilchrist, and warmly welcomed by his
previous acquaintance, Mr. John Taylor.

Mr. Octavius Gilchrist, in whose house John Clare now found himself, and
who came to exercise a considerable influence over his future career, was
a literary man of some note in his day. He was born in 1779, the son of a
gentleman settled at Twickenham, who had served during the German war as
lieutenant and surgeon in the third regiment of Dragoon Guards. Octavius
was destined by his parents to be a clergyman, and went to Magdalene
College, Oxford; but before taking his degree, or entering holy orders,
his means began to fail, upon which he went to Stamford, to assist a
well-to-do uncle in the grocery business The change from the study of the
classics at Magdalene College to the weighing-out of halfpenny worths' of
soap and sugar to the rustics of Lincolnshire, amounted to a melancholy
fall in life; however, Octavius Gilchrist bore it gaily, softening the
drudgery by a continuation of his studies in spare hours, and frequent
attempts to contribute to the periodical literature of the day. The
Stamford Mercury having inserted several of his articles, he got bolder,
and sent essays to several London Magazines, which met with, a like
fortunate fate. In 1803, the Stamford uncle died, after willing all his
property, including the profitable grocery business, to his nephew. This
induced Mr. Gilchrist to devote himself more than ever to literature,
leaving the shop to his assistants, and taking to the scales only on Fair
days and other solemn occasions. Having married, in 1804, the daughter of
Mr. James Nowlan, of London, he was drawn still more into literary
society, got acquainted with William Gifford, and became a contributor to
the 'Quarterly Review.' He assisted Gifford in his edition of Ben
Jonson's works, and in 1808 published a book of his own, entitled
'Examination of the charges of Ben Jonson's enmity towards Shakspeare.'
This was followed, in the same year, by 'Poems of Richard Corbet, Bishop
of Norwich, with notes, and a life of the author;' and in 1811, by a
'Letter to William Gifford, Esq., on a late edition of Ford's plays.' On
one of his periodical visits to London, Mr. Gilchrist made the casual
acquaintance of Mr. John Taylor. The acquaintance soon ripened into
friendship, leading to much personal intercourse and a variety of
literary schemes. Mr. Gilchrist first started a proposal to publish a
'Select collection of Old Plays,' in fifteen volumes, and on the failure
of this scheme, owing to the sudden appearance of a flimsy kind of work
called 'Old Plays,' Mr. Taylor and he agreed to launch a new monthly
publication, under the revived title of 'The London Magazine.' The
negotiations for carrying out this work were pending between writer and
publisher, when the first instalment of Clare's manuscripts was sent by
Mr. Drury to his relative Mr. John Taylor. The latter read and liked the
verses, and being desirous to know something of the writer, requested
information from Mr. Gilchrist. 'I know nothing whatever of your poet,'
was the reply; 'never heard his name in my life.' This somewhat surprised
the cautious publisher; he thought that Stamford being so near to
Helpston, and poets being not quite as plentiful as blackberries in the
fen-country, John Clare and his prospectuses ought to be of at least
local fame. To clear the matter up, as well as to make some further
arrangements respecting the early issue of the 'London Magazine,' Mr.
Taylor went down to Stamford, called upon his relative at the 'New Public
Library,' where, as accident would have it, he met John Clare, and then
went to take up his quarters at the house of Mr. Gilchrist. The latter
saw John Clare for the first time when introduced to him in his
drawing-room over the grocery shop.

Clare was more than ever shy and awkward when ushered into this
drawing-room, and it took a considerable time to make him feel at his
ease. To do so, Mr. Gilchrist engaged him in conversation, and with the
aid of Mr. Taylor and sundry bottles of wine, succeeded in getting from
him a rough account of his life and struggles. Wine and spirits were
temptations which John Clare was totally unable to withstand, indulging,
on most occasions, far more freely in drink than was warranted by
propriety and good sense. Perhaps, at Mr. Gilchrist's house, the host was
as much to blame as the guest; the former encouraging Clare's weakness
for the purpose of overcoming his extreme shyness and getting at the
desired autobiographical information. By the time this was extracted, the
poet had taken decidedly too much wine, and when a young lady in the room
sat down to the piano and sang 'Auld Robin Gray,' he began crying. The
sight was somewhat ludicrous, and Mr. Gilchrist sought to annul it by
reading an antiquarian paper on Woodcroft Castle, which had the effect of
driving John Clare out of the room and back to his bookshop. Here he sat
down, and, still under the influence of the entertainment, wrote some
doggerel verses called 'The Invitation,' which Mr. Gilchrist had the
cruelty to print in number one of the 'London Magazine,' in which the
English public received the first information of the existence of 'John
Clare, an agricultural labourer and poet.'

It seems somewhat doubtful whether at this time either Mr. Gilchrist or
Mr. John Taylor thoroughly appreciated John Clare. Both, although
encouraging his poetical talent, never did justice to the noble and
manly, nay lofty heart that beat under the ragged lime-burner's dress.
Mr. Taylor, on his part, wanted a hero for his forthcoming monthly
magazine, and he seemed to think that John Clare was the best that could
be had. He therefore induced Mr. Gilchrist to limn the rustic novelty to
the greatest advantage, which was done accordingly in the first number of
the 'London Magazine.' A paper headed, 'Some account of John Clare, an
agricultural labourer and poet,' intended evidently as a preliminary puff
of the poems, and consisting of a rather pompous description of the visit
of Clare to Mr. Gilchrist's house, was, on the whole, in the tone in
which a _parvenu_ might speak of a pauper. The chief fact dwelt upon was
the extreme kindness of 'the person who has generously undertaken the
charge of giving a selection of Clare's poems to the press,' thus trying
to make the world believe that a London publisher should so far forget
himself as to neglect his own interest in favour of that of a poor
author. Though perhaps well-meant in the first instance, this patronizing
manner in speaking of Clare, and attracting public attention to him, less
as a poetical genius, but as happening to be a poor man, did infinite
mischief in the end. It did more than this--it killed John Clare.

After his first interview with Mr. Gilchrist, John continued to visit at
the house, and was openly taken under the great literary man's
protection. By his desire, William Hilton, R.A., happening to pass
through Stamford, consented to paint Clare's portrait for exhibition in
London. The poet was delighted; and all went on well, until one day when
Mr. Gilchrist, desirous of aiding to his utmost power the success of the
forthcoming volume, asked, or ordered, Clare to write to Viscount Milton,
eldest son of the Earl Fitzwilliam, humbly requesting permission to
dedicate the poems to his lordship. John Clare, remembering his former
visit to Milton Park, in company with the nimble parish clerk of
Helpston, refused the demand, to the great annoyance of Mr. Gilchrist. At
length, however, giving way to Mr. Drury's importunities, Clare sat down
and penned his humble epistle, which was duly despatched by Mr.
Gilchrist. But there never came an answer from Viscount Milton, who,
probably, at the time, held it to be a vile conspiracy to extract a
five-pound note from his pocket. Mr. Gilchrist was mortified; but John
Clare was rather pleased than otherwise. He was more pleased when, a few
weeks after, Mr. Drury showed him an advertisement in a London paper,
announcing, 'Poems descriptive of rural life and scenery, by John Clare,
a Northamptonshire peasant.' It was stated, in capital letters, that the
book was 'preparing for publication.'


In October, 1819, Clare left the lime-kiln at Bridge-Casterton, where he
had been working during the greater part of the year, and returned to
Helpston. He did so partly on account of a new reduction of wages, but
partly also because suffering from constant ill-health. His old enemy,
the fever of the fens, continued its attacks at intervals, and he found
that he was less able to withstand the foe in the lime-kiln than when
working in the open air. This time he was fortunate enough to find
regular work as a farm labourer in the neighbourhood of Helpston, and
having got somewhat better, he set with new energy to thrashing and
ploughing. His visits to Mr. Drury and Mr. Gilchrist henceforth became
somewhat more scarce. Though conscious of being deeply indebted to both
these friends, he could not bear being constantly reminded of this
indebtedness in the patronizing air which they assumed, and the high tone
of superiority which they arrogated to themselves in their intercourse
with him. With Mr. Gilchrist, especially, he found fault for attempting
to guide him in a manner which, he held, this gentleman had no right to
do. John Clare had become acquainted, in the spring of 1819, with the
Rev. Mr. Holland, minister of the congregational church at
Market-Deeping. Mr. Holland, a well-educated man, with a fine
appreciation of poetry, happened to see Clare's prospectus, with the
sonnet to the 'Setting Sun,' at a farm-house near Northborough, and being
struck with the verses, as well as with the account which the farmer, who
knew Clare, gave of the author, he at once went in search of the poet.
After some trouble, he discovered him in the lime-kiln at
Bridge-Casterton, just while Clare was resting from his work, and
scribbling poems upon the usual shreds of paper spread out on the crown
of his hat. Mr. Holland, much astonished at the sight, forthwith entered
into conversation, and being a simple man, with nothing of the patron
about him, at once won Clare's affection. The acquaintance thus begun
soon ripened into friendship, with, however, but scant personal
intercourse, owing to the many occupations of the active dissenting
minister, and the distance of his place of residence from Casterton. But
John Clare did not fail to lay most of the verses he was writing before
his clerical friend, and was delighted to meet always with hearty
encouragement. 'If this kind of poetry does not succeed,' Mr. Holland
said on one occasion, looking over Clare's shoulder, while the latter was
writing the 'Village Funeral;' 'if this kind of poetry does not succeed,
the world deserves a worse opinion than I am inclined to give it.' These
words made a deep impression upon Clare, and he kept on repeating them to
himself whenever his mind was fluttered with doubts of success and
apprehensions of failure. Very naturally, upon the man who had cheered
him with such hearty and well-timed approval, Clare looked as one of his
best friends, and lost no occasion to proclaim the fact.

He told the story of his acquaintance with the Rev. Mr. Holland, as at
many other times, so at the first interview with Mr. Gilchrist. The
latter seemed rather displeased when he heard that the young rustic,
presented to his patronage, was acquainted with a dissenting minister,
although professing to be a member of the Church of England. Mr.
Gilchrist took at once occasion of rebuking him for this conduct, and in
the account given of Clare in the 'London Magazine,' alluded to the
subject at some length, explaining that 'Mr. Holland, a Calvinistic
preacher in an adjoining hamlet, had paid him some attention, but his
means of aiding the needy youth was small, whatever might have been his
wish, and he has now quitted his charge.' The statement was untrue in
several respects; for Mr. Holland was neither a 'Calvinistic preacher,'
nor stationed in a 'hamlet,' nor had he 'quitted his charge,' that is,
given up his friendship with Clare. To make at least the ultimate
assertion true, Mr. Gilchrist, after having been acquainted for some time
with John, insisted that he should cease all communication with the
'Calvinistic preacher.' This Clare refused at once, looking upon his
intercourse with Mr. Holland as an entirely private matter, not in the
least connected with religious opinions. The refusal brought about a
great coldness on the part of Mr. Gilchrist, which Clare no sooner
perceived than he absented himself from his house. This was very
unfortunate; but could scarcely be helped for the moment. John Clare was
totally unable to understand the orthodox high-church principles of the
former student of Magdalene College, while Mr. Gilchrist, on his part,
was incapacitated from appreciating the lofty feeling of independence
that existed in the breast of the poor lime-burner and farm labourer. In
his account in the 'London Magazine,' Mr. Gilchrist's estimate of the
poet's character was expressed in the words:--'Nothing could exceed the
meekness, and simplicity, and diffidence with which he answered the
various inquiries concerning his life and habits;' and it was upon this
supposed 'meekness' that all subsequent treatment of Clare by him and
other friends and patrons was based. But it was an estimate of character
entirely false. Though meek and humble outwardly, the consequence of
early training and later habit, John Clare had all the towering pride of
genius--more than this, of genius misunderstood.

The year of 1820 broke dull and gloomy upon Clare. He had expected his
poems to be published in the month of November, or the beginning of
December previous; but was without any information whatever, either from
Stamford or London, and did not know when the long-expected book would
appear, or whether it would appear at all. The little money he had
received from Mr. Drury at various periods--some twenty pounds
altogether--had been spent by this time, and, being out of work, he was
once more face to face with grim poverty. Day after day passed, yet no
news, till, in the last week of January, the smiling face of a friend
suddenly lighted up the gloom. It was a rainy day, and Clare was unable
to take his usual ramble through the fields, when the clattering of hoofs
was heard outside the little cottage. A man on horseback alighted at the
door, and shaking off the dripping wet, rushed into the room, where Clare
and his father and mother were sitting round the little fire. It was the
Rev. Mr. Holland. 'Am I not a good prophet?' he cried, running towards
John, and shaking him warmly by the hand. John looked up in astonishment;
he had not the slightest notion of what his friend meant or alluded to.
But Mr. Holland kept on laughing and dancing, shaking himself like a wet
poodle. 'Am I not a good prophet?' he repeated, again and again. The long
face of his melancholy young friend at last brought him to a sense of the
actual state of affairs. 'You have had no letter from your publishers?'
he inquired. 'None whatever,' was the reply. 'Then let me be the first
herald of good news,' cried Mr. Holland; 'I can assure you that your
utmost expectations have been realized. I have had a letter from a friend
in London, this morning, telling me that your poems are talked of by
everybody; in fact, are a great success.' How the words cheered the heart
of John Clare! He fancied he had a slight touch of the ague in the
morning; but it seemed to fall like scales off his body, and he thought
he had never been so well all his life. Mr. Holland was about getting
into his wet saddle again. 'Oh, do stop a little longer,' said John,
imploringly; 'have something to eat and drink.' And he looked at his
father and mother; and father and mother looked at him. Alas! they all
knew too well that there was nothing in the house to eat; and no money
wherewith to purchase food. Good Mr. Holland, at a glance, perceived the
actual state of affairs. 'Well,' he exclaimed, 'I intended having some
dinner at the inn round the corner; but if you will allow me, I will have
it sent here, and take it in your company.' And in a twinkling of the
eye, he was out of doors, leading his horse, which had been tied to a
post, towards the 'Blue Bell.' He was back in ten minutes; and in another
ten minutes there appeared the potboy from the 'Blue Bell' carrying a
huge tray, smoking hot. Thrice the messenger from the 'Blue Bell' came
and returned, each time carrying something heavy in his fat, red hands,
and going away with empty trays. When he had turned his back for the
third and last time, they all sat down around the little ricketty table,
the Rev. Mr. Holland, John, his father and mother. 'Every good gift, and
every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of
lights,' said the minister. 'Amen!' fervently exclaimed John.

The good news of which the Rev. Mr. Holland had been the bearer was soon
confirmed on all sides. Early the next morning there came a messenger
from Stamford, asking Clare to visit Mr. Drury as well as Mr. Gilchrist.
He called first at the house of the latter, and was very graciously
received, being informed that his poems were published, and that Mr.
William Gifford, editor of the 'Quarterly Review' had taken a great
interest in him and his book. John Clare, who had never heard either of
Mr. Gifford, or the 'Quarterly,' listened to the news with much
indifference, to the evident surprise of his friend. Leaving Mr.
Gilchrist, he went next door, to Mr. Drury, and, entering the shop, fell
back with astonishment on hearing a tall aristocratic-looking elderly
gentleman inquire for 'John Clare's Poems.' It sounded like sweet music
to his ear, the cracked voice of the old gentleman. Mr. Drury, not
noticing the entrance of Clare, took a small octavo volume from the top
of a parcel of similar books lying on his counter, and handed it to the
gentleman, informing his customer at the same time that the poems were
'universally applauded both by the critics of London and the public.'
John kept firm in his corner near the door; he thought his friend Drury
the most eloquent speaker he had ever heard. 'And, pray, who is this John
Clare?' asked the tall aristocratic-looking gentleman. 'He is ...' began
Mr. Drury, but suddenly stopped short, seeing a whole row of his books
tumble to the ground. John Clare, in his terrible excitement, had pressed
too close towards an overhanging shelf of heavily-bound folios and
quartos, which came down with a tremendous crash. It seemed as if an
earthquake was overturning the 'New Public Library;' and the astonishment
of the owner did not subside when he saw his poetical friend creeping out
from under the ruins of five-score dictionaries, gazetteers, and
account-books. Having somewhat recovered his composure, Mr. Drury, with a
grave mien, turned towards the tall gentleman, exclaiming, 'I beg to
introduce to you Mr. Clare, the poet.' The gentleman burst out laughing
at the intensely ludicrous scene before him; yet checked himself
instantly, seeing the colour mount into Clare's face. 'I beg you a
thousand pardons, Mr. Clare,' he exclaimed; 'I hope you have not been
hurt.' And as if to compensate for his rude hilarity, the tall gentleman
entered into a conversation with Clare, ending by an invitation to visit
him at his residence on the following day: 'Mr. Drury will give you my
address; good morning.' John Clare made no reply, and only bowed; he did
not feel much liking for his new acquaintance. However, when Mr. Drury
told him that the stranger was General Birch Reynardson, a gentleman of
large property, residing near Stamford, on an estate called Holywell
Park, and that his acquaintance might be of the greatest benefit for the
success of his book, if not for himself, Clare consented to pay the
desired visit. The allusion to his published poems by Mr. Drury was
pleasant to his ears, and Clare eagerly sat down to examine _his_ book.
It was not by any means a handsome volume in outward appearance, being
bound in thick blue cardboard, with a small piece of coarse linen on the
back. But the coarseness of the material was relieved by the inscription,
'Clare's Poems,' printed on the back in large letters; and the plain
appearance of the book was forgotten over the title-page, 'Poems
descriptive of rural life and scenery, by John Clare, a Northamptonshire
peasant.' He eagerly ran his eye over the poems, and was more than ever
pleased with them in their new dress, with slightly altered spelling, and
all the signs of punctuation added. There was only one part of the book
with which he was not pleased, which was the part headed 'introduction.'
It gave an untrue account of his life, and, what was still more galling
to the pride of the poet, spoke of his poverty as the main point
deserving public attention. All this deeply hurt his feelings;
nevertheless the predominating sentiment of joy and satisfaction
prevented him saying anything on the subject to Mr. Drury. He stayed some
hours at the shop, and it was arranged that early on the next morning he
should call again to get ready for the important visit to General
Reynardson. When on the point of leaving, Mr. Drury put a letter in
Clare's hands. 'I had almost forgotten it,' he said; 'it has been lying
at the shop for several days. I suppose it is from your sweetheart.'

The letter was from the 'sweetheart;' but a very melancholy letter it was
nevertheless. Poor Martha Turner told her lover, what he knew long ago,
that she was about becoming a mother before being a wife; that her
situation was known to her parents; that her father and mother refused to
forgive her frailty; and that she was cruelly treated and on the point of
being expelled from under their roof. John Clare read the letter on the
roadside, between Stamford and Helpston; he read it over again and again,
and his burning tears fell upon the little sheet of paper. A fierce
conflict of passions and desires arose within his soul. He fancied that
he did not love Martha Turner half so well as the pretty little lass of
Southorp; he fancied that since his first overwhelming affection for
'Mary,' he had never been devoted, heart and soul, so much to any one as
to Betty Sell. Yet to Martha Turner, once his sweet 'Patty of the Vale,'
he knew he was bound by even stronger ties than those of affection and
love--he trembled thinking thus, yet held firm to the nobler element in
his breast. The secret struggle, short and intense, ended with a firm
resolve that duty should conquer passion.

Early on the day following, John Clare made his appearance at Mr. Drury's
shop. The busy tradesman had already provided an outfit for his friend,
whom he meant to patronize more than ever, now that his poems promised to
be successful. In the course of half an hour, John found himself clothed
in garments such as he had never before worn. He had a black coat,
waistcoat, and trousers, a silk necktie, and a noble, though very
uncomfortable, high hat; while his heavy shoes seemed changed by a
covering of brilliant polish. Surveying his figure, thus altered, in a
looking-glass, John was greatly satisfied with himself, and with a proud
step marched off towards Holywell Park. General Birch Reynardson received
him with great affability; at once took him by the hand, and led him into
the library. It was the finest collection of books Clare had ever seen,
and he warmly expressed his admiration of it. After a while, the General
took a small quarto, bound in red morocco, from the shelves, and showing
it to his guest, asked him what he thought of the contents. They were
poems written by the general's father; and Clare, seeing the fact stated
on the title-page, was polite enough to declare them to be very
beautiful. Another red-morocco volume thereupon came down from the
shelves, full of manuscript poetry of the General's own composition. John
Clare began to see that genius was hereditary in the family, and
expressing as much to his host, earned a grateful smile, and a warm
pressure of the hand. He was asked next to promenade in the gardens till
dinner was ready.

The gardens of Holywell Park were laid out with great taste, and John
Clare soon lost himself in admiration of the many beautiful views opened
before him. While wandering along the banks of an artificial lake, fed by
a cascade at the upper end, he was joined by a young lady of
extraordinary beauty. He believed it was the wife of the General; yet,
though showing the deepest respect to the lady who addressed him while
walking at his side, he could not help looking up into her face now and
then, in mute admiration of her exquisite loveliness. The General, after
a while, joined the promenaders, when John, somewhat to his surprise,
learnt that his fair companion was not the hostess of the establishment,
but the governess. Notwithstanding the presence of the master of the
house, the young lady continued speaking to Clare in the freest and most
unrestrained manner, bewitching him alike by the tones of her voice and
the soft words of flattering praise she poured into his ear. She told him
that she had read twice through the volume of poetry which the General
had brought home the preceding evening, having sat up for this purpose
the greater part of the night. Clare's face got scarlet when he heard
these bewitching words; never before had praise sounded so sweet to his
ear; never before had it come to him from such honeyed lips. He was
beside himself for joy, when, as a proof of her good memory, she began
reciting one of his poems: 'My love, thou art a nosegay sweet.' And when
she came to the last line, 'And everlasting love thee,' Clare's eyes and
those of the beautiful girl met, and he felt her glances burning into his
very soul. The general did not seem to take much notice of his
companions, being busy picking up stones in the footpath, and examining
the state of the grass on the borders of his flower beds. On returning
towards the house, he informed Clare that the servants were about sitting
down to their dinner, and told him to join them in the hall. The young
governess appeared intensely surprised at the words; she looked up, first
at the General and then at Clare. Probably it seemed to her a gross
insult that a poet should be sent to take his meal with the footmen and
scullery-maids. But Clare's face looked bright and serene; to him, as
much as to the master of the house, it appeared perfectly natural to be
returned to his proper social sphere, after a momentary dream-like rise
into higher social regions.

He walked into the hall, and humbly sat down at the lower end of the
servants' table. The big lackeys whispered among themselves, looking with
a haughty air upon the base intruder. John Clare heeded it not; his soul
was far away in a world of bliss. Before him, in his imagination still
hovered that sweet beautiful face which he had seen in the gardens; in
his ear still sounded the soft tones of her voice: 'And everlasting love
thee.' Thus he sat at the table, among the footmen and kitchen wenches,
tasting neither food nor drink--an object of utter contempt to his
neighbours. Before long, however, there came a message from the
housekeeper's room, inviting Clare to proceed to the select apartments of
this potent lady. He followed the servant mechanically, careless where he
was going; but was joyfully surprised on entering the room to see his
dream changed into reality. There, opposite the table, sat his beautiful
garden-companion, smiling more sweetly, and looking more exquisitely
enchanting than ever. She stretched out her little white hand, and Clare
sat down near her, utterly unmindful of the presence of the mistress of
the apartment, the lady housekeeper. The latter felt somewhat offended in
her dignity, yet overlooked it for the moment, being desirous to proffer
a request. Having succeeded in rousing Clare's attention, she informed
her visitor, with becoming condescension, that she was very fond of
poetry; also that she had a son who was very fond of poetry. But it so
happened that, though very fond of reading verses, neither she nor her
son was able to produce any. Now hearing, from her friend the governess,
that there was a poet in the house, she had taken the liberty to send for
him, to do some trifling work. What she wanted was an address of filial
love, as touching and affectionate as possible; this she would send to
her son, and her dear son would return it to her, signed by his own name.
She hoped it could be done at once, while she was getting the tea ready.
Could it be done at once? Clare started on hearing himself addressed a
second time by the high-toned lady--he did not remember a word of all
that had been said to him. But he bowed in silence, and the dignified
elderly person left the room to make the tea, firmly persuaded that her
poetry would be got ready in the meantime. When she was gone, Clare
looked up, and found a pair of burning eyes fixed upon him. He tried to
speak, but could not; the words, rising from his heart, seemed to perish
on his tongue. After a long pause, the young governess, flushed with
emotion, found courage to address her neighbour: 'I hope to see you
again, Mr. Clare; I hope you will write to me sometimes.' He had no time
to reply before the bell rang and a servant entered the room, reporting
that General Birch Reynardson wished to see John Clare before leaving.
The intimation was understood. John went up to the library, bowed before
his stately host, muttered a few words of thanks, he knew not exactly for
what, and left the house. When the gate closed after him, he felt as if
expelled from the garden of Eden.

Slowly he walked up the road, when suddenly a white figure started up on
his path. The young governess again stood before Clare. 'I could not hear
of your going,' cried the beautiful girl, her bright face suffused with
blushes, and her long auburn hair fluttering in the wind; 'I could not
hear of your going, without saying good-bye.' Clare again tried to speak,
and again the words died upon his lips. But she continued addressing him;
'Oh, do not forget to write to me,' she said earnestly, with a tinge of
melancholy in her soft voice. It thrilled through his soul, and opened
his lips at last. 'I will write,' he answered, 'and I will send you some
new poems.' Thus saying, he bent forward and took both her hands, and
their eyes met, full of unspeakable passion. But a sudden noise from the
distance startled Clare and his fair companion. There was a man on
horseback coming up with full speed, riding in the direction of Holywell
Park. The young governess softly loosened her hands, turned a last fond
look upon the poet, and fled away like a frightened hind into a
neighbouring wood.

John Clare hurried forward, his face flushed, his head trembling;
forgetful of all the things around him. At last, feeling exhausted, he
sat down on a stone, at the turning of two roads. The one of the roads
was leading to Stamford; the other to Bridge Casterton and Walkherd
Lodge. Clare felt like one entranced. Joy unutterable was struggling in
his bosom together with infinite sadness, and the wild pulsation of his
heart seemed to drive his blood, like living fire, to his very soul. And
he held his burning head in his hands, sitting at the corner of the two
roads. The image of the beautiful girl he had just left, an image more
perfect, more sweet and angelic than ever conceived by his imagination,
appeared standing in one of the roads, and the picture of a sad,
suffering woman, surrounded by angry parents, in the other. Lower sank
the sun on the horizon; it was beginning to get dark; but Clare still
kept sitting at the corner of the two roads, his throbbing head bent to
his knees. The clouds in the west glowed with a fierce purple, when he
started up at last. He started up and walked, swiftly and with firm step,
towards Walkherd Lodge. The clouds in the west seemed to glow with an
unearthly light.


The London book-season of 1820 was a dull one. The number of books
published was very small, and there were but few extraordinary good or
extraordinary bad ones amongst them. All the 'reviewers' were at their
wits' end; for wit, sharp as a razor, must get dull over books
undeserving of praise, yet incapable of being 'cut up' with due
brilliancy of style. Into this mournful critical desert, there fell like
manna the 'Poems descriptive of rural life and scenery.' Mr. John Taylor
and his literary coadjutors had taken great pains to spread the news far
and wide that a new Burns had been discovered on the margin of the
Lincolnshire fens, and was to be publicly exhibited before a most
discerning public. There were low rumours, besides, that William Gifford
intended to place the new Burns on the pedestal of the 'Quarterly,'
spreading the fame of the humble poet into the most distant regions.
Accordingly, when the first volume of Clare's poems was published, on the
16th of January, 1820, there was an immediate rush to the shop of Messrs.
Taylor and Hessey, in Fleet Street. Before many days were over, a first
edition was exhausted; and before many weeks were gone, all the critical
reviews began singing the praises of the book. The 'Gentleman's
Magazine,' leading the van, got, eloquent over 'the unmixed and
unadulterated impression of the loveliness of nature,' contrasting it
with 'the riches, rules, and prejudices of literature;' the latter being
in allusion to a quarrel which the learned editor had just had with some
learned fellow-editors. Next followed the 'New Monthly Magazine,' the
reviewer of which informed a discerning public that 'Clare is strictly a
descriptive poet, and his daily occupation in the fields has given him
manifest advantages.' This profound remark made great impression, and was
quoted by Messrs. Taylor and Hessey in all their prospectuses; not even
the deepest thinkers disputing the thesis that if Clare had been born and
lived all his life in a cellar in the Seven Dials, his rural poetry might
be less truthful. The 'London Magazine,' belonging to the publishers of
Clare's poems, came modestly behind in critical praise, contenting
itself, in a review of five pages, with giving plentiful extracts from
the book, putting forward, at the same time, a somewhat undignified
appeal to public charity. The demand for the pence and shillings of the
charitable was, as stated in the review, 'made by one who has counselled
and superintended this interesting publication,' and the same authority
piteously invoked the aid of the nobility and gentry for 'this poor young
man.' When Clare came to see this article, some months after its
publication, he burst into a fit of indignation, and wrote an angry
letter to Mr. Drury; but with the sole result of hearing, on his next
visit to the Stamford Public Library, that he was not only a very poor,
but a very ungrateful young man.

The 'Eclectic Review,' reviewed Clare in a very flattering article; and
the 'Antijacobin Review,' 'Baldwin's London Magazine,' and a host of
other periodicals, followed suit, all dwelling upon the luminous aspect
of the poems, with pauperism as dark background. Last in the list, but
greatest, came the 'Quarterly,' with William Gifford at the helm. The
'Quarterly Review' of May, 1820, actually devoted nine pages to a
description and praise of Clare's poems, speaking of them as the most
interesting literary production of the day. The review was supposed to be
written by Mr. Gilchrist; but it was generally understood that the editor
of the 'Quarterly' himself corrected and altered the article,
strengthening its praise, and putting in some hearty, honest words about
Clare as a man, as well as a poet. Perhaps of all living authors, William
Gifford best understood John Clare, and felt thorough, and entire
sympathy with the attempt of this noble soul to struggle into light,
through all the haze of printers, publishers, and reviewers. Very likely
he might have loved Clare as a brother--had the poet not been an author.
William Gifford, as Southey truly remarks, 'had a heart full of kindness
for all living creatures, except authors; _them_ he regarded as a
fishmonger regards eels, or as Izaak Walton did slugs, worms, and frogs.'
Nevertheless, the 'Quarterly Review' praised Clare in a way which quite
astonished the book-makers of the day. After comparing him with Burns and
Bloomfield, and dwelling upon the fact that his social position was far
lower than that of either these two poets, the writer in the
'Quarterly'--here Mr. Gifford himself--gave some sound advice to Clare.
'We entreat him,' the article ran, 'to continue something of his present
occupations; to attach himself to a few in the sincerity of whose
friendship he can confide, and to suffer no temptations of the idle and
the dissolute to seduce him from the quiet scenes of his youth to the
hollow and heartless society of cities; to the haunts of men who would
court and flatter him while his name was new, and who, when they had
contributed to distract his attention and impair his health, would cast
him off unceremoniously to seek some other novelty.' These words of true
advice proved almost prophetic in the life of the poet.

The article in the 'Quarterly Review' had the immediate effect of making
John Clare the lion of the day. Rossini set one of his songs to music;
Madame Vestris recited others before crowded audiences at Covent Garden,
and the chief talk of London for the season was about the verses of the
'Northamptonshire peasant.' His fame descended to Northamptonshire
itself, and far into the misty realm of the fen-bound regions. The Right
Honourable Charles William, Viscount Milton, was somewhat startled on the
waves of this fame reaching Milton Park. The idea that for one five-pound
note he might have secured part of this high renown to himself, figuring
in the 'Quarterly Review' as a noble patron of literature, and protector
of heaven-horn genius slumbering in obscurity, made him feel intensely
vexed with himself. Reflecting upon the subject, it struck his lordship
that it would be best to take Clare still under his protection, in view
of new editions open to dedication. Full of this idea, a messenger was
despatched at once to Helpston, with a gracious order that the poet
should present himself on the following morning before the noble
Viscount. John Clare, remembering but too keenly the past, was unwilling
to obey his lordship's command; but the tears of his father and mother
made him change his resolution. Consequently, on the morning appointed, a
Sunday, he went to Milton Park, and having had the honour of lunching
with the footmen in the kitchen, was ushered into the presence of his
lordship. Viscount Milton was exceedingly affable, took Clare by the
hand, sat him down on a stool, and at once explained to him why his
letter respecting the dedication of the poems had not been answered. His
lordship had been excessively busy at the time, making preparations for a
journey, and in the hurry of these labours had unfortunately forgotten to
send a reply. Now her ladyship entered the room, in turn addressing the
poet. After questioning him on all points, birth, parentage, weekly
income, religion, moral feelings, and state of health, Clare was finally
asked whether he had found already a patron. His vacant look expressed
that he did not know even the meaning of the word patron. To the plainer
question, whether some nobleman or gentleman of the neighbourhood had
promised him anything, Clare truthfully replied in the negative. There
was nobody who had made offers of assistance, except Mr. Edward Drury,
bookseller, of Stamford; and his promises, John was sorry to say, were
rather vague. Thereupon the noble viscount warned Clare to be on his
guard against all publishers and booksellers; not explaining, however,
how to protect himself, or how to do without them. Meanwhile the Earl
Fitzwilliam had entered the room, and added his voice to that of his son
in a warning against booksellers. After a little more conversation, Lord
Milton put his hand in his pocket, and withdrawing a quantity of gold,
threw it into Clare's lap. John was humbled and confused beyond measure.
His first impulse was to return the money instantaneously; but a moment's
thought convinced him that this would be excessively rude, and he
contented himself, therefore, with a feeble protest against his
lordship's kindness. He now left, making an awkward bow, his pockets
heavy under the weight of gold, and his brain heavier under a feeling of
deep humiliation, akin to shame. However, this feeling was dispelled in
the fresh outer air. He thought of his poor father and mother at home,
and the comfort all his gold would bring them; and getting almost joyful
at the thought, sat down at the roadside to count his golden sovereigns.
There were seventeen pieces, all bright and new, fresh from the Mint.
Clare had not had so much money in his possession in all his life, and he
got frightened almost in looking at the glittering treasure before him.
To secure it well, he took off his neck-tie, wrapped the sovereigns in
it, and ran home as fast as his legs would carry him. There were happy
faces that night in the little cottage at Helpston.

John Clare's invitation to Milton Park created much astonishment in the
village; but the wonder increased when, a few days after, another
liveried messenger inquired his way to Clare's dwelling. The new envoy
was of far more gorgeous aspect than the former one, being the
representative of the greatest lord in the county, the most noble the
Marquis of Exeter. His lordship had seen the 'Quarterly Review,' as well
as Viscount Milton; and his lordship had learnt, moreover, that Clare had
been called to Milton Park, for purposes easily imagined. The chief of
the elder line of the Cecils thereupon determined not to be outdone by
his petty Whig rivals, the Fitzwilliams, with which object in view he
summoned the poet in his turn. The gorgeous scarlet messenger who arrived
at Helpston, to the wonderment of the whole village, brought a letter
from the Hon. Mr. Pierrepont, brother-in-law of the marquis, desiring
Clare to make his appearance on the following morning, precisely at
eleven o'clock, at Burghley Hall. To this summons there was no opposition
on the part of Clare, for to resist the will of the Marquis of Exeter,
within twenty miles of Stamford, was deemed nothing less than treason by
any inhabitant of the district. John was ready to go to Burghley Hall the
next morning; but it rained heavily, and the cobbler had not returned the
shoes entrusted to him for mending. Could John present himself without
shoes on a rainy morning, before the most noble the Marquis of Exeter?
That was the question gravely debated between Parker Clare, his wife, and
his son. It was decided that John could not go without shoes; and the
village cobbler refusing to return his trust, because engaged in
threshing, the important visit to Burghley Hall had to be postponed till
the day after. John went quite early, trembling inwardly to show himself
before the great lord, whose very valet was looked upon in the country as
a man of high estate. His fears increased a thousandfold when arrived at
the gate of the palatial residence, and being told, on giving his name to
the porter, that he ought to have come the day before. On Clare making
his excuse on account of the state of the weather, the high functionary
got very angry. 'The weather?' he exclaimed, excitedly; 'you mean to say
that you have not obeyed his lordship's commands simply because it was a
wet day! I tell you, you ought to have come if it rained knives and
forks.' This frightened Clare beyond measure; he turned round upon his
heels and was about running away, when he was stopped by a footman. The
arrival of Clare had just been announced to the marquis, and there was an
order to admit him instantaneously to the presence of his lordship. So
the tall footman, without further ceremony, took Clare by the arm, and
hurried him up a marble staircase, through innumerable passages, and a
maze of halls and corridors which quite bewildered the poor poet. The
sound of his heavy hob-nailed shoes on the polished floor made him
tremble, no less than the sight of his mud-bespattered garments among all
the splendid upholstery, through which the gorgeous lackey was guiding
his steps. At last, after a transit through painted halls which seemed
endless, Clare stood before the noble marquis. His lordship received the
humble visitor in a quiet, unaffected manner; and the mind of the poet
was relieved of an immense burthen when he found the great lord to be a
decidedly amiable and cheerful young man of his own age, with manners
pleasantly contrasting with those of the aristocratic porter at the gate,
and the splendid footman who had shown him the way. The marquis, with
great tact, questioned Clare as to his antecedents; asked to see some of
his manuscript verses--which the Hon. Mr. Pierrepont, in his summons, had
ordered him to bring--and, having inspected these, informed the
astonished poet that he would grant him an annuity of fifteen guineas for
life. John Clare scarcely believed his own ears; the announcement of this
liberality came so unexpected, and appeared to him so extraordinary, that
he did not know what to say, or how to express his thanks. Quitting his
lordship in utter confusion, he felt almost giddy on finding himself in
the hall outside. There were immense passages stretching away to right
and left, leading into unknown realms of magnificence, into which the
poor poet was trembling to venture. The marquis, who, with great
politeness, had accompanied his visitor to the door, on seeing his
embarrassment undertook the part of guide, leading Clare to the outskirts
of the palatial labyrinth, and here handing him over to a valet, with
instructions to let his guest partake of the common dinner in the
servants' hall. It was the third dinner in the hall of noble patrons to
which Clare was ushered--clearly showing that, however much differing on
other subjects, the admirers of high literature in Northamptonshire held
that the true place of a rural poet was among the footmen and


The great liberality of the Marquis of Exeter enabled Clare to carry out,
without further delay, the wish of his heart, and to make 'Patty' his
wife. Her parents, under the circumstances, had given up all their old
opposition, and were not only willing, but most anxious, that Clare
should cement his unhappy connexion with their daughter by the sacred
ties of marriage. The due preparations were made accordingly, and on the
16th of March, 1820, John Clare and Martha Turner became man and wife.
The event stands registered as follows in the records of Great Casterton

'John Clare of the Parish of Helpston Bachelor and Martha Turner of this
Parish Spinster were married in this Church by banns this 16th day of
March in the year one thousand eight hundred and twenty by me Richard

And underneath:--

'This marriage was solemnized between us,





Little more than a month after the wedding, a child was born to Clare; a
little girl, baptized Anna Maria. Mrs. Clare for a while remained at her
father's house; but as soon as she was able to move, went to live with
her husband, at the humble dwelling of his parents at Helpston, which,
though scarcely large enough to contain the aged couple, had now to
accommodate two families. Yet Clare felt happy in this narrow cottage,
for, humble as it was, it presented to him a thousand cherished
associations, and now became dearer than ever to his heart, as sheltering
not only his beloved parents, but his dear wife and child. All his life
long the Helpston cottage was to Clare his 'home of homes.'

Before removing with his young wife to his native village, the poet had
to go through some exciting adventures in a journey to London. When one
day at the house of Mr. Gilchrist, at Stamford, there arrived a letter
from Mr. John Taylor, speaking in high terms of the success of the 'Poems
of Rural Life,' which brought about the question, addressed to Clare:
'Should you like to go with me on a short visit to London?' John Clare
was delighted at the idea, and eagerly expressed his wish to go;
whereupon it was arranged that he and Mr. Gilchrist should set out on the
journey at the end of a week. Patty cried when the news was brought to
her; and old Parker Clare and his wife cried still more. In a few hours,
the report spread like wildfire through Helpston that John Clare was
going to London. There was but one man in the village who had ever been
to the big town far away, and his account of it had filled the hearts of
all the Helpston people with terror. This man, an old farm-labourer
called James Burridge, as soon as he heard of Clare's intention to
undertake the dreaded journey, hurried up to entreat him to abandon the
plan. To enforce his advice, he gave a vivid description of the horrors
awaiting the unwary traveller in the great metropolis, and the fearful
dangers that beset his path on every side. One half the houses of London,
he said, were inhabited by swindlers, thieves, and murderers, and a good
part of the other half by their helpers and confederates, all on the
look-out for the good people from the country. To catch their victims
with the greater certainty, there were trap-doors in the pavement of the
most frequented streets, which, when touched, let the wayfarer down into
a deep cellar, and into a kettle of boiling water, surrounded by
cut-throats who made all escape from the kettle impossible. The
assassins, having killed the unhappy victim, and taken all his property,
to the very shirt on his back, finally--culmination of horrors!--sold the
body to the doctors. Such was the account which James Burridge gave of
London, with the effect of striking terror into the hearts of his
hearers. Parker Clare and his wife, with bitter tears, entreated their
son not to leave them; and John himself, though slightly incredulous
about some of the items in the tales of his friend Burridge, began to be
seriously alarmed. But he was ashamed to confess his fears to Mr.
Gilchrist; the more so, as a mere casual mentioning of the street-traps
and the kettles of boiling water produced immoderate laughter. He
therefore made his mind up to start on his dangerous journey like a hero.
After bidding solemn farewell to wife and parents, and dressing, by the
advice of James Burridge, in his worst clothes, to be the less a mark for
thieves and cut-throats, John Clare very early one morning in April,
1820, started for Stamford, and having met Mr. Gilchrist took his seat
precisely at seven o'clock in the 'Regent,' a famous four-horse coach,
warranted to take passengers in thirteen hours to London. There was
little talk on the road; John Clare had enough to do to look out of the
window, marvelling at all the new sights open to his eyes. Thus the
travellers passed through Stilton, Huntingdon, St. Neot's, Temsford, and
Biggleswade, until at last, soon after dusk, the fiery glow of the
horizon announced the neighbourhood of the big city. On being told that
they were about to enter London, Clare became much excited; but there was
time for the excitement to cool, for more than two hours elapsed before
the heavy coach rumbled from the soft high road up to the hard-paved
streets. At last, at nine o'clock in the evening, the 'Regent' stopped in
front of the 'George and Blue Boar,' in Holborn, and John Clare alighted,
utterly bewildered with all that he had seen during the day in the
greatest journey he had ever made in his life.

Mr. Gilchrist took his friend to the house of his brother-in-law, a
German named Burkhardt, proprietor of a jeweller's and watchmaker's shop
in the Strand. Herr Burkhardt, a well-to-do tradesman, with a rubicund
face and an inexhaustible stock of good humour, was excessively fond of
showing strangers the sights of London; and his guests had no sooner
arrived, than he wanted to take them to Covent Garden theatre. John Clare
was very anxious to go, on hearing that Madam Vestris was reciting one of
his poems at this place of entertainment; but finding that Octavius
Gilchrist was disinclined to rise from his comfortable armchair, and with
secret apprehension of the trap-doors and vessels of boiling water, he
declared himself likewise in favour of the arm-chair, with hot whiskey
and water. Worthy Herr Burkhardt had his full share of satisfaction the
next day, when he had the pleasure of taking his brother-in-law and
friend to Westminster Abbey, the Tower, Smithfield market, Newgate, and
Vauxhall Gardens. John Clare was not so much astonished as disappointed
with all that his eyes beheld in the great metropolis. Standing upon
Westminster Bridge, he compared the River Thames with Whittlesea Mere,
and found it wanting; the sight of the Tower, of Newgate, and of
Smithfield, engendered not the least admiration; and as for the Poet's
Corner in the Abbey, he loudly declared that he could see no poetry
whatever about it. But what hurt the feelings of Herr Burkhardt most of
all, was the utter contempt Clare showed for the delights of Vauxhall.
The tinsel and the oil-lamps, the wooden bowers and paper flowers, struck
Clare as perfectly absurd, and he expressed his astonishment that people
should go and stare at such childish things, with a world of wonder and
of beauty lying all around it in the green fields. The worthy jeweller of
the Strand was amazed, and privately confided to his brother-in-law that
he thought his companion, 'a very stupid man from the country.'

John Clare stayed a week in London, and during the whole of this time
felt painfully uncomfortable in his threadbare suit of labourer's
clothes, patched top and bottom, with leather baffles and gaiters to
match. He fancied, when walking along the streets, that everybody was
staring and laughing at his smock frock; and the sound of his heavy
hob-nailed shoes startled him whenever he entered a house. What made
things worse was, that Mr. Gilchrist wanted to draw him into many fine
places and among high and wealthy people, for whose company Clare felt an
instinctive dislike. He knew that they could not look upon him otherwise
than in the light of a rustic curiosity, and being unwilling to play the
part of a newly-discovered monkey or hippopotamus, he absolutely refused
to go to parties and meetings to which he had been invited. However, a
few of the visits were indispensable, such as presentation to Messrs.
Taylor and Hessey, and their friends. Mr. John Taylor, on meeting Clare,
perceived at once that one reason of his excessive reluctance to show
himself was his scant stock of clothing, and mentioning the matter with
great frankness, he offered him a suitable dress. But Clare refused to
take anything, except an ancient overcoat somewhat too large for him, but
useful as hiding his whole figure from the top of the head down to the
heels. In this brigand-like mantle he henceforth made all his visits,
unwilling to take it off even at dinner, and in rooms hot to suffocation.

It made a deep impression upon Clare that, with all his awkwardness,
homely speech, and ragged clothes, he was, for the first time in his
life, treated as an equal by Mr. Taylor's friends, and other gentlemen
whom he visited at London. The example of his patrons in the country,
who, after praising his talents in the drawing-room, sent him down to the
kitchen for his dinner, had already pauperized him to such an extent that
he was quite startled when Mr. Taylor, on his second visit to the shop in
Fleet Street, asked him to meet several men of rank and talent, among
them Lord Radstock, at dinner the same evening. He would gladly have
declined, but was not allowed to do so, being told that it would be a
thorough breach of good manners to refuse to see his friends, the
admirers of his poems. Clare went, with much fear and trembling; but came
to be at ease before long. He sat next to Lord Radstock, and this
gentleman, with an extreme tact and knowledge of character, at once
succeeded in gaining his whole confidence. It proved the beginning of a
friendship which lasted for years, and spread its influence over Clare's
whole life. William Waldegrave, Baron Radstock, Admiral of the Red, was a
gentleman much known at this period in the literary and artistic circles
of London. A younger son of the third Earl of Waldegrave, born in 1758,
he was bred to the naval profession, became a captain at the age of
eighteen, and commander of a fine frigate soon after, so that the way to
fame and distinction was marked out for him clearly and forcibly. But not
content to be lifted in the world solely by reason of birth, he, from an
early age, devoted himself to independent pursuits, and became a scholar
and a poet even before he was a captain in the Royal Navy. The scientific
and literary tastes of the young nobleman were greatly fostered by his
marriage, in 1785, with the second daughter of David Van Lennep, chief of
the Dutch factory at Smyrna, a lady of most genial disposition and an
education very superior to her age. William Waldegrave was appointed
admiral in 1794; distinguishing himself at the naval fight off Cape
Lagos, in 1797; and having been advanced, three years after, to the
dignity of Baron Radstock, of Castletown, Queen's County, quietly settled
with his family in London, to give himself entirely up to his favourite
studies and pursuits. On the appearance of Clare's poems, he at once felt
greatly interested in the author, and being acquainted with Mr. John
Taylor, heard of his arrival in London, and arranged to meet him at
dinner. So it came that John Clare, in his smock frock, leather gaiters,
and brigand mantle, found himself sitting at the right hand of the Right
Honourable Lord Radstock, son of an earl, and admiral in the Royal Navy.

Lord Radstock's simple, sailor-like speech, distant alike from
condescension and studious politeness, had the effect of at once opening
the pent-up affections of John Clare. For the first time since his
arrival in London, he found somebody to whom he could speak in full
confidence, and he did so to his heart's desire, prattling like a child
about trees and flowers, fields and meadows, birds and sunshine, and not
at all disguising his dislike to the big town in which he now found
himself. As the dinner went on, Clare became still more communicative,
tenderly encouraged by the sympathising friend at his side. He spoke of
his struggles, his aims, and aspirations; his burning desire to soar
upward on the wings of poetry, and his constant battling for the barest
necessities of life, the mere daily bread. Lord Radstock was deeply
touched; he had seen many authors, writers of prose and of verse, in the
course of his life, but never such a poet as this. Clare did not in the
least complain of his existence; he merely described it, in simple,
graphic utterance, the truth of which was stamped on every word and look.
The admiral, before meeting John Clare, had admired him as a poet; he now
began to feel far deeper admiration for him as a man. He told him in a
few kind and affectionate words, speaking as a father would to his son,
that he intended to be his friend, and Clare warmly shook the hand
offered to him. It was late at night when the party broke up at Mr.
Taylor's, and Lord Radstock and John Clare were the last to leave the
house together.

During the few days that Clare remained in London, he was almost
constantly in Lord Radstock's company. The latter, anxious to introduce
his young friend to persons who he thought might be useful to him in
life, led him to a great number of places, one more uncomfortable than
the other. Clare suffered much, but had not the courage to confess it to
his noble patron, whose good intentions he fully understood. So he kept
on trotting from one drawing-room to the other, with his heavy
mud-bespattered shoes, his immense coat, a world too large for his thin,
short body, and his long unkempt hair, hanging down in wild confusion
over the shoulders. His friends soon got accustomed to the sight, and
thought no more of it, and strangers willingly excused the garb as born
of the 'eccentricity of genius;' but Clare himself, with his extreme
sensibility, felt daily mortification on contrasting his own appearance
with that of the people he met, and suffered tortures in thinking himself
an object of general ridicule. The feeling was aggravated by the fact
that he met but few persons he liked, and in whose conversation he took
an interest. Among these few was Mrs. Emmerson, an authoress of some
talent, and contributor to the 'London Magazine,' to whom he was
introduced by Lord Radstock. John Clare at the first interview was not at
all favourably impressed by this lady; for she assumed what he fancied to
be a theatrical air; burst out in bitter laments about what she termed
the 'desolate appearance' of her visitor, and wept that 'so much genius
and so much poverty' should go together. All this was very unpleasant to
Clare; particularly the 'desolate appearance,' which he took to be an
unmerited allusion to his great coat. In return, the poet, stung to the
quick, replied in a few cold and sarcastic words, which irritated Lord
Radstock so much that, on leaving the place, he reproached his companion
for his apparent want of feeling. Subsequent interviews greatly modified
Clare's first impression, for he found Mrs. Emmerson not only a most
amiable, kind-hearted lady, but a true and faithful friend, whose advice
and assistance often proved of the greatest service to him.

Having stayed a week in London, in a continual round of visits to dinner
parties, soirees, and theatrical entertainments--which latter did not
impress him very much--John Clare again went, in the company of Mr.
Gilchrist, to the 'George and Blue Boar,' Holborn, and took seat for the
return journey to Stamford. He was heartily glad to get away from the big
town, yearning for his old haunts, the quiet woods, streams, and meadows,
and the little cottage among the fields with his wife and darling baby.
It seemed to him an immense time since he had left these everyday scenes
of his existence; it was as if his whole life had changed in the
interval. He felt like one in a dream when the coach went rolling
northward along the high road, through fields in which labourers were
busy with plough and spade. It was not so very long ago that he had been
just such a labourer: how strange that he should now loll upon soft
cushions, in a coach drawn by four horses, while others like him kept on
digging and ploughing in the sweat of their brow. And would he be ever
content to dig and plough again, after having tasted the sweets of a more
genial existence, treading upon carpeted floors and dining with lords?
Such were the thoughts and questions that arose tumultuously in his mind,
in the long ride from London to Stamford. He had not the courage to face
them and think them out, feeling his brain begin to ache, and his heart
to throb in wild excitement. Then there flickered before his eye the
vision of wife and babe in the little cottage at home, and the tumult of
his soul changed into bliss. He determined to be happy, as of yore, in
the green fields among his former friends, and to dismiss all thoughts of
changing his old course of life. It was late at night when the coach
rattled into Stamford; but John Clare would not hear of stopping at his
friend's house, even for a few minutes. The clouds were dark overhead,
and no lights visible anywhere; yet through night and darkness he groped
his way home, and bursting into his little hut, clasped wife and babe in
his arms.


The news that a poet had arisen on the borders of the Fens soon spread
far and wide, even into Northamptonshire. The 'Quarterly Review' and
'Gentleman's Magazine' carried the report into mansions, villas, and
vicarages, and the 'Stamford Mercury' and other local papers spread it
among the inmates of farmhouses and humbler dwellings. Much incredulity
was manifested at first; but the news being confirmed on all hands, there
arose a great and universal desire to behold the new poet. The reign of
fame commenced soon after Clare's return from London, when, true to his
resolution, he had taken to his old labours in the fields. About the
second or third morning after resuming work, there came a message from
his father, requesting him to return home in all haste, in order to see
some gentlemen waiting for him. Clare ran as fast as he could, and found
two elderly men in spectacles, who said they were schoolmasters, had come
from Peterborough, and wished to make his acquaintance. After questioning
him closely for two hours, upon all matters, and at the end subjecting
him to a rigid cross-examination, they went away, promising to call
again. Clare had lost part of a day's work; however, he did not mind it
much, for he was somewhat flattered by the visit. The day passed, and the
next morning; but on the following afternoon, he was again called away
from his labours. This time, there were three aged ladies from Market
Deeping, who said that they had bought a copy of his poems between them,
and could not rest till they had seen him face to face. One of the ladies
was somewhat deaf, and Clare had to answer all questions twice; first by
speaking to two of his visitors in the ordinary key, and then shouting it
into the ear of the third old dame. After detaining him for an hour, the
elderly individuals said they did not know their way back, and nothing
remained but to show them the road for a couple of miles. It was getting
late, and Clare, therefore, instead of going to his work again; went into
the public-house. Fame threatened to be dangerous.

The tide set in with full force before another week was over. Not a day
passed without Clare being called away from his work in the fields, to
speak to people he had never seen in his life; people of all ranks and
conditions, farmers, clergymen, horsedealers, dissenting ministers,
butchers, schoolmasters, commercial travellers, and half-pay officers.
One morning, the inmates of a whole boarding-school, located at Stamford,
visited the unhappy poet, and, a shower coming on, the fluttering damsels
with their grave monitors crowded every room in the little hut,
preventing the baby from sleeping, and Mrs. Clare from doing her weekly
washing. Most of the visitors were polite; some, however, were sarcastic,
and a few rude. After having inspected Clare, his person, house, wife and
child, father and mother, they wanted further information concerning his
daily habits, mode of eating and drinking, quantity of food consumed, and
other particulars, and not getting the wished-for replies to all their
questions, they told him to his face that he was an ill-bred clown. But
there was another class of visitors still more dangerous to the peace of
Clare and his little household. Young and middle-aged men came over from
Stamford, from Peterborough, and sometimes as far as from London,
inviting the poet to conversation and 'a glass' at the tavern, and
keeping him at their carousals for hours and whole days. Already too much
inclined by nature and early bad example to habits of intemperance, the
good resolutions of Clare fairly gave way under this new temptation. The
persons who invited him to the alehouse were among the most intelligent
of his visitors; they talked freely and pleasantly about subjects
interesting to the poet, and often made their conversation still more
attractive by music and song. To resist the incitement of flying the dull
labours of the fields in favour of such company, required more moral
strength than Clare possessed, or was able to command. Early training he
had none; and even now there was not a soul near to teach and warn him of
the danger. So the unhappy poet kept gliding down the fatal abyss.

Clare's visits to Stamford were not quite so frequent after his return
from London as before, although he made it a point to call upon Mr.
Gilchrist and Mr. Drury at least once a week. On one of these occasions
he made the acquaintance of a very eccentric elderly gentleman, who, cold
at first and almost offensive in speech, subsequently proved himself a
warm friend. This was Dr. Bell, a retired army surgeon, who had long
resided near Stamford, and was on good terms with many of the gentlemen
of the neighbourhood. While serving in His Majesty's forces abroad, Dr.
Bell became the intimate friend of a versatile colleague, Dr. Wolcot,
subsequently known as Peter Pindar, who inspired him with a taste for
literature, to which he devoted himself with a real passion after his
retirement from the army. Though not a writer himself, he brought out
several books, among them a very droll one, made up of quotations of the
most curious kind, and entitled, 'The Canister of the Blue Devils, by
Democritus, junior.' Dr. Bell possessed a very large library, and spent a
good part of his time in extracting, both from his books and the
newspapers and periodicals of the day, all available paragraphs
containing quaint sayings and doings, which he stuck upon large pieces of
pasteboard, for the inspection of his friends, and subsequent publication
in some 'canister' shape. John Clare met Peter Pindar's friend at the
house of Mr. Gilchrist; they did not seem to like each other at first
sight, but got on better terms at the second meeting, and after a while
became attached friends. Dr. Bell had an instinctive dislike to poets,
whom he held to be 'moonstruck.' He was not long, however, in discovering
that John Clare was a great deal more than a mere maker of verses and
apostrophiser of love-sick boys and girls. The high and manly spirit of
the poor labourer of Helpston; his yearning after truth, and his constant
endeavour to discover, beneath all the forms and symbols of outward
appearances, the godlike soul of the universe, struck him with something
like wonderment. He first began to look upon Clare as a sort of
phenomenon; but found that the more he studied him, the more
incomprehensible, yet also the more admirable, appeared this great and
lofty spirit, wrapped in the coarse garb of a ploughman and lime-burner.
The odd, tender-hearted doctor soon conceived a passionate affection for
Clare, and set him up as a hero at the shrine of his devotion. He thought
of nothing else but advancing his young friend's welfare, and worked with
great zeal to this effect; to such an extent that his endeavours
frequently overstepped the bounds of prudence. The first thing he did was
to write letters to all the wealthy inhabitants of the neighbouring
district, begging, nay, entreating them to set their name to a
subscription list for a fund, destined to make the poet independent for
the rest of his days. However, the appeal was but faintly responded to,
and most of the persons addressed either declined, or contented
themselves by forwarding small sums. But Dr. Bell was by no means
discouraged at this result. With consummate worldly experience, he
resolved upon attacking his 'patients' from the weakest side, and extract
from their vanity what he could not get from their munificence. He put
himself in communication with Mr. John Taylor, and, by dint of extreme
pressure, succeeded in enlisting him in his project. It was to make an
appeal in favour of John Clare on the part of the conductors of the
'London Magazine;' with delicate hint that any act of liberality would
not be condemned to blush unseen. But this scheme, too, did not realize
the expectations of Dr. Bell, chiefly because Mr. John Taylor, out of
feelings easily comprehended, did not join him in his endeavours with the
heartiness he expected. To make the appeal appear as much in favour of
poetry as of a single poet, Mr. Taylor, in his letters, asked assistance
for Keats as well as for Clare, wording his request in terms more
dignified than persuasive. There was only one response to this petition,
which came from Earl Fitzwilliam, who forwarded £100 to Clare and £50 to
Keats. The liberality of the kind nobleman was scarcely appreciated as it
deserved. One of the friends of Keats, in a loud article in the 'London
Magazine,' of December, 1820, disclaimed his intention to be beholden to
any lord. 'We really do not see,' ran the article, 'what noblemen have to
do with the support of poets, more than other people, while the poor
rates are in existence. In the present state of society, poetry, as well
as agricultural produce, should be left to find its own level.' All this
was very fine; though it looked somewhat inconsequential that the
conductors of the very periodical in which this was printed, should go
a-begging for poets, and that the poets themselves--Keats not
excepted--made no scruple in taking the money. As for poor Clare, he got
the news of Earl Fitzwilliam's noble gift together with the 'London
Magazine' of December, 1820, and felt utterly ashamed to accept the money
with the accompanying reminder of the poor rates being in existence.

John Clare for some time was unaware of all the exertions made by his
friends to secure him an independence, and when he heard the whole of it,
so far from being pleased, reproached them for what they had done. He
told them they were wrong in bringing him forward in the character of a
beggar without his consent, and with some energy declined to live upon
alms as long as he was able to subsist by the work of his hands. Mr.
Taylor was somewhat offended when he got this protest, which seemed to
him like ingratitude; but Dr. Bell remained undisturbed, and secretly
made up his mind to continue his efforts with more energy than ever for
his friend. 'A noble soul, yet altogether unfit for this ignoble world,'
he said to Mr. Gilchrist, issuing his circulars for another philanthropic
campaign. When Clare learnt that new appeals to assist him had been put
forward, he determined to interfere in the matter. Accordingly, he wrote
long letters--very pathetic, though ill-spelt--to Earl Fitzwilliam, Earl
Spencer, General Birch Reynardson, and other gentlemen, telling them that
he had nothing to do with these appeals in his favour, and that he
required no assistance whatever. Clare's innate nobility of character was
strikingly shown in these epistles; nevertheless, they were very
injudicious, and had an effect decidedly contrary to that imagined by the
author. The gentlemen to whom the letters were addressed naturally came
to the conclusion that Clare, scarcely risen from obscurity, was already
quarrelling with those who had helped him to rise, and showed himself
ungrateful as well as ill-bred. Besides, the wording of the letters was
of a kind not to inspire any admiration of the poet. Though verse flowed
as naturally from his pen as music from the throat of the nightingale,
Clare, all his life long, was unable to express his thoughts in prose
composition. There was not wanting in his letters a certain ruggedness
and picturesqueness of style, but it was marred nearly always by
ill-expressed and frequently incoherent eruptions, and disquisitions on
extraneous matters, marking the absence of a regular chain of thought. It
was here that Clare's want of education was most strongly visible.
High-soaring like the lark in his poetical flights, yet unable to trot
along, step by step, on the grammatical turnpike road of life, Clare's
mode of expressing his thoughts, orally or in writing, was not of the
ordinary kind, and required some sort of study to be duly appreciated.
But it could scarcely be expected that gentlemen like Earl Spencer, and
the other exalted personages to whom the poet addressed his pathetic
notes, should enter upon such a study. They saw before them nothing but
large sheets of paper, of coarse texture, full of ill-spelt and
ill-connected sentences, made more obscure by an utter absence of
punctuation; and the not unnatural judgment thereupon was that the man
who wrote such letters was a thoroughly vulgar and uneducated person.
There came doubts into the minds of many, who read these prose
compositions, as to whether the author was really the genius exalted by
the periodicals of the day. Was it not possible that the 'Quarterly
Review' which unduly depreciated poor Keats, had, equally unjustly,
raised John Clare upon an unmerited pedestal of fame? This was the
question asked by some of the former patrons of Clare, notably Earl
Spencer and General Birch Reynardson. The latter spoke to Dr. Bell about
it; but was astonished at the burst of indignation which broke from the
lips of Peter Pindar's friend. 'What! Clare not a poet?' exclaimed the
irate doctor; 'well, if he is not a poet, there never was one in the
world.' General Reynardson, having a great respect, somewhat mingled with
fear, for the author of the 'Canister,' humbly acquiesced in the
decision, promising to put his name down on the Stamford subscription
list. But Dr. Bell was ill at ease nevertheless, and rode over the same
day to Helpston. 'If you ever again write letters to our friends without
showing them to me first, I shall be very angry with you--I shall put you
among the Blue Devils.' So spoke the doctor; and John Clare, having heard
the whole story of the effect of his epistles, promised obedience. He
knew but too well, by this time, that the speech which God had given him
was poetry, not prose.

The stream of visitors which set in at Helpston during the spring of
1820, did not cease till late in the summer of the same year. After the
flood of schoolmasters, of farmers' wives, and of boarding-school misses,
there came a rush of rarer birds of travel, authors and authoresses,
writers of unpublished books, and unappreciated geniuses in general. The
first of the tribe was an individual of the name of Preston, a native of
Cambridge, and author of an immense quantity of poetic, artistic, and
scientific works--none of them printed, owing to ignorance of public and
publishers. He sent Clare formal notice that he would come on a certain
day, and, previous to coming, forwarded a large box full of manuscripts.
There was a full description of his life, with sketch of his rare talents
and accomplishments; also the greater part of his poetical writings,
comprising five epics, three hundred ballads, and countless acrostics,
madrigals, and sonnets. John Clare felt greatly flattered when he got the
large box, and the same evening, after coming home from his work in the
fields, sat down to inspect the manuscripts sent for his perusal.
However, he did not get far, but fell asleep over the first dozen pages
of the first epic. He honestly tried again the second evening, but with
the same result as before; and on the third day relinquished the attempt
in despair, accusing himself for his want of intelligence. Soon after,
Mr. Preston made his appearance. He was a tall, thin man, with red
whiskers and a red nose; dressed in a threadbare black coat, buttoned up
to the chin. Introducing himself with some dignity, he at once fell into
a familiar strain: 'How do you do, John?' and 'Hope you are glad to see a
brother poet.' John was glad, of course; very glad. The tall, thin man
then gave a glance at his large box, and John trembled. To allay the
coming storm, Clare confessed at once that he had not had time to read
through the manuscripts, having been hard at work in the fields. The
great man frowned; yet after a while relaxed his features, telling Clare
that he would give him two days more to read through his poems. At the
end of this term, he intended to ask for a kind of certificate containing
the brother poet's appreciation of his works, together with letters of
introduction to his patrons and publishers. It seemed cruel to refuse the
request of such a dear and determined brother. John Clare, weighing in
his mind how poor and friendless he had been himself but a short while
ago, felt stirred by compassion, and though he knew he could not read the
epics, indited a warm letter of praise and admiration for Mr. Preston.
The latter thereupon took his farewell, and went away, accompanied by his
large box. Some days after, Dr. Bell came down to Helpston, in greater
excitement than ever. 'What do you mean by sending me such a d----
fellow?' he broke forth in a burst of indignation. Poor Clare! he meant
nothing, thought of nothing, and knew nothing; and all that he could do
was in a few simple words to explain the whole story. The doctor quietly
listened to the account of Mr. Preston and his box, and when Clare had
finished, delivered another lecture upon practical wisdom, threatening
his friend, as penalty for disobedience, with the 'Canister of the Blue


Honours and good news came in fast upon Clare in the autumn of 1820. The
poet, at his humble home, was visited, first by Lady Fane, eldest
daughter of the Earl of Westmoreland; secondly, by Viscount Milton,
coming high on horseback, in the midst of red-coated huntsmen; and,
finally, greatest of honours, by the Marquis of Exeter. The villagers
were awe-struck when the mighty lord, in his emblazoned coach, with a
crowd of glittering lackeys around, came up to the cottage of Parker
Clare, the pauper. Mrs. Clare was utterly terrified, for she was standing
at the washing-tub, and the baby was crying. Her greatest pride consisted
in keeping the little cottage neat and tidy; but, as ill-luck would have
it, she was always washing whenever visitors dropped in. The marquis,
with aristocratic tact, saved poor Patty from a fresh humiliation.
Hearing the loud voice of the baby from afar, his lordship despatched one
of his footmen to inquire whether Clare was at home. The man in plush
carefully advanced to the cottage door, and holding a silk handkerchief
before his fine Roman nose, summoned John before him. Old Parker Clare
thereupon hobbled forward, trembling all over, and, in a faint voice,
told the great man that his son was mowing corn, in a field close to
Helpston Heath. Thither the glittering cavalcade proceeded, and John was
soon discovered, in the midst of the other labourers, busy with his
sickle. Though somewhat startled on being addressed by his lordship, he
was secretly pleased that the interview was taking place in the field
instead of in his narrow little hut. It seemed to him that here, among
the sheaves of corn, he himself was somewhat taller and the noble marquis
somewhat smaller than within the four walls of any cottage or palace; and
this feeling encouraged him to speak with less embarrassment to his
illustrious visitor. His lordship said he had heard rumours that a new
volume of poetry was forthcoming, and wanted to know whether it was true.
Clare replied that he was busy writing verses in his spare hours, and
that he intended writing still more after the harvest, and during the
next winter, which would, probably, result in another book with his name
on the title-page. The marquis expressed his satisfaction in hearing this
news, and, after a few kind words, and a hint that he would be glad to
see some specimens, in manuscript, of the new publication, took his
farewell. John Clare was not courtier enough to understand the hint about
the manuscripts in all its bearings. For a moment, the thought flashed
through his mind of asking his lordship to allow the new volume to be
dedicated to him; but the idea was as instantaneously crushed by a
remembrance of the fatal article in the 'London Magazine,' in which it
was said, 'We really do not see what noblemen have to do with the support
of poets more than other people.' The remark had left a deep impression
upon his mind, and he felt its truth more than ever while standing face
to face with a great lord, sickle in hand, among the yellow corn. He
therefore said nothing about the dedication, and the visit of his
lordship remained without result--which was not his lordship's fault.

A few days after this interview with the Marquis of Exeter, Clare went to
Stamford to see Mr. Drury and Mr. Gilchrist. The latter had important
news. He told his friend that he had just received a letter from Mr. John
Taylor, stating that the fund collected for his benefit through the
exertions of Lord Radstock, Dr. Bell, and others, had now reached the sum
of £420 12_s_. and that this capital had been invested, for his benefit,
under trustees, in the 'Navy five per cents.' Mr. Gilchrist, on
communicating this information, expected an outburst of gratitude; but
was surprised to see that Clare received it with a coldness which he
could not understand. Being pressed for an explanation, Clare frankly
stated that he was not pleased with the whole affair, both as being
personally unwilling to receive alms, and, still more, unwilling to
receive them in the aggravated form of helplessness, from 'under
trustees.' Clare's remark quite startled Mr. Gilchrist. He had hitherto
looked upon the poet as a man who, gifted with considerable talent, was
yet little removed from the ordinary hind of the fields; willing not
only, but anxious to live upon charity, and kneeling, in all humility of
heart, before rank and wealth. The high manliness of Clare now struck him
for the first time, and he deeply admired it, though giving no words to
his feelings. He even remonstrated about his friend's coldness in
receiving gifts offered by real lovers and admirers of his genius. The
chord thus struck reverberated freely, and Clare, after warmly shaking
Mr. Gilchrist by the hand, returned home to his wife and parents,
joyfully communicating the great news that he was now the owner of not
less than four hundred and twenty pounds. They fancied it an
inexhaustible store of wealth, and great, accordingly, was the joy within
the little cottage.

The four hundred and twenty pounds invested for the benefit of Clare,
were the gift of twenty donors. Nearly one-half the sum was contributed
by two benefactors, namely, the Earl Fitzwilliam, who gave £100, and
Clare's publishers, who bestowed the like amount upon him. The remaining
two hundred and twenty pounds--accurately, £220 12_s_.--were made up of
sums of five, ten, and twenty pounds, the principal contributors being
the Dukes of Bedford and of Devonshire, who gave twenty pounds each;
Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg--subsequently King Leopold of Belgium--the
Duke of Northumberland, the Earl of Cardigan, Lord John Russell, Sir
Thomas Baring, and six other noblemen, who subscribed ten pounds; and a
few others who gave five pounds each. The sum thus collected was
certainly insignificant, taking into account the extraordinary efforts
made by Lord Radstock and other friends of Clare to procure him a
provision for life. After all the high praise bestowed upon the new poet
by the 'Quarterly Review,' and other critical journals, and the loud
appeals for aid and assistance, it was found that there were only two
patrons of literature in all England who thought him worth a hundred
pounds, and of these two, one was a bookselling firm in Fleet Street. It
really seemed as if the world at large engrossed the dictum of the
'London Magazine,' of the wealthy having no business to assist poets
while the poor rates are in existence. The two hundred and twenty pounds
collected for Clare from eighteen patrons of literature, together with
the two hundred from Earl Fitzwilliam and Messrs. Taylor and Hessey,
served, in the aggregate, to relieve the poet from absolute starvation.
Invested in the funds, the capital gave him nearly twenty pounds a year,
and, with the annuity already granted by the Marquis of Exeter, about
thirty-five. Dr. Bell, by dint of restless exertions, managed to add
another ten pounds to this yearly income. He wrote to Earl Spencer,
temporarily residing at Naples, and obtained the promise of his lordship
to grant Clare ten pounds per annum for life. So that altogether the poet
now was endowed with a regular income of forty-five pounds a year, or
rather more than seventeen shillings a week. It was far above the average
of what he had ever earned before as a labourer, and, properly regulated,
might have been sufficient to make his future career comparatively free
from the cares and anxieties of daily subsistence. Unfortunately, this
was not the case, and the very aid intended to smoothen his road through
life led, almost directly, to his ruin.

The autumn of 1820, together with many gratifying gifts, brought Clare
some little mortification. A few of his friends were somewhat too
zealous: among them, Captain Sherwell, to whom the poet had been
introduced by Lord Radstock, and who lost no opportunity to aid and
assist him. Shortly after his meeting with Clare, Captain Sherwell went
on a visit to Abbotsford, where he indulged in high praises of the 'Poems
of Rural Life and Scenery,' trying hard to gain the sympathies of his
distinguished host in favour of the author. But Sir Walter Scott showed
little inclination to fraternize with the poet of Northamptonshire, and
sternly declined the pressing demand of Captain Sherwell to write a note
of approbation to Clare, or even to put his name to the subscription
fund. The warm-heated captain was the more grieved at this refusal as he
had already, in a letter to Lord Radstock, held out hopes that the 'Great
Unknown' would enter into correspondence with their humble friend; and
seeing the probability of this report reaching Clare, he deeply felt the
disappointment which it would cause. He, therefore, when on the point of
leaving Abbotsford, tried once more to get some token of friendship for
Clare; but all he was able to obtain was a copy of the 'Lady of the
Lake,' together with a present of two guineas. Even the slight favour of
writing his names inside the book, Sir Walter Scott absolutely refused.
Captain Sherwell, greatly humiliated in finding all his endeavours
fruitless, forwarded the two guineas and the 'Lady of the Lake' to
Messrs. Taylor and Hessey, placing a paper in the volume, with the
inscription: 'Walter Scott presents John Clare with the "Lady of the
Lake," with the modest hope that he will read it with attention.' John
Clare, in receiving the book, naturally supposed that this paper was
written by Sir Walter Scott himself. He therefore pasted it on the
fly-leaf, and having to proceed, a few days after, to Burghley Park, to
receive his quarterly stipend from the Marquis of Exeter, he took the
book with him, and showed it to his lordship's secretary. The latter,
deeming it an interesting curiosity, sent the copy to the marquis for
inspection; but was astonished on getting it returned on the instant,
with the message that the autograph was not that of Sir Walter Scott, and
that the matter seemed to be an imposture. John Clare, of course, felt
terribly mortified on hearing this message delivered. He forthwith
applied to Captain Sherwell for an explanation; but, before he could
expect an answer, received a note from this gentleman, written,
evidently, before obtaining the request. The captain's note, notable in
many respects, ran as follows:--

'My dear Clare,--I have forwarded to Mr. Taylor the long-expected "Lady
of the Lake," with an earnest request that it may be sent to you
speedily. If you have not read it already I shall be better pleased. It
contains a sweetness of style, guided by a correctness of language, which
no one of his works surpasses. All my endeavours, all my efforts of
persuasion proved fruitless in obtaining the fulfilment of the anxious
wish I had expressed to him that he would address a few lines to you on
the blank-leaf. Sir Walter Scott seemed bound hand and head. It was not
from any disapprobation of your talent, or taste; but occasioned by the
high path in which he strides in the literary field of the present day.
The paper in the "Lady of the Lake" is placed by me merely as a

This curious letter certainly furnished a confirmation of the fact
discovered by the Marquis of Exeter, that the paper in the 'Lady of the
Lake' was not in Sir Walter Scott's handwriting; but it all the more
increased the deep humiliation felt by John Clare. To ease his
over-burthened heart, he ran to Stamford, and laid both Captain
Sherwell's letter and the book before Mr. Gilchrist. The latter had no
sooner looked through the note, when he burst out laughing. 'Well,' he
exclaimed, 'this is the funniest thing I ever read.' And seeing Clare's
melancholy face, he continued, 'Oh, don't be disheartened, my dear
fellow; all this is stuff and nonsense. I know the time when this great
Scotch baronet did not stride in the high path into which he has now
scrambled, and I will show you something to the effect.' Which saying, he
went to his bookcase, and brought forth an elegantly-bound volume,
together with a silk-tied note. 'This letter,' Mr. Gilchrist exclaimed,
'and this book, called the "Lay of the Last Minstrel," the author of the
"Lady of the Lake" sent me more than ten years ago. He was then simple
Mr. Walter Scott: a very humble man as you will see from his letter, in
which he gives profuse thanks for a little review of his work which I
wrote in a magazine. Therefore, I say again, don't be disheartened, my
dear fellow. Keep up your head, and let us have some more of your verses;
some better ones, if possible. Then, if the world applauds you, and
applauds you again and again, I give you my word, the great baronet in
his high path will be the first to shake hands.' Thus spoke Octavius
Gilchrist, grocer of Stamford, and contributor to the 'Quarterly Review.'
And his speech set John Clare musing for some time to come.

As soon as the harvest was over, Clare ceased working in the fields, and
during the next six months devoted himself to literature. He had arranged
with Messrs. Taylor and Hessey to bring out another volume of poetry in
the spring of 1821, and the preparation of this work, together with much
reading, filled up the whole of his time. Clare now was in possession of
a rather considerable collection of books, chiefly poems; most of them
gifts of friends and admirers, and the rest added by his own purchases.
Small presents of money from strangers he invariably invested in books;
and the two guineas of Sir Walter Scott went directly to buy the works of
Burns, Chatterton's poems, and Southey's 'Life of Nelson.' The assiduous
study of these works necessarily tended to elevate Clare's taste and to
improve his style. All his earlier productions bore more or less the
stamp of crudeness, by no means effaced by the corrections of the editor
in orthography and punctuation; but he now gradually acquired the skill
of handling verse, and shaping it into the desired smoothness of
expression. He began to compose, too, with far greater rapidity than
before. Many a day he completed two, and even three poems, elaborating
the plan, as well as revising them finally. His mode of composition,
likewise, became almost entirely changed at this period. While formerly
his poetical conceptions were usually scribbled on little bits of paper,
and furtively revised at intervals of labour, the correction, amounting
to entire rewriting, often extending over weeks and months, he now got
into the regular habit of finishing all his poems in two sittings,
casting them first, and polishing them the second time. Almost invariably
the first process took place out of doors. Inspiration seldom came to him
in-doors, within the walls of any dwelling; but descended upon his soul
in abundant showers whenever he was roaming through the fields and
meadows, the woods and heathery plains around Helpston. It mattered not
to him whether the earth was basking in sunshine, or deluged with rain;
whether the air was warm and mild, or ice and snow lying on the ground.
At the accustomed hour every morning, he would wander forth, now in one
direction, now in another; only caring to get away from the haunts of
men, into the cherished solitude of nature. Then, when full of rapture
about the wonderful, ever-beautiful world--wonderful and beautiful to him
in all aspects and at all seasons--he would settle down in some quiet
nook or corner, and rapidly shape his imagination into words. There were
some favourite places where he delighted to sit, and where the hallowed
vein of poetry seemed to him to flow more freely than at any others. The
chief of these spots was the hollow of an old oak, on the borders of
Helpston Heath, called Lea Close Oak--now ruthlessly cut down by
'enclosure' progress--where he had formed himself a seat with something
like a table in front. Few human beings ever came near this place, except
now and then some wandering gypsies, the sight of whom was not unpleasing
to the poet. Inside this old oak Clare used to sit in silent meditation,
for many hours together, forgetting everything about him, and unmindful
even of the waning day and the mantle of darkness falling over the earth.
Having prepared his verses in rough outline, within the oak, or in some
other lonely place, he would hurry home without delay. Patty, carefullest
of housewives, although little comprehending the erratic ways of her
lord, had got into the habit of always keeping a slight meal ready for
the hungry poet. He took his broth, or his cup of tea, in silence, and
then crept up to the narrow bedroom in the upper part of the hut. Here
the day's poetical productions were passed in review. Whatever was not
approved, met with immediate destruction; the rest was carefully
corrected and polished, and afterwards copied out into a big book, a sort
of ledger, bought at Stamford fair. Clare had laid down the rule for
himself to make no further corrections or examination whatever. The poems
thus composed were sent to the printer; and though Mr. Taylor, the editor
and publisher of the new work, was anxious to alter and revise some of
them, Clare would not allow any change, save orthographical and
grammatical corrections. There was at this time an impression on Clare's
mind that his verses were the product of intuition; and that the songs
came floating from his lips and pen as music from the throat of birds. So
he held his own orthodoxy more orthodox than that of the schools. In
which view poor John Clare was decidedly wrong, seeing that his music was
not offered gratis like that of the skylark and nightingale, but was
looking out for the pounds, shillings, and pence of a most discerning


The publication of Clare's new volume, arranged for the spring of 1821,
gave rise to some difficulties as the time grew near. It was the
intention of his publishers to bring out the work with some artistic
embellishments, including a portrait of the author and a sketch of his
home; to both which Clare had certain objections, as far as the execution
of the task was concerned. On the other hand, Messrs. Taylor and Hessey
wished to exclude some of Clare's poems, which they did not think quite
as good as the rest, under the pretence that they had already more than
sufficient in hand to make a strong volume; but this again was opposed by
the author, who sent in his ultimatum to print all his verses or none.
The difficulty might have been easily arranged by Mr. Gilchrist, with his
great influence both over Clare and his publishers, but he,
unfortunately, was over head and ears in trouble, and had no time to
attend to the perplexities of others. Mr. Gilchrist, in the summer of
1820, had the misfortune of being dragged into the great quarrel of the
Rev. William Lisle Bowles, the editor of Pope, with Byron, Campbell, and
the 'Quarterly Review;' a battle of the windmills which occupied the
literary world of England for several years. Having despatched the chief
of his big foes, the Rev. Mr. Bowles thought fit to turn round upon Mr.
Gilchrist, whom he held to be the author of a severe article in the
'Quarterly.' This was not the case; nevertheless, Mr. Gilchrist took up
the cudgels, striking out with all the impetus so much in vogue among the
pen-wielding celebrities of the time. From the 'Quarterly'--too
Jupiter-like to be long detained by street rows--the quarrel was
transferred to the pages of the 'London Magazine,' where abundant space
was allowed to both Mr. Gilchrist and the Rev. Mr. Bowles to fight out
their battles. The great question was whether Mr. Bowles had done justice
to the character of Pope, or drawn the figure of his hero in too hard
outlines; and as there was much to be said on either side, the articles
grew longer every month, and the spirit of the combatants became more and
more embittered. The conflagration got general through a flaring
pamphlet, 'by one of the family of the Bowles's,' and for a year or two
the air was filled with squibs, flysheets, articles, and reviews, for and
against Bowles. What with his grocery business at Stamford, and his
multifarious literary engagements, poor Mr. Gilchrist fairly lost his
head in the midst of this thunderstorm, and was unable to think of
anything else but Bowles and Pope, and Pope and Bowles. Clare happening
to visit him one day, when musing on this all-absorbing subject, he tried
to inspire him with a sense of the wrongs he had suffered at the hands of
the Rev. William Lisle Bowles; but meeting with utter apathy, Mr.
Gilchrist turned in disgust from his poetic friend, shocked at his
callousness. As a sort of revenge, on being appealed to for his aid in
settling the difficulty between his friend and Messrs. Taylor and Hessey,
he declared that he had no time to attend to the matter. This was
certainly true, for the din of the great Bowles battles kept raging in
the air and the pages of the 'London Magazine' for nigh another year.

After some lengthened correspondence between Clare and his publishers, it
was arranged that the new work should be brought out in two volumes in
the summer of 1821. This made it possible to give the whole of the poems,
and to finish the engravings with the care desired by the author. In the
meanwhile, to keep Clare before the public, specimens of the forthcoming
volume were published at intervals in Mr. Taylor's periodical, and,
finally, the September number of the 'London Magazine' contained at the
head of the list of 'works preparing for publication,' the announcement
that 'The Village Minstrel, and other Poems, by John Clare, the
Northamptonshire Peasant, with a fine portrait, will be published in a
few days.' The work was published accordingly, in the middle of
September. In outward appearance, the two new volumes offered a great
contrast to Clare's former book. The 'Poems descriptive of Rural Life and
Scenery,' were dressed in more than rustic simplicity; stitched in rough
cardboard and printed on coarse paper, with no artistic adornments
whatever. On the other hand, the 'Village Minstrel' presented itself in
beautiful type, with two fine steel engravings, the first a portrait of
Clare, from the painting by William Hilton, R.A. and the latter a sketch
of his cottage. Notwithstanding all these attractions, the new work met
with but a cold reception. It was accounted for by the publishers in the
fact that its price, 12_s_., was too high compared with the former
volume, which was sold at 5_s_. 6_d_.; but the real cause undoubtedly was
that the time of publication was very unfavourable. It was a period when
the English book-mart was overstocked with poetry and fiction, and when
the world seemed less than ever inclined to devote itself to poetry and
fiction. The year 1821, in fact, formed a notable epoch in the annals of
literature for the number of productions from celebrated authors. Sir
Walter Scott published 'Kenilworth Castle;' Lord Byron issued his tragedy
of 'Marino Faliero;' Southey, his 'Vision of Judgment;' Shelley, his
'Prometheus,' and Wordsworth a new edition of his poems. Besides these
giants in the field of literature, numerous stars of the second and third
magnitude sent forth their light. Charles Lamb, Hazlitt, Barry Cornwall,
Tom Moore, Allan Cunningham, Leigh Hunt, and others, were busy writing
and publishing, and John Keats sent his swan-song from the tombs of the
Eternal City. In the midst of this galaxy of genius and fame, John Clare
stood, in a sense, neglected and forlorn. The very reputation of his
first book was against him, for most of his friends were unreasoning and
uncritical enough to assert that the 'Poems on Rural Life and Scenery,'
were less remarkable as poetic works, than as productions of a very poor
and illiterate man. This statement was echoed far and wide, with the
necessary result of getting 'the Northamptonshire Peasant' looked upon as
but a nine-days' wonder. Quite as fatal to Clare's fame as a poet were
the loud appeals made on his behalf for pecuniary assistance. There was,
and, indeed, is at all times, an instinctive feeling, in the main a just
one, among the public, that genius and talent are self-supporting, and
that he who cannot live by the exercise of his own hand or brain, does
not altogether deserve success. The feeling was even stronger than usual
about this period, because of the repeated announcements of fabulous sums
earned by book-makers, including the notoriously helpless poets. It was
well known that Sir Walter Scott had made a large fortune by his verses
and novels; that Moore got £3,000 for his 'Lalla Rookh,' and Crabbe
£2,000 for his 'Tales of the Hall;' that Southey had no reason to be
dissatisfied with the pecuniary result of his epics and articles, nor Mr.
Millman cause to weep over the 'Fall of Jerusalem.' There were rumours
even, embodied in sly newspaper paragraphs, that Mr. Murray was paying
Lord Byron at the rate of a guinea a word; though this was disputed by
others, who asserted that the remuneration was only five shillings a
syllable. However, all these reports had led the public to the not unjust
conclusion, that booksellers, on the whole, are no bad patrons of
literature, and that the reward of genius might be safely left to them.
As a consequence, from the moment that the begging-box was sent round for
Clare--sent round, too, with a zeal far surpassing discretion--there
arose a latent feeling among readers of books, that 'the Northamptonshire
peasant' was not so much a poet as a talented pauper, able to string a
few rhymes together. The feeling, for a time, was not outspoken; but
nevertheless unmistakeable in its results.

The sale of the 'Village Minstrel and other Poems,' was not large at the
commencement, and the book was scarcely noticed by the literary
periodicals of the day. Though containing verses far surpassing in beauty
anything previously published by Clare, the work passed over the heads of
critics and public alike as unworthy of consideration. It drew passing
notes of praise from a few genuine admirers of poetry; but which resulted
in nothing but a couple of letters to the author, and the present of some
cheap books. From one of these letters, it appears that the ballad
commencing 'I love thee, sweet Mary,' printed in the first volume of the
'Village Minstrel,' was read one evening at the house of a nobleman at
the West End of London, before the assembled guests. All were in raptures
about the sweetness of the softly-flowing stream of verse, and all
inquired eagerly after the author. But there was but one person in the
room who knew anything about him; and his whole knowledge consisted in
the fact, told somewhere by somebody, that Clare was a young 'peasant,'
formerly very poor, but now in a state of affluence through a most
liberal subscription fund, amounting to some twenty thousand pounds,
which had been collected for him and invested in the Funds. The news gave
universal satisfaction to the distinguished company; and though none had
contributed a penny to the wonderful subscription list, every guest felt
an inward pride of living in a land offering the bountiful reward of 'the
Funds' to poetic genius, born in obscurity. After the applause had
subsided, the portrait of Clare, prefixed to the 'Village Minstrel,'
passed round the circle of noble West End visitors. All pronounced the
face to be highly _distingué_, and one young lady enthusiastically
declared that John Clare looked 'like a nobleman in disguise.' In which
saying there was a certain amount of truth.

Notwithstanding many unfavourable circumstances, and the ill-considered
zeal of his patrons, who continued to importune the public with demands
for charitable contributions, the coldness with which Clare's new work
was received at its appearance, was really very extraordinary. The
greatest share of it, in all probability, was due to the period of
publication, which could not well have been more ill-timed. Besides the
natural anxiety of a civilized community to read, in preference to cheap
rural poetry, verses paid for at the rate of 'a guinea a word,' or at the
least 'five shillings a syllable,' there were many notable matters
directing public attention away from village minstrelsy to other things.
The book was brought out in the same month that the 'injured Queen of
England' died; that the populace fought for the honour of participating
in the funeral; and that royal lifeguardsmen killed the loyal people like
rabbits in the streets of London. Political passions soared high, and
public indignation was running still higher in newspapers and pamphlets.
It was not to be expected that, at such a moment of universal excitement,
there should be many people willing to withdraw to rural poetry. Thus
Clare, 'piping low, in shade of lowly grove,' was condemned to pipe
unheard, or very nearly so.

A copy of his 'Village Minstrel' Clare sent to Robert Bloomfield, for
whose poetic genius he felt the most sincere admiration. In
acknowledgment he received, about seven months afterwards, the following
characteristic letter:--

'_Shefford, Beds, May 3d, 1822_.

Neighbour John,--If we were still nearer neighbours I would see you, and
thank you personally for the two volumes of your poems sent me so long
ago. I write with such labour and difficulty that I cannot venture to
praise, or discriminate, like a critic, but must only say that you have
given us great pleasure.

I beg your acceptance of my just published little volume; and, sick and
ill as I continually feel, I can join you heartily in your
exclamation--"What is Life?"

With best regards and wishes,

I am yours sincerely,

Robert Bloomfield.'

The above letter, as will be seen from the date, was written little more
than a year before Bloomfield's death, he living at the time in great
retirement, broken in mind and body. The author of the 'Farmer's Boy,'
like Clare, felt a noble contempt for punctuation and spelling, and in
the original note the word 'vollumn,' twice repeated, stands for
volume--representing, no doubt, the way in which he used to pronounce the

How entirely free John Clare was from the common failing of literary
jealousy, is shown by his admiration of Bloomfield. He not only freely
acknowledged the high standard of Bloomfield's works; but, what was more,
held him up to all his friends as a poet far greater than himself. Untrue
as was this comparison, it strikingly exhibited the innate nobility of
soul of the poor 'Northamptonshire Peasant.' Yet even this humility, the
true sign of genius, was ill-construed by some of Clare's lukewarm
patrons, who reproached him for being a flatterer when he only wanted to
be just.


During the summer of 1821, Clare gave up his agricultural labours almost
entirely. The greater part of the time he spent in roaming through woods
and fields, planning new poems, and correcting those already made. Visits
to Stamford, also, were frequent and of some duration, and he not
unfrequently stayed three or four days together at the house of Mr.
Gilchrist, or of Mr. Drury. The stream of visitors to Helpston had
ceased, to a great extent, and the few that dropped in now and then were
mostly of the better class, or at least not belonging to the
vulgar-curious element. Among the number was Mr. Chauncey Hare Townsend,
a dandyfied poet of some note, particularly gifted in madrigals and
pastorals. He came all the way from London to see Clare, and having taken
a guide from Stamford to Helpston, was utterly amazed, on his arrival, to
find that the cottage, beautifully depicted in the 'Village Minstrel,'
was not visible anywhere. His romantic scheme had been to seek Clare in
his home, which he thought easy with the picture in his pocket; and
having stepped over the flower-clad porch, to rush inside, with
tenderly-dignified air, and drop into the arms of the brother poet.
However, the scheme threatened to be frustrated, for though the village
could easily be surveyed at a glance, such a cottage as that delineated
in the 'Minstrel,' with more regard to the ideal than the real, was
nowhere to be seen. In his perplexity, Mr. Chauncey Hare Townsend
inquired of a passer-by the way to Clare's house. The individual whom he
addressed was a short, thick-set man, and, as Mr. Hare Townsend thought,
decidedly ferocious-looking; he was bespattered with mud all over, and a
thick knotted stick, which he carried in his hands, gave him something of
the air of a highwayman. To the intense surprise of Mr. Chauncey Hare
Townsend, this very vulgar person, when addressed, declared that he
himself was John Clare, and offered to show the way to his house. Of
course, the gentleman from London was too shrewd to be taken in by such a
palpable device for being robbed; so declining the offer with thanks, and
recovering from his fright by inhaling the perfume of his pocket
handkerchief, he retreated on his path, seeking refuge in the 'Blue Bell'
public house. The landlord's little girl was ready to show the way to
Clare's cottage, and did so, leaving the stranger at the door. Mr.
Townsend, now fairly prepared to fall into the arms of the brother poet,
though not liking the look of his residence, cautiously opened the door;
but started back immediately on beholding the highwayman in the middle of
the room, sipping a basin of broth. There seemed a horrible conspiracy
for the destruction of a literary gentleman from London in this
Northamptonshire village. Mrs. Clare, fortunately, intervened at the nick
of time to keep Mr. Townsend from fainting. Patty, always neatly
dressed--save and except on washing days,--approached the visitor; and
her gentle looks re-assured Mr. Chauncey Hare Townsend. He wiped his hot
brow with his scented handkerchief, and, not without emotion, introduced
himself to the owner of the house and the neat little wife. The
conversation which followed was short, and somewhat unsatisfactory on
both sides, and the London poet, in the course of a short half an hour,
quitted the Helpston minstrel, leaving a sonnet, wrapped in a one-pound
note, behind him. Clare frowned when discovering the nature of the
envelope; but he liked the sonnet, and for the sake of it, and on Patty's
petition, consented not to send it back to the giver.

Shortly after this curious visit, there came another, which gave Clare
much more pleasure. Mr. John Taylor, of London, having been on an
excursion to his native place, Retford, in Nottinghamshire, on his return
spent a few days at Stamford, with Mr. Drury; and, while here, could not
help looking-in at the home of his 'Northamptonshire Peasant.' His survey
of Helpston, Mr. Taylor described in the 'London Magazine' of November,
1821, in a letter 'to the Editor,'--that is, to himself. The sketch thus
given furnishes an interesting glimpse of the poet and his quiet home
life at this period. Mr. Taylor's letter, dated Oct. 12, 1821, set out as
follows:--'I have just returned from visiting your friend Clare at
Helpston, and one of the pleasantest days I ever spent, was passed in
wandering with him among the scenes which are the subject of his poems. A
flatter country than the immediate neighbourhood can scarcely be
imagined, but the grounds rise in the distance clothed with woods, and
their gently swelling summits are crowned with village churches; nor can
it be called an uninteresting country, even without the poetic spirit
which now breathes about the names of many of its most prominent objects,
for the ground bears all the traces of having been the residence of some
famous people in early days. "The deep sunk moat, the stony mound," are
visible in places where modern taste would shrink at erecting a temporary
cottage, much less a castellated mansion; fragments of Roman brick are
readily found on ridges which still hint the unrecorded history of a far
distant period, and the Saxon rampart and the Roman camp are in some
places seen mingled together in one common ruin. On the line of a Roman
road, which passes within a few hundred yards of the village of Helpston,
I met Clare, about a mile from home. He was going to receive his
quarter's salary from the steward of the Marquis of Exeter. His wife
Patty, and her sister were with him, and it was the intention of the
party, I learned, to proceed to their father's house at Casterton, there
to meet such of the family as were out in service, on their annual
re-assembling together at Michaelmas. I was very unwilling to disturb
this arrangement, but Clare insisted on remaining with me, and the two
cheerful girls left their companion with a "good bye, John!" which made
the plains echo again.'

Walking along the road, Mr. Taylor, under the guidance of Clare, came to
Lolham Brigs, a place sketched in the second volume of the 'Village
Minstrel,' in a poem entitled 'The last of March.' The curious publisher
and editor, anxious to gather facts for his 'London Magazine,' wanted to
know the origin of the poem, and got a full account of it, which,
accompanied by some lofty criticisms, he communicated to his readers.
'John Clare,' Mr. Taylor reported, 'was walking in this direction on the
last day of March, 1821, when he saw an old acquaintance fishing on the
lee side of the bridge. He went to the nearest place for a bottle of ale,
and they then sat beneath the screen which the parapet afforded, while a
hasty storm passed over, refreshing themselves with the liquor, and
moralizing somewhat in the strain of the poem. I question whether
Wordsworth's pedlar could have spoken more to the purpose. But all these
excitations would, I confess, have spent their artillery in vain against
the woolpack of my imagination; and after well considering the scene, I
could not help looking at my companion with surprise: to me, the triumph
of true genius seemed never more conspicuous, than in the construction of
so interesting a poem out of such common-place materials. With your own
eyes you see nothing but a dull line of ponds, or rather one continued
marsh, over which a succession of arches carries the narrow highway: look
again, with the poem in your mind, and the wand of a necromancer seems to
have been employed in conjuring up a host of beautiful accompaniments,
making the whole waste populous with life, and shedding all around the
rich image of a grand and appropriate sentiment. Imagination has, in my
opinion, done wonders here.'

From Lolham Brigs, the poet and his publisher turned towards Helpston,
passing by 'Langley Bush,' also sung in the 'Village Minstrel.' The Bush
furnished an opportunity for some moralizings on the part of Mr. Taylor,
interesting as giving the impressions of an eye-witness as to Clare's
character and the working of his mind. Says Mr. Taylor:--'The discretion
which makes Clare hesitate to receive as canonical all the accounts he
has heard of the former honours of Langley Bush, is in singular contrast
with the enthusiasm of his poetical faith. As a man, he cannot bear to be
imposed upon,--his good sense revolts at the least attempt to abuse
it;--but as a poet, he surrenders his imagination with most happy ease to
the allusions which crowd upon it from stories of fairies and ghosts. The
effect of this distinction is soon felt in a conversation with him. From
not considering it, many persons express their surprise that Clare should
be so weak on some topics and so wise on others. But a willing indulgence
of what they deem weakness is the evidence of a strong mind. He feels
safe there, and luxuriates in the abandonment of his sober sense for a
time, to be the sport of all the tricks and fantasies that have been
attributed to preternatural agency. Let them address him on other
subjects, and unless they entrench themselves in forms of language to
which he is unaccustomed, or take no pains to understand him according to
the sense rather than the letter of his speech, they will confess, that
to keep fairly on a level with him in the depth and tenour of their
remarks, is an exercise requiring more than common effort. He may not
have read the books which they are familiar with, but let them try him on
such as he has read,--and the number is not few, especially of the modern
poets,--and they will find no reason to undervalue his judgment. His
language, it is true, is provincial, and his choice of words in ordinary
conversation is indifferent, because Clare is an unpretending man, and he
speaks in the idiom of his neighbours, who would ridicule and despise him
for using more or better terms than they are familiar with. But the
philosophic mind will strive to read his thoughts, rather than catch at
the manner of their utterance; and will delight to trace the native
nobleness, strength, and beauty of his conceptions, under the tattered
garb of what may, perhaps, be deemed uncouth and scanty expressions.'

Arrived at Helpston with his companion, Mr. Taylor was somewhat surprised
at the outer aspect of Clare's humble home. Of the inside, he furnished
the following neat sketch:--'On a projecting wall in the inside of the
cottage, which is white-washed, are hung some well engraved portraits, in
gilt frames, with a neat drawing of Helpston Church, and a sketch of
Clare's head which Hilton copied in water colours, from the large
painting, and sent as a present to Clare's father. I think that no act of
kindness ever touched him more than this; and I have remarked, on several
occasions, that the thought of what would be his father's feelings on any
fortunate circumstance occurring, has given him more visible
satisfaction, than all the commendations which have been bestowed on his
genius. I believe we must go into low life to know how very much parents
can be beloved by their children. Perhaps it may be that they do more for
them, or that the affection of the child is concentrated on them the
more, from having no other friend on whom it may fall. I saw Clare's
father in the garden: it was a fine day, and his rheumatism allowed him
just to move about, but with the aid of two sticks, he could scarcely
drag his feet along; he can neither kneel nor stoop. The father, though
so infirm, is only fifty-six years of age; the mother is about seven
years older. While I was talking to the old man, Clare had prepared some
refreshment within, and with the appetite of a thresher we went to our
luncheon of bread and cheese, and capital beer from the Bell. In the
midst of our operations, his little girl awoke: a fine lively pretty
creature, with a forehead like her father's, of ample promise. She
tottered along the floor, and her father looked after her with the
fondest affection, and with a careful twitch of his eyebrow when she
seemed in danger. Our meal ended, Clare opened an old oak bookcase, and
showed me his library. It contains a very good collection of modern
poems, chiefly presents made him since the publication of his first
volume; among them the works of Burns, Cowper, Wordsworth, Coleridge,
Keats, Crabbe, and other poets. To see so many books handsomely bound,
and "flash'd about with golden letters," as he describes it, in so poor a
place as Clare's cottage, gave it almost a romantic air, for, except in
cleanliness, it is no whit superior to the habitations of the poorest of
the peasantry. The hearth has no fire-place on it, which to one
accustomed to coal fires looked comfortless, but Clare found it

The idea of a man being happy without a regular fire-place evidently
staggered Mr. John Taylor. However, he recovered from his surprise, and
having sent his servant--a stately domestic from town, introduced as 'my
man'--in front, to prepare the way, the great publisher of Fleet Street
solemnly took farewell from his poet, accompanied a proper distance along
the road. This duty fulfilled, Clare buttoned up his smock-frock, and
trotted away in great haste to meet Patty, and 'such of the family as
were out on service.' Very likely, in the company of these 'cheerful
girls,' John, for the rest of the evening, felt a great deal more at ease
than in the presence of the learned and inquisitive gentleman, his editor
and publisher.


Before Mr. Taylor left Helpston, he gave his client an invitation to come
up to London, and spend a few weeks at his house. Perhaps the offer was
meant only as a polite phrase, or a 'general invitation;' however, Clare,
unaquainted with the ways of good society, took it to be a special
summons, and, after due reflection, made up his mind to visit the great
metropolis once more. He fixed the journey, to him a great undertaking,
for the spring of 1822, and, remembering former miseries, decided upon
going this time in a new suit of clothes, expressly ordered at Stamford.
The winter of 1821-2 Clare spent at home, in comparative idleness.
Visitors continued to drop in from various places, and the little cottage
being too small to entertain them, he got into the regular habit of
meeting them at the 'Blue Bell.' The custom, originating in this way,
became a fatal one before long. Clare began to look upon the public house
as his second home, and the corner seat near the fire-place as one
specially appropriated to him, and which he ought to fill every evening.
Fortunately, he was not enabled to indulge the habit to its utmost
extent. Frequent excursions to Stamford, and sometimes to Peterborough,
where he found a few good friends, drew him away from the 'Blue
Bell,'--though sometimes to places where ale and spirits flowed as
rapidly and were consumed with as much relish as at the little inn at
Helpston. It was altogether a fatal period of excitement, threatening to
the future of the warm-hearted and but too susceptible poet.

The winter thus passed, and Clare got ready in the spring to start for
London. He had hoped to travel, as before, in the company of Octavius
Gilchrist; but found, at the last moment, that this was impossible. Poor
Mr. Gilchrist was lying ill at his house at Stamford, the dreadful battle
with the Rev. Mr. Bowles and all the Bowles family having thrown him on a
bed of sickness. Unaccustomed, like his more hardy brethren of the
metropolitan press, to fight with the windmills of periodical literature,
and to throw fire from his nostrils without burning himself, he had taken
the whole Bowles campaign too much to heart, and was bleeding from the
strokes which he had given as much as the wounds he had received. His
mind was deeply impressed with the notion, that he had suffered defeat on
some, if not on many points, and there being no stout-hearted literary
lion within reach of his grocery store, to cheer his spirits and console
him in his affliction, he began to feel sick and weary. All entreaties of
his friends to come to London he absolutely refused, and there remained
nothing for Clare but to set out alone. The due preparations having been
made, he went to Stamford, one fine morning, in the month of May, mounted
the outside of the coach, and was whirled away, through Northamptonshire,
Huntingdon, and Beds, to the metropolis. Discharged, once more, at the
'George and Blue Boar,' Holborn, he was bold enough to steer, unaided,
through the intricate thoroughfares of London, and reached the haven in
Fleet Street without accident. Mr. John Taylor looked somewhat surprised
on beholding his poet, carrying a big stick in one hand, and in the other
a large bundle tied in a coloured pocket handkerchief, with a pair of
hob-nailed boots sticking out on each side. However, a gentleman born and
bred, he smiled pleasantly, helped to unpack Clare's bundle, and made him
welcome to his house. Supper and wine contributed to break the ice, and
Mr. John Taylor discovered, for the first time, that his guest from the
country was a very pleasant companion.

The busy bookseller of Fleet Street had no time to play the cicerone;
therefore, on the morning after Clare's arrival, he delivered him
formally over to Mr. Thomas Hood, subeditor of the 'London Magazine.' But
Mr. Hood, too--just rising into fame, thanks to 'Elia' and other
friends--thought he had no time to spare, and left him to Tom Benyon, the
much-respected head-porter of the firm of Taylor and Hessey. When Thomas
Hood came to know John Clare a little better, he paid more attention to
his charge; but this did not happen till at the end of two or three
weeks. Meanwhile Clare amused himself as best he could, guided wherever
he wished to go by the faithful Tom. One of his first visits was to Mrs.
Emmerson, who received him in the most affectionate manner, and invited
him to dine daily at her house. The invitation was freely accepted, and
Clare for some time spent his afternoon and the early part of the evening
regularly at the lady's house at Stratford Place, Oxford Street. Clare
here met again his old friend and patron, Lord Radstock, besides a goodly
number of the literary and artistic celebrities of the day. He found few
friends, or men he liked, among the authors; but more among the painters
into whose company he was thrown. With some of them he struck an intimate
acquaintance, particularly with Mr. Rippingille, an artist of some note
in his day. The latter was very fond of long rambles through London, and
very fond of pale ale, too; and Clare sharing both these likings, the two
were constantly together. Many an evening, after leaving Mrs. Emmerson's
house--which happened, nearly always, immediately after dinner--the
artist and poet set out together on a journey of exploration, visiting
unknown parts of the metropolis, the haunts of thieves and vagabonds.
When getting tired of this amusement, they directed their researches into
other quarters, inspecting all the small theatres, exhibitions, and
concert rooms, down to the very lowest. The progress of this movement was
interrupted by an unexpected event. One evening, when visiting the
Regency Theatre, in Tottenham Court Road, both were fascinated by the
charms of a beautiful young actress, a native of France, figuring in the
play-bills as Mademoiselle Dalia. Clare's susceptible heart took fire at
once; and friend Rippingille was not behind in the sudden burst of his
affections. They both vowed eternal love to the fair actress, and, as a
commencement, Rippingille drew her portrait, after the dictate of his
fancy, while Clare added to it a passionate effusion in verse. The
artistic-poetical gift was duly despatched to Mademoiselle Dalia, but
elicited no reply. Night after night, poet and painter took their seat
within the temple of the muses in Tottenham Court Road; but night after
night they waited in vain for a glance from the beautiful eyes of
Mademoiselle Dalia, although they had taken care to inform her that they
were sitting, arm in arm, in front of the pit. The neglect of
Mademoiselle preyed upon their minds; they pined away, the two friends,
and drank more pale ale than ever.

Clare's excursions with his friend kept him generally till after midnight
from his residence, which was a great source of annoyance to the
methodical bookseller of Fleet Street. Mr. Thomas Hood thereupon got
instructions to tell Clare that early hours would be more acceptable to
his host; which instructions were communicated by commission, in due
business course, through the faithful Tom, the head-porter. Clare felt
offended, and informed Mrs. Emmerson of what had happened; making a full
confession of his sorrows, even those concerning the too beautiful
Mademoiselle Dalia. Mrs. Emmerson deeply sympathised with her poetical
friend, telling him at the same time that he would be welcome to stay at
her house if he liked. The offer was accepted, and Clare marched back
straightway to Fleet Street, gathered his property, including the boots,
within the coloured pocket-handkerchief, and came back in triumph to
Stratford Place. That same evening, thinking himself more at liberty in
his new quarters, he undertook a somewhat longer excursion with Mr.
Rippingille. After staying punctually through the performance in the
Tottenham Court Road Theatre, sighing over the enchanting looks of
Mademoiselle, the friends adjourned to a neighbouring public-house, and
from thence to a tavern known as Offley's, famous for its Burton ale. The
ale was unusually good this evening, and the company too was unusually
good, which combined attraction made the friends remain in their place
till long after their wonted time. Talking about poetry and high art, and
talking still more about Mademoiselle Dalia and her angelic charms, the
hours slipped away like minutes, and the first rosy clouds of a bright
June morning began to appear in the east before they were able to quit
Offley's hospitable roof. Shaking hands once more at the door,
Rippingille took his way, with somewhat faltering step, to his lodgings
in Oxford Street; while Clare, rather more steady in his gait, went
straight to Mrs. Emmerson's residence. He discovered Stratford Place with
the help of a sympathetic watchman; but was unable to get an entrance
into his temporary home. Mrs. Emmerson, after waiting for her guest till
towards the dawn of day, had gone to bed, thinking that he might have
taken his way back to his old quarters in Meet Street. The combined
efforts of Clare and the friendly watchman having proved fruitless to get
into the house, nothing remained but to seek some other shelter. But
there were no places open anywhere, and the poet, beginning to feel very
tired, resolved to take the advice of his companion, and creep into the
inside of a hackney coach, drawn up in a yard. The kind watchman
carefully shut the door, and Clare, finding the place uncommonly snug and
comfortable, fell asleep immediately.

Sweet dreams soon filled the mind of the poet. There dame visions of
green fields decked with flowers; of large banqueting rooms thronged with
beautiful ladies; and of theatres crowded by joyous multitudes; and right
in the midst of all these apparitions stood the enchanting fairy of
Tottenham Court Road. She approached him; she pierced his heart with a
smile of her dark eyes; at last she kissed him. The touch of her lips was
like an electric shock, and he sprang to his feet. But he could not
stand; something was moving under him. He rubbed his eyes; rubbed them
again and again; and at last discovered that he was inside a square box,
drawn along by two horses. Gradually the events of the past day and night
arose from out the mist of his dreams and fancies, and he began to be
conscious that he was sitting in the identical hackney coach into which
his friend, the watchman, had put him. The difficulty settled as to how
he got in, there came the more perplexing question as to how he should
get out again. The coachman was evidently unaware of the presence of a
poet in his box, and a too sudden revelation of the fact, Clare feared,
might produce the worst consequences. Viewed from the back, he seemed a
grim, ferocious-looking fellow, the terrible driver of the hackney-coach.
He kept whipping his horses continually, and faster and faster the
vehicle jolted along, Clare hiding his face in the cushions, in bitter
anguish of heart. At last the coach stopped in front of a public-house. A
fervent prayer arose in the mind of the traveller that his coachman would
go inside and take something to drink. Part of the prayer was fulfilled,
for the man did take something to drink, though he did not go inside. A
lounger at the gate, with whom he seemed on familiar terms, appeared in a
moment with a glass in his hand, containing a steaming liquid, which the
man with the whip gulped down in an instant, and then prepared to ascend
his seat again. But Clare now began to think that he had travelled far
enough, and, in a desperate leap, jumped out of his coach, and nearly
overturned the astonished driver. The latter, however, had him by the
collar in an instant, crying, 'And who are you?' Clare tried to explain;
introducing himself as author of 'Poems of Rural Life,' and the 'Village
Minstrel,' in two volumes, with engravings. But the hackney man, learning
these facts, frowned more grimly than ever, his mind evidently full of
grave doubts. After short reflection, he carefully examined the inside of
the coach, and giving his victim a good shake, asked him how much money
he had in his possession. Clare, trembling all over, took out his purse,
and found he had ten shillings and a few pence. The terrible coachman
grasped the purse, gave the owner a slap on the back as a receipt, and
with a valedictory 'Go along, you scamp!' dismissed the unhappy poet.
John Clare felt faint and ready to sink to the ground; but fear gave him
courage, and he ran away as fast as he could. It was not long before he
discovered that he was, after all, not far from his dwelling in Stratford
Place. Having obtained entrance, he sank down utterly exhausted in an
arm-chair, to the intense astonishment of Mrs. Emmerson.

When Clare had somewhat recovered himself, the questioning commenced.
Although reluctant to tell his whole story, his vigilant hostess
extracted it piece by piece, and finally broke out into an immoderate fit
of laughter. Clare was surprised, and somewhat offended; but felt too
weak for opposition or remonstrance. Even his desire that the affair
should be kept as secret as possible was met with renewed merriment, the
reply being that, before saying more, he should take some refreshment. A
good luncheon, with liberal supply of sherry, had the effect of bringing
Clare's feelings more in accordance with those of Mrs. Emmerson. He was
himself inclined to laugh at his droll adventure in the hackney coach,
and thought he should be ready almost to shake hands with the terrible
driver. In this vein of good humour, Mrs. Emmerson got ready permission
to tell his curious adventure to whomsoever she liked--even in his
presence at the dinner-table. The stipulation was fulfilled to the
letter. There was a grand party that evening at Mrs. Emmerson's house,
and, towards the end of the entertainment, when all were in good spirits,
the fair hostess told the story of the poet in the hackney coach. She
told it in good dramatic style, embellishing it a little, and heightening
the effect of some of the incidents. But she was not allowed to tell it
uninterruptedly. There broke forth such a storm of laughter on all sides
as seemed to shake the very table, and not a few of the guests appeared
absolutely convulsed with merriment. Clare good-humouredly joined in the
general hilarity, for which he was recompensed by having his health
drunk, with full bumpers, by the whole assembly. After which, in special
honour of Clare's ingenious method of declaring his identity to a hackney
coachman, there came, amidst universal delight, another toast to 'The
Village Minstrel in London.'

At the house of Mrs. Emmerson, Clare stayed about a week, and then
accepted an invitation of the Rev. H. T. Cary, the translator of Dante,
who had met him previously at Mr. Taylor's office. Mr. Gary was living at
Chiswick, in an old ivy-covered mansion, formerly inhabited by Sir James
Thornhill, the painter, and after him by his famous son-in-law, Hogarth.
Clare spent some pleasant days here, his kind host pointing out to him
various memorials connected with the great satirist and moralist--the
window through which Hogarth eloped with old Thornhill's only daughter;
the place where he painted the 'Rake's Progress;' and the spot in the
garden where he buried his faithful dog, with the inscription, 'Life to
the last enjoyed, here Pompey lies.' There were agreeable excursions,
too, from Chiswick to the neighbouring places, particularly to Richmond,
where Clare visited Thompson's monument on the hill, as well as his
tombstone in the old church, which, covered as it was with cobwebs, he
thought much less beautiful than that of Hogarth's dog. It was Clare's
intention to stop at least a week with his kind host at Chiswick, but an
awkward circumstance occasioned his departure at the end of a few days.
The reverend translator of Dante's 'Inferno' introduced his guest in a
careless sort of way to his house, without presenting the various members
of his family, and the consequence was that Clare fell into a grievous
mistake from the beginning. Mr. Cary had several grown-up children, and a
beautiful young wife, looking of the same age as his daughters. In the
round of excitement through which he had gone, and with his head still
full of the charming Mademoiselle Dalia, of Tottenham, Court Road, Clare
thought it incumbent upon him to write verses at the old ivy-covered
mansion, the more so as the owner had emphatically introduced him as
author of 'I love thee, sweet Mary.' So he began by penning delicate
sonnets, dedicated to the lady whom he deemed the fairest of the
daughters of the Rev. Mr. Cary, or, in point of fact, to his wife. Mrs.
Gary, on getting the first poetical epistle, held it to be a declaration
of lore, and, very properly, burnt the paper. But getting a second piece
of poetry, somewhat mystic in expression, she showed it to her husband,
who, being an elderly gentleman with a wig, got very excited over the
matter. He took Clare aside on the instant, telling him, with much
warmth, that it was not the custom at Chiswick to make love to other
men's wives, and that, however much he admired his sonnets, he did not
like his mode of distributing them. Clare was thunderstruck on learning
that he had been addressing Mrs. Gary instead of the fair daughter of the
house, and, for a moment, was almost unable to speak. Recovering himself,
he stammered forth his simple tale, hiding nothing, nor trying to excuse
his conduct. It was impossible to listen and not believe his words. The
Rev. Mr. Gary perceived at once the ridiculous error into which he had
fallen, and shaking Clare's hand in a most affectionate manner, bade him
think no more of the whole affair, and for the future distribute as many
specimens of his poetry as he liked to his wife and daughters. Clare
fully appreciated the kindness which distated this offer; however, he
thought that it was impossible for him to stop any longer at the house.
He insisted upon leaving at once, and Mr. Gary, finding all his
persuasions fruitless, accompanied him back to London. It was Clare's
intention to return to Helpston immediately, but going to the shop of his
publishers in Fleet Street, he heard that Octavius Gilchrist had arrived
the previous day, and wished to see him. He therefore took up his
quarters once more at the house of Mr. Taylor. The great battle with the
Bowles' family and the book-grinding windmills had made poor Mr.
Gilchrist really and seriously ill. The doctors of Stamford shook their
heads, talking of nervous affection, of change of air, and of rest from
the cares of grocery and literature. With every succeeding day, the men
of science got to look more and more mournful, until the patient felt as
if he was going already through the process of being buried. One morning,
thereupon, he took a desperate resolution. Although ordered not to leave
his room on any account, he went to the stage coach, engaged the
box-seat, and bravely rode up to London. Mr. Gilchrist was really fond of
Clare, and had no sooner arrived than he went in search of him. Clare
consented to stay a little longer in town, partly at the house of Mr.
John Taylor, and partly at that of Herr Burkhardt, Mr. Gilchrist's
brother-in-law. The jolly watchmaker in the Strand was overjoyed on
seeing his rural friend again, fancying to get another opportunity to
show the lions of London. But Clare soon proved to him that by this time
he knew more about the big metropolis, its theatres and concert-rooms,
its taverns and alehouses, and even its beggars' and thieves' slums, than
many a native of Cockaigne, and Herr Burkhardt, therefore, was compelled,
much against his wish, to leave him alone. Mr. Rippingille having
meanwhile taken his departure for Bristol, vainly trying to persuade his
friend to follow him thither, Clare was left almost entirely in the
company of Mr. Gilchrist. The latter introduced him to a great many of
his acquaintances; first and foremost to Mr. William Gifford. Clare felt
somewhat abashed when admitted into the presence of the renowned editor
of the 'Quarterly Review,' whose pen had so much contributed to his rise
in the world. Mr. Gifford, who was sitting on a couch, surrounded by an
immense quantity of books and papers, received the poet in a very
friendly manner, making some judicious remarks about the 'Village
Minstrel,' which he declared to be vastly superior to the 'Poems of Rural
Life.' This gave Clare courage, and he freely entered into a lengthened
conversation, in the course of which the editor of the 'Quarterly' took
care to warn him, with much emphasis, to be on his guard against
booksellers and publishers. Leaving Mr. Gifford, Octavius Gilchrist,
somewhat maliciously, took his friend direct to one of the dreaded class
of publishers against which he had just been warned. They went to the
house of Mr. Murray, in Albemarle Street, in front of which stood a
number of brilliant carriages. Mr. Gilchrist and his friend had to wait
some time in an anteroom; but, once admitted, both were received with
great cordiality. Clare was much pleased with the simple, hearty manner
of the great patron of literature; and the pleasure appeared to be
mutual, for Mr. Murray, in his turn, began to converse in a very
unrestrained manner, and, on leaving, bade Clare never to come to London
without seeing him. Quitting the house in Albemarle Street, Clare ran
right against Mr. Gifford, who was coming up the steps. Both apologised,
and both felt somewhat confused concerning the thankless old business of
giving and taking advice.

During the remaining part of his stay in London, Clare was much in
company with Mr. Thomas Hood. The genial sub-editor of the 'London
Magazine' had found out by this time that Mr. Taylor's guest was
something more than a mere spinner of verses and glorifier of daisies and
buttercups, and, having made this discovery, he got anxious to be in
Clare's company. The acquaintance soon grew intimate, and Clare followed
his new friend wherever he chose to take him. First on the list stood the
house of Mr. Charles Lamb, to which they went on a pilgrimage late one
evening. 'Elia' was in splendid good humour; comfortably ensconced in a
large arm-chair, with a huge decanter at his right hand, and a huge
bronze snuff-box, from which he continually helped himself, on his left.
Clare having been formally introduced, Charles Lamb took a whole handful
of snuff, and falling back in his armchair, stuttered out an atrocious
pun concerning rural poets and hackney coaches. Seeing that his guest
looked somewhat displeased, he took him under closer treatment at his
right hand, and with the help of the big decanter, soon put him into
excessive good humour. The conversation now became general, and Clare
thought he had never met with such an agreeable companion as the great
'Elia.' Till late at night, the drinking and talking continued, until at
last Charles Lamb's sister, the motherly Bridget, came into the room,
delivering an eloquent lecture upon the value of sobriety. When Clare
looked serious: 'Do ... do ... don't be offended, my boy,' quoth Charles,
'we all know the virtue of rustic swine-I me ... me ... mean of a rustic
swain!' Which saying, 'Elia' pushed on his decanter. But it was too much
for Clare. 'I must _goo_,' he said. And go he did accordingly.

The return journey to Stamford which Clare and Octavius Gilchrist had
arranged to make together, was made impossible, on the part of the
latter, by his continued illness. In order to find absolute rest,
together with kind attention, Mr. Gilchrist resolved to go on a
lengthened visit to two of his brothers at Richmond, in Surrey. Having
stayed already more than a month in London, Clare now had to think of
returning, which he did after taking solemn farewell from all his old and
new friends. Faithful Tom Benyon, on a sunny morning in June, carried the
poet's well-stocked handkerchief, with the boots, to the 'George and Blue
Boar,' in Holborn, and the streets were just beginning to swarm with
life, when the Stamford coach went rolling through them into the green
fields. Clare was the only outside passenger, besides a stout elderly
gentleman who went as far as Islington. The stout person had seen Clare
somewhere before, and, being extremely pleased to meet a famous poet on
such a fine morning in June, ordered brandy and water at three successive
taverns where the coach stopped for passengers. The effect was such that
Clare went to sleep on his seat, and, having been carefully strapped to
the cushion by the experienced guard, slept all the way to Stamford--last
result of a visit to the great metropolis.


Clare's second excursion to London was productive of many evil
consequences. From the first trip he returned with a renewed love for the
simple life of the country, and a renewed desire to spend his days
peacefully in his humble cottage, earning bread and health by hard labour
in the fields; but from this new visit he came back with wild visions of
glory and fame, a restless, fretful, discontented man. A feeling he had
never before known now got hold of him--the silent dread of poverty. The
month he had stayed in London, sitting down every day at a well-filled
table, moving every day and night among bright and genial men, among
beautiful and intelligent women, had opened to him a new mode of life of
which he had scarcely been conscious before. His vivid imagination
painted it even brighter than it was in reality. He did not see, and
could not see, the petty cares and miseries hidden behind all the
brilliant scenes which met his eyes; and though he discovered the great
truth in course of time, he was not aware as yet that real happiness is
found distributed with tolerable equality among all ranks and classes.
But John Clare was only getting towards thirty, and not yet a
philosopher. Returning to his humble home, he fondly kissed his wife and
little girl, and fondly embraced his aged father and mother; but the
first transport of love gone, he sat down moody and discontented. During
his absence large parcels of books, the presents of old and new friends,
had arrived at Helpston, and, eagerly as he looked over the volumes,
particularly those of poetry, his heart grew sad in thinking that there
was nobody near to share his pleasures with him. While in London he had
become accustomed to constant conversation on poetical and artistic
subjects, his daily routine being to spend his mornings in reading all
the new works within his reach, and during the afternoons and evenings to
discuss the matters treated in these books. It seemed a terrible want to
miss these delights on returning to his narrow home. He felt it, for the
first time, as a personal affliction and source of misery that his wife
was unable to read and write; that his parents were talking of nothing
but their illness and physical sufferings, and that all the inmates of
his home alike had no more sympathy with him and his poetical joys and
sorrows than if they had been inhabitants of another world. It seemed to
him as if he had been banished from the Eden of intellect into a lower
and grosser existence, and every letter and every book he received had
but the effect of making him more sad and fretful. He had not been long
at home when there came a richly-bound volume, inscribed on the
title-page, 'The gift of Admiral Lord Radstock to his dear and excellent
friend, John Clare, August 1st, 1822.' The gift gave him no pleasure,
but, awakening thoughts of the past and the present, only brought tears
into his eyes.

The reaction from this unmanly and morbid state of feeling came in time,
and Clare's pride and native strength of mind got the better of his
sickly yearning after lost pleasures. Nevertheless, one lasting source of
unhappiness remained. He found that his regular income of forty-five
pounds a year, secured to him by his friends and patrons, was quite
insufficient, with his new wants and desires, to cover his expenditure,
and the profits derived from his books being fluctuating and altogether
inconsiderable, he experienced the worst pangs of poverty in the terrible
knowledge of being constantly in debt. To improve his position, he formed
a thousand plans, some practicable and some visionary; but all equally
barren as to the net result. The first and most natural idea that
occurred to him was to write as many verses as possible and to sell them
immediately. In order to effect this, and seeing the very moderate
success of his last published two volumes, he resolved to print his poems
separately, and offer them to readers in this form. Mr. Drury, to whom he
communicated this somewhat singular plan, approved it, suggesting at the
same time to have the poetry set to music. This struck Clare as
exceedingly appropriate, and he set to work at once to produce a liberal
supply of verses. He began with such eagerness as to bring forth no less
than seventy-six poems in less than three weeks; and though physically
and mentally exhausted by this effort, he felt exceedingly joyful and
buoyed up by bright anticipations of the future, when handing the whole
of these manuscripts to Mr. Drury. But hard as was the toil, and prodigal
the waste of mental power, it absolutely came to nothing. Mr. Drury,
having entered into arrangements with a small publisher in Paternoster
Row, despatched the poems to London, and a number of them were set to
music by Mr. Crouch, and issued on picturesque sheets of paper, with
flaming dedications to fashionable singers, and to supposed generous
noblemen, patrons of all the arts. Clare was much surprised on seeing his
verses turn up in this unexpected shape; however, he consoled himself
with the hope, in which he was strongly backed by Mr. Drury, that the
profits on his poetry would be as bounteous as the expenditure of gold
and colours upon the picturesque sheets. But, to his utter dismay, he got
no payment whatever for his verses. All applications to Paternoster Row
proved ineffectual to secure even the return of the verses not printed,
which were found afterwards coming to the surface in albums, reviews, and
periodicals, in wonderful disguises and with new names attached. To crown
the misfortune, Clare received a reproachful letter from Mr. John Taylor,
complaining of his connexion with Mr. Crouch and the flaming dedications,
and intimating that these dealings with small composers and publishers
would damage his reputation, Clare felt utterly dejected at the result of
the whole speculation, although it gained him the valuable experience
that able as he was to write verses, he was utterly unable to convert
them into money and bread.

Having recovered from this great disappointment, Clare resolved upon
another experiment for getting a living, and, provisionally, getting out
of debt. He thought that if he could become the possessor of a small
farm, not so extensive as to require the use of valuable stock and
cattle, but large enough to produce food for his family, with something
to sell at the market-town, he should be able, together with his annuity,
to place himself in a respectable and comparatively independent position.
This was an excellent idea, and had it been realized, might have saved
Clare from despondency and final ruin. Unfortunately, its realization,
though easy at one moment, depended not upon the poet, but upon his
patronizing friends, who proved painfully lukewarm at this momentous
period of his life. It so happened that in the winter of 1822-3, an
opportunity offered itself for acquiring a piece of freehold land of
about seven acres, close to the poet's cottage, known to the people of
Helpston as 'Bachelors' Hall' and already noticed as belonging to two
brothers of the name of Billing. The brothers were somewhat improvident,
leading gay bachelors' lives; and, getting into debt gradually, they were
compelled at last to mortgage their small property to a Jew for the sum
of two hundred pounds. For some years, the interest was duly paid, but
this failing at last, on account of the growing infirmity of the
brothers, the Jew stepped in, threatening to sell the property. This
roused Clare to a desperate effort for raising the necessary sum to pay
off the mortgage, and, by acquiring the small estate, benefit both
himself and his staunch old friends, the brothers Billing. The latter
agreed to let him have 'Bachelors' Hall' with its seven acres, on
condition of discharging the encumbrance, and allowing them a very small
sum for the remaining few years of their lives, which they intended
spending with some relatives in a neighbouring village. The offer was a
very favourable one, and the more so as freehold property was extremely
scarce at Helpston, the ground being, as in most agricultural counties,
the property of a few large landowners. The more Clare thought upon the
subject, the more anxious did he become to enter upon the proposed
arrangement, and, in settling on this little piece of ground, shape his
whole future career into a more fixed direction. But his boundless
anxiety met with no assistance on the part of those who called themselves
his friends. Though it was for the first time in his life that he claimed
help for himself, he, to his immense distress, found all doors resolutely
closed against him.

To get the two hundred pounds required to pay off the mortgage upon
'Bachelors' Hall,' Clare addressed himself first to Lord Radstock, whom
he looked upon as one of his wannest and most sincere friends. What he
asked was not to lend him the money, but to take it from the sum standing
in his name in the funds. To Clare's surprise, Lord Radstock told him
that this could not be done, as the four hundred and twenty pounds were
invested in the name of trustees, who had no power to withdraw any
portion of this amount. Glare looked upon this as a personal humiliation,
fancying that he was treated like a child, or like a man not responsible
for his own actions, and deeming the refusal a new attempt to keep him in
leading strings. For a moment, Clare felt quite angry with his noble
patron, who, he thought, might have easily advanced him the small sum of
money had he so liked. The explanation was that Lord Radstock, like most
other of Clare's patrons, was entirely ignorant of the poet's character,
regarding him in the light of a genial infant, full of intellect, but
without strength of character. What chiefly produced this impression on
his lordship, otherwise decidedly the truest friend of the poet, was that
Clare, notwithstanding repeated advice to that effect, had neglected to
make a good arrangement, or, in fact, any arrangement at all, with his
publishers, so that he stood to them in the position of a helpless
client. Probably, Lord Radstock reasoned that as his friend had shown
himself thus unable to carry on the ordinary affairs of life, he would
not be better qualified to be the manager of a farm, although one of only
seven acres. In consequence, he not only refused to get the two hundred
pounds, but strongly advised Clare to have nothing to do with the
purchase of 'Bachelors' Hall.' The poet saw through the motives which
dictated this advice, and keenly felt the distrust and want of
appreciation of him whom he held to be one of the best of his friends.

Much downcast, however, as Clare was by Lord Radstock's refusal, he did
not give up the struggle for his great object. His next attempt was to
get the required sum of two hundred pounds from his publishers, to whom,
he offered, in return, a sort of mortgage on his writings, for a period
to come. He addressed himself to Mr. John Taylor in a very pathetic
letter, vehement almost in the anxiety manifested to gain the little plot
of land, and thus become an independent man. 'The cottage with land,' he
wrote to Mr. Taylor, in a letter bearing date January 31, 1823, 'is a
beautiful spot of six or seven acres. There are crowds for it if it be
sold; but if I could get hold of the mortgage, it would be mine, and
still doing a kindness to a friend. I should like to alter it into Poet's
Hall, instead of its old name of Bachelor's Hall, which must soon be
extinct if I don't succeed. I'll do this way if you like. I'll sell you
my writings for five years for that sum, which can't be dear.' Fervent
though this appeal was, it left the great publisher in Fleet Street very
cold. Mr. Taylor replied, with some sarcasm, that he could not see what
put the ambition into Clare's head to become a 'landed proprietor.' Very
likely, Mr. Taylor thought it would raise the cost price of the verses,
if they were to be manufactured at a 'Poet's Hall.' Therefore, while
declining to advance the two hundred pounds, he told his friend, in a
long letter, not to be ambitious, but to remain in the state in which God
had placed him. The counsel was seasoned, somewhat unnecessarily, by
quotations from the Bible.

'Bachelors' Hall' did not become 'Poet's Hall,' but went to the Jew.
Clare, seeing all his efforts vain, sunk into a state of low despondency,
followed by a long and serious illness. It was the turning period of the
poet's life. His career, hitherto, had been strange and anomalous. Tossed
about in the surging waves of existence, now in deepest poverty, and now
again amidst wealth and splendour, he was beginning to feel weary and
faint-hearted, doubting whether he should ever be able to reach the haven
of rest and of ease. At the age of thirty now he fancied he had a glimpse
of this blissful haven. He felt, and the feeling was undoubtedly just,
that the possession of a small independent property would secure to him
the much-wanted support in life, not only as furnishing him with
additional means of subsistence, but in raising his mental energies,
dependent hitherto upon the fitful accidents connected with his position
of farm-labourer. His fancy painted to him, in glowing colours, how happy
he should be in his roomy 'Poet's Hall,' standing on his own land, 'a
beautiful spot of six or seven acres,' full of flowers and fruit trees,
with hedges of roses and laurel, and songbirds nestling under the green
leaves. No more necessity, then, to take his visitors to the public-house
for entertainment; no more necessity to hide in hollow trees in the wood,
seeking poetical inspiration; no more necessity to go about, with
downcast look, among the insolent farmers, in that most humiliating of
all pursuits, asking for work. A charm to even the coarsest minds, the
overwhelming consciousness! of being _owner_ of a fraction of the surface
of great mother earth, had countless allurements to the poet. He knew it
would not only raise him in the world, but would make him a better, a
nobler, a wiser man. Yet for all that, and though the haven was so near,
he was not allowed to reach it. With patrons in abundance, there was not
one willing to advance the small sum of two hundred pounds, which, he
said, would make him happy for life; with friends who praised his genius
to the skies, there were none who thought it safe to entrust him with the
means for purchasing independence otherwise than 'under trustees.' The
patrons and friends admired the poet's genius, but they never forgot that
he was a 'Northamptonshire peasant,' the son of a pauper. As such, even
kind Mr. John Taylor thought proper to preach humility, and refer the
'Village Minstrel' to the Bible.

With the failure of all his schemes, the great truth began, to dawn upon
Clare that he was destined, notwithstanding all his friends and patrons,
to remain a farmer's drudge and poetical pauper; destined to plough and
thresh for others, and, in his spare hours, to make pretty songs for
ladies and gentlemen--something better than a clown, and something less
than a lackey in uniform. Clare was meek and accustomed to suffering, yet
for a long time he could not reconcile himself to the thought that this
was part of 'the eternal fitness of things.' So he chafed and fretted
under his new burthen of sorrow, and finding it weigh too heavily upon
his heart, again sought forgetfulness in the wretched refuge open at the
tavern. He drank not much, for he was too poor to do so, at this moment;
but even the small quantity of ale or spirits which he imbibed to drown
his mental anguish acted like poison upon a weak and ailing body, now
more than usually debilitated by insufficient food. In the winter of
1823, Clare found himself almost penniless; yet with inborn loftiness of
mind, he hid the fact from his family, so as not to distress them. His
wife and parents, therefore, lived as well as ever, while he, to save
expenditure, got into the habit of absenting himself at meal-times,
pretending to call upon friends and acquaintances. Instead of doing so,
he went forth into the fields, munching a dry crust of bread, and, when
breaking down under hunger and fatigue, crept to the 'Blue Bell' for a
glass of ale. Such a diet, always fatal, was doubly so after the liberal
style of living to which he had got accustomed in London, and which he
had kept up for some time after, as long as his hope lasted to get
payment for the poems delivered to Mr. Drury, as well as for others
contributed to the 'London Magazine,' When these sources failed, and the
succeeding schemes to acquire 'Bachelors' Hall' broke down one after
another, there was bitter want staring him in the face, to stave off
which he resolved to make an application to one of his first and best
friends, Mr. Gilchrist. It seemed impossible that help, and, what was
almost as precious under the circumstances, good advice, should be
wanting from this quarter.

Mr. Gilchrist had been absent from Stamford for a long time. His illness,
which first seemed slight, and merely due to temporary overwork, had
taken a more serious turn after his journey to London, chiefly in
consequence of a severe cold caught on the outside of the coach. It was
for this reason that he was advised to seek rest and strength at the
house of his brother, living, with some members of his family, at
Richmond. Retired to this new home, it seemed for a while as if he was
getting better; but the old spirit for journalistic controversy stirring
within him, he took pen in hand as soon as he felt sufficient strength,
which brought on a fresh attack of the disease. Hasty and impatient in
all his movements, he now refused to submit any longer to the treatment
prescribed by his medical advisers. He fancied that absolute quiet did
him more harm than good, by weakening his energy of mind, and, expressing
this to his friends, he, notwithstanding their earnest opposition, left
Richmond at the beginning of 1823. It was a severe winter; all the
streams and rivers being thickly frozen, and the roads covered many feet
deep with snow. Under these circumstances, a journey from Surrey into
Lincolnshire was no easy undertaking, particularly to an invalid; and
when Mr. Gilchrist arrived at his own home, he found that his illness was
so much aggravated that he was scarcely able to move. John Clare, on the
first news of his friend's arrival, hurried up to Stamford. He had long
wished to see him and to speak to him, under the impression that if he
could have had his advice, his own circumstances would have taken a very
different turn. At present, it was his intention to lay before Mr.
Gilchrist a clear statement of his affairs, entreating him to act as a
guide in his difficulties, and, as a beginning, to assist him with a
small loan, so as to enable him to pay off the most pressing of his
debts, and purchase a few necessaries for his family. Clare had been ill
for some weeks when, setting out for Stafford; however, he forced himself
from his bed of sickness, and slowly crept along the frozen snow-covered
road. He reached at length the well-known shop in the High Street; but
was surprised, on coming face to face with Mr. Gilchrist to see that he
was far worse than himself. Mr. Gilchrist received Clare with a smile,
yet was scarcely able to speak, lying on his couch in utter prostration,
physical and mental. Clare felt moved by infinite compassion, and,
forgetting all his own sufferings, asked what he could do for his friend.
The patient again smiled; he would soon be better, he said; there was
nothing the matter with him, except a slight rheumatic fever and a little
overwork. Mr. Gilchrist then inquired after his friend's circumstances,
and got replies similar to his own. Clare, too, would have it that he was
quite well, and, on being questioned, accounted for his hollow cheeks and
sunken eyes as due to previous attacks of his old enemy, the ague. Of his
embarrassed circumstances he said nothing; no more than of all the other
matters he had come to discuss, nobly thinking that such a discussion
might do harm to his friend in his feeble state. He even refused some
slight refreshment, in order not to give trouble; but, seeing the waning
day, took his farewell, dragging himself with great difficulty back to
his cottage, along the dark road covered with snow and ice. It was late
when he arrived, his weakness partly owing to want of nourishment, having
compelled him to sit down, every few minutes, on the lonely high road.
Entering his hut, his mind seemed wandering; he muttered incoherent
words, and crept to his bed, from which he did not arise for months to

There was little intercommunication at this time between Stamford,
Helpston, and London. Mr. Gilchrist's literary friends scarcely knew of
the serious turn his illness had taken, and as for Clare, his name was
scarcely ever mentioned. Entirely ignorant of the great art of 'keeping
before the public,' he had no sooner become known than he fell again into
oblivion, from which even his warmest admirers did little to rescue him.
Clare's correspondence with his publishers, too, had lapsed after his
unsuccessful attempt to get the small sum of money for the purchase of a
freehold; and they were entirely ignorant that he was lying ill in his
little hut, and almost dying. For a while, Clare's indisposition seemed
quite as serious, if not more so, than that of Mr. Gilchrist. However,
under the tender care of his wife and his aged mother, the poet rallied
gradually, and in the month of April he was able once more to walk to
Stamford, and inquire after the health of his friend. He was not
admitted, this time; but the servant, in reply to his inquiries, told him
that Mr. Gilchrist was getting better. Clare was still extremely weak,
and could not come back till at the end of a month, when he had the
satisfaction of seeing his friend, and hearing from his own lips that he
was gradually advancing to recovery. Thus reassured, and not willing to
intrude himself more than necessary, he remained quietly for another
month, and, feeling now almost restored to health, walked with brisk step
to Stamford. It was a glorious summer morning--date, the last day of
June, 1823. The green fields glistened in the sunshine, and the
nightingale sang in Burghley Park; more beautiful, the poet fancied, than
he had ever known her sing before. He felt full of joy, in the glow of
newly-recovered health, and, while walking along the sunny path, kept
revelling in golden day-dreams, in none of which the image of his dear
friend Gilchrist was wanting. Thus he got into the old town of Stamford,
and before the familiar shop, which, to his surprise, was closed. He
knocked, and a female servant opened the door. The girl stared Clare full
in the face, and slowly said: 'Mr. Gilchrist died an hour ago.'


The parish doctor of Helpston was called in to see John Clare on the
first day of July. Mrs. Clare gave it as her opinion that her husband had
worked too hard, by writing verses day and night, and thus had brought on
the mysterious illness which confined him to bed. Clare himself could not
explain his exact condition; he only intimated that it was a sort of
stupor, which came over him at intervals, like an apoplectic fit. The
doctor shook his head, looked very learned, and promised to send
something to cure the disease. He was as good as his word; for a
messenger brought the same evening two large bottles, containing a
greyish fluid, with directions to take portions of it at stated times.
Clare obeyed the order, but did not get better; on the contrary, his fits
of stupor became more frequent and his lassitude more overwhelming. He
was lying on his bed, almost unconscious, on the fifth day of July, when
a visitor entered the cottage. It was Mr. Taylor, of Fleet Street, who
had been to the funeral of his friend Gilchrist, and, returning, passed
through Helpston. He was surprised and alarmed at the sight which met his
eyes, and set to work immediately to render all the assistance in his
power. Messengers were despatched in various directions for medical aid,
and Mr. Taylor himself watched at the bedside till they returned. The
doctors came, but only repeated what the parish surgeon had said already;
they proposed to send some medicine at once, and afterwards to 'observe
the symptoms.' It required no great penetration to see that these
medicine-men knew less of Clare's disease than the patient himself; and
Mr. Taylor, having come to this conclusion, looked forth in other
directions. He told Mrs. Clare that he was unable to stay longer, having
to return to London the same day; but that he would take the road by
Peterborough, and send the best medical aid from that place. The
Peterborough physician arrived late at night, when Clare felt a little
better--having left off taking the greyish concoction--and was able to
explain the particulars of his illness. The new doctor ordered absolute
rest, plenty of fresh air, and some nourishing food; all which being
provided, a visible improvement began to manifest itself. There was some
difficulty in getting the second part of the prescription, the fresh air,
Clare's narrow bedroom having no ventilation whatever. The energetic
doctor, however, got over the obstacle by the simple expedient of
knocking a brick out of the top of the wall, which furnished a channel
sufficiently large to let in the warm summer air. Perhaps this thrown out
brick, as much as anything else, saved the life of the poet.

Under the treatment of the Peterborough physician, Clare's health
improved greatly, though it was a long time before he was able to leave
the room. His brain was haunted by fantastic visions, reflecting all the
scenes of his past life, and mingling together his doings in the
lime-kiln of Casterton, the fields of Helpston, and the gilded saloons of
London. In the midst of this phantom existence there came the report that
Robert Bloomfield had breathed his last, in utter poverty and misery,
broken down alike by physical want and mental suffering. The news made a
deep impression upon Clare. He had never personally met the author of the
'Farmer's Boy,' yet looked upon him almost as a brother, feeling that his
career was not unlike his own in its chief incidents. A shudder came over
him now in reflecting that his end might be as terribly sad as that of
the brother poet. Full of this thought, he composed, on his bed of
sickness, a sonnet, dedicated 'to the memory of Bloomfield,' expressing
his conviction that "the tide of fashion is a stream too strong for
pastoral brooks that gently flow and sing." After this sudden effort,
there came a relapse, not without danger for some time. The medical
gentleman, while carefully watching all the symptoms of the disease, now
began to fear that he would be unable to master it, and wrote to this
effect to Mr. Taylor, entreating him to use his influence to get Clare
removed to some hospital, or other house where he might have the
necessary attention. In the letter it was stated without disguise that
the illness of the poet was mainly the effect of poverty. His dwelling,
the Peterborough physician argued, was altogether unfit for a human
habitation, being dark, damp, and ill ventilated, with, a space so
circumscribed as to be worse than a prison for the two families. He
insisted, therefore, that to make recovery possible a better home should
be found for Clare himself, and, if possible, for his wife and child,
pending the removal of his aged and suffering parents. A copy of this
note the writer sent to Lord Radstock, knowing that his lordship had
taken, from the beginning, a deep interest in Clare's welfare.

The appeal, energetic and well-meant as it was, had no result whatever.
Mr. Taylor even thought it presumptuous on the part of the provincial
doctor to give his counsel as well as his medicine, and wrote to Clare an
order to dispense with his attendance, and come up to London to be cured.
This was impossible, under the circumstances, Clare being so weak as to
be unable to leave the room. Fortunately, the good Samaritan of
Peterborough did not leave him at this critical position, but seeing that
neither Mr. Taylor nor Lord Radstock felt inclined to do anything for his
charge, determined to undertake the task himself. Soliciting help from
some wealthy persons in the neighbourhood, he set to to collect a small
sum of money, by means of which he procured a regular supply of
strengthening food for his patient. The winter having set in now, Clare's
cottage also was put under repair, with such improvements as had become
necessary. The help was timely, for Mrs. Clare, too, was now an invalid,
having given birth to a son, baptized Frederick, on the 11th January,
1824. There was a real affection for the poor poet in the heart of the
Peterborough doctor, which moved him to incessant labour for his client,
and had the effect of instilling somewhat of the same feeling into others
with whom he came into contact. Lady Milton visited the poet, and sent
welcome presents of game and fowl; and after her came the wife of the
Bishop of Peterborough, her hands full of warm clothing and victuals. The
latter lady, previously acquainted with Clare's writings, was so eager in
her desire to afford assistance as to induce her husband to drive over
into the obscure village, and give Clare his episcopal blessing, together
with half a dozen bottles of good port wine. The right reverend Dr.
Marsh, obedient to the commands of his active wife, delivered the wine,
but reported that he did not like Helpston, nor the poet of Helpston--the
village not being sufficiently clean, nor the poet sufficiently humble.
His lordship's opinion, however, nowise influenced Mrs. Marsh into
discontinuing her visits.

The assistance and sympathy thus shown to Clare had a visible effect upon
his health. Gradually recovering, he was strong enough when the first
blossoms of spring came peeping in at the window, to issue forth once
more into the open air. To him the first walk was such boundless
enjoyment as to be almost overpowering in its intensity. Never seemed the
green fields more glorious, the song of the birds more enchanting, and
the whole wide world more full of ecstatic bliss. In vain the good
Peterborough doctor entreated him not to risk his yet imperfect health in
long excursions, but to keep as quiet as possible, and only venture upon
short walks during the middle of the day. Clare promised to attend to the
injunction, and honestly meant to obey it, yet was lured into
forgetfulness whenever the birds sat piping in the trees, and the sun's
rays came streaming into his narrow hut. They witched him away almost
against his own will, making him creep forth into the fields and woods,
heavily leaning on his stick. One day he stayed out longer than usual,
and, the doctor arriving, a search was made after him. It was fruitless
for some time; at last, however, he was found in his favourite hollow
oak, sitting as in a trance, his face illumined by the setting sun.
Enraptured joy seemed to pervade his whole being; unutterable bliss to
fill his mind. The doctor looked serious, and made an attempt to upbraid
his patient, but which was entirely unsuccessful. 'If you loved the sun
and flowers as I do,' quietly said Clare, 'you would not blame me.' The
words somewhat startled the Peterborough man of science.

Sunshine and the hollow oak, nevertheless, if conducive to his worship of
nature, were not beneficial to Clare's health. Again and again the
lengthened excursions brought on a relapse, until at last it seemed as if
his old illness, a compound of ague and other afflictions, would throw
him anew on his bed, perhaps to arise no more. In fear of fatal
consequences, Clare's medical friend now advised him to accept the former
invitation of Mr. Taylor, and to seek benefit both from a change of air
and the consultation of the best physicians of the capital. Clare did not
feel much inclined to go to London, oppressed with the idea that he might
not be really welcome at the house of his publisher, and looked upon as
but an unfortunate alms-seeker. Being pressed, however, to undertake the
journey, he frankly stated his case in a note to Mr. Taylor, and
receiving a fresh invitation, couched in very friendly terms, resolved to
set out on another pilgrimage to the big town. It was the third visit to
London, and as such bereft of many of the startling incidents of former
journeys. The Stamford coach was no more the mysterious vehicle of olden
days, nor the scenery on the road imbued with that charm of novelty so
conspicuous on the first, and partly on the second, trip to town.
Moreover, he felt very weak and melancholy, and his heart was oppressed
by sad thoughts. Even a merry Irishman, a fellow-traveller, could not
induce him to open his lips; and it was not until the coach rolled upon
the pavement of London that he roused himself from his lethargy,
preparing to meet former friends. He found them nearer than he expected,
for at the 'George and Blue Boar,' Holborn, there stood faithful Tom
Benyon, the head-porter, ready to carry any amount of Helpston luggage,
and, if necessary, the owner himself. The latter was unnecessary, though
the poor traveller felt rather giddy when dragging himself along the
crowded streets, grasping his Tom by the arm. Mr. Taylor's house was soon
reached, and being received in the kindest manner, Clare was not long in
recovering from his fatigue and depressed spirits.

At this third visit, Clare remained above two months in London, from the
beginning of May till the middle of July, 1824. Immediately after his
arrival, Mr. Taylor introduced him to Dr. Darling, an eminent Scotch
physician, who, in the kindest manner, consented to give his advice
without any charge whatever. But Dr. Darling did more than merely give
his advice; he attended Clare as if he had been his own son, devoting
every hour that could he spared from his extensive practice to
intercourse with his patient. He first of all ordered that Clare should
be kept absolutely quiet; in cheerful society, if possible, but not
allowed to read too many books, or to discuss abstruse subjects. It might
have been difficult to carry out these orders; but, fortunately, friend
Rippingille, the painter, was drinking pale ale at Bristol for the
season, so that Clare, having nobody to lead him through his favourite
taverns and concert-rooms, and being still afraid to hazard alone into
the whirlpool of London life, was almost compelled to stop at home. For
the first few days the sojourn at Mr. Taylor's house in Fleet Street
appeared to him somewhat dreary, though it was not long before he came to
like it, and at last got into a real enjoyment of his new mode of
existence. He spent the whole day, from early morn till dark, at a window
on the ground floor, overlooking the street. The endless stream of
vehicles and pedestrians which passed before his eyes was to him like a
vast panorama, in the contemplation of which he forgot, for the moment,
even his beloved fields and woods. Of the life of the majority of human
beings, particularly the dwellers in large towns, Clare had as yet but
very vague and indistinct notions, and was surprised, therefore, at many
of the scenes before him. What struck him most was the feverish anxiety
manifested in the countenances of the hurrying crowds, and the restless
tumult of the never-ending wave of human life which kept floating up and
down the narrow street, without interval and without rest. At his former
visits to London he had frequently asked the question what all these
thousands of hurried wanderers were doing; and though only laughed at by
his friends, he now repeated the query. Mr. Taylor was too busy himself
to be able to tell why others were busy, nor was Mr. Hessey, his partner,
sufficiently wise or simple to give a clear answer; and John Clare,
therefore, in the last instance, addressed himself to Tom Benyon. Tom was
a shrewd man, a real Londoner, with not much education, but plenty of
mother-wit. He explained to his friend, in a very clear manner, the
complex organization of the trade of the great city, together with its
result, the universal thirst for wealth, Clare perfectly understood the
short lesson in political economy; nevertheless, he was yet at a loss to
comprehend how there could be full a million of men upon earth willing to
relinquish all the charms of fields, and flowers, and green trees for the
mere sake of making money, useful, he conceived, only for procuring a
certain amount of food and clothing. It was in vain that shrewd Tom, not
a little a philosopher in his own way, explained that the delight
consisted, not in possessing wealth, but in hunting after it. The view
was not appreciated by Clare, who still thought that seven acres of land,
with a cottage, a row of trees, and a few flowers, were worth all the
money-bags of the city. Tom Benyon on his part had a contempt for green
trees, and liked the smell of roasted apples better than that of fresh
ones, so that the interchange of ideas converted none of the disputants.

For full three weeks Clare stuck with his face to the window in Fleet
Street. The hurrying crowds, when once he understood the object of most
of them, ceased to amuse him, but there remained another interest, deeper
than questions of political economy, which preserved its attraction for
him to the end. Clare, passionately fond of every shape of beauty upon
earth, did not get tired of looking at the throng of fair forms which
passed before his eyes in the busy city thoroughfare. He had never seen
so many handsome women under what he conceived so very favourable
circumstances. Deeply imbued with the consciousness of possessing none of
the attractions which render men agreeable in the eyes of women of
superior rank, he always felt a morbid shyness to converse with ladies
into whose company he was thrown, and in many instances was not able even
to look them in the face. This feeling was greatly increased by that
exalted worship which the poet paid, as to all shapes and symbols of
beauty, so to that highest type, the female form. Even to come near a
beautiful woman made him tremble, and the touch of so much as the hem of
her garment sent his blood coursing through his veins. Thus, though he
knew no other enjoyment than the communion with beauty, his very worship
of its splendours kept him away from it. At the receptions of Mrs.
Emmerson, and other entertainments, at which he was present on his former
visits to London, he could never be induced to go into the drawing-room,
where the ladies were awaiting him; or, as he fancied, lying in wait for
him. At the risk of being called rude, he always left the room on these
occasions, as soon as the dinner was over. Only here, at his Fleet Street
window, the poet felt quite at ease in contemplating female beauty. To
see and not to be seen was what his heart enjoyed in full delight, and he
fervently expressed his opinion to Tom Benyon that the only thing that
made the big city endurable, and even money-hunting excusable, was the
presence of all these fair women. Tom felt much gratified at this
declaration, considering any praise of London as a personal flattery.

Dr. Darling's treatment had such a good effect, that at the end of three
weeks the last symptoms of Clare's illness had vanished. He now gave his
patient permission to read, of which Clare availed himself to the fullest
extent, beginning to feel somewhat satiated with the Fleet Street
panorama. The season of June, dull in the book trade, having set in, Mr.
Taylor also had more leisure on his hands, and gave frequent evening
parties, to which he invited many of the literary stars of the day,
particularly those contributing to the lustre of the 'London Magazine.'
Clare was invariably present at these entertainments, though he managed
to hide his person as much as possible, being occupied in watching the
lions at the table, like the fair women in the street, from a convenient
bird's-eye view. The view, altogether, was highly attractive, for the
lions were numerous, and of a more or less superior kind. Among the first
who visited Mr. Taylor's evening parties was Thomas De Quincey. Clare had
read with the deepest interest the 'Confessions of an English
Opium-eater,' which appeared in the 'London Magazine,' of September and
October, 1821; and the picture of the outcast Ann haunted his imagination
whenever walking the streets and meeting with any of her frail sisters.
Mr. De Quincey being announced one day, just when they were sitting down
to dinner, Clare quickly sprang to his feet to behold the extraordinary
man; but was much astonished on seeing a little, dark, boyish figure,
looking like an overgrown child, oddly dressed in a blue coat, with black
necktie, and a small hat in his hand. Clare's astonishment became still
greater when this singular-looking little man began to talk, not, as the
listener innocently expected, of such abstruse subjects as he was wont to
write on in the 'London Magazine,' but in a banter about the most
ludicrous and vulgar things. He kept Mr. Taylor and his friends in a roar
of laughter, until another guest was announced, in the person of Mr.
Charles Lamb. The latter, outwardly friendly to De Quincey, seemed, as
Clare observed, not altogether partial to him, but stuttered forth more
than one witticism which evidently displeased the 'opium-eater.' Further
arrivals, the same evening, continued to enliven the scene. There came
the Rev. Mr. Cary, translator of Dante's 'Inferno,' a tall, thin man,
with a long face and a vacant stare, not much given to talk; Mr. George
Darley, a young Irish poet, afflicted with a stutter worse than that of
Charles Lamb; Baron Field, every inch a country gentleman, constantly
informing his hearers of the fact of being a magistrate in South Wales,
but claiming allegiance to literature as writer of several articles on
and about Wales; and, last on the list, Mr. Allan Cunningham, arriving
late, and stalking into the room, as Clare fancied to himself, 'like one
of Spenser's black knights.' Allan seemed a great favourite of Baron
Field and De Quincey, though not of Charles Lamb, who fixed his targets
upon him as soon as he had opened his lips, with some remarks upon Scotch
poetry. Clare remembered Elia's words: 'I have been trying all my life to
like Scotchmen, and am obliged to desist from the experiment in despair.'

There were more lions at a 'London Magazine' dinner which Mr. Taylor gave
at the end of another week. It was a kind of state reception, and Clare
was put for the occasion in pumps and dress-coat. He would have gladly
kept away from the table, but was not allowed to do so, the occasion
being deemed favourable as an advertisement of the 'Northamptonshire
Peasant.' About three-fourths of the guests were patrons of literature,
titled and untitled, and the remaining visitors were called for the
purpose of being exhibited. Samuel Taylor Coleridge was the chief lion of
the evening. Clare was once more surprised on finding the great
philosopher a heavy, stout, phlegmatic-looking man, instead of the pale
dreamer pictured by his imagination. He was slightly annoyed, too, on
hearing the famous sage talk incessantly, to the exclusion of every one
else, notably of William Hazlitt, who sat close to him, and of Charles
Elton, the translator of the 'Hesiod,' whom Clare had at his right hand,
and whose quiet, sensible conversation he greatly enjoyed. Coleridge
left, after having spoken, with little interruption, for nearly three
hours, and at his departure the talk became general, and, Clare fancied,
much more pleasant. The leader of the conversation was William Reynolds,
whose sparkling wit, keen as a sword, extinguished even that of Charles
Lamb. He attacked everybody in turn, in a good-humoured manner; and by
setting his brother wits against himself and each other, produced endless
fun and amusement. Even William Hazlitt, who at first appeared
low-spirited and ill at ease, began to laugh and talk; and at length
Clare himself was drawn into the whirlpool of conversation. When he began
to speak, in his broad Northamptonshire dialect, there was a sudden
stillness in the room, the whole of the guests feeling startled at the
sound of the strange voice, which seemed to come as from another world.
Though nerved by sundry glasses of wine, Clare was almost terrified at
the sudden quiet around him, his intention having been merely to address
his neighbour, and not the entire assembly. He therefore relapsed at
once, and somewhat abruptly, into silence, and, not long after, with a
nod to his patron at the head of the table, and a quiet 'good bye' to Mr.
Elton, quitted the room. It was an immense feeling of relief when,
creeping upstairs to his little chamber, he was able to divest himself of
his pumps and dress-coat, and march forth, in solid boots and jacket, for
a saunter along the Fleet pavement, reflecting, in the cool of the summer
evening, on all that he had heard and seen, in the shape of lions, poets,
philosophers, wits, booksellers, unfortunate Anns of the Street, and more
unfortunate opium-eaters.

Clare's visit to London was now drawing to a close. Dr. Darling
counselled that he should quit the town, as soon as possible, fearing
that the 'London Magazine' entertainments might undo all the good gained
by his former exertions. However, Clare felt unwilling to leave before
having met his old friend and patron, Admiral Lord Radstock, who was
retained at his country seat by a rather serious illness. He waited, week
after week, but his lordship did not arrive. Instead of the admiral,
there came friend Rippingille, the painter, rushing wildly into Clare's
arms, and declaring that he had left Bristol, and the best pale ale in
the world, solely for the purpose of seeing him. Clare rejoiced; but Dr.
Darling did not. The shrewd Scotch physician insisted upon his patient
leaving London immediately, and it was arranged, finally, that Clare
should start at the end of a week. Friend Rippingille, or 'Rip,' as his
acquaintances used to call him, was instructed privately not to lead
Clare into the old round of taverns and theatres, and, above all, not to
tempt him to an undue indulgence in drink. The promise was made, and was
kept, too; nevertheless, Clare and 'Rip,' while giving up evening visits,
remained companions during the daytime. Clare was introduced by his
friend to Sir Thomas Lawrence, and some other famous artists of the day,
which led to much interchange of compliments, and many promises of
support, but ended, as usual, in nothing. He was likewise taken to Mr.
Deville, a noted professor of the art called phrenology, who felt his
head, carefully measuring all its bumps, and, having learnt Clare's name,
informed him that he possessed all the swellings necessary to make
verses. This so delighted 'Rip,' that he insisted on getting a cast of
his friend's cranium. Clare submitted in meekness of heart; but found the
operation stifling to such a degree, that he ran away in the midst of it,
with the loss of a portion of his skin. For the next few days the poet
wandered in rather lonely mood through the streets of London, and in one
of these excursions became the involuntary spectator of a striking scene,
which he never forgot in his life.

It was on the 12th of July, a hot summer day, that Clare went down the
Strand, towards Charing Cross, intending to have a stroll in the parks.
When near Parliament Street, however, he found the way blocked by an
immense crowd, and on inquiry learnt that a great funeral was coming up
the street. Taking his place among the idlers, he did not know at first
whose funeral it was, and only at the last moment learnt that the body of
Lord Byron was being carried to its last resting-place. A fervent admirer
of Byron, he yet had never heard of his death till this moment, when
standing face to face with his mortal remains. He felt startled and
almost bewildered at the sight, and when the gorgeous procession, with
all its mutes, pages, cloakmen on horseback, and carriers of sable
plumes, had come up, he reverently followed in the rear, amidst a
confused mass of people in carriages and on foot. The slow and solemn
train went up the Haymarket, Coventry Street, Princes Street, and Oxford
Street, passing thence along into Tottenham Court Road. At the corner of
the latter thoroughfare great confusion was created by another funeral
train which came up in an opposite direction. In the tumult that ensued,
many were thrown down, among them the unknown poet, who followed in the
rear of the procession. Clare fell to the ground, and was pushed along by
the crowd; but, fortunately, did not suffer much harm, beyond being
rolled over and over in the mud, and spoiling the only suit of good
clothes of which he was possessed. Mr. Taylor was surprised on seeing his
guest come home in a state which made it almost impossible to recognise
him. Clare smiled sadly, and in a somewhat serious tone told Mr. Taylor
that he thought it was his fate, now as ever, to be a martyr to poetry.

Two days after Byron's funeral, John Clare left London. Previous to
starting, he had a long conversation with Dr. Darling, who had come to
rank among his most intimate friends. The kind-hearted and shrewd Scotch
doctor volunteered some advice, to which Clare listened with great
attention. He told him, in the first instance, that he ought to give up
all expectations of acquiring either fame or wealth as a poet, but that
it would be wisdom on his part to return forthwith to his old occupation
as a farm-labourer, and write verses only during his leisure hours. This
seemed hard to Clare; however, the doctor proceeded to explain the matter
to him in his own prosaic fashion. It was Dr. Darling's opinion that, on
the whole, there existed no real demand for verses among the public at
large, but that only a few exalted minds were able to appreciate and
enjoy true poetry. But the masses, he held, were carried along, now and
then, by a kind of fashionable movement, engendered by the appearance of
great authors, the renown of whose works was so vast as to spread from
the closet of the student, upward and downward, through all ranks and
classes. Such a poetical fashion, or poetical fever, Dr. Darling thought
England had just gone through, stirred by the almost simultaneous
productions of many first-class writers, such as Burns, Byron, and Sir
Walter Scott. But as all excitement must be followed by reaction, so, the
doctor explained, the reaction was setting in at that moment, proved by
the fact that even the works of these famous poets were encumbering the
booksellers' shelves, waiting for buyers which did not come. This was a
fact which Clare knew to be true, and so far he fully acquiesced in the
remarks of his wise Scotch friend. He, therefore, consented to follow the
counsel thus tendered, and, at least for a time, return to his old
occupation. But Dr. Darling had another piece of advice in store. Taking
Clare by both hands, and looking him full in the face, he earnestly
exhorted him not to take ale or spirits but in greatest moderation, and,
if possible, leave off drinking entirely. Clare promised. An hour after
he was on his return, to Helpston, feeling happier in his mind than he
had been for a long time.


The promise made to Dr. Darling was faithfully kept. For several years to
come, Clare never visited the public-house, and even at home drank little
else but water, subsisting chiefly upon bread and vegetables, and such
decoctions of weak tea and coffee as his wife was in the habit of
distilling. The diet, probably, was not quite what Dr. Darling expected;
at least, it did not prove very beneficial to Clare's health. For a long
time, he felt weak and debilitated, so as scarcely to be able to do the
simplest out-door work. This was very unfortunate, as it prevented him
from carrying out the other part of the engagement undertaken towards his
medical friend, that of devoting himself again to field labour. He
earnestly sought work immediately after his return from London, and
though sneered at by one or two farmers, who told him that he was too
famous a man again to soil his hands, he at last secured employment near
Helpston Heath, part of which was being enclosed for the benefit of the
great landowners of the neighbourhood. For a few days, he kept working
here with all the strength he could muster, which was not sufficient,
however, for the demands of the overseer. There were drains and ditches
to be made, which required the use of brawny arms and a body untouched by
ague, and the work being done by contract, the foreman was exacting, and
saw at once that he was not up to the mark. He, consequently, got his
discharge, and went home in a very sad mood. Ever since his marriage, his
debts had been accumulating, and though altogether small in amount, they
now began to press heavily upon him, the more so as his expenditure kept
gradually increasing, which was by no means the case with his income. He
found that to maintain his aged parents, his wife, two children, and
himself, he could not do with less than sixty-five or seventy pounds a
year, and his annuity amounting to rather less than forty-five pounds,
there was the absolute necessity of gaining the rest, either by his
writings, or as a farm-labourer. It was the fear that both sources might
fail, which threw him into a deep melancholy.

After a while, he roused himself to another effort in finding work, and
this time submitted to what he fancied to be a deep humiliation. When
applying for his quarterly pension to the steward of the Marquis of
Exeter, he begged for some employment in the gardens, or, if no place
should be vacant, as a labourer on any of the estates of his lordship.
The steward promised to mention the subject to the marquis, but did not
keep his word. Being overwhelmed with business, he probably forgot the
matter entirely; otherwise the noble lord, who seemed to take a real
interest in Clare, could not have failed to listen to a request the
fulfilment of which would have cost him little or nothing, and been the
means of securing the welfare of the poet for life. Indeed, a place as
gardener at Burghley Hall, or some other similar employment, into which a
mere whisper of the noble owner might have installed Clare, would have
been greatly preferable to the pension of fifteen guineas granted to the
poet, and the quarterly payments of which he never received but with
inward humiliation. A place such as this would have removed at once the
whole burthen of cares which weighed him to the ground, and, while giving
him a maintenance for his family, with a comfortable home, would yet have
left him abundant time to attend to the inspirations of the muse. Clare
himself perceived this very clearly, and once or twice started with the
intention of laying his case before the marquis in person, explaining his
whole situation, his hopes, troubles, and fears. But each time he
approached the stately gates of Burghley Hall, his courage failed him. He
trembled to be looked upon as a beggar, and the apprehension of being
refused was constantly before his eyes. There were faint hopes, moreover,
that the steward, who seemed a friendly man, would succeed in getting him
some employment, without personal application to his lordship. However,
the promised message from Burghley Hall did not arrive, and Clare at last
gave up all expectation of getting anything else but alms from his
greatest patron, the Marquis of Exeter.

Having not much else to do, Clare kept up an active correspondence with
his friends in London, during the latter part of the summer and the whole
of the autumn of 1824. To Allan Cunningham in particular, with whom he
had contracted a close friendship during his last visit to the
metropolis, he sent long letters, discussing poetical and other topics.
One of these letters, rather characteristic in its way, as showing
Clare's opinion of Bloomfield, as well as of his own position in 'the
fields of the Muses,' deserves to be given. It was sent to Allan
Cunningham, together with an enclosure containing Bloomfield's short note
to 'Neighbour John,' already given.

'To Allan Cunningham,

(Left at Messrs. Taylor and Hessey's)

93, Fleet Street,


_Helpston, September 9th, 1824_.

Brother Bard And Fellow Labourer,

I beg your acceptance according to promise of this autograph of our
English Theocritus, Bloomfield. He is in my opinion our best Pastoral
Poet. His "Broken Crutch," "Richard and Kate," &c. are inimitable and
above praise. Crabbe writes about the peasantry as much like the
Magistrate as the Poet. He is determined to show you their worst side;
and, as to their simple pleasures and pastoral feelings, he knows little
or nothing about them compared to the other, who not only lived amongst
them, but felt and shared the pastoral pleasures with the peasantry of
whom he sung. I had promised that I would visit him this summer at
Shefford, but death went before me. He was a warm-hearted friend and an
amiable man. His latter poems show that his best days were by. His
"Remains" are very trifling, but these have nothing to do with his former
fame. I never forgave Lord Byron's sneering mention of him in the
"English Bards and Scotch Reviewers;" but, never mind, he has left a
genius behind him that will live as late as his lordship's; and, though
he was but a "Cobler," his poems will meet posterity as green and growing
on the bosom of English nature and the muses as those of the Peer. I
could hazard a higher opinion for truth, but this is enough. Titles and
distinctions of pride have long ago been stript of their dignity by the
levellers in genius; at least they have been convinced that the one is
not a certain copyright or inheritance of the other. I should suppose,
friend Allan, that "The Ettrick Shepherd," "The Nithsdale Mason," and
"The Northamptonshire Peasant," are looked upon as intruders and stray
cattle in the fields of the Muses (forgive the classification), and I
have no doubt but our reception in that Pinfold of his lordship's
"English Bards" would have been as far short of a compliment as
Bloomfield's. Well, never mind, we will do our best, and as we never went
to Oxford or Cambridge, we have no Latin and Greek to boast of, and no
bad translations to hazard (whatever our poems may be), and that's one
comfort on our side.

I have talked enough on this string, so I will trouble you a little with
something else. I can scarcely tell you how I am, for I keep getting a
little better and a little worse, and remaining at last just as I were. I
was very bad this morning, but have recovered this evening as I generally
do, and I really fear that I shall never entirely overset it. I have
written to Hessey for Dr. Darling's assistance again today, and I have
desired him to forward this letter to you. Drop a line to say that you
receive it, and give my kind remembrances to your better half, Mrs.
Cunningham. I will try your patience no longer with this gossip, so
believe me, friend Allan,

Your hearty friend and well-wisher,

John Clark.'

Dr. Darling's 'assistance,' in the shape of some medicine, acting as a
febrifuge and preservative against the ague, arrived soon; after which
Clare felt strong enough to make another attempt towards finding work.
Having received no reply to his application to the steward of the Marquis
of Exeter, he resolved to address himself to his next greatest patron in
the neighbourhood, the Earl Fitzwilliam. The noble earl having been
always very kind to him, he summoned courage to obtain an interview with
his lordship. But it so happened, unfortunately, that neither the Earl,
nor his son, Viscount Milton, was at home at the time; and although Lady
Milton received him very graciously, Clare felt too much shyness to state
to her what he intended to say. By the commands of her ladyship, however,
Clare was entertained by the upper servants of the house, and finding
them to be a very well-educated class of men, quite unlike the domestics
of other lordly establishments, he renewed his visits frequently, and
after a while became a regular guest at Milton Park. The butler, Edward
Artis, was an enthusiastic antiquarian, possessing a large library,
always hunting for old coins, medals, and pottery, and an absolute
authority on all matters concerning Durobrivae and the works of the
ancient Romans in the neighbourhood. With Mr. Artis, Clare soon got very
intimate, and having become acquainted with the pursuits of his friend,
imbibed even a slight fondness for antiquarian lore. There were two other
servants, named Henderson and West, both distinguished in their way.
Henderson was an accomplished botanist, spending whole days in search
after plants and flowers, and West was a lover of poetry, as well as a
writer of rather indifferent verses. Henderson offered to teach Clare the
elements of botany, which proposal was eagerly accepted, though it did
not lead to great results. After various attempts to master the hard
words of the scientific handbook given to him, John Clare frankly stated
to his friend that he could not get on with it, and must continue to love
trees and flowers without knowing their Latin names. But eager of
knowledge, under whatever form it offered itself, he made, after
discarding botany, a new stride towards erudition. The head cook at
Milton Park, a Monsieur Grilliot, better known to the servants as
'Grill,' undertook to teach Clare French. He did so in the rational way,
not by stuffing his friend with rules and exceptions to rules, but
teaching him words and their pronunciation, by which means Clare made
rapid progress, and at once acquired a real liking for the study.
Nevertheless, he had to relinquish his attempts to learn French in a very
short time, being too poor to purchase the few books which Monsieur
'Grill' recommended him to read.

Clare's visits to Milton Park continued all through the autumn of 1824,
till late in the spring of 1825, without leading to any advantageous
result as far as the chief object was concerned. Having become intimately
acquainted with the upper servants, particularly with Artis, Clare
learned that there was no place suitable for him vacant in the
establishment, and the consequence was that, when the Earl returned,
nothing was said about the matter. Clare had an interview with his
lordship, and was received in the kindest manner, but not being asked as
to his worldly prospects, kept silent on the subject. The Earl probably
fancied, as did many others, that Clare made a good income from the sale
of his books, and it was not till years afterwards that he learnt the
real truth. To his friend Artis, Clare made a confession to some extent,
informing him that he was in want of work, and would be glad to get some
employment even as a thresher or ploughman. But Mr. Artis would not hear
of this, and strongly advised Clare to discard all ideas of hiring
himself out as a labourer, as it would stand in the way of his
appointment to a more honourable place. It was expected that the
managership of a small farm near Helpston Heath, belonging to Viscount
Milton, would become vacant before long, and Clare was told that there
was no doubt that he could get this post by merely biding his time. So
Clare waited; but, while waiting, got more and more melancholy, his mind
overwhelmed by family cares, amidst the incessant struggle of getting the
daily bread.

The temporary failure of his hopes to get employment in the fields made
Clare now think once more of turning his poetry to account. Though aware
that his 'Village Minstrel' had not proved a success, he still cherished
the belief that new productions might meet with a better fate, the more
so as he was fully conscious that through constant study his mind was
being greatly enlarged, leading to an improvement of his writings, in
conception as well as outward form. He accordingly wrote to Mr. Taylor,
sending specimens of some new poems, and offering sufficient to form a
small volume. But Mr. Taylor was unwilling to try another publication,
excusing his reluctance by the same arguments already impressed upon
Clare by Dr. Darling, namely, that the taste for poetry was on the wane,
and that the world was crying for prose. Reflecting on this subject,
Clare began thinking of a new scheme, which was to write a novel. He made
the proposition instantly, but was answered by a refusal, thinly veiled
under a heap of compliments. Clare felt somewhat offended, although Mr.
Taylor was certainly right in this case, there being no doubt whatever of
the absolute incapacity of his client to write prose. However, in order
to soften the hardship of his refusal, he asked him to contribute
occasional poems to the 'London Magazine,' which offer was accepted, but
proved of little advantage to Clare, the remuneration being uncertain and
of the slenderest kind. In his feverish anxiety to work and to gain some
additional means of subsistence, Clare committed the mistake of writing
too many poems at a time, which naturally lowered the value of the
article in the eyes of his publisher. A letter to Mr. Taylor, dated
February, 1825, shows the excited state of the poet at this period. 'I
fear,' wrote Clare, 'I shall get nothing ready for you this month; at
least I fear so now, but may have fifty subjects ready tomorrow. The muse
is a fickle hussy with me; she sometimes stirs me up to madness, and then
leaves me as a beggar by the wayside, with no more life than what's
mortal, and that nearly extinguished by melancholy forebodings.' Further
on he breaks out into the exclamation: 'I wish I could live nearer you;
at least I wish London could be within twenty miles of Helpston. I live
here among the ignorant like a lost man; in fact, like one whom the rest
seem unwilling to have anything to do with. They hardly dare talk in my
company, for fear I should mention them in my writings, and I feel more
pleasure in wandering the fields than in musing among my silent
neighbours, who are insensible to anything but toiling and talking of it,
and that to no purpose.' This 'living among the ignorant like a lost man'
came to be the deep key-note sounding through all the subsequent letters
of Clare.

In the summer of 1825, Clare's pecuniary embarrassments grew to a climax.
He could not refuse anything to his family; and though living personally
worse than a beggar, eating little else than dry bread and potatoes, and
drinking nothing but water, his expenditure, including medical attendance
and many articles of comfort for his aged parents, averaged considerably
more than a pound a-week, while the income from his annuity, on which he
now solely depended, was very much less. Repeated new efforts to find
employment as a labourer proved fruitless; while his visits to Milton
Park had ceased by this time, his stock of clothes being so scanty, and
patched all over, that he was ashamed to show himself in the company of
his friends, always elegantly dressed. With Artis alone he kept up an
acquaintance, the learned butler having a soul above dress, and showing
himself on all occasions utterly careless whether the companion with whom
he was searching for old medals and pottery was dressed in purple or in
rags. For many a day, the two went roaming through the environs of Castor
and Helpston Heath, digging for the remains of the ancient inhabitants of
Durobrivae. One afternoon, when thus employed, Clare fainted, to the
great consternation of his friend. The latter, fortunately, had a small
flask of wine in his pocket, a few drops of which were sufficient to
restore Clare to consciousness. He was gently led home by Edward Artis,
who was told, in answer to his inquiries, that the illness had been
brought on by the sudden heat. This was not true, or, at the best, only
partially true. The fainting was caused by hunger.

When Dr. Darling advised Clare to drink no more ale or spirits, he
probably was not aware of the nature of his patient's diet, or of that of
Helpston labourers generally. Very likely, had he known that dry bread
and potatoes, both in limited quantities, were the staple food, the able
Scotch physician would have recommended an occasional glass of port wine,
or even of stout--if obtainable. As it was, Clare's promise of
abstinence, which he kept religiously for several years, was very
detrimental to his health. His naturally delicate frame sank under the
coarse diet, as soon as the accustomed stimulants were withdrawn, and his
stomach getting gradually weakened, he at last began to feel a sort of
abhorrence for his daily food. He now took to eating fruit, which still
more debilitated his digestive organs, so that finally there took place a
process of slow starvation. When fainting at the side of his friend
Artis, he had eaten nothing but a few potatoes with milk for twenty-four
hours, having left his home in the morning without taking any food
whatever. In this case, it was not merely want of appetite, but actual
want of bread. Being greatly indebted to the baker, the latter thought
fit to withhold the regular supply of bread, and although there were
plenty of vegetables for his wife and children, Clare quitted the house
without tasting anything, for fear they might want. It thus happened
that, while exploring the ruins of the old Roman city, he sank to the
ground from sheer want of food.

The learned butler was much absorbed by his antiquarian speculations, and
little given to reflections about his fellow-men; nevertheless, Clare's
case struck him as very peculiar. Getting back to Milton Park, he told
the particulars to Earl Fitzwilliam, suggesting that a little help might
be welcome to the poor poet. The noble earl, however, thought otherwise.
It was not that he was unwilling to give; on the contrary, his hand was
always open to those in distress, and his previous liberal present of a
hundred pounds showed that he was particularly well disposed towards
Clare. In all likelihood, had he known the real position of the poet, he
would have further extended his liberality, or come to his assistance in
some other way. But he knew very little of Clare, and looked upon him as
any ordinary earl would look upon an ordinary farm-labourer. From the few
interviews with the poet, his lordship had come to the conclusion, true
in the main, that Clare was a proud man, and having a strong feeling that
Northamptonshire farm-labourers had no business to be proud, he did not
think himself justified in giving any further assistance unless specially
asked to do so. The earl told this to his learned butler, who acquiesced,
as in duty bound, in his master's decision. However, Artis mentioned the
subject at the dinner table, where it was attentively listened to by all
assembled, especially the worthy head-cook. Monsieur Grill had a secret
liking for Clare, based on the fact that the poet was almost the only one
of all the people with whom he came into contact who did not torment him
with sneers and mocking speeches. Monsieur was endowed with a most
extraordinary visage, much like a full moon, put into a dripping-pan, and
baked before a slow fire; and the aspect of which was not improved by a
pair of ears of very unusual length, and a total absence of hair at the
top. To make matters worse, Monsieur Grill was very susceptible of
criticism concerning his face, having done his best to improve it, by
painting the nose white, the cheeks rosy, and the eyebrows dark. But,
whether he liked it or not, the members of the establishment at Milton
Park, together with their friends, would laugh at him, and, what was
almost as bad, would insist upon calling him 'Mounsear.' Clare alone
never laughed, and, after two lessons, pronounced the word 'Monsieur' to
Grill's entire satisfaction. At the end of three, he said 'Mon chèr ami,'
in the best Parisian accent, to the delight of the head-cook, and the
astonishment of the whole company in the servants' hall. All this went
straight to the heart of Monsieur Grill. When he heard, therefore, that
Clare was unwell, he said nothing, but went quietly down into his
laboratory, put his saucepan on the fire, and began mixing together a
wonderful quantity of groceries, spices, and other ingredients. Being a
conscientious man withal, he next despatched the valet to Lady Milton,
asking permission to give some strengthening broth to John Clare of
Helpston. 'Give as much as you like,' was the immediate reply of her
ladyship. This was satisfactory, and after an hour's simmering of his
saucepans, Monsieur Grill put on his coat, poured his broth into a stone
bottle, took his stick, and went out at the back of the mansion, and
through the park towards Helpston. Not long, and he stood before Clare.
The latter was amazed on beholding Grill, with the jar in his hand;
having always held Monsieur to be the vainest of mortals, quite incapable
of carrying a stone bottle across the country. 'Ah, mon chèr ami, voilà
quelque chose pour vous!' exclaimed Monsieur, evidently delighted to see
Clare. And without further ado, he grasped some sticks, made a fire in an
instant, laid hold of an ancient earthen vessel, and in a few minutes
presented, with graceful bow, a basin of broth to his astonished friend.
Clare tasted it, and found it delicious. He fancied he had not partaken
of anything so nice for months; all the faintness and languor under which
he was suffering seemed to disappear as by enchantment. 'This is much
better than medicine,' he said, with a look of gratitude to the clever
head-cook. 'Medicine? parbleu!' exclaimed Grill; 'do not speak of
medicine, mon chèr ami, or I leave alone my batterie de cuisine.'
Monsieur Grill felt deep contempt, approaching hatred, for all drugs and
doctors, labouring under the impression of having lost his beautiful head
of hair through some ill-applied medicines. Clare saw the passing cloud,
and, with much tact, renewed his praises of the delicious broth, asking
his friend to show him the making of it. There was no objection on the
part of Monsieur Grill; nevertheless, an hour's teaching was attended
with but little success. Though having the manipulation explained to him
in the most lucid manner, in terms half French and half English, Clare
got more confused the more he listened, till at last his friend told him,
with some severity, that his mind seemed incapable of comprehending
'l'art du cuisinier.' Which was true enough. Heaven certainly had not
gifted John Clare with a genius for cookery, any more than with the
higher faculty of money-making.


The visit of worthy Monsieur Grill to Helpston had the good result that
henceforth Clare's diet and mode of living became greatly improved. Lady
Milton, hearing of the illness of the poet, sent him her physician,
while, better still, the chef de cuisine at Milton Park continued to
supply him with good broth. The physician, a man of sense, soon perceived
that his patient required not medicine but food. He told Clare that it
was absolutely necessary that he should adopt a most nourishing diet, and
even advised him to take some ale, or stout, in moderate quantities.
However, Clare refused the latter part of the advice, urging the promise
he had given to Dr. Darling. As to his general mode of living, he
consented to do as requested, although too proud to state the reasons
which had prevented him, and would, probably, continue to prevent him
fully adopting the counsel. The physician, being asked by Lady Milton
whether Clare seemed in want, stated that there were no signs of poverty
in Clare's home. Though but a narrow hut, the many handsome hooks on the
shelves, with a few good paintings, gave it the appearance of comfort,
and thus the informant of the noble lady, like many of the other
acquaintances of Clare, acquired very erroneous notions concerning his
real means. This was the more the case, as Clare always managed to let
his wife and children, as well as his aged parents, want none of the
necessaries of life, and frequently contrived to procure them even a few
luxuries. Nobody knew that while Clare's family had a good dinner, he
himself was munching dry bread in some corner in the fields. The fact was
not discovered till long afterwards--when discovery came too late.

In the autumn of 1825, the sad news reached Clare that his best friend
and patron, Lord Radstock, had succumbed to a stroke of apoplexy. Admiral
Lord Radstock died on the 20th of August, at his town residence in
Portland Place, in a very sudden manner, after but a few days' illness.
The loss of his noble patron would have been a deep affliction to Clare
at any time, but it was particularly so at this moment. During the whole
of the summer, the admiral had been in correspondence with Mr. Taylor,
trying to induce him to come to some distinct arrangement with his
client, in regard to the payment for his books and poetical contributions
to the 'London Magazine.' Hitherto, Mr. Taylor had not treated his
'Northamptonshire Peasant' on the same footing as other authors, but
looked upon him more in the light of a child under tutelage than of an
independent man, desirous of gaining a living by the exercise of his
talents or industry. When, therefore, Lord Radstock urged him to enter
into a regular business agreement with Clare, he felt somewhat offended.
Replying to his lordship, he stated that he had given much more to the
poet than was due to him, without even charging for his own labours as
editor, and that he had hitherto acted, not as a mere business agent, but
as a real friend to Clare. Lord Radstock was not satisfied with this
answer, but rejoined that, admitting Clare had received more than was due
to him, it yet would be better to furnish regular accounts to him, and,
by paying what was due, and no more, to foster his self-reliance, instead
of keeping him in the position of a dependent, living upon alms or
friendly gifts. The correspondence continued through several more
letters, with a prospect of Mr. Taylor yielding his point, when the death
of Lord Radstock brought it to an end. It was a sad misfortune to Clare,
affecting his whole life. In Lord Radstock he lost the truest and noblest
friend he possessed--the only one of all his patrons who might have been
willing as well as able to remove the darkening clouds already visible in
the future.

In the autumn of 1825, Clare was fortunate enough to find some employment
in harvesting, which continued till the end of October, when he was once
more thrown out of work. He now devoted himself with increased ardour to
poetry anxious to excel in the new volume which. Mr. Taylor had agreed to
publish. The chief poem of the work was to be a pastoral, in twelve
cantos, descriptive of the aspects of the months and seasons, tinder the
title, 'The Shepherd's Calendar.' The work required lengthened exertion,
which, though he devoted himself with the greatest energy to the task, he
could not always muster. Again and again the all-absorbing feeling of
poverty broke upon and crushed the mind of the poet. Turn as he might,
dire want stared him in the face, and his spirit kept chafing and
fretting under the constant exertion of making his small income suffice
for the ever-growing wants of his family. Some regular work to perform,
or the consciousness of being seated on a few acres of his own ground,
with the pleasure of growing his corn and vegetables, would have been
sufficient to destroy all these petty cares; but the chance of entering
upon such happy existence seemed to grow less and less every year.
Liberty, the greatest boon which he desired, he was never able to obtain.
To spend half the day in hard out-door work, and the other half in
wanderings and poetical musings, would have made him completely happy, as
well as, in all likelihood, physically strong; yet this simple wish of
his heart not all his great and noble patrons were willing to grant him.
They gave him alms, sufficient to lift him from the sphere of labour, but
not enough for subsistence, and thus left him in a position as false as
hopelessly ruinous. Working at intervals, almost beyond his strength, as
a farm labourer, and then again remaining for a long time in forced
idleness, writing too much, thinking too much, and ever and ever with the
grim phantom of poverty before him, was a form of existence necessarily
fatal. It was a life too hard, too cold, too angular, too crystallized--a
life which would have broken the heart of any poet under the sun.

In the preparation of his new volume, Clare adopted the sensible plan of
correcting and revising his writings constantly, so as to reach the
greatest perfection in form. The uninterrupted study of the best poets
began to have effect upon his mind by more and more developing his taste,
and destroying his former notion that his verses came flowing by a sort
of inspiration, and, as such, were not liable to further artificial
improvement. Mr. Taylor was much pleased with the new verses which Clare
sent him, far more polished than most of the previous ones, and
encouraged him by many praises to persevere in the new course. Praise, as
to all poets, was sweet to Clare, and he kept on writing with great
eagerness during the whole of winter and the coming spring. He expected
that his new book would be published early in the summer of 1826, but was
disappointed in his expectation. There were poems enough in Mr. Taylor's
hands to make at least two volumes; but the careful publisher was not
over-anxious to print them. A shrewd man of business, he was fully aware
that the tide was running strong against pastorals, or, indeed, against
any form of good poetry, the fashion being all for jingling rhyme,
embodying the least possible amount of sense. It was the period when
annuals began to flourish, with all merit concentrated in 'toned' paper,
gilded leaves, and morocco bindings. Mr. Taylor liked John Clare, and
held his talent in fair estimation from the fact that the 'Poems
descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery' had gone through four editions.
But against this fact there was the terrible set-off that the 'Village
Minstrel' had only risen to the second edition, with the larger part of
the second issue still on the shelves in Fleet Street. Mr. Taylor,
therefore, like a sound man of business, resolved to manipulate his
'Northamptonshire Peasant' with great caution, for fear of accidents.

John Clare got into a very excited state when he learnt that his new
volume was not to be published in the summer of 1826, nor during the
remaining part of the same year. He felt the delay as a scorn of his
poetical fame; and he felt it, moreover, as a sad ruin of his financial
prospects. The money which he expected to receive was anxiously awaited
to pay off pressing debts, and its man-arrival involved not only scanty
clothing and short rations, but cares of a peculiarly tender nature.
'Patty' brought her husband a third child, a little boy, who was
christened John on the 18th of June, 1826; and though there arrived much
timely assistance from Milton Park, the baby, as well as his mother;
wanted many things not to be met with in the little hut at Helpston.
Always a tender and most affectionate father, Clare's heart was ready to
break when he found his poor little son suffering from the absence of
those comforts which a few pounds might have purchased. He wrote a
pathetic letter to Mr. Taylor, entreating him to send his poems to press;
but received a cold answer in return. The sound business man of Fleet
Street told his client that it was the wrong time for bringing out the
'Shepherds' Calendar.' He informed him, moreover, that the annuals had
got the upper hand, and advised him strongly to write for the annuals.
Clare answered that he preferred breaking stones at the workhouse.

But when Clare said so, he was in an angry mood. The baby continued
crying, in want of milk and a few yards of flannel, and the mother
commenced crying, too; and at length things came to such a pass that
Clare determined to write for the annuals. He heard that he should get
five shillings per poem, and from some publishers even as much as seven
and sixpence. In great haste, therefore, he penned as many verses as he
could, sitting up night after night, and on getting a bundle ready
despatched them to London. But here again there was terrible
disappointment. The annuals, it turned out, did not pay annually, but
remunerated their contributors at uncertain periods, varying from two
years to ten. When Clare found he could get no payment from the
proprietors of the splendid morocco-bound volumes, he complained to Mr.
Taylor. The busy publisher was vexed at this, as naturally he might be.
He answered that he did not, and could not, hold himself responsible for
the liabilities of others, and that it was unfair; after having tendered
some general advice, to burthen him with the consequences. Here the
matter ended, leaving both parties very dissatisfied. For some time to
come there was a great coldness between them, and their correspondence
almost entirely ceased.

The failure of his attempt to make money by contributing poems to the
gold-edged toy-books had the good result of inciting Clare to renewed
exertions to return to his old sphere of labour. He was after a while
fortunate enough to find employment at Upton, a village on the southern
border of Helpston Heath, where he continued at work during the autumn
and winter, and far into the spring of 1827. The labour had the most
beneficial effect upon his health, and brought on a fresh desire to leave
the allurements of writing, or at least of printing, poetry, and devote
himself more to out-door occupation. The great difficulty in carrying eat
this plan was to find regular employment of a nature suited to his bodily
strength, and his somewhat erratic habits. After much pondering on the
subject, Clare resolved to try a little farming on his own account, with
the help of his friends, and on a very limited scale. A visit to Milton
Park settled the matter. The two head servants of Earl Fitzwilliam, the
antiquarian and the botanist, were both ready and willing to assist the
poet to become a farmer, though they told him frankly that they had small
hopes of his success. Like in all agricultural districts, the owners of
land at Helpston and throughout the neighbourhood were opposed to small
tenants and 'spade husbandry,' and Clare's friends justly feared that
even if there were no other obstacles, this cause alone would prevent him
prospering. However, sanguine as he was, Clare held these fears to be
exaggerated, and having obtained a small loan from his friends, rented
several acres of barren soil at a rent four times as high as that paid by
the larger farmers for really good land. The result, not for a moment
doubtful from the commencement, did much to accelerate Clare's road to

During the whole spring and summer of 1827, Clare was so busy and excited
in attending to his farming operations as almost to forget his new volume
of poems. He scarcely expected to see it published, and was somewhat
startled on receiving a copy of the book by post, unaccompanied however
by a single line from Mr. Taylor. At any other time, he would have keenly
felt the neglect; but as it was, the potatoes and cabbages on his farm
attracted his attention more than even his printed verses, and the slight
put upon him by his publisher. It was only when, the harvest was over--a
harvest very poor and unsatisfactory--that he bethought himself again of
his poetical doings. Conscious that he had been in the wrong, to a great
extent, in his quarrel with Mr. Taylor, he determined to be the first to
hold out the hand of friendship. Having made his resolutions to this
effect, he sat down to pen a long letter, dated, 'Helpston, November 17,
1827.' It ran:--'My dear Taylor,--I expect you will be surprised when you
open this to' see from whence it comes, so scarce has our correspondence
made itself. Ere it withers into nothing, I will kindle up the expiring
spark that remains, and make up a letter by its light, if I can. When you
sent me the poems in summer, you never sent a letter with them; I felt
the omission, but murmured not. It was not wont to be thus in days gone
by. So I will shake off this ague-warm feeling, and this dead-living
lethargy, and ask you how you are, and where you are, and how our friends
are.' And much more to the same effect.

Mr. Taylor replied in a bland, dignified manner. The 'friends,' he
reported to be well; but said nothing about what the poet was most
desirous of knowing, the fate of his new volume. The truth was, the
'Shepherd's Calendar' did not sell; and the volume having come into the
world almost unnoticed, was lying in the publisher's shop neglected and
forgotten. A few periodicals mentioned the book in terms of faint praise,
and one solitary critic, visibly behind his age, spoke of the verses as
'exquisite, and by far the most beautiful that have appeared for a long
time'; but the great majority of the representatives of public opinion
utterly ignored John Clare's new work. It soon became clear that, though
infinitely superior to the 'Poems of Rural Life and Scenery,' which
passed through four editions; and far better even than the 'Village
Minstrel,' issued twice! the 'Shepherd's Calendar' was entirely
overlooked by the public and the press. And it could not well be
otherwise. The book, instead of in morocco, was bound, or rather
stitched, in coarse blue cardboard; the paper was not only not 'toned,'
but rough and inelegant in the extreme; and the edges, which, ought to
have been smooth and gilded, were rugged and uneven like a ploughed
field. It was hopeless to expect that a most discerning public should pay
six shillings for a book of pastorals of such clownish appearance, when
the sweetest rhymes, jingling like silver bells, and descriptive of
angels and cupids, and the whole heaven of Greek and Roman mythology,
were offered for a lesser sum, in settings resplendent with all the
colours of the rainbow. There was no room for the 'Shepherd's Calendar'
at the side of all the--gorgeously beautiful annuals of the day, of the
Souvenir, Keepsake, and Forget-me-not family.

If this was one reason why the 'Village Minstrel' passed entirely
unnoticed, another and still more important cause was the negligent
manner in which it was published. Books, like all other earthly objects
requiring to be bought and sold, must undergo certain preparations, and
run through prescribed channels of trade in their way from the producer
to the consumer, and it is well known that the regulation and management
of this process may either greatly retard or accelerate the sale of a
work. It often happened, that really valuable works have met with very
little success, owing to want of energy or want of thought on the part of
the publishers; while, on the other hand, not a few bad or paltry books,
utterly unworthy of public, patronage, have, through active commercial
management, met with a considerable demand, and brought both profit and
fame to the writers. The truth of this was once more proved in the sale
of Clare's works. In the first published volume, the 'Poems descriptive
of Rural Life and Scenery,' Mr. Taylor took a very great interest, and
devoted the whole of his energy to ensure its success with the public. He
looked upon Clare's book as a personal property; for it was he who
enjoyed the honour of having discovered the poetical genius of the
'Northamptonshire Peasant;' he who brought him out in society; and he who
was not merely the publisher but the 'editor' of his works, and who as
such could fairly; claim a share of the renown accruing to the writer.
Accordingly, Mr. Taylor took the greatest trouble in ensuring a
favourable reception to Clare's works, and being a literary man of some
standing, as well as a bookseller--with the additional advantage of
gathering, at stated periods, the chieftains in the republic of letters
around his bachelor's table, to enjoy the most excellent dinners--he
succeeded in doing what perhaps no other London publisher could have
accomplished at the time. Long before the 'Poems of Rural Life' were
issued from the press their merit was discussed at Mr. Taylor's
dinner-table, under the cheering influence of exquisite port and madeira,
and the persuasive eloquence of the most charming of hosts. Thus it
happened in the most natural manner that the poems at their appearance
were received with a perfect storm of applause, in which even such stern
critics as William Gifford--carefully guided by Octavius Gilchrist--could
not help joining. Mr. Taylor's own periodical, the 'London Magazine,'
marched ahead as chief drummer, and behind came a long train of daily,
weekly, and monthly 'organs,' with the great 'Quarterly Review' as
commander-in-chief. The result proclaimed itself in four editions of the
poems of the 'Northamptonshire Peasant.'

It was in the nature of things that Mr. Taylor should attach due
importance to his own efforts in raising the unknown poet upon a pedestal
of fame. That he did so, and even reminded Clare of his exertions at a
subsequent period, when the poet did not show himself sufficiently
grateful, could scarcely be blamed, although it had the consequence of
leading to a gradual estrangement between author and publisher. John
Clare was not a grateful man, in the ordinary sense of the word. He
deeply felt kindness, but had an equally deep abhorrence of servility, or
what he fancied to be such; and, therefore, while humble as a child
towards those whose real benevolence he appreciated, he showed himself
stiff and proud against all who approached him as condescending patrons.
Upon Mr. Taylor he looked, rightly or wrongly, as a mere patron. That his
publisher refused throughout to give him any accounts, but treated all
payments to him as voluntary presents, was a real grief; and that his
whole demeanour, though very affable and courteous, was marked by an air
of proud superiority, was a fancied distress, but which not the less
irritated the sensitive poet. Thus there was, from the first, a want of
real attachment between Clare and his influential friend and protector,
which was looked upon by Mr. Taylor as a kind of ingratitude. He
gradually slackened in his endeavours to spread the fame of the hero he
had raised, when he perceived the hero's repugnance to be properly
saddled and harnessed. While using prodigal exertions for the success of
the first volume, he fell back upon the ordinary bookseller's routine
when issuing his second work. In the publication of the third, the
'Shepherd's Calendar,' there was not even this ordinary attention, owing
to circumstances of a peculiar kind. Mr. Taylor, in the year 1825,
dissolved partnership with his active coadjutor, Mr. Hessey, and, while
the latter remained at the old establishment in Fleet Street, he went to
set up a new but smaller publishing house at Waterloo Place. It was here
he issued the 'Shepherd's Calendar,' under conditions more than usually
unfavourable. Expecting to be appointed publisher to the new London
University--which expectation was realized not long afterwards--Mr.
Taylor had to devote the greater part of his time to preparations for his
new position, so as almost to be unable to attend to his bookselling
business. Thus Clare's new volume kept lying very quietly on the shelves
of the new shop at Waterloo Place.

The 'Shepherd's Calendar' was dedicated to 'the most noble the Marquis of
Exeter.' To previous counsel of putting the name of some great patron to
his poems, Clare had always leant a deaf ear; but he was persuaded in
this instance by his old friend, Dr. Bell, to act contrary to his own
judgment. Perhaps there was not much harm in the dedication; but there
came from it not much good either. The most noble the marquis, as
acknowledgment of the honour, condescended to order ten copies of the
'Shepherd's Calendar,' for which he paid the sum of three pounds, being
at the ordinary retail price of six shillings the volume. Clare asked no
further favours from his lordship; and his lordship, as a rule, did not
grant any favour unasked. Probably, the noble marquis might have broken
through his rule on this occasion, but that he was not altogether
satisfied with the 'Shepherd's Calendar.' The humble dedication on the
title-page was well enough; yet, considering that the poet was enjoying a
stipend of fifteen guineas a year, payable quarterly, it was thought that
he might have done something more. But there being not a page, nor even a
line, in the whole book in praise of the elder branch of the Cecils,
showed a deplorable want of feeling proper to a farm labourer living on
his lordship's estate. It was clear that the Helpston poet was, on the
whole, a silly, foolish man. Dwelling under the very shadow of Burghley
Castle, he should have known that by trimming his poetic course in the
right direction, he might have landed at almost any haven of
comfort--might have become under-gardener in the park, or, if less
ambitious, been sent to the House of Commons as member for Stamford. But
there was a deplorable want of worldly wisdom in John Clare. That he was
a real poet the noble marquis was ready to believe, not distrusting the
authority of the 'Quarterly Review.' At the same time, his lordship could
not close his eyes to the fact that the man was, all things considered,
unworthy of high patronage.

The bad news that his 'Shepherd's Calendar' had met with no success
whatever reached Clare in the first days of 1828. He did not learn it
from Mr. Taylor, who, as usual, did not think it worth while to give a
business account of his transaction to his 'Peasant,' but contented
himself in sending, now and then, a few pounds as a present to Helpston;
but became aware of the fact through a communication of his kind friend
Allan Cunningham. Honest Allan's admiration of Clare increased, as that
of the world decreased; and having gone into raptures about some of the
poems in the 'Shepherd's Calendar,' yet seeing that few others shared his
delight, or were aware even of the existence of the book, he went to the
publishing office in Waterloo Place to investigate the matter, and was
informed there of what sounded to him utterly strange, that the work did
not sell. Exasperated at this communication, he sat down to pen a long
epistle to Clare, seasoned with strong epithets, and winding-up with an
invitation to his friend to come to London. While consoling Clare about
the neglect of the public, to which, he said, 'poets must get
accustomed,' he told him at the same time that he was sure that some of
his verses in the 'Shepherd's Calendar,' such as 'The Dream,' and 'Life,
Death, and Eternity,' were worth more than all the sing-song of the age
put together, and, if not at once, could not fail being appreciated in
course of time. But in the meanwhile, Allan thought, Clare could not do
better than connect himself with the periodical literature of the day,
especially the fashionable annuals. John Clare hated the annuals; but he
dearly loved his kind and honest friend, and thereupon promised once more
to write verses for the pretty toy books, payable by the cubic foot, or
yard, or in any other desirable form. But he made it a stipulation that
he should be allowed to send his best productions to 'The Anniversary,'
an annual edited by Allan Cunningham himself. The proposition was
accepted, and Allan thereupon put his friend into communication with
proprietors of annuals who actually paid their contributors. Clare, on
his part, promised to visit London, at the beginning of February, to
conclude some necessary business arrangements.

Soon after Allan's letter, there came another from Mrs. Emmerson. The
lady, though a very indifferent writer of verses, had a keen appreciation
of sterling poetry, and warmly congratulated Clare on his new volume.
Having induced some two or three of her friends to purchase copies of the
'Shepherd's Calendar,' she lived under the impression that the book was a
great success, and could not fail bringing wealth and fame to the author.
In connexion with this, Mrs. Emmerson had planned a neat little project
of her own. Her apartments had become somewhat deserted since the death
of Lord Radstock, the chief leader of her literary assemblies, and
dreading the idea of being forgotten among the rising generation of
female sonneteers, she bethought herself of calling her old lion, the
'Northamptonshire Peasant,' to the rescue. John Clare accordingly got a
sweet little letter, fall of bewitching flattery, ending with an
invitation to Stratford Place. He trembled when he opened the note,
addressed in the old familiar handwriting, and trembled still more when
he read it. There was a time when poor John had been making Platonic love
to Mrs. Emmerson; when he wrote to her scores of letters, very passionate
and very ill-spelt; when he called her his Laura, and made verses in
imitation of Petrarch; and in the end had the courage to ask for her
portrait. Mrs. Emmerson graciously smiled upon the poor lover at her
feet, and while employing him to correct her verses, even granted his
request for her likeness, and sent him a beautiful painting by Behnes,
the sculptor. John revelled in an elysium of bliss, and, hanging the
picture on the place of honour over the mantelpiece, to the great disgust
of Patty, got more and more embedded in tenderness, until his letters
became sheer unreadable for passionate love, unassisted by grammar. The
thing getting tiresome now, and there being no more verses to correct,
Mrs. Emmerson thought fit to drop her Northamptonshire poet, and
accordingly wrote him a quiet little note asking for a return of her
portrait. John Clare fell from the clouds; but fell on his feet,
fortunately. He took the beautiful picture down from over his
mantelpiece, wrapped it in straw and brown paper, and sent it to
Stratford Place, Oxford Street, by the next carrier. The consciousness
came dawning on his mind that he was not quite up to the art of making
Platonic love.

But Clare trembled when he read the new letter from Mrs. Emmerson. He had
not heard from her for a long time, and could not for a moment understand
what brought her to renew a correspondence, broken off in the most abrupt
manner. His first impulse was to decline the invitation, which he did on
the instant in a very long letter. And when he had written the long
letter, he threw it into the fire, and indicted another shorter note,
informing Mrs. Emmerson that he had already arranged with Mr. Allan
Cunningham to visit London, and would be most happy to accept her
hospitality at Stratford Place. Having despatched this note, Clare felt
much pleased with himself. It would have been very rude, he thought, and
almost offensive, to refuse the invitation of an old friend, given in all
kindliness of heart. Perhaps it was he, after all, who was in fault
respecting that unhappy affair of the portrait, which he took to be a
gift, though it was meant only as a loan. He owed an apology to Mrs.
Emmerson, that was quite clear; and for this reason alone, if for no
other, ought to become her guest during his stay in town. Thus reasoned
the poet, and the more he reasoned, the more impatient he got to set out
on his journey. At last he started, earlier than he intended, taking the
road by Peterborough, to pay his respects to the inmates of the episcopal


Lions were rare at Peterborough forty years ago. The wife of the Right
Reverend Dr. Herbert Marsh, an elderly lady of much energy, often felt
lonesome in her old mansion at the foot of the big cathedral, for which
suffering neither the sound doctrinal sermons of her husband nor the
saintly gossip of weekly tea-parties offered any remedy. There was a
little theatre at the episcopal city, at which performances were given
now and then; but the histrionic talent of the strolling players being of
the slightest, and the Right Reverend Dr. Marsh objecting, moreover, in a
subdued manner, to give his immediate patronage to the Punch and Judy of
the stage, the lady often felt time hanging heavy on her hands. In this
exigency, Mrs. Marsh heard of the Helpston poet, and lost no time in
making his acquaintance. Her kindly help and sympathy during his illness
was greatly appreciated by Clare, and left him full of gratitude ever
after. Nevertheless, though often invited to become a guest at the
episcopal palace, he could not summon resolution to do so. He was afraid,
not so much of the stiffness and ceremony which he would have to
encounter, as of the stern looks of the high dignitary of the Church,
who, when visiting him at home, had cross-questioned him in the most
awful manner on all subjects, in particular as to the state of his
religion. But pressed again and again to pay a short visit to
Peterborough, Clare at length consented, being told that Dr. Marsh would
be 'kept in his proper place,' and not be allowed to interfere with him.
It was on this understanding that Clare made his appearance at the
episcopal palace, at the commencement of February, 1828. Mrs. Marsh
rejoiced that her poet had come at last, and at once installed him in a
funereal little chamber overlooking the gardens, which she had long
selected as fittest for the habitation of genius. Before being led to
this room, Clare was informed by the lady that he would find several
reams of paper, with stores of pens and ink, for his poetic use, and
would be at liberty to write anything he liked, epics, madrigals,
pastorals, sonnets, and even tragedies. Strict orders were given to the
servants not to disturb the poet on any account, but to take whatever
food he might require--if requiring food at all--to an adjoining room.
The whole of these excellent measures having been executed with great
precision, Mrs. Marsh left the palace, to complete the further
arrangements in connexion with the exhibition of her new lion.

John Clare, being left alone in his little chamber, felt very dull. He
had no idea as to whether the way he was treated was a special honour, or
part of the general routine of episcopal existence. However, he concluded
that, special or general, his surroundings were of somewhat gloomy
aspect. There were certainly plenty of writing materials; but what he
wanted far more for the moment was a cup of tea, or coffee, with a slice
or two of bread and butter. After vainly trying to make himself heard, he
attempted to open the door of his chamber, and found that it was not
locked. But there was no soul in the next room, nor in the farther
passage, and the whole mansion appeared to be silent like the grave. Up
another passage, and down a pair of stairs did not lead him from the
regions of silence; a little maid-servant, visible far off, started away
like a frightened hind on beholding the poet. Mrs. Marsh evidently was
well obeyed in her own house. But Clare now began to feel rather
uncomfortable, and resolved to get somewhere, if not to human beings, at
least to bread and butter. So he marched down a final pair of stairs, and
through a small door out into the garden. There was a porter at the outer
garden gate; but he, too, bowed in silence, and in another minute Clare
found himself in the streets of Peterborough. The doors of the 'Red Lion'
stood hospitably open, and feeling nigh starved, he went in to get some
refreshments. No tea and coffee, however, were to be had at the 'Red
Lion;' only ale and porter, brandy and whiskey. Clare took some bread,
with a glass of ale, and felt very faint immediately after. Not having
tasted any alcoholic drink for a long time, the ale produced a sort of
stupefaction, from which he did not recover till late in the day. In the
meantime, Mrs. Marsh returned to the episcopal palace, and at once
inquired for her poet. He was not to be found anywhere, and it was
discovered at last that he had escaped into the city. Messengers were
despatched forthwith, and while they scoured the streets, John Clare ran
right against them, coming from the 'Red Lion,' and feeling still
somewhat drowsy. He was secured immediately, and taken in triumph before
Mrs. Marsh. The lady, against his expectation, received him most
graciously, ascribing his bewildered state to high poetic musings. She
was sorry only that he had not been able to make use of her paper and ink
in the chamber of genius; but trusted he would write all the more the
next day, which, as she hinted, would be a day of great importance.

Clare went to bed, with the 'day of great importance' tingling in his
ears. He could not go to sleep for reflections on the subject, and even
after shutting his eyes it hovered over him in ghastly dreams. There was
an immense table in an immense hall, with ten thousand parsons on the one
side, and ten thousand old maids on the other. At the head presided Mrs.
Marsh, with the bishop in waiting behind; while he himself was sitting in
an arm-chair, suspended by ropes from the ceiling. Then Mrs. Marsh called
upon him to make a speech, and while he was rising, down came the
arm-chair, ropes and all. It was a hard bump, and Clare felt aching all
over. Before he could rise, a man-servant rushed into the room. 'Good
heavens, Sir, you have fallen out of bed,' he cried; 'I hope you are not
hurt.' 'No, not much,' said Clare; 'but I should be glad to have a cup of
tea.' The tea was brought, and with it some useful information. They were
to have a grand party in the afternoon, said the man; he, that is, his
mistress, having invited all the notabilities of Peterborough, with the
dean, the archdeacon, and the canons. Clare shuddered. 'At what time will
the entertainment commence?' he inquired. 'At four,' was the reply.
Nothing more was said; Clare sipped his tea, and, the servant gone,
commenced making up his little bundle of clothes. Part of the contents he
was able to stuff into his pockets; the rest formed a parcel not much
larger than a couple of hooks. Once more he made his way down the broad
flight of stairs, passed the silent porter at the gate, and a minute
after stood in the High Street, opposite the Angel Inn. The coach for
London, he was told, would start in half an hour. Clare took his seat
inside, hiding his face, as best he could, under a handkerchief, and
drawing a long breath when the horses were whipped into a gallop and
sprang away southward. It was late at night when the Peterborough coach
discharged its passengers at the 'Bell and Crown,' Holborn. Clare hurried
up to Stratford Place, and was glad to find Mrs. Emmerson at home. The
lady shook hands with the greatest cordiality, called him her dearest
friend, and praised his verses in terms which made him blush. With all
his bitter experiences, he was once more ready to fall in love--Platonic
or otherwise.

One of Clare's first visits in London was to Allan Cunningham He was
received as a brother by the warm-hearted Scotchman, and encouraged to
unburthen his whole heart. Allan now heard for the first time that his
friend was in great pecuniary distress, and that his poetry, so far from
bringing him a competence, as he had been led to believe, met with but
the most trifling remuneration. Filled with compassion, Allan offered his
friend assistance; but this was proudly refused. He next advised Clare to
go to Mr. Taylor, and request, politely but firmly, a statement of the
whole of the transactions between them, including an account of the
profits made by the sale of the 'Shepherd's Calendar,' the 'Village
Minstrel,' and the 'Rural Poems.' Clare promised to do so, and the next
day went to Mr. Taylor's residence, Percy Street, near Rathbone Place.
The publisher received him in his ordinary friendly, though somewhat
stiff and formal manner. Clare was on the point of delivering his
preconcerted speech, when Mr. Taylor interrupted him with an unexpected
communication. He told him frankly that he had not been able hitherto to
give much attention to the sale of the 'Shepherd's Calendar,' and that
this, probably, was the reason why but few copies had been disposed of.
As a compensation, Mr. Taylor offered Clare to let him have as many
volumes of his new work as he liked at cost price, that he might sell
them in his own neighbourhood. The project of becoming a perambulating
bookseller, hawker of his own poetical ware, came upon Clare in a
startling manner. He did not know what to reply to the proposal made to
him, and asked time for reflection. Mr. Taylor had no objection to this,
and told his friend to come again in a few days. Thereupon Clare went
away, not saying a word on the financial subject which he had come to

There was much fluctuating advice among Clare's friends as to the
propriety of his turning poetical bagman. Mrs. Emmerson at first was
greatly opposed to the scheme, but afterwards changed her opinion, on the
ground that the exercise and change of air might prove beneficial to his
health. Allan Cunningham, however, would not hear of Mr. Taylor's scheme
for a moment. He said it was disgraceful that such a proposal should have
been made, and exhorted his friend not to think for a moment of accepting
it. 'God knows,' Allan exclaimed passionately, 'poetry has sunk low
enough already; but do not you haul it lower still by dragging the muse
along the muddy roads in a pedlar's bag.' Clare was much impressed by
these words, and promised further reflection, which, however, tended only
to lead him in an opposite direction to that proposed by his noble friend
Allan. The thought of being able to acquire a little capital; of getting
out of debt; of purchasing a small farm; and of giving his children a
good education, carried everything before it, and he finally resolved to
risk all else, even obloquy, to gain these ends. Talking the subject over
once more with. Mrs. Emmerson, as happily ignorant as himself in the
matter, the conclusion was arrived at that it would be easy to gain five
hundred a year by the sale of his books. It seemed not necessary,
therefore, that he should continue his new occupation longer than a few
years, when he would be enabled to retire from business and spend the
rest of his days in comfort and ease. Thus the poet kept on building his
castles in the air, until they reached to the very clouds. When meeting
Mr. Taylor at the appointed time, Clare told him that he accepted his
kind offer, and would do his best to carry out the scheme with all
possible energy. Thereupon the poet and his publisher parted-parted never
to meet again, although to each life had scarce run half its course.

Clare remained in London till towards the end of March, lionising a
little and making a few new acquaintances. Frequently, when walking along
the streets, he found himself addressed by strangers, who recognised him
at once from Hilton's exceedingly faithful picture, which hung in Mr.
Taylor's parlour, and was reproduced in the portrait prefixed to the
'Village Minstrel.' Thus he ran one day in Russell Square against Alaric
Watts, who, though never having met him before, addressed him without
hesitation as a brother poet, and insisted upon remaining in his company
for some time. In the same manner, too, he met Henry Behnes, the
sculptor, who showed himself so delighted with his acquaintance that he
would not let him go till he had promised to sit for his bust. Clare did
sit, and Behnes produced an admirable work of art, which, like Hilton's
picture, was paid for and kept by Mr. Taylor.[1] Mrs. Emmerson took
advantage of the modelling of the bust by celebrating it as a notable
event, and inviting to her house a distinguished party of artists and
patrons of art, to whom she wished to present her poet, together with
'his painter,' and 'his sculptor.' As always on such occasions, Clare
felt exceedingly uncomfortable, and had no sooner entered the brilliantly
lighted-up saloon when he resolved to run away. He communicated his
intention to the other two heroes of the evening, who at once expressed
their wish to be the companions of his flight. William Hilton, like
Clare, was averse to lionship, and glad enough to escape from any crowd,
whether in satin or rags; and as for Henry Behnes, he had become so fond
of his 'Northamptonshire Peasant,' that he declared himself ready to
travel with him to the ends of the world. The friends did not go quite as
far on this occasion, but only to a neighbouring tavern. Here the happy
trio, poet, painter, and sculptor, sat down to a supper of bread and
cheese, seasoned with pale ale, and the flow of unrestrained thought.
They talked of all the noblest subjects that stir the human breast; of
all the unutterable longings that fill the heart of genius. At last they
talked of each other, their hopes, aims, and aspirations, building golden
castles high up into the clouds. They saw fame before them with
outstretched arms; wealth following in its course; and of love and
happiness a bountiful reward. These were lofty dreams: too lofty, alas!
for the flight of helpless genius--genius not understanding the first of
all earthly arts, that of making money. William Hilton, though a famous
painter and Royal Academician, was left to die in poverty, the greater
part of his pictures remaining on his hands unsold. Henry Behnes, noblest
of sculptors, went to perish in an hospital; and John Clare.... The
reader may fill the blank.

[1] Both, the bust by Behnes, and Hilton's oil-painting of Clare,
    remained in Mr. Taylor's hands during his lifetime, and after his
    death (1864) were sold by public auction, at Messrs. Christie,
    Manson, and Woods, March 17, 1865, when they came into the possession
    of the author of this work.

Mrs. Emmerson was very angry with her guest when he came back to her
house a little after midnight, having been kept so long in the delightful
interchange of thoughts with his two artist friends. Clare took very
little notice of the remarks of his fair host about want of courtesy and
the disappointment of distinguished visitors, his mind being full of
reflections engendered by the evening's conversation. He inwardly
resolved to enjoy, if possible, many more such evenings; but changed his
determination the next day. It was a beautiful day of spring, the warm
sunlit air wafting in soft breezes from over the green fields with its
first blossoms, into the crowded streets of the town. Clare took a long
walk through Regent's Park and past Primrose Hill towards Hampstead, on
the slopes of which he discovered some early violets. The sight fairly
made him home-sick. He ran back to Stratford Place, and quite startled
Mrs. Emmerson by crying, 'I must go!' And go he did, twenty hours after;
in such a haste as not even to find time to bid farewell to Allan
Cunningham, warmest of friends. But he left a letter for Allan, 'a shake
of the hand on paper,' which, coming down to the present time, may be
found still interesting. The letter ran:--

'_Stratford Place, March 21, 1828_.

My Dear Cunningham--I wholly intended to see you, but now I fear I
cannot, as my stay is grown so short; so, if I cannot, here is a "good
bye," and God bless you, and as you are aware of my ignorance in
travelling about your great Babel, being insufficient to do so in most
cases without a guide, which is not always to be procured, you must allow
me to make up for the omission by a shake of the hand on paper, as hearty
as your imagination can feel it. If you had not been a poet I would not
have made such a bull, but it is an English one; it has not a cold
meaning. Therefore accept it in lieu of a better. Pray give my kind
remembrances to Mrs. Cunningham, and if I could utter compliments as well
as I feel gratification in the society of kind and warm-hearted people, I
should grow eloquent in her praise. But you well know I am not Ovid, and
I as well know I am no orator, so if I am unable to pay ladies deserving
compliments, if she will accept the plain respects of a plain fellow, and
allow them as nothing more, it will please me much better. Once again,
"good bye."

Now I am going to say last what would have been a compliment to have said
first, perhaps, and that is that Mrs. Emmerson feels much gratified at
your commendation of her poem ["The Return," in Allan Cunningham's
Annual, "The Anniversary"], and much more so, as that commendation came
from a poet. Now comes the cut to my vanity, a sad confession, but
perhaps better "in the breach than the performance." (Allow me to
misquote to suit my purpose.) You ask me for a prose tale, and you
imagine I have written one. Good faith, my dear Allan, I have not,
neither dare I, for I know not what to say; excuses I might have for
writing it badly, but whether I could find excuses for writing it at all
I cannot say. I should be somewhat in the case of the lady, who excused
her faulty book before the rude Dr. Johnson by saying that she had so
many irons in the fire that she had not time to write it better. You may
know his reply from my inability in the like. "Then I advise you, madam,"
said he, "to put your book where your irons are." Such I fear would be
the deserving meed of a prose composition of mine, though your
proposition goes a good way to urge me, if I dare.--Farewell, my dear
Allan, and believe me your sincere friend and highly gratified brother in
the muses,

John Clare.'

The day after writing this letter, Clare was on his way back to Helpston.
He rejoiced inwardly when passing the bill of Highgate, looking back over
the vast world of bricks and smoke behind, and beholding the sunny
fields, fragrant with the first blossoms of spring, in front. More than
ever he felt that he could not exist within the big metropolis, even its
large intellectual life offering no compensation for the bounteous joys
of nature. He almost shuddered when glancing at the huge black vault for
the last time, at the turn of the Highgate Road. But he did not know it
was the last time that his eyes rested upon London.


Returned to Helpston, Clare made immediate preparations for carrying out
Mr. Taylor's project to become a hawker. He sorted the little parcel of
books which he had brought from London, and having divided the volumes
into sets, each containing the 'Rural Poems,' 'Village Minstrel,' and
'Shepherd's Calendar,' he set out in regular pedlar fashion. By dint of
complex reasoning he had persuaded himself, to his own entire
satisfaction, that the profession of selling would be fully as honourable
as that of writing books; nay, that there was greater merit in being the
distributor than the author, and consequently, that the highest vocation
was that of being both together. He therefore resolved to devote himself
with the greatest energy to his new business, and to leave no stone
unturned to succeed in it. As to his attempt at farming, carried on
during the past year, in a very unprofitable manner, he had already come
to the conclusion to abandon it, by letting the land fall back to the
original tenant. Though in reality more attached to field labour than any
other kind of work, his love of it was for the moment all obscured by the
vision of the brilliant prospects open in the new career as bookseller.
His sufferings from poverty had been so fearful, that the one
all-absorbing aim to him now was that of amassing a small capital and
getting out of debt.

It was on one of the first days in April when Clare commenced his trade
as pedlar. With a dozen volumes of his poems in a canvas bag, slung by a
strap over his shoulders, he bravely issued forth from his little hut,
taking the road to Market Deeping. The people of the village, well
acquainted with all his doings, peeped at him from out of doors and
windows, shaking their heads in wonder at the strange sight. To his
Helpston countrymen, Clare's new calling did not seem at all degrading,
but, on the contrary, too ambitious. They looked upon a bagman as a
person of superior social rank--decidedly higher than a poet. Their
conclusions were fully justified from their own point of view, in a
material sense. The hawkers who passed through Helpston were mostly men
of substance, putting-up at the 'Blue Bell,' and ordering the best of
everything from kitchen and cellar; while the poet among them was a
starving wretch, over head and ears in debt, and with one foot in the
workhouse. When Clare set out as a pedlar, therefore, they all declared
that his ambition was carrying him too high. 'Pride comes before the
fall,' said the old ones, tottering to, the door, and stretching their
necks to get a sight of neighbour John. He took no heed of all the signs
of curiosity, but walked briskly up the road towards the north. The sun
shone bright when he started; but before long it began to rain heavily,
so that he was wet all through when arrived at Market Deeping. According
to his carefully-arranged plan, he first called upon the rector. The
reverend gentleman was at home, and condescended to see the poet. But his
brow darkened when learning the errand of his visitor. He told Clare
sharply that he did not intend buying his poems, and that, moreover, he
held it unbecoming to see them hawked about in this manner. Having said
this, he bowed his visitor out of the room, perceiving that his clothes
were dripping wet, and likely to spoil his carpet. The poor pedlar-poet
left the house with, an ill-suppressed tear in his eye.

It still rained heavily, and Clare took refuge in a covered yard attached
to an inn. There were some horse-dealers lolling about, talking of the
state of the weather and the forthcoming races. One of them, a
jolly-looking man with red hair and a red nose, after scanning Clare for
a while, engaged him in conversation. 'You have got something to sell
there: what is it?' The answer was, 'Books.'--'Whose books?'--'My
own.'--'Yes, I know they are your own; or at least I suppose so. But what
kind of books, and by what author?'--'Poems, written by myself.' The
horse-dealer stared. He looked fixedly at Clare, who was sitting on a
stone, utterly dejected, and scarcely noticing his interlocutor. The
latter seemed to feel stirred by sympathy, and in a more respectful tone
than before exclaimed, 'May I ask your name?'--'My name is John Clare,'
was the reply, pronounced in a faint voice. But the words were no sooner
uttered, when the jolly man with the red nose seized Clare by both hands.
'Well, I am really glad to meet you,' he cried; 'I often heard of you,
and many a time thought of calling at Helpston, but couldn't manage it.'
Then, shouting at the top of his voice to some friends at the farther end
of the yard, he ejaculated, 'Here's John Clare: I've got John Clare.' The
appeal brought a score of horse-jobbers up in a moment. They took hold of
the poet without ceremony, dragged him off his stone, and round the yard
into the back entrance of the inn. 'Brandy hot, or cold?' inquired the
eldest of Clare's friends. There was a refusal under both heads, coupled
with the remark that a cup of tea would be acceptable. An order for it
was given at once, and after a good breakfast, and a long conversation
with his new acquaintances, Clare left the inn, delighted with the
reception he had met with. He had sold all his books, and received for
them more than the full price, several of his customers refusing to take
change. It altogether seemed a good beginning of a good trade.

Nevertheless Clare was uneasy in his mind. Not all the kindness of his
friends at the inn could compensate him for the harsh words he had heard
at the rectory. Clare asked himself whether, supposing Market Deeping to
be a fair sample of the towns which he was going to visit, he would be
able to bear such treatment. And then the words of Allan Cunningham
recurred to his mind, and his noble scorn of the career in which he was
embarking. However, it seemed too late now to repent, having gone beyond
the starting point. The next day, therefore, Clare once more slung his
pack across his shoulders, and sallied forth towards Stamford. He did not
expect to sell any of his books within the town, the market having been
abundantly supplied by Mr. Drury; but he had hopes to meet with some
success among the residents in the neighbourhood, to many of whom he was
personally known. But his hopes were doomed to entire disappointment. He
went to numerous farmhouses, mansions, and parsonages, and everywhere
encountered refusal to purchase his ware. Some persons upon whom he
called treated him politely; others with marked rudeness; and the great
majority with indifference. Nearly all knew him by name, and had heard of
his poems; and nearly all, too, like the rector of Market Deeping,
expressed their surprise that an author should retail his own
productions. One irascible old gentleman, living close to the village of
Easton, told Clare, after some conversation, that he ought to be ashamed
to go through the country with a bundle on his back The poet mildly
suggested that to go with a bundle might be better than to go to the
workhouse--the possible other alternative. There was huge astonishment
depicted in the countenance of the old gentleman, and he furtively left
the room, evidently frightened at having talked with a man likely to go
to the workhouse.

It was late at night when Clare arrived home. He felt footsore, and
fainting almost from hunger and thirst, not one of all the persons whom
he had seen during sixteen hours having offered him as much as a crust of
bread or a glass of water. The next day and the day after he was too ill
to leave home, and remained on his couch, pondering on the subject
uppermost in his mind. A fresh resolve to make still greater efforts to
succeed was the result, come to after anxious consideration. As soon as
recovered, he started again, this time to Peterborough.  Though somewhat
afraid of the inmates of the episcopal palace, he was in hopes of
discovering a few friends in the city, having met with several people who
knew his name and admired his writings during his previous short stay at
the 'Red Lion.' Clare, therefore, once more visited this hospitable
tavern, as well as the 'Angel,' but with no result whatever, as far as
the sale of his books was concerned. The people were quite willing to
talk with him for whole hours, and were willing even to pay for such
slight refreshments as he might require; but they would not buy his
books. They did not want poetry, they said; or they did not care for
poetry; or they were, not in the habit of reading poetry. Clare felt very
depressed and sad at heart when starting on his homeward journey, after a
day's ineffectual labour. He had left the 'Angel' inn, and was passing
near the western front of the cathedral, when all on a sudden he found
himself face to face with Mrs. Marsh. The active lady was bustling along
in great haste, but recognised her poet at once. Escape being utterly
impossible, he awaited his fate with resignation. But contrary to his
anticipation, the bishop's wife was not in the least angry or resentful;
she smiled upon him as benignly as if he had never escaped from her
custody at a most trying moment. Clare did not know it at the time, but
discovered afterwards, that Mrs. Marsh was pleased to allow him the
privilege of unlimited eccentricity. That a poet should be playing
fantastic tricks seemed to her the most natural thing in the world;
perhaps she would not have held a man to be a true poet unless invested
with this peculiar gift. Therefore, when Clare ran away in fear of her
grand party, she did not wonder much; only she blamed her servants for
permitting him to run away. That he had taken the coach to London she
knew an hour after he had started; but it was too late to follow him, and
too difficult to look for a single eccentric poet in the streets of the
metropolis. Great now was the joy of Mrs. Marsh that accident threw him
again into her way.

Being questioned as to his present movements, Clare was simple enough,
from a feeling of both diffidence and pride, to hide his actual
occupation. It was the greatest fault he committed in his whole career of
perambulating bookseller, and fatal, in a sense, to his future prospects.
With a better acquaintance of the world and the human heart, he might
have known that Mrs. Marsh would have assisted him in sailing ten times
as many books as he could ever hope to do in his whole life; that she
would have spread his 'Shepherd's Calendar,' like the Catechism, through
the whole diocese of Peterborough, and would have made every clerk in
holy orders, down to the lowest curate, buy the 'Village Minstrel.' But
Clare had no idea how active a friend he possessed in Mrs. Marsh, and
thereby lost the finest opportunity he ever had of succeeding in his
career as a bagman. He left the bishop's wife somewhat abruptly, on her
renewed invitation to pay a visit to the palace, and stay a week or two
in the chamber of genius. Hurrying home, very low in spirits, Clare found
the inmates of his little hut all in trouble and consternation. A doctor
was urgently needed to attend to Patty, she having been suddenly seized
with the pains of labour. Though fearfully tired with his day's march, he
trotted back to Peterborough to fetch the medical man. His assistance
proved to be superfluous, for when Clare returned he found that another
member had meanwhile been added to his household: a little son, who was
christened William Parker on the 4th of May, 1828. The poet's family was
increasing rapidly--too rapidly, alas, for his slender means. Little
William Parker was the third son and fifth child, and there were now nine
living beings within the narrow hut depending upon Clare for bread. His
head throbbed in terrible anxiety when thinking that he might not always
be able to give them bread.

There was not much progress made in the bookselling business during the
next six months. Clare tried all possible means to secure a sale of his
works, walking not unfrequently twenty and even thirty miles a day in all
directions, through Northamptonshire, Lincolnshire, and Rutland; but
meeting with scarcely any success whatever. Sometimes, when most
fortunate, he sold two or three volumes a week, but oftener did not find
a single purchaser. Kindness, too, he met but little, most of the people
treating him as a pauper or a vagrant. Many advised him to try the sale
of trinkets and drapery, or of pills and 'patent medicines,' instead of
poetry; while others went so far as to recommend him to become an
itinerant musician. Having traversed the country in all directions,
suffering from want and fatigue, and, more still, from insults, and not
gaining enough, to purchase the coarsest food, he at last began to see
the utter uselessness of persevering further in his new occupation.
However, as a last attempt to succeed, he inserted a few advertisements
in the 'Stamford News,' informing the public that he was selling his own
poems at his cottage at Helpston. This step was taken by Mr. Taylor's
advice, Clare having informed his publisher of the failure of all his
former operations. The announcement in the 'Stamford News' did not remain
altogether without result, though its immediate effect was rather
unprofitable, the poet being visited by a number of strangers, chiefly
elderly ladies from the neighbouring towns, who were kind enough to take
his books upon credit, and never ceased being creditors.

However, in spite of these constant disappointments, Clare did not give
up all hope of ultimately prospering as a hawker of books. 'Though I have
not as yet opened any prospect of success respecting my becoming a
bookseller,' he wrote to Mr. Taylor, under date August 3d, 1828, 'yet I
still think there is some hopes of selling an odd set now and then, and
as you are so kind as to let me have them at a reduced rate, when I do
sell them I shall make something, if only a trifle. I thought of more in
my days of better dreams, but now even trifles are acceptable. For I do
assure you I have been in great difficulties, and though I remained
silent under them, I felt them oppress my spirits to such a degree that I
almost sunk under them. Those two fellows of Peterborough in the
character of doctors have annoyed and dunned me most horribly, and though
their claims are unjust, I cannot get over them by any other method than
paying.' The 'two fellows from Peterborough in the character of doctors'
were quacks into whose hands Clare, or rather his old father, had
unfortunately fallen. They promised to cure the poor invalid of his
lameness and all other ailings, and after nearly killing him with noxious
drugs, made an exorbitant demand for 'professional assistance.' The
demand was reduced ultimately, when they became aware of the utter
poverty of Clare, to less than a tenth, which they extracted in small
instalments, often taking the last penny from his pocket. For the
present, Clare had hopes to pay 'those two fellows' out of the income
from 'annuals' to which he was contributing. 'I am going to write for the
Spirit of the Age,' he informed Mr. Taylor, 'for which I am to have a
pound a page, and more when it becomes established. But promises, though
they produce a good seedtime, generally turn out a bad harvest. Yet be it
as it will, I am prepared for the worst. I have long felt a dislike to
these things, but necessity leaves no choice.' Considering what Clare got
for his other writings, the 'pound a page' from the 'Spirit of the Age'
was no bad pay. But the poet's unqualified disgust of 'these things,' the
annuals, was so great as often to counterbalance even his desire to gain
a living by his pen. He not unfrequently refused to write for the
'Souvenir' and 'Keepsake' family, and the only annual to which he
contributed with real pleasure was that under the editorship of Allan

The advertisement in the 'Stamford News' brought some curious letters to
Helpston at the beginning of the autumn. A few of the papers having been
wafted into the eastern parts of Lincolnshire, there came invitations
from several places for John Clare to show himself to the natives.
Feeling naturally dull in the Fens, they thought the sight of a live
poet, being a pedlar in the bargain, might be productive of a mild kind
of excitement, highly moral, and very cheap. The mayor of Boston was the
first to be struck with this idea, which he communicated to the more
distinguished of his townsmen, and finally embodied in a most polite note
of invitation. Clare felt exceedingly flattered by the compliments of the
mayor of Boston, and in reply stated that he would be happy to pay a
visit to the ancient borough. The answer had no sooner been sent when
there came summonses from other places within the counties of
Lincolnshire and Norfolk. At Grantham, too, they wanted to see John
Clare, as well as at Tattershall, at Spalding, and at Lynn Regis. There
seemed to be a slow poetic fever raging among the people of the Fens.
Clare sent polite replies to all the courteous invitations, and having
procured a small parcel of books from Mr. Taylor, started for Boston at
the end of September. He walked all the way, and arriving in the evening
of a beautiful day, ascended the steeple of the old church, just when the
sun was sending his last rays over the surging billows of the North Sea.
The view threw Clare into rapturous delight. He had never before seen the
ocean, and felt completely overwhelmed at the majestic view which met his
eyes. So deep was the impression left on his mind that it kept him awake
all night; and when he fell asleep, towards the morning, the
white-crested waves of the sea, stretching away into infinite space,
hovered in new images over his dreams.

The few days which he remained at Boston turned out a continual round of
excitement. The worthy mayor called upon him at the 'White Hart,' the
morning after his arrival, and insisted that he should be present at a
grand dinner-party the same day. Finding all resistance useless, Clare
submitted to his fate. The consequences he related to Mr. Taylor, in a
letter written some time after. 'The mayor of the town,' Clare informed
his publisher, 'was a very jolly companion, and made me so welcome, while
a lady at the table talked so sweetly of the poets, that I drank off my
glass very often, almost without knowing it, and he as quickly filled
it--but with no other intention than that of hospitality--that I felt
rather queer. It was strong wine, and I was not used to it.' After years
of almost total abstinence from intoxicating drink, the effect was
disastrous. For a whole day, the poet was confined to his little room at
the inn, feeling very ill, and wishing himself back at Helpston. But the
men of Boston had not yet done with him, and seemed determined to have as
much lionizing as the occasion allowed. The mayor was preparing another
dinner; and the lady who 'talked so sweetly of the poets' made strong
attempts to get up a poetical conversazione, with sandwiches and
lemonade; while some lively youths went so far as to order a supper at
Clare's inn, thinking to make sure of their lion in this way. But he was
not to be so easily caught, and, with some pride, let Mr. Taylor know how
he escaped the ordeal. 'Several young men,' he informed his patron, 'had
made it up among themselves to give me a supper, when I was to have made
a speech. But as soon as I heard of it, I declined it, telling them if
they expected a speech from me they need prepare no supper, for that
would serve me for everything. And so I got off.' To which the
pedlar-poet appended some moralizings, exclaiming, 'Really this
speechifying is a sore humbug, and the sooner it is out of fashion the
better.' It was strange how little John Clare understood the world in
which he lived.

The visit to Boston was to have been followed by a trip to other places
in the eastern counties, but Clare felt unequal to the task. A three
days' sojourn at the 'White Hart' gave him an insight into the nature of
the work required from a travelling provincial lion, and he became
conscious that he was not fitted for the calling. So he hurried home in
great haste, after having sold his little stock of books. The 'jolly
mayor' was kind enough to purchase two sets of the poetical works, on the
condition of getting the author's autograph, together with his own name
at full length, in every volume. But the lady who talked so sweetly of
the poets, refused to buy anything, pleading that her bookcase was quite
full already. The truly liberal among the people of Boston were the young
men whose supper Clare refused. They made a collection among themselves,
and, unknown to the poet, put ten pounds into his little wallet. He did
not find the gift of his unknown friends till he returned to Helpston,
and the discovery affected him to tears. For the first time in his life
he regretted not having made a speech, even at the risk of breaking down
in the middle of it.


The journey to Boston was followed by a three months' illness. A low
fever, of the typhoid kind, was part of the result of his trip into the
fen country, and of the sudden change of his diet, to which he had been
driven in the intercourse with the hospitable mayor and his friends. The
disease spread through his whole family, attacking each member in turn,
and for a moment threatening to be fatal to the youngest child. However,
all recovered in the end, though very gradually, it being not till
towards the spring of 1829 that the doctor's visits to the little hut
came to an end. The consequences of the illness did not end so soon.
Having been unable to do any work for months, and incurred, moreover,
great expenses for medical assistance and other items connected
therewith, Clare found himself now deeper than ever in debt, and with
scarcely any prospects of raising himself from his abject state of
poverty. Nevertheless, he struggled on bravely, once more trusting to his
pen and poetical inspiration. That book-hawking would not open the road
to success, but, if anything, lead him into an opposite direction, had
become clear to him by this time, and he resolved, therefore, to put
himself once more into communication with the editors of the annuals, so
as to earn a few shillings in writing poetry by the yard. In order to
extend the circle of his editorial acquaintances, he wrote letters to
several of his friends in London, notably to Mr. John Taylor and Allan
Cunningham. In the note to his publisher, the old grievance of Clare came
at length to be touched upon by him in an almost piteous manner. The poor
poet's inexperience of the world was strikingly shown in the tone as well
as contents of this letter, bearing date April 3d, 1829, and traced
apparently in a trembling hand.

After referring to his continued efforts to dispose of his books by means
of advertisements in the 'Stamford News,' with the appended doleful
remark: 'If I succeed in selling them, all well and good; if not, it will
not be the first disappointment I have met with,' Clare continues:--'And
now, my dear Taylor, I will, as a man of business, say what I have long
neglected to tell you. I never liked to refer to it; but it is a thing to
be done, and, be it as it may, it will never interfere in our friendship.
So I should like to know at your leisure how I stand with you in my
accounts, and my mind will be set at rest on that score at once. For if
there is anything owing to me it will be acceptable at any time, and if
there is nothing, I shall be content. The number printed of the first
three volumes I have known a long while by Drury's account; but whether I
have overrun the constable or not since then, I cannot tell, and that is
what I should like to know at the first opportunity. I hope you will not
feel offended at my mentioning the matter, as I do it with no other wish
than to make us greater and better friends, if possible.' Notwithstanding
this extreme humility of tone, Mr. John Taylor felt offended at the
letter of his 'Northamptonshire Peasant,'--and 'man of business' to boot.
He told the 'man of business' that he was asking indiscreet questions,
and recommended him once more to try success as a bagman, and to write
for the annuals in his spare hours. To assist him in the latter object,
Mr. Taylor was kind enough to recommend his poet to a Monsieur
Ventouillac, '14, Gumming Street, Pentonville;' an enterprising professor
of French, who was about entering upon the Souvenir and Keepsake
speculation. John Clare, all eagerness, wrote at once to Monsieur
Ventouillac, and was informed in return that the new annual, to be called
'The Iris,' would be published in the autumn, and that his 'offerings'
would be welcome. Thereupon he sat down to write at once a poem of
twenty-five verses, entitled, 'The Triumph of Time,' and sent it off in
great haste to 14, Gumming Street, Pentonville, with a request to forward
'the amount for the trifle inserted' at the earliest convenience. The
'Iris' made its appearance at the appointed time, as advertised, 'bound
in silk,' with numerous 'embellishments' got up regardless of expense.
But John Clare's 'Triumph of Time' was not in the 'Iris,' the able editor
having placed it among his waste papers, with a pencil note, 'to be
shortened one-half next year. 'The old MS. brown with age, has survived
the wreck of a thousand other manuscripts, and remains in the world,
melancholy to look at as a memorial of the fate of poetry and poets.

Clare's success with the annuals, now as formerly, was of a most
unsatisfactory nature. Acting upon Mr. Taylor's advice, he continued
sending verses to the wonderful periodicals, bound in silk, and got up
regardless of expense, but seldom received any money in return. Some took
his verses, and some did not; and nearly all forgot the fact of other
acknowledgment being due besides complimentary letters. Even Mr. Alaric
Watts, who had made Clare's personal acquaintance the year previous,
forgot his promise to insert one of his poems in the 'Literary Souvenir,'
preferring jingling rhyme manufactured to suit the 'embellishments.'
Almost the only one who took Clare's verses, as well as paid for them,
was brave Allan Cunningham, who stood fast to his friend amidst all the
deluge of silk-bound volumes. During the present summer, as in former
years, Clare continued his contributions, consisting, in this instance,
of several pastorals and sonnets, among them some verses dedicated to
Mrs. Emmerson. But, owing to Clare's rather illegible handwriting, Mr.
Cunningham misread the address of these lines, which so much affected the
poet that he wrote a long and curious note of explanation to Mrs.
Emmerson, 'My dear Eliza,' the note ran: 'I got a letter from friend
Cunningham yesterday, who tells me that my trifles suit him. Among them
are the verses to E. L. E. of which he makes a strange mistake by
fancying they are written to Miss Landon, and flatters me much by
praising them, and also by thinking them "worthy of the poetess." So I
wish that the first opportunity you have you would correct the mistake,
and if you feel the matter too delicate to write upon, you can tell the
Miss Frickers when they next call upon you. For he will most likely
change the E. L. E. to L. E. L. which I shall not be able to rectify if
he does not send me a proof sheet, and I would much rather that they
should stand as written. Proud as I am of brother Allan's commendation,
and proud as I should be of Miss Landon's commendation also, I feel much
prouder to know that they were deemed worthy the acceptance of yourself,
to whom they were dedicated. I will give you the quotation from Allan's
letter relating to the verses:--"I have placed your contributions in the
approved box, marked with my hearty approbation. Your verses to Miss
Landon are the very best you ever composed. After all, a flesh and blood
muse is best, and Miss Landon I must say is a very beautiful substitute
for these aerial mistresses. I shall show it to her." How Allan should
mistake E. L. E. for L. E. L., I cannot say; but in his hurry he must
have overlooked it, and I hope you will rectify the error. I did not tell
him to whom the verses were written, because I thought is was not
necessary, but I wish I had now power to prevent the mistake that may get
into the proofsheet, and remain there if not corrected--.' To judge by
the earnestness with which he dwells upon the subject, these little
troubles of authorship had nearly as deep an effect upon Clare's
sensitive mind as some of his real life-sorrows.

When Clare came to make up the account of his income derived from the
annuals, he found that his labours in this direction were less
remunerative than stone-breaking on the road would have been. He
thereupon determined to break his connexion with the silk-bound
periodicals, with the exception of two or three of the class, Allan
Cunningham's 'Anniversary' among the number. But with Allan, too, he had
occasion to find fault; not indeed for paying him too little, but too
highly. 'I do not,' he wrote to him, in 1829, 'expect pay by the foot or
page, but I like to give good measure and throw in an extra gratis. You
gave me too much for my last, and I hope you will keep that in mind next
year and not do so; for I never feel the loss of independence worse than
when I cannot serve a friend without knowing that I receive a recompense
in return far more than the labour is entitled to.' Allan Cunningham
responded nobly to this disinterested communication. He told his friend
that, though his poetry was of the highest excellence, he was a writer
altogether unfit for the annuals, and the great world of printers and
publishers. In half-playful and half-serious mood, he advised him to try
his hand again at farming, offering some assistance for the purpose.
Clare hesitated for a while; but having carefully considered the matter,
accepted the kindly help tendered by his friend. His chief hope was in
the expectation that he should be able to profit by past experience, and,
avoiding former errors, convert failure into success. So he took again a
small plot of land, for farming purposes, in the autumn of 1829.

There did not seem at first much prospect of good fortune in the new
speculation; nevertheless it turned out remarkably well in the end. Clare
had no sooner returned to his old labours in the field than his health
improved visibly; his mind became more cheerful, and everything around
him seemed to assume a bright and sunny look. His pecuniary
circumstances, too, improved considerably; small sums sufficient to pay
the most pressing of his debts, came in payment for his books; and even
the proprietor of a London annual had the extreme generosity to pay for
contributions sent to him three years previously. Best of all, he got
some regular employment on a farm belonging to Earl Fitzwilliam, which,
together with the cultivation of his own little plot of land, served to
fill up his whole time, leaving him no leisure for writing, but adding a
fair sum to his income. This enforced rest from his poetical labours
proved of the greatest benefit to Clare. The immense mass of verses which
he had produced within the last few years threatened to be highly
detrimental to his genius, in exhausting his mind, and destroying the
very sap of his poetical imagination. He required mental rest, more than
anything else; and this being not only given, but enforced in his new
occupation as both cottage-farmer and agricultural labourer, he found
himself almost suddenly a better, wiser, and more prosperous man. Clare
never spent a happier Christmas than that of 1829. With his little
baby-boy, now eighteen months old, on his knees, his Patty and four
eldest children around the table, and his aged parents seated comfortably
at the place of honour near the fireside, he thought himself truly
blessed, and on the very zenith of earthly joys. There was scarcely a
wish of his heart left for fulfilment, save, perhaps, the old dream to
possess a little strip of the surface of mother earth, and be a king on
his own land, instead of a serf labouring for others. It was the one
lasting dream of his life--a dream unfortunately never destined to be

The next twelve months of Clare's life were uneventful. He worked hard
and wrote little; and, with increasing bodily and mental health, got more
and more at ease in his worldly circumstances. Even his little attempt at
farming was not altogether unsuccessful, for though it did not bring much
direct gain, it secured to him the esteem of his neighbours, and a
feeling of self-dependence which he had never before known. When Patty
presented him with another baby--sixth in the list; baptized Sophia, on
the 3d of October, 1830--he felt by no means despondent as on a former
occasion, but joyful in the extreme. The dread vision of poverty, so long
before his eyes, had suddenly vanished, giving way to fancies of roseate
hue. He almost wondered why he had ever despaired--happiness, after all,
seemed so cheap and within such easy reach. There was wealth and health
sufficient springing from his daily labour, and abundant joy in the
constant sight of green fields, rippling brooks, and the smiling faces of
his little ones at home. And there was joy scarce ever known when sitting
down, at rare intervals, to the inspiration of the muse. Here was the
supreme bliss of existence. Clare knew that the poetry, offspring of
these happy hours, was far superior to anything that had ever flown from
his pen. He almost felt as if now, and now only, he was becoming a true

In truth, Clare never was a writer of perfect melodious verse till this
time. A poet he had always been--had been from the day when, a tottering
child, with senses scarce awakened, he thought to discover at the faint
outline of the distant horizon, the touch of heaven and earth. But
hitherto, and up to this period, the tumultuous inspiration of his soul
had never found vent in soft and even flow of language: the poet had
never been completely able to clothe noble thoughts into noble form. Want
of early training, with grief and care, and unceasing mental agitation,
had hemmed in on all sides the fair stream of his imagination, and the
bright flash of genius was hidden under more or less rugged form. It was
only now, that, having nursed his mind at the source of the great masters
of poetry, and enjoying harmonious peace and rest from cares in the calm
life of labour, that the outward form came to be mastered by the inward
spirit, as clay in the hands of the sculptor. The poet himself was
surprised at this momentous change, which came upon him with a suddenness
almost startling in its intensity. He had left off writing verses for
many months, devoting every moment of leisure to calm study, and happy
wanderings through, woods and fields, when one evening, with the setting
sun before his eyes, he felt a powerful longing to make one more attempt
in poetical composition. Full of this, feeling, he sat down at the
borders of Helpston Heath, lost in heavenly visions, and as he sat there
the verses came flowing from his pen:--

  'Muse of the fields! Oft have I said farewell
  To thee, my boon companion, loved so long,
  And hung thy sweet harp in the bushy dell
  For abler hands to wake an abler song--

       *       *       *       *       *

  Aye, I have heard thee in the summer wind,
  As if commanding what I sung to thee;
  Aye, I have seen thee on a cloud reclined,
  Kindling my fancies into poesy;

  I saw thee smile, and took the praise to me.
  In beauties, past all beauty, thou wert drest:
  I thought the very clouds around thee knelt,
  I saw the sun did linger in the West
  Paying thee worship; and as eve did melt
  In dews, they seemed thy tears for sorrows I had felt.

  Sweeter than flowers on beauty's bosom hung,
  Sweeter than dreams of happiness above,
  Sweeter than themes by lips of beauty, sung,
  Are the young fancies of a poet's love.'

       *       *       *       *       *

When Clare had written his song 'To the Rural Muse,' he went home and
kissed his children, and, it being full moon, kept working in his garden
for another couple of hours. And the next day, and for days after, he
kept on digging and planting, hoeing and ploughing, without ever touching
a pen. It was thus a great and noble poet grew out of the
'Northamptonshire Peasant.'


The short summer was followed by a long winter. Again Clare fell ill; and
with suffering and disease there came a train of misfortune completely
overwhelming the frail life of the poet. The year 1831 proved very
unfavourable to his farming operations, and, having no capital whatever
to fall back upon, he at once relapsed into his former state of
indigence. It was in vain that he attempted to make up for his losses by
increased exertions as a labourer. Working fifteen and sixteen hours a
day during harvest time, and not unfrequently standing up to his knees in
mud in the undrained fields, his health gave way before long, and then
there was an end of all work. He was confined to his bed for longer than
a month, and gaunt poverty now again made its appearance at the little
hut. There were ten persons to be clothed and fed, and no money incoming
save the small quarterly stipend settled upon the poet, which was scarce
sufficient to pay off the debts incurred by the unsuccessful farming of
the year. When Clare saw that his children were wanting bread, his heart
trembled in agony of despair. He rushed forth once more to labour in the
fields, but had to be carried home by his fellow workmen; a mere look at
his feverish ague-stricken frame being sufficient to show them that he
was utterly unfit to be out of doors. So he had to lay his head again on
his couch, happily unconscious for a time of what was passing around him.
There was deep sorrow and lamentation in the little hut of the poet.

When everything was at the worst, kind friends came to the rescue. The
Rev. Mr. Mossop, vicar of Helpston, and his kind-hearted sister, who had
often before assisted Clare and his family, gave once more active aid and
succour; and from Milton Park, too, there came valuable presents of food
and medicine. Thus when the poet was able again to leave his bed, he
found a much brighter outlook around him. Nevertheless, though there was
no more absolute want of the necessaries of life, grim poverty was still
standing at the threshold. The baker threatened to stop the supply of
bread if his debt should long remain unpaid, and even the owner of the
little ruinous dwelling, fourth part of a hut, in which Clare lived,
hinted that the inmates would be driven out, unless the arrears of rent
were discharged. This last menace almost drove the poet wild with
excitement. Narrow and dark as it was, he dearly loved the little hut in
which he was born, and the thought of leaving it, with, perhaps, the
ultimate prospect of going to the workhouse for shelter, was to him blank
despair. Agitated beyond measure, he ran to his friends at Milton Park,
imploring aid and advice. Mr. Edward Artis was, as usual, away on his
antiquarian rambles, intending to leave the service of Earl Fitzwilliam
altogether, and devote himself to authorship on Durobrivae and Roman
pottery. But Henderson was at home, and to him Clare poured out his tale
of woe. While talking in the garden, the earl happened to come near, and
kindly addressed Clare. The latter, in his excitement, found courage to
speak of all his troubles, and his fear of having to quit his little
home, with no place in the world where to lay his head. His lordship was
struck with the intensity of feeling exhibited by the poet. He told him
that he would attend to his wants, and provide a little cottage for him
somewhere in the neighbourhood. Clare was astonished; the offer seemed to
him so excessively generous that he scarce knew how to express his
thanks. Seeing his confusion, the earl turned to other subjects, asking
Clare whether he intended to bring out a new volume of poems, and being
answered in the negative, earnestly advised him to do so. The counsel of
the noble lord, no doubt, was well meant, but nevertheless very
injudicious. The grant of a few acres of land, in a healthy district and
at a moderate rent, would have been more beneficial to him than all the
fame he could ever hope to gain from book-making.

Clare returned to his cottage with a joyful heart, brimful of pleasant
visions of the future. The next day he was visited by Dr. Smith, a
physician of Peterborough, who came in consequence of orders received
from the noble owner of Milton Park. Earl Fitzwilliam, in his interview
with Clare, perceived, or fancied he perceived, a certain wildness of
looks about him, and not knowing what to think of it, was anxious to get
the opinion of a medical man, well known for his successful treatment of
mental diseases. The poet was not at all pleased with the visit of Dr.
Smith; however, in gratitude to his benefactor, he willingly submitted to
a lengthened examination. It had for result a report by the Peterborough
physician to Earl Fitzwilliam, stating that there was no mental
derangement whatever visible in Clare; but that his brain, developed to
an unusual degree, was liable to great and sudden fits of excitement,
from which it ought to be guarded by constant employment and a fair share
of physical labour. Here was useful advice; but which, unfortunately, was
misunderstood by his lordship. The earl quite agreed with the counsel of
giving employment; but fancied the most natural work for a poet was that
of writing poetry, at almost any time, and to any extent. In consequence,
he sent for Clare, and, repeating his promise of giving him a neat little
cottage with garden for occupation, urged him strongly not to neglect
writing poetry, and to publish his new volume as soon as possible. Clare
was but too willing to follow the advice of the noble lord.

The visits of Dr. Smith to Helpston did not cease with the first. Having
been very favourably impressed with the character of the poet, the
Peterborough physician took a great liking to him, and lost no occasion
for friendly intercourse. Clare being devoted anew to writing poetry,
some of the verses fell under the notice of the doctor, who expressed his
approbation of them in rapturous terms. This naturally won the heart of
the author, and, being urgently pressed, he consented to pay a visit to
his medical friend at Peterborough, and stay a few days at his house. The
visit took place in the spring of 1832, and led to some not unimportant
results. Having communicated to his friend his former unfavourable
attempts of book-publishing, and how the four volumes which had been
issued had brought him nothing more substantial than fame, Dr. Smith felt
moved by compassion, and began earnestly to reflect upon the great
problem of converting poetry into cash. The result of these meditations
came out in the shape of strong advice to Clare to fall back upon the old
plan he had once entertained of publishing his verses by subscription.
This was coupled with the promise that he would do his best to procure
subscribers, and otherwise assist in the matter. Clare joyfully entered
into the scheme, and, before leaving Peterborough, made arrangements with
a Mr. Nell, a bookseller, to be his local agent for getting
subscriptions, as well as to make arrangements with a London publisher to
bring out the new volume of poems as soon as sufficient subscribers had
ensured the success of the work. Mr. Nell promised his most energetic
support, and being on the point of undertaking a visit to the metropolis,
Clare furnished him with the following note to his friend Allan

'_Angel Inn, Peterborough_.

My Dear Allan,

Here is a friend of mine, a Mr. Nell, a very hearty fellow, and one who
is very desirous of seeing you--a poet, and, as I have convinced him, as
hearty a fellow as himself. Therefore I have taken the liberty of
introducing a stranger without any apology, feeling that such an
introduction was not needed. He will be particularly gratified in seeing
what you can show him of the immortal specimens of Chantrey's genius, and
any other matters that can interest a literary man; for his profession,
that of a bookseller, is not his only recommendation, he being a man of
no common taste, and also a great admirer of painting and sculpture, and
a lover of the muses.

Here ends my introduction of my friend Mr. Nell. And now, my dear Allan,
how are you? How is Mrs. Cunningham and your family, and our old friend
George Darley? As for myself, I am as dull as a fog in November, and as
far removed from all news of literary matters as the man in the moon;
therefore I hope you will excuse this dull scrawl, and believe me, as I
really am,

Yours heartily and affectionately,

John Clare.

Has Hogg visited London yet? When he does tell me, and I'll see if I
don't muster up every atom of my strength to have a sight of him.

Having left your address at Helpston, I am obliged to trust this letter
and my friend to Providence to find you, which I trust he will readily.
Your J. C.

Allan Cuningham, Esq. London.

Favoured by my friend, Mr. Nell.'

Although 'as dull as a fog in November,' Clare was in a hopeful mood at
this time. Sanguine as ever, and more than ever imbued with the
consciousness of his poetical power, he dreamt that his new publication
would be a success, and that his verses at last would gain a sufficient
circle of admirers to encourage him in writing more, and thus securing
independence for the rest of his days. This hopefulness was somewhat
disturbed after a while by news from his friends at Peterborough, who
told him that subscribers were coming in but very slowly. These
unfavourable tidings he communicated to Mr. Artis, in a note dated May,
1832, in which he said: 'I want to get out a new volume; but the way in
which I have started is not very practicable, for I Want to make it a
source of benefit.' The words bear a striking melancholy sound. Evidently
the poor poet, deeply impressed with his sad experience of the past,
scarcely dared to expect the golden millennium when his verses should
actually prove 'a source of profit' to him as well as to the booksellers.
There probably never lived, a poet--a printing and publishing poet--full
of more sublime meekness and resignation.


Earl Fitzwilliam punctually kept his promise to assign a new dwelling to
Clare. The latter received notice at the beginning of May that he might
remove in the course of the month to a pretty and substantial cottage
which his lordship had erected for him at the hamlet of Northborough,
three miles from Helpston, nearer to the Peterborough Great Fen. The news
did not bring joy to the poet, but bitter sorrow. His heart was full of
anguish at the thought of quitting the little hut where he was born, the
village which he so dearly loved, and all the familiar scenes and objects
amidst which the quiet course of his existence had rolled on for nearly
forty years. He went over to Northborough, and saw the neat dwelling
which the kindness of Earl Fitzwilliam had prepared for him; and though
he liked the place, he could no more than before reconcile his mind to
the thought of leaving his dear old home and all its cherished
associations. The noble earl had fixed upon Northborough as the residence
of the poet on account of the thoroughly sylvan scenery all around, the
little hamlet lying hidden in a very sea of flowers, trees, and
evergreens. The spot indeed was beautiful enough; yet to Clare it did not
appear half so beautiful as the bare and bleak environs of his native
village. Here he knew every shrub and every inch, of ground, and, through
many years' converse with nature, had come to look upon the most minute
objects with intense feelings of love. Though strangers might see nothing
but a barren landscape all around, to him it was a Garden of Eden,
animated with living thought, and full of soul-inspiring beauty. The mere
thought of quitting this Eden filled his mind with terror.

The terror increased when the time came near that he was actually to
leave. More than once he was on the point of requesting an audience at
Milton Park, for the purpose of imploring the noble earl to take back his
kind gift and leave him in his little hut. But his friends at Milton
Park, Artis and Henderson, would not hear of this resolution, and got
quite angry at the mere mentioning of the subject. They represented to
Clare that it would be black ingratitude on his part not to accept the
generous benefaction of his lordship, who had taken all along the
greatest interest in his welfare, and in this very choice of a residence
in the evergreen vale of Northborough had shown the most delicate taste
and appreciation of his poetical genius. Clare could not deny the force
of these arguments, and, after another inward struggle, decided to go to
Northborough, at any sacrifice to his feelings. Yet even after this firm
determination of his mind, he could scarcely bring himself to the
execution of the task. Patty, radiant with joy to get away from the
miserable little hut into a beautiful roomy cottage, a palace in
comparison with the old dwelling, had all things ready for moving at the
beginning of June, yet could not persuade her husband to give his consent
to the final start. Day after day he postponed it, offering no excuse
save that he could not bear to part from his old home. Day after day he
kept walking through fields and woods among his old haunts, with wild
haggard look, muttering incoherent language. The people of the village
began to whisper that he was going mad. At Milton Park they heard of it,
and Artis and Henderson hurried to Helpston to look after their friend.
They found him sitting on a moss-grown stone, at the end of the village
nearest the heath. Gently they took him by the arm, and, leading him back
to the hut, told Mrs. Clare that it would be best to start at once to
Northborough, the earl being dissatisfied that the removal had not taken
place. Patty's little caravan was soon ready, and the poet, guided by his
friends, followed in the rear, walking mechanically, with eyes half shut,
as if in a dream.

His look brightened for a moment when entering his new dwelling place, a
truly beautiful cottage, with thatched roof, casemented windows, wild
roses over the porch, and flowery hedges all around. Yet, before many
hours were over, he fell back into deep melancholy, from which he was
relieved only by a new burst of song. His feelings found vent in the

  'I've left my own old Home of Homes,
    Green fields, and every pleasant place;
  The summer like a stranger comes,
    I pause--and hardly know her face.

       *       *       *       *       *

  I miss the heath, its yellow furze,
    Mole-hills and rabbit-tracks, that lead
  Through besom-ling and teasel burrs
    That spread a wilderness indeed:
  The Woodland oaks, and all below
    That their white powder'd branches shield,
  The mossy paths--the very crow
    Croaks music in my native field.

  I sit me in my corner chair,
    That seems to feel itself alone;
  I hear fond music--here and there
    From hawthorn-hedge and orchard come.
  I hear--but all is strange and new:
    I sat on my old bench last June,
  The sailing puddock's shrill "pee-lew,"
    O'er Royce Wood seemed a sweeter tune.

  I walk adown the narrow close,
    The nightingale is singing now;
  But like to me she seems at loss
    For Royce Wood and its shielding bough.
  I lean upon the window sill,
    The trees and summer happy seem,--
  Green, sunny green they shine--but still
    My heart goes far away to dream
  Of happiness--and thoughts arise
    With home-bred pictures many a one--
  Green lanes that shut out burning skies,
    And old crook'd stiles to rest upon.

       *       *       *       *       *

  I dwell on trifles like a child--
    I feel as ill becomes a man;
  And yet my thoughts like weedlings wild
    Grow up and blossom where they can.'--

'Northborough, June 20, 1832,' these lines were written. They formed the
beginning of a new era in the life of the sorrowing poet.

Happiness never came to Clare in his rose-enshrined cottage at
Northborough. His poetical powers culminated at this period; but his mind
gradually gave way under a burthen of sorrows and cares. Perhaps some of
them were fanciful, and such 'as ill become a man;' but the bulk had
their roots in bitter reality. Clare now had a pretty cottage to live in;
yet, for all that, remained as poor as ever. In truth, he was, if
anything, poorer; for having left his old neighbourhood, and come to
dwell among strangers, he had lost his chances of finding work as a
farm-labourer. His little garden, it was true, yielded a few fruits and
vegetables for his family; yet there was not a tithe enough for their
support, and dire want was standing at the door with as grim aspect as
ever. Then there came new expenses for keeping the larger cottage in
repair, and for fitting it with appropriate furniture, and a mountain of
fresh debt was added to the old liabilities which so sorely pressed upon
the poor poet. It was a pressure nigh overwhelming to a tenderly
susceptible mind.

Clare's removal to Northborough had the immediate effect, not desirable
by any means, of drawing upon him the attention of a number of persons
more or less acquainted with his works, but by whom he had been
forgotten. As usual, public rumour magnified to an enormous extent the
nature of the bounty conferred by Earl Fitzwilliam; and while the most
moderate statement was that the poet had an annual allowance of two
hundred pounds a year from his lordship, besides a fine house to live in,
others went so far as to raise the two hundred to a thousand, and the
house to a mansion. Local newspapers busily printed these attractive
items of public intelligence, and the consequence was that the cottage at
Northborough was for some months quite besieged with visitors, all come
to congratulate. Clare felt in no mood to give or receive compliments,
and positively refused to entertain the stream of kind friends of whose
friendships he had never before been aware. With a few of the visitors,
however, with whom he had been previously acquainted, he entered into
conversation, speaking frankly of his actual circumstances, and of the
entire untruth of the rumours which asserted his sudden wealth. Among the
friends who gained his confidence to this extent was a Mr. Clark, editor
of a literary magazine, who, with the view of making a little article out
of his visit, questioned and cross-questioned Clare in the most minute
way as to his financial circumstances, and the number of his patrons.
John Clare, as to all men, so here to this supposed friend, spoke in a
frank and confiding manner, not hiding the fact that his poetry had never
been remunerative, nor that, though having many patrons left, he was on
the very brink of starvation. This was interesting news to Mr. Clark; and
the matter being eminently fit for raising the old discussion about poets
and their patrons, he spun it into a flaming article, duly painted and
coloured, which was printed in the literary magazine.

The poet was immensely astonished when, at the beginning of October, he
received a paper containing an account of himself and his troubles. It
was stated that his publishers had robbed him of the profits of his
works; that some noble patrons, alluded to in no complimentary terms,
kept feeding him with compliments, but left him to starve; and much more
to the same effect. The whole account deeply hurt his feelings, and he at
once sent a letter to a friend at Stamford, contributor to Mr. Clark's
magazine. The letter ran: 'My dear friend,--I am obliged to write to you
to contradict the misrepresentations in your paper of October the 5th,
which I received on Saturday. As long as my own affairs are
misrepresented, I care nothing about it; but such falsehoods as are
bandied about in this article not only hurt my feelings but injure me.
Mr. Clark in making these statements must have known that he was giving
circulation to lies; and had I been aware of his intentions to meddle in
my affairs, I should most assuredly have treated him as a foe in
disguise. For enemies I care nothing; from friends I have much to fear,
it seems. There never was a more scandalous insult to my feelings than
this officious misstatement.... I am no beggar; for my income is £36, and
though I have had no final settlement with Taylor, I expect to have one
directly.' The letter, after going into the details of his commercial
transactions both with Mr. Drury and Mr. Taylor, not altogether
complimentary to the former, ended with a positive demand that the
statements made in the magazine should be retracted.

But no attention was paid to this demand. The result was that Clare got
more gloomy and melancholy than ever, hiding himself for whole days in
the neighbouring woods, and refusing to see even the most intimate of his
friends. The publication of the unfortunate magazine article and
'officious misstatement,' of which there appeared no public
contradiction, was likewise not without effect upon the demeanour of
Clare's patrons. Earl Fitzwilliam, after providing him with a suitable
dwelling in an unexpectedly generous manner, subsequently left him to his
fate. Thus the poet sank deeper and deeper into poverty and wretchedness,
until he could sink no further.


The publication of the new volume of verses made little progress for a
long time to come. Notwithstanding the strenuous exertions of Dr. Smith
and other friends, the desired subscribers were very slow in presenting
themselves, poetry being evidently at a discount at the border of the fen
regions. In the spring of 1833, Clare informed his kind friend, the Vicar
of Helpston, who continued to assist him in his needs, that he had
secured 'subscribers for forty-nine copies' of his intended new volume;
adding, however, the dismal fact of eighteen among them being 'rather
doubtful.' Thus a poet, whose fame the leading organ of criticism, the
'Quarterly Review,' had proclaimed a dozen years before, and who was now
at the very zenith of his power, was actually unable to find more than
thirty persons in his own neighbourhood, where he was best known, who
would support him to the extent of a few pence. Nor was Clare more
fortunate in his endeavours to find patronage among the great publishers
of the metropolis. Although he sent specimens of some exquisite songs and
ballads to many of the best-known dealers in poetical ware, they declined
publishing them without having the previous signatures of a certain
number of purchasers. One of the specimen poems thus sent to London was
the following song, entitled 'Woman's Love:'--

  'O the voice of woman's love!
    What a bosom stirring word!
  Was a sweeter ever uttered,
    Was a dearer ever heard,
              Than woman's love?

  How it melts upon the ear!
    How it nourishes the heart!
  Cold, cold must his appear
    Who has never shared a part
              Of woman's love.

  'Tis pleasure to the mourner,
    'Tis freedom to the thrall;
  The pilgrimage of many,
    And the resting place of all,
              Is woman's love.

  'Tis the gem of beauty's birth,
    It competes with joys above;
  What were angels upon earth
    If without woman's love?
              A woman's love.'

It did not seem to strike the publishers, to whom this poem, with many
similar ones, was submitted, that there was anything beautiful in it; and
after having travelled up and down Paternoster Row, the verses were
returned to the author, 'with thanks.' One bookseller, indeed, offered to
bring out the volume, but on condition that Clare was to advance one
hundred pounds, to be spent in steel engravings and other
'embellishments.' Without embellishments, he told his correspondent, the
verses would never attract public attention, the taste of the day being
all for high art, as exhibited in the annuals. Clare wrote an angry note
in return, deeming it an insult that a man should ask him to spend a
hundred pounds upon steel engravings, when he was in want of bread.

The winter of 1832-3 proved the greatest trial the unhappy poet had yet
undergone. With scarcely food for his children; with not money enough to
satisfy even a fraction of the claims of his most importunate creditors;
and with no expectations of earning anything, either by work in the
fields or by the publication of his new volume of verses, he saw nothing
but the dreariest prospect of misery staring him in the face. He wept
bitterly when, on the 4th of January, 1833, his wife brought  him another
boy, his seventh child. Passionately fond of his little ones, and devoted
to them heart and soul, he could not bear the thought of the coming day
when he might have no bread to give them. The mere idea made him feel
faint and giddy, and he rushed forth into the fields to cool his
throbbing head. Not returning in time for the evening meal, his eldest
daughter went in search through all the neighbourhood. After long
inquiries and searching, she found her father lying on an embankment,
close to a footpath leading from Northborough to the village of Etton. He
looked deadly pale, and being quite insensible, had to be carried home on
the shoulders of some labourers, who were called for assistance.
Consciousness did not return till some hours after, and for nearly a
month he was unable to leave his bed. The parish doctor, when called in,
shook his head, talked something of ague and fever, and ended by sending
some bottles full of yellowish stuff, which Clare refused to take. He
knew, better than the doctor, that something else than medicine was
required to restore his health--health of the mind, as well as of the

When the spring came, Clare had gathered sufficient strength to be able
to leave the house. But he now, to the infinite surprise of his family,
refused to leave it. He seemed to have lost, all at once, his old love
for flowers, sunshine, and green trees, and kept sitting in his little
study, silently writing verses, or poring over his books. In vain his
children begged him to go with them into the smiling fields, spread out
temptingly on all sides around their pretty cottage. He went, now and
then, as far as the garden; but quickly returned, sitting down again to
his books and papers. Some theological works in his collection, which had
been presented to him years ago, but at which he had scarcely ever looked
before, now chiefly engrossed his attention. He sat reading them all day
long, and often till late at night, neglecting food and rest over the
perusal of these works. Sometimes he ceased reading for a few hours, and
took to writing religious verses, attempting paraphrases of the Psalms,
the Proverbs, and the Book of Job. Visitors he now altogether refused to
see, and even to his wife and children he spoke but little. Thus the news
of his illness did not spread beyond the village, and remained unknown
even to his friends at Milton Park. It was quite accidentally that Dr.
Smith looked in upon his friend one day, and was admitted after some
difficulty. The doctor was startled on seeing the pale and haggard face
of Clare, and the fixed stare of his eyes. But a short examination of his
friend went far to reassure the physician, for he found that Clare talked
not only quite rationally, but with more than usual good sense and
apparent firmness of purpose. He informed his visitor that, as his former
productions had not been as favourably received as he hoped they would
be, he had bethought himself of writing a volume of religious poetry; not
controversial, but simple expositions of the truth proclaimed in the
Bible. To show the work he was doing, Clare read two of his renderings of
the Psalms, which pleased the doctor so much that he broke out into
rapturous applause. He promised at the same time that he would leave no
stone unturned to get subscribers both for the book of ballads and
sonnets previously planned, and for the new volume of religious verse.
The poet, usually so sensitive to words of kindness, received both the
praise and the promise with great coldness. This again surprised the
Peterborough physician.

Dr. Smith kept word in regard to the beating-up of subscribers. After
indefatigable exertions, and by almost forcing his poor patients, lay and
clerical, to take a poetical prospectus together with their pills, he
succeeded in getting a couple of hundred names to the subscription list.
He carried the paper in triumph to Northborough; but was again received
in a cold and apathetic manner. Clare expressed no pleasure whatever on
hearing that there was now a good prospect of bringing out his new
volume. He scarcely listened to what the doctor said, and kept on
interrupting him every minute with remarks of his own on biblical
subjects. 'Is not this Book of Job a wonderful poem--one of the most
wonderful elegies ever written?' he asked again and again. Dr. Smith was
somewhat surprised; the man of science had never been thinking much about
the Book of Job, and, perhaps, knew it only by repute. He looked Clare
steadfastly in the face; but the latter averted the glance, bonding over
the papers before him. 'Shall I read to you some of my verses?' he
inquired, after a pause. The doctor willingly consented, and Clare began
declaiming his paraphrase of the 38th chapter of Job:--

  'Then God, half angered, answered Job aright,
  Out of the whirlwind and the darkening storm--'

When he had finished reading, with tremulous voice, the last lines,
scarcely altered from the text:--

          'And who provides
  The raven with his food--His young ones cry
  To God, and wander forth for lack of meat'--

Clare burst out crying, hiding his face in his hands. The medical man got
alarmed, and went out to see Mrs. Clare. He asked her whether she had
observed anything unusual about her husband of late; in fact, words or
doings betoking mental disorder. She replied that she had not noticed
anything, except his being unusually silent and reserved, and utterly
disinclined to leave the house. Thereupon both went into Clare's room,
and found that he had overcome his sudden burst of grief, and was looking
out of the window. He now entered freely into conversation with the
doctor, betraying not the slightest sign of incoherent thought or
reflection. Thanking his friend for all his kindness in getting
subscribers for the intended volume of poems, he told him that he was
going to write immediately to London, and make arrangements for the
publication of the book. The doctor then left, promising to call again.

He often called, and invariably met Clare in the same mood. Though
somewhat reserved in manner, he was cheerful, and his talk completely
rational; so that Dr. Smith almost reproached himself for having
harboured suspicions about the mental condition of his friend. What
dispelled the last remnant of these suspicions, was the character of some
of the poems which Clare was writing in his presence, and afterwards
reading aloud. The doctor was a fair judge of verses, and he confessed to
himself that those which his friend was now composing were more exquisite
in form than any which had ever before come from his pen. When visiting
Clare early one morning, he found him in a happier mood than usual, and
learned that he had just written some lines in praise of an old
sweetheart, whom he had seen the day before from his window, when she was
walking along the road. The poet, being asked to do so, willingly read
the verses to his friend. But his voice quivered with emotion, when

  'First love will with the heart remain
    When all its hopes are bye,
  As frail rose-blossoms still retain
    Their fragrance when they die;
  And joy's first dreams will haunt the mind
    With shades from whence they sprung,
  As summer leaves the stems behind
    On which spring's blossoms hung.

  Mary! I dare not call thee dear,
    I've lost that right so long;
  Yet once again I vex thine ear
    With memory's idle song.
  Had time and change not blotted out
    The love of former days,
  Thou wert the last that I should doubt
    Of pleasing with my praise.'

The doctor highly praised these and the following verses addressed to
'Mary;' and, on proffering the wish, was promised a copy of them. The
poem seemed to him a convincing proof that, whatever Clare's sufferings
had been, they had left no effect upon his mind. Had the man of science
been aware of all the facts, he would have known that these very verses
were indications of a partial disturbance of reason. Sweet 'Mary,' to
whom Clare's verses were addressed, and whom he fancied to have seen in
the road the day before, had long been lying in her grave.


Being under the impression that his friend was perfectly well, Dr. Smith
soon discontinued his visits, and, not being called upon, never saw him
again. But just at this time the poet's condition got rapidly worse, and
the first tokens of insanity began to show themselves. Morbidly occupied
with one set of thoughts, he had now lost the consciousness of his own
identity, and addressed his wife and children as strangers. When the
former first heard her husband speaking of 'John Clare' as a third
person, she became terribly frightened; but thinking he might recover
from his mental aberration by being carefully nursed and kept as quiet as
possible, she resolved to do her own duty independent of the world. She
was successful, to some extent; for after a while the clouds began, to
disappear, and the poet again spoke in a rational manner. He seemed to
feel as if awakening from a heavy, oppressive dream; his thoughts
perfectly clear, yet with a conscious remembrance that his reason had
been disturbed, and an infinite dread that the same calamity might happen
again. Full of this apprehension, and in terrible anxiety to shield
himself against the coming danger, he resolved to consult his friend, Mr.
John Taylor, from whom he had not heard for a long time. He wrote a first
note at the beginning of July, 1834; but, not getting an immediate reply,
despatched a second letter. It ran:--

'_Northborough, July 10, 1834_.

My Dear Taylor,--I am in such a state that I cannot help feeling some
alarm that I may be as I have been. You must excuse my writing; but I
feel if I do not write now I shall not be able. What I wish is to get
under Dr. Darling's advice, or to have his advice to go somewhere; for I
have not been from home this twelvemonth, and cannot get anywhere. Yet I
know if I could reach London I should be better, or else get to salt
water. Whatever Dr. Darling advises I will do if I can.

Mrs. Emmerson, I think, has forsaken me. I do not feel neglect now as I
have done: I feel only very anxious to get better. I cannot describe my
feelings; perhaps in a day or two I shall not be able to do anything, or
get anywhere. Write, dear Taylor, and believe me.

Yours sincerely, John Clare.'

The reply to this note was an invitation to come to London at once, and
consult Dr. Darling, who would be glad to see his old friend and patient.
But the advice was easier than its execution. There was such dire poverty
within the pretty cottage at Northborough, that many a day its inmates
had to go without a dinner; and to raise the money for paying the journey
to London and back seemed sheer impossibility. Clare had made
arrangements, some time previous, for the printing of his new volume of
poems; but this, too, had not yet proved a remunerative affair. The
publishers who had undertaken the task, Messrs. Whittaker and Co. of Ave
Maria Lane, informed him that, before sending any remuneration for the
book, they must see how it would sell; clearly hinting that, if not
successful, there would be no payment. Thus the poor poet was again
baffled in his endeavours to extricate himself from his dire misery by
the want of a few pounds. Probably, could he but have raised at this
moment sufficient money to pay for his journey to London and consult Dr.
Darling, his life, and what was more than his life, might yet have been
saved. But, again and again, there was not a hand stretched forth from
among the host of high friends and patrons to save a glorious soul from

A last appeal for help and assistance issued forth from the cottage at
Northborough at the beginning of August. Clare once more informed his
friend Taylor that he felt terribly anxious to consult Dr. Darling, but
could not undertake the journey for want of means. 'If I could but go to
London,' he wrote, 'I think I should get better. How would you advise me
to come? I dare not come up by myself. Do you think one of my children
might go with me? Write to me as soon as you can. God bless you! Excuse
the short letter, for I am not able to say more. Thank God, my wife and
children are all well.' There was no answer to this note, nor to a final
still more piercing cry for help. After that, all was quiet at the pretty
cottage at Northborough. The last struggle was over.

Months and months passed, and no change took place in the mental
condition of the poet. He kept reading and writing all day long; spoke
but little, and seemed averse to the society of even his wife and
children. At times, and for long consecutive periods, his remarks to his
family, and some few neighbours or visitors who were admitted to the
house, were quite rational; but again at other times his language
betrayed the sad aberration of a noble intellect. At such moments he
always spoke of himself as a stranger, in the third person, alternately
praising and condemning the sayings and doings of the man John Clare. He
was fond, too, of appealing to some invisible 'Mary,' as his wife, quite
ignoring the faithful spouse at his side, and treating her with utter
indifference. Throughout, however, he was calm and quiet; never
complaining of anything, nor possessing, to all appearance, any other
desire than that of being left alone in his little room, among his books
and papers. Thus the winter passed, and the spring made its
appearance--the spring of 1835. At the approach of it the dark clouds
seemed to vanish once more for a short time. Throughout March and April,
he did not show the least sign of mental derangement, and on there coming
a letter from his publishers, asking him to write a preface to his little
book of poems, just on the point of being issued, he did so without
hesitation. This preface, dated 'Northborough, May 9, 1835'--containing
nothing remarkable, except a melancholy allusion to 'old friends' long
vanished from the scene, and to 'ill health,' which had left the writer
'incapable of doing anything,'--was duly issued with the new book in the
month of June.

The book was entitled 'The Rural Muse,' and, by desire of the publishers,
was dedicated to Earl Fitzwilliam. It was but a small volume of 175
pages, comprising some forty-four ballads and songs, together with
eighty-six sonnets. Messrs. Whittaker and Co. fearful of risking money in
printing too large a quantity of rural verse, so much out of fashion for
the time, had picked these short pieces from about five times as many
poems, furnished to them by the author. The pieces, however, were well
chosen; and were likewise tastefully printed, besides being illustrated
with the inevitable steel engravings--pictures of Clare's cottage and of
the, church at Northborough. Short as most of the poems were, it was on
the whole a splendid collection of exquisite verse, such, as had not been
published for many a day. The 'Rural Muse,' compared to Clare's first
book, the 'Poems of Rural Life,' was as much higher in thought as the
works of the master are to those of the apprentice, and as much more
beautiful in outward form as the butterfly is to the chrysalis.
Nevertheless, the new volume, so far from passing, like the first,
through four editions, and being praised by 'Quarterly Reviews' and other
high organs of criticism, proved thoroughly unsuccessful. The reviewers
refused to notice, and the public to buy, the 'Rural Muse.' There was no
critic in all England to say one word in its recommendation; nor one of
all the old friends and patrons who sent a cheering note of praise to the
author. Of the ill success of his book Clare, however, heard soon enough.
The publishers let him know that he could expect no remuneration, the
entire receipts being insufficient to pay the expenses, including the
cost of the much-admired steel engravings. Clare received the information
very calmly. His soul, once more, was beyond the strife of hopes and

Though there was no literary review in England to say a word in favour of
the forgotten poet at Northborough, there was one in Scotland. Professor
Wilson, of Edinburgh, had no sooner seen the new book when he broke forth
in eloquent praise of it in 'Blackwood's Magazine.' In the number for
August, 1835, he gave an article of sixteen pages, headed 'Clare's Rural
Muse,' containing not a few strong honest words about the poet and the
unjust neglect under which he was suffering. After comparing Clare with
Burns, and setting him, at the same time, far above Bloomfield, Professor
Wilson broke forth in indignant strain:--

'Our well-beloved brethren, the English--who, genteel as they are, have a
vulgar habit of calling us the Scotch--never lose an opportunity of
declaiming on the national disgrace incurred by our treatment of Burns.
We confess that the people of that day were not blameless--nor was the
bard whom now all the nations honour. There was some reason for sorrow,
and perhaps for shame; and there was avowed repentance. Scotland stands
where it did in the world's esteem. The widow outlived her husband nearly
forty years; she wanted nothing, and was happy. The sons are prosperous,
or with a competence; all along with that family all has been right.
England never had a Burns. We cannot know how she would have treated him
had he "walked in glory and in joy" upon _her_ mountain-side. But we do
know how she treated her Bloomfield. She let him starve. Humanly
speaking, we may say that but for his imprisonment--his exclusion from
light and air--he would, now have been alive. As it was, the patronage he
received served but to prolong a feeble, a desponding, a melancholy
existence; cheered at times but by short visits from the Muse, who was
scared from that dim abode, and fain would have wafted him with her to
the fresh fields and the breezy downs. But his lot forbad--and generous
England. There was some talk of a subscription, and Southey, with hand
"open as day to melting charity," was foremost among the poets. But
somehow or, other it fell through, and was never more heard of--and
meanwhile Bloomfield died. Hush then about Burns.'

When brave Christopher North wrote these lines in 'Blackwood,' he
probably knew nothing about the actual position of Clare, except the
general rumour that he was not very well off, though not absolutely poor.
He therefore thought to do enough in inviting all the admirers of genuine
poetry to purchase the 'Rural Muse,' in order that 'the poet's family be
provided with additional comforts.' That some 'comforts' were theirs
already, Professor Wilson judged from the elaborate steel engraving of
Clare's dwelling, prefixed to the new volume. 'The creeping plants,' he
said, 'look pretty in front of the poet's cottage, but they bear no
fruit. There is, however, a little garden attached, and in it may he dig
without anxiety, nor need to grudge among the esculents the gadding
flowers.... Clare is contented, and his Patty has her handful for the
beggar at the door, her heartful for a sick neighbour.'

Alas! had but Professor Wilson known the bitter actual truth, the
frightful condition of another Burns, it might have been time yet to
rouse with thunder voice the heart of England--of England and of
Scotland--to prevent another 'national disgrace.'


The article in 'Blackwood's Magazine' occasioned some talk in the
literary world of London; but on the whole made little impression, and
probably did not contribute much to the sale of the 'Rural Muse.' The old
patrons of Clare were glad to learn, on the authority of a great writer,
that he was tolerably comfortable and,'contented,' with something to
spare for 'the beggar at the door,' and for the rest people did not
trouble themselves much about 'national disgrace,' engendered by the
treatment of rural poets. Three months after the publication of his
'Rural Muse,' Clare was as much forgotten as ever; his name never
mentioned in polite society; and the copies of his book lying unsold on
the shelves of Messrs. Whittaker and Co. in Ave Maria Lane. The poet
himself was not affected by it, for he had ceased to suffer from the
neglect of the world and the rude buffetings of poverty and misery. Like

                       'He, repulsed,
  Fell into sadness, then into a fast,
  Thence to a watch, thence into a weakness,
  Thence to a lightness; and, by this declension,
  Into the madness wherein now he raves.'

In the winter of 1835-6 the poet's mental state became alarming. His
ordinarily quiet behaviour gave way at times to fits of excitement,
during which he would talk in a violent manner to those around him.
However, his wife and children were as yet almost the only people who
knew of his mental derangement, the world being still entirely ignorant
that the 'Northamptonshire Peasant,' who had just issued a new book of
poetry, was a madman. Even Clare's own neighbours knew little of his
state; to them he always was an inexplicable, erratic being, with words
and actions not to be measured by the ordinary standard, and they,
therefore, took little notice of occasional strange scenes which they
witnessed. This was fortunate, in so far as it contributed to put poor
Mrs. Clare more at her ease. She rightly judged that if she could but
induce her husband to leave his narrow room and his books, and enjoy
again as of old the sight of flowers, trees, and green fields, his health
would be greatly improved. With this constant aim in view, she succeeded
at last in drawing her unhappy partner from his gloomy retirement. The
spring of 1836 was unusually fine, and when nature had put on her first
smiling green, and the whole little village was wrapped in a belt of
fragrant blossoms and flowers, Patty instructed her two eldest daughters
to lead their father for a short walk through the neighbourhood. The
poet, this time, made no resistance whatever, but allowed himself to be
guided by his children. He returned much pleased with his excursion,
expressing a wish to go again the next day. From the second walk he came
back still more delighted, and the daily rambles continuing for more than
a month, Clare at last seemed almost recovered from his malady. Except at
rare intervals, when his speech would become somewhat wild and
incoherent, his behaviour showed not the least signs of eccentricity, and
though more quiet and subdued than formerly, the conversation he carried
on seemed perfectly judicious and rational. Once more, Patty fervently
hoped Heaven would restore her husband.

It was not long before Clare's old love of nature came back with such
renewed ardour that he could not be made to stop a single day at home.
Whenever the weather was moderately fine, he sallied forth, mostly
unaccompanied by any one, and seldom returned before the sun had set. He
extended his excursions as far as Helpston Heath on the one side, and
Peterborough on the other, seemingly as much as ever acquainted with
every nook and piece of ground for miles around the neighbourhood of his
ancient haunts. One day, when rambling about on the confines of the
cathedral city, he met and was recognised by Mrs. Marsh. The good old
lady was delighted to see her poet again, and insisted that he should
make up for his former neglect by accompanying her at once, and staying a
few days at the episcopal mansion. Clare said he was expected home by his
wife, and could not go the same day; but promised to pay a visit to
Peterborough in the course of a week. He kept his word, and on the
appointed time presented himself before Mrs. Marsh. She was exceedingly
pleased, and to prevent her poet from running away again, kept him
constantly in her company. Conversing with him on all subjects, Mrs.
Marsh at times thought his remarks rather singular; while his sudden
swerving from one topic to another often astonished her not a little. But
all this the good lady held to be perfectly natural in a poet and a man
of genius. To her a poet was nothing if not eccentric.

Clare remained for several days a guest at the residence of the bishop,
and on the last evening of his visit was taken by Mrs. Marsh to the
theatre. A select band of roving tragedians had taken possession of the
Peterborough stage--converted, by a more prosaic living generation, into
a corn-exchange--and were delighting the inhabitants of the episcopal
city with Shakespeare, and the latest French melodramas. On the evening
when Clare went to the theatre in company with Mrs. Marsh, the 'Merchant
of Venice' was performed. Clare sat and listened quietly while the first
three acts were being played, not even replying to the questions as to
how he liked the piece, addressed to him by Mrs. Marsh. But at the
commencement of the fourth act, he got restless and evidently excited,
and in the scene where Portia delivered judgment, he suddenly sprang up
on his seat, and began addressing the actor who performed the part of
Shylock. Great was the astonishment of all the good citizens of
Peterborough, when a shrill voice, coming from the box reserved to the
wife of the Lord Bishop, exclaimed, 'You villain, you murderous villain!'
Such an utter breach of decorum was never heard of within the walls of
the episcopal city. It was in vain that those nearest to Clare tried to
keep him on his seat and induce him to be quiet; he kept shouting, louder
than ever, and ended by making attempts to get upon the stage. At last,
the performance had to be suspended, and Mrs. Marsh, after some
difficulty, got away with her guest. The old lady, in her innocence, even
now did not apprehend the real cause of the exciting scene which she had
witnessed, but, as before, attributed the behaviour of her unfortunate
visitor to poetic eccentricity. But she began thinking that he was almost
too eccentric.

The next morning, Clare went back to Northborough, having received an
intimation from Mrs. Marsh that it would be best he should go home at
once. He wandered forth from the city in a dreamy mood, and lost his way
before he had gone far. Some acquaintances found him sitting in a meadow,
near the hamlet of Gunthorpe, and seeing his wild haggard looks and
strange manners, they took him by the arm, and led him back to
Peterborough, delivering him over to the porter at the episcopal mansion.
Mrs. Marsh, on hearing that her poet had again made his appearance, was
somewhat alarmed; her guest had ceased to be ornamental to her
establishment, and her chief object now was to get rid of him as soon as
possible. She therefore ordered a servant to take charge of Clare and
deliver him up to his wife, with instructions not to let him go, under
any pretence, to Peterborough. The order was duly obeyed, and the poet
soon found himself in his little cottage. Patty was frightened to see
what a sad change the few days' absence had wrought in her husband. He no
longer talked sensibly as before, but addressed her and the children in
an abrupt manner, asking for his 'Mary,' and complaining that all his
friend's had left him. The poor wife soothed him as best she could, and
after some efforts succeeded in calming his mind. At the end of a few
days, Clare seemed again sufficiently well to leave the house, and
renewed his daily walks in company with one or the other of his children.
The inhabitants of the village, together with most of his acquaintances
in the neighbourhood, were still ignorant that the poet whom they saw
daily roving through the fields was at madman.

The ignorance was so general as to be shared by most, of Clare's friends
and patrons. One of the latter, the Rev. Mr. Mossop, Vicar of Helpston,
had frequent occasions of seeing him, but never detected the slightest
sign of mental derangement. Thus one morning, soon after the poet's
return from Peterborough, he invited him to his house, to meet a friend
who wished to make the acquaintance of the author of the 'Rural Muse.'
Mrs. Clare was rather unwilling to let her husband depart; but had not
the courage to detain him, remembering the exceeding kindness, always
shown to her family by the vicar and his sister. The poet accordingly
made his appearance at Mr. Mossop's house; but had not been long there
before he showed unmistakeable signs of a wandering intellect. In the
midst of an animated conversation, he suddenly broke off, and pointing to
the ceiling, cried that he saw figures moving up and down. Surprised as
the host and hostess were at this exclamation, they at once perceived the
real condition of their unhappy visitor. The reverend gentleman, without
loss of time, hurried off to get medical assistance, while his sister,
Miss Jane Mossop, did her best to quiet the poet by conversing with him
on his favourite topics, and drawing his attention to the plants and
flowers in the garden. It was not long before a surgeon arrived, in the
person of a Mr. Skrimshaw, resident at Market Deeping. He pronounced at
once--what, indeed, was obvious to all the persons in the house--that the
poor poet was a lunatic. The kind-hearted vicar thereupon had Clare
carefully conveyed back to his own home, making further arrangements for
his comfort and safety.

Through Mr. Mossop, the Earl Fitzwilliam and other patrons of Clare were
made acquainted with the mental state of the poet, of which they had been
so long ignorant. The earl at once proposed to send the poet to the
county lunatic asylum, at Northampton, where he would be kept under safe
restraint; but this scheme met with some opposition on the part of Mrs.
Clare, who thought that her husband might yet recover by being left
quietly at home. For a short time, indeed, it seemed as if this was the
case. During the next four or five months, and up to the spring of 1837,
the cottage at Northborough bore as quiet an aspect as if disease and
misery had never entered it. Clare kept working in his garden, and
reading in his little study, week after week, speaking to his family in
the most rational manner, and occasionally writing verses as sweet and
beautiful as any that had ever come from his pen. But with the warm days
of summer, his mind seemed again to get distracted, and the report
reaching Milton Park, imprisonment at the Northampton asylum was once
more advised, or ordered. By desire of the noble earl, negotiations were
entered into with the authorities at the county establishment to receive
Clare, against payment of a small weekly sum, at a somewhat better
footing than the ordinary paupers; but while these were pending, there
came letters from London offering to do a little more for the unhappy
poet. Mr. John Taylor and other old friends and patrons, having now
become fully acquainted with the condition of Clare, proposed to place
him in a private lunatic asylum, near the metropolis, discharging all the
expenses of his maintenance there. The earl, being a clear gainer by this
new arrangement, had no objection whatever to make against it, and
signified his desire of having his pensioner at Northborough at once
removed to the new place of safety. This was done without loss of time.
Early on the morning of the 16th of July, 1837, Clare was led away from
his wife and children, by two stern-looking men, who placed him in a
small carriage and drove rapidly away southward. Late the same day, the
poet found himself an inmate of Dr. Allen's private lunatic asylum, at
Fair Mead House, High Beech, in the centre of Epping Forest.


The news that Clare had been taken to a lunatic asylum did not become
generally known till many months after the event had taken place. In the
meanwhile, however, the few persons who still took an interest in the
'Northamptonshire Peasant' heard vague rumours that he was living at home
in a state of extreme destitution, productive at times of mental
derangement, and on the initiative of the most energetic of these old
friends another appeal was made to the public for pecuniary aid. Allan
Cunningham was the first to call upon the admirers of Clare to help him
in his distress, and the editors of various more or less fashionable
annuals, published in the autumn of 1837, followed the example. Though it
did not lead to the desired result, the movement thus set on foot was
curious, as showing the estimation in which the poet was held by some of
those who wished to figure as his patrons. Among them was the Marquis of
Northampton, a nobleman who, though never having in the least assisted
Clare, fancied himself a sort of protector of the poet, for the sole
reason that he was living in the county. This sort of county-property
feeling, common to not a few of Clare's noble patrons, was expressed to a
notable degree in a letter which the marquis wrote in reply to one of the
appeals in favour of the 'Northamptonshire Peasant.'

The appeal in question appeared in the 'Book of Gems,' an annual edited
by Mr. S. C. Hall. The writer, after stating that Clare had 'for many
years existed in a state of poverty, as utter and hopeless as that in
which he passed his youth;' that he had 'a wife and a very large family;'
and that 'at times his mind is giving way under the sickness of hope
deferred,' finished with an eloquent address to some nobleminded patron
of poetry to come forward and help Clare. 'It is not yet too late,' the
writer exclaimed, 'for a hand to reach him: a very envied celebrity may
be obtained by some wealthy and good Samaritan. Strawberry Hill might be
gladly sacrificed for the fame of having saved Chatterton.' The Marquis
of Northampton replied to this address. His lordship evidently was
hankering after the 'envied celebrity,' but wished to get it as cheap as
possible. So he wrote a long letter to the editor of the 'Book of Gems,'
making his bid for fame, and expressing at the same time his opinion
about one whom he considered a '_county poet_.' His lordship's letter--in
which, it will be noticed, the _county_ predominates over all heavenly
and earthly things--ran as follows:--

'_Castle Ashby, Northampton, Oct. 17th, 1837_.

Sir,--Though an utter stranger, I think you will excuse my troubling you
with this present letter: but I will not waste your time with a
lengthened apology. I was this morning reading the collection of poetry
which you have lately published--"The Book of Gems, 1838,"--and I was at
the same time struck and shocked by what you say on the subject of our
county poet, Clare. I must confess that I am not of his exceeding
admirers, and should by no means be disposed to place him in the same
rank with Hogg, or even with Bloomfield and Crockford. Still he is
undoubtedly a great credit to our county, and it would, I think, be a
great disgrace to it if Clare was left in the state in which you mention
him to be. Now it appears to me that the most feasible means of relieving
him would be for him to publish a collection of all his poems in a volume
by subscription. Probably there would be found a good many persons in
this county who would subscribe for five or ten copies each.
Northamptonshire is not a large county, nor is it either wealthy from
manufactures or from a dense population. It has, however, some
considerable source of wealth. Many of its resident nobility and gentry
have considerable properties elsewhere, as for instance the Dukes of
Buccleuch and Grafton, and Lords Spencer, Fitzwilliam, Winchelsea; and
you will see that the resources of the county are really in that sense
larger than they appear. However, I must confess that I do not think that
we are very literary, and probably such a speculation would hardly
succeed unless in addition to the copies taken here there were hopes of a
sale elsewhere. On this subject you are far better able to judge than I
can be. You know also more exactly how Clare is situated, at least you
could find out. If Her Majesty would allow the book to be dedicated to
her that would probably be a considerable advantage, and through Lord
Lilford, who, I think, is a Lord of the Bedchamber, permission might be
obtained. But in this I speak at random. If such a plan was taken up, I
should myself be willing to subscribe for ten or twenty copies, and I
have no doubt that I could obtain subscriptions from others. But I could
not myself do more for this scheme. In fact I should not be able to do
quite so much now in this way in consequence of a late publication of
mine, as I could not in general apply to the same subscribers. Still I
could apply to many on the ground of it being a county question. But
still, as I said before, the question is whether the public in general
would be likely to join the effort. Pray let me know what you think of
the matter. If a direct subscription for Clare should be proposed in lieu
of the publication I should be happy to contribute towards it, but I
should doubt its being as productive as the book. It would be probably
well if there were some new poems in the book in addition to the old
ones. Perhaps there may be a difficulty to get the copyright if he has
sold it to a bookseller.

I am, Sir, your humble servant


The philanthropic scheme of the Marquis of Northampton in favour of 'our
county poet' was destined not to be realized. Whether the failure was
owing to the mysterious 'Lord of the Bedchamber,' or to differences of
opinion in respect to Clare being 'a great credit to our county,' and his
relief 'a county question,' so much is certain, the not '_very_ literary'
county subscribers declined to come forward, although a number of
prospectuses were printed and issued to them. Thus there remained the
'great disgrace.' To Professor Wilson it simply was a 'national disgrace'
but the most honourable the Marquis of Northampton undoubtedly felt it
deeper by declaring it to be a 'disgrace to our county.'


Dr. Matthew Allen, of Fair Mead House, into whose asylum Clare had been
taken, was among the first reformers who adopted the mild system of
treatment for the insane, both on medical and philanthropic grounds. He
argued, in the teeth of a whole legion of irate professional brethren,
that kindness would be more powerful than cruelty in curing human beings
deranged in intellect, and that, even if incurable, the poor creatures
whom God had afflicted did not deserve being laid in fetters and treated
like savage animals. The doctor necessarily made a great many enemies by
preaching this new doctrine; but he likewise was fortunate enough to gain
a few friends, who advocated his cause and rendered active aid in
carrying it into practice. It was with the help of these friends that Dr.
Allen was enabled to set up a large private asylum in the centre of
Epping Forest, the establishment consisting of half-a-dozen houses,
connected together, and surrounded by large gardens. Here the unhappy
sufferers from mental derangement were kept under no more restraint than
was absolutely necessary for their own safety and that of others; and,
while under the best medical care and attention, were allowed an abundant
amount of indoor recreation as well as out-door exercise. When Clare
arrived, there were about fifty inmates at Fair Mead House, all of them
belonging to the middle and upper classes. Feeling deep sympathy with the
unfortunate position of the poet, Dr. Allen admitted him at a mere
nominal rate of payment, treating him nevertheless exactly on the same
footing as the most favoured of his patients.

The poet's existence at Fair Mead House for several years flowed on
monotonous enough; even more so than that of the other inmates of the
asylum. He longed to see his family, to meet familiar faces, and to read
and write poetry; but neither wife, nor children, nor any friends ever
came to visit him, and the supply of books was necessarily scant and not
altogether to his taste. Dr. Allen's treatment of his patients was based
on the principle of giving them as much physical labour and exercise as
possible, so as to destroy all tendency to a morbid concentration of
thought; and thus Clare was kept away from books and paper, and made to
go into the garden, to plant, and dig, and water the flowers. He seemed
to fret at first on being deprived of the solace of his poetry, and
eagerly seized every occasion to scribble verses upon odd slips of paper,
or with, chalk against the wall. But as the months passed on, his new
forced habits grew upon him, and he left off writing to a great extent,
and was foremost among the workers in the fields and garden. His mental
state, however, did not improve, although his physical strength appeared
to gain by this change. He got stout and robust, and able to go through a
greater amount of physical labour than in former days. What seemed to
contribute to sooth and quiet--or, perhaps, deaden--his mental energies,
was the habit of smoking, which he acquired from his companions. He would
smoke for whole days and weeks, either working in the garden, or sitting
on the stump of a tree in Epping Forest, without uttering a word.

Yet notwithstanding the visible and increasing derangement of his mental
faculties, Clare's poetical powers seemed to be nearly as great and as
brilliant as ever. Rare as were the opportunities when he was allowed to
indulge in the luxury of writing verses, whenever they offered, the
stream of poetry came flowing on swiftly and sweetly. Some accidental
visitors to Fair Mead House one day offered him a pencil and sheet of
paper, when he sat down on a bench in the garden, and without further
musing wrote the following lines:--

  'By a cottage near the wood
    Where lark and thrushes sing,
  In dreaming hours I stood,
    Through summer and through spring:
  There dwells a lovely maiden
    Whose name I sought in vain--
  Some call her pretty Lucy,
    And others honest Jane.

  By that cottage near a wood
    I often stood alone
  In sad or happy mood,
    And wished she was my own.
  The birds kept sweetly singing,
    But nature pleased in vain;
  For the dark and lovely maiden
    I never saw again.

  By the cottage near the wood
    I wished in peace to be:
  The blossoms where she stood
    Were more than gems to me.
  More fair or sweeter blossoms
    My rambles sought in vain;
  But the dark and lovely maiden
    I never found again.

  By that cottage near a wood
    The children held her gown,
  And on the turf before her
    Ran laughing up and down.
  They played around her beauty,
    While I sought joys in vain;
  She fled--the lovely maiden
    I could not find again.

  By that cottage near the wood,
    Where children used to play,
  Spring often burst the bud,
    And as often passed away.
  And with them passed my visions
    Of her whom I adore;
  For the dark and lovely maiden,
    I love her evermore.'

When Clare had been above a year at the asylum, and it was found that he
was perfectly harmless and inoffensive, he was allowed to roam at his
will all over the neighbourhood and through the whole of the forest. This
freedom he greatly enjoyed, and not a day passed without his taking long
excursions in all directions. In these wanderings he was mostly
accompanied by T. Campbell, the only son of the author of 'The Pleasures
of Hope,' with whom he had come to form an intimate acquaintance. Clare
wrote a sketch of his forest promenades in a sonnet which he handed to
Dr. Allen. It ran:--

  'I love the forest and its airy hounds,
  Where friendly Campbell takes his daily rounds;
  I love the break-neck hills, that headlong go,
  And leave me high, and half the world below.

  I love to see the Beech Hill mounting high,
  The brook without a bridge, and nearly dry.
  There's Bucket's Hill, a place of furze and clouds,
  Which evening in a golden blaze enshrouds:

  I hear the cows go home with tinkling bell,
  And see the woodman in the forest dwell,
  Whose dog runs eager where the rabbit's gone;
  He eats the grass, then kicks and hurries on;
  Then scrapes for hoarded bone, and tries to play,
  And barks at larger dogs and runs away.

His acquaintance with young Thomas Campbell brought to Clare occasional
presents, and now and then, the pleasant face of a visitor. Among them
was Mr. Cyrus Bedding, who left a record of his visit in the 'English
Journal.' Describing Dr. Allen's asylum, he says:--'The situation is
lofty; and the patients inhabit several houses at some distance from each
other. These houses stand in the midst of gardens, where the invalids may
be seen walking about, or cultivating the flowers, just as they feel

The visitor, who was accompanied by a friend who had known Clare
previously, found him working in a field, 'apart from his companions,
busily engaged with a hoe, and smoking. On being called, he came at once,
and very readily entered into conversation. Our friend was surprised to
see how much the poet was changed in personal appearance, having gained
flesh, and being no longer, as he was formerly, attenuated and pale of
complexion. We found a little man, of muscular frame and firmly set, his
complexion fresh and forehead high, a nose somewhat aquiline, and long
full chin. The expression of his countenance was more pleasing but
somewhat less intellectual than that in the engraved portrait prefixed to
his works in the edition of "The Village Minstrel," published in 1821. He
was communicative, and answered every question put to him in a manner
perfectly unembarrassed. He spoke of the quality of the ground which he
was amusing himself by hoeing, and the probability of its giving an
increased crop the present year, a continued smile playing upon his lips.
He made some remarks illustrative of the difference between the aspect of
the country at High Beech and that in the fens from whence he had
come--alluded to Northborough and Peterborough--and spoke of his
loneliness away from his wife, expressing a great desire to go home, and
to have the society of women. He said his solace was his pipe--he had no
other: he wanted books. On being asked what books, he said Byron; and we
promised to send that poet's works to him.

'The principal token of his mental eccentricity was the introduction of
prize-fighting, in which he seemed to imagine he was to engage; but the
allusion to it was made in the way of interpolation in the middle of the
subject on which he was discoursing, brought in abruptly, and abandoned
with equal suddenness, and an utter want of connexion with any
association of ideas which it could be thought might lead to the subject
at the time; as if the machinery of thought were dislocated, so that one
part of it got off its pivot, and protruded into the regular workings; or
as if a note had got into a piece of music which had no business there.
This was the only symptom of aberration of mind we observed about Clare;
though, being strangers to him, there might be something else in his
manner which those who knew him well could have pointed out. To our
seeming, his affection was slight; and it is not at all improbable that a
relief from mental anxiety might completely restore him. The finer
organization of such a humanity, if more easily put out of order than
that of a more obtuse character, is in all probability more likely to
re-tune itself, the evil cause being removed.'

Mr. Cyrus Bedding was mistaken in the anticipation that Clare's
'machinery of thought' would ever get again 'into the regular workings.'
At the very time when the visit described here took place, the poet's
mental state was worse than before, and there seemed less chance than
ever of restoring 'the finer organization of such a humanity.' Clare was
haunted now, wherever he went, by the vision of his first ideal love, his
ever-sought 'Mary.' He fancied that she was his wife, torn from him by
evil spirits, and that he was bound to seek her all over the earth. In
his wild hallucinations, he confounded his real with his ideal spouse,
addressing the latter in language wonderfully sweet, though exhibiting
strange flights of imagination. On one occasion, the poet handed to Dr.
Allen the following piece of poetry, which he called 'A Sonnet,' with the
remark that it should be sent to his wife:--

  'Maid of Walkherd, meet again,
  By the wilding in the glen;
  By the oak against the door,
  Where we often met before.
  By thy bosom's heaving snow,
  By thy fondness none shall know;
  Maid of Walkherd, meet again,
  By the wilding in the glen.

  By thy hand of slender make,
  By thy love I'll ne'er forsake,
  By thy heart I'll ne'er betray,
  Let me kiss thy fears away!
  I will live and love thee ever,
  Leave thee and forsake thee never!
  Though far in other lands to be,
  Yet never far from love and thee.'

Dr. Allen told his patient that he thought his verses very beautiful, at
which Clare seemed pleased, and expressed his intention to take them home
to his wife, his 'Mary.' The doctor paid little heed to this remark,
which, however, was seriously meant. To see his beloved Mary again, now
became the one all-absorbing thought of the poet's mind. He appeared to
have a vague notion that she was far away; but determined, nevertheless,
to seek her, even at the risk of his life. In the spring of 1841--having
been nearly four years at Fair Mead House--he made several attempts to
escape, but was frustrated each time, being brought back by people who
met him wandering at a distance. Dr. Allen, notwithstanding these
warnings, continued to allow full liberty to his patient, ascribing his
occasional flights to a mere propensity for roaming about. Clare, as
before, took his daily excursions, sometimes in company with his friend
Campbell, but oftener alone. One day, in the middle of July, 1841, he
stayed away unusually long. When the sun had set without his returning
home, attendants were despatched in all directions; but after a long and
minute search over the whole neighbourhood, they came back, late at
night, reporting that they had been unsuccessful in tracing the lost
patient. Some persons who knew him by sight had seen him passing through
Enfield in a northerly direction; but beyond this fact nothing could be
ascertained. Dr. Allen felt very uneasy at this mysterious disappearance,
and the next day despatched two horsemen in search of Clare. But even
they could discover no trace of him beyond Enfield. John Clare was never
seen again at Fair Mead House, Epping Forest.


Clare's flight from Dr. Allen's custody was accomplished by dint of
extraordinary perseverance, involving an amount of physical suffering
almost unexampled, and approaching starvation and the most horrible of
deaths. The poet started early on the morning of the 20th of July, with
not a penny in his pocket, and no other knowledge of the road than that
given to him by a gipsy whom he had met a few days before. This gipsy at
first promised more active assistance in his flight; but did not keep his
word, owing, probably, to the inability of the poor lunatic to procure
any tangible reward. However, urged onward by his intense desire to see
his 'Mary' again, Clare did not hesitate to start alone on his unknown
journey, and, groping his way along, like one wrapt in blindness, he at
once succeeded so far as to get into the right track homewards. The first
day he walked above twenty miles, to Stevenage, in Hertfordshire, where
he arrived late at night, footsore and faint, having been without any
refreshment the whole day. He rested for the night in an old barn, on
some trusses of clover, taking the singular precaution, before lying
down, of placing his head towards the north, so as to know in which
direction to start the next morning. This day, the 21st of July, he rose
early, pursuing his way northward, and crawling more than walking along
the road. A man threw him a penny which he used to get a glass of ale;
but beyond this he had again no refreshment. After a second night, spent
in the open air, he rose once more to crawl onward, slowly but steadily.
To stifle the torments of hunger, he now took to the frightful expedient
of eating grass with the beasts in the field. The grass served to appease
the dreadful pains of his stomach, yet left him in the same drowsy
condition in which he was before. His feet were bleeding, the dry gravel
of the road having penetrated his old worn-out shoes; but he heeded it
not, and stedfastly pursued his way northward. Alternately sleeping and
walking, sometimes wandering about in a circle, lying down in ditches at
the roadside, and continuing to eat grass, together with a few bits of
tobacco which he found in his pocket, he at length reached the
neighbourhood of Peterborough and scenes familiar to his eye. But he was
now fast breaking down under hunger and fatigue, having had no food for
more than ninety hours. Hearing the well-known place, he could get no
further, but sank down on the road, more dead than alive. A great many
people passed--people rich and poor, on foot and in carriages, in
clerical habit and in broadcloth; but not one gave alms, or even noticed,
or had a kind word for the dying man at the roadside. There was not one
good Samaritan among all the wayfarers from the rich episcopal city.

At last there passed a cart, containing some persons from Helpston. They
recognised their old neighbour, although he was terribly altered, with
the livid signs of starvation impressed upon his face. The wanderer, in a
faint voice, told those friends his tale of woe; but even they were not
Christians enough to lift him into their vehicle and take him home. All
that they did was to give him a few pence; not even placing the money in
his hand, with, perhaps, a kindly greeting, but throwing it at him from
their cart. The wretched poet crept along the road to gather the coppers,
and then crawled a little farther on to a public-house, where he procured
some refreshment. The food--the first he had taken for nigh four
days--enabled him to pursue his journey slowly, and he hobbled on through
Peterborough, the blood still trickling from his wounded feet. At every
stone-heap at the roadside he rested himself, until he came to the hamlet
of Werrington, where a cart ran up against him, out of which sprang a
woman who took him in her arms. It was Patty, who had heard from the
charitable Helpston people that her husband was lying on the road, and
had come in search of him. But Clare did not know her. He refused even to
take a seat at her side, until he was told that she was his 'second
wife.' Then he allowed himself to be taken to Northborough, where he
arrived in the evening of the 23d of July, utterly exhausted, and in a
state bordering upon delirium.

But already the next day he felt considerably better, and at once asked
for writing materials. Having obtained pen and ink, together with an old
blank ledger, in which he formerly entered his poems, he sat down to
write an account of his 'Journey from Essex.' Such another account,
probably, was never written before. Here it stands, unaltered from the
original, save in slight attempts at punctuation. The paper commences:--

'_July 24th 1841_.--Returned home out of Essex, and found no Mary. Her
and her family are nothing to me now, though she herself was once the
dearest of all. And how can I forget!'

After this entry begins what is headed the 'Journal':--

'_July 18, 1841, Sunday._--Felt very melancholy. Went for a walk in the
forest in the afternoon. Fell in with some gypsies, one of whom offered
to assist in my escape from the madhouse by hiding me in his camp, to
which I almost agreed. But I told him I had no money to start with; but
if he would do so, I would promise him fifty pounds, and he agreed to do
so before Saturday. On Friday I went again, but he did not seem so
willing, so I said little about it. On Sunday I went and they were all
gone. An old wide-awake hat and an old straw bonnet, of the plum-pudding
sort, was left behind, and I put the hat in my pocket, thinking it might
be useful for another opportunity. As good lack would have it, it turned
out to be so.

_July 19, Monday_.--Did nothing.

_July 20, Tuesday_.--Reconnoitred the road the gypsey had taken, and
found it a legible (!) one to make a movement; and having only honest
courage and myself in my army, I led the way and my troops soon followed.
But being careless in mapping down the road as the gypsey told me, I
missed the lane to Enfield Town, and was going down Enfield Highway, till
I passed the "Labour-in-vain" public-house, where a person who came out
of the door told me the way. I walked down the lane gently, and was soon
in Enfield Town, and by and by on the great York Road, where it was all
plain sailing. Steering ahead, meeting no enemy and fearing none, I
reached Stevenage, where, being night, I got over a gate, and crossed the
corner of a green paddock. Seeing a pond or hollow in the corner, I was
forced to stay off a respectable distance to keep from falling into it.
My legs were nearly knocked up and began to stagger. I scaled over some
old rotten palings into the yard, and then had higher palings to clamber
over, to get into the shed or hovel; which I did with difficulty, being
rather weak. To my good luck, I found some trusses of clover piled up,
about six or more feet square, which I gladly mounted and slept on. There
were some drags in the hovel, on which I could have reposed had I not
found a better bed. I slept soundly, but had a very uneasy dream. I
thought my first wife lay on my left arm, and somebody took her away from
my side, which made me wake up rather unhappy. I thought as I awoke
somebody said "Mary;" but nobody was near. I lay down with my head
towards the north, to show myself the steering point in the morning.

_July 21_.--Daylight was looking in on every side, and fearing my
garrison might be taken by storm, and myself be made prisoner, I left my
lodging by the way I got in, and thanked God for His kindness in
procuring it. For anything in a famine is better than nothing, and any
place that giveth the weary rest is a blessing. I gained the North Road
again, and steered due north. On the left hand side, the road under the
bank was like a cave; I saw a man and boy coiled up asleep, whom I
hailed, and they awoke to tell me the name of the next village. Somewhere
on the London side, near the "Plough" public-house, a man passed me on
horseback, in a slop frock, and said, "Here's another of the broken-down
haymakers," and threw me a penny to get a half pint of beer, which I
picked up, and thanked him for, and when I got to the "Plough," I called
for a half pint and drank it. I got a rest, and escaped a very heavy
shower in the bargain, by having a shelter till it was over. Afterwards I
would have begged a penny of two drovers, but they were very saucy; so I
begged no more of anybody.

Having passed a lodge on the left hand, within a mile and a half, or
less, of a town--I think it might be St. Ives, or it was St. Neot's, but
I forget the name--I sat down to rest on a flint heap, for half an hour
or more. While sitting here, I saw a tall gypsey come out of the lodge
gate, and make down the road to where I was. When she got up to me, I saw
she was a young woman, with a honest-looking countenance, and rather
handsome. I spoke to her, and asked her a few questions, which she
answered readily and with evident good humour. So I got up, and went on
to the next town with her. She cautioned me on the way to put something
in my hat to keep the crown up, and said in a lower tone, "You'll be
noticed." But not knowing at what she hinted, I took no notice and made
no reply. At length she pointed to a small church tower, which she called
Shefford Church, and advised me to go on a footway, which would take me
direct to it, and would shorten my journey fifteen (!) miles by doing so.
I would gladly have taken the young woman's advice, feeling that it was
honest, and a nigh guess towards the truth; but fearing I might lose my
way, and not be able to find the North Road again, I thanked her, and
told her I should keep to the road. She then bid me "good day," and went
into a house or shop on the left hand side of the road.

Next I passed three or four good built houses on a hill, and a
public-house on the roadside in the hollow below them. I seemed to pass
the milestones very quick in the morning, but towards night they seemed
to be stretched further asunder. I now got to a village of which I forget
the name. The road on the left hand was quite overshadowed by trees, and
quite dry. So I sat down half an hour, and made a good many wishes for
breakfast. But wishes were no meal; so I got up as hungry as I sat down.
I forget here the names of the villages I passed through, but recollect
at late evening going through Potton, in Bedfordshire, where I called in
a house to light my pipe. There was a civil old woman, and a country
wench making lace on a cushion as round as a globe, and a young fellow;
all civil people. I asked them a few questions as to the way, and where
the clergyman and overseer lived; but they scarcely heard me, and gave no
answer. I then went through Potton, and happened to meet with a
kind-talking countryman, who told me the parson lived a good way from
where I was. So I went on hopping with a crippled foot; for the gravel
had got into my old shoes, one of which had now nearly lost the sole. Had
I found the overseer's house at hand, or the parson's, I should have
given my name, and begged for a shilling to carry me home; but I was
forced to brush on penniless, and be thankful I had a leg to move on. I
then asked him whether he could tell me of a farmyard anywhere on the
road, where I could find a shed and some dry straw, and he said, "Yes, if
you will go with me, I will show you the place; it is a public-house on
the left hand side of the road, at the sign of the Ram." But seeing a
stone heap, I longed to rest, as one of my feet was very painful. So I
thanked him for his kindness, and bid him go on. But the good-natured
fellow lingered awhile, as if wishing to conduct me; but suddenly
recollecting that he had a hamper on his shoulder, and a lock-up bag in
his hand, to meet the coach, he started hastily, and was soon out of

I followed, looking in vain for the countryman's straw bed. Not being
able to find it, I laid down by the wayside, under some elm trees.
Between the wall and the trees there was a thick row, planted some five
or six feet from the buildings. I laid there and tried to sleep; but the
wind came in between the trees so cold that I quaked like having the
ague, and I quitted this lodging to seek another at the "Ram," which I
scarcely hoped to find. It now began to grow dark apace, and the odd
houses on the road began to light up, and show the inside lot very
comfortable, and my outside lot very uncomfortable and wretched. Still I
hobbled forward as well as I could, and at last came the "Ram." The
shutters were not closed, and the lighted window looked very cheering;
but I had no money, and did not like to go in. There was a sort of shed,
or gig-house, at the end; but I did not like to lie there, as the people
were up; so I still travelled on. The road was very lonely and dark,
being overshaded with trees. At length I came to a place where the road
branched off into two turnpikes, one to the right about, and the other
straight forward. On going by, I saw a milestone standing under the
hedge, and I turned back to read it, to see where the other road led to.
I found it led to London. I then suddenly forgot which was north or
south, and though I narrowly examined both ways, I could see no tree, or
bush, or stone heap that I could recollect having passed.

I went on mile after mile, almost convinced I was going the same way I
had come. These thoughts were so strong upon me, and doubts and
hopelessness made me turn so feeble, that I was scarcely able to walk.
Yet I could not sit down or give up, but shuffled along till I saw a lamp
shining as bright as the moon, which, on nearing, I found was suspended
over a tollgate. Before I got through, the man came out with a candle,
and eyed me narrowly; but having no fear I stopped to ask him whether I
was going northward. He said, "When you get through the gate you are." I
thanked him, and went through to the other side, and gathered my old
strength as my doubts vanished. I soon cheered up, and hummed the air of
"Highland Mary" as I went on. I at length came to an odd house, all
alone, near a wood; but I could not see what the sign was, though it
seemed to stand, oddly enough, in a sort of trough, or spout. There was a
large porch over the door, and being weary I crept in, and was glad
enough to find I could lie with my legs straight. The inmates were all
gone to rest, for I could hear them turn over in bed, while I lay at full
length on the stones in the porch. I slept here till daylight, and felt
very much refreshed. I blest my two wives and both their families when I
laid down and when I got up in the morning.

I have but a slight recollection of my journey between here and Stilton,
for I was knocked up, and noticed little or nothing. One night I laid in
a dyke-bottom, sheltered from the wind, and went asleep for half an hour.
When I awoke, I found one side wet through from the water; so I got out
and went on. I remember going down a very dark road, hung over on both
sides with thick trees; it seemed to extend a mile or two. I then entered
a town, where some of the chamber windows had lights shining in them. I
felt so weak here that I was forced to sit on the ground to rest myself,
and while I sat here a coach that seemed heavily laden came rattling up,
and splashing the mud in my face wakened me from a doze. When I had
knocked the gravel out of my shoes I started again. There was little to
notice, for the road very often looked as stupid as myself. I was often
half asleep as I went on.

The third day I satisfied my hunger by eating the grass on the roadside,
which seemed to taste something like bread. I was hungry, and eat
heartily till I was satisfied; in fact, the meal seemed to do me good.
The next and last day I remembered that I had some tobacco, and my box of
lucifers being exhausted, I could not light my pipe. So I took to chewing
tobacco all day, and eat it when I had done. I was never hungry
afterwards. I remember passing through Buckden, and going a length of
road afterwards; but I do not recollect the name of any place until I
came to Stilton, where I was completely footsore, bleeding, and broken
down. When I had got about half way through the town, a gravel causeway
invited me to rest myself; so I laid down and nearly went to sleep. A
young woman, as I guessed by the voice, came out of a house, and said,
"Poor creature;" and another more elderly said, "Oh, he shams." But when
I got up the latter said, "Oh no, he don't," as I hobbled along very
lame. I heard the voices, but never looked back to see where they came
from. When I got near the inn at the end of the gravel walk, I met two
young women, and asked one of them whether the road branching to the
right by the inn did not lead to Peterborough. She said, "Yes." As soon
as ever I was on it, I felt myself on the way home, and went on rather
more cheerful, though I was forced to rest oftener than usual.

Before I got to Peterborough, a man and woman passed in a cart; and on
hailing me as they passed, I found they were neighbours from Helpston,
where I used to live. I told them I was knocked-up, which they could
easily see, and that I had neither food nor drink since I left Essex.
When I had told my story they clubbed together and threw me fivepence out
of the cart. I picked it up, and called at a small public-house near the
bridge, where I had two half pints of ale, and twopennyworth of bread and
cheese. When I had done, I started quite refreshed; only my feet were
more crippled than ever, and I could scarcely bear walk over the stones.
Yet I was half ashamed to sit down in the street, and forced myself to
keep on the move.

I got through Peterborough better than I expected. When I came to the
high road, I rested on the stone-heaps, till I was able to go on afresh.
By-and-by I passed Walton, and soon reached Werrington. I was making for
the "Beehive" as fast as I could when a cart met me, with a man, a woman,
and a boy in it. When nearing me the woman jumped out and caught fast
hold of my hands, and wished me to get into the cart. But I refused; I
thought her either drunk or mad. But when I was told it was my second
wife, Patty, I got in, and was soon at Northborough. But Mary was not
there; neither could I get any information about her further than the old
story of her having died six years ago. But I took no notice of the lie,
having seen her myself twelve months ago, alive and well, and as young as
ever. So here I am hopeless at home.'

This wonderfully graphic narrative--extraordinary compound of facts and
dreams, illuminated by the lurid flame of a marvellous imagination--Clare
accompanied by a letter to his visionary spouse. The letter, addressed,
'To Mary Clare, Glinton,' and dated 'Northborough, July 27, 1841,' ran as

'My Dear Wife,--I have written an account of my journey, or rather
escape, from Essex, for your amusement. I hope it may divert your leisure
hours. I would have told you before that I got here to Northborough last
Friday night; but not being able to see you, or to hear where you were, I
soon began to feel homeless at home, and shall by and by be nearly
hopeless. But I am not so lonely as I was in Essex; for here I can see
Glinton Church, and feeling that my Mary is safe, if not happy, I am
gratified. Though my home is no home to me, my hopes are not entirely
hopeless while even the memory of Mary lives so near me. God bless you,
my dear Mary! Give my love to our dear beautiful family and to your
mother, and believe me, as ever I have been and ever shall be,

My dearest Mary,

Your affectionate husband,

John Clare.'

The poet's glorious intellect was gone; he sat there bereft of reason;
body and soul alike shattered and broken to pieces. Yet on the wreck and
ruins of all this mass of marvellous life, there still sat enthroned the
memory of his First Love. 'For Love is strong as Death,' says the Song of


Happy for Clare if his weary life had been allowed to end here, in dreams
of his first, his purest love. But it was ordained otherwise, and he had
yet to drag a miserable course of earthly existence for more than twenty
years. The period was one of great physical and mental suffering. Much of
it might have been, if not prevented, at least softened and alleviated,
but for the fresh interference of troublesome foes and ignorant friends.
There was clearly no harm in leaving the poet in his little cottage at
Northborough, allowing him to tend his flowers, to listen to the song of
birds, and to write verses to his Mary in heaven. Now as ever, he was as
harmless and guileless as a child; he would not hurt the worm under his
feet, and even in his most excited moods not an unkind word to those
around him escaped his lips. A little additional assistance--if only from
the 'county,' of which a noble earl held him to be 'a great
credit'--might have made his own and his wife's existence perfectly free
from cares, and softened the evening of their lives. But the great
patrons would have it otherwise. Clare had no more books to dedicate to
Honourables and Most Honourables, and they thought that the best thing to
be done was to get such a useless 'county poet' out of the way and out of

Clare had not been many weeks at his little home, resting from his
fatigue, and enjoying the caresses of his children, when he was visited
by the Mr. Skrimshaw, of Market Deeping, who had attended him on a former
occasion. This person, who called himself a doctor, had a notion that
poets were always and naturally insane, and that the very fact of a man
being given to write verses was decisive proof of his madness. Mr.
Skrimshaw, therefore, had little trouble in consigning Clare to another
lunatic asylum. All that was necessary was to engage the help of a
brother-doctor to go through a slight legal formality. This was soon
done, and 'Fenwick Skrimshaw,' together with 'William Page,' both of
Market Deeping, signed the due certificate that John Clare was to be kept
under restraint at a madhouse, for the definitely stated reason of having
written poetry, or, as literally given by the doctors:--

    '_After years addicted to poetical prosings._'

On the ground of this new crime, punishable, according to the wise men of
Market Deeping, with life-long imprisonment, Clare was torn away from his
wife and children, and carried off to the madhouse. He struggled hard
when the keepers came to fetch him, imploring them, with tears in his
eyes, to leave him at his little cottage, and seeing all resistance
fruitless, declaring his intention to die rather than to go to such
another prison as that from which he had escaped. Of course, it was all
in vain. The magic handwriting of Messrs. Fenwick Skrimshaw and William
Page, backed by all the power of English law, soon got the upper hand,
and the criminal 'addicted to poetical prosings' was led away, and thrust
into the gaol for insane at Northampton.

It was, perhaps, with some regard to Clare being considered, on high
authority, 'our county poet,' that he was consigned to the county lunatic
asylum at Northampton, instead of being taken hack to the more
respectable refuge of Dr. Allen, who was anxious to see him again under
his charge, and even expressed strong hopes of an ultimate cure. The
change was not a hopeful one; though, as far as the patient's physical
comforts were concerned, there was no suffering attached to it. During
the whole of his long sojourn at Northampton, the poet was treated with a
kindness and consideration beyond all praise, and which, indeed, he had
scarcely a right to expect from his position. Earl Fitzwilliam, who had
taken him under his charge, only allowed eleven shillings a week for his
maintenance, which small sum entitled Clare to little better than pauper
treatment. Nevertheless, the authorities at Northampton, with a noble
disregard for conventionalities, placed Clare in the best ward, among the
private patients, paying honour to him as well as themselves by
recognising the poet even in the pauper.

The Northampton General Lunatic Asylum stands at a little distance from
the town, on the brow of a hill, in a very beautiful position,
overlooking the smiling plain traversed by the River Nene. It is a large
establishment, containing, on the average, some four hundred patients,
the great majority of them paupers. The private patients have to
themselves a large sitting-room, somewhat similar to a gentleman's
library, the windows of which overlook the front garden, the valley of
the Nene, and the town of Northampton. In the recess of one of these
windows, Clare spent the greater part of his time during the twenty-two
years that he was an inmate of the asylum. Very melancholy at first, and
ever yearning after his 'Mary,' he became gradually resigned to his fate,
and after that never a murmur escaped his lips. He saw that the world had
left him; and was quite prepared himself to leave the world. During the
whole twenty-two years, not one of all his former friends and admirers,
not one of his great or little patrons ever visited him. This he bore
quietly, though he seemed to feel it with deep sorrow that even the
members of his own family kept aloof from him. 'Patty' never once showed
herself in the twenty-two years; nor any of her children, except the
youngest son, who came to see his father once. The neglect thus shown
long preyed upon his mind, till it found vent at last in a sublime burst
of poetry:--

  'I am! yet what I am who cares, or knows?
    My friends forsake me like a memory lost.
  I am the self-consumer of my woes,
    They rise and vanish, an oblivious host,
  Shadows of life, whose very soul is lost.
    And yet I am--I live--though I am toss'd

  Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
    Into the living sea of waking dream,
  Where there is neither sense of life, nor joys,
    But the huge shipwreck of my own esteem
  And all that's dear. Even those I loved the best
    Are strange--nay, they are stranger than the rest.

  I long for scenes where man has never trod,
    For scenes where woman never smiled or wept;
  There to abide with my Creator, God,
    And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept
  Full of high thoughts, unborn. So let me lie,
  The grass below; above the vaulted sky.'

This was the last poem which Clare wrote--the last, and, we think, the
noblest of all his poems. Clare's swan-song, we fervently hope, will live
as long as the English language.

For the last ten or twelve years of his existence the poet suffered much
from physical infirmities. Previously he was allowed to go almost daily
into the town of Northampton, where he used to sit raider the portico of
All Saints' Church, watching the gambols of the children around him, and
the fleeting clouds high up in the sky. When these excursions came to be
forbidden, he retired to his window-recess in the asylum, reading little
and speaking little; dreaming unutterable dreams of another world.
Sometimes his face would brighten up as if illuminated by an inward sun,
overwhelming in its glory and beauty. This life of contemplation,
extending over many years, was followed by a singular change in the
physical constitution. The head seemed to expand vastly; the bushy
eyebrows grew downward until they almost obscured the eyes, and the
abundant hair, white as snow, came to fall in long curls over the massive
shoulders. In outward appearance the poet became the patriarch.

The inmates of the asylum treated Clare with the greatest respect--far
greater than that previously allotted to him by the world without. To his
fellow-sufferers he always was John Clare the poet; never Clare the
farm-labourer or the lime-burner. An artist among the patients was
indefatigable in painting his portrait, in all possible attitudes; others
never wearied of waiting upon him, or rendering him some slight service.
The poet accepted the homage thus rendered, quietly and unaffectedly, as
a king would that of his subjects. He gave little utterance to his
thoughts, or dreams, whatever they were, and only smiled upon his
companions now and then. When he became very weak and infirm, they put
him into a chair, and wheeled him about in the garden. The last day he
was thus taken out, and enjoyed the fresh air and the golden sunshine,
was on Good Friday, 1864. He was too helpless to be moved afterwards; yet
would still creep, now and then, from his bed to the window, looking down
upon the ever-beautiful world, which he knew he was leaving now, and
which he was not loth to leave, though he loved it so much.

Towards noon on the 20th of May, the poet closed his eyes for ever. His
last words were, 'I want to go home.' So gentle was his end that the
bystanders scarcely knew when he had ceased to breathe. God took his soul
away without a struggle.

Clare had always expressed a wish to sleep his last sleep in the
churchyard of his native village, close to his 'own old home of homes.'
In the very first poem of his earliest published book of verses, he
summed up all his aspirations in the one that he should--

    'As reward for countless troubles past,
  Find one hope true: to die at home at last.'

Accordingly, when the poet's spirit had fled, the superintendent of the
Northampton asylum wrote to his patron, Earl Fitzwilliam, asking for a
grant of the small sum necessary to carry the wish of the deceased into
effect. The noble patron replied by a refusal, advising the burial of the
poet as a pauper at Northampton.

But this lasting disgrace, fortunately, was not to be. Through the active
exertions of some true Christian souls, real friends of poetry, the
requisite burial fund was raised in a few days, and the poet's body,
having been conveyed to Helpston, was reverently interred there on
Wednesday, the 25th of May, 1864. There now lies, under the shade of a
sycamore-tree, with nothing above but the green grass and the eternal
vault of heaven, all that earth has to keep of John Clare, one of the
sweetest singers of nature ever born within the fair realm of dear old
England--of dear old England, so proud of its galaxy of noble poets, and
so wasteful of their lives.

       *       *       *       *       *

Allen, Dr. Matthew, of Fair Mead House.

'Anniversary,' annual, edited by Allan Cunningham.

Artis, Edward, friend of Clare.

Bachelors' Hall, Helpston, meeting at.

Bains, Granny, cowherd of Helpston.

Baring, Sir Thomas, patron of Clare.

Bedford, Duke of, patron of Clare.

Behnes, Henry, sculptor, makes a bust of Clare; spends an evening with.

Bell, Dr. makes Clare's acquaintance; defends his friend; threatens him
with the 'canister of the Blue Devils'.

Bellamy, 'Mr. Councillor' of Wisbeach.

Benyon, Tom, head-porter of Messrs. Taylor and Hessey; teaches political

Billings, John and James, of 'Bachelor's Hall.'

'Blackwood's Magazine,' on Clare.

Bloomfield, Robert, letter from; death.

'Book of Job,' Clare's rendering of.

Boston, Clare's visit to; the mayor of.

Boswell, king of the gipsies.

Bowles, Rev. Wm. L. editor of Pope; quarrel with Mr. Gilchrist.

Bridge, Casterton, Clare working at.

Bullimore, Mrs. schoolmistress.

Burghley Park, Clare's first visit to; working as gardener at; received
as visitor.

Burkhardt, Herr, watchmaker of the Strand.

Burns and Clare, compared by Professor Wilson.

Byron, Lord, funeral of.

Campbell, Mr. at Dr. Allen's asylum.

Cardigan, Earl, patron of Clare.

Gary, Rev. H. T. receives Clare at his home; at the 'London Magazine'

Chiswick, Clare's residence at.

Clare, John, birth; parents; in search of other worlds; at the
dame-school; first pleasures of song; learns threshing; is attacked by
the ague; goes to Mr. Merrishaw's school; studies algebra; travels to
Wisbeach; interview with Mr. Councillor Bellamy; fails in becoming a
lawyer's clerk; promoted to be potboy at the 'Blue Bell;' growing love of
nature; takes to reading fairy tales; first love; meets with Thomson's
'Seasons;' efforts to obtain the book; the first poem; attempts to learn
a trade; apprenticed to the head gardener at Burghley Park; dissipation;
flight from Burghley Park; returns home; poetical aspirations; verses
'wanting fire'; consults a rural critic; becomes conscious of terrible
ignorance; devours 'Lowe's Spelling-book;' unable to master 'quartacutes'
and 'quintacutes;' in search of a patron; visits 'Bachelors' Hall;'
enlists in the militia; swears fidelity to King George; is taught the
goose-step; returns to Helpston; Love and the Apocalypse; turns gipsy
under King Boswell; limeburning; zeal in writing verses; first meeting
with 'Patty;' narrow escape from being drowned; attempts to publish a
book; writes a prospectus; issues an 'Address to the Public;' quarrels
with his mistress; bids farewell to 'Patty;' enlists in the Royal
Artillery; determines to quit Helpston; meets with a patron; makes
arrangements for printing his poems; gets intimate with Mr. Drury;
meeting with Mr. John Taylor; first interview with Mr. Gilchrist; hears
of the success of his 'Poems of Rural Life;' visit to Holywell Park;
romance of fugitive love; patronized by Viscount Milton; by Earl
Fitzwilliam; by the Marquis of Exeter; marries 'Patty;' first visit to
London; troubles of fame; defends himself against patronage; has an
annuity settled upon him; ignored by Sir Walter Scott; publication of the
'Village Minstrel;' correspondence with Bloomfield; visited by Mr. John
Taylor; second trip to London; adventure in a hackney coach; short stay
at Chiswick; visit to Charles Lamb; attempts to purchase a freehold;
falls very ill; third visit to London; Fleet Street philosophy; is
present at a meeting of lions; returns to Helpston; fails in getting work
as a labourer; great poverty; takes to farming; publication of the
'Shepherd's Calendar;' writes for the annuals; Platonic love; last visit
to London; turns pedlar; journey to Boston; glimpse of happiness; removal
to Northborough; mental alienation; cry for help; publication of the
'Rural Muse;' excitement at the Peterborough Theatre; burst of delirium;
is taken to Dr. Allen's asylum; escape from the madhouse; writes the
diary of his escape; taken to Northampton asylum; his last poem; physical
changes; death.

Clare, Parker, birth; marriage; poverty and sufferings; dependent upon
alms; accompanies his son to Burghley Park; reproves John for writing
verses; struck down by illness.

Clark, Mr. editor of a literary magazine.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, at a soirée.

'Cottage near the wood,' Clare's poem of.

'County poet,' our, and county patronage.

Crouch, Mr. issues Clare's poems.

Cunningham, Allan, at Mr. Taylor's house; letter to, from Clare;
interview with; attempts to assist him.

Dalia, Mademoiselle, of the Regency theatre.

Darley, George, meeting with Clare.

Darling, Dr. attends Clare in illness; acts as his guide.

De Quincey, Thomas, at the 'London Magazine' dinner.

Deville, Mr. professor of phrenology.

Devonshire, Duke of, patron of Clare.

Drury, Mr. Edward, first meeting with Clare; offers to print his book;
inspects the MSS.; submits them to a critic; intimacy with Clare.

Durobrivae, Roman station.

Elton, Charles, makes Clare's acquaintance.

Emmerson, Mrs. first interview with Clare; receives Clare at her house;
renews her acquaintance; acts as hostess.

Etton, village near Helpston.

Exeter, Marquis of, first interview with Clare; visits the poet at home;
finds Clare unfit for patronage.

Fair Mead House lunatic asylum, Clare's stay at.

Pane, Lady, visit to Clare.

Farrow, Jim, cobbler of Helpston.

Field, Baron, literary country gentleman.

'First Love,' Clare's poem of.

Fitzwilliam, Earl, becomes a patron of Clare; presents him with £100;
gives him a cottage; maintains him at the asylum; advises to bury him as
a pauper.

'Gentleman's Magazine,' the, on Clare's Poems.

Gilford, William, interview with Clare.

Gilchrist, Octavius, first meeting with Clare; becomes his patron;
accompanies him to London; gives his opinion on Sir Walter Scott;
disputes with the Rev. Mr. Bowles; engaged in 'Battle of the Windmills;'
falls seriously ill; meets Clare at London; last interview with Clare;

Glinton, the home of 'Mary;' Memorial of Clare's first love.

Grantham, visit of John Clare to.

Gregory, Francis, landlord of the 'Blue Bell.'

Grill, Monsieur, cook at Milton Park.

Hall, Mr. S. C. editor of the 'Book of Gems.'

Hazlitt, William, at Mr. Taylor's house.

Helpo, founder of Helpston; 'mystic stipendiary knight.'

Helpston, origin of; the parish clerk patronises Clare; removal of Clare

Henderson, Mr. friend of Clare.

Henson, Mr. first interview with Clare; agrees to publish his 'Original
Trifles;' returns Clare's manuscripts.

Hilton, William, paints Clare's portrait.

Hogarth's house, at Chiswick.

'Hole-in-the-Wall' public-house, the.

Holland, Rev. Mr. makes Clare's acquaintance; brings news of his success.

Holywell Park, Visit to.

'Home of Homes,' Clare's poem of.

Hood, Thomas, sub-editor of 'London Magazine.'

'Iris,' the, contribution of Clare to.

Joyce, Mary, John Clare's first love.

Keats, John, gift to, from Earl Fitzwilliam.

Lamb, Charles, visited by Clare; at the 'London Magazine' dinner.

Landon, Miss, error of dedication.

Langley Bush, sketched by Clare.

Leopold, King of Belgium, gift to Clare.

Lolham Brigs, near Helpston.

London, as seen from the distance.

'London Magazine,' the, on Clare's poems.

Lowe's 'Critical Spelling-book.'

Manton, Bill, stone-cutter at Market-Deeping.

Market-Deeping, visit to horsedealers at.

Marsh, Mrs. visits Clare; receives him at her mansion; takes him to the

Maxey, village near Helpston.

Merrishaw, Mr. schoolmaster at Glinton.

Milton Park, Clare's first visit to.

Milton, Viscount, interview with John Clare; takes Clare under his

Militia, life in the.

'Morning Walk,' the, Clare's first poem.

Mossop, Rev. Mr. patron of Clare.

Mounsey, Rev. Mr. of Stamford.

Murray, Mr. John, interview with.

Nell, Mr. bookseller of Peterborough.

Newark-upon-Trent, John Clare at.

Newcomb, Mr. proprietor of the 'Stamford Mercury.'

'New Monthly Magazine,' the, on Clare's poems.

North, Christopher, on Clare.

Northborough, Clare's removal to.

Northampton, Marquis of, threatens to patronise Clare.

Northampton asylum, Clare's stay at.

Northumberland, Duke of, patron of Clare.

Offley's tavern, visit of Clare to.

'Original Trifles,' a first poetical speculation.

Oundle, militia drill at.

Page, Mr. certifies to Clare's insanity.

Parker, grandfather of John Clare.

'Patty,' Clare's first sight of; meeting with; wavering between two
suitors; supposed last interview; reconciliation; marriage.

Peterborough, Bishop of, visit to Clare.

Peterborough, the 'Red Lion;' episcopal palace, Clare's visit to;
theatre, Clare's visit to.

Pickworth, Clare working at.

'Poems of Rural Life,' publication of.

'Poetical Prosings,' new form of insanity.

Poets, their patronage and income.

Poets and the poor-rates.

Porter, Thomas, of Ashton Green.

Preston, Mr. a 'brother poet.'

'Quarterly Review,' the, on Clare's poems.

Radstock, Lord, first meeting with Clare; refuses to assist him;
interferes with Mr. Taylor; death.

Redding, Cyrus, visit to Clare.

Regency Theatre, Tottenham-court-road.

Reynardson, General, meets Clare; shows his residence.

Reynolds, William, at the 'London Magazine' dinner.

Rippingille, Mr. friend of Clare; leaves him in difficulties.

Rossini, sets Clare's verses to music.

'Rural Muse,' address to.

'Rural Muse,' the, publication of.

Russell, Lord John, patron of Clare.

Scott, Sir Walter, and John Clare; judged by Mr. Gilchrist.

'Shepherd's Calendar,' publication of.

Sherwell, Captain, friend of Sir Walter Scott.

Skrimshaw, Mr. sees Clare; certifies to his insanity.

Smith, Dr. physician of Peterborough.

Spencer, Earl, grants an annuity to Clare.

Stamford, the 'Dolphin' Inn; the 'New Public Library.'

Stamford bookseller, the, and John Clare.

Stimson, John, shepherd of Castor.

Stimson, Morris, visits John Clare; tries to lift him into a profession.

Taylor, Mr. John, first interview with Clare; receives him at London;
procures an annuity for Clare; visit to Helpston; receives Clare a second
time; reproves him for his ambition; receives Clare on his third visit to
London; last interview with.

Taylor and Hessey, publishers, gift to Clare.

Tickencote, hamlet near Stamford.

Townsend, Mr. Chauncey Hare, visits Clare.

Twopenny, the Rev. Mr., incumbent of Little Casterton.

Turnill, John, teaches Clare algebra.

Ventouillac, Monsieur, publisher of the 'Iris.'

Vestris, Madam, reciting Clare's poems.

'Village Minstrel,' publication of.

Walkherd Lodge, home of 'Patty.'

Watts, Alaric, makes Clare's acquaintance.

Wilders, Mr. of Bridge Casterton.

Wilson, Professor, on Clare's poetical genius.

Wisbeach, John Clare's journey to.

Withers, nurseryman, employs Clare.

'Woman's Love,' Clare's poem of.

       *       *       *       *       *


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