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date: 26 September 2023

Clare, Johnfree


Clare, Johnfree

  • Eric H. Robinson

John Clare (1793–1864)

by William Hilton, 1820

Clare, John (1793–1864), poet, farm labourer, and naturalist, was born on 13 July 1793 in West Street, Helpston, Northamptonshire, the son of Parker Clare (1765–1846), a thresher and local wrestler, known as 'the lame man of Helpstone', and his wife, Ann (1757–1835), second daughter of John Stimson, the town shepherd of nearby Castor. Parker Clare was the illegitimate son of Alice Clare (1732–1820) and John Donald Parker, an itinerant schoolmaster, probably a Scot (John Clare was later to have much enthusiasm for Scottish ballads). It is possible that John Clare (1703–1781), parish clerk of Helpston, was the poet's great-grandfather, but the name was common in the village, and so this is by no means certain. John Clare had had a twin sister who died a few weeks after birth; he long mourned her and she became a sort of alter-ego. His other siblings were Elizabeth (b. 1796), who also died in infancy, and Sophia (1798–1855).

Early life

Clare's childhood home was one of a pair of cottages in West Street, Helpston. The other was occupied by Edward Gee, a retired farmer and Parker Clare's landlord. When Edward Gee died, the two cottages were turned into four tenements. Parker Clare's tenement consisted of one room downstairs and one bedroom divided into two parts, with a share of the garden that included a golden russet apple tree, the fruit of which was the source of income for the greater part of the rent. Clare grew up here, making friends particularly with Richard and John Turnill, sons of a local farmer for whom Clare sometimes worked, and a boy called Thomas Porter, from Ashton, with whom he roamed the fields and local countryside. His native village is situated on a ridge dividing the fens from the limestone wolds to the north where 'wooded uplands dissolve into immense, flat open spaces' (Storey, 31). Anywhere within a 20 mile radius of Helpston may be called Clare's countryside. The area includes a variety of landscapes, flora and fauna, and farming systems. It is represented with great particularity in Clare's poetry.

In the fields at weeding time, John Turnill read to Clare the 'Ballad of Edwin and Emma' by David Mallet, which became the model for Clare's 'The Fate of Amy' (Early Poems, 1.270). Clare also read the chapbooks sold by country pedlars. He refers to them in the last poem he wrote—'To John Clare' (Later Poems, 2.1102). His education in folklore was extended by Granny Mary Bains, 'the cow-keeper famous for the memory of old customs' (Clare by Himself, xvii). Ballads and folk-tales were thus the meat and drink of his childhood. Parker Clare could read a little in the Bible, but his wife was wholly illiterate. Both were none the less anxious that their son should have schooling, and so he was sent, in the down-times of the agricultural year, to Mrs Bullimore's dame-school in Helpston, and later to the vestry school in Glinton run first by a Mr Seaton, and later by James Merrishaw. Clare later addressed poems to both Bullimore and Merrishaw. He meanwhile engaged in the usual tasks of village boys—sheep- and cattle-tending, crow-scaring, and running errands, but he also enjoyed plenty of time for play—cutting mazes in the grass, shooting marbles in the gutters, fighting mock battles, fishing, swimming, and collecting birds' eggs. All these activities became material for his poetry. So did the village festivals: Christmas, April fool's day, St Valentine's day, Whitsun, sheep shearing, harvest home, All Hallows, and several others.

Childhood, however, soon shaded into the world of grown-up work, and at fourteen Clare was ready to be apprenticed. His parents tried to establish him first with a local cobbler and then with a stonemason, but Clare shied away from both occupations. Instead he worked as a ploughboy for Mrs Bellairs at Woodcroft Castle and then in May 1809 was hired for a year by Francis Gregory, the proprietor of the Blue Bell inn next door to his home. At the end of that job he was apprenticed as a garden-boy at Burghley House but ran away with his foreman, George Cousins, to get similar work in Newark. Then followed a series of jobs as labourer, gardener, and lime-burner in his locality. An early attempt to become a lawyer's clerk in Wisbech was doomed to failure, though Clare was sufficiently literate for the work. Finally, the Napoleonic wars caught up with him and he enlisted, along with a neighbour's son, W. Clarke, in the Northamptonshire militia and was stationed at Oundle. He was, by his own account, a poor soldier, and was at home again by May 1813.

As he grew into his teens Clare became a friend of the Billings brothers, John and James, whose house up the street, Bachelors' Hall, was a meeting-place for the young people of Helpston. With them, he seems to have gone on at least one poaching expedition. Clare also became familiar with the Gypsies who camped at Swordy (Swaddy) Well, especially the tribe of King Boswell, learning their customs, their songs, their dances, observing their fortune-telling, and admiring their girls. They represented for Clare freedom from law and convention, and he associated them in his imagination with other outsiders, such as vagrants, Robin Hood and his men, robbers, highwaymen, pickpockets, village idiots, wise women, wizards, and girls of easy virtue. To these perhaps should be added the people he met at local fairs—recruiting sergeants, ballad-singers, beggars, forgers, wounded veterans, and players of games of chance. He was no stranger to the alehouse or to the Stamford bull running, to the fox-hunt or badger baiting, and, in short, he knew all the gradations and vocations of rural society.

Besides reading widely, Clare was educated in the fields, becoming one of the earliest and best naturalists of Northamptonshire. He joined in the botanical searches of Joseph Henderson, the Fitzwilliams' gardener, for rare orchids and ferns and also studied moths and butterflies. He is said to have made over sixty-five first sightings of birds in Northamptonshire (Fisher, 27). He shared in the chance finds turned up by ploughing in the fields and in the archaeological discoveries of Edmund Tyrrell Artis, the house steward of the Fitzwilliam family. From his parents' singing he learned hundreds of local folk-songs and became one of the earliest collectors of folk-songs and dances in his area. On his fiddle he played the popular jigs and reels of the day.

Clare was brought up in the Church of England and loved the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. Though he flirted for a while, in 1824, with the Primitive Methodists (Ranters) of Market Deeping, he returned to his first allegiance and wrote many religious poems, including biblical paraphrases. He eventually owned over four hundred books and read many more. He delighted in both local and national newspapers and read journals and almanacs of several sorts. Though he was largely self-taught, he was not different in that respect from many other eminent persons of his time such as William Cobbett and Francis Place, and like them, aspired to be a published writer.

Love, marriage, and poetry

Meanwhile Clare's emotional life was developing. When he attended school in Glinton, he had developed an affection for Mary Joyce (1797–1838), the daughter of James Joyce, a farmer. She was four years younger than he, but their relationship gradually deepened and by 1819 Clare felt himself to be deeply in love with Mary. He had other relationships, particularly one with a girl called Elizabeth Newbon, but Mary was the emotional centre of his life. When, in 1819, Mary Joyce broke off the affair, probably under the influence of her family, he was devastated, even though he quickly entered into a new love affair with Martha (Patty) Turner (1800–1871) of Casterton, a milkmaid. She became pregnant and on 16 March 1820 Turner and Clare were married at Casterton Magna. Mary and Martha were the two muses of his life and, like their scriptural namesakes, represented the idealistic and the practical natures of woman. When Clare went mad later in his life he thought of himself as married to both women and having children with both of them and thought that he was kept in a madhouse as a punishment for bigamy. Clare loved women and had affairs outside his marriage. His poems about love and marriage run the gamut from the sentimental to the mystical, from the romantic to the satirical. He was unusually sensitive to the misfortunes of seduced women. Woman and nature were the twin themes of much of his poetry.

When Clare first began to write verse, his audience was his parents. He used to read his own poetry from a sheet of paper hidden behind the pages of a book so that he could pretend to be reading another writer's work. There are stories of his illiterate mother burning his poems by using them as spills (candle-lighters) because she simply thought that her son had been practising his handwriting. As early as 1814, however, Clare had purchased a manuscript-book from R. B. Henson, a bookseller from Market Deeping. It survives in Peterborough Museum with its handwritten title 'A Rustic's Pastime in Leisure Hours: Helpston 1814'. These were the first of over two thousand poems written by Clare in his lifetime. Clare entered into an agreement with Henson in 1817 to publish some of his poems by subscription, but because of the costs and Clare's agricultural labours, the project moved forward very slowly. Clare had the good fortune, however, to come to the notice of Edward Drury, a Stamford bookseller, whose cousin was John Taylor, publisher with his partner James Hessey of Keats, Hazlitt, Coleridge, the Revd H. F. Cary (translator of Dante), Allen Cunningham, and others. Clare's first book, Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery, was published by Taylor and Hessey in 1820 and reached a fourth edition in 1821, largely owing to the efforts of William Waldegrave, first Baron Radstock, and his evangelical friend Mrs Eliza Emmerson. The Village Minstrel was published in 1820 and went into a second edition in 1821.

This was the period of Clare's great triumph. He was acclaimed as a prodigy, and lionized during his visits to London in March 1820, May and June 1822, May to August 1824, and February 1828. He had attended Taylor's soirées, met Coleridge, Hazlitt, Cunningham, Lamb, Cary, and other important literary figures. He had become the drinking companion of E. V. Rippingille, the painter, and had visited several of the great artists of the day. He corresponded with George Darley, Thomas Pringle, James Montgomery, Sir Charles Elton, and others.

A turning point came, however, with the publication of The Shepherd's Calendar in 1827, as it appeared after a long delay, and sold badly. The Rural Muse (1835) was the last volume published in Clare's lifetime, and consisted of a selection, made by Mrs Emmerson from a much larger manuscript volume, 'The Midsummer Cushion', which Clare had himself transcribed for publication. Even so, a vast amount of poetry and a considerable quantity of prose remained unpublished and had to wait until the latter part of the twentieth century to attain publication. Among the unpublished material were an important political and social satire, 'The parish', an autobiography, essays on natural history, and a variety of other pieces, short stories, proverbs, and comments on religion, politics, and poetry.


Throughout his working life Clare was beset with difficulties. His family grew rapidly with the births of Anna Maria (1820–1844), Eliza Louisa (1822–1906), Frederick (1824–1843), John (1826–1911), William Parker (1828–1887), Sophia (1830–1863), and Charles (1833–1853). There was also a son who was born and died in 1821 and another infant who was born and died in 1827. All, except for Charles, were born in the small cottage in Helpston. The profits from Clare's books were small and often delayed in payment, and he had access only to the interest on the funds collected for him after the publication of his first book. Publication in periodicals and newspapers was hard to get and poorly paid. He worked part-time as an agricultural labourer, but catch-jobs were fewer in the agricultural depression following the Napoleonic wars. In any event, Clare probably drank too much and was not over-fond of agricultural labour. His health was bad and he seems to have suffered from epilepsy and may have contracted venereal disease. John Taylor also was ill and, in consequence, dilatory, and his partnership with Hessey was not thriving. Clare seems to have been treated with suspicion by his neighbours, who thought that he had risen above his station. Yet all the time he worked feverishly at his writing, striving to maintain himself by his poetry and other compositions.

Some hope for improvement came in 1832 when, through the mediation of his friends E. T. Artis and J. Henderson, Clare was offered for rental a cottage in nearby Northborough belonging to the Fitzwilliams. It had sufficient land with it to be used as a smallholding but Clare was unwell and a poor businessman. Clare's poem 'The Flitting' expresses his sense of deracination at this short removal. His mental health had been in decline for some years, and he was afflicted by depression, sleeplessness, and nightmares, and began to lose his sense of identity. His fame had shrunk since the heady days in London; he was besieged by his creditors although only for small amounts, and he was hemmed in by domesticity. He had grown distrustful of his publishers and felt unable to support himself and his family. On the advice of Taylor, he became a voluntary patient at Dr Matthew Allen's asylum at High Beach in Epping Forest from June 1837 to 20 July 1841. He suffered from delusions, imagining himself to be, at different times, Robert Burns, Lord Byron, Lord Nelson, and Ben Caunt, the prize-fighter. He began to write letters and poems in code in which all the vowels were omitted. Then he walked away from High Beach along the Great North Road towards his home. The experience is powerfully described in his 'Journey out of Essex' (Clare by Himself, 257). At the same time he was composing his own 'Child Harold' and 'Don Juan', jumbled together with other material, such as code letters to Mary and scriptural paraphrases.

Five months after his return to Northborough, Clare was committed to Northampton General Lunatic Asylum by an order of doctors Fenwick Skrimshire and William Page of Peterborough. For the most part, he was given freedom to roam around Northampton. He continued to write poems, many of which were transcribed and preserved. There were very few manifest signs of madness, though, of course, cruder poems might have been suppressed by the asylum authorities. His memories of his neighbours remained as specific as ever. He lived at the asylum until his death from apoplexy on 20 May 1864; his body was returned to Helpston to be buried in the local churchyard of St Botolph's on 25 May.

In 1989 Clare was commemorated by a memorial in Poets' Corner, Westminster Abbey, at a ceremony in which the poet laureate, Ted Hughes, and others read Clare's poems. This recognition reflects a wider appreciation of Clare in the twentieth century. He is rightly acknowledged by many to be England's finest nature poet, but he also wrote on many other subjects. He wrote extensively about his religious experience, expressed his criticism of the enclosure movement, the poor law, the relationship between the classes, the arrogance of local government, and the importance of the English language as spoken by common men. His early poems, apart from those written in dialect, are often deeply influenced by the poetic vocabulary of Thomson and Cowper, though even among the early works are poems like 'Noon' (Early Poems, 1.404), in which Clare creates his own poetic language out of the resources of local speech. As he matured, the identity of his poetic language became increasingly certain. Nineteenth-century editors tended to exclude many provincial words, though they may also have preserved some for the sake of Clare's persona as 'the Northamptonshire Peasant Poet'. They nearly always altered his spelling and grammar. Since the twentieth century scholarly practice has been to produce more closely what Clare actually wrote. Clare's prose writings await fuller evaluation, but his place as a collector of folk-song, both words and music, and folk ceremonies has been an important part of recent Clare studies. He was a writer of remarkable imagination and diversity.


  • The early poems of John Clare, 1804–1822, ed. E. Robinson and D. Powell, 2 vols. (1989)
  • John Clare: poems of the middle period, 1822–1837, ed. E. Robinson, D. Powell, and P. M. S. Dawson, 4 vols. (1996–8) [vols. 1–2, 1996, vols. 3–4, 1998]
  • The later poems of John Clare, 1837–1864, ed. E. Robinson and D. Powell, 2 vols. (1989)
  • J. W. Tibble and A. Tibble, John Clare: a life (1932)
  • The letters of John Clare, ed. M. Storey (1985)
  • M. Moyse, John Clare's family tree (1989) [incl. author's revisions]
  • [J. Clare], John Clare by himself, ed. E. Robinson and D. Powell (1996)
  • The natural prose writings of John Clare, ed. M. Grainger (1983)
  • E. Robinson and D. Powell, John Clare (1984)
  • J. Fisher, ‘The birds of John Clare’, The first fifty years: a history of the Kettering and District Naturalists' Society and Field Club (1955), 26–67
  • E. Storey, A right to song: the life of John Clare (1982)
  • John Clare: cottage tales, ed. E. Robinson, D. Powell, and P. M. S. Dawson (1993)
  • John Clare: Northborough sonnets, ed. E. Robinson, D. Powell, and P. M. S. Dawson (1995)
  • Champion of the poor: John Clare's political writings, ed. P. M. S. Dawson, E. Robinson, and D. Powell (2000)
  • E. Robinson and G. Summerfield, ‘John Clare: an interpretation of certain asylum letters’, Review of English Studies, new ser., 13 (1962), 135–45
  • G. Deacon, John Clare and the folk tradition (1983)
  • B. Heyes, ‘John Clare and the militia’, John Clare Society Journal, 4 (1985), 48–54
  • d. cert.


  • Bodl. Oxf., letters, poems, and papers
  • Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island
  • Jesus College, Cambridge, papers
  • Norris Museum, St Ives, Huntingdon, letters and poems
  • Northampton Central Library, corresp. and literary MSS
  • Northants. RO, archive
  • NYPL, Berg collection
  • NYPL, Pforzheimer collection
  • Peterborough Museum and Art Gallery, literary MSS, corresp. and papers
  • Wellesley College, Massachusetts
  • BL, letters to Lord Spencer
  • U. Nott., corresp. with Lord William Bentinck


  • W. Hilton, oils, 1820, NPG [see illus.]
  • E. Scriven, stipple, pubd 1821 (after W. Hilton), BM, NPG; repro. in J. Clare, Village minstrel (1821)
  • H. Behnes, bronze bust, 1828, Northampton Central Public Library
  • T. Grimshaw, oils, 1844, Northampton Central Public Library
  • G. Maine, watercolour, 1848, Northampton Central Public Library
  • W. W. Law and Son, photograph, 1862, Northampton Central Public Library
  • G. B. Berry, pen-and-ink drawing, repro. in Storey, A right to song
  • H. B. Burlowe, bronze bust, Northampton Central Public Library
  • G. Clark, watercolour, priv. coll.
  • death mask, Northampton Central Public Library
  • drawings, Northampton Central Public Library
  • drawings, Peterborough Museum and Art Gallery
  • watercolour drawing (as an old man), Peterborough Museum and Art Gallery
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Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas
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British Museum, London
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National Portrait Gallery, London
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Northamptonshire Record Office, Northampton
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Pierpont Morgan Library, New York
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Harvard University
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New York Public Library
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