Penny left a comment on last week’s Sunday Poetry post recommending this poem by John Clare (portrait from here). I’m up to the Romantic poets in my anthology but the book I’m taking my Sunday Poetry from (A Book of English Poetry collected by G B Harrison 1950) had no John Clare in it at all. So, I turned to another old anthology, The Penguin Book of English Romantic Verse ed by David Wright (1968) & there it was. Was Clare omitted from the earlier book (the first edition of Harrison’s book was published in 1937, my copy is a reprint of the revised edition) from lack of space or was he just not in fashion? His work was forgotten for over a hundred years after his death & only rediscovered in the middle of the 20th century.
Clare was well-known as a rural poet in the tradition of Robert Burns & he was deeply attached to his native village in Northamptonshire. When he moved only a few miles away, he was very much affected & his poems began to reflect this sense of loss. He was parted from his first love, Mary Joyce, & although he married another woman, he harked back to Mary during his periods of mental illness, imagining he was married to her. He spent almost the last 20 years of his life in an asylum & his poetry is full of lost love as well as his loss of the English countryside. I Am is a poem full of melancholy, loneliness & longing for peace and, as Penny said, written when the poet was in the asylum.
I am – yet what I am none cares or knows,
My friends forsake me like a memory lost;
I am the self-consumer of my woes,
They rise and vanish in oblivions host,
Like shadows in love – frenzied stifled throes
And yet I am, and live like vapours tost.
Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life or joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;
And e’en the dearest – that I love the best –
Are strange – nay, rather stranger than the rest.
I long for scenes where man has never trod,
A place where woman never smiled or wept;
There to abide with my Creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept;
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie,
The grass below – above the vaulted sky.