When you think of Victorian poets whom you’ve heard of and whose work is familiar to you, the odds are that those poets will be, for instance, Robert Browning, Alfred Lord Tennyson or Christina Rossetti. But there was also a poet at the time who’s been gaining recognition after his lifetime and who had produced a significant amount of poetry. His name is John Clare.
As I discovered Clare a few years ago, I was surprised that a figure that prolific is so little known. When I say little, I mean that every literature enthusiast knows Keats and Coleridge, few, however, have heard of Clare. Neither had I. When I came across his poem ‘I Am!’ I was smitten with the author’s sensitivity and I remembered his name.
Recently I had a chance to read ‘The Ballad of John Clare’ written by Hugh Lupton and published by Dedalus in 2010 and I was interested to see the author’s take on the life of John Clare. It sometimes happens that a famous artist’s life and gift are dramatised and given an atmosphere of mystery. Consequently, I anticipated a novel which would do exactly that – depict an unhappy prodigy whose only comfort in life was his own art. But I was pleasantly surprised when I started reading.
In his novel Lupton introduces us to the world which John Clare was familiar with and which shaped him as a person and as a poet. When you read Clare’s poems, you notice that there are two main concerns. The first is the country, its nature and customs and the second is the solitary individual who craves for love and tries to make peace with himself. Lupton depicts these concerns by a detailed portrayal of the country life and descriptions of the character of John Clare. Indeed, the chapters in the novel are divided in such a way that each one is a name of a custom or a season such as Sheepshearing and Christmas. The novel starts with the Rogation Sunday during which the village comes together and in those circumstances the reader meets the characters for the first time. As far as the character of the poet is concerned, we learn: ‘He is bookish and solitary and cannot seem to set his hand to any trade.’ Also his posture stands out as he is ‘some five feet tall from head to foot.’
What is important is that Lupton does not focus on the poet but on the man. Also, the novel depicts the figure of the poet during his early years of his life when he was turning from a young boy to an adult. Consequently, it is for the reader to decide in what way Clare’s environment influenced him and how his experiences seeped into his poetry.
‘The Ballad of John Clare’ is an interesting read because of the soulful images that the author provides, such as the descriptions of nature or the scene of Clare’s first kiss. The novel is a tribute to John Clare as it brings the reader closer to the poet’s beloved environment. More than that, one sympathises with the figure of the poet as he is not depicted as a prodigy but as a man whose concerns are the same as ours.