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John Clare [Paperback]

Jonathan Bate
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
RRP: 16.99
Price: 12.79 & FREE Delivery in the UK. Details
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Book Description

18 Jun 2004

‘What distinguished Clare is an unspectacular joy and a love for the inexorable one-thing-after-anotherness of the world’ Seamus Heaney

John Clare (1793-1864) was a great Romantic poet, with a name to rival that of Blake, Byron, Wordsworth or Shelley – and a life to match. The ‘poet’s poet’, he has a place in the national pantheon and, more tangibly, a plaque in Westminster Abbey’s Poets’ Corner, unveiled in 1989.

Here at last is Clare’s full story, from his birth in poverty and employment as an agricultural labourer, via his burgeoning promise as a writer – cultivated under the gaze of rival patrons – and moment of fame, in the company of John Keats, as the toast of literary London, to his final decline into mental illness and the last years of his life, confined in asylums. Clare’s ringing voice – quick-witted, passionate, vulnerable, courageous – emerges through extracts from his letters, journals, autobiographical writings and poems, as Jonathan Bate brings this complex man, his revered work and his ribald world, vividly to life.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 672 pages
  • Publisher: Picador (18 Jun 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0330371126
  • ISBN-13: 978-0330371124
  • Product Dimensions: 13 x 19.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 122,959 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Jonathan Bate is Professor of Shakespeare and Renaissance Literature at the University of Warwick, chief editor of The RSC Shakespeare: Complete Works and the author of many books, including most recently John Clare: A Biography, which won the Hawthornden Prize for Literature and the James Tait Black Prize for Biography. A Fellow of the British Academy, he was awarded a CBE in 2006.

Product Description


'The passionate intimacy and grace of Clare's poetry are
beautifully described, and so is Clare's extraordinary and fascinating
life' -- 'Book of the Year', The Tablet

About the Author

Jonathan Bate, born in 1958, is the author of The Genius of Shakespeare, Song of the Earth and a novel, The Cure for Love. He is the Leverhulme Research Professor of English at the University of Warwick and writes regularly for the Telegraph, the TLS and the Independent.

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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
40 of 40 people found the following review helpful
I have spent the last few months gradually reading this wonderful biography before bed at night, and looked forward to every page of it. This is a truly magnificent biography of a man who was a contemporary of Byron, Shelley and Keats but who never quite reached their heights. He did not die young or reach Europe like they did, he came from humble origins, worked as a labourer and sadly ended up in a lunatic asylum for the last years of his life.
Here Bate takes you through Clare's life with sensitivity and real perception. Using his letters, manuscripts and of course poems Bate presents a very troubled man, but all the same still England's finest pastoral poet. I highly recommend this book. I believe this will be the definitive Clare biography for years to come.
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17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Scholarly, sympathetic and very readable. 12 Aug 2011
I agree wholeheartedly with the review above. This is a great biography of the poet (I bought it in the shop of Clare's birthplace in Helpstone - well worth a visit). I know the poetry of Clare and his autiobiographical writings well and Bate is a good critic of both - defining very well Clare's greatness as a writer and staking a claim for him as a major English poet to match Scotland's Burns. Many things interested me in the biography - perhaps two things in particular: Bates does a wonderful job of exploring the relationship between Clare and his tormented publishers Taylor and Hessey, who published Keats' poetry also. He reveals, too, a whole world of detail about the systems of literary patronage in this period. My only quibble is that it is opague on some of the central relationships in Clare's life - his wife Patty and his parents, presumably because of a lack of documentary evidence surviving. It is difficult to imagine this job being done better and I would recommend it to anyone interested in the period or poetry in general, not just John Clare specialists. A great read.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Definitive biography of Clare 19 Jun 2013
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Essential reading and reference work for anyone interested in Clare - little more needs to be said. The paperback version is big, and heavy. I have the Kindle edition which works very well.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars John Clare - Prof. Bate 30 Dec 2013
By pearl
I cannot remember reading a better literary biography. Really, Bate's book is so good, you start to think in terms of Boswell's 'Life of Dr. Johnson' for something to compare it with. It is magnificent in every respect. If I have an observation, it's not a criticism, it is that such an important biography has been written about someone who is, sure, important and neglected, but who was just not that important, not as I see it.
Clare was certainly very talented but he ended up in Northampton's mental hospital with days out when he lounged around in the porch of Northampton's imposing central church, cadging for loose change, and composing ditties for passers-by.
He was incredibly feckless. He was poor but didn't shirk his responsibilities of looking after his aged parents and family. But always contrived to make things worse for himself by booze, and other women. The local nobility took him up, helped him financially then dropped him when they saw him making a mess of his life and ignoring their, v. sensible, advice. He went to London a couple of times and seems to have succumbed to its dark allure. He saw Byron's funeral. Time and again he tried to reform his personal life. He just doesn't seem to have had much will-power. He reminds me of Coleridge in that respect.
Bate is right about how he has been neglected but Clare really was his own worst enemy.
He also happened to be alive when England was producing great poets like flies - if you'll excuse the analogy, but it is apt for that period say from 1790 to 1840. Poor old Clare. A very talented guy. But what can you do when there are titans like Byron, Wordsworth, Coleridge etc around?
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fabulous Portrait 15 Jun 2004
By Gianmarco Manzione - Published on
Endearing, moving and mysterious, this is as sensitive a portrait of John Clare as we are likely to get. Bate's love for his subject is obvious throughout the book, in which he succeeds so well at walking the line between adoration and accuracy. Teeming with observations such as "for Clare even a fishpond is saturated with feeling and memory," Clare's unusually intense absorption in nature is brought to light here with the kind of beauty and empathy only a fellow-writer such as Bate could achieve.
Yet despite Bate's insistence on Clare's genius (I'm quite insistent on it myself after having read the biography and skimming through the Selected Poems) he does not look away from uglier aspects of Clare's life: his infidelity and apparent spousal abuse, his alcoholism and, most of all, the ever-bewildering case of his diagnosis as a "lunatic." This is where Bate's book becomes particularly poignant, and I wish he had spent less time gossiping about Clare's wrangles with publishers and more on the man's complicated and harrowing character. For this reason I felt the book to be a bit longer than it needed to be, but perhaps I'd feel differently had the material in the last 150 pages, which deals extensively with Clare's mental illness, been fleshed-out even more. Surely accounts of Clare's occasional belief that he was Lord Byron or Jack Randall the boxer are of far more interest than how many pounds he was paid for a poem published in the London Magazine.
Nonetheless, Bate does an excellent job of avoiding the temptation to romanticize Clare's dramatic mental illness (for which, in the end, "manic-depression" seems to be the most accurate but not necessarily conclusive diagnosis. In her incredible book, Touched With Fire, Kay Redfield Jamison lists Clare's name among the poets she counted as victims of manic-depressive illness). Unlike other biographers of writers (Quentin Bell's book about Virginia Woolf comes to mind) Bate does not settle for Clare's own metaphorical explanations for his "madness." Indeed, Bate often disputes the very term "madness" and exposes it as a dated and even superstitious label. He does not so thoroughly drench the artist's mental struggles in myth and theory as to have it become the stuff of folklore. Surely it would be flattering to think of Clare as some divinely inspired mystic, but Bate's many more logical scenarios are a refreshing contrast to the "mad genius" stereotype.
While Clare attributed his madness to the day he watched a friend fall to his death from a tree as a child, Bate's more plausible suggestions include: Clare's concussion after tumbling out of a tree himself as a boy, his heavy drinking, the awful malnutrition of his diet, the tormenting stress of his perpetual poverty amid obligations to his wife and seven children, his frustrating efforts to further himself as a poet while having to beg for farm work, and "mercury-poisoning resulting from attempted treatment for syphilis." In a further example of Bate's mature handling of this particular issue, he writes that "we should not rule out the possibility that his own derangement was partially shaped by his reading about the mental suffering of other writers." Clare was terribly impressionable. However, where Bate tells us that Clare's "episodes" afflicted him only after being admitted to the aszlum as if to imply that he was bound to become psychotic after living among the mad for two decades, Jamison writes in "Touched With Fire" that "manic-depressive illness not only worsens over time, it becomes less responsive to medication the longer" it goes untreated, so it seems only logical that his condition would have worsened with age, especially since no such "treatment" as Jamison discusses was available in his day.
Compounding the reasonable possibilities Bate offers is the fact that Clare's very devotion to write poetry may have been interpreted as madness by his neighbors. Tragically, this seems to be a chief reason why he was eventually confined. As Bate says early on, "In summer he walked in the woods and fields alone, a book in his pocket . . . his love of books began to isolate him from other boys . . . the villagers found this behavior very odd: `some fancying it symptoms of lunacy.'" Even after reading the book, it is anyone's guess as to whether Clare was insane; but stories of his battles against what illness he may have suffered from as well as the ignorance, incompetence and greed of those purporting to care for him make for a rather heart-breaking read. What we can be sure of, though, is that mad or not, Clare had become more of a liability than a father or husband. "There is no evidence that he was taken to the asylum because he was `mad' in the sense of having lost consciousness of his identity . . . he was taken to the asylum because he needed better care than could be provided by his family," Bate writes.
Though he probably takes a bit too much liberty in attempting to explain nearly every one of Clare's symptoms in a more rational light, Bate's assertions about Clare's psychological temperament make for some absolutely riveting explications and commentary. "To say that he had written the works of Byron and Scott was but an extreme way of saying he had written works that he hoped might one day be regarded as the equal of" those works, he supposes. In an even farther-fetching attempt at psychoanalysis, Bate explains Clare's delusion that he was a famous boxer as a dramatization "of the fact that Clare spent his life fighting battles - for his poetry, for recognition, for survival, against his inner demons." While this is probably the point at which Bate seems more of an adoring and apologetic fan than biographer, who's to say? We will never really know what was going on inside that jewel of a mind, and considering all that was taken from the man in his life by his illness, time, or other people, maybe that secret is the one thing we can let Clare keep.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Absolutely Great 10 Feb 2005
By M. Hori - Published on
This is a wonderful biography of Clare. Bate not only paints a convincing picture of this largely self-taught genius, but he also provides illuminating information about the social context in which Clare moved. His speculations concerning Clare's mental illness are also on the mark. Take your time with this book. It's an enjoyable ramble through the fields and by the end you'll have a well-rounded picture of John Clare and a greater appreciation for his work.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fab 30 Oct 2003
By S. Hutton - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
A magnificent bio of a fabulous poet. I got to page 167 or so before it occured to me to check what page I was on. When one forgets one is reading, one knows one is reading excellence.
This bio is excellence and this poet is sublime.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Very Fine Biography of Clare 26 April 2006
By buckwheatbarleycorn - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Jonathan Bate's admirable biography of John Clare is worthy of this unique poet. There were moments while reading the first two hundred or so pages of John Clare A Biography when I began to sense I was residing in Clare's mind and footsteps which is truly a tribute to Bate's fine scholarship and narrative skills. The remainder of the book is excellent as well. Very memorable and very much worth reading and exploring.
3.0 out of 5 stars Another doorstop compendium 28 Dec 2013
By A Customer - Published on
If you want all the facts about John Clare, the romantic peasant poet who died forgotten in the madhouse, this is the book for you. If you want a sense of who Clare was and how he fits into English poetry as a whole, it isn't. Keats admired Clare, but complained that his poetry was diffuse because it lacked emotional concentration. This biography has the same fault. It shows so little emotional and imaginative identification with Clare that he soon seems a bore-- flat, like the farm landscape he wrote about. Libraries are overstuffed with doorstop biographies of this genre: "Clare did this, then he did that, then he did this".. blah blah blah.
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