on 11 July 2009
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.
on 12 August 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.
on 30 December 2013
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?
on 9 December 2014
I thought I would love John Clare when I was a teenager because I loved walking and felt out of sorts with the posh and rich kids at school. At the time I was disappointed by the poet's- how can I call it?- well. reverence and respect for aristocrats, for the signs and symbols of success and for money . This biography has helped me to change my opinion about Clare as a man. The society he lived in, however, was unremittingly awful.