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Tuesday, 25 May 2010

John Clare: I Am


File:Sheep and May, Arkengarthdale.jpg

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 oblivion's host,
Like shadows in love's 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 lifes esteems:
Even the dearest, that I love the best
Are strange -- nay, rather stranger than the rest.

I long for scenes, where man hath 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.

File:Schafspiegelung (tiegeltuf).jpg

John Clare: I Am, written late 1844 or early 1845, Northampton General Lunatic Asylum

Drystone walls, sheep in meadow beside Arkengarthdale Road, Reeth, Swaledale, North Yorkshire, "May" blossom on Crataegus monogyna (hawthorn) trees on Fremington Edge in background: photo by Simon Garbutt, 2006

Reflection of sheep in a moat: photo by tiegeltuf, 2009




These two 'selections' -- from Davies (I'm probably not alone in never having met him) and Clare-- are, what can I say? really moving. A poignant way to go forward into today ----


grey whiteness of cloud against invisible
ridge, quail calling Chi-ca-go Chi-ca-go
in foreground, sound of wave in channel

circle far from other bodies,
by the fact that it is

that is, system of reference,
point of body equal to

grey-white clouds reflected in channel,
line of pelicans flapping toward point

Curtis Roberts said...

Very moving is exactly right. I’m on one of my one-day trips between Philadelphia and New York and encountering these two selections (re-meeting Clare and meeting Davies for the first time, although I had heard of the Super Tramp volume) kept me going through some of the rough sections of the day (Penn Station, meeting annoyance, Penn Station again). The saga of Clare’s madness, of course, is affecting and memorable (the Byron and Shakespeare identifications), but what’s amazing is the poem and the sentiments that I think most people with any accumulation of experience can recognize and identify with, at least sometimes. The first two stanzas are virtually a “greatest hits” of those moments. What you’ve done with the mirroring images of the sheep and pasture really makes “The grass below -- above the vaulted sky” come alive on the page. It’s hard to believe that the photos are the work of two different photographers.

TC said...

It's hard to imagine two poets of any time or place who went through more hardship than Davies and Clare, and the perseverance in a dream of poetry was equally notable in both cases.

In the one there eventually came what may be seen to be rewards. In the other not.

In any case one can't but accord a special credit to the work of writers who have experienced difficulty and suffering, it seems to lend an authenticity, a believability, a sense of something in common with the general and the specific at once.

Curtis, thank you for putting so well what's so important about this poem of Clare's --

"...sentiments that I think most people with any accumulation of experience can recognize and identify with, at least sometimes. The first two stanzas are virtually a 'greatest hits' of those moments..".

Stephen's poem for the day, with its chilly grey-white cloud cover (January in May, today, here too), helps identify that quality further, (perhaps?) accidentally. I think we do all have times, more or less frequent, perhaps more frequent as we get older, when we

circle far from other bodies,

and then it's harder to hold to the configurations of certain determinate structures, such as "the social" --

that is, system of reference

It seems Clare in his life swung out of that orbit sans return.


Tom and Curtis,

Yes, still very moving to read these two (especially this one) again this morning. And see those SWEET sheep again. And to think of of what you call "certain determinate structures, as in 'the social'"-- Clare's life "swinging out of that orbit sans return." A glimpse of pink in cloud earlier, before it all turned grey again -- someone told me yesterday that is is the coldest May "in history" ---


pink edge of cloud above still shadowed
plane of ridge, quail calling Chi-ca-go
in foreground, sound of wave in channel

that in the sense which “now”
“nothing, also measure

surface itself, picture that
is, “calling attention”

grey-white clouds reflected in channel,
wingspan of pelican flapping across it

TC said...


It is the coldest May not only in but after history, I think. The past several nights carless out in the streets each inclement in a slightly different, exquisitely unpleasant way - wind, cold, rain, the whole panoply of the actuality behind the pastoral Hey Ho nonsense.


We have just been picturing and speaking of you there in your brave resistance to the organized Mowers.

It is good to hear (in your new comment on Andrew Marvell: Damon the Mower) they may have been ordered to sheathe their blades. My thought was, no such possibility of resistance here. As I say this there is infernal racket filling the frigid air all round as trees are cut and large vibrating machines on some other big-street project compete for bedlam rights. And now a work crew foreman is knocking at our door. (It is of course not our work.) The cat sleeping by the door has had his dreams disturbed, and bolts away in alarm.

bill sherman said...

yes, "harder to hold to the configurations of certain determinate structures such as 'the social'.." very well put. ... Clare of course living in such abject rural poverty literally had no place to go except to an asylum, his family not being able to cope with him sad to say. I haven't read the new Clare bio, but I believe he escaped from institutional confinement time and time again to wander across the landscape, existing on roots and berries. "I Am" indicates an extraordinary degree of sanity in some way, it seems to me.

TC said...

Yes, it's so interesting how all one need do is shift slightly off to the side a bit, and the whole thing goes on without one, though within one's own world it is the whole thing that appears skewed. And then more and more so.

Clare thought he was Byron, and so on. Perhaps.

But of course it seems it's always "the social" that defines "sanity", alas.

His Journey Into Essex is an extremely gripping read.

He seems to have been welcomed as a sort of colleague by the gypsies. (Also outside society.)

Curtis Roberts said...

I had similar thoughts regarding Clare and sanity. Your collective weather reports, which I follow raptly (it's a habit in our family where we consider The Weather Channel mainstream entertainment), are so ghastly. I guess we won't be moving to the Bay Area soon. Regarding the quail that calls "Chi-ca-go", I'm definitely going to check that out. I spent some very happy times in Chicago. Without boring you, I'll just say that during the time I spent there (one or two days a week at least for about four years following earlier regular visits), my professional character improved because of the way people (even lawyers) did business. They were just friendlier and more polite and I had to consciously discard the NYC/LA reflexive "edge". I'd like to meet a bird that calls "Chi-ca-go".

TC said...


As to the New Bay Area Ice Age, these past few days, as it reaches some sort of shivering zenith, I've begun (belatedly of course) attributing it to the eruptions. One must always have something/someone to blame.

And speaking of crazy, e'er since Steve began hearing that Bolinasian quail I've been been suffering deep in my acoustic memory endless replays of the annoying ancient ditty that goes

That toddlin' town

First hearing it as a small child, I was not quite sure what it meant -- and of course at that stage one doesn't yet ask, if one is/was me.

But as I was in any case then a toddler, I universalized my subjective view by assuming incorrectly it was "my" song.

This part of the song, though, continued for some years to confuse.

On State Street
That great street
They do things that they don't
Do on Broadway

Later on, when I had grown sufficiently to have a job downtown, and to become familiar with the things they did on State Street, I concluded that the things they did there were probably not done on Broadway because people on Broadway had better things to do.

To each his own form of toddling I suppose.

Have not been back there in nearly forty years, so heaven knows what forms of toddling I am missing out on now.

(To the seventh stage of man's insanity -- mere oblivion, / sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything... -- it seems this line of thought would soon perhaps be contributing an eighth... I quail from following it.)


Tom and Curtis and All,

Thanks for all such thoughts that have followed here since yesterday. "Chi-ca-go" is what the bird book (Peterson?) says is the sound the quail makes, as you probably know. A neighbor across the street who stopped by yesterday to sign the "Clearing on Open Space Property" statement (which I'm now collecting signatures on, to be sent over to the pro bono Attorney who's working for Friends of Open Space) told me he saw MANY quail running around on Overlook (the street) where he'd never seen any before. They're running running around my yard too, their habitat having been cut down out there in the field, driven even farther afield I gather from what he said. . . . I thought I'd keep you posted by including the "Neighbors' Statement" of what's been going on ---

Clearing on Open Space Property

Neighbors’ Statement

1. We are residents of Bolinas, California living near the property that is subject to the 1976 Open Space Easement (the “Open Space Property”). We therefore have personal knowledge of the matters set forth herein.

2. Significant clearing work has been taking place on the Open Space Property. The work, which has BEEN carried out Monday through Saturday each week since it was initiated (ON APRIL 26TH), has been done by workers using chain saws and A tractor.

3. Extensive areas of vegetation have already been cut, including coyote brush, scotch broom, brambles, etc. Vegetation in the cleared areas has been completed removed, leaving behind exposed soil in those areas. The cut vegetation has been piled in A LARGE heap on the Open Space Property.

4. It appears that the work will proceed until the entire Open Space Property has been cleared in this manner.

5. We are concerned that the clearing is adversely affecting wildlife and sensitive habitat areas.

6. We are also concerned that the clearing is prohibited by the Open Space Easement, which provides that “no trees, bushes and other botanical features shall be removed from the Open Space Property, except where necessary for fire prevention.” The scope of the vegetation removal far exceeds any fire-related vegetation removal we have observed in Bolinas.

By signing below, we declare that the foregoing statements are true and accurate

Curtis Roberts said...

Stephen: Good luck with the Open Spaces efforts. I don't know what your local government is like, but obviously there's never any success without strong and vocal community involvement. Interestingly, eastern quails don't say Chi-ca-go. (We have Peterson's Eastern Birds handy; I need to hunt out other volumes from various parts of the house, but I doubt I have a volume for California.) Tom: Chicago's really terrific, but I haven't been back to the place I grew up for a long time either and it's unlikely I'll ever visit there again. My company was headquartered in a northern suburb called Vernon Hills, which was clearly a real estate marketing term because, not surprisingly for the area, it's flat as a pancake.

TC said...

This has had me thinking all night about displaced birds and habitat destruction in specific and in general.

In local scale and in global/regional.

Zephirine said...

I completely love this poem, it also seems to me entirely sane, lucid and insightful.

Thank you for posting this, Tom, it's re-awakened my interest in Clare. I've always meant to look and see if any psychiatrist has done a retrospective diagnosis of him... he was obviously deeply distressed and had a complete breakdown when he went into the Asylum, but apart from the 'I was Byron and Shakespeare' thing, which could have been figurative speech anyway, he doesn't seem to have been exactly mad. More utterly displaced, not fitting into either the literary or the agricultural worlds, a homeless spirit. Perhaps the Asylum gave him, well, asylum.

TC said...


All this is beautifully said and rings true, the displacement seeming above all a historical and social fact, a not-fitting that speaks at least as much about the structure into which he could not fit as about his psychological unfitness.

The class meaning of "literary" has always been so complicated, and the navigating of the doubtful waters between "literary" and "non-literary" worlds so difficult -- often bringing unease and disturbance into the lives of those who, through unusual gifts or desires or both, have attempted to traverse the unmarked but real territorial boundaries between those worlds.

(One thinks of Keats, but Keats did have a tentative foot on the middle class literary threshhold, whereas Clare... well, we remember the telling comment of the fieldworker poet Clare upon the sometime classical pastoralist Keats, "the brook would seem alone without its Naiads to his mind".)

Anonymous said...

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TC said...

Thanks very much, Sandra, an interesting choice of writers and passages, happy to hear about this.