The Northampton Peasant Poet

John Clare : Died 1864 after over twenty years in a lunatic asylum.

Wrote this whilst there:

I am

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 oblivious host,

Like shades in love and death’s oblivion lost;

And yet I am! and live with shadows tost
Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,

Into the living sea of waking dreams,

Where there is neither sense of life nor joys,

But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;

And e’en the dearest–that I loved the best–

Are strange–nay, rather stranger than the rest.
I long for scenes where man has never trod;

A place where woman never smil’d 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.

The latest In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg suggests, in and amongst, a tale worthy of some psychoanalytic  interest. Did he become mentally disrupted  because of the Enclosure Acts:  a series of United Kingdom Acts of Parliament which enclosed open fields and common land in the country, creating legal property rights to land that was previously considered common. These were consolidated in 1845: and allowed for the appointment of Inclosure Commissioners who could enclose land without submitting a request to Parliament.

The story goes that John’s poetry illustrated an exceptional connection with the nature in his locality and countryside. Big trees and streams had names and were part of the community. But suddenly with the latest Inclosure Act his access was restricted – and for example well known  big trees were cut down just for profit by the landowners.

Is it possible his ‘mental decline’ and delusions – in which he adopted the identity of poets like John Byron ‘with the confidence to be attractive to women’ – wa the result of a reverse crisis of investiture – the destruction of a material symbolic network of natural signifiers that in a way spoke to him and stabilised his sense of identity for him. Was his writing a symptom of this extraordinary relationship with nature.

Perhaps psychosis can be triggered by a crisis of investiture for a form of subjectivity  already on the edge, as suggested by Santner in My Own Private Germany about the German judge Schreber. He  became psychotic – and whose copious and elaborate writings of his delusions were famously analysed by Freud (who attributed his breakdown to a suppressed homosexuality).

Joyce’s writings it is often suggested may have been a symptom to deal with his own relationship with the symbolic, maybe Clare also wrote to stabilise.

Clare’s wife never visited him once in the 24 odd years he was looked after in the asylum. He once walked the 80 miles back to his village.

It’s kind of sobering to think about the harms caused by industrialisation and the expansion  of private property so well described by Marx.

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