Thursday, July 11, 2013

"Untroubling, And Untroubled Where I Lie, The Grass Below -- Above The Vaulted Sky"

The following poem is perhaps John Clare's best-known poem.  This is ironic, because it is not really typical of his poetry.  Yet there is no gainsaying its emotional impact.

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 life's 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.

John Clare, in Eric Robinson, David Powell, and Margaret Grainger (editors), The Later Poems of John Clare, 1837-1864, Volume I (Oxford University Press 1984).

As I say, "I am . . ." is uncharacteristic of Clare.  He was not what we moderns would call a "confessional" poet.  He usually kept his counsel. (Which, in my humble opinion, is something that we all ought to do more often.)  The next poem catches his character quite well, I think.

Tristram Hillier, "Cutler's Green" (1944)

                         To John Clare

Well honest John how fare you now at home?
The spring is come and birds are building nests
The old cock robin to the stye is come
With olive feathers and its ruddy breast
And the old cock with wattles and red comb
Struts with the hens and seems to like some best
Then crows and looks about for little crumbs
Swept out by little folks an hour ago
The pigs sleep in the sty the bookman comes
The little boys lets home close nesting go
And pockets tops and tawes where daiseys bloom
To look at the new number just laid down
With lots of pictures and good stories too
And Jack the Giant-killer's high renown.

John Clare, Ibid, Volume II.  The spelling and punctuation are as they appear in Clare's original handwritten manuscript.  "The new number just laid down" (line 12) refers to a newly-published children's book or magazine sold by the bookman.

During his periods of madness, Clare sometimes spoke of a "John Clare" who was someone other than himself.  In this poem, "John Clare" makes an appearance as a younger version of the John Clare who is now residing in an asylum.  One feels the happiness and the innocence of the young and vanished "John Clare," but one also feels the sense of loss, and the longing, of the present-day John Clare dwelling against his will in a madhouse.  Or perhaps I am reading more into the poem than I ought to.

Tristram Hillier, "The Argument" (1943)

Clare's "I am . . ." brings to mind a remarkably (and eerily) similar poem by another poet who, like Clare, was beset with mental distress throughout much of his life.

Hatred and vengeance, my eternal portion,
Scarce can endure delay of execution,
Wait, with inpatient readiness, to seize my
                                   Soul in a moment.

Damn'd below Judas: more abhorr'd than he was,
Who for a few pence sold his holy Master.
Twice betrayed Jesus me, the last delinquent,
                                   Deems the profanest.

Man disavows, and Deity disowns me:
Hell might afford my miseries a shelter;
Therefore hell keeps her ever hungry mouths all
                                   Bolted against me.

Hard lot!  encompass'd with a thousand dangers;
Weary, faint, trembling with a thousand terrors;
I'm called, if vanquish'd, to receive a sentence
                                   Worse than Abiram's.

Him the vindictive rod of angry justice
Sent quick and howling to the centre headlong;
I, fed with judgment, in a fleshly tomb, am
                                   Buried above ground.

William Cowper, in H. S. Milford (editor), The Complete Poetical Works of William Cowper (1905).  The poem is sometimes printed with the title "Lines Written during a Period of Insanity."  However, the  poem was not published until after Cowper's death, and the title was likely added by an editor.

Tristram Hillier, "Flooded Meadow" (1949)


John Ashton said...

Mr Pentz, I well remember the impact this poem ( Iam -) had on me when I first read it, I think I was about twenty years old. It was the first John Clare poem I came aross, and as you say ,though not typical of his writings it still works very powerfully. Perhaps even more so as we read and get to know more of his life.
I am sure you are familiar with them ;his journals and autobiographical writngs are extraordinary too and the Journey out of Essex back to his home is, I think one of the most astonishingly painful and heartbreaking pieces I think I have ever read.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Ashton: I think that "I am" was the first poem of Clare's for me as well. I agree that its impact and poignance grow as you learn more about his life. I haven't gotten around to reading much of his prose yet -- although I have read "Journey out of Essex," which, as you say, is heartbreaking.

As always, it's very nice to hear from you. Thank you for visiting, and for your thoughts.

Mathias Richter said...

I first encountered "I am" through the setting by Ian Venables. I mentioned him before, I think. He wrote a couple of song cycles which can be regarded as a portrait of a particular poet. There is a Housman and a Gurney cycle. “Invite to Eternity” Op. 31 is dedicated to John Clare. He captures the forlorn longing to a degree that may be too intense for some listeners. I hold Venables’ music in high regard but I have to confess that I cannot listen to this song very often. Honestly, the poem itself demands a great deal of the reader. Clare had been neglected by composers to a large degree. Venables wanted to give him a voice – literally as well as poetically.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Richter: thank you very much for the link to the work of Ian Venables. Yes, I do recall your mentioning him before - - I think in connection with Gurney or Housman. Looking at his website, with its list of his settings, I admire his taste in poets! In addition to Clare, Gurney, and Housman, he has done settings for poems by Graves and Edward Thomas (among others) -- and even a poem by Cavafy which happens to be a favorite of mine.

Thank you again -- you have given me a great deal to explore.

As always, I appreciate hearing from you.