(posted Wednesday, Sept. 23, 1998)
To hear Robert Pinsky read “I Am,” click here.
Self-educated, poor beyond imagining, John Clare experienced a brief, condescending vogue as England’s “Peasant Poet,” at a time when illiteracy was a norm for England’s rural workers, and poets were expected to come from higher social ranks. (Keats, for example, was ridiculed for writing “Cockney poetry.”) When he was in fashion, people would visit his cottage and sometimes give him a few coins. When the novelty had worn off, this immensely gifted writer experienced isolation and hardship, and finally became insane, spending most of his life in an institution. The tough, memorable language of “I Am” demonstrates that Clare was an extremely impressive artist. Lines such as “I am the self-consumer of my woes” have a distinction and force that need no propping up by the pathos of the life behind the writing. The plainness of this poem is wonderfully achieved and eloquent.
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 shadows in love’s frenzied, stifled throes–
And yet I am, and live–like vapors tossed
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.