11 OCTOBER 2003, Page 41

Native wood-notes wild

JOHN CLARE by Jonathan Bate Picador, £25, pp. 637,

ISBN 0330371061

This is an exceptional biography, which is just as well, since I don't think one could bear to have the heartbreaking story it tells recounted carelessly. John Clare is one of the great Romantic poets, but his history an origins have always meant that he was either treated with neglect or used by his admirers for their own ends, This unusually tactful and sympathetic book tries, for once, not to claim Clare for any particular cause, but to see what he was trying to do in his own terms.

Clare came from the poorest of the agricultural classes, and indeed continued working as a labourer even when he had attained some literary celebrity. The Northamptonshire settlement where he grew up was feudally impoverished, with nothing much between the local marquess and the workers on the land. Everything was against such a background producing any kind of writer. On the simplest level, paper itself was expensive before the invention of woodchip paper later in the 19th century. The manuscripts of many of Clare's most beautiful poems are written on the backs of old election flyers, letters from admirers, or anything at all. It was almost impossible, too, for someone in that position to read anything very much. His society was one of inconceivable ignorance: an acquaintance of his had a plan to become rich — 'to beg a penny off each person he met. A penny per person is a trifle'. but 'now let me see — suppose there's 20,000 men in England Rich and Poor.' Clare's first poems were inspired by the example of the cheap ballads which his father, Parker Clare, seems to have liked, and, all through his early years, he fell upon any kind of book which came his way and absorbed it like a sponge — the inevitable Robinson Cnisoe and The Pilgrim's Progress. But as well as all that there were the fields around him.

Clare's poetry came out in sudden, abrupt floods, followed by long silences. It's been thought, with an eye on his later history, that his habits of work show signs of a bipolar disorder, of manic depression. But that won't do as an explanation of where Clare's poetry comes from: many people suffer from manic depression, but hardly any are thereby taught how to write great poetry. Clare had that furor scribendi which Juvenal diagnosed, the itch to write, and where or how it came from is a mystery. At first intensely shy about his writing, he hid it from his family and then denied that it was his work; subsequently, with great daring, he found a printer and published a book.

The literary celebrity which came his way followed a familiar pattern. At regular intervals, literary fashion was accustomed to take up a poet from the lowest classes and express astonishment at this native gift, before swiftly dropping him again. The most celebrated of these was Stephen Duck, who had a brief period of acclaim in Pope's day, but it had gone on periodically since then. In the case of Duck, nothing much was lost, since he had little talent. Clare's case is tragic, because he was a genius and was treated as no more than a curiosity.

At first, aristocratic patrons and literary figures flocked round him. But Clare was not very good at playing the role which had been assigned to him. For a start, he was not one of 'nature's gentlemen', but often argumentative, and prone to getting drunk. More crucially, his ambitions as a poet were not quite acceptable to his patrons. In short, they wanted him to be and remain a pastoral poet. Clare's minute observation of nature was acceptable, but there is a disillusioned vein about him which is far from the idyll. He was interested in satire, and the obsession with sexual relations was already making itself obvious. None of this seemed at all acceptable to his patrons or publishers: no more attractive was his blunt, original style. The volumes of Clare published in his lifetime are travesties of his intention, omitting his earthier interests and frankly rewriting much of his work. This is an extreme example, but at one point The Shepherd's Calendar in manuscript runs:

The starnel crowds that dim the muddy light puddock circling round its lazy flight Round the wild sweeing wood in motion slow Before it perches on the oaks below.

The editor 'improved' this as follows:

And whirr of starling crowds, that dim the light With mimic darkness, in their numerous flight; Or shrilly noise of puddocks' feeble wail, As in slow circles round the woods they sail,

Clare was a curiosity, and no more: and, as his earliest biographer says, he 'was unwilling to play the part of a newlydiscovered monkey or hippopotamus'. When his novelty wore off, after his first volume of poetry, so did his popularity, although the quality of his poetry was steadily improving. He is a marvellous poet, exact in observation, free in grammar, and increasingly liberated from the constraining imperatives of poetic diction. Next to 'The Nightingale's Nest' from The Rural Muse, Keats's nightingale seems like an exquisitely wrought miniature illustration to Lempriere:

And where those crimping fern-leaves ramp among The hazel's under-boughs, I've nestled down And watched her while she sung.

But his supporters had only a limited interest in Clare, even as a human being. One of his most indefatigable correspondents once wrote to compliment him prettily on his second book, describing it as 'his second child': as Bate points out, she either had forgotten or did not care that his real second child had died only a few months before. Patrons promised regular payments which subsequently dried up;

one gets the impression that he was not often invited twice to dinner. He was appreciated less and less, and some of his boldest and most inspired work was left on the editor's floor.

All this was taking a terrible toll on Clare's vulnerable mental state. He was behaving more and more oddly in public, and in conversation. An American visitor in 1832 said afterwards that 'there was a peculiarity in his manner, and an incoherence in his speech, which involuntarily made me say to myself "Thank God I am not a poet" '. The poetry he was writing through the 1830s is incomparably lucid and clear; yet his mind was falling apart. His terrified family, in a tiny cottage, found that the only way to avert his worst fits of mania and rage was to take him aside and talk earnestly and in detail of nature.

By 1841 there was no choice. He was taken into an asylum. With the exception of one episode, when he escaped and made his way home — an extraordinarily harrowing and difficult journey, agonisingly narrated at the head of this biography — he spent the rest of his life under enlightened supervision. He was permitted to write poetry, and it is astonishing and frequently terrifying. There are occasional nature poems, but others spring from his manic delusion that he was Lord Byron — there is a Don Juan and a Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, technically skilled but giving such frequent and tormented voice to obscene misogyny that their most characteristic and upsetting passages could not possibly be quoted here. Sometimes the poetry gave way altogether, and Clare took to making obsessive lists of the women he had known. Most haunting are some agonising, gnomic lyrics about madhouse life:

Nigh Leopards hill stand Aliens hells The public know the same Where lady sods and buggers dwell To play the dirty game A man there is a prisoner there Locked up from week to week He's very fond they do declare To play at hide and seek.

His keepers encouraged him to write, and did what they could for his reputation by decently correcting any outside misapprehension that he had died. In the 1850s, he seems to have stopped writing in despair, and resumed only shortly before his death in 1864. Even the very last poem is lucid and beautiful, a picture of a chaffinch building a nest, a cow chewing its cud, the poet watching the scene. If there is a sadder writer's life, I don't know it.

As Bate says, Clare has always been forcibly possessed by others. The texts of his poetry exist in only very unsatisfactory states; the falsifying 19th-century texts have been succeeded by a modern edition which simply reproduces his poems as they appear in manuscript, something which Clare would never have countenanced. Adding to the continuing difficulties is a grotesque and incredible copyright situation, which is that the professor who in recent decades has edited and published the vast mass of Clare's poetry in this edition has personally asserted ownership over them, and has, apparently, requested payment from anyone reproducing them.

Bate has written a superlative book, which for once makes strenuous efforts not to claim Clare for any particular cause, or to make the unexamined assumption that a poet of Clare's background will inevitably be better when limited to simple subjects. The poet that Clare wanted to be is taken with absolute seriousness, and his coarse interest in sex and his ambitions towards satire are examined with sympathy and consideration. Bate scrupulously avoids the lazy assumption that Clare's vivid rural vocabulary, his bold way with grammar and his original verse forms are the product of ignorance or mental instability; he had a large library, and probably knew very well what he was doing.

Everything has conspired to keep Clare from his readers; cheap legends, problematic or simply false texts, simple prejudice. This superb and heartbreaking biography does a great deal to open him up, and will create a demand for a good, cheap, readable and reliable edition of the complete poetry.