Northamptonshire County Library, in the county where Clare was born and recognised as a much-loved poet of the countryside, is considering how to manage his archives. Since the libraries have been forced to close and the surviving volunteer staff are untrained in conservation at this level, removal of the manuscripts to the British Library has been mooted – and resisted. Taking the essence of the man away from the land he loved and locking it up somewhere alien – even when he was certifiably mad – was not something he would have welcomed.
Clare suffered from periods of insanity and imagined he was, at times, Lord Byron, or even Shakespeare.
I tried to imagine what it would be like to think you were someone else, somebody important, perhaps, somebody special – and to write in their voice. I wrote this using the metre Clare used:
I, JOHN CLARE, POET,
(OTHERWISE KNOWN AS LORD BYRON)
Lord Byron call me, for I will confess
To being like a lord, and in my time
Days were when I would dress
In velvet breeches, thinking myself fine.
No ploughboy I, a poet through and through
Although the wound I bear is hard to heal
And men may call me mad, it isn’t true,
I know now who I am, and what I feel.
My wounded heart floods out upon the tide
As Mary Joyce still calls me to her arms.
Byron I am, and Shakespear as I ride
And I become a slave to all their charms.
They say that I’m insane and must abide
In the asylum. Patty waits at home
With all our children. Cried
When she last saw me, so I roam,
And can be anyone I choose.
Ha ha! You will not pin me down.
Ranting as poets will, my hair blown loose,
Mad as a box of frogs, I enter town.
Comfort me now with cider from the farm
Lull me to sleep with owl’s spawn in the rye.
I am but a little child. I mean no harm. Sirrah,
Lord Byron needs to sleep, so let him lie.
Clare was luckier than many other people deemed mad at that time. He was dealt with affectionately, allowed to write, and kept out of the worst institutions housing the insane. His poetry is, and should be, treasured.