Poem of the Week: ‘I am’ by John Clare

Paul Norris 29 January 2019
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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 vapours 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 loved 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.

 

It is perhaps the most basic construction in English: I am. And the poem interrupts itself before this phrase means anything. ‘I am’ needs an adjective, and the adjective never comes. There is something rhetorical in this interruption, something performative, like someone saying ‘I’ve got to tell you something – actually no you wouldn’t be interested.’ The poem’s second line continues in a similar vein, especially given the melodramatic suggestion of Christ’s passion in ‘foresake’.

There are points even in this first stanza, however, that Clare’s poem is more than a self-pitying diatribe against his lot and those who fail to help him. He is ‘like a memory lost’ rather than simply ‘a memory lost’. The simile does the opposite of what most similes do, making an abstract idea (forsaking) more abstract (by comparing it to forgetting). This poem is not just about feeling alone, but being trapped within a positive feedback loop of abstraction which takes the poet further and further away from the world. He is the ‘self-consumer’ not only because he is the only person aware of his woes, but because he is consuming himself.

The more I think about Clare’s images, the less easy they are to visualise. What is an ‘oblivious host’? What do ‘shadows in love’s frenzied stifled throes’ look like? Vapours and nothingness are both invisible, so throwing one into the other makes an onerous demand on the reader’s imagination. As the poem goes on, it gets more and more wrapped up in a tangle of metaphors which lead only to more metaphors, with the rhyme scheme marching through them with inappropriate regularity. There is something missing; nothing is concrete. Images rise, then vanish on closer inspection, or fail to take shape, like a scrambled clockface in a dream. The hint of a sustained metaphor, with sea and shipwreck, fails to connect in any meaningful way.

John Clare through fields at night, driven into paroxysms of delight and depression by what would now most likely be recognised as cyclothymia. In 1837, when his nocturnal wanderings started to cause concern, he was committed to an asylum, High Beech, in Epping Forest. Clare escaped and walked home to Northamptonshire, a journey of several days. He was sent to another asylum, this time in Northampton. It was here that Clare wrote ‘I am’.

But if this is madness there is method in it. Phrases like ‘living sea of waking dreams’ are not complete departures from the world, but entrances into literary reality, echoing the mixed metaphors of Hamlet’s soliloquys (‘take arms against a sea of troubles’). Clare was well-read despite the obstacles posed by his farm labourer background (paper was expensive, and the only day he had off to buy books – Sunday – was also when the bookshops closed). To read James Thomson’s The Seasons, Clare had to trespass on a local estate, Burghley Park. Although Clare’s comparisons do not make strict sense, I find them fascinating, opening up possibilities. It is easy to see Clare’s influence on more modern poets like John Ashbery, whose poetry also comprises interrelating abstractions.

But there is an end to all these metaphysical notions. Clare comes closest to home when he describes a scene unimaginably distant, ‘where man hath never trod/ A place where woman never smiled or wept’. While the immediate sensory world is a confused mass of rootless concepts, Clare sees the heavens with absolute clarity. In the final line we have objects which do not signify anything but themselves: the grass, the sky. Seeing and feeling them with Clare, it is easy to see why the first line wasn’t interrupted at all. In placing himself in the moment, even an imagined moment, Clare simply is. ‘I am, and live’.