Book Review: “John Clare: A Biography” by Jonathan Bate

John Clare: A Biography
By Jonathan Bate
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2003)
672 pages

Endearing, moving and mysterious, this is as sensitive a portrait of John Clare as we are likely to get. Bate’s love for his subject is apparent throughout the book, in which he succeeds so well at walking the line between adoration and accuracy. Teeming with observations such as “for Clare even a fishpond is saturated with feeling and memory,” Clare’s unusually intense absorption in nature is brought to light here with the kind of beauty and empathy only a fellow-writer such as Bate could achieve.

JohnClareBioYet despite Bate’s insistence on Clare’s genius (I’m quite insistent on it myself after having read the biography and the Selected Poems) he does not look away from uglier aspects of Clare’s life. Those aspects include Clare’s infidelity and apparent spousal abuse, his alcoholism and, most of all, the ever-bewildering case of his diagnosis as a “lunatic.” This is where Bate’s book becomes particularly poignant, and I wish he had spent less time gossiping about Clare’s wrangles with publishers and more on the man’s complicated and harrowing character. For this reason I felt the book to be a bit longer than it needed to be, but perhaps I’d feel differently had the material in the last 150 pages, which deals extensively with Clare’s mental illness, been fleshed-out even more. Surely accounts of Clare’s occasional belief that he was Lord Byron or Jack Randall the boxer are of far more interest than how many pounds he was paid for a poem published in the London Magazine.

Nonetheless, Bate does an excellent job of avoiding the temptation to romanticize Clare’s dramatic mental illness. (In the end, “manic-depression” seems to be the most accurate but not necessarily conclusive diagnosis. In her incredible book, Touched With Fire, Kay Redfield Jamison lists Clare’s name among the poets she counted as victims of manic-depressive illness.) Unlike other biographers of writers (Quentin Bell’s book about Virginia Woolf comes to mind) Bate does not settle for Clare’s own metaphorical explanations for his “madness.” Indeed, Bate often disputes the very term “madness” and exposes it as a dated and even superstitious label. He does not so thoroughly drench the artist’s mental struggles in myth and theory as to have it become the stuff of folklore. Surely it would be flattering to think of Clare as some divinely inspired mystic, but Bate’s many more logical scenarios allow a refreshing contrast to the “mad genius” stereotype.

While Clare attributed his madness to the day he watched a friend fall to his death from a tree as a child, Bate’s more plausible suggestions include: Clare’s concussion after tumbling out of a tree himself as a boy, his heavy drinking, the awful malnutrition of his diet, the tormenting stress of his perpetual poverty amid obligations to his wife and seven children, his frustrating efforts to further himself as a poet while having to beg for farm work, and “mercury-poisoning resulting from attempted treatment for syphilis.” In a further example of Bate’s mature handling of this particular issue, he writes that “we should not rule out the possibility that his own derangement was partially shaped by his reading about the mental suffering of other writers.” Clare was terribly impressionable. However, where Bate tells us that Clare’s “episodes” afflicted him only after being admitted to the asylum– as if to imply that he was bound to become psychotic after living among the mad for two decades–Jamison writes in Touched With Fire that “manic-depressive illness not only worsens over time, it becomes less responsive to medication the longer” it goes untreated. So it seems only logical that his condition would have worsened with age, especially since no such “treatment” as Jamison discusses was available in Clare’s day.

Compounding the reasonable possibilities Bate offers is the fact that Clare’s very devotion to write poetry may have been interpreted as madness by his neighbors. Tragically, this seems to be a chief reason why he was eventually confined. As Bate says early on, “In summer he walked in the woods and fields alone, a book in his pocket . . . his love of books began to isolate him from other boys . . . the villagers found this behavior very odd: `some fancying it symptoms of lunacy.’” Even after reading the book, it is anyone’s guess as to whether Clare was insane. But stories of his battles against what illness he may have suffered from as well as the ignorance, incompetence and greed of those purporting to care for him make for a rather heartbreaking read. What we can be sure of, though, is this: Mad or not, Clare had become more of a liability than a father or husband. “There is no evidence that he was taken to the asylum because he was `mad’ in the sense of having lost consciousness of his identity . . . he was taken to the asylum because he needed better care than could be provided by his family,” Bate writes.

Though he probably takes a bit too much liberty in attempting to explain nearly every one of Clare’s symptoms in a more rational light, Bate’s assertions about Clare’s psychological temperament make for some absolutely riveting explications and commentary. “To say that he had written the works of Byron and Scott was but an extreme way of saying he had written works that he hoped might one day be regarded as the equal of” those works, he supposes. In an even farther-fetching attempt at psychoanalysis, Bate explains Clare’s delusion that he was a famous boxer as a dramatization “of the fact that Clare spent his life fighting battles – for his poetry, for recognition, for survival, against his inner demons.” While this is probably the point at which Bate seems more of an adoring and apologetic fan than biographer, who’s to say? We will never really know what was going on inside that jewel of a mind, and considering all that was taken from the man in his life by his illness, time, or other people, maybe that secret is the one thing we can let Clare keep.

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