John Clare's Poetry "I Am" as Trauma Narrative

Essay, 2017

13 Pages, Grade: A


“If life had a second edition, how I would correct the proofs,” the English Romantic poet John Clare once lamented, and it is a wholly sensible, if plaintive, response to a life plagued by deprivation and circumscribed by time and place. In his poetry and letters, John Clare paints a starkly vivid portrait of the effects of displacement, trauma, and biochemical imbalance on one’s identity as a person and artist. Attributing his mental decline quite specifically to the establishment of the Enclosure Laws, Clare’s “poetry held his sense of personal loss together with indignation at the curtailment of ancient rights within his community” (Bate 347). Although it can be argued that Clare’s breakdown is, in no small measure, traceable to the eradication of his childhood oasis, the fact that Clare’s core identity features prominently in the poetry written in his later years suggests more specifically that Clare’s psychological condition arises from the trauma of truncation by circumstances of birth and the strictures of the English class system. Distinguishing from such literary critics as Alan Vardy, whose argument that Clare was not a submissive nonparticipant somewhat sidesteps the very real effects of psychological and psychiatric trauma on a person’s accountability[1], and Simon Kovesi’s focus on Clare as “the poet of place” (Kovesi 20), this paper proposes John Clare’s poetry is the record of a man struggling to carve out and maintain an individual identity amid internal and external chaos. In this close reading of “I Am", "My Early Home was This,” and “To John Clare,” I expand upon Judith Herman’s “trauma theories” and discuss how John Clare’s poetry speaks to the experience of self-recovery. Additionally, I will argue that that the state of being traumatized is a complex existence, marked by periods of merciless recall interspersed with memorial inaccessibility, and, therefore, a specific kind of framework is required to assess the traumatized individual’s levels of agency and responsibility.

In speaking of “traumatization,” I am referring to those states of psychological displacement produced by external events characterized by physical and/or emotional violence or distress. With trauma, the individual’s access to certain experiences the unafflicted possess is limited by a psychological and physiological need to protect oneself from the onslaught of often horrific memories. In this paper, “trauma” refers to a general description of distressing events, while such terms as “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder,” or “PTSD,” will refer to those individuals who have been diagnosed with that specific condition. We might consider the latter subject to an exhaustive series of diagnostic criteria while the former is a more universal depiction of the experience of displacement. Therefore, for the purposes of this paper, the term “trauma” will be used to refer to the individual’s experience of tangibly stressful occurrences.

Although there is some mention of Clare’s mother Ann Stimson as “ill-tempered” (Bate 19), there is little evidence to suggest that Clare’s early years were beset by a campaign of deliberate cruelty. In fact, Clare appears to have derived a great deal of his acuity for poetry and deep affection for nature through his father, Parker Clare, who was fond of folk tales and ballads (Bate 20) and of a Golden Russet apple tree that stood in the Clare’s Helpstone yard (Bate 21). While Clare’s is not, perhaps, the straightforward tale of violence and neglect we have come to expect from the conventional trauma narrative, we can argue that his penurious upbringing subjected him to the trauma of attrition and of never quite reconciling his boundless intelligence and articulateness with the confines of his familial illiteracy. The Act of Enclosure of 1807 served to further constrict Clare’s psychological boundaries; per Tom Paulin, “the open-field system fostered a sense of community, the fields spread out in a wheel with the village at its hub. Now trees were felled and streams diverted so that the line of ditches could be made straight. Fences, gates, and NO TRESPASSING signs went up” (Paulin xix). For an individual at once poor in material wealth and rich in natural resources, the privatization of Clare’s “Eden” (Bate 26) must have served as a psychological and emotional bludgeon. Indeed, as Ellen Rosenman writes in “On Enclosure Acts and the Commons,” “[F]or the politicized working classes the Enclosure Acts represented a profound trauma, an extended moment in a narrative of dispossession that undergirded resistance to aristocratic power and urbanization” (Rosenman 1). Thus, we can see that Clare’s trauma was not individualized but endemic to an entire social caste. However, Clare’s sensitivity (he was, according to Jonathan Bate, “all too easily hurt by criticism” (Bate 31)) appears to have deepened his sense of loss in ways that the less perceptive and more acquiescent among him likely did not experience.

We can also argue that equally jarring to Clare was his vaulting from obscurity to relative fame and fortune. Balancing his roles as the "Peasant Poet" and the provider to a wife and seven children was a precipitous challenge; reconciling his elevated status as a newly minted denizen of literary London with his humble upbringing was further disorienting. When sales of his poetry declined, his depression and alcohol consumption increased, thereby further obliterating his sense of self and personal regard.

In Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence – From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror, author Judith Herman writes, "Traumatized people suffer damage to the basic structures of the self. . . The identity they have formed prior to the trauma is irrevocably destroyed" (Herman 56). We can argue, then, that the pre-Enclosure John Clare was a wholly different person than the post-traumatic version, and that his sense of self, while abrogated, is intact enough that he is able to remark upon its obfuscation. In "I Am," Clare writes, "I am the self-consumer of my woes; - /They rise and vanish in oblivion's host/Like shadows in love's frenzied stifled throes: - /And yet I am, and live – like vapours tost" (Clare 361). His use of "vapours" is especially evocative from a traumatic standpoint, telegraphing the universal sense of ambiguity and doubt particular to trauma survivors; combat veteran Tim O'Brien echoes this description when he writes, of war, "The vapors suck you in" (Herman 63). That Clare, who had been incarcerated in Northampton General Lunatic Asylum for roughly four years when he wrote this poem, is able to at once personalize and universalize the experience of disenfranchisement with such articulateness is all the more remarkable when we consider the depersonalizing effects of captivity, which Herman writes "amplify the dialectic of trauma" (Herman 93). We may also see these lines as an assertion that the Clare of the poem is not the Clare of approximately two years hence, who declared he was Lord Byron, and, therefore that he views himself as sane, or saner, perhaps, than those who would judge him otherwise.

The second stanza of "I Am" also speaks to the sense of displacement so peculiar to those who have experienced it ("Even the dearest, that I love the best/Are strange – nay, stranger than the rest" (Clare 361)). Per Herman, "Traumatic events call into question basic human relationships. They breach the attachments of family, friendship, love, and community. They shatter the construction of the self that is formed and sustained in relation to others" (Herman 51). Clare's articulation of this phenomenon at a time in which the heuristic of trauma was not a part of scholarly discourse, much less the vernacular, is a bold, honest move of self-definition. We might argue that Clare's "naming" of these trauma symptoms is, nearly a century and a half before its formal implementation, a form of narrative therapy. Indeed, Jonathan Bate states explicitly that "Clare's identity depended on his poetry: to stop writing was to cease to be himself" (Bate 530). In Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, Natalie Goldberg speaks of writing as a "sitting meditation," a form of centering; that Clare believed he would fundamentally jettison his personhood by giving up his vocation is evidence that writing performed a similar, if not identical, function in his own life.

The final stanza of "I Am" is perhaps the most predictable and least groundbreaking; Clare speaks of escape to places "where man hath never trod/A place where woman never smiled or wept/There to abide with my creator, God" (Clare 361), which at first appears a fairly standard Romantic response to personal strife – a return to Nature, a worship of the Earth. A closer reading of the stanza, however, particularly the line "And sleep as I in childhood, sweetly slept," invites us to view Clare's words through the lens of trauma and memory. Phillip Parotti states that "memory is an imperfect medium and almost everyone likes to spin a good yarn" (Parotti 3). It is possible, then, that Clare's idyllic recollection is an attempt to carve out a mental sanctuary against a backdrop of chaos and failure; it is equally possible that it is yet another means of self-reclamation and perhaps even self-invention. As Herman writes, "Clues to the undestroyed capacity for love can often be found through the evocation of soothing imagery. Almost invariably it is possible to find some image of attachment that has been salvaged from the wreckage. One positive memory of a caring, comforting person may be a lifeline during the descent into mourning" (Herman 193-194). This, then, would support Alan Vardy's view that Clare was not a "passive victim of overbearing patrons and insensitive editors" (Vardy 188). Indeed, it implies that Clare possessed a greater capacity for survival than that for which he is typically given credit.

This capacity to self-soothe is on especial display in Clare's subsequent work "My Early Home was This." At first glance, its glorification of nature reads like a standard Romantic paean to the rustic life so exalted by Wordsworth; viewed in the context of trauma and recovery, it is laced with anger, of the repossession of that which has been robbed from him. "Here sparrows built upon the trees/And stockdoves hide their nest/The leaves where winnowed by the breeze/Into a calmer rest," while initially reading as quaintly pastoral, is Clare's repudiation of that which, as George Monbiot wrote in The Guardian, " now ranks among the most dismal and regularized tracts of countryside in Europe” (Monbiot). Invocations of a “bower of bliss” in the second stanza and depicting his childhood house as a place where “all was calm within” in the third further contribute to the impression that this poem is an elegy to Edenic peace; however, when we look closely at the conclusions of each stanza, and their increasingly emphatic declarations that “My early home was this,” we are able to read the poem as something beyond the elegiacal. In examining the first “My early home was this” at the end of stanza one, we see that Clare has not employed any punctuation, which evokes a certain mournful sense of loss, or of being lost. When he repeats this phrase at the end of stanza two, we see he has added an end dash: “—My early home was this,” thereby increasing the emphasis and affording the reader more of a sense of urgency than they experienced in stanza one. By the time we reach the end of stanza three, we see that Clare has bookended the poem’s title and central theme with two em dashes “—My early home was this—”, which has the effect of an insistent, if muted, fist pounding a table. This, Clare appears to be saying, is what I had; this is what Enclosure stole from me, from all of us. It can be said as well that Clare found the capacity to self-soothe with anger; writing in Psychology Today and citing the author Steven Stosny’s description of anger as a kind of “psychological salve,” writer Leon F. Seltzer informs us that “One of thehormonesthebrainsecretes during anger arousal is norepinephrine, experienced by the organism as an analgesic” (Seltzer). In the century before mood-regulating drugs and tranquilizers, we can view Clare’s poetry as literal self-medication, albeit of the genuinely therapeutic sort.[2]


[1] In this paper, I mean to suggest that Clare possessed agency in some areas while retaining very little in others due to his internal and external circumstances. Vardy is adamant about reclaiming Clare’s legacy from that of “poor John Clare,” and I agree that characterizing him thus is too simplistic and condescending. Nonetheless, it is also inaccurate to dismiss Clare’s victimhood. He was at once an agent of his own life and a victim of circumstances beyond his control, which is to suggest that his case, like the man himself, was not easy to pigeonhole.

[2] I mention this to distinguish between the common perception of “self-medication,” which tends to involve self-obscurity through street drugs and/or alcohol, and what I believe Clare was doing, which was instinctive self-preservation.

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John Clare's Poetry "I Am" as Trauma Narrative
The University of Southern Mississippi
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John Clare, poetry, Romanticism, trauma narrative
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Karla Keffer (Author), 2017, John Clare's Poetry "I Am" as Trauma Narrative, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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