The article is an analysis of John Clare’s “I Am”.
John Clare was an English poet, who lived during the nineteenth century. He was born and raised in rural Northamptonshire, and his rural dialect suffused much of his poetry. Shortly after the successful publications of his first two books: “Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery” and “Village Minstrel and Other Poems,” rural poetry went out of vogue, and his subsequent publications didn’t do well. John Clare would end up in two different asylums later in life, due to various psychological pressures. “I Am” is one of the poems he wrote during spells of lucidity while he was at the mental institution. This essay takes an analytical view of the poem.
“I Am” is a poem of bitter laments, melancholic contemplations and hopeless longings. John Clare wrote this poem while He was institutionalised in the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum, where he spent the last twenty two years of his life. Clare’s rustic poetry had brought him considerable fame and wealth, which enabled him to escape the meagre subsistence he had known up until that time. After some years, his rural style of poetry was no longer in vogue, and his poetry met with little success. Psychological pressures resulting from the need to make money to feed his family, his struggle to adapt his poetry to the changing times and his inability to reconcile his rural neighbourhood with urban London, which his fame had acquainted him with, took its toll on his sanity, and led to spells in two different asylums—the second of which spanned two decades and was terminated by death. The poem revolves around circumstances surrounding Clare at the time, and his entire life. The first stanza is an enquiry into the identity of self, which is emphasised by the multiple repetition of the phrase ‘I am’ in that stanza. Clare isn’t the first person to feel this way, and he surely won’t be the last. That age-old question that slews of contemplative and despondent men have asked themselves—who am I really? Why am I here? Immediate happenings in Clare’s life at the time played some parts in the creation of this verse; an example is the second line of the first stanza: “my friends forsake me like a memory lost;” Clare was forsaken by his friends and family while he was in the lunatic asylum, and had no intimate acquaintance to comfort him during his stay there. He then states that no one helps to ease his pain in the third and fourth lines of the first stanza: “I am the self-consumer of my woes, they rise and vanish in oblivious host,” he makes reference to his insanity in the phrase “oblivious host” which purports that he’s usually unaware of the happenings occurring about him because of his impaired reason. There’s also the reference to a loved one: “like shades in love.” When Clare escaped from the first asylum in Epping Forest, he walked home with the delusion that he would be reunited with his first love, Mary Joyce—a woman who had died three years prior to that time. He found this very difficult to believe, as he walked home with the conviction that he would meet her and the non-existent children he thought they had together, along with his real wife and children (he was actually married to another woman with children). It’s possible that he never got over the shock, and subsequently suffered relapses, which he brought into this poem. There’s an enjambment between the first stanza and the second stanza, which continues the thought at the last line of the first stanza: “and yet I am, and live with shadows tost / into the nothingness of scorn and noise.” Clare sees himself here as living with people who are ghosts of what they once were, and are engulfed by the futility of scorn and noise—a telling description of the irrational environments of a mental institution. He then goes on to question the meaning of his existence in a place that looks like the habitation of spectres, and is wholly shorn of happiness in the ninth and tenth lines of the poem: “where there is neither sense of life nor joys, / but the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems.” This anguished words seem to mean that he finds his life’s toils and achievements in utter ruin. The third stanza cites Clare looking for a way out of his desolation and frustration: “I long for scenes where man has never trod; / a place where woman never smiled nor wept; / there to abide with my creator, God, / and sleep as in childhood sweetly swept.” Clare obviously thinks that he can find solace and peace in the perpetual bliss of his creator—God’s paradise; possibly also in the sweet and happy innocence of childhood—states that are absolutely bereft of the miseries he’s currently facing.
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