Category Archives: Literature

The strange but novel world of Tristram Shandy

If any book can be said to be the first to recognise the sheer power and flexibility of the novel form, it is surely The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, written and published in nine volumes, over eight years, between 1759 and 1767 by Laurence Sterne; and, if any time can be said to illustrate the resilience and continued success of novels, it is the present time, when despite crippling market conditions imposed by the Covid pandemic, fiction sales are buoyant.

Sterne (right) recognised not just the attraction of the quite new novel format, but the myriad ways in which it could be adapted by writers to whatever objective they wished to achieve. The legacy of his disruptive, ground-breaking approach can be seen even now. According to research published last November by the Publishers Association, UK fiction sales income in the first six months of 2020 was up by 13% to £285m, while sales values of consumer print sales were down 8%, non-fiction and reference sales were down 13% and even income from children’s books was down by 3%. “These figures show us that UK readers have returned to fiction during lockdown, turning to novels for entertainment, escapism and comfort during the first six months of this year”, said Stephen Lotinga, Chief Executive of the Publishers Association. “Incredible books such as Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light and Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other have offered people support in these difficult times”.

Were he alive today, Sterne would not have been surprised at the current success of fiction. His writings were intended “to teach us to love the world and our fellow creatures better than we do”. Tristram Shandy is nigh-on unique in its attention-gripping mix of surreal narrative, bizarre formats, sentimentality, whimsical innuendo, opinionated dialogue and biting satire; but it opened a door to show what the novel could become (albeit that some even refuse to accept it as a novel, dubbing it “meta-fiction” or an “anti-novel”).

Although Tristram Shandy is largely a self-analytical and introspective work – clearly trying out whatever outrageous stratagem would shock and intrigue its readers – its self-obsessions and experiments have implications in contexts much broader than its own pages, and indeed of its own time. Perhaps Sterne’s greatest achievement in the novel was in developing a process of composition which could accommodate such a vast array of observations, ideas and universal, timeless significances from the outside world within the peculiar, claustrophobic world of Tristram’s “autobiography”. Sterne moved house in 1760, by which time he had already had great success with the first two volumes of Tristram Shandy. His friends celebrated his success by christening his new abode ‘Shandy Hall’, the word Shandy being a local dialect word for ‘crack-brained’ or ‘odd’ [1].

Laurence Sterne’s study

Diana Neill comments that ‘Sterne made books as apothecaries made medicines – by pouring from one vessel to another’. [2] She draws attention to the strange make-up of his library, which, when sold in 1768, was found to contain works on topics such as, amongst others, fortifications, dioptrics, midwifery, flogging, opium and hell. He drew freely on this literary resource, on occasions even to the point of plagiarism; but he was also very much alive to aspects of, and events happening in, the non-literary world, some of which were recruited to provide material for narrative purposes, whilst others became a target for his wit and satire.

No doubt this breadth of reading and apprehension of social mores and events contributed to Sterne’s awareness of the “language variants” which reside within the overall structure of a system of language. The development of the novel (in general) owes a great deal to novelists’ abilities to recreate and parody the way people utilise their own variants of standard language in formal or everyday speech; and, more to the point, to the way writers use such variants in their creation of their characters. Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin classified the co-existence of such language variants within a text as “heteroglossia” and included Sterne as one of the “classic representatives” of writers of comic novels who made use of heteroglossic structures. Such authors steer a narrative course designed to throw into stark relief the inadequacies, eccentricities or superficialities of their characters as they reveal their opinions and prejudices – not just in what they say, but in the languages (plural) they each use to say it.

In his unpacking of the idea of heteroglossia, Bakhtin lists examples of such language variants as ” … the forms of parliamentary eloquence, [ …] the eloquence of the court, or particular forms of parliamentary protocol, or court protocol, or forms used by reporters in newspaper articles, or the dry business languages of the City, or the dealings of spectators, or the pedantic speech of scholars, or the high epic style, or Biblical style, or the style of the hypocritical moral sermon or finally the way one or another concrete and socially-determined personality, the subject of the story, happens to speak.” [3] The essence of the idea is the way such languages suffuse the individual characters’ personae; and the way different characters in the same novel, using different language variants, seem more real by virtue of their co-existence within the framework of a plot, being drawn alongside each other. Thus, in the character of Tristram’s father, Walter Shandy, we find someone who is obsessed with philosophical and scientific argument and who is determined always to be right, with his own individual interpretation of events. He cares little for Tristram after he has been born: “The first thing which entered my father’s head [ …] is to sit coolly down … and write a Tristra-paedia“. All the other characters reveal their own characters via their language forms.

Marbled page

Whilst the novel was still in its infancy in the 1760s, Sterne was clearly aware that readers accustomed to linear narrative and other established conventions might well find both the style and content of the novel unusual, if not in some respects unacceptable. This didn’t faze him. In fact, he was quite fearless in his utilisation of many bizarre textual and printing contrivances. This was the shock of the new writ large, with a narrative which is sometimes deliberately written in the wrong order, pages which are printed black, marbled pages, plot lines represented by a series of squiggles, weird punctuation and whole chapters apparently torn out (the page numbers in my edition jumping from 300 to 311). These are just some examples of the ways Sterne pushed back the boundaries of the nascent storytelling format.

Black page
Representation of plot lines

In the event, the novel did indeed provoke widespread denunciations and parodies. That Sterne knew that the book would be controversial is evident from his depiction of the circumstances of Tristram’s birth, which lays the blame for his narrator‘s character at the door of his parents. (He isn’t actually born until nearly halfway through the book). In enquiring, at the very point of his begetting, whether his father had wound up the clock, his mother had been responsible for producing Tristram‘s ‘cast of mind’, he claims; self-effacingly, he protests that, had his father not been so distracted at such an important time, he ‘should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that, in which the reader is likely to see me.’ Such a claim may seem only humorous from our perspective; but, as Robert Mayer [4] indicates, in the early eighteenth century there was still a commonly-held belief that the imagination could have grievous physical effects on the body. The celebrated case of Mary Toft, whose claim to have given birth to seventeen rabbits was shown to be a hoax, might have served to undermine credence in the minds of many of the gullible. But it’s clear that such gullibility was a significant feature of the society of the time, as illustrated by satirical painter and social critic William Hogarth (1697-1764), who included Mary Toft and her rabbits in the painting shown below.

Credulity, Superstition, and Fanaticism
A Medley; by William Hogarth

So a minority of readers might well have accepted that Tristram had been “… precipitated into a perpetual whirl of confusion because at the moment of his conception, the imaginations of his parents were disordered.”[5] (Given the timescale which measures the action of the novel, we may assume that the clock remained unwound).

The narrator frequently craves his reader’s indulgence in the opening chapters. Sterne’s logic is impeccable, but in letting it loose on the most recondite subject matters, he composes lines of argument, allusion and innuendo which are often no less alien, to the mind, than giving birth to rabbits would be to the body. So, in Chapter Six of Volume I, Tristram writes:

… if I should seem now and then to trifle upon the road, – or should sometimes put on a fool’s cap with a bell to it, for a moment or two as we pass along, – don’t fly off, – but rather courteously give me credit for a little more wisdom than appears on my outside

In fact we know nothing about Tristram’s ‘outside’. We only know the opinions which he expresses about the world which he inhabits – yet he fails to find an organising principle, as noted by Clive T. Probyn:

Tristram‘s life is writing, and his writing is his life. But in attempting to account for his personality (i.e. his life and his opinions) through a re-creation of its influences, his literary personality dissolves in the very act of self-construction. [6]

The reader’s assent to Tristram’s ‘trifling upon the road‘ is thus critical to the success of the novel. Readers of epistolary novels, in which each new chapter took the form of a letter written by one of the characters, were attuned to a chronology which often stretched credibility somewhat and had been offered the unlikely opportunity to read the intimate thoughts of (sometimes all) the novels’ protagonists.

Specimen page from the epistolary novel Clarissa, by Samuel Richardson, publ. 1747-8

But the letter was an established cultural phenomenon to which people could readily relate, and a successful engagement between the literary forms of book and letter was therefore a comparatively easy one to achieve. Sterne’s technique of mental intimacy is estranged from prior literary convention, though, touching rather on the mind’s predilection to wander off and make its own connections, rather than stick to the point. It’s easy to think of examples of subsequent and indeed current authors who have employed such a “stream of consciousness” prose style. So, in the formation of the contract between writer and reader, Tristram‘s self-effacement (he apologises, but he must tell his story his own way) is an attempt to absolve the writer from any duty to use conventional literary method – though it certainly requires the empathy of the reader. And Sterne’s requirement of the reader is not simply that he forgive the ‘trifling upon the road’. Following a passing reference to Locke‘s Essay Upon Human Understanding, Tristram launches rhetorically into an address to would-be critics to explain a source of confusion in Uncle Toby’s discourse which has wider implications in the outside world:

… a fertile source of obscurity it is, – and ever will be, – and that is the unsteady uses of words, which have perplexed the clearest and most exalted understandings. [7]

John Mullan highlights Sterne’s use of the term ‘sociality’ in his last work, A Sentimental Journey, to describe an author’s need to provide more than simple reportage of his character’s words, if his narrator is to adequately convey sentiment and feelings to his readers, and goes on to point out that, for all his unconventionality, Sterne was also aware of general suspicions of novels’ narrative form, which might be interpreted as ‘suggestive, improper, promiscuous’ if they were not ‘thick with descriptions of how narratives should be attended to and interpreted.‘ [8] Rather than being a matter simply of appeals to the sympathy of the reader, the successful ‘translation’ of words (suggests Mullan) into sentiment and feeling required Sterne to have built a relationship of trust with the reader. He had also, claims Mullan, to incorporate not just speech but an opportunity for inference and induction’, as for instance in ‘the story of Le Fever’ in Volume VI of Tristram Shandy, where ‘the understanding of which the likes of Toby and Trim are capable [is] signified in their gestures, their sighs, their, looks‘. This is certainly true, but although his characters come alive most vividly in their unbridled sentimentality, Sterne is ever the master of bathos, and one gets a distinct feeling of having been emotionally duped at the end of the Le Fever passage in Volume VI, Chapter 10:

Nature instantly ebbed again; – the film returned to its place, – the pulse fluttered – stopped – went on – throbbed – stopped again – moved – stopped – shall I go on? – No.

We suddenly find here and elsewhere that Sterne has, as it were, held a mirror up to our nature: he has broken his side of the contract, and in so doing has tricked us into becoming a Walter Shandy or an Uncle Toby, our weakness being not so much for names, noses or fortifications (as in the case of the characters), but for over-sentimentalisation. In instances such as the above, we ourselves take part in the process of the composition of the novel, adding significances to mere words, based on our apparently shared understanding of a pre-existing convention – until Sterne provides a rude awakening. There is a perfectly valid alternative way of describing the end of Le Fever’s story, which ‘shall be told in a very few words in the next chapter’. Thus we are brought back to the reality of individualised interpretations of events.

Each person uses language to interpret the world in his or her own way. Much of the substance of the novel is taken up with the composing, or interpretation, of the world by its main protagonists, and so there are as many world pictures as there are characters. This heteroglossic frame of reference is a consequence of Sterne’s reinterpretation of Locke’s writings about the association of ideas. Ideas may be shared or they may be unique. But the media by which they are conveyed – words – are unstable vehicles, which cannot be relied on to deliver them intact, as Wolfgang Iser suggests:

William Pitt (1708-1778)

… so each character associates something quite different with any one idea, with the result that human relations, conduct, and communication become totally unpredictable. [9]

In Sterne & Irregular Oratory, Jonathan Lamb explores what he refers to as ‘Sterne‘s largest experiment in narrative self-reference.’ [10] He interprets Tristram’s vastly elongated account of his own birth as a deliberate parallel with the process whereby some politicians (but William Pitt in particular) subvert the ideals of a fair representation of the world by adopting any principle which will assist in allowing them to perform the art at which they are most accomplished: eloquence. Sterne also specifically refers to the process in Volume III, Chapter Fourteen, using the metaphor of the delivery of a young child:

… when a state orator has hit the precise age to a minute, – hid his BAMBINO in his mantle so cunningly that no mortal could smell it, – and produced so critically, that no soul could say, it came in by head and shoulders, – Oh, Sirs! it has done wonders. – it has opened the sluices, and turned the brains, and shook the principles, and unhinged the politics of half a nation.

In the case of the practised orator, Sterne seems to argue, political advancement can come about as a result of the pragmatic adoption of any principle which will enhance his narration and serve his oratorical purpose. In the quotation from Tristram Shandy, this art is seen to be worn like a mantle, to disguise the politician’s true nature, as ‘narrative is the state orator’s and the autobiographer’s sleight of hand that delivers and legitimates the bambino in one recursive flourish.’ [11]

Whilst the novel’s self-analysis can be read as a satire on the political methods of prominent politicians, it also calls into question the relationship of a politico-legal system to a governed population whose individuals lack true self-knowledge. Yorick’s sermon, which takes up the lengthy Chapter Seventeen of Volume II, anatomises the body of laws by which men are governed, starting with conscience and proceeding through God‘s law and human law to punishment. In reality, what happens is that the ‘crafty’ man’s conscience hides behind the law:

When old age comes on, and repentance calls him to look back on this black account, and state it over again with his conscience, – CONSCIENCE looks into the STATUTES AT LARGE; – finds no express law broken by what he has done […] – Conscience has got safely entrenched behind the Letter of the Law; sits there invulnerable [12]

In Common Ground [13], Judith Frank argues that Sterne was suggesting that the legal framework, which was being constantly amended and added to, was seen as a method of offering man an insight into his own conscience, his own ‘composition’. On the other hand, the fact that laws were constantly having to be supplemented was evidence of their failure. So man himself should attempt to follow the ‘spirit‘ of the law, allowing for the shortcomings of terminology. There is a political motivation here, which is specifically

          … plain dealing and the safe enjoyment of our several properties, [14]

with the express implication, Frank points out, that ’what is finally at stake is the honesty of business transactions and the protection of property.‘ [15]

If self-analysis, the examination of the composition of one’s own soul, fails to guide men along the path of righteousness, a ‘benevolent’ bourgeoisie, using the language of sentiment (the sermon refers to the ‘helpless victim’ and the “unhappy wretch‘, for instance), were empowered to assist in this process by installing a legal system which made the soul visible by inflicting punishment on the body. But the deeper significance was not so much moral as economic:

For the eighteenth century bourgeoisie the issue of sentiment was crucially tied to the determination of character, and that determination in turn was regarded as vital to the protection and defense [sic] of private property. [16]

Thus we see that the novel’s self-analytical technique acts as a general critique of the way in which men think, communicate and govern themselves.

Laurence Sterne didn’t invent the novel. But in writing Tristram Shandy he helped put the genre on a completely new track, opening it up to innumerable possibilities, giving the world insights into how people really think and communicate, warning his readers to be wary of those who would bamboozle them with the instabilities of mere words – and clearing a path for many of the most famous novelists of subsequent eras, including our own.


  1. Source: The Laurence Sterne Trust
  2. Diana Neill, A Short History of the English Novel, (London: Collier-Macmillan, 1964; repr. 1967), p. 84.
  3. M.M. Bakhtin, from Discourse in the Novel, M. Holquist, ed. The Dialogic Imagination; included in Modern Literary Theory, ed. Philip Rice and Patricia Waugh (London and New York: Bloomsbury, Fourth ed. 2001).
  4. Robert Mayer, History and the English Novel (Cambridge: CUP, 1997), p. 138.
  5. Dennis Todd, Imagining Monsters: Miscreations of the Self in Eighteenth Century England ( University of Chicago Press, 1995), p. 63, quoted in Robert Mayer, ibid. p. 138.
  6. Clive T. Probyn, English Fiction of the Eighteenth Century, 1700-1789 (London: Longman, 1987) p. 140.
  7. Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (London; n. pub, 1759-67), repr. (London: Penguin Books, 1967), p. 107.
  8. John Mullan, Sentiment and Sociability: the Language of Feeling in the Eighteenth Century (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988; repr. 1997), p. 159.
  9. Wolfgang Iser, The Act of Reading (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1978; repr. 1980, sixth impr. 1994), p. 75.
  10. Jonathan Lamb, ‘Sterne and irregular oratory’, in The Cambridge Companion to the Eighteenth Century Novel, ed. by John Richetti (Cambridge: CUP, 1996), p. 158
  11. Lamb, ibid., p. 167.
  12. TS, p. 146.
  13. Judith Frank, Common Ground: Eighteenth Century English Satiric Fiction and the Poor (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 199), pp. 66-73.
  14. TS, p. 146.
  15. Frank, ibid., p. 70.
  16. ibid., p. 70-71

Picture credits

Laurence Sterne, painted by Joshua Reynolds (died 1792): public domain.

Marbled page from The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman First edition. Photographed by Laurence Sterne Trust staff.

Tristram Shandy plot lines: public domain.

Credulity, Superstition, and Fanaticism, A Medley; by William Hogarth, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Sarah Lazarus, 1891.


Allen, Walter, The English Novel (n. pl: Phoenix House, 1954; repr. Middlesex: Pelican, 1970)

Brown, Homer Obed, Institutions of the English Novel (Philadelphia: Penn, 1997)

Frank, Judith, Common Ground: Eighteenth Century English Satiric Fiction and the Poor (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998)

Freund, Philip, The Art of Reading The Novel (New York: Collier, 1947; repr. 1965)

Iser, Wolfgang, The Act of Reading (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1978; repr. 1980, sixth impr. 1994)

Mayer, Robert, History and the English Novel (Cambridge: CUP, 1997)

Mullan, John, Sentiment and Sociability: the Language of Feeling in the Eighteenth Century (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988; repr. 1997)

Neill, Diana, A Short History of the English Novel, (London: Collier-Macmillan, 1964; repr. 1967)

Probyn, Clive T., English Fiction of the Eighteenth Century, 1700-1789 (London: Longman, 1987)

Richetti, John, ed., The Cambridge Companion to the Eighteenth Century Novel, (Cambridge: CUP, 1996)

Sterne, Laurence, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (London: n. pub, 1759-67), repr. (London: Penguin Books, 1967)

Watt, Ian, The Rise of the Novel (Great Britain: Chatto & Windus, 1957; repr. London: The Hogarth Press, 1987)

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Three Clares (2): John Clare

The name ‘Clare’ seems to have followed me around for as long as I can remember …

Gilbert de Clare was responsible for the construction of a building which played a very important part in my childhood. You can read my piece about him here.

Though no-one could ever replace Dylan Thomas as my favourite poet, I’m also fascinated by the life and poetry of John Clare, whose work first came to my attention about twenty-five years ago. I studied his poems whilst working on my Masters and I viewed the temporary John Clare exhibit at Peterborough Museum (which also houses many of his manuscripts) on a number of occasions. A visit to his cottage in Helpston, formerly Helpstone, originally in Northamptonshire but now in Cambridgeshire, is on my current ‘to do’ list.

And then there’s Clare Means, a young U.S. singer/songwriter based in California, whose compositions and performances as a musician and busker have never ceased to entertain and amaze me, together with many of her thousands (and thousands!) of followers, at first on the now-defunct Periscope app, but nowadays on a range of online platforms as listed on her website.



A personal response to the life and work of John Clare

Like me, John Clare (13th July, 1793 – 20th May, 1864) started life in humble beginnings. He was the son of a farm labourer. Some of his poetry takes me back to my early childhood, conjuring mixed emotions.

But perhaps the first thing to note about John Clare’s work is its sheer volume. My quick tally-up of the first lines of the poems catalogued in the National Archive suggests he published a total of around 2,800 poems. There are nine collections, starting with the first, Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery, published in London in 1820. He also wrote a number of essays. 

Besides his productivity, his raw, uneducated writing style is, perhaps surprisingly, an essential and attractive characteristic of his writings. Clare said that he

“… found the poems in the fields,
And only wrote them down”,

and what I would call his “naturely” language (and what Charles Lamb referred to as his “provincialisms”) are an aspect of his pastoral style that his publishers wrestled with then and scholars have discussed ever since. They argued over whether such dialect expressions were permissible where they were not local to Clare’s neighbourhood, for instance. For many, like me, his uncultured spelling and punctuation, together with his use of unfamiliar countryside words and expressions, lend a charm and sense of genuine emotion which is unmatched in the work of any other English Romantic poet (though maybe on a par with Burns). It’s as though he speaks the language of nature – as though he is an advocate on behalf of the natural world.

For example, he uses “sturnels” for starlings, “cranking” for singing dolefully and, when “The ploughman mawls along the doughy sloughs”, he is dragging wearily. There are innumerable examples of these quaint dialect words throughout his work. In addition, we find him often adapting more familiar words to create striking images, as where, instead of writing “like gems”, he prefers “gemmed”:

“Where bramble bushes grew and the daisy gemmed in dew”; Remembrances

“I love to see them gemmed with morning hours”; The Maple Tree

“Some live content in low grass gemmed with dews”; Shadows of Taste

“The star gemmed early morn, the silent even”; Child Harold

Clare is nowadays accepted by the literary community as a leading member of the Romantic poetry pantheon.

Whereas as a young child I lived in a damp house in the south Wales valleys, with an outside toilet, Clare lived his early life in what various commentators have referred to as ‘dirt poor’ surroundings: a section of a cottage (below) in a remote little village in Northamptonshire called Helpston (now part of Cambridgeshire and quite close to where I now live with my wife, Lynn).

As mentioned, until the age of ten I too lived in modest surroundings – a small, two-up/two-down terraced cottage. Although my parents made improvements before they saved up the money for a deposit on a new bungalow, the accommodation was always very basic: for instance, I remember the installation of electric light, replacing the ancient gas mantle light fitting in the middle of the ceiling in the sitting room. But … there’s no place like home.

O home, however homely, – thoughts of thee
Can never fail to cheer the absent breast;
How oft wild raptures have been felt by me
When back returning, weary and distrest;

from Home, John Clare, Sonnets, pub. 1821

Our hearth comprised an old, black, coal-fuelled fireplace, with a small compartment on each side which served as an oven (for baking small jam tarts, for instance), although we did have a gas cooker in the kitchen at the back. There was no bathroom. As a young child, my bath time took place in a galvanised metal bathtub on the floor in front of the hearth. (I sometimes mentally recalled those days when my advertising career took me to swish hotels in places such as London, Geneva, Paris and Monte Carlo). It was certainly a loving home, though the relationship between my mother and father was often fractious, frequently to the point of embarrassment, with the neighbours easily able to hear the bawling and fighting that was a symptom of near-poverty conditions and frustrated ambition. Nonetheless, I have many fond memories of that humble dwelling, memories which have helped keep me grounded in times of both strife and success. It may not have been luxurious but it kept me safe and was a gateway to a wondrous natural playground.

Through the gate at the end of our handkerchief of a back “garden”, and across the lane, there was Porsett Brook, a meeting place for Mother Nature and industry. It was a highly polluted stream, about fifteen feet wide, with long strands of brown gunge waving to and fro in its babbling flow. I now know that the source of the discolouration and growths was the extremely smelly upstream tanyard, where animal skins were soaked and washed in its waters to remove any traces of blood and other material that might affect the quality of the leather. But if I crossed the brook on the stepping stones, I was suddenly immersed in a wild and natural world crammed with plants, trees, insects and birds that were at once a refuge and a source of intense fascination.

John Clare felt similar affection for his childhood home, as he expressed in his sonnet To My Cottage, published in 1821.

Thou lowly cot, where first my breath I drew,
Past joys endear thee, childhood’s past delight;
Where each young summer’s pictur’d on my view;
And, dearer still, the happy winter-night,
When the storm pelted down with all his might,
And roar’d and bellow’d in the chimney-top,
And patter’d vehement ‘gainst the window-light,
And on the threshold fell the quick eavesdrop.
How blest I’ve listen’d on my corner stool,
Heard the storm rage, and hugg’d my happy spot,
While the fond parent wound her whirring spool,
And spar’d a sigh for the poor wanderer’s lot.
In thee, sweet hut, this happiness was prov’d,
And these endear and make thee doubly lov’d.

Yes, my escape route from those parental clashes was to get away out into the unspoiled fields at the back of the house. I wouldn’t then have thought of myself as “communing with nature” or have used any such flowery expression to describe the sheer fun I derived from exploring the fields, Porsett Brook, the woods, the birds and other wildlife, the pathways, the old railway line and the fern-swathed hill in the distance. But looking back I feel as though I was much more at home in those fields and hillsides – climbing trees, making bows and arrows or whistles, tunneling through the ferns or identifying birds’ nests and eggs – than I was in that house (or indeed in the advertising world much later in life). As I’ve described previously, I’d often go on egg collecting expeditions. On more than one occasion, I wandered far away with my friends for so long, so late in the day, that my parents, accompanied by one or two neighbours, would come looking for us. Mynydd Rudry (shown below in its Winter colours) could be seen in the distance from my bedroom window. We’d climb to the top through ferns and bracken and make our way to the stands of tall trees beyond.

In his autobiography, John Clare describes (in his raw, untutored prose style) just the same kind of event happening in his childhood:

“I lovd this solitary disposition from a boy & felt a curiosity to wander about spots were I had never been before I remember one incident of this feeling when I was very young it cost my parents some anxiety it was summer & I started off in the morning to get rotten sticks from the woods but I had a feeling to wander about the fields & I indulged it I had often seen the large heath called Emmonsales stretching its yellow furze from my eye into unknown solitudes when I went with the mere openers and my curiosity urged me to steal an opportunity to explore it that morning I had imagind that the world’s end was at the orizon & that a days journey was able to find it so I went on with my heart full of hope’s pleasures & discoverys expecting when I got to the brink of the world that I coud look down like looking into a large pit & see into its secrets the same as I believd I coud see heaven by looking into the water So I eagerly wanderd on & rambled along the furze the whole day till I got out of my knowledge when the very flowers seemd to forget me & I imagind they were the inhabitants of new countrys the very sun seemd to forget me & I imagind they were the inhabitants of new countrys the very sun seemd to be a new one & shining in a different quarter of the sky still I felt no fear my wonder-seeking happiness had no room for it I was finding new wonders every minute & was walking in a new world & expecting the world’s end bye & bye but it never came often wondering to myself that I had not found the edge of the old one the sky still touchd the ground in the distance & my childish wisdom was puzzld in perplexitys night came on before I had time to fancy the morning was by which made me hasten to seek home I knew not which way to turn but chance put me in the right track & when I got back into my own fieldds I did not know them everything lookd so different The church peeping over the woods cod hardly reconsile me when I got home I found my parents in the great distress & half the village about hunting me as one of the woodmen in the woods had been killd by the fall of a tree & it seemd to strengthen their terrors that some accident had befallen myself as they often leave the oaks half cut down till the barkmen come to pill them which if a wind happens will fall down unexpected”.

John Clare loved nature with a passion – the plants, birds, insects and small animals in the surrounding countryside; it was a love which was to stay with him all his life. 

Clare, quite a “waukly” child, had a “bonny” twin sister who died a few weeks after their birth. Commentators have suggested that this tragedy had a longer-term, perhaps subconscious, effect on his state of mind. I’d heard of John Clare vaguely in my younger years but studied his poetry more intensively when working for my Masters. He was regarded as fairly obscure for quite a long time, other than during a brief period of fame during his lifetime; but interest in Clare’s life and work grew quite dramatically during the twentieth century. Biographies, editions, radio programmes, inclusions in festivals and commentaries have appeared all over the place in latter years. His keen interest in gardening, for instance, spawned a September 2014 symposium on Clare’s engagement with the natural world as both a botanist and a poet. There’s a stimulating BBC radio programme on Clare in Melvyn Bragg‘s In Our Time series, 

One of the attractive things about John Clare, besides his prolific output of around 3,500 poems, is that we have so much information about his fascinating and, ultimately, tragic life.

The narrative of Frederick Martin‘s The Life of John Clare, published in May, 1865, just a year after Clare’s death, is apparently “drawn from a vast mass of letters and other original documents, including some very curious memoirs” [1]. All of this material enabled this contemporary writer to pass down to us an extremely detailed and vivid account of Clare’s life. The fact that its narrative is written in a simple, down-to-earth style is reminiscent of Clare’s mode of expression, though its reliability has been called into question by some scholars.

Sir Jonathan Bate, Provost of Worcester College at the University of Oxford, is nowadays regarded as the leading biographer of the poet. His biography is the seminal work on Clare. It’s jaw-droppingly thorough and relates a fascinating analytical account of the early successes and the later torments and struggles which dogged Clare through most of his life, together with a host of valuable insights into his poetry. 

(Incidentally, I’m all for Roland Barthes‘ 1967 proclamation of the “death of the author” and the mountain of literary theorising that it spawned; in the context of hermeneutics, a ‘readerly’ interpretation of poetry gets my vote. But let’s not underestimate the value of biographies. Many poets had interesting lives away from their musing, as Samuel Johnson and so many others have pointed out).

Clare loved books, even though he was so poor that it was extremely difficult for him to gain access to them, and he developed an early passion for poetry. English was my best subject at school and I, too, developed a lifelong love for reading poetry and still try my hand at writing, as can be seen elsewhere on this site (example). But of course Clare was destined for greatness, to an extent in his own time but much more so, especially more recently, in literary history.

After my father died when I was 14, I almost immediately became part of a band (pop group) which I formed with some school friends. For me, composing songs and playing music turned out to be a great diversion from the black horror of our little family’s loss and something I’ve continued to do throughout my life. John Clare also loved music -like his father, Clare was a fiddler who collected many village tunes and and gypsy songs and also composed songs himself. 

CDs of George Deacon’s covers of Clare’s own songs can be purchased here.

Yes, I’ve found myself able to identify with a number of aspects of John Clare’s life, such as the times when he left his home to go out into the big wide world. I moved to London on my nineteenth birthday to begin my first degree studies. I must say I never felt completely at ease in all the years I lived, studied and worked in London. As I stood on the platform at Cardiff General Station (as it was known back then), I little realised how much my attitudes to so many things had been pre-programmed well before that birthday; my Welsh roots, buried deep in the culture of a nation with an immensely strong sense of its own identity, rarely allowed me to feel entirely comfortable when discussing politics, sport, business or other issues.

When I came to study the life and work of John Clare, I often found myself empathising with his unease in being away from his home territory, away from the innocence and inspiration of the countryside. His “country” was the countryside. He never settled down in London, visiting it on only four occasions.

This piece is not meant to be an in-depth scholarly analysis of Clare’s work, merely a way of explaining some of what I bring to a reading of his work and what he gives back. I should emphasise that I don’t find his poetry a simple mirroring of my experiences – he is always surprising, quirky, imaginative and authentic.

So, in the interests of brevity, here are links to a few John Clare poems that I really like: 

The Shepherd’s Calendar –

The Crow Sat on the Willow – (by the way, see my prose piece about Crows here …)

Grasshoppers –

Clare’s subject matter was not confined to the natural world; but notice the references here to nature, in similes and metaphors which evoke both the pleasure and the pain of First Love

I ne’er was struck before that hour
With love so sudden and so sweet,
Her face it bloomed like a sweet flower
And stole my heart away complete.
My face turned pale a deadly pale,
My legs refused to walk away,
And when she looked, what could I ail?
My life and all seemed turned to clay.

And then my blood rushed to my face
And took my eyesight quite away,
The trees and bushes round the place
Seemed midnight at noonday.
I could not see a single thing,
Words from my eyes did start –
They spoke as chords do from the string,
And blood burnt round my heart.

Are flowers the winter’s choice?
Is love’s bed always snow?
She seemed to hear my silent voice,
Not love’s appeals to know.
I never saw so sweet a face
As that I stood before.
My heart has left its dwelling-place
And can return no more.

I’ve described how his poems resonated with certain aspects of my own life. Like most people, I have had ups and downs in my life. But John Clare experienced real suffering after his early poetic successes. He became extremely depressed and indeed delusional, imagining that he was still married to both his first and second wives, for instance. In 1837, he was committed to High Beach asylum. After a brief release, he was committed to Northampton General Lunatic Asylum.  He continued to compose poetry throughout his time there. Arguably Clare’s most famous, most moving and most beautiful poem is I Am, describing his feelings of helpless loneliness, written whilst he was in the Northampton asylum which was his home (or prison …) from 1842 to his death in 1864.

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 shades in love and death’s oblivion lost;
And yet I am! and live with shadows tost

Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life nor joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;
And e’en the dearest- that I loved the best-
Are strange- nay, rather stranger than the rest.

I long for scenes where man has never trod;
A place where woman never smil’d 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.

Here’s a moving reading of I Am, performed by Kelsi James:

In the end, Clare’s life was a tragedy out of which came some of the most brilliant Romantic poetry of the nineteenth century.

Picture credits

Ruth Sharville / Mynydd Rudry in Winter colours –


[1] Though I note that Sir Jonathan doesn’t seem that impressed by Frederick Martin’s work (see below)!

The Kindle edition of John Clare’s complete works is available from Amazon here:

Delphi Complete Works of John Clare (Illustrated) (Delphi Poets Series Book 24) eBook: Clare, John: Kindle Store


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