The great English poet John Clare spent the last twenty-three years of his life in the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum; it was his second extended stay in a madhouse. When he died there, on May 20, 1864, his poetry was virtually forgotten. After a frenzy of celebrity in the 1820s, when he was taken up by London literary society and rubbed shoulders with Coleridge, Keats, and Hazlitt, Clare soon fell victim to changing tastes: The "Peasant Poet" was no longer a novelty. By 1821, Clare's Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery had gone through four editions, but his Shepherd's Calendar, published only six years later, languished on booksellers' shelves. The experience was bitter and helped to unhinge him.
In 1989, more than a century later, Clare would be recognized by a memorial in Poets' Corner, Westminster Abbey. We've come to appreciate his rough cadences and homely phrasing as hallmarks of poetic authenticity. Clare himself praised John Donne's "old homely gold whose broken feet / Jostles the reader's patience from its seat." Today, we take pleasure in Clare's own considerable jostling; even his solecisms—as in the lines just quoted, Clare's verbs often don't agree with their subjects—suggest a bluff rude force.
The power of Clare's verse lies not in its oddity but in its unexpected collision of utterly conventional form—he favored ballads, sonnets, heroic couplets, songs—with scrupulous sharpness of eye. His hundreds of poems on everything from birds' nests to "black nosed bees" startle and charm just because they hew so stubbornly to their subjects. What is raw, cross-grained, or knotty in nature drew his eye and led him to rumple and disrupt the smooth surfaces of his verse; he revered nature too much to prettify it. In his new novel, The Quickening Maze, Adam Foulds has John Taylor, Clare's erstwhile publisher, remark aptly, "But the living earth, the world he knew . . . if you will permit me an extravagant formulation, it sang itself through him."
Foulds, himself an acclaimed poet, follows Clare into his deepening mental disarray during the four years he spent as a patient in the asylum run by Dr. Matthew Allen near Epping Forest. The book concludes with Clare's eventual escape and trek northward, in 1841, to his childhood village of Helpston. Foulds brilliantly evokes Clare's madness in its various guises; the poet thought himself to be now Lord Nelson, now Robert Burns, now the famous boxer Ben Caunt; in his Lord Byron phase, he composed his own scurrilous Don Juan, in which he lambasted Allen as "Doctor Bottle imp." Foulds has set himself a challenge: How does one create a credible character out of a personage whose chief characteristic is an ever-shifting sense of self? In his best-known poem, Clare wrote, "I am—yet what I am, none cares or knows." He was as much a cipher to himself as he was, and remains, to others.
Foulds handles this difficulty ingeniously. In a series of sharply drawn vignettes, extending over approximately a year and a half, season by season, he presents John's world, along with that of Margaret, another mad patient, entirely from within. By contrast, the several other characters in the novel, ranging from a youthful and melancholy Alfred (not yet Lord) Tennyson and Matthew Allen, the "mad-doctor" himself, to a ragtag band of Gypsies who befriend John, are presented from without in omniscient-narrator fashion.
This device intensifies the disjunction between the "sane" and the "insane." The self-absorbed Tennyson reeks in his unwashed clothing; the mad-doctor works feverishly on his "Pyroglyph," a machine for mass-producing wood carvings; his daughter, Hannah, schemes to attract the oblivious Tennyson; and all become grosser, thicker, more solid in their presences. Several of Foulds's depictions, such as that of the loathsome Oswald Allen, Matthew's miserly and fanatic brother, have almost Dickensian intensity. Here, for example, is Oswald finally taking his leave:
Seated in his carriage, he raised a gloved hand to wave. The glove was buttoned at the side, his coat buttoned at the front, his collar firm beneath his chin. Matthew felt he had him strait-jacketed and safely stowed for transportation. In profile, Oswald opened a small volume, presumably devotional, and began to read.
"Yes, yes," said Matthew to himself. "Off you go."
Alongside such definite figures, the mad poet becomes strangely vaporous; even in a bloody fistfight with a Gypsy, he seems absent. It is only in Foulds's closing pages, when John escapes the asylum, that he becomes fully believable as a character—no longer a raving solipsist but a hungry and bedraggled wayfarer. Here Foulds has based his narrative on Clare's autobiographical prose fragment the "Journey out of Essex," and its rough power comes through.
Without indulging in "poetic" prose, Foulds displays a gift for small, vivid touches that suggest Clare's unusual sensibility. In the asylum, two patients are observed "shuffling, drowsy as smoked bees." Of an isolation unit, he writes, "Even the building looked mad: plain, square and tight, with regular small barred windows that emitted shrieks." In the Gypsy camp, Clare sees a terrier "leaning towards him, as if in italics, to bark." Such deft, almost Nabokovian images are enhanced by the novel's firm foundation in fact. Tennyson indeed was a guest at the asylum, Allen did invent a Pyroglyph (and Tennyson did lose a small fortune when he invested in it), Clare did admire Gypsies and frequent their camps. Clare once wrote, "Real poets must be truly honest men." By respecting the essential enigma of John Clare the man, Foulds has enabled the poet's stubborn honesty of eye to shine through on every page.
Eric Ormsby's Essays on Poetry and Place will be published in the fall by Porcupine's Quill.