The Quickening Maze:
by Adam Foulds
$15.00 List Price
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