The Life of John Clare
Frederick Martin

Part 3 out of 5

of what he had ever earned before as a labourer, and, properly regulated,
might have been sufficient to make his future career comparatively free
from the cares and anxieties of daily subsistence. Unfortunately, this
was not the case, and the very aid intended to smoothen his road through
life led, almost directly, to his ruin.

The autumn of 1820, together with many gratifying gifts, brought Clare
some little mortification. A few of his friends were somewhat too
zealous: among them, Captain Sherwell, to whom the poet had been
introduced by Lord Radstock, and who lost no opportunity to aid and
assist him. Shortly after his meeting with Clare, Captain Sherwell went
on a visit to Abbotsford, where he indulged in high praises of the 'Poems
of Rural Life and Scenery,' trying hard to gain the sympathies of his
distinguished host in favour of the author. But Sir Walter Scott showed
little inclination to fraternize with the poet of Northamptonshire, and
sternly declined the pressing demand of Captain Sherwell to write a note
of approbation to Clare, or even to put his name to the subscription
fund. The warm-heated captain was the more grieved at this refusal as he
had already, in a letter to Lord Radstock, held out hopes that the 'Great
Unknown' would enter into correspondence with their humble friend; and
seeing the probability of this report reaching Clare, he deeply felt the
disappointment which it would cause. He, therefore, when on the point of
leaving Abbotsford, tried once more to get some token of friendship for
Clare; but all he was able to obtain was a copy of the 'Lady of the
Lake,' together with a present of two guineas. Even the slight favour of
writing his names inside the book, Sir Walter Scott absolutely refused.
Captain Sherwell, greatly humiliated in finding all his endeavours
fruitless, forwarded the two guineas and the 'Lady of the Lake' to
Messrs. Taylor and Hessey, placing a paper in the volume, with the
inscription: 'Walter Scott presents John Clare with the "Lady of the
Lake," with the modest hope that he will read it with attention.' John
Clare, in receiving the book, naturally supposed that this paper was
written by Sir Walter Scott himself. He therefore pasted it on the
fly-leaf, and having to proceed, a few days after, to Burghley Park, to
receive his quarterly stipend from the Marquis of Exeter, he took the
book with him, and showed it to his lordship's secretary. The latter,
deeming it an interesting curiosity, sent the copy to the marquis for
inspection; but was astonished on getting it returned on the instant,
with the message that the autograph was not that of Sir Walter Scott, and
that the matter seemed to be an imposture. John Clare, of course, felt
terribly mortified on hearing this message delivered. He forthwith
applied to Captain Sherwell for an explanation; but, before he could
expect an answer, received a note from this gentleman, written,
evidently, before obtaining the request. The captain's note, notable in
many respects, ran as follows:--

'My dear Clare,--I have forwarded to Mr. Taylor the long-expected "Lady
of the Lake," with an earnest request that it may be sent to you
speedily. If you have not read it already I shall be better pleased. It
contains a sweetness of style, guided by a correctness of language, which
no one of his works surpasses. All my endeavours, all my efforts of
persuasion proved fruitless in obtaining the fulfilment of the anxious
wish I had expressed to him that he would address a few lines to you on
the blank-leaf. Sir Walter Scott seemed bound hand and head. It was not
from any disapprobation of your talent, or taste; but occasioned by the
high path in which he strides in the literary field of the present day.
The paper in the "Lady of the Lake" is placed by me merely as a

This curious letter certainly furnished a confirmation of the fact
discovered by the Marquis of Exeter, that the paper in the 'Lady of the
Lake' was not in Sir Walter Scott's handwriting; but it all the more
increased the deep humiliation felt by John Clare. To ease his
over-burthened heart, he ran to Stamford, and laid both Captain
Sherwell's letter and the book before Mr. Gilchrist. The latter had no
sooner looked through the note, when he burst out laughing. 'Well,' he
exclaimed, 'this is the funniest thing I ever read.' And seeing Clare's
melancholy face, he continued, 'Oh, don't be disheartened, my dear
fellow; all this is stuff and nonsense. I know the time when this great
Scotch baronet did not stride in the high path into which he has now
scrambled, and I will show you something to the effect.' Which saying, he
went to his bookcase, and brought forth an elegantly-bound volume,
together with a silk-tied note. 'This letter,' Mr. Gilchrist exclaimed,
'and this book, called the "Lay of the Last Minstrel," the author of the
"Lady of the Lake" sent me more than ten years ago. He was then simple
Mr. Walter Scott: a very humble man as you will see from his letter, in
which he gives profuse thanks for a little review of his work which I
wrote in a magazine. Therefore, I say again, don't be disheartened, my
dear fellow. Keep up your head, and let us have some more of your verses;
some better ones, if possible. Then, if the world applauds you, and
applauds you again and again, I give you my word, the great baronet in
his high path will be the first to shake hands.' Thus spoke Octavius
Gilchrist, grocer of Stamford, and contributor to the 'Quarterly Review.'
And his speech set John Clare musing for some time to come.

As soon as the harvest was over, Clare ceased working in the fields, and
during the next six months devoted himself to literature. He had arranged
with Messrs. Taylor and Hessey to bring out another volume of poetry in
the spring of 1821, and the preparation of this work, together with much
reading, filled up the whole of his time. Clare now was in possession of
a rather considerable collection of books, chiefly poems; most of them
gifts of friends and admirers, and the rest added by his own purchases.
Small presents of money from strangers he invariably invested in books;
and the two guineas of Sir Walter Scott went directly to buy the works of
Burns, Chatterton's poems, and Southey's 'Life of Nelson.' The assiduous
study of these works necessarily tended to elevate Clare's taste and to
improve his style. All his earlier productions bore more or less the
stamp of crudeness, by no means effaced by the corrections of the editor
in orthography and punctuation; but he now gradually acquired the skill
of handling verse, and shaping it into the desired smoothness of
expression. He began to compose, too, with far greater rapidity than
before. Many a day he completed two, and even three poems, elaborating
the plan, as well as revising them finally. His mode of composition,
likewise, became almost entirely changed at this period. While formerly
his poetical conceptions were usually scribbled on little bits of paper,
and furtively revised at intervals of labour, the correction, amounting
to entire rewriting, often extending over weeks and months, he now got
into the regular habit of finishing all his poems in two sittings,
casting them first, and polishing them the second time. Almost invariably
the first process took place out of doors. Inspiration seldom came to him
in-doors, within the walls of any dwelling; but descended upon his soul
in abundant showers whenever he was roaming through the fields and
meadows, the woods and heathery plains around Helpston. It mattered not
to him whether the earth was basking in sunshine, or deluged with rain;
whether the air was warm and mild, or ice and snow lying on the ground.
At the accustomed hour every morning, he would wander forth, now in one
direction, now in another; only caring to get away from the haunts of
men, into the cherished solitude of nature. Then, when full of rapture
about the wonderful, ever-beautiful world--wonderful and beautiful to him
in all aspects and at all seasons--he would settle down in some quiet
nook or corner, and rapidly shape his imagination into words. There were
some favourite places where he delighted to sit, and where the hallowed
vein of poetry seemed to him to flow more freely than at any others. The
chief of these spots was the hollow of an old oak, on the borders of
Helpston Heath, called Lea Close Oak--now ruthlessly cut down by
'enclosure' progress--where he had formed himself a seat with something
like a table in front. Few human beings ever came near this place, except
now and then some wandering gypsies, the sight of whom was not unpleasing
to the poet. Inside this old oak Clare used to sit in silent meditation,
for many hours together, forgetting everything about him, and unmindful
even of the waning day and the mantle of darkness falling over the earth.
Having prepared his verses in rough outline, within the oak, or in some
other lonely place, he would hurry home without delay. Patty, carefullest
of housewives, although little comprehending the erratic ways of her
lord, had got into the habit of always keeping a slight meal ready for
the hungry poet. He took his broth, or his cup of tea, in silence, and
then crept up to the narrow bedroom in the upper part of the hut. Here
the day's poetical productions were passed in review. Whatever was not
approved, met with immediate destruction; the rest was carefully
corrected and polished, and afterwards copied out into a big book, a sort
of ledger, bought at Stamford fair. Clare had laid down the rule for
himself to make no further corrections or examination whatever. The poems
thus composed were sent to the printer; and though Mr. Taylor, the editor
and publisher of the new work, was anxious to alter and revise some of
them, Clare would not allow any change, save orthographical and
grammatical corrections. There was at this time an impression on Clare's
mind that his verses were the product of intuition; and that the songs
came floating from his lips and pen as music from the throat of birds. So
he held his own orthodoxy more orthodox than that of the schools. In
which view poor John Clare was decidedly wrong, seeing that his music was
not offered gratis like that of the skylark and nightingale, but was
looking out for the pounds, shillings, and pence of a most discerning


The publication of Clare's new volume, arranged for the spring of 1821,
gave rise to some difficulties as the time grew near. It was the
intention of his publishers to bring out the work with some artistic
embellishments, including a portrait of the author and a sketch of his
home; to both which Clare had certain objections, as far as the execution
of the task was concerned. On the other hand, Messrs. Taylor and Hessey
wished to exclude some of Clare's poems, which they did not think quite
as good as the rest, under the pretence that they had already more than
sufficient in hand to make a strong volume; but this again was opposed by
the author, who sent in his ultimatum to print all his verses or none.
The difficulty might have been easily arranged by Mr. Gilchrist, with his
great influence both over Clare and his publishers, but he,
unfortunately, was over head and ears in trouble, and had no time to
attend to the perplexities of others. Mr. Gilchrist, in the summer of
1820, had the misfortune of being dragged into the great quarrel of the
Rev. William Lisle Bowles, the editor of Pope, with Byron, Campbell, and
the 'Quarterly Review;' a battle of the windmills which occupied the
literary world of England for several years. Having despatched the chief
of his big foes, the Rev. Mr. Bowles thought fit to turn round upon Mr.
Gilchrist, whom he held to be the author of a severe article in the
'Quarterly.' This was not the case; nevertheless, Mr. Gilchrist took up
the cudgels, striking out with all the impetus so much in vogue among the
pen-wielding celebrities of the time. From the 'Quarterly'--too
Jupiter-like to be long detained by street rows--the quarrel was
transferred to the pages of the 'London Magazine,' where abundant space
was allowed to both Mr. Gilchrist and the Rev. Mr. Bowles to fight out
their battles. The great question was whether Mr. Bowles had done justice
to the character of Pope, or drawn the figure of his hero in too hard
outlines; and as there was much to be said on either side, the articles
grew longer every month, and the spirit of the combatants became more and
more embittered. The conflagration got general through a flaring
pamphlet, 'by one of the family of the Bowles's,' and for a year or two
the air was filled with squibs, flysheets, articles, and reviews, for and
against Bowles. What with his grocery business at Stamford, and his
multifarious literary engagements, poor Mr. Gilchrist fairly lost his
head in the midst of this thunderstorm, and was unable to think of
anything else but Bowles and Pope, and Pope and Bowles. Clare happening
to visit him one day, when musing on this all-absorbing subject, he tried
to inspire him with a sense of the wrongs he had suffered at the hands of
the Rev. William Lisle Bowles; but meeting with utter apathy, Mr.
Gilchrist turned in disgust from his poetic friend, shocked at his
callousness. As a sort of revenge, on being appealed to for his aid in
settling the difficulty between his friend and Messrs. Taylor and Hessey,
he declared that he had no time to attend to the matter. This was
certainly true, for the din of the great Bowles battles kept raging in
the air and the pages of the 'London Magazine' for nigh another year.

After some lengthened correspondence between Clare and his publishers, it
was arranged that the new work should be brought out in two volumes in
the summer of 1821. This made it possible to give the whole of the poems,
and to finish the engravings with the care desired by the author. In the
meanwhile, to keep Clare before the public, specimens of the forthcoming
volume were published at intervals in Mr. Taylor's periodical, and,
finally, the September number of the 'London Magazine' contained at the
head of the list of 'works preparing for publication,' the announcement
that 'The Village Minstrel, and other Poems, by John Clare, the
Northamptonshire Peasant, with a fine portrait, will be published in a
few days.' The work was published accordingly, in the middle of
September. In outward appearance, the two new volumes offered a great
contrast to Clare's former book. The 'Poems descriptive of Rural Life and
Scenery,' were dressed in more than rustic simplicity; stitched in rough
cardboard and printed on coarse paper, with no artistic adornments
whatever. On the other hand, the 'Village Minstrel' presented itself in
beautiful type, with two fine steel engravings, the first a portrait of
Clare, from the painting by William Hilton, R.A. and the latter a sketch
of his cottage. Notwithstanding all these attractions, the new work met
with but a cold reception. It was accounted for by the publishers in the
fact that its price, 12_s_., was too high compared with the former
volume, which was sold at 5_s_. 6_d_.; but the real cause undoubtedly was
that the time of publication was very unfavourable. It was a period when
the English book-mart was overstocked with poetry and fiction, and when
the world seemed less than ever inclined to devote itself to poetry and
fiction. The year 1821, in fact, formed a notable epoch in the annals of
literature for the number of productions from celebrated authors. Sir
Walter Scott published 'Kenilworth Castle;' Lord Byron issued his tragedy
of 'Marino Faliero;' Southey, his 'Vision of Judgment;' Shelley, his
'Prometheus,' and Wordsworth a new edition of his poems. Besides these
giants in the field of literature, numerous stars of the second and third
magnitude sent forth their light. Charles Lamb, Hazlitt, Barry Cornwall,
Tom Moore, Allan Cunningham, Leigh Hunt, and others, were busy writing
and publishing, and John Keats sent his swan-song from the tombs of the
Eternal City. In the midst of this galaxy of genius and fame, John Clare
stood, in a sense, neglected and forlorn. The very reputation of his
first book was against him, for most of his friends were unreasoning and
uncritical enough to assert that the 'Poems on Rural Life and Scenery,'
were less remarkable as poetic works, than as productions of a very poor
and illiterate man. This statement was echoed far and wide, with the
necessary result of getting 'the Northamptonshire Peasant' looked upon as
but a nine-days' wonder. Quite as fatal to Clare's fame as a poet were
the loud appeals made on his behalf for pecuniary assistance. There was,
and, indeed, is at all times, an instinctive feeling, in the main a just
one, among the public, that genius and talent are self-supporting, and
that he who cannot live by the exercise of his own hand or brain, does
not altogether deserve success. The feeling was even stronger than usual
about this period, because of the repeated announcements of fabulous sums
earned by book-makers, including the notoriously helpless poets. It was
well known that Sir Walter Scott had made a large fortune by his verses
and novels; that Moore got L3,000 for his 'Lalla Rookh,' and Crabbe
L2,000 for his 'Tales of the Hall;' that Southey had no reason to be
dissatisfied with the pecuniary result of his epics and articles, nor Mr.
Millman cause to weep over the 'Fall of Jerusalem.' There were rumours
even, embodied in sly newspaper paragraphs, that Mr. Murray was paying
Lord Byron at the rate of a guinea a word; though this was disputed by
others, who asserted that the remuneration was only five shillings a
syllable. However, all these reports had led the public to the not unjust
conclusion, that booksellers, on the whole, are no bad patrons of
literature, and that the reward of genius might be safely left to them.
As a consequence, from the moment that the begging-box was sent round for
Clare--sent round, too, with a zeal far surpassing discretion--there
arose a latent feeling among readers of books, that 'the Northamptonshire
peasant' was not so much a poet as a talented pauper, able to string a
few rhymes together. The feeling, for a time, was not outspoken; but
nevertheless unmistakeable in its results.

The sale of the 'Village Minstrel and other Poems,' was not large at the
commencement, and the book was scarcely noticed by the literary
periodicals of the day. Though containing verses far surpassing in beauty
anything previously published by Clare, the work passed over the heads of
critics and public alike as unworthy of consideration. It drew passing
notes of praise from a few genuine admirers of poetry; but which resulted
in nothing but a couple of letters to the author, and the present of some
cheap books. From one of these letters, it appears that the ballad
commencing 'I love thee, sweet Mary,' printed in the first volume of the
'Village Minstrel,' was read one evening at the house of a nobleman at
the West End of London, before the assembled guests. All were in raptures
about the sweetness of the softly-flowing stream of verse, and all
inquired eagerly after the author. But there was but one person in the
room who knew anything about him; and his whole knowledge consisted in
the fact, told somewhere by somebody, that Clare was a young 'peasant,'
formerly very poor, but now in a state of affluence through a most
liberal subscription fund, amounting to some twenty thousand pounds,
which had been collected for him and invested in the Funds. The news gave
universal satisfaction to the distinguished company; and though none had
contributed a penny to the wonderful subscription list, every guest felt
an inward pride of living in a land offering the bountiful reward of 'the
Funds' to poetic genius, born in obscurity. After the applause had
subsided, the portrait of Clare, prefixed to the 'Village Minstrel,'
passed round the circle of noble West End visitors. All pronounced the
face to be highly _distingue_, and one young lady enthusiastically
declared that John Clare looked 'like a nobleman in disguise.' In which
saying there was a certain amount of truth.

Notwithstanding many unfavourable circumstances, and the ill-considered
zeal of his patrons, who continued to importune the public with demands
for charitable contributions, the coldness with which Clare's new work
was received at its appearance, was really very extraordinary. The
greatest share of it, in all probability, was due to the period of
publication, which could not well have been more ill-timed. Besides the
natural anxiety of a civilized community to read, in preference to cheap
rural poetry, verses paid for at the rate of 'a guinea a word,' or at the
least 'five shillings a syllable,' there were many notable matters
directing public attention away from village minstrelsy to other things.
The book was brought out in the same month that the 'injured Queen of
England' died; that the populace fought for the honour of participating
in the funeral; and that royal lifeguardsmen killed the loyal people like
rabbits in the streets of London. Political passions soared high, and
public indignation was running still higher in newspapers and pamphlets.
It was not to be expected that, at such a moment of universal excitement,
there should be many people willing to withdraw to rural poetry. Thus
Clare, 'piping low, in shade of lowly grove,' was condemned to pipe
unheard, or very nearly so.

A copy of his 'Village Minstrel' Clare sent to Robert Bloomfield, for
whose poetic genius he felt the most sincere admiration. In
acknowledgment he received, about seven months afterwards, the following
characteristic letter:--

'_Shefford, Beds, May 3d, 1822_.

Neighbour John,--If we were still nearer neighbours I would see you, and
thank you personally for the two volumes of your poems sent me so long
ago. I write with such labour and difficulty that I cannot venture to
praise, or discriminate, like a critic, but must only say that you have
given us great pleasure.

I beg your acceptance of my just published little volume; and, sick and
ill as I continually feel, I can join you heartily in your
exclamation--"What is Life?"

With best regards and wishes,

I am yours sincerely,

Robert Bloomfield.'

The above letter, as will be seen from the date, was written little more
than a year before Bloomfield's death, he living at the time in great
retirement, broken in mind and body. The author of the 'Farmer's Boy,'
like Clare, felt a noble contempt for punctuation and spelling, and in
the original note the word 'vollumn,' twice repeated, stands for
volume--representing, no doubt, the way in which he used to pronounce the

How entirely free John Clare was from the common failing of literary
jealousy, is shown by his admiration of Bloomfield. He not only freely
acknowledged the high standard of Bloomfield's works; but, what was more,
held him up to all his friends as a poet far greater than himself. Untrue
as was this comparison, it strikingly exhibited the innate nobility of
soul of the poor 'Northamptonshire Peasant.' Yet even this humility, the
true sign of genius, was ill-construed by some of Clare's lukewarm
patrons, who reproached him for being a flatterer when he only wanted to
be just.


During the summer of 1821, Clare gave up his agricultural labours almost
entirely. The greater part of the time he spent in roaming through woods
and fields, planning new poems, and correcting those already made. Visits
to Stamford, also, were frequent and of some duration, and he not
unfrequently stayed three or four days together at the house of Mr.
Gilchrist, or of Mr. Drury. The stream of visitors to Helpston had
ceased, to a great extent, and the few that dropped in now and then were
mostly of the better class, or at least not belonging to the
vulgar-curious element. Among the number was Mr. Chauncey Hare Townsend,
a dandyfied poet of some note, particularly gifted in madrigals and
pastorals. He came all the way from London to see Clare, and having taken
a guide from Stamford to Helpston, was utterly amazed, on his arrival, to
find that the cottage, beautifully depicted in the 'Village Minstrel,'
was not visible anywhere. His romantic scheme had been to seek Clare in
his home, which he thought easy with the picture in his pocket; and
having stepped over the flower-clad porch, to rush inside, with
tenderly-dignified air, and drop into the arms of the brother poet.
However, the scheme threatened to be frustrated, for though the village
could easily be surveyed at a glance, such a cottage as that delineated
in the 'Minstrel,' with more regard to the ideal than the real, was
nowhere to be seen. In his perplexity, Mr. Chauncey Hare Townsend
inquired of a passer-by the way to Clare's house. The individual whom he
addressed was a short, thick-set man, and, as Mr. Hare Townsend thought,
decidedly ferocious-looking; he was bespattered with mud all over, and a
thick knotted stick, which he carried in his hands, gave him something of
the air of a highwayman. To the intense surprise of Mr. Chauncey Hare
Townsend, this very vulgar person, when addressed, declared that he
himself was John Clare, and offered to show the way to his house. Of
course, the gentleman from London was too shrewd to be taken in by such a
palpable device for being robbed; so declining the offer with thanks, and
recovering from his fright by inhaling the perfume of his pocket
handkerchief, he retreated on his path, seeking refuge in the 'Blue Bell'
public house. The landlord's little girl was ready to show the way to
Clare's cottage, and did so, leaving the stranger at the door. Mr.
Townsend, now fairly prepared to fall into the arms of the brother poet,
though not liking the look of his residence, cautiously opened the door;
but started back immediately on beholding the highwayman in the middle of
the room, sipping a basin of broth. There seemed a horrible conspiracy
for the destruction of a literary gentleman from London in this
Northamptonshire village. Mrs. Clare, fortunately, intervened at the nick
of time to keep Mr. Townsend from fainting. Patty, always neatly
dressed--save and except on washing days,--approached the visitor; and
her gentle looks re-assured Mr. Chauncey Hare Townsend. He wiped his hot
brow with his scented handkerchief, and, not without emotion, introduced
himself to the owner of the house and the neat little wife. The
conversation which followed was short, and somewhat unsatisfactory on
both sides, and the London poet, in the course of a short half an hour,
quitted the Helpston minstrel, leaving a sonnet, wrapped in a one-pound
note, behind him. Clare frowned when discovering the nature of the
envelope; but he liked the sonnet, and for the sake of it, and on Patty's
petition, consented not to send it back to the giver.

Shortly after this curious visit, there came another, which gave Clare
much more pleasure. Mr. John Taylor, of London, having been on an
excursion to his native place, Retford, in Nottinghamshire, on his return
spent a few days at Stamford, with Mr. Drury; and, while here, could not
help looking-in at the home of his 'Northamptonshire Peasant.' His survey
of Helpston, Mr. Taylor described in the 'London Magazine' of November,
1821, in a letter 'to the Editor,'--that is, to himself. The sketch thus
given furnishes an interesting glimpse of the poet and his quiet home
life at this period. Mr. Taylor's letter, dated Oct. 12, 1821, set out as
follows:--'I have just returned from visiting your friend Clare at
Helpston, and one of the pleasantest days I ever spent, was passed in
wandering with him among the scenes which are the subject of his poems. A
flatter country than the immediate neighbourhood can scarcely be
imagined, but the grounds rise in the distance clothed with woods, and
their gently swelling summits are crowned with village churches; nor can
it be called an uninteresting country, even without the poetic spirit
which now breathes about the names of many of its most prominent objects,
for the ground bears all the traces of having been the residence of some
famous people in early days. "The deep sunk moat, the stony mound," are
visible in places where modern taste would shrink at erecting a temporary
cottage, much less a castellated mansion; fragments of Roman brick are
readily found on ridges which still hint the unrecorded history of a far
distant period, and the Saxon rampart and the Roman camp are in some
places seen mingled together in one common ruin. On the line of a Roman
road, which passes within a few hundred yards of the village of Helpston,
I met Clare, about a mile from home. He was going to receive his
quarter's salary from the steward of the Marquis of Exeter. His wife
Patty, and her sister were with him, and it was the intention of the
party, I learned, to proceed to their father's house at Casterton, there
to meet such of the family as were out in service, on their annual
re-assembling together at Michaelmas. I was very unwilling to disturb
this arrangement, but Clare insisted on remaining with me, and the two
cheerful girls left their companion with a "good bye, John!" which made
the plains echo again.'

Walking along the road, Mr. Taylor, under the guidance of Clare, came to
Lolham Brigs, a place sketched in the second volume of the 'Village
Minstrel,' in a poem entitled 'The last of March.' The curious publisher
and editor, anxious to gather facts for his 'London Magazine,' wanted to
know the origin of the poem, and got a full account of it, which,
accompanied by some lofty criticisms, he communicated to his readers.
'John Clare,' Mr. Taylor reported, 'was walking in this direction on the
last day of March, 1821, when he saw an old acquaintance fishing on the
lee side of the bridge. He went to the nearest place for a bottle of ale,
and they then sat beneath the screen which the parapet afforded, while a
hasty storm passed over, refreshing themselves with the liquor, and
moralizing somewhat in the strain of the poem. I question whether
Wordsworth's pedlar could have spoken more to the purpose. But all these
excitations would, I confess, have spent their artillery in vain against
the woolpack of my imagination; and after well considering the scene, I
could not help looking at my companion with surprise: to me, the triumph
of true genius seemed never more conspicuous, than in the construction of
so interesting a poem out of such common-place materials. With your own
eyes you see nothing but a dull line of ponds, or rather one continued
marsh, over which a succession of arches carries the narrow highway: look
again, with the poem in your mind, and the wand of a necromancer seems to
have been employed in conjuring up a host of beautiful accompaniments,
making the whole waste populous with life, and shedding all around the
rich image of a grand and appropriate sentiment. Imagination has, in my
opinion, done wonders here.'

From Lolham Brigs, the poet and his publisher turned towards Helpston,
passing by 'Langley Bush,' also sung in the 'Village Minstrel.' The Bush
furnished an opportunity for some moralizings on the part of Mr. Taylor,
interesting as giving the impressions of an eye-witness as to Clare's
character and the working of his mind. Says Mr. Taylor:--'The discretion
which makes Clare hesitate to receive as canonical all the accounts he
has heard of the former honours of Langley Bush, is in singular contrast
with the enthusiasm of his poetical faith. As a man, he cannot bear to be
imposed upon,--his good sense revolts at the least attempt to abuse
it;--but as a poet, he surrenders his imagination with most happy ease to
the allusions which crowd upon it from stories of fairies and ghosts. The
effect of this distinction is soon felt in a conversation with him. From
not considering it, many persons express their surprise that Clare should
be so weak on some topics and so wise on others. But a willing indulgence
of what they deem weakness is the evidence of a strong mind. He feels
safe there, and luxuriates in the abandonment of his sober sense for a
time, to be the sport of all the tricks and fantasies that have been
attributed to preternatural agency. Let them address him on other
subjects, and unless they entrench themselves in forms of language to
which he is unaccustomed, or take no pains to understand him according to
the sense rather than the letter of his speech, they will confess, that
to keep fairly on a level with him in the depth and tenour of their
remarks, is an exercise requiring more than common effort. He may not
have read the books which they are familiar with, but let them try him on
such as he has read,--and the number is not few, especially of the modern
poets,--and they will find no reason to undervalue his judgment. His
language, it is true, is provincial, and his choice of words in ordinary
conversation is indifferent, because Clare is an unpretending man, and he
speaks in the idiom of his neighbours, who would ridicule and despise him
for using more or better terms than they are familiar with. But the
philosophic mind will strive to read his thoughts, rather than catch at
the manner of their utterance; and will delight to trace the native
nobleness, strength, and beauty of his conceptions, under the tattered
garb of what may, perhaps, be deemed uncouth and scanty expressions.'

Arrived at Helpston with his companion, Mr. Taylor was somewhat surprised
at the outer aspect of Clare's humble home. Of the inside, he furnished
the following neat sketch:--'On a projecting wall in the inside of the
cottage, which is white-washed, are hung some well engraved portraits, in
gilt frames, with a neat drawing of Helpston Church, and a sketch of
Clare's head which Hilton copied in water colours, from the large
painting, and sent as a present to Clare's father. I think that no act of
kindness ever touched him more than this; and I have remarked, on several
occasions, that the thought of what would be his father's feelings on any
fortunate circumstance occurring, has given him more visible
satisfaction, than all the commendations which have been bestowed on his
genius. I believe we must go into low life to know how very much parents
can be beloved by their children. Perhaps it may be that they do more for
them, or that the affection of the child is concentrated on them the
more, from having no other friend on whom it may fall. I saw Clare's
father in the garden: it was a fine day, and his rheumatism allowed him
just to move about, but with the aid of two sticks, he could scarcely
drag his feet along; he can neither kneel nor stoop. The father, though
so infirm, is only fifty-six years of age; the mother is about seven
years older. While I was talking to the old man, Clare had prepared some
refreshment within, and with the appetite of a thresher we went to our
luncheon of bread and cheese, and capital beer from the Bell. In the
midst of our operations, his little girl awoke: a fine lively pretty
creature, with a forehead like her father's, of ample promise. She
tottered along the floor, and her father looked after her with the
fondest affection, and with a careful twitch of his eyebrow when she
seemed in danger. Our meal ended, Clare opened an old oak bookcase, and
showed me his library. It contains a very good collection of modern
poems, chiefly presents made him since the publication of his first
volume; among them the works of Burns, Cowper, Wordsworth, Coleridge,
Keats, Crabbe, and other poets. To see so many books handsomely bound,
and "flash'd about with golden letters," as he describes it, in so poor a
place as Clare's cottage, gave it almost a romantic air, for, except in
cleanliness, it is no whit superior to the habitations of the poorest of
the peasantry. The hearth has no fire-place on it, which to one
accustomed to coal fires looked comfortless, but Clare found it

The idea of a man being happy without a regular fire-place evidently
staggered Mr. John Taylor. However, he recovered from his surprise, and
having sent his servant--a stately domestic from town, introduced as 'my
man'--in front, to prepare the way, the great publisher of Fleet Street
solemnly took farewell from his poet, accompanied a proper distance along
the road. This duty fulfilled, Clare buttoned up his smock-frock, and
trotted away in great haste to meet Patty, and 'such of the family as
were out on service.' Very likely, in the company of these 'cheerful
girls,' John, for the rest of the evening, felt a great deal more at ease
than in the presence of the learned and inquisitive gentleman, his editor
and publisher.


Before Mr. Taylor left Helpston, he gave his client an invitation to come
up to London, and spend a few weeks at his house. Perhaps the offer was
meant only as a polite phrase, or a 'general invitation;' however, Clare,
unaquainted with the ways of good society, took it to be a special
summons, and, after due reflection, made up his mind to visit the great
metropolis once more. He fixed the journey, to him a great undertaking,
for the spring of 1822, and, remembering former miseries, decided upon
going this time in a new suit of clothes, expressly ordered at Stamford.
The winter of 1821-2 Clare spent at home, in comparative idleness.
Visitors continued to drop in from various places, and the little cottage
being too small to entertain them, he got into the regular habit of
meeting them at the 'Blue Bell.' The custom, originating in this way,
became a fatal one before long. Clare began to look upon the public house
as his second home, and the corner seat near the fire-place as one
specially appropriated to him, and which he ought to fill every evening.
Fortunately, he was not enabled to indulge the habit to its utmost
extent. Frequent excursions to Stamford, and sometimes to Peterborough,
where he found a few good friends, drew him away from the 'Blue
Bell,'--though sometimes to places where ale and spirits flowed as
rapidly and were consumed with as much relish as at the little inn at
Helpston. It was altogether a fatal period of excitement, threatening to
the future of the warm-hearted and but too susceptible poet.

The winter thus passed, and Clare got ready in the spring to start for
London. He had hoped to travel, as before, in the company of Octavius
Gilchrist; but found, at the last moment, that this was impossible. Poor
Mr. Gilchrist was lying ill at his house at Stamford, the dreadful battle
with the Rev. Mr. Bowles and all the Bowles family having thrown him on a
bed of sickness. Unaccustomed, like his more hardy brethren of the
metropolitan press, to fight with the windmills of periodical literature,
and to throw fire from his nostrils without burning himself, he had taken
the whole Bowles campaign too much to heart, and was bleeding from the
strokes which he had given as much as the wounds he had received. His
mind was deeply impressed with the notion, that he had suffered defeat on
some, if not on many points, and there being no stout-hearted literary
lion within reach of his grocery store, to cheer his spirits and console
him in his affliction, he began to feel sick and weary. All entreaties of
his friends to come to London he absolutely refused, and there remained
nothing for Clare but to set out alone. The due preparations having been
made, he went to Stamford, one fine morning, in the month of May, mounted
the outside of the coach, and was whirled away, through Northamptonshire,
Huntingdon, and Beds, to the metropolis. Discharged, once more, at the
'George and Blue Boar,' Holborn, he was bold enough to steer, unaided,
through the intricate thoroughfares of London, and reached the haven in
Fleet Street without accident. Mr. John Taylor looked somewhat surprised
on beholding his poet, carrying a big stick in one hand, and in the other
a large bundle tied in a coloured pocket handkerchief, with a pair of
hob-nailed boots sticking out on each side. However, a gentleman born and
bred, he smiled pleasantly, helped to unpack Clare's bundle, and made him
welcome to his house. Supper and wine contributed to break the ice, and
Mr. John Taylor discovered, for the first time, that his guest from the
country was a very pleasant companion.

The busy bookseller of Fleet Street had no time to play the cicerone;
therefore, on the morning after Clare's arrival, he delivered him
formally over to Mr. Thomas Hood, subeditor of the 'London Magazine.' But
Mr. Hood, too--just rising into fame, thanks to 'Elia' and other
friends--thought he had no time to spare, and left him to Tom Benyon, the
much-respected head-porter of the firm of Taylor and Hessey. When Thomas
Hood came to know John Clare a little better, he paid more attention to
his charge; but this did not happen till at the end of two or three
weeks. Meanwhile Clare amused himself as best he could, guided wherever
he wished to go by the faithful Tom. One of his first visits was to Mrs.
Emmerson, who received him in the most affectionate manner, and invited
him to dine daily at her house. The invitation was freely accepted, and
Clare for some time spent his afternoon and the early part of the evening
regularly at the lady's house at Stratford Place, Oxford Street. Clare
here met again his old friend and patron, Lord Radstock, besides a goodly
number of the literary and artistic celebrities of the day. He found few
friends, or men he liked, among the authors; but more among the painters
into whose company he was thrown. With some of them he struck an intimate
acquaintance, particularly with Mr. Rippingille, an artist of some note
in his day. The latter was very fond of long rambles through London, and
very fond of pale ale, too; and Clare sharing both these likings, the two
were constantly together. Many an evening, after leaving Mrs. Emmerson's
house--which happened, nearly always, immediately after dinner--the
artist and poet set out together on a journey of exploration, visiting
unknown parts of the metropolis, the haunts of thieves and vagabonds.
When getting tired of this amusement, they directed their researches into
other quarters, inspecting all the small theatres, exhibitions, and
concert rooms, down to the very lowest. The progress of this movement was
interrupted by an unexpected event. One evening, when visiting the
Regency Theatre, in Tottenham Court Road, both were fascinated by the
charms of a beautiful young actress, a native of France, figuring in the
play-bills as Mademoiselle Dalia. Clare's susceptible heart took fire at
once; and friend Rippingille was not behind in the sudden burst of his
affections. They both vowed eternal love to the fair actress, and, as a
commencement, Rippingille drew her portrait, after the dictate of his
fancy, while Clare added to it a passionate effusion in verse. The
artistic-poetical gift was duly despatched to Mademoiselle Dalia, but
elicited no reply. Night after night, poet and painter took their seat
within the temple of the muses in Tottenham Court Road; but night after
night they waited in vain for a glance from the beautiful eyes of
Mademoiselle Dalia, although they had taken care to inform her that they
were sitting, arm in arm, in front of the pit. The neglect of
Mademoiselle preyed upon their minds; they pined away, the two friends,
and drank more pale ale than ever.

Clare's excursions with his friend kept him generally till after midnight
from his residence, which was a great source of annoyance to the
methodical bookseller of Fleet Street. Mr. Thomas Hood thereupon got
instructions to tell Clare that early hours would be more acceptable to
his host; which instructions were communicated by commission, in due
business course, through the faithful Tom, the head-porter. Clare felt
offended, and informed Mrs. Emmerson of what had happened; making a full
confession of his sorrows, even those concerning the too beautiful
Mademoiselle Dalia. Mrs. Emmerson deeply sympathised with her poetical
friend, telling him at the same time that he would be welcome to stay at
her house if he liked. The offer was accepted, and Clare marched back
straightway to Fleet Street, gathered his property, including the boots,
within the coloured pocket-handkerchief, and came back in triumph to
Stratford Place. That same evening, thinking himself more at liberty in
his new quarters, he undertook a somewhat longer excursion with Mr.
Rippingille. After staying punctually through the performance in the
Tottenham Court Road Theatre, sighing over the enchanting looks of
Mademoiselle, the friends adjourned to a neighbouring public-house, and
from thence to a tavern known as Offley's, famous for its Burton ale. The
ale was unusually good this evening, and the company too was unusually
good, which combined attraction made the friends remain in their place
till long after their wonted time. Talking about poetry and high art, and
talking still more about Mademoiselle Dalia and her angelic charms, the
hours slipped away like minutes, and the first rosy clouds of a bright
June morning began to appear in the east before they were able to quit
Offley's hospitable roof. Shaking hands once more at the door,
Rippingille took his way, with somewhat faltering step, to his lodgings
in Oxford Street; while Clare, rather more steady in his gait, went
straight to Mrs. Emmerson's residence. He discovered Stratford Place with
the help of a sympathetic watchman; but was unable to get an entrance
into his temporary home. Mrs. Emmerson, after waiting for her guest till
towards the dawn of day, had gone to bed, thinking that he might have
taken his way back to his old quarters in Meet Street. The combined
efforts of Clare and the friendly watchman having proved fruitless to get
into the house, nothing remained but to seek some other shelter. But
there were no places open anywhere, and the poet, beginning to feel very
tired, resolved to take the advice of his companion, and creep into the
inside of a hackney coach, drawn up in a yard. The kind watchman
carefully shut the door, and Clare, finding the place uncommonly snug and
comfortable, fell asleep immediately.

Sweet dreams soon filled the mind of the poet. There dame visions of
green fields decked with flowers; of large banqueting rooms thronged with
beautiful ladies; and of theatres crowded by joyous multitudes; and right
in the midst of all these apparitions stood the enchanting fairy of
Tottenham Court Road. She approached him; she pierced his heart with a
smile of her dark eyes; at last she kissed him. The touch of her lips was
like an electric shock, and he sprang to his feet. But he could not
stand; something was moving under him. He rubbed his eyes; rubbed them
again and again; and at last discovered that he was inside a square box,
drawn along by two horses. Gradually the events of the past day and night
arose from out the mist of his dreams and fancies, and he began to be
conscious that he was sitting in the identical hackney coach into which
his friend, the watchman, had put him. The difficulty settled as to how
he got in, there came the more perplexing question as to how he should
get out again. The coachman was evidently unaware of the presence of a
poet in his box, and a too sudden revelation of the fact, Clare feared,
might produce the worst consequences. Viewed from the back, he seemed a
grim, ferocious-looking fellow, the terrible driver of the hackney-coach.
He kept whipping his horses continually, and faster and faster the
vehicle jolted along, Clare hiding his face in the cushions, in bitter
anguish of heart. At last the coach stopped in front of a public-house. A
fervent prayer arose in the mind of the traveller that his coachman would
go inside and take something to drink. Part of the prayer was fulfilled,
for the man did take something to drink, though he did not go inside. A
lounger at the gate, with whom he seemed on familiar terms, appeared in a
moment with a glass in his hand, containing a steaming liquid, which the
man with the whip gulped down in an instant, and then prepared to ascend
his seat again. But Clare now began to think that he had travelled far
enough, and, in a desperate leap, jumped out of his coach, and nearly
overturned the astonished driver. The latter, however, had him by the
collar in an instant, crying, 'And who are you?' Clare tried to explain;
introducing himself as author of 'Poems of Rural Life,' and the 'Village
Minstrel,' in two volumes, with engravings. But the hackney man, learning
these facts, frowned more grimly than ever, his mind evidently full of
grave doubts. After short reflection, he carefully examined the inside of
the coach, and giving his victim a good shake, asked him how much money
he had in his possession. Clare, trembling all over, took out his purse,
and found he had ten shillings and a few pence. The terrible coachman
grasped the purse, gave the owner a slap on the back as a receipt, and
with a valedictory 'Go along, you scamp!' dismissed the unhappy poet.
John Clare felt faint and ready to sink to the ground; but fear gave him
courage, and he ran away as fast as he could. It was not long before he
discovered that he was, after all, not far from his dwelling in Stratford
Place. Having obtained entrance, he sank down utterly exhausted in an
arm-chair, to the intense astonishment of Mrs. Emmerson.

When Clare had somewhat recovered himself, the questioning commenced.
Although reluctant to tell his whole story, his vigilant hostess
extracted it piece by piece, and finally broke out into an immoderate fit
of laughter. Clare was surprised, and somewhat offended; but felt too
weak for opposition or remonstrance. Even his desire that the affair
should be kept as secret as possible was met with renewed merriment, the
reply being that, before saying more, he should take some refreshment. A
good luncheon, with liberal supply of sherry, had the effect of bringing
Clare's feelings more in accordance with those of Mrs. Emmerson. He was
himself inclined to laugh at his droll adventure in the hackney coach,
and thought he should be ready almost to shake hands with the terrible
driver. In this vein of good humour, Mrs. Emmerson got ready permission
to tell his curious adventure to whomsoever she liked--even in his
presence at the dinner-table. The stipulation was fulfilled to the
letter. There was a grand party that evening at Mrs. Emmerson's house,
and, towards the end of the entertainment, when all were in good spirits,
the fair hostess told the story of the poet in the hackney coach. She
told it in good dramatic style, embellishing it a little, and heightening
the effect of some of the incidents. But she was not allowed to tell it
uninterruptedly. There broke forth such a storm of laughter on all sides
as seemed to shake the very table, and not a few of the guests appeared
absolutely convulsed with merriment. Clare good-humouredly joined in the
general hilarity, for which he was recompensed by having his health
drunk, with full bumpers, by the whole assembly. After which, in special
honour of Clare's ingenious method of declaring his identity to a hackney
coachman, there came, amidst universal delight, another toast to 'The
Village Minstrel in London.'

At the house of Mrs. Emmerson, Clare stayed about a week, and then
accepted an invitation of the Rev. H. T. Cary, the translator of Dante,
who had met him previously at Mr. Taylor's office. Mr. Gary was living at
Chiswick, in an old ivy-covered mansion, formerly inhabited by Sir James
Thornhill, the painter, and after him by his famous son-in-law, Hogarth.
Clare spent some pleasant days here, his kind host pointing out to him
various memorials connected with the great satirist and moralist--the
window through which Hogarth eloped with old Thornhill's only daughter;
the place where he painted the 'Rake's Progress;' and the spot in the
garden where he buried his faithful dog, with the inscription, 'Life to
the last enjoyed, here Pompey lies.' There were agreeable excursions,
too, from Chiswick to the neighbouring places, particularly to Richmond,
where Clare visited Thompson's monument on the hill, as well as his
tombstone in the old church, which, covered as it was with cobwebs, he
thought much less beautiful than that of Hogarth's dog. It was Clare's
intention to stop at least a week with his kind host at Chiswick, but an
awkward circumstance occasioned his departure at the end of a few days.
The reverend translator of Dante's 'Inferno' introduced his guest in a
careless sort of way to his house, without presenting the various members
of his family, and the consequence was that Clare fell into a grievous
mistake from the beginning. Mr. Cary had several grown-up children, and a
beautiful young wife, looking of the same age as his daughters. In the
round of excitement through which he had gone, and with his head still
full of the charming Mademoiselle Dalia, of Tottenham, Court Road, Clare
thought it incumbent upon him to write verses at the old ivy-covered
mansion, the more so as the owner had emphatically introduced him as
author of 'I love thee, sweet Mary.' So he began by penning delicate
sonnets, dedicated to the lady whom he deemed the fairest of the
daughters of the Rev. Mr. Cary, or, in point of fact, to his wife. Mrs.
Gary, on getting the first poetical epistle, held it to be a declaration
of lore, and, very properly, burnt the paper. But getting a second piece
of poetry, somewhat mystic in expression, she showed it to her husband,
who, being an elderly gentleman with a wig, got very excited over the
matter. He took Clare aside on the instant, telling him, with much
warmth, that it was not the custom at Chiswick to make love to other
men's wives, and that, however much he admired his sonnets, he did not
like his mode of distributing them. Clare was thunderstruck on learning
that he had been addressing Mrs. Gary instead of the fair daughter of the
house, and, for a moment, was almost unable to speak. Recovering himself,
he stammered forth his simple tale, hiding nothing, nor trying to excuse
his conduct. It was impossible to listen and not believe his words. The
Rev. Mr. Gary perceived at once the ridiculous error into which he had
fallen, and shaking Clare's hand in a most affectionate manner, bade him
think no more of the whole affair, and for the future distribute as many
specimens of his poetry as he liked to his wife and daughters. Clare
fully appreciated the kindness which distated this offer; however, he
thought that it was impossible for him to stop any longer at the house.
He insisted upon leaving at once, and Mr. Gary, finding all his
persuasions fruitless, accompanied him back to London. It was Clare's
intention to return to Helpston immediately, but going to the shop of his
publishers in Fleet Street, he heard that Octavius Gilchrist had arrived
the previous day, and wished to see him. He therefore took up his
quarters once more at the house of Mr. Taylor. The great battle with the
Bowles' family and the book-grinding windmills had made poor Mr.
Gilchrist really and seriously ill. The doctors of Stamford shook their
heads, talking of nervous affection, of change of air, and of rest from
the cares of grocery and literature. With every succeeding day, the men
of science got to look more and more mournful, until the patient felt as
if he was going already through the process of being buried. One morning,
thereupon, he took a desperate resolution. Although ordered not to leave
his room on any account, he went to the stage coach, engaged the
box-seat, and bravely rode up to London. Mr. Gilchrist was really fond of
Clare, and had no sooner arrived than he went in search of him. Clare
consented to stay a little longer in town, partly at the house of Mr.
John Taylor, and partly at that of Herr Burkhardt, Mr. Gilchrist's
brother-in-law. The jolly watchmaker in the Strand was overjoyed on
seeing his rural friend again, fancying to get another opportunity to
show the lions of London. But Clare soon proved to him that by this time
he knew more about the big metropolis, its theatres and concert-rooms,
its taverns and alehouses, and even its beggars' and thieves' slums, than
many a native of Cockaigne, and Herr Burkhardt, therefore, was compelled,
much against his wish, to leave him alone. Mr. Rippingille having
meanwhile taken his departure for Bristol, vainly trying to persuade his
friend to follow him thither, Clare was left almost entirely in the
company of Mr. Gilchrist. The latter introduced him to a great many of
his acquaintances; first and foremost to Mr. William Gifford. Clare felt
somewhat abashed when admitted into the presence of the renowned editor
of the 'Quarterly Review,' whose pen had so much contributed to his rise
in the world. Mr. Gifford, who was sitting on a couch, surrounded by an
immense quantity of books and papers, received the poet in a very
friendly manner, making some judicious remarks about the 'Village
Minstrel,' which he declared to be vastly superior to the 'Poems of Rural
Life.' This gave Clare courage, and he freely entered into a lengthened
conversation, in the course of which the editor of the 'Quarterly' took
care to warn him, with much emphasis, to be on his guard against
booksellers and publishers. Leaving Mr. Gifford, Octavius Gilchrist,
somewhat maliciously, took his friend direct to one of the dreaded class
of publishers against which he had just been warned. They went to the
house of Mr. Murray, in Albemarle Street, in front of which stood a
number of brilliant carriages. Mr. Gilchrist and his friend had to wait
some time in an anteroom; but, once admitted, both were received with
great cordiality. Clare was much pleased with the simple, hearty manner
of the great patron of literature; and the pleasure appeared to be
mutual, for Mr. Murray, in his turn, began to converse in a very
unrestrained manner, and, on leaving, bade Clare never to come to London
without seeing him. Quitting the house in Albemarle Street, Clare ran
right against Mr. Gifford, who was coming up the steps. Both apologised,
and both felt somewhat confused concerning the thankless old business of
giving and taking advice.

During the remaining part of his stay in London, Clare was much in
company with Mr. Thomas Hood. The genial sub-editor of the 'London
Magazine' had found out by this time that Mr. Taylor's guest was
something more than a mere spinner of verses and glorifier of daisies and
buttercups, and, having made this discovery, he got anxious to be in
Clare's company. The acquaintance soon grew intimate, and Clare followed
his new friend wherever he chose to take him. First on the list stood the
house of Mr. Charles Lamb, to which they went on a pilgrimage late one
evening. 'Elia' was in splendid good humour; comfortably ensconced in a
large arm-chair, with a huge decanter at his right hand, and a huge
bronze snuff-box, from which he continually helped himself, on his left.
Clare having been formally introduced, Charles Lamb took a whole handful
of snuff, and falling back in his armchair, stuttered out an atrocious
pun concerning rural poets and hackney coaches. Seeing that his guest
looked somewhat displeased, he took him under closer treatment at his
right hand, and with the help of the big decanter, soon put him into
excessive good humour. The conversation now became general, and Clare
thought he had never met with such an agreeable companion as the great
'Elia.' Till late at night, the drinking and talking continued, until at
last Charles Lamb's sister, the motherly Bridget, came into the room,
delivering an eloquent lecture upon the value of sobriety. When Clare
looked serious: 'Do ... do ... don't be offended, my boy,' quoth Charles,
'we all know the virtue of rustic swine-I me ... me ... mean of a rustic
swain!' Which saying, 'Elia' pushed on his decanter. But it was too much
for Clare. 'I must _goo_,' he said. And go he did accordingly.

The return journey to Stamford which Clare and Octavius Gilchrist had
arranged to make together, was made impossible, on the part of the
latter, by his continued illness. In order to find absolute rest,
together with kind attention, Mr. Gilchrist resolved to go on a
lengthened visit to two of his brothers at Richmond, in Surrey. Having
stayed already more than a month in London, Clare now had to think of
returning, which he did after taking solemn farewell from all his old and
new friends. Faithful Tom Benyon, on a sunny morning in June, carried the
poet's well-stocked handkerchief, with the boots, to the 'George and Blue
Boar,' in Holborn, and the streets were just beginning to swarm with
life, when the Stamford coach went rolling through them into the green
fields. Clare was the only outside passenger, besides a stout elderly
gentleman who went as far as Islington. The stout person had seen Clare
somewhere before, and, being extremely pleased to meet a famous poet on
such a fine morning in June, ordered brandy and water at three successive
taverns where the coach stopped for passengers. The effect was such that
Clare went to sleep on his seat, and, having been carefully strapped to
the cushion by the experienced guard, slept all the way to Stamford--last
result of a visit to the great metropolis.


Clare's second excursion to London was productive of many evil
consequences. From the first trip he returned with a renewed love for the
simple life of the country, and a renewed desire to spend his days
peacefully in his humble cottage, earning bread and health by hard labour
in the fields; but from this new visit he came back with wild visions of
glory and fame, a restless, fretful, discontented man. A feeling he had
never before known now got hold of him--the silent dread of poverty. The
month he had stayed in London, sitting down every day at a well-filled
table, moving every day and night among bright and genial men, among
beautiful and intelligent women, had opened to him a new mode of life of
which he had scarcely been conscious before. His vivid imagination
painted it even brighter than it was in reality. He did not see, and
could not see, the petty cares and miseries hidden behind all the
brilliant scenes which met his eyes; and though he discovered the great
truth in course of time, he was not aware as yet that real happiness is
found distributed with tolerable equality among all ranks and classes.
But John Clare was only getting towards thirty, and not yet a
philosopher. Returning to his humble home, he fondly kissed his wife and
little girl, and fondly embraced his aged father and mother; but the
first transport of love gone, he sat down moody and discontented. During
his absence large parcels of books, the presents of old and new friends,
had arrived at Helpston, and, eagerly as he looked over the volumes,
particularly those of poetry, his heart grew sad in thinking that there
was nobody near to share his pleasures with him. While in London he had
become accustomed to constant conversation on poetical and artistic
subjects, his daily routine being to spend his mornings in reading all
the new works within his reach, and during the afternoons and evenings to
discuss the matters treated in these books. It seemed a terrible want to
miss these delights on returning to his narrow home. He felt it, for the
first time, as a personal affliction and source of misery that his wife
was unable to read and write; that his parents were talking of nothing
but their illness and physical sufferings, and that all the inmates of
his home alike had no more sympathy with him and his poetical joys and
sorrows than if they had been inhabitants of another world. It seemed to
him as if he had been banished from the Eden of intellect into a lower
and grosser existence, and every letter and every book he received had
but the effect of making him more sad and fretful. He had not been long
at home when there came a richly-bound volume, inscribed on the
title-page, 'The gift of Admiral Lord Radstock to his dear and excellent
friend, John Clare, August 1st, 1822.' The gift gave him no pleasure,
but, awakening thoughts of the past and the present, only brought tears
into his eyes.

The reaction from this unmanly and morbid state of feeling came in time,
and Clare's pride and native strength of mind got the better of his
sickly yearning after lost pleasures. Nevertheless, one lasting source of
unhappiness remained. He found that his regular income of forty-five
pounds a year, secured to him by his friends and patrons, was quite
insufficient, with his new wants and desires, to cover his expenditure,
and the profits derived from his books being fluctuating and altogether
inconsiderable, he experienced the worst pangs of poverty in the terrible
knowledge of being constantly in debt. To improve his position, he formed
a thousand plans, some practicable and some visionary; but all equally
barren as to the net result. The first and most natural idea that
occurred to him was to write as many verses as possible and to sell them
immediately. In order to effect this, and seeing the very moderate
success of his last published two volumes, he resolved to print his poems
separately, and offer them to readers in this form. Mr. Drury, to whom he
communicated this somewhat singular plan, approved it, suggesting at the
same time to have the poetry set to music. This struck Clare as
exceedingly appropriate, and he set to work at once to produce a liberal
supply of verses. He began with such eagerness as to bring forth no less
than seventy-six poems in less than three weeks; and though physically
and mentally exhausted by this effort, he felt exceedingly joyful and
buoyed up by bright anticipations of the future, when handing the whole
of these manuscripts to Mr. Drury. But hard as was the toil, and prodigal
the waste of mental power, it absolutely came to nothing. Mr. Drury,
having entered into arrangements with a small publisher in Paternoster
Row, despatched the poems to London, and a number of them were set to
music by Mr. Crouch, and issued on picturesque sheets of paper, with
flaming dedications to fashionable singers, and to supposed generous
noblemen, patrons of all the arts. Clare was much surprised on seeing his
verses turn up in this unexpected shape; however, he consoled himself
with the hope, in which he was strongly backed by Mr. Drury, that the
profits on his poetry would be as bounteous as the expenditure of gold
and colours upon the picturesque sheets. But, to his utter dismay, he got
no payment whatever for his verses. All applications to Paternoster Row
proved ineffectual to secure even the return of the verses not printed,
which were found afterwards coming to the surface in albums, reviews, and
periodicals, in wonderful disguises and with new names attached. To crown
the misfortune, Clare received a reproachful letter from Mr. John Taylor,
complaining of his connexion with Mr. Crouch and the flaming dedications,
and intimating that these dealings with small composers and publishers
would damage his reputation, Clare felt utterly dejected at the result of
the whole speculation, although it gained him the valuable experience
that able as he was to write verses, he was utterly unable to convert
them into money and bread.

Having recovered from this great disappointment, Clare resolved upon
another experiment for getting a living, and, provisionally, getting out
of debt. He thought that if he could become the possessor of a small
farm, not so extensive as to require the use of valuable stock and
cattle, but large enough to produce food for his family, with something
to sell at the market-town, he should be able, together with his annuity,
to place himself in a respectable and comparatively independent position.
This was an excellent idea, and had it been realized, might have saved
Clare from despondency and final ruin. Unfortunately, its realization,
though easy at one moment, depended not upon the poet, but upon his
patronizing friends, who proved painfully lukewarm at this momentous
period of his life. It so happened that in the winter of 1822-3, an
opportunity offered itself for acquiring a piece of freehold land of
about seven acres, close to the poet's cottage, known to the people of
Helpston as 'Bachelors' Hall' and already noticed as belonging to two
brothers of the name of Billing. The brothers were somewhat improvident,
leading gay bachelors' lives; and, getting into debt gradually, they were
compelled at last to mortgage their small property to a Jew for the sum
of two hundred pounds. For some years, the interest was duly paid, but
this failing at last, on account of the growing infirmity of the
brothers, the Jew stepped in, threatening to sell the property. This
roused Clare to a desperate effort for raising the necessary sum to pay
off the mortgage, and, by acquiring the small estate, benefit both
himself and his staunch old friends, the brothers Billing. The latter
agreed to let him have 'Bachelors' Hall' with its seven acres, on
condition of discharging the encumbrance, and allowing them a very small
sum for the remaining few years of their lives, which they intended
spending with some relatives in a neighbouring village. The offer was a
very favourable one, and the more so as freehold property was extremely
scarce at Helpston, the ground being, as in most agricultural counties,
the property of a few large landowners. The more Clare thought upon the
subject, the more anxious did he become to enter upon the proposed
arrangement, and, in settling on this little piece of ground, shape his
whole future career into a more fixed direction. But his boundless
anxiety met with no assistance on the part of those who called themselves
his friends. Though it was for the first time in his life that he claimed
help for himself, he, to his immense distress, found all doors resolutely
closed against him.

To get the two hundred pounds required to pay off the mortgage upon
'Bachelors' Hall,' Clare addressed himself first to Lord Radstock, whom
he looked upon as one of his wannest and most sincere friends. What he
asked was not to lend him the money, but to take it from the sum standing
in his name in the funds. To Clare's surprise, Lord Radstock told him
that this could not be done, as the four hundred and twenty pounds were
invested in the name of trustees, who had no power to withdraw any
portion of this amount. Glare looked upon this as a personal humiliation,
fancying that he was treated like a child, or like a man not responsible
for his own actions, and deeming the refusal a new attempt to keep him in
leading strings. For a moment, Clare felt quite angry with his noble
patron, who, he thought, might have easily advanced him the small sum of
money had he so liked. The explanation was that Lord Radstock, like most
other of Clare's patrons, was entirely ignorant of the poet's character,
regarding him in the light of a genial infant, full of intellect, but
without strength of character. What chiefly produced this impression on
his lordship, otherwise decidedly the truest friend of the poet, was that
Clare, notwithstanding repeated advice to that effect, had neglected to
make a good arrangement, or, in fact, any arrangement at all, with his
publishers, so that he stood to them in the position of a helpless
client. Probably, Lord Radstock reasoned that as his friend had shown
himself thus unable to carry on the ordinary affairs of life, he would
not be better qualified to be the manager of a farm, although one of only
seven acres. In consequence, he not only refused to get the two hundred
pounds, but strongly advised Clare to have nothing to do with the
purchase of 'Bachelors' Hall.' The poet saw through the motives which
dictated this advice, and keenly felt the distrust and want of
appreciation of him whom he held to be one of the best of his friends.

Much downcast, however, as Clare was by Lord Radstock's refusal, he did
not give up the struggle for his great object. His next attempt was to
get the required sum of two hundred pounds from his publishers, to whom,
he offered, in return, a sort of mortgage on his writings, for a period
to come. He addressed himself to Mr. John Taylor in a very pathetic
letter, vehement almost in the anxiety manifested to gain the little plot
of land, and thus become an independent man. 'The cottage with land,' he
wrote to Mr. Taylor, in a letter bearing date January 31, 1823, 'is a
beautiful spot of six or seven acres. There are crowds for it if it be
sold; but if I could get hold of the mortgage, it would be mine, and
still doing a kindness to a friend. I should like to alter it into Poet's
Hall, instead of its old name of Bachelor's Hall, which must soon be
extinct if I don't succeed. I'll do this way if you like. I'll sell you
my writings for five years for that sum, which can't be dear.' Fervent
though this appeal was, it left the great publisher in Fleet Street very
cold. Mr. Taylor replied, with some sarcasm, that he could not see what
put the ambition into Clare's head to become a 'landed proprietor.' Very
likely, Mr. Taylor thought it would raise the cost price of the verses,
if they were to be manufactured at a 'Poet's Hall.' Therefore, while
declining to advance the two hundred pounds, he told his friend, in a
long letter, not to be ambitious, but to remain in the state in which God
had placed him. The counsel was seasoned, somewhat unnecessarily, by
quotations from the Bible.

'Bachelors' Hall' did not become 'Poet's Hall,' but went to the Jew.
Clare, seeing all his efforts vain, sunk into a state of low despondency,
followed by a long and serious illness. It was the turning period of the
poet's life. His career, hitherto, had been strange and anomalous. Tossed
about in the surging waves of existence, now in deepest poverty, and now
again amidst wealth and splendour, he was beginning to feel weary and
faint-hearted, doubting whether he should ever be able to reach the haven
of rest and of ease. At the age of thirty now he fancied he had a glimpse
of this blissful haven. He felt, and the feeling was undoubtedly just,
that the possession of a small independent property would secure to him
the much-wanted support in life, not only as furnishing him with
additional means of subsistence, but in raising his mental energies,
dependent hitherto upon the fitful accidents connected with his position
of farm-labourer. His fancy painted to him, in glowing colours, how happy
he should be in his roomy 'Poet's Hall,' standing on his own land, 'a
beautiful spot of six or seven acres,' full of flowers and fruit trees,
with hedges of roses and laurel, and songbirds nestling under the green
leaves. No more necessity, then, to take his visitors to the public-house
for entertainment; no more necessity to hide in hollow trees in the wood,
seeking poetical inspiration; no more necessity to go about, with
downcast look, among the insolent farmers, in that most humiliating of
all pursuits, asking for work. A charm to even the coarsest minds, the
overwhelming consciousness! of being _owner_ of a fraction of the surface
of great mother earth, had countless allurements to the poet. He knew it
would not only raise him in the world, but would make him a better, a
nobler, a wiser man. Yet for all that, and though the haven was so near,
he was not allowed to reach it. With patrons in abundance, there was not
one willing to advance the small sum of two hundred pounds, which, he
said, would make him happy for life; with friends who praised his genius
to the skies, there were none who thought it safe to entrust him with the
means for purchasing independence otherwise than 'under trustees.' The
patrons and friends admired the poet's genius, but they never forgot that
he was a 'Northamptonshire peasant,' the son of a pauper. As such, even
kind Mr. John Taylor thought proper to preach humility, and refer the
'Village Minstrel' to the Bible.

With the failure of all his schemes, the great truth began, to dawn upon
Clare that he was destined, notwithstanding all his friends and patrons,
to remain a farmer's drudge and poetical pauper; destined to plough and
thresh for others, and, in his spare hours, to make pretty songs for
ladies and gentlemen--something better than a clown, and something less
than a lackey in uniform. Clare was meek and accustomed to suffering, yet
for a long time he could not reconcile himself to the thought that this
was part of 'the eternal fitness of things.' So he chafed and fretted
under his new burthen of sorrow, and finding it weigh too heavily upon
his heart, again sought forgetfulness in the wretched refuge open at the
tavern. He drank not much, for he was too poor to do so, at this moment;
but even the small quantity of ale or spirits which he imbibed to drown
his mental anguish acted like poison upon a weak and ailing body, now
more than usually debilitated by insufficient food. In the winter of
1823, Clare found himself almost penniless; yet with inborn loftiness of
mind, he hid the fact from his family, so as not to distress them. His
wife and parents, therefore, lived as well as ever, while he, to save
expenditure, got into the habit of absenting himself at meal-times,
pretending to call upon friends and acquaintances. Instead of doing so,
he went forth into the fields, munching a dry crust of bread, and, when
breaking down under hunger and fatigue, crept to the 'Blue Bell' for a
glass of ale. Such a diet, always fatal, was doubly so after the liberal
style of living to which he had got accustomed in London, and which he
had kept up for some time after, as long as his hope lasted to get
payment for the poems delivered to Mr. Drury, as well as for others
contributed to the 'London Magazine,' When these sources failed, and the
succeeding schemes to acquire 'Bachelors' Hall' broke down one after
another, there was bitter want staring him in the face, to stave off
which he resolved to make an application to one of his first and best
friends, Mr. Gilchrist. It seemed impossible that help, and, what was
almost as precious under the circumstances, good advice, should be
wanting from this quarter.

Mr. Gilchrist had been absent from Stamford for a long time. His illness,
which first seemed slight, and merely due to temporary overwork, had
taken a more serious turn after his journey to London, chiefly in
consequence of a severe cold caught on the outside of the coach. It was
for this reason that he was advised to seek rest and strength at the
house of his brother, living, with some members of his family, at
Richmond. Retired to this new home, it seemed for a while as if he was
getting better; but the old spirit for journalistic controversy stirring
within him, he took pen in hand as soon as he felt sufficient strength,
which brought on a fresh attack of the disease. Hasty and impatient in
all his movements, he now refused to submit any longer to the treatment
prescribed by his medical advisers. He fancied that absolute quiet did
him more harm than good, by weakening his energy of mind, and, expressing
this to his friends, he, notwithstanding their earnest opposition, left
Richmond at the beginning of 1823. It was a severe winter; all the
streams and rivers being thickly frozen, and the roads covered many feet
deep with snow. Under these circumstances, a journey from Surrey into
Lincolnshire was no easy undertaking, particularly to an invalid; and
when Mr. Gilchrist arrived at his own home, he found that his illness was
so much aggravated that he was scarcely able to move. John Clare, on the
first news of his friend's arrival, hurried up to Stamford. He had long
wished to see him and to speak to him, under the impression that if he
could have had his advice, his own circumstances would have taken a very
different turn. At present, it was his intention to lay before Mr.
Gilchrist a clear statement of his affairs, entreating him to act as a
guide in his difficulties, and, as a beginning, to assist him with a
small loan, so as to enable him to pay off the most pressing of his
debts, and purchase a few necessaries for his family. Clare had been ill
for some weeks when, setting out for Stafford; however, he forced himself
from his bed of sickness, and slowly crept along the frozen snow-covered
road. He reached at length the well-known shop in the High Street; but
was surprised, on coming face to face with Mr. Gilchrist to see that he
was far worse than himself. Mr. Gilchrist received Clare with a smile,
yet was scarcely able to speak, lying on his couch in utter prostration,
physical and mental. Clare felt moved by infinite compassion, and,
forgetting all his own sufferings, asked what he could do for his friend.
The patient again smiled; he would soon be better, he said; there was
nothing the matter with him, except a slight rheumatic fever and a little
overwork. Mr. Gilchrist then inquired after his friend's circumstances,
and got replies similar to his own. Clare, too, would have it that he was
quite well, and, on being questioned, accounted for his hollow cheeks and
sunken eyes as due to previous attacks of his old enemy, the ague. Of his
embarrassed circumstances he said nothing; no more than of all the other
matters he had come to discuss, nobly thinking that such a discussion
might do harm to his friend in his feeble state. He even refused some
slight refreshment, in order not to give trouble; but, seeing the waning
day, took his farewell, dragging himself with great difficulty back to
his cottage, along the dark road covered with snow and ice. It was late
when he arrived, his weakness partly owing to want of nourishment, having
compelled him to sit down, every few minutes, on the lonely high road.
Entering his hut, his mind seemed wandering; he muttered incoherent
words, and crept to his bed, from which he did not arise for months to

There was little intercommunication at this time between Stamford,
Helpston, and London. Mr. Gilchrist's literary friends scarcely knew of
the serious turn his illness had taken, and as for Clare, his name was
scarcely ever mentioned. Entirely ignorant of the great art of 'keeping
before the public,' he had no sooner become known than he fell again into
oblivion, from which even his warmest admirers did little to rescue him.
Clare's correspondence with his publishers, too, had lapsed after his
unsuccessful attempt to get the small sum of money for the purchase of a
freehold; and they were entirely ignorant that he was lying ill in his
little hut, and almost dying. For a while, Clare's indisposition seemed
quite as serious, if not more so, than that of Mr. Gilchrist. However,
under the tender care of his wife and his aged mother, the poet rallied
gradually, and in the month of April he was able once more to walk to
Stamford, and inquire after the health of his friend. He was not
admitted, this time; but the servant, in reply to his inquiries, told him
that Mr. Gilchrist was getting better. Clare was still extremely weak,
and could not come back till at the end of a month, when he had the
satisfaction of seeing his friend, and hearing from his own lips that he
was gradually advancing to recovery. Thus reassured, and not willing to
intrude himself more than necessary, he remained quietly for another
month, and, feeling now almost restored to health, walked with brisk step
to Stamford. It was a glorious summer morning--date, the last day of
June, 1823. The green fields glistened in the sunshine, and the
nightingale sang in Burghley Park; more beautiful, the poet fancied, than
he had ever known her sing before. He felt full of joy, in the glow of
newly-recovered health, and, while walking along the sunny path, kept
revelling in golden day-dreams, in none of which the image of his dear
friend Gilchrist was wanting. Thus he got into the old town of Stamford,
and before the familiar shop, which, to his surprise, was closed. He
knocked, and a female servant opened the door. The girl stared Clare full
in the face, and slowly said: 'Mr. Gilchrist died an hour ago.'


The parish doctor of Helpston was called in to see John Clare on the
first day of July. Mrs. Clare gave it as her opinion that her husband had
worked too hard, by writing verses day and night, and thus had brought on
the mysterious illness which confined him to bed. Clare himself could not
explain his exact condition; he only intimated that it was a sort of
stupor, which came over him at intervals, like an apoplectic fit. The
doctor shook his head, looked very learned, and promised to send
something to cure the disease. He was as good as his word; for a
messenger brought the same evening two large bottles, containing a
greyish fluid, with directions to take portions of it at stated times.
Clare obeyed the order, but did not get better; on the contrary, his fits
of stupor became more frequent and his lassitude more overwhelming. He
was lying on his bed, almost unconscious, on the fifth day of July, when
a visitor entered the cottage. It was Mr. Taylor, of Fleet Street, who
had been to the funeral of his friend Gilchrist, and, returning, passed
through Helpston. He was surprised and alarmed at the sight which met his
eyes, and set to work immediately to render all the assistance in his
power. Messengers were despatched in various directions for medical aid,
and Mr. Taylor himself watched at the bedside till they returned. The
doctors came, but only repeated what the parish surgeon had said already;
they proposed to send some medicine at once, and afterwards to 'observe
the symptoms.' It required no great penetration to see that these
medicine-men knew less of Clare's disease than the patient himself; and
Mr. Taylor, having come to this conclusion, looked forth in other
directions. He told Mrs. Clare that he was unable to stay longer, having
to return to London the same day; but that he would take the road by
Peterborough, and send the best medical aid from that place. The
Peterborough physician arrived late at night, when Clare felt a little
better--having left off taking the greyish concoction--and was able to
explain the particulars of his illness. The new doctor ordered absolute
rest, plenty of fresh air, and some nourishing food; all which being
provided, a visible improvement began to manifest itself. There was some
difficulty in getting the second part of the prescription, the fresh air,
Clare's narrow bedroom having no ventilation whatever. The energetic
doctor, however, got over the obstacle by the simple expedient of
knocking a brick out of the top of the wall, which furnished a channel
sufficiently large to let in the warm summer air. Perhaps this thrown out
brick, as much as anything else, saved the life of the poet.

Under the treatment of the Peterborough physician, Clare's health
improved greatly, though it was a long time before he was able to leave
the room. His brain was haunted by fantastic visions, reflecting all the
scenes of his past life, and mingling together his doings in the
lime-kiln of Casterton, the fields of Helpston, and the gilded saloons of
London. In the midst of this phantom existence there came the report that
Robert Bloomfield had breathed his last, in utter poverty and misery,
broken down alike by physical want and mental suffering. The news made a
deep impression upon Clare. He had never personally met the author of the
'Farmer's Boy,' yet looked upon him almost as a brother, feeling that his
career was not unlike his own in its chief incidents. A shudder came over
him now in reflecting that his end might be as terribly sad as that of
the brother poet. Full of this thought, he composed, on his bed of
sickness, a sonnet, dedicated 'to the memory of Bloomfield,' expressing
his conviction that "the tide of fashion is a stream too strong for
pastoral brooks that gently flow and sing." After this sudden effort,
there came a relapse, not without danger for some time. The medical
gentleman, while carefully watching all the symptoms of the disease, now
began to fear that he would be unable to master it, and wrote to this
effect to Mr. Taylor, entreating him to use his influence to get Clare
removed to some hospital, or other house where he might have the
necessary attention. In the letter it was stated without disguise that
the illness of the poet was mainly the effect of poverty. His dwelling,
the Peterborough physician argued, was altogether unfit for a human
habitation, being dark, damp, and ill ventilated, with, a space so
circumscribed as to be worse than a prison for the two families. He
insisted, therefore, that to make recovery possible a better home should
be found for Clare himself, and, if possible, for his wife and child,
pending the removal of his aged and suffering parents. A copy of this
note the writer sent to Lord Radstock, knowing that his lordship had
taken, from the beginning, a deep interest in Clare's welfare.

The appeal, energetic and well-meant as it was, had no result whatever.
Mr. Taylor even thought it presumptuous on the part of the provincial
doctor to give his counsel as well as his medicine, and wrote to Clare an
order to dispense with his attendance, and come up to London to be cured.
This was impossible, under the circumstances, Clare being so weak as to
be unable to leave the room. Fortunately, the good Samaritan of
Peterborough did not leave him at this critical position, but seeing that
neither Mr. Taylor nor Lord Radstock felt inclined to do anything for his
charge, determined to undertake the task himself. Soliciting help from
some wealthy persons in the neighbourhood, he set to to collect a small
sum of money, by means of which he procured a regular supply of
strengthening food for his patient. The winter having set in now, Clare's
cottage also was put under repair, with such improvements as had become
necessary. The help was timely, for Mrs. Clare, too, was now an invalid,
having given birth to a son, baptized Frederick, on the 11th January,
1824. There was a real affection for the poor poet in the heart of the
Peterborough doctor, which moved him to incessant labour for his client,
and had the effect of instilling somewhat of the same feeling into others
with whom he came into contact. Lady Milton visited the poet, and sent
welcome presents of game and fowl; and after her came the wife of the
Bishop of Peterborough, her hands full of warm clothing and victuals. The
latter lady, previously acquainted with Clare's writings, was so eager in
her desire to afford assistance as to induce her husband to drive over
into the obscure village, and give Clare his episcopal blessing, together
with half a dozen bottles of good port wine. The right reverend Dr.
Marsh, obedient to the commands of his active wife, delivered the wine,
but reported that he did not like Helpston, nor the poet of Helpston--the
village not being sufficiently clean, nor the poet sufficiently humble.
His lordship's opinion, however, nowise influenced Mrs. Marsh into
discontinuing her visits.

The assistance and sympathy thus shown to Clare had a visible effect upon
his health. Gradually recovering, he was strong enough when the first
blossoms of spring came peeping in at the window, to issue forth once
more into the open air. To him the first walk was such boundless
enjoyment as to be almost overpowering in its intensity. Never seemed the
green fields more glorious, the song of the birds more enchanting, and
the whole wide world more full of ecstatic bliss. In vain the good
Peterborough doctor entreated him not to risk his yet imperfect health in
long excursions, but to keep as quiet as possible, and only venture upon
short walks during the middle of the day. Clare promised to attend to the
injunction, and honestly meant to obey it, yet was lured into
forgetfulness whenever the birds sat piping in the trees, and the sun's
rays came streaming into his narrow hut. They witched him away almost
against his own will, making him creep forth into the fields and woods,
heavily leaning on his stick. One day he stayed out longer than usual,
and, the doctor arriving, a search was made after him. It was fruitless
for some time; at last, however, he was found in his favourite hollow
oak, sitting as in a trance, his face illumined by the setting sun.
Enraptured joy seemed to pervade his whole being; unutterable bliss to
fill his mind. The doctor looked serious, and made an attempt to upbraid
his patient, but which was entirely unsuccessful. 'If you loved the sun
and flowers as I do,' quietly said Clare, 'you would not blame me.' The
words somewhat startled the Peterborough man of science.

Sunshine and the hollow oak, nevertheless, if conducive to his worship of
nature, were not beneficial to Clare's health. Again and again the
lengthened excursions brought on a relapse, until at last it seemed as if
his old illness, a compound of ague and other afflictions, would throw
him anew on his bed, perhaps to arise no more. In fear of fatal
consequences, Clare's medical friend now advised him to accept the former
invitation of Mr. Taylor, and to seek benefit both from a change of air
and the consultation of the best physicians of the capital. Clare did not
feel much inclined to go to London, oppressed with the idea that he might
not be really welcome at the house of his publisher, and looked upon as
but an unfortunate alms-seeker. Being pressed, however, to undertake the
journey, he frankly stated his case in a note to Mr. Taylor, and
receiving a fresh invitation, couched in very friendly terms, resolved to
set out on another pilgrimage to the big town. It was the third visit to
London, and as such bereft of many of the startling incidents of former
journeys. The Stamford coach was no more the mysterious vehicle of olden
days, nor the scenery on the road imbued with that charm of novelty so
conspicuous on the first, and partly on the second, trip to town.
Moreover, he felt very weak and melancholy, and his heart was oppressed
by sad thoughts. Even a merry Irishman, a fellow-traveller, could not
induce him to open his lips; and it was not until the coach rolled upon
the pavement of London that he roused himself from his lethargy,
preparing to meet former friends. He found them nearer than he expected,
for at the 'George and Blue Boar,' Holborn, there stood faithful Tom
Benyon, the head-porter, ready to carry any amount of Helpston luggage,
and, if necessary, the owner himself. The latter was unnecessary, though
the poor traveller felt rather giddy when dragging himself along the
crowded streets, grasping his Tom by the arm. Mr. Taylor's house was soon
reached, and being received in the kindest manner, Clare was not long in
recovering from his fatigue and depressed spirits.

At this third visit, Clare remained above two months in London, from the
beginning of May till the middle of July, 1824. Immediately after his
arrival, Mr. Taylor introduced him to Dr. Darling, an eminent Scotch
physician, who, in the kindest manner, consented to give his advice
without any charge whatever. But Dr. Darling did more than merely give
his advice; he attended Clare as if he had been his own son, devoting
every hour that could he spared from his extensive practice to
intercourse with his patient. He first of all ordered that Clare should
be kept absolutely quiet; in cheerful society, if possible, but not
allowed to read too many books, or to discuss abstruse subjects. It might
have been difficult to carry out these orders; but, fortunately, friend
Rippingille, the painter, was drinking pale ale at Bristol for the
season, so that Clare, having nobody to lead him through his favourite
taverns and concert-rooms, and being still afraid to hazard alone into
the whirlpool of London life, was almost compelled to stop at home. For
the first few days the sojourn at Mr. Taylor's house in Fleet Street
appeared to him somewhat dreary, though it was not long before he came to
like it, and at last got into a real enjoyment of his new mode of
existence. He spent the whole day, from early morn till dark, at a window
on the ground floor, overlooking the street. The endless stream of
vehicles and pedestrians which passed before his eyes was to him like a
vast panorama, in the contemplation of which he forgot, for the moment,
even his beloved fields and woods. Of the life of the majority of human
beings, particularly the dwellers in large towns, Clare had as yet but
very vague and indistinct notions, and was surprised, therefore, at many
of the scenes before him. What struck him most was the feverish anxiety
manifested in the countenances of the hurrying crowds, and the restless
tumult of the never-ending wave of human life which kept floating up and
down the narrow street, without interval and without rest. At his former
visits to London he had frequently asked the question what all these
thousands of hurried wanderers were doing; and though only laughed at by
his friends, he now repeated the query. Mr. Taylor was too busy himself
to be able to tell why others were busy, nor was Mr. Hessey, his partner,
sufficiently wise or simple to give a clear answer; and John Clare,
therefore, in the last instance, addressed himself to Tom Benyon. Tom was
a shrewd man, a real Londoner, with not much education, but plenty of
mother-wit. He explained to his friend, in a very clear manner, the
complex organization of the trade of the great city, together with its
result, the universal thirst for wealth, Clare perfectly understood the
short lesson in political economy; nevertheless, he was yet at a loss to
comprehend how there could be full a million of men upon earth willing to
relinquish all the charms of fields, and flowers, and green trees for the
mere sake of making money, useful, he conceived, only for procuring a
certain amount of food and clothing. It was in vain that shrewd Tom, not
a little a philosopher in his own way, explained that the delight
consisted, not in possessing wealth, but in hunting after it. The view
was not appreciated by Clare, who still thought that seven acres of land,
with a cottage, a row of trees, and a few flowers, were worth all the
money-bags of the city. Tom Benyon on his part had a contempt for green
trees, and liked the smell of roasted apples better than that of fresh
ones, so that the interchange of ideas converted none of the disputants.

For full three weeks Clare stuck with his face to the window in Fleet
Street. The hurrying crowds, when once he understood the object of most
of them, ceased to amuse him, but there remained another interest, deeper
than questions of political economy, which preserved its attraction for
him to the end. Clare, passionately fond of every shape of beauty upon
earth, did not get tired of looking at the throng of fair forms which
passed before his eyes in the busy city thoroughfare. He had never seen
so many handsome women under what he conceived so very favourable
circumstances. Deeply imbued with the consciousness of possessing none of
the attractions which render men agreeable in the eyes of women of
superior rank, he always felt a morbid shyness to converse with ladies
into whose company he was thrown, and in many instances was not able even
to look them in the face. This feeling was greatly increased by that
exalted worship which the poet paid, as to all shapes and symbols of
beauty, so to that highest type, the female form. Even to come near a
beautiful woman made him tremble, and the touch of so much as the hem of
her garment sent his blood coursing through his veins. Thus, though he
knew no other enjoyment than the communion with beauty, his very worship
of its splendours kept him away from it. At the receptions of Mrs.
Emmerson, and other entertainments, at which he was present on his former
visits to London, he could never be induced to go into the drawing-room,
where the ladies were awaiting him; or, as he fancied, lying in wait for
him. At the risk of being called rude, he always left the room on these
occasions, as soon as the dinner was over. Only here, at his Fleet Street
window, the poet felt quite at ease in contemplating female beauty. To
see and not to be seen was what his heart enjoyed in full delight, and he
fervently expressed his opinion to Tom Benyon that the only thing that
made the big city endurable, and even money-hunting excusable, was the
presence of all these fair women. Tom felt much gratified at this
declaration, considering any praise of London as a personal flattery.

Dr. Darling's treatment had such a good effect, that at the end of three
weeks the last symptoms of Clare's illness had vanished. He now gave his
patient permission to read, of which Clare availed himself to the fullest
extent, beginning to feel somewhat satiated with the Fleet Street
panorama. The season of June, dull in the book trade, having set in, Mr.
Taylor also had more leisure on his hands, and gave frequent evening
parties, to which he invited many of the literary stars of the day,
particularly those contributing to the lustre of the 'London Magazine.'
Clare was invariably present at these entertainments, though he managed
to hide his person as much as possible, being occupied in watching the
lions at the table, like the fair women in the street, from a convenient
bird's-eye view. The view, altogether, was highly attractive, for the
lions were numerous, and of a more or less superior kind. Among the first
who visited Mr. Taylor's evening parties was Thomas De Quincey. Clare had
read with the deepest interest the 'Confessions of an English
Opium-eater,' which appeared in the 'London Magazine,' of September and
October, 1821; and the picture of the outcast Ann haunted his imagination
whenever walking the streets and meeting with any of her frail sisters.
Mr. De Quincey being announced one day, just when they were sitting down
to dinner, Clare quickly sprang to his feet to behold the extraordinary
man; but was much astonished on seeing a little, dark, boyish figure,
looking like an overgrown child, oddly dressed in a blue coat, with black
necktie, and a small hat in his hand. Clare's astonishment became still
greater when this singular-looking little man began to talk, not, as the
listener innocently expected, of such abstruse subjects as he was wont to
write on in the 'London Magazine,' but in a banter about the most
ludicrous and vulgar things. He kept Mr. Taylor and his friends in a roar
of laughter, until another guest was announced, in the person of Mr.
Charles Lamb. The latter, outwardly friendly to De Quincey, seemed, as
Clare observed, not altogether partial to him, but stuttered forth more
than one witticism which evidently displeased the 'opium-eater.' Further
arrivals, the same evening, continued to enliven the scene. There came
the Rev. Mr. Cary, translator of Dante's 'Inferno,' a tall, thin man,
with a long face and a vacant stare, not much given to talk; Mr. George
Darley, a young Irish poet, afflicted with a stutter worse than that of
Charles Lamb; Baron Field, every inch a country gentleman, constantly
informing his hearers of the fact of being a magistrate in South Wales,
but claiming allegiance to literature as writer of several articles on
and about Wales; and, last on the list, Mr. Allan Cunningham, arriving
late, and stalking into the room, as Clare fancied to himself, 'like one
of Spenser's black knights.' Allan seemed a great favourite of Baron
Field and De Quincey, though not of Charles Lamb, who fixed his targets
upon him as soon as he had opened his lips, with some remarks upon Scotch
poetry. Clare remembered Elia's words: 'I have been trying all my life to
like Scotchmen, and am obliged to desist from the experiment in despair.'

There were more lions at a 'London Magazine' dinner which Mr. Taylor gave
at the end of another week. It was a kind of state reception, and Clare
was put for the occasion in pumps and dress-coat. He would have gladly
kept away from the table, but was not allowed to do so, the occasion
being deemed favourable as an advertisement of the 'Northamptonshire
Peasant.' About three-fourths of the guests were patrons of literature,
titled and untitled, and the remaining visitors were called for the
purpose of being exhibited. Samuel Taylor Coleridge was the chief lion of
the evening. Clare was once more surprised on finding the great
philosopher a heavy, stout, phlegmatic-looking man, instead of the pale
dreamer pictured by his imagination. He was slightly annoyed, too, on
hearing the famous sage talk incessantly, to the exclusion of every one
else, notably of William Hazlitt, who sat close to him, and of Charles
Elton, the translator of the 'Hesiod,' whom Clare had at his right hand,
and whose quiet, sensible conversation he greatly enjoyed. Coleridge
left, after having spoken, with little interruption, for nearly three
hours, and at his departure the talk became general, and, Clare fancied,
much more pleasant. The leader of the conversation was William Reynolds,
whose sparkling wit, keen as a sword, extinguished even that of Charles
Lamb. He attacked everybody in turn, in a good-humoured manner; and by
setting his brother wits against himself and each other, produced endless
fun and amusement. Even William Hazlitt, who at first appeared
low-spirited and ill at ease, began to laugh and talk; and at length
Clare himself was drawn into the whirlpool of conversation. When he began
to speak, in his broad Northamptonshire dialect, there was a sudden
stillness in the room, the whole of the guests feeling startled at the
sound of the strange voice, which seemed to come as from another world.
Though nerved by sundry glasses of wine, Clare was almost terrified at
the sudden quiet around him, his intention having been merely to address
his neighbour, and not the entire assembly. He therefore relapsed at
once, and somewhat abruptly, into silence, and, not long after, with a
nod to his patron at the head of the table, and a quiet 'good bye' to Mr.
Elton, quitted the room. It was an immense feeling of relief when,
creeping upstairs to his little chamber, he was able to divest himself of
his pumps and dress-coat, and march forth, in solid boots and jacket, for
a saunter along the Fleet pavement, reflecting, in the cool of the summer
evening, on all that he had heard and seen, in the shape of lions, poets,
philosophers, wits, booksellers, unfortunate Anns of the Street, and more
unfortunate opium-eaters.

Clare's visit to London was now drawing to a close. Dr. Darling
counselled that he should quit the town, as soon as possible, fearing
that the 'London Magazine' entertainments might undo all the good gained
by his former exertions. However, Clare felt unwilling to leave before
having met his old friend and patron, Admiral Lord Radstock, who was
retained at his country seat by a rather serious illness. He waited, week
after week, but his lordship did not arrive. Instead of the admiral,
there came friend Rippingille, the painter, rushing wildly into Clare's
arms, and declaring that he had left Bristol, and the best pale ale in
the world, solely for the purpose of seeing him. Clare rejoiced; but Dr.
Darling did not. The shrewd Scotch physician insisted upon his patient
leaving London immediately, and it was arranged, finally, that Clare
should start at the end of a week. Friend Rippingille, or 'Rip,' as his
acquaintances used to call him, was instructed privately not to lead
Clare into the old round of taverns and theatres, and, above all, not to
tempt him to an undue indulgence in drink. The promise was made, and was
kept, too; nevertheless, Clare and 'Rip,' while giving up evening visits,
remained companions during the daytime. Clare was introduced by his
friend to Sir Thomas Lawrence, and some other famous artists of the day,
which led to much interchange of compliments, and many promises of
support, but ended, as usual, in nothing. He was likewise taken to Mr.
Deville, a noted professor of the art called phrenology, who felt his
head, carefully measuring all its bumps, and, having learnt Clare's name,
informed him that he possessed all the swellings necessary to make
verses. This so delighted 'Rip,' that he insisted on getting a cast of
his friend's cranium. Clare submitted in meekness of heart; but found the
operation stifling to such a degree, that he ran away in the midst of it,
with the loss of a portion of his skin. For the next few days the poet
wandered in rather lonely mood through the streets of London, and in one
of these excursions became the involuntary spectator of a striking scene,
which he never forgot in his life.

It was on the 12th of July, a hot summer day, that Clare went down the
Strand, towards Charing Cross, intending to have a stroll in the parks.
When near Parliament Street, however, he found the way blocked by an
immense crowd, and on inquiry learnt that a great funeral was coming up
the street. Taking his place among the idlers, he did not know at first
whose funeral it was, and only at the last moment learnt that the body of
Lord Byron was being carried to its last resting-place. A fervent admirer
of Byron, he yet had never heard of his death till this moment, when
standing face to face with his mortal remains. He felt startled and
almost bewildered at the sight, and when the gorgeous procession, with
all its mutes, pages, cloakmen on horseback, and carriers of sable
plumes, had come up, he reverently followed in the rear, amidst a
confused mass of people in carriages and on foot. The slow and solemn
train went up the Haymarket, Coventry Street, Princes Street, and Oxford
Street, passing thence along into Tottenham Court Road. At the corner of
the latter thoroughfare great confusion was created by another funeral
train which came up in an opposite direction. In the tumult that ensued,
many were thrown down, among them the unknown poet, who followed in the
rear of the procession. Clare fell to the ground, and was pushed along by
the crowd; but, fortunately, did not suffer much harm, beyond being
rolled over and over in the mud, and spoiling the only suit of good
clothes of which he was possessed. Mr. Taylor was surprised on seeing his
guest come home in a state which made it almost impossible to recognise
him. Clare smiled sadly, and in a somewhat serious tone told Mr. Taylor
that he thought it was his fate, now as ever, to be a martyr to poetry.

Two days after Byron's funeral, John Clare left London. Previous to
starting, he had a long conversation with Dr. Darling, who had come to
rank among his most intimate friends. The kind-hearted and shrewd Scotch
doctor volunteered some advice, to which Clare listened with great
attention. He told him, in the first instance, that he ought to give up
all expectations of acquiring either fame or wealth as a poet, but that
it would be wisdom on his part to return forthwith to his old occupation
as a farm-labourer, and write verses only during his leisure hours. This
seemed hard to Clare; however, the doctor proceeded to explain the matter
to him in his own prosaic fashion. It was Dr. Darling's opinion that, on
the whole, there existed no real demand for verses among the public at
large, but that only a few exalted minds were able to appreciate and
enjoy true poetry. But the masses, he held, were carried along, now and
then, by a kind of fashionable movement, engendered by the appearance of
great authors, the renown of whose works was so vast as to spread from
the closet of the student, upward and downward, through all ranks and
classes. Such a poetical fashion, or poetical fever, Dr. Darling thought
England had just gone through, stirred by the almost simultaneous
productions of many first-class writers, such as Burns, Byron, and Sir
Walter Scott. But as all excitement must be followed by reaction, so, the
doctor explained, the reaction was setting in at that moment, proved by
the fact that even the works of these famous poets were encumbering the
booksellers' shelves, waiting for buyers which did not come. This was a
fact which Clare knew to be true, and so far he fully acquiesced in the
remarks of his wise Scotch friend. He, therefore, consented to follow the
counsel thus tendered, and, at least for a time, return to his old
occupation. But Dr. Darling had another piece of advice in store. Taking
Clare by both hands, and looking him full in the face, he earnestly
exhorted him not to take ale or spirits but in greatest moderation, and,
if possible, leave off drinking entirely. Clare promised. An hour after
he was on his return, to Helpston, feeling happier in his mind than he
had been for a long time.


The promise made to Dr. Darling was faithfully kept. For several years to
come, Clare never visited the public-house, and even at home drank little
else but water, subsisting chiefly upon bread and vegetables, and such
decoctions of weak tea and coffee as his wife was in the habit of
distilling. The diet, probably, was not quite what Dr. Darling expected;
at least, it did not prove very beneficial to Clare's health. For a long
time, he felt weak and debilitated, so as scarcely to be able to do the
simplest out-door work. This was very unfortunate, as it prevented him
from carrying out the other part of the engagement undertaken towards his
medical friend, that of devoting himself again to field labour. He
earnestly sought work immediately after his return from London, and
though sneered at by one or two farmers, who told him that he was too
famous a man again to soil his hands, he at last secured employment near
Helpston Heath, part of which was being enclosed for the benefit of the
great landowners of the neighbourhood. For a few days, he kept working
here with all the strength he could muster, which was not sufficient,
however, for the demands of the overseer. There were drains and ditches
to be made, which required the use of brawny arms and a body untouched by
ague, and the work being done by contract, the foreman was exacting, and
saw at once that he was not up to the mark. He, consequently, got his
discharge, and went home in a very sad mood. Ever since his marriage, his
debts had been accumulating, and though altogether small in amount, they
now began to press heavily upon him, the more so as his expenditure kept
gradually increasing, which was by no means the case with his income. He
found that to maintain his aged parents, his wife, two children, and
himself, he could not do with less than sixty-five or seventy pounds a
year, and his annuity amounting to rather less than forty-five pounds,
there was the absolute necessity of gaining the rest, either by his
writings, or as a farm-labourer. It was the fear that both sources might
fail, which threw him into a deep melancholy.

After a while, he roused himself to another effort in finding work, and
this time submitted to what he fancied to be a deep humiliation. When
applying for his quarterly pension to the steward of the Marquis of
Exeter, he begged for some employment in the gardens, or, if no place
should be vacant, as a labourer on any of the estates of his lordship.
The steward promised to mention the subject to the marquis, but did not
keep his word. Being overwhelmed with business, he probably forgot the
matter entirely; otherwise the noble lord, who seemed to take a real
interest in Clare, could not have failed to listen to a request the
fulfilment of which would have cost him little or nothing, and been the
means of securing the welfare of the poet for life. Indeed, a place as
gardener at Burghley Hall, or some other similar employment, into which a
mere whisper of the noble owner might have installed Clare, would have
been greatly preferable to the pension of fifteen guineas granted to the
poet, and the quarterly payments of which he never received but with
inward humiliation. A place such as this would have removed at once the
whole burthen of cares which weighed him to the ground, and, while giving
him a maintenance for his family, with a comfortable home, would yet have
left him abundant time to attend to the inspirations of the muse. Clare
himself perceived this very clearly, and once or twice started with the
intention of laying his case before the marquis in person, explaining his
whole situation, his hopes, troubles, and fears. But each time he
approached the stately gates of Burghley Hall, his courage failed him. He
trembled to be looked upon as a beggar, and the apprehension of being
refused was constantly before his eyes. There were faint hopes, moreover,
that the steward, who seemed a friendly man, would succeed in getting him
some employment, without personal application to his lordship. However,
the promised message from Burghley Hall did not arrive, and Clare at last
gave up all expectation of getting anything else but alms from his
greatest patron, the Marquis of Exeter.

Having not much else to do, Clare kept up an active correspondence with
his friends in London, during the latter part of the summer and the whole
of the autumn of 1824. To Allan Cunningham in particular, with whom he
had contracted a close friendship during his last visit to the
metropolis, he sent long letters, discussing poetical and other topics.
One of these letters, rather characteristic in its way, as showing
Clare's opinion of Bloomfield, as well as of his own position in 'the
fields of the Muses,' deserves to be given. It was sent to Allan
Cunningham, together with an enclosure containing Bloomfield's short note
to 'Neighbour John,' already given.

'To Allan Cunningham,

(Left at Messrs. Taylor and Hessey's)

93, Fleet Street,


_Helpston, September 9th, 1824_.

Brother Bard And Fellow Labourer,

I beg your acceptance according to promise of this autograph of our
English Theocritus, Bloomfield. He is in my opinion our best Pastoral
Poet. His "Broken Crutch," "Richard and Kate," &c. are inimitable and
above praise. Crabbe writes about the peasantry as much like the
Magistrate as the Poet. He is determined to show you their worst side;
and, as to their simple pleasures and pastoral feelings, he knows little
or nothing about them compared to the other, who not only lived amongst
them, but felt and shared the pastoral pleasures with the peasantry of
whom he sung. I had promised that I would visit him this summer at
Shefford, but death went before me. He was a warm-hearted friend and an
amiable man. His latter poems show that his best days were by. His
"Remains" are very trifling, but these have nothing to do with his former
fame. I never forgave Lord Byron's sneering mention of him in the
"English Bards and Scotch Reviewers;" but, never mind, he has left a
genius behind him that will live as late as his lordship's; and, though
he was but a "Cobler," his poems will meet posterity as green and growing
on the bosom of English nature and the muses as those of the Peer. I
could hazard a higher opinion for truth, but this is enough. Titles and
distinctions of pride have long ago been stript of their dignity by the
levellers in genius; at least they have been convinced that the one is
not a certain copyright or inheritance of the other. I should suppose,
friend Allan, that "The Ettrick Shepherd," "The Nithsdale Mason," and
"The Northamptonshire Peasant," are looked upon as intruders and stray
cattle in the fields of the Muses (forgive the classification), and I
have no doubt but our reception in that Pinfold of his lordship's
"English Bards" would have been as far short of a compliment as
Bloomfield's. Well, never mind, we will do our best, and as we never went
to Oxford or Cambridge, we have no Latin and Greek to boast of, and no
bad translations to hazard (whatever our poems may be), and that's one
comfort on our side.

I have talked enough on this string, so I will trouble you a little with
something else. I can scarcely tell you how I am, for I keep getting a
little better and a little worse, and remaining at last just as I were. I
was very bad this morning, but have recovered this evening as I generally
do, and I really fear that I shall never entirely overset it. I have
written to Hessey for Dr. Darling's assistance again today, and I have
desired him to forward this letter to you. Drop a line to say that you
receive it, and give my kind remembrances to your better half, Mrs.
Cunningham. I will try your patience no longer with this gossip, so
believe me, friend Allan,

Your hearty friend and well-wisher,

John Clark.'

Dr. Darling's 'assistance,' in the shape of some medicine, acting as a
febrifuge and preservative against the ague, arrived soon; after which
Clare felt strong enough to make another attempt towards finding work.
Having received no reply to his application to the steward of the Marquis
of Exeter, he resolved to address himself to his next greatest patron in
the neighbourhood, the Earl Fitzwilliam. The noble earl having been
always very kind to him, he summoned courage to obtain an interview with
his lordship. But it so happened, unfortunately, that neither the Earl,
nor his son, Viscount Milton, was at home at the time; and although Lady
Milton received him very graciously, Clare felt too much shyness to state
to her what he intended to say. By the commands of her ladyship, however,
Clare was entertained by the upper servants of the house, and finding
them to be a very well-educated class of men, quite unlike the domestics
of other lordly establishments, he renewed his visits frequently, and
after a while became a regular guest at Milton Park. The butler, Edward
Artis, was an enthusiastic antiquarian, possessing a large library,
always hunting for old coins, medals, and pottery, and an absolute
authority on all matters concerning Durobrivae and the works of the
ancient Romans in the neighbourhood. With Mr. Artis, Clare soon got very
intimate, and having become acquainted with the pursuits of his friend,
imbibed even a slight fondness for antiquarian lore. There were two other
servants, named Henderson and West, both distinguished in their way.
Henderson was an accomplished botanist, spending whole days in search
after plants and flowers, and West was a lover of poetry, as well as a
writer of rather indifferent verses. Henderson offered to teach Clare the
elements of botany, which proposal was eagerly accepted, though it did
not lead to great results. After various attempts to master the hard
words of the scientific handbook given to him, John Clare frankly stated
to his friend that he could not get on with it, and must continue to love
trees and flowers without knowing their Latin names. But eager of
knowledge, under whatever form it offered itself, he made, after
discarding botany, a new stride towards erudition. The head cook at
Milton Park, a Monsieur Grilliot, better known to the servants as
'Grill,' undertook to teach Clare French. He did so in the rational way,
not by stuffing his friend with rules and exceptions to rules, but
teaching him words and their pronunciation, by which means Clare made
rapid progress, and at once acquired a real liking for the study.
Nevertheless, he had to relinquish his attempts to learn French in a very
short time, being too poor to purchase the few books which Monsieur
'Grill' recommended him to read.

Clare's visits to Milton Park continued all through the autumn of 1824,
till late in the spring of 1825, without leading to any advantageous
result as far as the chief object was concerned. Having become intimately
acquainted with the upper servants, particularly with Artis, Clare
learned that there was no place suitable for him vacant in the
establishment, and the consequence was that, when the Earl returned,
nothing was said about the matter. Clare had an interview with his
lordship, and was received in the kindest manner, but not being asked as
to his worldly prospects, kept silent on the subject. The Earl probably
fancied, as did many others, that Clare made a good income from the sale
of his books, and it was not till years afterwards that he learnt the
real truth. To his friend Artis, Clare made a confession to some extent,
informing him that he was in want of work, and would be glad to get some
employment even as a thresher or ploughman. But Mr. Artis would not hear
of this, and strongly advised Clare to discard all ideas of hiring
himself out as a labourer, as it would stand in the way of his
appointment to a more honourable place. It was expected that the
managership of a small farm near Helpston Heath, belonging to Viscount
Milton, would become vacant before long, and Clare was told that there
was no doubt that he could get this post by merely biding his time. So
Clare waited; but, while waiting, got more and more melancholy, his mind
overwhelmed by family cares, amidst the incessant struggle of getting the
daily bread.

The temporary failure of his hopes to get employment in the fields made
Clare now think once more of turning his poetry to account. Though aware
that his 'Village Minstrel' had not proved a success, he still cherished
the belief that new productions might meet with a better fate, the more
so as he was fully conscious that through constant study his mind was
being greatly enlarged, leading to an improvement of his writings, in
conception as well as outward form. He accordingly wrote to Mr. Taylor,
sending specimens of some new poems, and offering sufficient to form a
small volume. But Mr. Taylor was unwilling to try another publication,
excusing his reluctance by the same arguments already impressed upon
Clare by Dr. Darling, namely, that the taste for poetry was on the wane,
and that the world was crying for prose. Reflecting on this subject,
Clare began thinking of a new scheme, which was to write a novel. He made
the proposition instantly, but was answered by a refusal, thinly veiled
under a heap of compliments. Clare felt somewhat offended, although Mr.
Taylor was certainly right in this case, there being no doubt whatever of
the absolute incapacity of his client to write prose. However, in order
to soften the hardship of his refusal, he asked him to contribute
occasional poems to the 'London Magazine,' which offer was accepted, but
proved of little advantage to Clare, the remuneration being uncertain and
of the slenderest kind. In his feverish anxiety to work and to gain some
additional means of subsistence, Clare committed the mistake of writing
too many poems at a time, which naturally lowered the value of the
article in the eyes of his publisher. A letter to Mr. Taylor, dated
February, 1825, shows the excited state of the poet at this period. 'I
fear,' wrote Clare, 'I shall get nothing ready for you this month; at
least I fear so now, but may have fifty subjects ready tomorrow. The muse
is a fickle hussy with me; she sometimes stirs me up to madness, and then
leaves me as a beggar by the wayside, with no more life than what's
mortal, and that nearly extinguished by melancholy forebodings.' Further
on he breaks out into the exclamation: 'I wish I could live nearer you;
at least I wish London could be within twenty miles of Helpston. I live
here among the ignorant like a lost man; in fact, like one whom the rest
seem unwilling to have anything to do with. They hardly dare talk in my
company, for fear I should mention them in my writings, and I feel more
pleasure in wandering the fields than in musing among my silent
neighbours, who are insensible to anything but toiling and talking of it,
and that to no purpose.' This 'living among the ignorant like a lost man'
came to be the deep key-note sounding through all the subsequent letters
of Clare.

In the summer of 1825, Clare's pecuniary embarrassments grew to a climax.
He could not refuse anything to his family; and though living personally
worse than a beggar, eating little else than dry bread and potatoes, and
drinking nothing but water, his expenditure, including medical attendance
and many articles of comfort for his aged parents, averaged considerably
more than a pound a-week, while the income from his annuity, on which he
now solely depended, was very much less. Repeated new efforts to find
employment as a labourer proved fruitless; while his visits to Milton
Park had ceased by this time, his stock of clothes being so scanty, and
patched all over, that he was ashamed to show himself in the company of
his friends, always elegantly dressed. With Artis alone he kept up an
acquaintance, the learned butler having a soul above dress, and showing
himself on all occasions utterly careless whether the companion with whom
he was searching for old medals and pottery was dressed in purple or in
rags. For many a day, the two went roaming through the environs of Castor
and Helpston Heath, digging for the remains of the ancient inhabitants of
Durobrivae. One afternoon, when thus employed, Clare fainted, to the
great consternation of his friend. The latter, fortunately, had a small
flask of wine in his pocket, a few drops of which were sufficient to
restore Clare to consciousness. He was gently led home by Edward Artis,
who was told, in answer to his inquiries, that the illness had been
brought on by the sudden heat. This was not true, or, at the best, only
partially true. The fainting was caused by hunger.

When Dr. Darling advised Clare to drink no more ale or spirits, he
probably was not aware of the nature of his patient's diet, or of that of
Helpston labourers generally. Very likely, had he known that dry bread
and potatoes, both in limited quantities, were the staple food, the able
Scotch physician would have recommended an occasional glass of port wine,
or even of stout--if obtainable. As it was, Clare's promise of
abstinence, which he kept religiously for several years, was very
detrimental to his health. His naturally delicate frame sank under the
coarse diet, as soon as the accustomed stimulants were withdrawn, and his
stomach getting gradually weakened, he at last began to feel a sort of
abhorrence for his daily food. He now took to eating fruit, which still
more debilitated his digestive organs, so that finally there took place a
process of slow starvation. When fainting at the side of his friend
Artis, he had eaten nothing but a few potatoes with milk for twenty-four
hours, having left his home in the morning without taking any food
whatever. In this case, it was not merely want of appetite, but actual
want of bread. Being greatly indebted to the baker, the latter thought
fit to withhold the regular supply of bread, and although there were
plenty of vegetables for his wife and children, Clare quitted the house
without tasting anything, for fear they might want. It thus happened
that, while exploring the ruins of the old Roman city, he sank to the
ground from sheer want of food.

The learned butler was much absorbed by his antiquarian speculations, and
little given to reflections about his fellow-men; nevertheless, Clare's
case struck him as very peculiar. Getting back to Milton Park, he told
the particulars to Earl Fitzwilliam, suggesting that a little help might
be welcome to the poor poet. The noble earl, however, thought otherwise.
It was not that he was unwilling to give; on the contrary, his hand was
always open to those in distress, and his previous liberal present of a
hundred pounds showed that he was particularly well disposed towards
Clare. In all likelihood, had he known the real position of the poet, he
would have further extended his liberality, or come to his assistance in
some other way. But he knew very little of Clare, and looked upon him as
any ordinary earl would look upon an ordinary farm-labourer. From the few
interviews with the poet, his lordship had come to the conclusion, true
in the main, that Clare was a proud man, and having a strong feeling that
Northamptonshire farm-labourers had no business to be proud, he did not
think himself justified in giving any further assistance unless specially
asked to do so. The earl told this to his learned butler, who acquiesced,
as in duty bound, in his master's decision. However, Artis mentioned the
subject at the dinner table, where it was attentively listened to by all
assembled, especially the worthy head-cook. Monsieur Grill had a secret


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