Review of John Clare's Autobiographical Writings

John Clare's Autobiographical Writings Edited by Eric Robinson, Oxford University Press, 1983.

John Clare started to write his Life in March 1821, in order to assist his publisher John Taylor.  His fragments of prose autobiography expand and amplify what we already learn from his poems, Professor Eric Robinson has put these two sources together in skilful and convincing sequence.  He has added Clare's Journey out of Essex, dealing with Clare's escape from Dr Matthew Allen's asylum in 1841.  For the remainder of his life, we have to depend on poems and letters, as Professor Robinson points out, adding ‘There is much that we still do not know'.

This book of John Clare's Autobiographical Writings, under expert editorship, does to some extent fill this gap in our knowledge in a sensible and practical way.  Clare's Sketches and Autobiographical Fragments can now usefully be read as a continuous narrative, with the Journey out of Essex as a tragic epilogue.  Eric Robinson's informed passion for the original texts is allied to his sense of the most likely order in which to place many of these extracts.  He has produced a coherent pattern in these discrepant jottings, without in any way over-editing them.  Robinson's own notes are refined down to the minimum of necessary information and are always to the point.

His informative introduction shows clearly how much Clare's autobiographical writings generally are in the world of the chapbooks, which had such influence on his youthful ambitions, and how he was always, in some sense, the hero of his own writing, taking on the nature of some semi-mythic person.  Many incidents are not strict autobiography, but may be reckoned as what Clare would have liked to experience.  Did he really beat the bully, like one of his prizefighting heroes?  Did the enigmatic governess really make amorous advances to him, in a woodland episode which anticipates the atmosphere of some of Clare's later poems?  Clare all his life existed in a world where solid fact was mixed with imaginative fantasy.  It was only when the two clashed that he came to that point which the medicine of his time could only regard as insanity.  Yet still the poetry, where the two could be reconciled, remained.  Just as Dorothy Wordsworth, in the last twenty years in which William and Mary had to keep her virtually a prisoner at Rydal Mount, could still write verses of touching and truthful simplicity, contrasting with her sad and senile violence, so Clare could find and reconcile his two warring selves in poetry of power and beauty.  This valuable book, splendidly produced, adds to our understanding of Clare's essential nature.

Robert Gittings
John Clare Journal 3 – July 1984

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