That Swaggering, Bouncing Pronoun
by Dan Piepenbring
Published in the PARIS REVIEW
13th July 2015
From John Clare’s letter to Eliza Emmerson, March 1830. Clare, born on this day in 1793, came from poverty and is sometimes dubbed “the peasant poet”; he’s known for his expansive poems on rural life and for his eventual turn toward insanity—by the end of his life, Clare had escaped from an asylum, and sometimes claimed to be Shakespeare, Lord Byron, or a prizefighter. This note, a polemic against the egotism of the first-person pronoun, was written in the midst of a deep depression seven years before he was hospitalized. By “points,” Clare means punctuation, which he disdained, thinking it an unnecessary hindrance to expression. Original spelling and punctuation have been preserved.
Had I not recieved your letter to remind me of my errors I should not have been with you in the shape of a letter untill the day after tomorrow for I was indulging in the gossip you desired of me & wishing to make it more commendable by variety I determined to speak in parables & that in past moods & tenses for I am growing out of myself into many existences & wish to become more entertaining in other genders for that little personal pronoun ‘I’ is such a presumption ambitious swaggering little fellow that he thinks himself qualified for all company all places & all employments go where you will there he is swaggering & bouncing in the pulpit the parliment the bench aye every where even in this my letter he has intruded 5 several times already who can tell me where he is not or one of his family that’s his brother or from how many pen points he is at this moment dropping into his ambitions on humble extances he is a sort of Deity over the rest of the alphabet being here there & everywhere [at one & the same time] he is a mighty vapour in grammar he grows into a pedantical nuisance & often an O would be a truer personification in philosophy a juggling gossip in oratory a consequential blusterer & in fashion a pretender to every thing … next to points this ‘I’ is the most consequential in correspondence but he surpasses points he keeps his place but they ramble any where & change places as often as they change writers so that no two puts them in the same posts of honour—where one points with a colon another will affix a semicolon & where another thrusts in a comma another will deprive him of his consequence & put nothing in his place showing that he was a nothing there so much for the pomposity of grammarians but in such a place he cannot be ambitious—he is an absolute Paul Pry—I [therefore hope to get rid of his company for] wish there he is agen—for varietys sake the English language like some of the oriental ones had no present tense & to come at this variety was the very cause of my delay …