In his early adult years, Clare became a pot-boy in the Blue Bell public house and fell in love with Mary Joyce; but her father, a prosperous farmer, forbade her to meet him. Subsequently he was a gardener at Burghley House. He enlisted in the militia, tried camp life with Gypsies, and worked in Pickworth as a lime burner in 1817, but in the following year he was obliged to accept parish relief. Malnutrition stemming from childhood would be the main culprit behind his 5-ft stature and contributed to his poor physical health in later life.
Clare had bought a copy of Thomson's Seasons out of his scanty earnings and had begun to write poems. In an attempt to hold off his parents' eviction from their home, Clare offered his poems to a local bookseller named Edward Drury. Clare eventually befriended the author of Seasons who introduced his poems to his cousin John Taylor of the publishing firm of Taylor & Hessey, who had published the work of John Keats. They issued the Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery in 1820. This book was highly praised, and in the next year his Village Minstrel and other Poems were published.
He was greatly patronised; fame, in the shape of curious visitors, broke the tenor of his life, and he indulged more freely the convivial habits that he had formed: mainly alcoholism, in which Clare eloquently described as his "taste for ale". He had married Patty Turner in 1820, and an annuity of 15 guineas from the Marquess of Exeter, in whose service he had been, was supplemented by subscription, so that Clare became possessed of £45 annually, a sum far beyond what he had ever earned; but new wants made his income insufficient, and in 1823 he was nearly penniless. The Shepherd's Calendar (1827) met with little success, which was not increased by his hawking it himself. As he worked again on the fields his health temporarily improved; but he soon became seriously ill. Earl FitzWilliam presented him with a new cottage and a piece of ground, but Clare could not settle in his new home.
Clare began to find himself discontent with the fact that his style of poetry was no longer in the current "fashion", but also felt that he did not belong with other peasants. Clare once wrote "I live here among the ignorant like a lost man in fact like one whom the rest seemes careless of having anything to do with—they hardly dare talk in my company for fear I should mention them in my writings and I find more pleasure in wandering the fields than in musing among my silent neighbours who are insensible to everything but toiling and talking of it and that to no purpose." It is common to see the absence of punctuation in many of Clare's original writings, although many publishers felt the need to remedy this practice in the majority of his work. Clare argued with his editors about how it should be presented to the public.
Clare was constantly torn between the two worlds of literary London and his often illiterate neighbours, between the need to write poetry and the need for money to feed and clothe his children. His health began to suffer, and he had bouts of severe depression, which became worse after his sixth child was born in 1830 and his poetry sold less well. His friends and his London patrons clubbed together to move the family in 1832 to a larger cottage with a smallholding in the village of Northborough, not far from Helpston, thinking that would help him. However, this only made him feel more alienated.
His last and best work, the Rural Muse (1835), was noticed favorably by Christopher North and other reviewers, but this was not enough to support his wife and seven children. Clare's mental health began to worsen. As his alcohol consumption steadily increased and his dissatisfaction with his own identity, Clare's behaviour became more erratic. A more notable instance of this behaviour was demonstrated in his interruption of a performance of The Merchant of Venice, in which Clare verbally assaulted Shylock. He was becoming a burden to Patty and his family, and in July 1837 he was finally removed to a Dr Matthew Allen's High Beach Private Asylum near Loughton in Epping Forest).
During his first few asylum years in Essex (1837-1841), Clare re-wrote famous poems by Lord Byron, turning his own 'Child Harold' into a lament for past lost love, and 'Don Juan A Poem' into an acerbic, misogynistic, sexualised rant redolent of an aging Regency Dandy. Recently scholars have toyed with the possibility that rather than crude evidence that Clare was delusional, he found in Byron someone who had the playful social and sexual freedoms of which he could only dream. Clare also took credit for Shakespeare's plays, claiming to be the Renaissance extraordinaire himself. "I'm John Clare now," the poet claimed to a newspaper editor, "I was Byron and Shakespeare formerly."
In 1841, Clare left the asylum in Essex, to walk home, believing that he was to meet his first love Mary Joyce; Clare was convinced that he was married with children to her and Patty as well. He did not believe her family when they told him she had died three years earlier. He remained free, mostly at home in Helpston, for the five months to follow, but eventually Patty called the doctors in, between Christmas and New Year in 1841, and Clare was committed to the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum (known since as St Andrew's Hospital). He remained here for the rest of his life, encouraged and helped to write. Here he wrote poetry, including possibly his most famous poem, I Am. He died 20 May, 1864, in his 71st year. His remains were returned to Helpston for burial in St Botolph’s churchyard. Today, children at the John Clare School, Helpston's primary, parade through the village and place their 'midsummer cushions' around Clare's gravestone, on his birthday, in honour of their most famous resident.
Clare grew up during a period of massive changes in both town and countryside. The Industrial Revolution blackened urban areas. Many former agricultural workers, including children, went to work in factories because of the rural poverty caused by the Napoleonic wars, which kept wages down but forced prices up. The Agricultural Revolution saw pastures ploughed up, trees and hedges uprooted, the nearby fens drained and the common land enclosed. This destruction of a centuries-old way of life distressed Clare deeply.
His early work delights both in nature and the cycle of the rural year. Poems such as Winter Evening, Haymaking and Wood Pictures in Summer celebrate the beauty of the world and the certainties of rural life, where animals must be fed and crops harvested. Poems such as Little Trotty Wagtail show his sharp observation of wildlife, though The Badger is unsentimental about the place of animals in the countryside. At this time, he often used poetic forms such as the sonnet and the rhyming couplet. His later poetry tends to be more meditative and use forms similar to the folks songs and ballads of his youth. A good example of this is Evening.
Clare's descriptions of rural scenes show a keen and loving appreciation of nature; his knowledge of the natural world went far beyond that of the major Romantic poets, and his love-songs and ballads charm by their genuine feeling. There is more to Clare than animals and rural prettiness, however. Although it is regularly observed that his poem I Am shows a metaphysical depth on a par with his more illustrious contemporaries many of his pre-asylum poems deal with intricate play on the nature of linguistics, while his bird's nest poems illustrate the self-awareness, and obsession with the creative process that captivated the romantics in a truly individual style.
Clare was relatively forgotten during the latter nineteenth century, but interest in his work was revived by Arthur Symons in 1908, Edmund Blunden in 1920 and John and Anne Tibble in their ground-breaking 1935 2-volume edition. Benjamin Britten set some of 'May' from A Shepherd's Calendar in his Spring Symphony of 1948.
Copyright to much of his work has been claimed since 1965 by the editor of the Complete Poetry (OUP, 9 vols., 1984-2003), Professor Eric Robinson, though these claims have been contested. With recent publishers refusing to acknowledge the claim (especially in recent editions from Faber and Carcanet), it seems the copyright is now defunct. For a full list of recent reactions to the dispute, see the 'copyright' section of The John Clare Page website For an article summarising the issue see Poor Clare by John Goodridge. For Robinson's most recent public declaration of ownership see his letter to the Guardian of February 2003.
Today the largest collection of original Clare manuscripts in existence are housed at Peterborough Museum, where they are available to view by appointment.