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A Christian Consideration of John Clare - English Poet (1793 - 1864)

A Christian Consideration of John Clare - English Poet (1793 - 1864)

By Roger Salter
Special to Virtueonline
July 27, 2015

John Clare rose from rural poverty as a farm laborer to poetic genius. He is one of the most fascinating figures in 19th century English literature, at one point lionized in London and outselling the now better-known John Keats whom he greatly admired. Keats moved on to enormous fame and for some time Clare was largely forgotten. A covey of 20th century poets such as Edmund Blunden, Geoffrey Grigson, Robert Graves, Dylan Thomas and Ted Hughes, has done much to restore Clare to greater public attention, and perhaps to the place of prominence his delightful compositions deserve.

Clare is best known as the devotee and detailer of nature in exquisite fashion and in this sphere he hails the wondrous works of the Creator.

All nature owns with one accord Winds breathe from God's abode, 'We come,'
The great and universal Lord: Storms louder own God is their home,
The sun proclaims him through the day, And thunder yet with louder call,
The moon when daylight drops away, Sounds, 'God is mightiest over all';
The very darkness smiles to wear Till earth, right loath the proof to miss,
The stars that show us God is there, Echoes triumphantly, 'He is,'
On moonlight seas oft gleams the sky, And air and ocean makes reply,
And, 'God is with us' waves reply. God reigns on earth, in air and sky.'

All nature owns with one accord
The great and universal Lord:
Insect and bird and tree and flower -
The witnesses of every hour -
Are pregnant with this prophecy
And 'God is with us', all reply.
The first link in the mighty plan
Is still - and God upbraideth man.

But, fine-tuned as he was, Clare's life was checkered with bouts of deep depression and even moods diagnosed as insanity. Financial and family cares encumbered his mind and reorganization of rural England in favor of the wealthy and landed class robbed him of the innocent pleasures of his bucolic world. The so-called policy of enclosures allocated vast swathes of common land to the aristocracy.

The "peasant poet" alternated residence between his native village of Helpston, Northamptonshire, to confinement in asylums in his home county and elsewhere. Fame had faded but his muse had not abandoned him. His dark experience cultivated the capacity to articulate the sufferings and disorientation of the troubled mind, producing, perhaps, his greatest bequest to English verse.

I Am:
I am - yet what I am none cares or knows,
My friends forsake me like a memory lost;
I am the self-consumer of my woes,
They rise and vanish in oblivions host,
Like shadows in love - frenzied stifled throes
And yet I am, and live like the vapours tossed.

Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life or joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life's esteems;
And e'en the dearest - that I love the best -
Are strange - nay, rather stranger than the rest.

I long for scenes where man has never trod,
A place where woman never smiled or wept;
There to abide with my Creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept:
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie,
The grass below - above the vaulted sky.

The utterance from the asylum captures the sense of alienation all share or can imagine to some degree. Clare is the voice of the void of the soul severed from the consolations of God in a conscious way - the forerunner to 20th century nihilism that plagues the West in all our distraction, frantic folly, and restlessness. I Am is a work of sheer chilling greatness that depicts a self far out from familiar moorings and familiar consolations in life.

Clare, the country lad, indulged his love of ale and flirtations with local maidens. He combined inspired poetry with indulgent and dubious pleasures. His first love, Mary Joyce, was denied to him as a partner, an issue of social rank, and over the years she loomed in his mind as a radiant goddess. His family grew large and he anguished over adequate provision for his wife and children. The pressures of poverty contributed to his disturbed state of mind.

At close quarters he observed the beliefs and behavior of various groups of Christians. Sarah Houghton Walker outlines the features of Clare's religious views and preferences.

(John Clare's Religion). He favored the Wesleyans and their Arminian view of the love of God, he disparaged the Ranters, and disliked the Calvinists intensely. "The 'free will' of ranters, new light of Methodists, and Election Lottery of Calvinism I always heard with disgust and considered their enthusiastic ravings little more intelligible or sensible than the belowings (sic) of Bedlam" (SHW 35).

Whatever he possibly felt about Anglican liturgy and ministry, however much he cast a critical eye at parish life, Clare retained and replicated his father's loyalty to the Church of England. He dodged the services in his youth and dawdled in the fields during the hours of worship, but he derived much help in later years from members of the clergy. He acknowledged that his father, "Was brought up in the communion of the Church of England, and I have found no cause to withdraw myself from it" (SHW 37). If he found aspects of the Established Church uncongenial and awkward he remained prepared to defend it: "Still I reverence the church and do from my soul as much as anyone curse the hand that's lifted to undermine its constitution". Evangelical Anglicans did much to encourage and assist Clare and perhaps labored to secure his conversion. How successfully is hard to ascertain. We are all creatures of constant fluctuation and sometimes it is difficult to discern what is the true core of the self of another. Clare was genuinely appreciative of Evangelical believers' concern but his receptiveness to the overtures of their particular witness is not palpably clear. "There was much about the evangelical movement that Clare admired, especially defence (sic) of the poor" (SHW 80). It is in his sympathy with the poor and suppressed that the ethics of Clare echo those of the Bible.

Malcolm Muggeridge, describing the ministry of Jesus, pointed out that our Saviour had a special concern for the mentally afflicted and those oppressed by the evil one in their thoughts and despondency. Many fine Christian folk wrestle with problems of mind and mood. Parish experience acquaints one with very gifted and gracious people coping with life in the shadows and on the border of extreme hopelessness, lassitude, isolation, and discomfort. Sensitivity and intelligence can make suffering acute. Alexander Cruden maintained some degree of balance by compiling his Concordance. William Cowper, the "stricken deer", depended heavily on the gentle care of firm friends and engaged in the composition of poems and hymns, occupying himself with matters of great detail to alleviate the pain and fend off the spirit of gloom. David Brainerd served God courageously from frequent descent into the pit of depression. Christopher Smart, confined in Bedlam, could rise to the composition of "Rejoice in God".

C.H. Spurgeon, a lion in the pulpit, and a man of delicate temperament, could candidly testify, "There are dungeons underneath the castle of Despair as dreary as the abodes of the lost and some of us have been there . . . . I know, perhaps as well as anyone, what depression means, and what it is to feel myself sinking lower and lower. Yet at the worst, when I reach the lowest depths, I have an inward peace which no pain or depression can in the least disturb. Trusting in Jesus Christ my Saviour, there is still a blessed quietness in the deep caverns of my soul, though upon the surface, a rough tempest may be raging, and there maybe little apparent calm."

J.B. Phillips, the intensely pastoral translator of the New Testament, described by Vera Phillips and Edwin Robertson as "the wounded healer" battled, "all the time a severe depressive illness [that] was trying his own faith almost past bearing". Writing to a friend, J.B. pleaded, "In the poverty of my prayer I keep you. Now that I have written please keep me in yours, and the more difficult the better for we are dealing with Principalities and Powers" (The Wounded Healer, page 81).

Donald M. Baillie, Late Professor of Systematic Theology in the University of St. Andrews is described by his brother John Baillie as a man visited by darkness of soul. "Even in his latest years he had periods of depression, in which life seemed to be emptied of its divine meaning . . . . But one thing was always clear to him - that without God and Christ human life was without significance of any kind, devoid of all interest. He would say, 'When darkness is on me, I walk down the street, and see people walking aimlessly about, and shops and cars and a few dogs, and it all seems to mean nothing and to matter not at all!' . . . . This whole side of his experience undoubtedly enabled him to enter most sympathetically and most helpfully into the like experience of a large number of students and others who sought his counsel" (Biographical Essay, The Theology of the Sacraments & other papers, Faber, London, 1954).

Sympathy and helpfulness among Christians in all areas of life are to be norms in the exercise of Christian love. The church militant is also a hospital for the sorely wounded. But how delicate some circumstances happen to be, and how tactfully believers are to behave, avoiding intrusiveness and chastisement in their relations with the oppressed. In states of well-being we can so easily overlook the reality of our own vulnerability. Some varieties of spirituality are inclined to be dismissive of the miseries of the mind and the sorrows of the soul and, because of a slick doctrine of assurance, tend to chide rather than to assuage grief. These "super-spiritual folk" ought to consult the confessional literature of those they deem to be "super-heroes" of the Faith. Many of them trod the "lonesome road". The serious error of sinless perfection can also, in furtive ways, invade the Christian mind and add to feelings of grief and guilt.

In terms of common grace, John Clare is a likable chap possessed of a noble mind and tender insight. It is to be hoped that the dear man who spent much of his life sensing that he was a stranger, and reaching out to the comfort and purpose only to be found in God, did at the last arrive at an encounter with that other Stranger whose goodness he celebrated in a longer poem from which the following hymn is extracted.

The Stranger

A stranger once did bless the earth His presence was a peace to all,
who never caused a heart to mourn, he bade the sorrowful rejoice.
Whose very voice gave sorrow mirth; Pain turned to pleasure at his call,
and how did earth his worth return? health lived and issued from his voice;
It spurned him from its lowliest lot: He healed the sick, and sent abroad
The meanest station owned him not. the dumb rejoicing in the Lord.

An outcast thrown in sorrow's way, The blind met daylight in his eye,
a fugitive that knew no sin, the joys of everlasting day;
yet in lone places forced to stray; The sick found health in his reply,
men would not take the stranger in. the cripple threw his crutch away.
yet peace, though much himself he mourned, Yet he with troubles did remain,
Was all to others he returned. and suffered poverty and pain.

It was for sin he suffered all
to set the world imprisoned free,
To cheer the weary when they call;
and who could such a stranger be?
The God, who hears each human cry,
And came, a Saviour, from on high.

The Rev. Roger Salter is an ordained Church of England minister where he had parishes in the dioceses of Bristol and Portsmouth before coming to Birmingham, Alabama to serve as Rector of St. Matthew's Anglican Church

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