On Clare’s great poem about the self
‘I am—yet what I am none cares or knows’. As opening lines go, it teeters on the edge of self-pity, and it’s a brave poet who will risk that charge – and a fine poet who can pull the rest of his poem back from the brink of such self-indulgent wallowing that might be expected to follow. John Clare’s ‘I Am’ manages this, making it a fine and especially interesting example of Romantic poetry, exploring the individual self and the poet’s own place in the world. Before we offer a few words of analysis, here’s a reminder of one of John Clare’s best-known poems. For a good edition of John Clare’s poetry, we recommend John Clare: Major Works from Oxford University Press.
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 oblivious host,
Like shadows in love’s frenzied stifled throes
And yet I am, and live—like 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;
Even the dearest that I loved the best
Are strange—nay, rather, stranger than the rest.
I long for scenes where man hath 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 first thing to say about this poem is how that two-word title unfolds and subtly alters its meaning across the course of the poem. ‘I am’, opens the poem, only to be immediately followed by a dash, marking it as a self-sufficient statement about the self. Not ‘I am this’ or ‘I am that’: simply ‘I am’. But then, once we reach the third line, ‘I am’ is being pressed into its more usual service: ‘I am the self-consumer of my woes’. Self-pity is self-destructive, no matter how good it sometimes (perversely) feels. Clare brilliantly captures this through the slightly double-edged hyphenation of ‘self-consumer’. It eats away at oneself: we consume our woes, but they consume us, are self-consuming.
Such doubling is also, curiously, present in John Clare’s collected works, which contain not one but two poems called ‘I Am’: a sonnet titled ‘I Am’, and the poem quoted above (often referred to as ‘Lines: I Am’ to distinguish it from the sonnet). This other poem takes a somewhat more positive view of the poet’s sense of self, although it was composed at around the same time, in the 1840s when John Clare was incarcerated in the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum:
I feel I am — I only know I am,
And plod upon the earth, as dull and void:
Earth’s prison chilled my body with its dram
Of dullness, and my soaring thoughts destroyed,
I fled to solitudes from passions dream,
But strife persued — I only know, I am.
I was a being created in the race
Of men disdaining bounds of place and time:
A spirit that could travel o’er the space
Of earth and heaven — like a thought sublime,
Tracing creation, like my maker, free —
A soul unshackled — like eternity,
Spurning earth’s vain and soul debasing thrall
But now I only know I am — that’s all.
As Clare’s biographer Jonathan Bate points out, in his analysis of Clare’s ‘I Am’ (i.e. the one quoted at the beginning of this post, rather than the sonnet) in his John Clare, ‘He longs at once for both childhood and the grave.’ Clare longs for a place where he can ‘abide with my Creator, God, / And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept’. As with many great Romantic poems, the poet views childhood as an almost sacrosanct period of his life (compare Wordsworth’s ‘The child is father of the man’), but the twist here is that Clare is looking forward to death as a return to those days when he was ‘untroubled’. Since he struggled with madness and depression for much of his adult life, Clare knew what it was to be troubled. In 1864, he was granted the wish which ‘I Am’ so eloquently expresses.