PN Review Print and Online Poetry Magazine
Most Read... Rebecca WattsThe Cult of the Noble Amateur
(PN Review 239)
Mark FordLetters And So It Goes
Letters from Young Mr Grace
(aka John Ashbery)

(PN Review 239)
Henry Kingon Toby Martinez de las Rivas
(PN Review 244)
Eavan BolandA Lyric Voice at Bay
(PN Review 121)
Vahni CapildeoOn Judging Prizes, & Reading More than Six Really Good Books
(PN Review 237)
M. Wynn ThomasThe Other Side of the Hedge
(PN Review 239)
Next Issue Jason Allen-Paisant, Reclaiming Time: On Blackness and Landscape Tara Bergin, Five Poems Miles Burrows, Icelandic Journal Jonathan Hirchfeld, Against Oblivion Colm Toibin, From Vinegar Hill
Poems Articles Interviews Reports Reviews Contributors
PNR 250 Poetry Archive Banner
Monthly Carcanet Books
PN Review Blog

This article is taken from PN Review 158, Volume 30 Number 6, July - August 2004.

John Clare's Madness Sean Haldane

The superintendent of the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum, Dr Wing, in his annual report for 1864 noted that John Clare had been `cut off by apoplexy' on 20 May and regretted that he would have liked `to have written somewhat at length on the character of his insanity, and to have pointed out the frequent connection between mental aberration and genius, and especially as illustrated by some of our noted poets'. The idea was already a commonplace. Clare himself feared the connection between poetry and madness, as most poets probably do. For other people it is a comfort: as an American visitor who conversed with Clare in Lord Milton's garden in 1832 (five years before he was first certified insane) wrote: `there was a peculiarity in his manner, and an incoherence in his speech, which involuntarily made me say to myself, "Thank God I am not a poet".' After all a poet, as Hardy wrote, `disturbs the order here'.

Assuming Dr Wing knew his job, he could have made a conclusive medical statement about Clare's insanity, a diagnosis perhaps, which would like other nineteenth-century diagnoses have been translatable into the changing terminology of psychiatry during the twentieth century and after. We might be better able to distinguish between Clare's poetic `madness' and his clinical `insanity'. As it is they have become almost inextricably muddled.


I first read Clare when at school, in James Reeves's Heinemann Selection (1954). Reeves also wrote a long poem about ...


Searching, please wait... animated waiting image