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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 ...

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