Why would someone write a book about a brief period in the life of a well loved but somewhat neglected poet? A strange subject matter. Maybe it is intriguing to consider the possible link between poetry and madness. Clare begins the book quite lucid but as time passes begins to imagine himself to be other people, from Byron to Robinson Crusoe, taking on their persona. He absconds and spends time at a gypsy encampment where he seems to feel most at ease. He obsesses over his lost family, his real wife Patty and his imagined wife, Mary, a childhood sweetheart. Some of the scenes at the asylum are quite disturbing, though no doubt common practice at the time. Also present in the story is Alfred Tennyson, not a resident but staying with his brother Septimus, but who also seems to sink into depression, self doubt and grief at the loss of his close friend. Both of them seem to have suffered at the hands of the critics and changes in public taste for poetry.
The doctor Matthew Allen and his family are the other main part of the story. His daughter Hannah becomes obsessed with Tennyson, is disillusioned, forms at attachment to another inmate and eventually accepts a proposal from a business friend of her father. I liked her because she was quite honest and open, obsessed with the idea of marriage, trying to follow her sister down the only escape route open to her. Living amongst the mentally ill was obviously a strange upbringing for her, and her father's reckless business ventures put further strain on the family through the story.
The book is beautifully written, very poetic in style, descriptive and also highly emotionally charged, lots of tension and upset between the characters. The historical setting is well researched, ideas about mental health, science, business and innovation, and then details about things like debtors prison and social etiquette, and the difference in the lives of ordinary people from the more privileged. The scenes of madness and delusion are very dramatic and vivid, you really get a sense of how frightening it is and how he struggles to regain a sense of normality. He is known and loved for his poems about the natural world but the Wiki page led me to a poem that Clare wrote towards the end of his life when in another asylum in Northamptonshire, in it he is very lucid and it shows his yearning for life and normality. I am by John Clare:
|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 shades in love and death's oblivion lost;
And yet I am! and live with shadows tost
Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life nor joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life's esteems;
And e'en the dearest--that I loved the best--
Are strange--nay, rather stranger than the rest.
I long for scenes where man has never trod;
A place where woman never smil'd 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.