John Clare was a 19th-century English poet, whose work I discovered in a used bookstore several years ago. He didn’t come up in either of my British Literature survey courses in college, but I think he’s an excellent poet. The son of a farm laborer, Clare never made enough money from his writing to support his family (he had many children) and late in his life he became severely mentally ill and was committed to an asylum. He wrote this poem, “I Am!,” while he was at the Northhamptonshire County General Lunatic Asylum, a few years before his death in 1864. I wonder if Emily Dickinson knew his work; they were contemporaries, and I know Dickinson read a great deal, from Shakespeare and both the Brownings to Keats and even the Brontës. It’s possible a copy of some of Clare’s work could have come her way.
“I Am!” reminds me very much of Dickinson’s famous poem which begins, “I’m Nobody! Who are you?/ Are you – nobody – too?”
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 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. ~ John Clare
Something I wonder about in this poem is the meaning of the exclamation point which follows every instance of “I am!”. There’s something simultaneously defiant and elegiac about this poem. Its tone is both subtle and complex which strengthens the relationship I feel between this poem and Dickinson’s, which is so often quoted and so well known in part because of the apparent coyness and simplicity of this poem’s structure compared with her more elliptical works.
Dickinson’s poem also has the exclamation point (not unusual, as Dickinson had a well-known fondness for expressive punctuation), which makes me wonder about the relationship between Clare’s “I am!” and Dickinson’s “I’m Nobody!”. Dickinson seems to be celebrating Nobody-ness, while Clare is lamenting being a somebody that nobody knows, and maybe lamenting being in general. I love his description of being tossed “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.” The phrase “the living sea of waking dreams” is particularly powerful, a desperate image of emotional chaos, a poignant rendering of existence on the borderline between sanity and insanity. Dickinson, I think, knew something of this mental extremity as well. Much of her poetry deals with madness, from “Much Madness is Divinest Sense” to the final stanza of her famous poem “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain:”
And then a Plank in Reason, broke, And I dropped down, and down – And hit a World, at every plunge, And Finished knowing – then –
It’s just in this re-reading of Dickinson’s poem that I’ve realized her use of the phrase “Plank in Reason” suggests an image of rationality as constructed, a reality built of wood, on which we walk either ignorant or purposefully oblivious of what lies beneath our feet. I’ve always felt the poem’s The poem’s speaker drops through worlds and worlds, none necessarily any less real than the one from which she has fallen. Indeed, the final line of the poem suggests these worlds may become successively more Real, as she finishes her plunge, “knowing – then.”
Clare’s poem envisions death as peace, accompanied perhaps by a return to innocence; he hopes for the sweet slumber of childhood, to the comfort of being with God in heaven. He looks for ascension from the “living sea of waking dreams” to a place “above the vaulted sky.” For Dickinson, however, may offer peace, or at least stasis (an end to the free-fall) but it also offers “knowing,” and biblically “knowledge” is the antithesis of innocence. And Dickinson’s “I Felt a Funeral, in my Brain” delves, rather then ascends.
Dickinson isn’t writing directly about death in “I’m Nobody! Who are you?,” the way Clare is in “I Am!,” but it’s interesting how much more celebratory Dickinson’s declaration of being “Nobody” is to Clare’s being Somebody. Clare’s poem is about the desolation of the solitary subject, and maybe being Nobody is expansive in a way that being a miserable Somebody is limiting.
In this month’s issue of Bookslut, Elizabeth Bachner (a writer I adore) writes about Janna Levin’s book, How the Universe Got Its Spots: Diary of a Finite Time in Finite Space. being finite is actually more terrifying than being infinite. The finite, this little period of being alive, seems almost infinitely desolate the way Clare renders it. He wants out. Dickinson seems to want in, to want more, to want everything, and to have it all in a way that only a Nobody can.