The Quickening Maze is based on real events in the lives of English poets John Clare and Alfred Tennyson. Tennyson, better known as Lord Tennyson (even though he was well into his eighth decade before becoming a peer) will be familiar to most of us for a handful of his better known poems including The Charge of the Light Brigade, one of the many works written during his 42 year tenure as Poet Laureate to Queen Victoria.
But what of John Clare? Born of humble rural origins in 1793, Clare spent much of his life as a tradesman and laborer. Though he received a limited education, and did not learn a standardized grammar, he would become known as a pastoral poet and author of collections including Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery; The Village Minstrel; The Shepherd's Calendar with Village Stories and Other Poems; The Rural Muse; and The Midsummer Cushion, a posthumous gathering including many previously unpublished poems.
Pastoral poetry often concerns itself with an idealized portrayal of rural life, often in opposition to modern urbanization, but Clare, in the words of writer Richard Mabey, " is not a presenter of nature. He is a re-presenter, a representative. He never shows facile 'identification' with another creature, but rather a kind of solidarity, as a fellow commoner."
Jonathan Bates, in his 2003 biography, describes Clare as "the greatest labouring-class poet that England has ever produced." However, unlike Tennyson, his writing was not widely celebrated during his lifetime, and fell into relative obscurity after his death in 1864. Clare's biography may have partly shadowed his poetry he was an alcoholic, and was twice institutionalized for depression and delusions (the second time for the last two decades of his life).
Since the 1950s, there has been renewed interest in Clare's writing, in part because it reflects a transitional time in England's history, when the Industrial Revolution was permanently changing the environment in which Clare was most immersed. Author Adam Foulds refers to him as a "key figure in ecological literature."
Read selected poems online
Adam Foulds on John Clare
Image: © National Portrait Gallery, London
This article is from the September 8, 2010 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.
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