Thursday, April 7, 2011

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.

Poor John Clare. He was renowned but not rich, and poverty drove him literally mad. He wrote "I Am" in the insane asylum, where he spent the last 27 years of his life. I think I have never read such a harrowing description of sheer alienation and personal ruin: forsaken by friends, facing miseries alone ("the self-consumer of my woes"), mired in those two bitterest of places, "the nothingness of scorn and noise" and "the vast shipwreck of my life esteems." "I Am" unsettles me deeply.

I love "I Am" because it is one of the most lucid portrayals of mental illness that exist. Its clarity, given its subject matter, is almost astounding. To the mentally ill all is strangeness, and "even the dearest that I loved the best / Are strange--nay, rather stranger than the rest." And yet while alienated from reality Clare is not alienated from language. There is the forlorn implication that, Cassandra-like, his agony falls on deaf ears--"yet what I am none cares or knows"--and yet the poem is too powerful for us not to understand.

The imagery in "I Am" is overtly Christian ("the vaulted sky" connects heaven to the ceiling of a church) and its title itself connects Clare to God. It is tempting to read this as self-aggrandizement; after all, Clare spent his time in the asylum claiming to have written Shakespeare's plays and actually rewriting most of Byron's poetry, writing once to a newspaper, "I'm John Clare now, I was Byron and Shakespeare formally." (And you may note that "the nothingness of noise and scorn" owes a debt to Macbeth's "sound and fury, signifying nothing.") But Clare sounds too defeated in "I Am" to make that kind of claim.

Instead, let the title reflect the small hope that lies in the poem's last stanza. Isolated from people unwillingly, Clare desires to move willfully toward God, in death. This sempiternal existence, both in the ground and in the sky, "[u]ntroubling and untroubled," is a far cry from the weird reincarnation that he believed in. The title "I Am" validates the hope of this stanza, and insists that however battered and alone, John Clare will continue perpetually, as much "I Am" as God, and because of God. It is a weak echo of Tennyson's affirmation that "tho' much is taken, much abides," but stronger for its bluntness, as if they were the only words to which Clare could cling. "I Am" points to Macbeth, but only to guide the reader elsewhere. Macbeth's soliloquy is the utmost dejection, the literary center of nihilism. I love "I Am" because it steps to the precipice of that same abyss, and somehow turns away.

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