John Clare (1793-1864)
From 1800-1829 Literary Anecdotes

THE first publication of my poems brought many visitors to my house, out of a mere curiosity, I expect, to know whether I was really the son of a thresher and a labouring rustic, as had been stated; and when they found it really was so, they looked at each other as a matter of satisfied surprise, asked some gossiping questions, and on finding me a vulgar fellow that mimicked at no pretensions but spoke in the rough way of a thoroughbred clown, they soon turned to the door, and dropping their heads in a good-morning attitude, they departed. I was often annoyed by such visits, and got out of the way whenever I could....

I was now wearing into the sunshine, and the villagers saw carriages now and then come to the house filled with gossiping gentry that were tempted more by curiosity than anything else to seek me. From these I got invitations to correspond and was swarmed with promises of books till my mother was troubled and fancied that the house would not hold them. But her trouble was soon set aside, for the books never came.

J. W. and Anne Tibble, John Clare: A Life (1932), p. 115.

CLARE remained for several days a guest at the residence of the Bishop, and on the last evening of his visit was taken by Mrs. Marsh to the theatre. A select band of roving tragedians had taken possession of the Peterborough stage—converted, by a more prosaic generation, into a corn exchange—and was delighting the inhabitants of the episcopal city with Shakespeare and the latest French melodramas. On the evening when Clare went to the theatre in company with Mrs. Marsh, the Merchant of Venice was performed. Clare sat and listened quietly while the first three acts were being played, not even replying to the questions as to how he liked the piece, addressed to him by Mrs. Marsh. But at the commencement of the fourth act, he got restless and evidently excited, and in the scene where Portia delivered judgement, he suddenly sprang up on his seat, and began addressing the actor who performed the part of Shylock. Great was the astonishment of all the good citizens of Peterborough, when a shrill voice, coming from the box reserved to the wife of the Lord Bishop, exclaimed, `You villain, you murderous villain!' Such an utter breach of decorum was never heard of within the walls of the episcopal city. It was in vain that those nearest to Clare tried to keep him on his seat and induce him to be quiet; he kept shouting louder than ever, and ended by making attempts to get upon the stage. At last the performance had to be suspended, and Mrs. Marsh, after some difficulty, got away with her guest. The old lady, in her innocence, even now did not apprehend the real cause of the exciting scene which she had witnessed, but, as before, attributed the behaviour of her unfortunate visitor to poetic eccentricity. But she began thinking that he was almost too eccentric.

The next morning Clare went back to Northborough ... The poor wife soothed him as best she could, and after some efforts succeeded in calming his mind. At the end of a few days, Clare seemed again sufficiently well to leave the house, and renewed his daily walks in company with one or other of his children. The inhabitants of the village, together with most of his acquaintances in the neighbourhood, were still ignorant that the poet whom they saw daily roving through the fields was a madman.

Frederick Martin, The Life of John Clare (1865), pp. 265-267.

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