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, written around 1845.)
Discussion and short analysis
For Lear has allowed his aged egotism to shatter all the structures he took for granted and these banishments bring about his madness and death.
In King Lear we discover that certain social and emotional ‘scaffolds’ need to be held in place in order to support and even survive our vulnerabilities and to keep self-destruction at bay.
In this, John Clare’s most famous poem, Clare shares with us the terrifying prospect of mental illness; a descent into mental torment where oblivion beckons and society abandons us forever.
For a poet sometimes known as the ‘peasant poet’ this poem is significant for the near total absence of natural references. The absence of pastoral description emphasises his uneasy incarceration in an asylum.
Furthermore this incarceration also deprives him of the healing possibilities of nature, as he is left to the torments of manic depression, without the solace he obtained through his mental and physical absorption in the outdoors.
Isolation has forced his attention within and this poem testifies to the terror of this interiority. Clare is in an abyss from which we feel there seems little chance of escape.
Again I am reminded of Shakespeare through the enjambment use at the end of the first stanza and the beginning of the second: ‘and live with shadows tost/into the nothingness of sound and noise’.
Are we all that far away from Macbeth’s ‘sound and fury signifying nothing’ I wonder? There is a sense of rage, despair and then nihilistic acceptance perhaps. Like Macbeth, Clare seems stoical in his recognition of the nightmarish inevitability of his isolation and profound loneliness.
The peculiarity of this poetic event and journey is suggestive of mental disturbance and also the destabilising vulnerability we all feel when someone close betrays us whether in a real or imagined way.
For when someone ‘forsakes’ another this is deliberate, it is a choice and can precipitate the awful, obsessive practice of being a ‘self-consumer of my woes.’ Anxiety feeds upon anxiety. Mental illness renders our minds predators, feeding cannibalistically upon our equilibrium.
This poem carefully creates and then escalates the de-familiarisation of self from self. The poet has become ‘other’ to himself and this ‘stranger’ seems ‘lost’ only contemplating safety through a return to childhood innocence with the negation of all that his life has entailed or he desires death barely veiled as sleep.
The Woman in Black
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