John Clare : ‘strange death of life’ (OP)

7th September 2005

At the ECW list we are reading Bate’s biography of John Clare. I was not too sure about the earlier parts of the book, both becuase it seemed to me that Bate was failing to provide an adequate context for the political and literary world which formed the backgorund to Clare’s emergence as a poet, and also because I could not say that I took to the poetry itself from such examples as Bate cited, and as I had available to me in my tiny Clare collection – the latter is one of that series of very small selections ideal for taking to Doctors and Dentists waiting rooms ; instead of old issues of Autocar or Hello magazine one can read some poetry.

 However the later parts of the book are much better even if much sadder. Clare spent the last twenty years of his life in asylums, mainly the Northampton General Asylum. My ideas about 19thC mental hospitals were gruesome in the extreme, but those in which Clare was incarcerated would bear favourable comparison with that in which I have been a patient and others that I have seen. Clare’s regime was fairly relaxed – he could wander about Northampton where he became a local ‘sight’ and would compose poems in exchange for tobacco – and the living conditions compared favourably with those of his early life. This is not to say that it is not a desperate story of which the true anguish is difficult to gauge. Clare suffered from the delusion that he was Byron – although whether this was a ‘real’ delusion or some kind of over-identification it is hard to say. I would certainly hope that if I ever become delusional it is Byron with whom I identify. Byron himself was also depressive of course.

Anyway from this period in the Asylum comes the following magnificent poem.

 An Invite, to Eternity
                    Wilt thou go with me, sweet maid,
                  Say, maiden, wilt thou go with me
                  Through the valley-depths of shade,
                  Of night and dark obscurity;
                  Where the path has lost its way,
                  Where the sun forgets the day,
                  Where there’s nor life nor light to see,
                  Sweet maiden, wilt thou go with me!

                  Where stones will turn to flooding streams,
                  Where plains will rise like ocean waves,
                  Where life will fade like visioned dreams
                  And mountains darken into caves,
                  Say, maiden, wilt thou go with me
                  Through this sad non-identity,
                  Where parents live and are forgot,
                  And sisters live and know us not!

                  Say, maiden; wilt thou go with me
                  In this strange death of life to be,
                  To live in death and be the same,
                  Without this life or home or name,
                  At once to be and not to be –
                  That was and is not -yet to see
                  Things pass like shadows, and the sky
                  Above, below, around us lie? 

 This magnificent spine-tingling work links back to the poems I have been posting previously . The idea of living in death, ‘At once to be and not to be’ – Bate points out that the latter is a response to Hamlet (Shakespeare was another writer whom at times Clare imagined himself to be). And when one thinks about this one realises that indeed Hamlet’s question is not an either/or. Anyone who has experienced serious depression, and perhaps other forms of mental illness, will probably have shared that experience of at once knowing that one is alive and yet that an essentail part of oneself has gone – we return to the idea of the elusive self – that one both is and is not. In such a state the siren song of not-being, of the death wish, is very strong. Clare’s lyric power here transcends and transforms these thoughts and feelings.

 ‘This strange death of life’ – I cannot think of any phrase or description I have ever heard which better encaspsulates or gets closer to my own experience of depression.


Kat left…

Wednesday, 7 September 2005 4:48 pm

Clare’s poem is beautiful. I love the idea of exchanging poems for tobacco, though that has not been an option in any of the psychiatric facilities I’ve visited. Still, I’m not as critical of American hospitals as you are of UK ones. People are left alone till the meds kick in (it’s all meds these days); they can stay in their rooms and brood, watch TV in the common room, play ping-pong, go to group therapy, or help themselves to snacks of yogurt, chips, and soda. The patients suffer monstrous pain: the manic race up and down the halls, spouting nonsense; the depressed can barely raise their heads. I’ve never witnessed violent behavior. The treatment of these diseases is primitive, but I’ve never witnessed cruelty or neglect. My sense is that the wards are understaffed.

I own a fascinating book, WOMEN OF THE ASYLUM: VOICES FROM BEHIND THE WALLS, 1840-1945, which includes first-person accounts by many women incarcerated for madness, including Catherine Beecher, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Elizabeth Packard, and Frances Farmer. The accounts are disturbing and I haven’t read them all, but I will quote here from the writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1887 piece. I know you prefer poetry, but here goes:

“‘Force some happiness into your life,’ said one sympathizer. ‘Take an agreeable book to bed with you, occupy your mind with pleasant things.’ She did not realize that I was unable to read, and that my mind was exclusively occupied with unpleasant things. This disorder involved a growing melancholia, and that, as those know who have tasted it, consists of every painful mental sensation, shame, fear, remorse, a blind oppressive confusion, utter weakness, a steady brainache that fills the conscious mind with crowding images of distress.

“The misery is doubtless as physical as a toothache, but a brain, of its own nature, gropes for reasons for its misery. Feeling the sensation fear, the mind suggests every possible calamity; the sensation shame–remorse–and one remembers every mistake and misdeeds of a lifetime, and grovels to the earth in abasement.”

I sincerely hope you don’t experience Gilman’s state of mind anymore. Stay well.

2. anon left…

Wednesday, 7 September 2005 4:58 pm

This is a lovely and poignant poem. Those I know who collapse into a depressive state often struggle with quality of life issues as well as profound existential questions. For a period of time, they will exist without hope; without joy or pleasure; without sex; without self-love. All of us are required to live without joy and pleasure at times in our lives, but rarely must we live entirely without the sweet glimmer of hope.

A loss of hope is a sort of death, and afterwards, the return to life can feel daunting. Depression can become life-interrupted. After depressives have traveled through a bleak passage, they must now catch up and make an effort to remember where they left off with loved ones and their lives (and unlike a physical disease, they usually do not announce their “illness” or receive sympathy cards – :))

In regard to delusions – I knew a schizophrenic man who thought he was Jesus, and his friends were his disciples (which did get tiresome for his friends after awhile). But I have always thought – at least he does not believe he’s Attila the Hun.

In regard to the fragile “fiction” of self (referred to in an earlier post) – I find this fascinating and would like to suggest (conversely) that some depressives wear such a fierce “fiction” of self – like a suit of armor (a protective shell often created out of necessity in youth). This fiction sits so heavily upon them that it takes a great deal of energy to carry. It can alienate them from their “true” self, leading to a depressed state. (Everybody’s experiences are so diverse.)

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