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'In the blue mist the orisons edge surrounds.' John Clare

Early on the morning of the 16th of July, 1837, Clare was led away from his wife and children, by two stern-looking men, who placed him in a small carriage and drove rapidly away southward. Late the same day, the poet found himself an inmate of Dr. Allen's private lunatic asylum, at Fair Mead House, High Beech, in the centre of Epping Forest.


'Waltham Abbey' by H E Du Plessis, about 1940, Museum no. E.1385-1949

'Waltham Abbey' by H E Du Plessis, about 1940, Museum no. E.1385-1949, given by the Pilgrim Trust

Epping Forest: new soil, new sounds. Special light. Clare perched on a high ridge that offered the classic James Thomson view: river, fields, small farms, tower of the church of Holy Cross and St Lawrence at Waltham Abbey. A relief from the crushing phobias of the Northborough cottage. The regime is benevolent, he will 'do better'.

He eats, grows sturdy. He potters in the kitchen garden, wanders through the forest. But he is still a prisoner. Constantly watched (even when the watchers hide behind trees). After the 'escape' Clare wrote to Matthew Allen, a courtesy, describing his walk out of Essex and asking for the return of books lent to women of the neighbourhood: 'I don't want any part of Essex in Northamptonshire agen I wish you would have the kindness to send a servant to get them for me.' A feigned passion for literature is a useful means of striking an acquaintance with the local author, the faded celebrity. Wives, and Essex women in general, were hereby forsworn: 'I should [like] to be to myself a few years and lead the life of a hermit.'

The fault lay with a system based on surveillance. The rhetoric of freedom, announced with breast-beating sincerity, is exposed as a politic lie. Of the kind we have come to know so well: Lea Valley estates thrown up on poisoned ground. Liberty under law. No healing of a spirit that remains in bondage, despite the boasts of the keepers. The ones who have invested in green-belt real estate.

'I can be miserably happy in any situation and any place and could have staid in yours in the forest if any of my friends had noticed me or come to see me - but the greatest annoyance in such places as yours are those servants styled keepers who often assumed as much authority over me as if I had been their prisoner and not likeing to quarrel I put up with it till I was weary of the place altogether so I heard the voice of freedom'

Matthew Allen's establishment was hierarchically organised (wards beyond wards): three properties. Controlled liberties for those responsive to the notion of cure. Seclusion and restraint for loose women and stubborn, dirty men. Leopards Hill was the worst, a hideaway for self-soilers, screamers, non-citizens. (The madwoman-in-the-attic syndrome. Hogarthian torments under the eaves of a white mansion. In brick outbuildings, styes.) Fair Mead lived up to its name, a country house; a pond with lilies, resident waterfowl. Springfield housed 15 women. The local authorities signed the relevant forms: care and comfort in retirement from the world. A curtain of oak, elm, beech screening the worst of it. An easy ride back to town for duty visitors.

Allen, who had worked with the Quakers in York, an institution known as The Retreat, brought some of the patients south with him. He was a man of schemes. The sort of character who looks for property on the rim of London. Ethical front with aggressive marketing strategy. Soft Buddhism. Trim lawns, bright windows. Landscape prospects as the deal clincher. Fee-paying mad folk busied into craftwork, supervised gardening, bullied back to health. The uncooperative would be restrained, without malevolence, in one of the mean back rooms.

The life, at first, suited Clare.

He is comfortable, fed, supplied with books. He is removed from the burden of providing for his family and from the horror of love (children in sickness, ageing parents, unhappy wife). He works when he will, and is praised for it - but unpaid. He composes I,600 lines of poetry and 1,500 lines of biblical paraphrase. Allen's asylum is a forcing house. Clare takes dictation from elsewhere. He makes few annotations on wild nature, electing to deal in topical satires and scatological barbs. Doctors, whores. Vulgar royalty. Newspaper scandals turned mad and loud. Poetry is a hot coal in the mouth. The Athenaeum publishes an appeal for funds: 'The malady by which the poet is lost to himself has caused him to pass from the memory of others.'

And from the memory of place. The circle of landscape in which he had once been anchored. As John Clare, he was unvoiced. One of the invisibles buried on the green perimeter of London. A living corpse. 'O would it were my lot,' he said (quoting Byron), 'To be forgetfull as I am forgot.'

After four years enclosed in the forest, he feels that it is time to escape, to return to Mary. His wife and children, settled in their Northborough cottage, have been erased. The imagined crime of bigamy purged by elective amnesia. A walk into the past is contemplated. (By suffering, he will revise errors of biography. Open an alternate life. Follow a different path.) Essex in Northampton is a collapsing topography. There is nowhere of any consequence between High Beach and Mary Joyce's Glinton. 'Yon spire that points to heaven ... True as the needle to the pole.'

In April 1841, still writing in capitals, Clare describes an Easter Sunday visit to Buckhurst Hill Church:

'Stood In The Church Yard - When A Very Interesting Boy Came Out While Organ Was Playing Dressed In A Slop Frock Like A Ploughboy & Seemingly About Nine Years Of Age - He Was Just Like My Son Bill When He Was About The Same Age & As Stout Made - He Had A Serious Interesting Face & Looked As Weary With The Working Days As A Hard Working Man - I Was Sorry I Did Not Give Him The Last Halfpenny I Had & Ask Him A Few Questions As To His Age & Name & Parents But Perhaps I May See Him Again'

There was also a young woman, dressed as milkmaid or farm servant. 'I Did Not Speak To Her But I Now Wish I Had & Cannot Forget Her.' The instant of composition keeps the memory alive, raw. He will walk forward, with pain and difficulty, into the past and make it cohere. The church spire is a needle to his pole.

Returned home, after his successful flight from Matthew Allen's madhouse, 'where men close prisoners are & women are ravished', Clare wrote a premature farewell to a fading landscape. His essay on Autumn:

'& there is the beautifull Spire of Glinton Church towering high over the grey willows & dark wallnuts still lingering in the church yard like the remains of a wreck telling where their fellows foundered in the ocean of time - place of green Memorys & gloomy sorrows - even these meadows arches seem to me to be something of the beautifull having been so long a prisoner & shut up in confinement they appear something worthy of notice'

The pressure of revised history, a parallel life, was extreme. It countered a shameful present, the forest confinement. The ever-watchful eyes of Matthew Allen's servants. In the territory of the mind, John Clare was no longer a peasant poet. He was a boxer: Jack Randall, Champion of England. Establish a new identity and the old Clare can float free. Other fools will accept his folly.

The walk, the frantic pilgrimage, was the last of it: sanity. High Beach, like Patty and the children (who are now hers alone), is a 'fancy'. A contract has been broken or a contract fulfilled. Clare tried London and was mocked by his success. (The fourth visit is always the killer. Dylan Thomas blustered across America, three tours, and returned to Laugharne with a few dollars and a criminal hangover. Trains and women. The fourth trip did for him.) The portraits and life masks of John Clare confirm an absence. They register a person who is no longer there. Travelling, tramping the Great North Road, he swims in his own shadow. He forgets where the sun rises.

On the cusp of a final exile, abdication of world and family, Clare analyses his own condition, the frail distinction between being forgotten and eradicated. Silenced.

'A very good common place counsel is Self Identity to bid our own hearts
not to forget our own selves & always to keep self in the first place lest all the world who always keeps us behind it should forget us all together - forget not thyself & the world will not forget thee - forget thyself & the world will willingly forget thee till thou art nothing but a living-dead man dwelling among shadows & falsehood'

He talks to his old friends, the gypsies, at their forest camp. They offer, for a price, to smuggle him away. He returns, they are gone. He picks up a discarded 'wide awake' hat and puts it in his pocket. He plots his escape like a military campaign. There are provisions: notebook, chewing tobacco, hat.

'I Led the way & my troops soon followed but being careless in mapping down the rout as the Gipsey told me I missed the lane to Enfield town & was going down Enfield highway till I passed 'The Labour in vain' Public house where a person I knew comeing out of the door told me the way'

John Clare was launched on one of the great English journeys, three and a half days, 20-24 July 1841. Hungry, hobbled, deluded. An expedition to recover a self he had no use for, a wife he didn't recognise, a cottage he loathed. He would confirm the validity of a double consciousness: London and Helpston, poet and labourer, Patty and Mary. A nest of earthly and spiritual children that had been fathered, mislaid. A text, already composed, to be justified by bitter experience.

Excerpts reproduced with kind permission of the author from:
Edge of the Orison: In the Traces of John Clare's 'Journey Out of Essex'
(London: Hamish  Hamilton, 2005) © Iain Sinclair

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