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clare - i am

literary theory
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John Clare: I am

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 - like vapors tossed

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;
Even 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 smiled 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.

Introspection in Victorian literature was, Gilmour has argued, inevitable as a response to the dislocations of revolutionary change, but was also often viewed as regressive and unproductive. In this poem the title of the sonnet, the four ‘I’s’ in the first line, immediately signal Clare’s preoccupation with what Tennyson referred to as ‘private sorrow’s barren song’. 

Written during the period of his insanity, Clare's poem emphasises instead a deep ontological uncertainty: ‘I only know I am’ rather than, like Arnold, echoing Goethe’s belief that happiness is finding what holds the world together within.

This uncertainty is evident on the poem’s structural level. Although the rhyme conforms for the most part to the sonnet scheme, there are lines which break this pattern, as in ‘I fled to solitudes from passions dream’ and the eye-rhyme and half-rhyme of thrall/all. The break in rhymes accentuate the power of these words, which significantly appear before the abrupt repeated ‘but’. This is effective especially in line 5 where the sense of a chase/hunt is literalised through enjambment. A constant use of dashes to break up structures similarly disrupts any sense of certainty. 

This poem seems particularly suited to the disorganised subjectivity of what Arnold saw as the "dialogue of the mind with itself", yet as Armstrong argues this dialogue can be seen as the Victorian poem’s achievement in creating two poems in the same words, the lyric subject being reclassified as dramatic object as we read, inviting the reader's analysis and interpretation. 

In Clare’s poem the doubleness is marked in the shifting between ‘I am’ and I was a being/spirit/soul, as the speaker investigates his claim of simply existing ‘dull and void’.

‘Void’, figuring the speaker as absence is a typically Victorian, perhaps protomodernist motif, but here it is also a reminder of ‘thoughts destroyed’. In this sense, it offers a contrast to Wordsworth’s view in the Prelude (1850) that thoughts, even unfulfilled, are their own glory. 

The powerful rhyme between monosyllabic void and destroyed is an example of the way the quality of verbalness, of reading and being made aware that the poem is made of language, is used almost metaphorically. The heaviness of ‘plod’ and ‘dram’ for example with the latte word's suggestion of poison is a way of deepening the image of earth as prison. This deepening of imagery, layer over layers, is also suggested by the heavy alliteration in dull/dram/dullness/destroyed. Plod and chilled are almost onomatopoeic. 

The traditional metaphor of earth as prison is a thread which runs throughout the poem: ‘I fled’ ‘disdaining bounds’ ‘a soul unshackled’ ‘debasing thrall’ the movement is from prison to a remembered freedom and back again, ‘that’s all’. While the descriptive language and the absence of heavy metaphor seem in a way Romantic, the idea of nature as poisoning and draining is antithetical to the typical Romantic spirit. As a ‘peasant’ Clare’s depictions of nature are not idealised but show an awareness of the struggle for existence, not as the survival of the fittest but rather as the primal curse of man.

The Victorians often lamented the loss of the romantic spirit – Arnold’s lament "Wordsworth is gone from us" seems to be a pervasive view particularly during the early years. However, during the Hungry Forties this was increasingly replaced with a concern to articulate the experience of the current generation. 

The sonnet shows what Morley described as the shaking beliefs which characterised the Victorian era. In a way the movement from ‘I was a spirit’ to the finality of ‘I am – that’s all’ can be seen as tracing the growing inability to believe. Clare does not seem to share the positive mood of the early Victorian who saw ‘honest doubt’ not only as faith but as a sign of a critical mind, yet at the same time he does not echo Arnold’s ‘eternal note of sadness’. 

As Kingsley put it, having got rid of an interfering god, the Victorians faced a choice between an empire of accidents and an immanent god. Clare renegotiates a content to the terms of self and maker. As the speaker remembers that he was once "a being created in the race/of men" there is a shift to a more poetic language ‘o’er the space of earth and heaven’, and a series of similes: like a thought, like my maker, like eternity. While this seems to identify a positive past belief in a superior being, it simultaneously conflates this with the earlier reference to the real power of ‘soaring thoughts’. As spirit/soul tracing creation, the speaker seems to see himself as his own maker. 

Any Romantic belief in art or thought as recuperating or filling the void is however, finally not possible in a post-Kantian world, where as Armstrong has argued, art has become self-sufficient while representation is seen as a construct of consciousness. 

The Victorians were, in Armstrong's words, the first artists who felt that what they were doing was redundant in a world where even creation is impossible because it always subject to reinterpretation and rearticulation. Here, the negatives have not become the positives of George Eliot’s Positivism, and the loss of the hope of heaven is not balanced by a loss of ‘demeaning fear’. The feeling of brief thanksgiving that "even the weariest river/winds somewhere home to sea" which Swinburne described is undermined by the static present tense which cannot see the "present Past" but only ‘I am’. 

written: 2007 
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