Jul. 13, 2005


by John Clare

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Poem: "Water-Lilies" by John Clare.


The water-lilies on the meadow stream
     Again spread out their leaves of glossy green;
And some, yet young, of a rich copper gleam,
     Scarce open, in the sunny stream are seen,
Throwing a richness upon Leisure's eye,
     That thither wanders in a vacant joy;
While on the sloping banks, luxuriantly,
      Tending of horse and cow, the chubby boy,
In self-delighted whims, will often throw
      Pebbles, to hit and splash their sunny leaves;
Yet quickly dry again, they shine and glow
      Like some rich vision that his eye deceives;
Spreading above the water, day by day,
In dangerous deeps, yet out of danger's way.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the poet John Clare, born in Nottinghamshire, England (1793). He may be the poorest person ever to become a major writer in English literature. His father was a peasant farmer. The family often had to live off the proceeds from a single apple tree in their yard. John Clare went to the village school between the ages of five and eleven. He learned to read and write and decided he wanted to write poetry.

He had to support himself as a farm laborer. Malnutrition had stunted his growth. He was never more than five feet tall, so he couldn't do heavy work. He mostly weeded and stacked hay bales and looked after animals. He couldn't afford to buy paper, so he made his own out of birch bark and made his own ink as well. Some of his poems were written on old envelopes.

Other romantic poets such as Wordsworth and Keats were writing nature poetry, but they wrote about nature as a metaphor for something, whereas John Clare always tried to write about nature as it was, the thing itself.

His first book came out in 1820. The fact that he was a peasant helped to make the book a best-seller. But within a few years there was a bank crash, and there was a recession in England. His books sold fewer and fewer copies, and he moved back to the farm.

John Clare wrote, "I live here among the ignorant like a lost man ... they hardly dare talk in my company for fear I should mention them in my writings." He began to suffer from a psychiatric disorder. His behavior grew more and more erratic. He began to see things, spirits and demons. He was committed to an asylum where he forgot who he was. At some points he thought he was Lord Byron and wrote some poems in Byron's style. He escaped from the asylum at one point but was returned and lived there for the rest of his life.

John Clare wrote about 3,500 poems of which only 400 were published in his lifetime, and his great importance as an English poet has only become clear in the last few decades.

It's the birthday of the short story writer Isaak Babel, born in Odessa, Ukraine (1894). He was the author of Tales of Odessa. In 1939, he was arrested by the Soviet secret police, and that following January, after a 20-minute trial, he was executed in Moscow.

It was Isaak Babel who said, "There is no iron that can enter the human heart with such stupefying effect, as a period placed at just the right moment."

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