The Daily

Prison Lit

In the Madhouse

January 5, 2016 | by

John Clare, Christopher Smart, and the poetry of the asylum.


Saint Luke’s Home for Lunatics, where Christopher Smart was confined for more than five years

Max Nelson is writing a series on prison literature. Read the previous entry, on George Jackson’s Soledad Brother, here.

In an agrarian or preindustrial Britain, a brilliant young man bristles at his assigned vocation. After reading insatiably for years, he starts publishing odd, distinctive poems that cause a local stir. Urged to settle down, he instead experiments with more startling writing and shows more worrying behavior. His wife and family, understandably troubled but also driven by some unsavory motives, arrange for him to be sent to a madhouse, where confinement turns out to be much more to his harm than to his good. As his mental and physical health declines, his poetry starts to develop more radical formal arrangements. It also takes on a new tone: a strange, arresting combination of de-sexed innocence, bitter wisdom, childlike whimsy, and intensity of focus. Well after his death, as literary critics start pillaging the past for works of inadvertent modernism, his surviving poetry becomes a source of inspiration for a new generation of writers by whose books he’d have been equally fascinated and baffled.

This account corresponds roughly to the lives of both John Clare (1793–1864) and Christopher Smart (1722–’71), though it ignores much of what set the two poets apart. An archetypical urban poet, the son of a bailiff, Smart spent years on Grub Street writing satires, poems, attacks on his contemporaries, and flurries of hackwork, much of it under pseudonyms. Years earlier, when he started his career as a brilliant (if eccentric) divinity student at Pembroke College, he’d already received a thorough grounding in the classics. Clare, an agricultural laborer who lived and worked in Britain’s East Midlands during a period of rapid industrialization, grew up to a family of poor tenement farmers and went to school only sporadically. No less intelligent and formally imaginative than Smart’s, his poetry was as closely informed by Helpston’s birds, flowers, and folk songs—he might have been one of Europe’s earliest ethnomusicologists—as his predecessor’s was by the gospels, the classics, and the Grub Street press. 

It’s these two poets’ shared misfortune to be remembered as mad visionaries. The truth about their mental health is hard to fix. Smart scholars have speculated that he suffered from manic depression. (“I have,” he wrote, “a greater compass of mirth and melancholy than another.”) At various points, Clare reportedly claimed to be Sir Walter Scott, Lord Nelson, a famous prizefighter, the victor of Waterloo, the newspaper editor and poet James Montgomery, Shakespeare, and Lord Byron, whose poems he ransacked for inspiration during his imprisonment. The magisterial long poems both writers worked on while institutionalized—Clare’s “Child Harold” (after Byron) and Smart’s “Jubilate Agno”—are indeed startling, immoderate, obsessive, sporadically delusional, and always thrillingly unfixed. And yet they’re too full of clever self-presentation, dirge-like sorrow, and knowing humor to be the naive ravings for which they’re sometimes taken.


John Clare.

An insatiable autodidact, Clare was not only a largely untutored poet but also a self-guided botanist, an amateur ornithologist, and a collector of popular songs. His first books of verse can almost be read as elaborate taxonomies on birds, rodents and plants, so set is he in each case on capturing what makes a given species remarkable. A poem like “Angling” describes its subject with such precise detail that it could be used as an instructional manual: the finding of the right spot, “half shade half sun”; the casting of “the strongest line” first; the shiver of anticipation when the float rustles on still water; the efforts of control required whenever one “draws a flat and curving beam.”

Clare wrote those early poems in the late 1820s, after two decades during which the landscape of rural Helpston had been radically transformed. The movement to “enclose” previously communal land into larger, privately owned farms magnified Britain’s agricultural production, but for Clare it was a moral disaster. In addition to displacing many of the gypsies and tenant farmers about whom he wrote some of his most admiring poems, it also dramatically disrupted the area’s fragile ecosystem. Jonathan Bate has argued persuasively that Clare was less a political radical than a staunch patriot, one whose love of his country was inseparable from his attachment to its flora, faunae, and soil. It was both an act of dissent and a gesture of national pride for Clare to protest that, in Helpston, “scarce a greensward spot remains / and scare a single tree.”

As Clare’s star rose in London—where he was too often celebrated as a kind of rustic natural endowed with strange, unconscious gifts—his depression and anxiety worsened. He was married to Martha Turner, or “Patty,” the third woman he courted as a young man. The first had been his classmate Mary Joyce, with whom he’d been smitten as a teenager. As his unhappiness deepened, he lingered distressingly over his memories of Mary; eventually, he became convinced that he’d been taken from her side by force and that, “to save trouble / I wed again and made the error double.”

Literary success hardly came easily to Clare, who was accustomed to life as a rural laborer; given his few publishing connections and his history of odd jobs, it’s striking that he was able to attain the fame that he did. When he was institutionalized for the first time, now as a voluntary patient, it was in High Beach, a progressive, comfortable asylum in Epping Forest run by the eccentric psychologist Matthew Allen. It’s unclear when, exactly, High Beach became a prison for Clare rather than a retreat from the marital pressures, money troubles and bouts of writer’s block he endured at home. Whatever the tipping point was, by July 1841 it made sense for him to write about encountering a gypsy on a walk and considering the man’s offer to help him “escape from the mad house.” High Beach had become the kind of place about which he could write, in a ballad embedded in the first page of “Child Harold,” that “summer morning is risen / and to even it wends / and still Im in prison / without any friends.” (He did, in fact, escape in 1841 and return home; he was removed and reinstitutionalized only months later.)

“Child Harold” became a kind of endless repository for Clare’s later interests and obsessions. Structurally, it’s a songbook in which ballads and hymns occur between sections of rhymed verse. Its mood is subject to constant brightenings and darkenings, patches of radiant optimism and longer passages of deep gloom. Its many nature sketches include some of Clare’s densest, richest phrases: the “green bushes and green trees where fancy feeds / on the retiring solitudes of May,” or the lake that “curves with wrinkles in the stillest place.” Its tone is that of a devotional song, but the object of Clare’s devotion shifts from segment to segment and even verse to verse: we might be reading a song of praise to God that evolves into a hymn to the Northampton landscape and from that into—most often—a worried rhapsody for Mary.

The poem begins with a bold statement of intent:

Many are poets—though they use no pen
To show their labours to the shuffling age
Real poets must be truly honest men
Tied to no mongrel laws on flatterys page …
—The life of labour is a rural song
That hurts no cause—nor welfare tries to wage
Toil like the brook in music wears along—
Great little minds claim right to act the wrong …

Did Clare believe that he was a “truly honest man”? Was he in fact ever convinced that he’d been doubly wed, or that he was Lord Byron? Not only are questions like these impossible to answer, simply indulging them makes one less inclined to credit Clare for the clever, sophisticated kind of rebellion that “Child Harold” acts out. Against a rural England that was increasingly privatized and enclosed, Clare insisted that poetry was a space in which a mind could luxuriate in delusions, slap itself awake, lull itself back into blissful introspection, and veer suddenly from hope to despair. “My love was ne’er so blessed as when / it mingled with her own,” a typical passage from “Child Harold” runs, “but now loves hopes are all bereft / a lonely man I roam.” Then, however, you come to the odd pleasures of the next stanza—

The Paigles Bloom in Shower’s In Grassy Close
How Sweet To Be Among Their Blossoms Led
And Hear Sweet Nature To Herself Discourse …
For Such Delights Twere Happy Man Were Born

—and you give up trying to hold the poem to a tone. It was as if, by multiplying the moods he could inhabit, varying his voices and refusing to edit or repress his romantic fancies on the page, Clare was reconstructing in his imagination the kind of sprawling, inefficiently organized landscape he’d been denied outside it. “From her sweet thralldom I am never free,” he wrote in the poem’s last pages, “yet here my prison is a spring to me / past memories bloom like flowers where e’er I rove / my very bondage though in snares—is free.”


Christopher Smart.

Nearly a century earlier, Smart had been equally moved by the thought that a prison could be a spring. If Clare’s prison writing showcases the many shapes, meters, and moods that a long poem can assimilate, Smart’s demonstrates what a long poem can do when it’s shackled to as restrictive a set of formal conditions as possible. The ballads and songs in “Child Harold” were folded into the poem like clippings tucked into a notebook; Smart’s “Jubilate Agno” is a meticulously organized dictionary of possible subjects, identified by proper names, classed into two categories (every line of the poem begins with either “let” or “for”) and enumerated with unvarying persistence and speed. The first of the poem’s surviving fragments comprises an inventory well over a hundred lines long of figures chosen to “approach the throne of Grace”:

Let Enoch bless with the Rackoon, who walked with God as by the instinct.
Let Hashbadana bless with the Catamountain, who stood by the Pulpit of God against the dissensions of the Heathen.
Let Ebed-Melech bless with the Mantiger, the blood of the Lord is sufficient to do away the offence of Cain, and reinstate the creature which is amerced.
Let A Little Child with a Serpent bless Him, who ordaineth strength in babes to the confusion of the Adversary.
Let Huldah bless with the Silkworm—the ornaments of the Proud are from the bowells of their Betters.

Smart’s seven-year confinement in a string of asylums—notably the private Saint Luke’s and, later, a cheaper, dingier house run by one Mr. Potter—had less to do with his mental health than with a cluster of other factors. Under a number of recurring Kierkegaardian pseudonyms, he wrote hundreds of bawdy, barbed pieces at the expense of England’s political elite. He quarreled often with his sinister, well-connected father-in-law; he was financially unstable; maybe most damningly, he was persistently drunk. (“He walked into the alehouse,” his friend Samuel Johnson quipped, “and came home in a wheelbarrow.”) When he’d been drinking he would fall victim to the fervid, dramatic praying fits that so alarmed his relatives and friends, whom he’d “call,” one remembered, “from their dinners, or beds, or places of recreation, whenever impulse towards prayer pressed upon his mind.”

This prayerful spirit animates “Jubilate Agno,” which is, whatever else, a piece of devotional writing. Like Smart’s later prison poem “A Song to David,” it insists that humankind is constantly surrounded both by divine works and by the machinations of “the adversary.” It lavishes attention on the range of sacred offerings it’s possible to make. (“Let Hashum rejoice with Moon-Trefoil. / Let Netophah rejoice with Cow-Wheat. / Let Chephirah rejoice with Millet. / Let Beeroth rejoice with Sea-Buckthorn.”) And yet if it’s a poem designed to fill its readers with due reverence for God, it goes about its job in an odd, roundabout way. More often, the glories Smart calls attention to are those of a distinctly human creation: the English language, with its daunting variety of names and categories, the range of possible puns it allows, and the plain delight of playing it, musician-like, for a crowd. “For my talent,” Smart wrote in Fragment B3 of “Jubilate,” “is to give an Impression upon words by punching, that when the reader casts his eye upon ’em, he takes up the image from the mould which I have made.”

Smart’s celebration of his cat Jeoffry, who was practically his only regular friendly contact for long periods of his imprisonment, is justly famous for its whimsical wordplay. A more direct expression of Smart’s linguistic felicity is the miniature dictionary of rhymes that comes earlier in the same fragment:

For every word has its marrow in the English tongue for order and for delight.
For the dissyllables such as able table &c are the fiddle rhimes.
For all dissyllables and some trissyllables are fiddle rhimes.
For the relations of words are in pairs first.
For the relations of words are sometimes in oppositions.
For the relations of words are according to their distances from the pair.

Some lines down Smart writes cryptically that “languages work into one another by their bearings,” offering as proof that “the power of some animal is predominant in every language”:

For the power and spirit of a CAT is in the Greek.
For the sound of a cat is in the most useful preposition κατ' ευχην .
For the pleasantry of a cat at pranks is in the language ten thousand times over.

That the English language already, in a sense, contained all the puns, lists, word combinations, and pranks that could be done with it was a powerful thought for Smart. It led him to run through the alphabet and feel out its contours letter by letter (“For A is awe, if pronounced full. Stand in awe and sin not. / For B pronounced in the animal is bey importing authority. / For C pronounced hard is ke importing to shut”), or to say that the bull was “a creature of infinite magnitude” simply because “there are many words under Bull.” (“For Beetle is under Bull. / For Toad is under bull. / For Frog is under Bull, which he has a delight to look at.”)

Reading Smart back-to-back with Clare suggests two paths for prison poetry to follow. On one, a poem records the free movements of an idiosyncratic mind; on the other, it’s a compulsive recitation of names and facts. Neither side of this distinction always holds firm; Smart could be led, like Clare, by mischievous impulses and whims, just as Clare could be a finicky compiler of information. In every instance, they both staked their work on the thought that it was not in the nature of language for it to be used as a device for suppression, coercion, or control. In Fragment B of “Jubilate Agno,” Smart pictured himself as a whale hooked and speared for, presumably, using language too liberally or inventively. (“For they work on me with their harping-irons, which is a barbarous instrument, because I am more unguarded than others.”) Clare likewise rebelled, in his disregard for punctuation and his eager curiosity about Helpston’s folk songs, against the notion that English followed rules that couldn’t be overstepped. “A person may be very clever at cutting trees and animals on paper,” Clare wrote in a Smart-like register midway through a short prose rant about the tyranny of grammar, “but he is nothing as an artist and a person may be very clever at detecting faults in a composition and yet in the writing of it may be a mere cypher him self and one that can do nothing.”

Northampton General Lunatic Asylum, where John Clare was confined.

Max Nelson’s writings on film and literature have appeared in The Threepenny Reviewn+1, Film Comment, and The Boston Review, among other publications. He lives in New York. 

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