Heard in a Violent Ward (John Clare)
Song cycle for baritone and piano
1990, rev. 2014
Text: poems and letters by John Clare
Premiere—1993, by Lawrence Weller, baritone; John Churchwell, piano, Saint Paul, MN.
A peasant poet, the son of a Northamptonshire farm laborer, John Clare achieved a certain fame through the publication in 1820 of Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery, and The Village Minstrel, which appeared the following year. Bloom and Trilling call him “a genuine visionary of nature,” acknowledging the poet’s narrow range, but pronouncing the work “intense and pure.” “That sweet man, John Clare” as Roethke called him, entered the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum in 1841, the victim of acute bi-polar disorder. He lived there, and was treated well and allowed to continue writing, until his death.
Selected from various sources, this cycle includes observations on Byron’s funeral train, Clare’s best-known poem, “I am,” and his last, poignant letter. It is dedicated to baritone Lawrence Weller.
I. In a Madhouse
I am in a Madhouse and quite forget your Name or who you are You must excuse me for I have nothing to communicate or tell of and why I am shut up I don’t know I have nothing to say so I conclude
John Clare (To James Hipkins, 1860)
II. There is a charm in Solitude
There is a charm in Solitude that cheers
A feeling that the world knows nothing of
A green delight the wounded mind endears
After the hustling world is broken off
Whose whole delight was crime at good to scoff
Green solitude his prison pleasure yields
The bitch fox heeds him not—birds seem to laugh
He lives the Crusoe of his lonely fields
Which dark green oaks his noontide leisure shields (Before 1856)
III. Byron’s Funeral 1825
My eye was arrested by straggling groups of common people… The train of a funeral suddenly appeared on which a young girl that stood beside me gave a deep sigh and uttered “Poor Lord Byron.” I looked up in the young girl’s face; it was dark and beautiful, and I could almost feel in love with her… She had counted the carriages in her mind as they passed… sixty-three or -four in all. The gilt ones that led the procession were empty. I saw his remains born away on its last journey to that place where fame never comes; though it lives like a shadow and lingers like a sunbeam on his grave it cannot enter. (1825)
My dear boy,
You told me to enquire about my old companions of my single days—
How is Thomas Porter—in my single days we loved books and flowers together. And how is Tom Clare—we used to sit in the fields and sing capital songs—”She is the darling of my life, and she lives in the alley…”—Capital songs over a bottle of beer!
How is old Otter the Fiddler? And old John Nottingham and his wife Sally Frisby? Henry Snow and his wife and Robin Oliver and Jonathan Burbidge and his wife and daughter and Mary Buzley and old Mr. Buzley if alive for many are dead and some forgotten and Richard Royce and his wife and daughter? And Nottingham, old John Nottingham?
There is also Will Bloodworth and Tom and Sam Ward and John Fell and his wife and John King and Miss Large.
Mr. and Miss Bellars on the hill and John and Mrs. Bullimore the Village Schoolmistress and how is Charles Welsh and Robin Oliver? And John Nottingham.
And remember me kindly to all I have forgotten. (To Chas. Clare, 1849)
V. Nobody will own me
Nobody will own me or have me at any price, and what have I done? When people call me God’s bastard, pay me by shutting me up from Gods people out of the way of common sense and then take my head off because they can’t find me. It out-herods Herod.
Dearest Mary, are you faithful?* How I should like to walk with you in the snow where I helped to shake your carpets and take the opportunity we neglected then to kiss on the green grass and love you even better than before. (To Mary Collingwood, 1850).
*Clare confuses Mary Collingwood with his wife, also named Mary
VI. 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 oblivion’s host,] Like shadows in love’s frenzied stifled throes:—
And yet I am, and live—like vapours tossed
Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,—
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life or joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;
Even the dearest, that I love the best
Are strange—nay, rather stranger than the rest.
I long for scenes, where man hath 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. (1840s)
I… quite forget your Name or who you are… You must excuse me I have nothing to communicate and why I am shut up… I have nothing… I conclude, John Clare. (To James Hipkins, 1860)