Like the thresher poet Stephen Duck a century earlier, John Clare (1793- 1864) has always had a place in the literary histories, if only as a biographical footnote. Clare's confinement in the Northampton Asylum in 1841, and Duck's apparent suicide by drowning in 1756, helped to turn these authors, and many like them, into object lessons on the perils of a literary career for those from humble backgrounds. What the tendency to moralizing anecdote has obscured is that Duck and Clare were just two among more than a thousand poets from economically disadvantaged social backgrounds who wrote and published between 1700 and 1900. It is the purpose of this chapter to consider how Clare's poetry responds to the variety and complexity of a tradition of British labouring-class poetry. The sheer number of poets from labouring-class backgrounds, the common themes and styles evident in their verse, and their self-conscious response and resistance to trends within polite and popular poetry, demonstrate that these authors comprise a parallel tradition in British literature, one to which Clare is a significant and self-aware contributor.
Clare indeed is the crucial hinge between the labouring-class poetry of the eighteenth century and early Romantic period on one hand, and the later Chartist andVictorian working-class poetry on the other. His poetry might be read as both a culmination and a transformation in the tradition, responding to themes and issues from earlier labouring-class verse, but also introducing new topics or significantly altering the discourse devoted to familiar themes. Clare’s writing, for example, embodies a poignant struggle to reconcile the two identities of village labourer and poet.