Archive for September 21st, 2021

The I Am

GC Myers- The I Am sm

The I Am“- At the West End Gallery



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.

–I Am, John Clare, ca 1845

John Clare was an interesting case. He led a troubled existence for much of his 70 years on this planet. Born from a family of rural farm laborers,  Clare bounced from job to job and place to place, living a life of poverty. In an attempt to raise money to prevent his parent’s eviction from their home, Clare, through a local bookseller, submitted his poetry to the publisher who had published the works of John Keats. His book of verse, as well as a second soon after, was published and praised. 

But even then, recognized as he was as a poetic genius in farmer’s garb, he struggled with his  own mental demons. Much of the rest of his life was spent in English asylums. His most famous poem, I Am, whose final verse is shown above, was written in one such asylum, Northampton General Lunatic Asylum, around 1844 or 1845. 

His work was somewhat overlooked after his death in 1864 at the Northampton Asylum, where he had spent his final 23 years. But in the 20th century his worked received new attention and Clare’s work was elevated and he has been deemed a major poet of the 19th century.

It’s a sad life, indeed. It reminds me of those times when I have been going through genealogy records, following an ancestor’s life as it progresses, and come upon a record from some sort of institution. It might be an almshouse– a poorhouse– or a county home, a place where they gathered the paupers, the handicapped and those with mental problems so that they would be out of sight.

Coming across these records always makes me very sad. I can imagine myself in these ancestors’ places, the feelings that I would no doubt be experiencing– the loss, the alienation, the confusion that must have plagued their minds.

But even more than that, my sadness comes from knowing that their voices were no doubt unheard by the time these records were registered. They had, by that time, become problems to be swept aside.

And they, no doubt, wanted little more than the peace of mind that Clare describes in that final verse– the untroubled sleep of a child beneath a high, clear sky.

I find my own desires for this life dwindling down to those same simple wants. And in this, I find a bond with these poor, troubled relations. And with Clare in that English asylum.

And that in turn makes me grateful for the small graces that allow me to live the life I live and to find expression for my own small I Am.


Here’s a lovely reading of I Am from Tom O’Bedlam:

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