When the Cherokee Indians were taken out of their homelands in the east and forced to march to their reservations in the prairies of Kansas, they described it like being taken out of their mind.  Over a quarter of them died and those that survived became demoralised.  Many of them turned to alcoholism.     

 

The rural English poet, John Clare knew what that was like.  He could see his world from the tower of Helpstone Church, near Peterborough. ‘Everything you see is yourself.  It’s the extent of yourself – the bounds of your understanding’.  But between 1809 and 1820, when he was still a young man, it all changed.  

 

Clare was writing at the time of the English diaspora when the parliamentary enclosures dispossessed most of the population of the common land where they kept their stock and grew their own food.  This disconnected them, not only from their birthright but also from their culture and traditions.  They were, at a stroke of the parliamentary axe, deracinated.  There are stories of ancient footpaths being closed, no trespassing signs erected, holy wells, around which festivals would be held, being fenced in. With no source of food and no work, most of the population was uprooted and forced to migrate and seek employment in the new industrial towns.  Over the course the last two hundred years the same thing has happened throughout the world. 

 

I have written of our identity as an amalgam of the beliefs by which we  lead our lives; our core values and the people, the connections that embody those ideas.  Place is very important because it contains those beliefs and those people. Environment and society were more bound up than perhaps they are today.  In the past, the physical space, the locale in which a person lived, was a landscape of personal meaning.  John Clare knew intimately every field, every hill, every wood.  He knew the birds and animals that inhabited that space.  The landscape was his identity.  It conditioned his thinking.  It was his thinking.  Taking him away from it caused him to lose his mind.   

 

I can connect with that.  No, I’ve not gone mad.  At least, nobody’s suggested that I have,  but Last year my father died.  He had lived in his house on the Blackdown escarpment in Somerset for nearly fifty years.  My brother and I grew up there.  The woods that lined the escarpment, the flinty fields above them and the reservoirs beneath, the owls, buzzards, roe deer and badgers became part of who I was.  His death not only represented the absence of a key figure in my life, but also the loss of that part of me that was connected with Blagdon Hill.  The loss is enormous.  I cannot yet bring myself to go back. 

 

Change can challenges people’s perceptions of themselves.  It can make people ill.  It can  make them mad.  John Clare found it difficult to adapt to the changes occurring around him.  He became depressed and so disturbed that his wife, Martha, felt it necessary to enlist Dr Fermix Scrimshire’s assistance to get him committed to a mental asylum in Epping Forest. 

 

I’m not necessarily suggesting that the enclosure of the parish of Helpstone was the only reason Clare went ‘mad’.  His relationship with Martha was always a stormy one, not least because he remained in love with his childhood sweetheart Mary.   

 

The psychoanalyst, Adam Phillips, recently said that as good a definition of madness as any is when a person’s family cannot cope with them.  But if we agree with that, we would need to accept that Alexander Solzenitzyn  and the other intellectual dissidents incarcerated on the Gulag Archipelago were truly, whereas it was the state that was paranoid.   

 

But if John Clare was crazy before he left Helpstone,  he became doubly crazy afterwards.  It was after his forced eviction to Essex that his poetry became a little bizarre and he began to imagine that he was Lord Byron and he was indeed married to both Martha and Mary.   

 

Mary was his muse.  It was while he was in the asylum in Essex that he heard a rumour that Mary had died.  He escaped and walked up the Great North Road, eating grass, begging bread and water whenever he could.  You can imagine his distress when he indeed discovered that Mary, who had never married, had died in a house fire.

 

He spent the rest of his life in an asylum in Northamptonshire.    

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