This is the third in a Monday sequence of poems, by three very different poets,but all of which have been composed as soul-searching expressions of the sense of self or the search for the same.
This is one of Emily Dickinson’s most quoted poems, short and to the point, in which she takes a more positive, if seemingly down-beat, stance on the subject.
Its memorable opening lines, grab the reader’s interest with their boldness and certainty.
I’m Nobody! Who are you? Are you – Nobody, too? Then there’s a pair of us – don’t tell! They’d advertise – you know!
How dreary – to be – Somebody! How public – like a Frog – To tell one’s name – the livelong June – To an admiring Bog!
I think she is revelling in the fact that she is not well-known as a poet. She, in fact, is enjoying her anonymity. Apart from a very few, her poems were not published until after she died, and the freedom which this gave her from the publicity and pressures which fame can bring, she greatly valued. So very different from the uncertainties and lack of self-esteem from which both John Clare and Sylvia Plath suffered.
Today’s offering is not, strictly speaking a poem. It is a very short, one sentence, quotation from the ‘The Bell Jar’, (written under the pseudonym, ‘Victoria Lucas’), the only novel ever written by the American poet, Sylvia Plath, who committed suicide, aged 30, shortly after its publication in 1963.
I am using it today as its introspection does mirror that of John Clare, whose ‘I Am’ verses I featured a week ago. Both Clare and Plath were troubled beings, suffering for long periods of their lives from severe mood swings and depression.
In this one sentence from her novel, Sylvia Plath, cries out with similar force to that which John Clare was expressing in his poem, for the self-belief and recognition which both felt had eluded them . . . ‘I AM! yet what I am who cares, or knows?’
John Clare (1793 – 1864) was an English poet. Born in Northamptonshire, he was the son of a farm labourer, who became known for his celebrations of the English countryside and for regularly expressing sorrows at its disruption. His poetry underwent major re-evaluation in the late 20th century and he is now often seen as one of the important 19th-century poets. His biographer, Jonathan Bate, states that Clare was “the greatest labouring-class poet that England has ever produced. No one has ever written more powerfully of nature, of a rural childhood, and of the alienated and unstable self.” Many of his poems are filled with a joy he experienced in nature and the countryside. Sadly, however, for the last 25 years of his life Clare suffered from mental illness and was incarcerated in a mental institution. In this wistful soul-searching poem, described by some as “one of the greatest poems of sheer despair ever written”, Clare spills out his desolation and detachment from a life which he would dearly love to have lived . . .
‘I AM’ . . . by John Clare
I AM! yet what I am who cares, or knows? My friends forsake me, like a memory lost. I am the self-consumer of my woes, They rise and vanish, an oblivious host, Shadows of life, whose very soul is lost. 5 And yet I am—I live—though I am toss’d. Into the nothingness of scorn and noise, Into the living sea of waking dream, Where there is neither sense of life, nor joys, But the huge shipwreck of my own esteem 10 And all that’s dear. Even those I loved the best Are strange—nay, they are stranger than the rest. I long for scenes where man has never trod— For scenes where woman never smiled or wept— There to abide with my Creator, God, 15 And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept, Full of high thoughts, unborn. So let me lie, The grass below; above, the vaulted sky.