John Clare tryptich

John Clare Triptych


It consists of three compositions dedicated to the life and work of the English author John Clare (1793-1864).
The first part is Invitation to Eternity, written for soprano and the core ensemble of the triptych (clarinet/cello/piano).
The second part is Journey out of Essex, written for speaking voice and the core ensemble with the addition of flute, violin and  viola.
The third part John Clare, written for tenore and the same instruments as in part 2 with a further  addition of nine instruments (oboe/bass clarinet/bassoon/French horn/trompet/trombone/a second violin/double bass/percussion).

John Clare was born in the little country village of Helpston (Northhamptonshire) in 1793 as a son of a poor farmhand and died in a lunatic asylum in 1864.
In spite of a very poor education, he started writing poetry at an early age. In 1820 his first poems were published in London and he became a celebrity overnight. From that moment on he lived in two completely different worlds: in London among the cultural elite of those days, who looked down on this strange poet with his rustic appearance and coarse manners, and in his native town among the villagers, who could not understand at all this simple farmhand writing poetry and playing the violin with the gypsies.
At last, when he was no longer able to manage his own affairs, he was admitted to a lunatic asylum. He stayed there for the last twenty years of his life.
Clare felt homeless all his life. He didn’t belong to the simple, non-intellectual world of his native region. Neither did he to the intellectual, arrogant world of the literary hotshots in London. Nor to the seemingly uncomplicated world of the gypsies. Let alone the depressing world of the asylum.
In his own words: ‘I feel homeless at home’ and ‘My home has never been home to me’.

Invitation to Eternity (2002)

with financial support of the Fonds voor de Scheppende Toonkunst
first performance: October 26-2007, The Music Gallery, Toronto (Canada)
Xin Wang – soprano
Ensemble Continuum consisting of Max Christie (clarinet), Paul Widner (cello)
and Laurent Philippe (piano)

It is based on some of Clare’s poems. Not the famous ones, but the less known, often unfinished,  confused and incoherent poems. They reflect a troubled, but highly original mind. The composition begins with an instrumental introduction, followed by seven songs.



I – INTRODUCTION (instrumental)

O sweetly wild and witching Poesy!
I can but say I love, and dearly love thee,
And thou cheer’st me when my soul is sad

The present is the funeral of the past,
And man the living sepulchre of life.

How can an infant die
When butterflies are on the wing,
Green grass, and such a sky?
How can they die at Spring?

Hard as his toil, and ever slow to speak,
Yet he gives maidens many a burning cheek:
For none can pass him but his witless grace
Of bawdry brings the blushes in her face.
As vulgar as the dirt he treads upon,
He calls his cows or drives his horses on;
He knows the tamest cow and strokes her side,
And often tries to mount her back and ride,
And takes her tail at night in idle play,
And makes her drag him homeward all the way,
He knows of nothing but the football match,
And where hens lay, and when the duck will hatch.

Despised, unskilled, or how I will,
Sweet Poesy! I’ll love thee still;
Vain (cheering comfort!) though I be,
I still must love thee, Poesy.
A poor, rude clown, and what of that?
I cannot help the will of fate,
A lowly clown although I be;
Nor can I help it loving thee.
Still must I love thee, sweetest charm!
Still must my soul in raptures warm;
Still must my rudeness pluck the flower,
That’s plucked in an evil hour,
While learning scowls her scornful brow,
And damps my soul – I know not how.
Labour! ‘cause thou’rt mean and poor,
Learning spurns thee from her door;
Bur despise me as she will,
Poesy! I love thee still.
When on pillowed thorns I weep,
And vainly stretch me down to sleep,
Then, thou charm from heaven above,
Comfort’s cordial dost thou prove:
Then, engaging Poesy!
Then how sweet to talk with thee.
And be despised, or how I will,
I cannot help but love thee still.
Endearing charm! Vain though I be,
I still must love thee, Poesy.
Still must I, ay, I can’t refrain:
Damped, despised, or scorned again,
With vain, unhallowed liberty
Still must I sing thee, Poesy
And poor, and vain, and pressed beneath
Oppression’s scorn although I be,
Still will I bind my simple wreath,
Still will I love thee, Poesy.
(on receiving a damp from a genteel opinionist in
poetry, of some sway, as I am told, in the literary world)

Say, wilt thou go with me, sweet maid,
Say, maiden, wilt thou go with me
Through the valley-depths of shade,
Of night and dark obscurity;
Where the path has lost its way,
Where the sun forgets the day,
Where there’s nor light nor life to see,
Sweet maiden, wilt thou go with me?

Where stones will turn to flooding streams,
Where plains will rise like ocean’s waves,
Where life will fade like visioned dreams,
And mountains darken into caves,
Say, maiden, wilt thou go with me
Through this sad non-identity,
Where parents live and are forgot,
And sisters live and know us not?

Say, maiden, wilt thou go with me
In this strange death-in-life to be,
To live in death and be the same,
Without this life or home or name,
At once to be and not to be –
That was and is not – yet to see
Things pass like shadows, and the sky
Above, below, around us lie?

The land of shadows wilt thou trace,
Nor look nor know each other’s face;
The present marred with reason gone,
And past and present all as one?
Say, maiden, can thy life be led
To join the living and the dead?
Then trace thy footsteps on with me;
We are wed to one eternity.

The spring is come and birds are building nests;
The old cock-robin to the sty is come,
With olive feathers and its ruddy breast;
… the bookman comes –
And the little boy pockets tops and taws
To look at the new number
With lots of pictures and good stories too.
Well, honest John, how fare you now at home?

John Clare (1793-1864)

 Journey out of Essex (2002)

with financial support of the Fonds voor de Scheppende Toonkunst
first performance: May 12-2003, Uilenburger Synagoge, Amsterdam
Huib Ramaer – speaking voice
Leo Smit Ensemble, consisting of Eleonore Pameijer (flute), Ivar Berix (clarinet)
Marijke van Kooten (violin), Sven Arne Tepl (viola), Monique Bartels (cello) and
Marianne Boer (piano)

It is based on Clare’s account of his escape from a lunatic asylum in London and his homeward journey to Northborough, about a hundred and twenty kilometres to the north.
He wrote this account for his childhood sweetheart Mary, thinking she was his first wife and still alive. In fact he was never married to her and she had already been dead for many years. He was frequently mixing her up with his real wife, or as Clare called her, his ‘second wife’, Patty, the mother of his children.
In order to maintain a good balance between spoken words and instrumental music some small parts of the original English text have been left out.
In case of a Dutch audience, the Dutch translation, which is given below the original English in the score, should be used.

listen to:


Journal – July 18, 1841 – Sunday. Felt very melancholy. Went for a walk in the forest in the afternoon. Fell in with some Gipsies, one of whom offered to assist in my escape from the madhouse by hiding me in his camp, to which I almost agreed, but told him I had no money to start with, but if he would do so, I would promise him fifty pounds and he agreed to do so before Saturday. On Friday I went again, but he did not seem so willing, so I said little about it. On Sunday I went and they were all gone. An old wide awake hat and an old straw bonnet of the plum pudding sort was left behind and I put the hat in my pocket, thinking it might be useful for another opportunity. As good luck would have it, it turned out to be so.

July 19 – Monday.  Did nothing.

July 20. Reconnoitred the route the Gipsy pointed out and found it a legible one to make a movement and having only honest courage and myself in the army, I led the way and my troops soon followed, but being careless in mapping down the route, I missed the lane to Enfield town and was going down Enfield highway till I passed the LABOUR IN VAIN public house, where a person I knew, coming out of the door, told me the way. I walked down the lane gently and was soon in Enfield Town and bye and bye on the Great York Road, where it was all plain sailing and steering ahead, meeting no enemy and fearing none, I reached Stevenage, where, being night, I scaled some old rotten palings into the yard, which I did with difficulty, being rather weak and to my good luck I found some trusses of clover, which I gladly mounted and slept on. There was some trays on which I could have reposed, had I not found a better bed. I slept soundly, but had a very uneasy dream. I thought my first wife lay on my left arm and somebody took her away from my side, which made me wake up rather unhappy. I thought, as I awoke, somebody said:’Mary’, but nobody was near. I lay down with my head towards the north to show myself the steering point in the morning.

July 21. When I awoke, daylight was looking in on every side and fearing my garrison might be taken by storm and myself be made prisoner, I left my lodging by the way I got in and thanked God for his kindness in procuring it ( for anything in a famine is better than nothing and any place that giveth the weary rest is a blessing). I gained the north road again and steered due north. On the left hand side the road, under the bank, like a cave, I saw a man and boy coiled up asleep, which I hailed and they woke up to tell me the name of the next village. Somewhere on the London side the PLOUGH public house, a man passed me on horseback in a slop frock and said:’Here’s another of the broken down haymakers,’ and threw me a penny to get a half pint of beer, which I picked up and thanked him for and when I got to the PLOUGH, I called for a half pint and drank it and got a rest. Afterwards I would have begged a penny of two drovers, who were very saucy, so I begged no more of anybody, meet who I would. I forget here the names of the villages I passed through, but recollect at late evening, going through Potton in Bedfordshire, where I called in a house to light my pipe, in which was a civil old woman and a young country wench, making lace on a cushion, as round as a globe and a young fellow, all civil people. I asked them a few questions as to the way and where the clergyman and overseer lived, but they scarcely heard me or gave me no answer.

I then went through Potton and happened with a kind talking countryman, who told me the parson lived a good way from where I was, or overseer, I don’t know which, so I went on hopping with a crippled foot, for the gravel had got into my old shoes, one of which I had now nearly lost the sole. I then asked him, whether he could tell me of a farmyard, anywhere on the road, where I could find a shed and some dry straw and he said:’Yes, and if you will go with me, I will show you the place. It’s a public house on the left hand side the road, at the sign of the RAM’, but seeing a stone or flint heap, I longed to rest , as one of my feet was very painful, so I thanked him for his kindness and bid him go on, but the good-natured fellow lingered awhile, as if wishing to conduct me and then suddenly recollecting that he had a hamper on his shoulder and a lock-up bag in his hand, cram-full, to meet the coach, which he feared missing, he started hastily and was soon out of sight. I followed, looking in vain for the countryman’s straw bed and not being able to meet it, I lay down by a shed side under some elm trees, between the wall and the trees, being a thick row planted some 5 or 6 feet from the buildings. I lay there and tried to sleep, but the wind came in between them so cold, that I lay till I quaked like the ague and quitted the lodging for a better at the RAM, which I could hardly hope to find. It now began to grow dark apace and the odd houses on the road began to light up and show the inside tenants lots very comfortable and my outside lot very uncomfortable and wretched. Still I hobbled forward as well as I could and at last came to the RAM. The shutters were not closed and the lighted window looked very cheering, but I had no money and did not like to go in. There was a sort of shed or gig house at the end, but I did not like to lie there as the people were up. So I travelled on. The road was very lonely and dark in places, being over shaded with trees. At length I came to a place where the road branched off into two turnpikes, to the right and straightforward. I then suddenly forgot which was north or south and though I narrowly examined both ways, I could see no tree or bush or stone heap that I could recollect I had passed, so I went on mile after mile, almost convinced I was going the same way I came. I, at length, fell in with an odd house, all alone near a wood. There was a large porch over the door. Being weary, I crept in and, glad enough, I was to find I could lie with my legs straight. The inmates were all gone to roost, for I could hear them turn over in bed. As I lay on the stones, I blest my two wives and both their families and when I thought of some former difficulties on a like occasion, I could not help blessing the Queen.

Having passed a lodge on the left hand, within a mile and half or less of a town I think it might be St Ives, but I forget the name, I sat down to rest on a flint heap, where I might rest half an hour or more and while sitting here, I saw a tall Gipsy come out of the lodge gate and make down the road towards where I was sitting. She was a young woman with an honest looking countenance, rather handsome. I spoke to her and asked a few questions, which she answered readily and with evident good humour, so I got up and went on to the next town with her. She cautioned me on the way to put something in my hat to keep the crown up and said in a lower tone:’You’ll be noticed,’ but not knowing what she hinted, I took no notice and made no reply. She bade me good day, and went into a house or shop on the left hand side the road. I have but a slight recollection of my journey between here and Stilton, for I was knocked up and noticed little or nothing, because the road very often looked as stupid as myself and I was often half asleep as I went.

On the third day I satisfied my hunger by eating the grass by the road side, which seemed to taste something like bread. I was hungry and eat heartily till I was satisfied and in fact the meal seemed to do me good. The next and last day I recollected that I had some tobacco and my box of lucifers being exhausted, I could not light my pipe, so I took to chewing tobacco all day and eat the quids when I had done and I was never hungry afterwards. I remember passing through Buckden and going a length of road afterwards, but I don’t recollect the name of any place until I came to Stilton, where I was completely foot foundered and broken down. When I had got about half way through the town, a gravel causeway invited me to rest myself, so I lay down and nearly went sleep. A young woman, so I guessed by the voice, came out of a house and said:’Poor creature.’ And another, more elderly, said:’Oh, he shams,’ but when I got up, the latter said, as I hobbled along very lame:’Oh no, he don’t.’ I heard the voices, but never looked back to see where they came from.

Before I got to Peterborough, a man and a woman passed me in a cart and on hailing me as they passed, I found they were neighbours from Helpstone, where I used to live. I told them I was knocked up, which they could easily see and that I had neither eat or drank anything since I left Essex. When I told my story, they clubbed together and threw me five pence out of the cart. I picked it up and called at a small public house near the bridge, where I had two half pints of ale and twopenn’oth of bread and cheese.
When I had done, I started quite refreshed, only my feet was more crippled than ever and I could scarcely make a walk of it over the stones and being half ashamed to sit down in the street, I forced to keep on the move and got through Peterborough better than I expected.

Bye and bye I passed Walton and soon reached Werrington and was making for the BEEHIVE as fast as I could, when a cart met me with a man and woman and a boy in it. When nearing me, the woman jumped out and caught fast hold of my hands and wished me to get into the cart, but I refused and thought her either drunk or mad, but when I was told it was my second wife Patty, I got in and was soon in Northborough. But Mary was not there. Neither could I get any information about her further than the old story of her being dead six years ago, which might be taken from a brand-new, old newspaper, printed a dozen years ago, but I took no notice of the blarney, having seen her myself a twelvemonth ago, alive and well and as young as ever. So here I am, homeless at home and half gratified to feel, that I can be happy anywhere. ‘Mary, none those marks of my sad fate efface, for they appeal from tyranny to God’, Byron.

July 24, 1841. […] Returned home out of Essex and found no Mary. Her and her family are as nothing to me now, though she herself was once the dearest of all. ‘And how can I forget, how can I forget?’

To Mary Clare, Glinton. Northborough, July 27, 1841. My dear wife, I have written an account of my journey or rather escape from Essex for your amusement and hope it may divert your leisure hours. I would have told you before now, that I got here to Northborough last Friday night, but not being able to see you or to hear where you was, I soon began to feel homeless at home and shall bye and bye feel nearly hopeless, but not so lonely as I did in Essex, for here I can see Glinton church and feeling that Mary is safe, if not happy and I am gratified. Though my home is no home to me, my hopes are not entirely hopeless, while even the memory of Mary lives so near me. God bless you, my dear Mary. Give my love to your dear and beautiful family and to your mother and believe me as I ever have been and ever shall be, my dearest Mary, your affectionate husband, John Clare.

John Clare (1793-1864)


John Clare (2000/01)

with financial support of the  Fonds voor de Scheppende Toonkunst
first performance: April 24-2001, Theater Kikker, Utrecht
Marcel Beekman – tenore
Basho Ensemble
conductor: Jurrien Sligter

The piece consists of six songs based on a number of diary notes, Clare’s most famous poem ‘I am!’ and the heartrending, last letter he wrote in the asylum.

Listen to:


I should imagine that my low origin in life will not be a mote in the eye of literature to bear against me and I will not urge it as an excuse for what I have written … and as yet I am but an alien in a strange land.

I got acquainted with the gypsies and often associated with them at their camps to learn the fiddle, of which I am very fond.

Very ill and did nothing but ponder over a future existence and often brought up the lines to my memory said to be uttered by an unfortunate nobleman when on the brink of it ready to take the plunge: ‘In doubt I lived, in doubt I dye, nor shrink the dark abyss to try, but undismayed I meet eternity.’ The first line is natural enough but the rest is a rash courage in such a situation.

Fern hill, at the back of the chapel, a beautiful retreat from a madhouse.

V – 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 oblivious host,
Like shades in love and death’s oblivion lost;
And yet I am! And live with shadows tost

Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life nor joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;
And e’en the dearest – that I loved the best –
Are strange – nay, rather stranger than the rest.

I long for scenes where man has 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.

Dear Sir,
I am in a Madhouse and quite forgot your Name or who you are. You must excuse me for I have nothing to communicate or tell of why I am shut up I don’t know. I have nothing to say, so I conclude yours respectfully,

John Clare (1793-1864)