Monday, January 12, 2009

"I Am"

Mundanity, like inanity, should be carefully titrated in a blog. What charms a parent encounters incomprehension in a world of (potential) readers. For instance, like any young children, ours occasionally revel in bodily function humor that, to put it mildly, is not ready for prime time.

But the other day we were on the way to get the first grader's haircut, and he started in on infinity again:

"Daddy, what is the biggest number?"

"I've already told you, infinity."

"But I thought you said numbers get bigger forever."

"They do--infinity isn't really a number, it's the idea that numbers keep getting bigger and bigger and never stop."

"What's the biggest number that isn't infinity?"

"Infinity minus one, I suppose, but that isn't really the name of a number either."

"Oh, Daddy!"

Sometimes if you look at an astronomical image of a star or nebula, perhaps, that is a few thousand light years away, you'll see blobs of light that appear to be stars but that on closer inspection reveal themselves to be minute swirls, galaxies that could be two billion rather than two thousand light years away. It's like being pulled into an infinite regress, like somehow falling off the earth and plummeting the length of the solar system, or like those dreams most people have of limitless free fall.

I was pondering childhood, of puzzles of identity, and of unbridgeable distances, and what popped out of the conceptual labyrinth but...John Clare. Clare (1793-1864) was sort of on the Junior Varsity team of British Romantic poets (subbing for William Blake perhaps).

Clare was intriguing for a couple of reasons. Many famous folks hail from humble beginnings, of course, but Clare was unusual in coming from a situation of nearly absolute indigence. His farming family was literally dirt poor; when I read a full biography of him a few years ago, I recall learning that some of his early poems were written on scraps of bark because there was no paper. He had very little formal education because he started work in the fields early (the Abraham Lincoln of poetry I suppose).

Clare struggled with his identity throughout his career because while he was patronized by publishers as a woodland wunderkind, they also tried to "correct" the rural dialect in which he naturally wrote. Over time he never really felt at home among the literary class, but he was by then estranged from the illiterate folk from whom he had sprung. He became unhappy and began drinking too much.

In mid-life he developed erratic and at times delusional behavior. It sounds like he suffered from bipolar disorder, for which there would be no specific treatment for nearly a hundred years. The last twenty years of his life were spent at the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum, where he wrote a number of his late poems, including his famous lyric "I Am." (Note: there should be a space between the six and seventh lines, but Blogger is freezing up on me).

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 oblivion's host,
Like shadows in love's frenzied stifled throes:--
And yet I am, and live--like vapours tost
Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,--
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life or joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my lifes esteems;
Even the dearest, that I love the best
Are strange--nay, rather stranger than the rest.

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.

That last stanza is what gets me.


Anonymous said...

That's one of the saddest things I've ever yearn for the prison of absolute freedom/nothingness.

Novalis said...

Interesting--I find it sad only in the way that meditation, worship, or art are sad--the necessary respect we pay to Mystery.

How could I forget? This blog titrates mundanity, inanity, and...insanity.

Retriever said...

Love this poem! Thanks.

Not the desire to end but to suspend the rush of life to its inevitable end. As time slows in the mundane glory of bugs humming and the blue glare of a summer sky viewed from the grass a child flings themself down on.