John Clare’s “I Am”

When I read the title of John Clare’s “I Am”, the first thing that I thought of was Neil Diamond’s song with a similar title, “I Am…I Said”. I gave the song a relisten and thought that it had a few pretty interesting similarities to Clare’s poem.

First, as it says in the Norton Anthology, Clare spent much of his later life in an asylum. I read more about this on Wikipedia and, apparently, Clare struggled with mental health issues throughout his life, eventually willingly going to this asylum when he could no longer support his family.

I also read a bit about the composition of “I Am…I Said”, and apparently Neil Diamond wrote this about many of the thoughts/feelings he had while undergoing therapy. Though I have no doubt that an asylum in the 1840s must have been a very different experience than modern therapy, it’s interesting that both of these works that begin with the phrase “I Am” were written during periods of, most likely, intense introspection.

In “I Am…I Said”, Diamond sings, “I’m lost between two shores. L.A.’s fine, but it ain’t home. New York’s home, but it ain’t mine no more.” I thought this line was very similar to the stanza below. Both writers touch on the theme of wanting to return home not in the sense of a physical location but in the sense of the feelings and experiences they had as children. I can imagine that Clare in particular felt strongly about his lines, given his living in an asylum.

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. (13-18)

Diamond also sings, “‘I am’… I said, to no one there. And no one heard at all, not even the chair.” Clare also touches on this theme of feeling completely alone when he writes, “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;—” (1-3). It’s interesting to see two artists from such different times talk about what it means to try to figure out who you are and what your purpose is, especially in the face of mental health issues and fame.

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