John Clare was born into a peasant family in Helpston, England. Although he was the son of illiterate parents, Clare received some formal schooling, but it ended when he was eleven years old. This child of the ‘unwearying eye’ had a thirst for knowledge and became a model example of the self-taught man. As a poet of rural England he has few rivals. While earning money through such manual labor as ploughing and threshing, Clare recorded the massive changes in both town and countryside in his poems and prose.
Clare published several volumes of poetry, including Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery in 1820. Sadly, the public’s enthusiasm did not last long and each new volume met with diminishing applause. In 1837, after suffering from delusions, Clare was admitted to an insane asylum where, aside from one brief time in 1841, he spent the final 20 years of his life.
Henry Kirke White was born in Nottingham, the son of a butcher, a trade for which he was himself intended. After being briefly apprenticed to a stocking-weaver, he was articled to a lawyer. Meanwhile he studied hard, and his master offered to release him from his contract if he had sufficient means to go to college. He received encouragement from Capel Lofft, the friend of Robert Bloomfield, and published in 1803 Clifton Grove, a Sketch in Verse, with other Poems, dedicated to Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. The book was violently attacked in the Monthly Review (February 1804), but White was rewarded with a kind letter from Robert Southey.
Through the efforts of his friends, he was able to enter St John’s College, Cambridge, having spent a year beforehand with a private tutor, the Rev Lorenzo Grainger at Winteringham, Lincolnshire. Close application to study induced a serious illness, and fears were entertained for his sanity, but he went into residence at Cambridge, with a view to taking holy orders, in the autumn of 1805. The strain of continuous study proved fatal. He was buried in the church of All Saints, Cambridge. The genuine piety of his religious verses secured a place in popular hymnology for some of his hymns. Much of his fame was due to sympathy inspired by his early death; but Lord Byron agreed with Southey about the young man’s promise, saying in a tributary eulogy “while life was in its spring, thy young muse just waved her joyous wing.”