This little poem by John Clare (1793-1864) is not his most famous, but it’s worth sharing here because it so perfectly puts into words the power of untold love. ‘I loved thee, though I told thee not’: undoubtedly we could all tell a similar story, especially during those powerful years when we’re in the grip of first love. For a good edition of John Clare’s poetry, we recommend John Clare: Major Works from Oxford University Press.
I loved thee, though I told thee not,
Right earlily and long,
Thou wert my joy in every spot,
My theme in every song.
And when I saw a stranger face
Where beauty held the claim,
I gave it like a secret grace
The being of thy name.
And all the charms of face or voice
Which I in others see
Are but the recollected choice
Of what I felt for thee.
This poem by an often-overlooked voice in Romantic poetry, John Clare (1793-1864), strikes to the heart of what many of us have felt at some time in our lives: having kept his love of somebody a secret, the poet is doomed to transfer or deflect that love onto other people who remind him of his first, true love. Not so much a lost love as a love never had, this one – but poignant and affecting nevertheless.
Jonathan Bate, in his masterly biography John Clare, points out that this poem was ‘scribbled on the back of a letter draft’, not long after Clare had moved to the village of Northborough in 1832. The addressee of the poem is probably Mary Joyce, a farmer’s daughter Clare had met while he was still a boy. Clare appears to have fallen in love with Mary and remained in love for the rest of his life: she was his first love, and remained his muse.
Bate points out that ‘joy’ is a key word in Clare’s poetry, and it recurs many times, including here: ‘Thou wert my joy in every spot’. But we may also glimpse Mary’s surname punningly in that final stanza: ‘And all the charms of face or voice / Which I in others see / Are but the recollected choice / Of what I felt for thee.’ For ‘recollected choice’ read ‘recollected Joyce’?