Literature

A Short Analysis of John Clare’s ‘The Instinct of Hope’

‘The Instinct of Hope’ is a poem by the English Romantic poet John Clare (1793-1864). ‘The Instinct of Hope’ is a sonnet (of sorts), which … well, we’ve already hit upon a curious problem. Is this poem a sonnet or not? Below we offer some words of analysis, but first, here’s the text of the poem.

The Instinct of Hope

Is there another world for this frail dust
To warm with life and be itself again?
Something about me daily speaks there must,
And why should instinct nourish hopes in vain?
’Tis nature’s prophesy that such will be,
And everything seems struggling to explain
The close sealed volume of its mystery.
Time wandering onward keeps its usual pace
As seeming anxious of eternity,
To meet that calm and find a resting place.
E’en the small violet feels a future power
And waits each year renewing blooms to bring,
And surely man is no inferior flower
To die unworthy of a second spring?

‘The Instinct of Hope’ is a poem about a familiar feeling: cherishing hope that there is life beyond this world. But both nouns in the poem’s

by William Hilton, oil on canvas, 1820

title require equal weighting: instead of grounding this hope in something outwardly or externally divine, Clare feels it from within. It’s instinct to him. As so often in a John Clare poem, nature leads the way:

And why should instinct nourish hopes in vain?
’Tis nature’s prophesy that such will be …

Nature, not God, although presumably God is, for Clare, the one who makes an afterlife possible. Or something roughly equating to God or a god: what Louis MacNeice would later call ‘God or whatever means the Good’.

The poem begins, though, with Clare’s own private or personal ‘nature’, that instinct of his which not only ‘nourish[es] hopes’ but also ‘speaks’ to him that there ‘must’ (a forceful word) be ‘another world’ beyond this one. Note the glimmer of ambiguity in the third line: ‘Something about me’ captures both ‘something outside of or around me, such as nature or God’ and ‘something about my own makeup or outlook’. It’s both inward and external at once.

Is there another world for this frail dust
To warm with life and be itself again?
Something about me daily speaks there must,
And why should instinct nourish hopes in vain?

However, as ‘The Instinct of Hope’ develops, it becomes clear that, like many Romantic poets of the period, Clare is taking his personal lesson from the world of nature around him, as ‘everything seems struggling to explain / The close sealed volume of its mystery.’ The idea of nature as something to be read is an old one, but here, given the starting-point (wondering about whether there is an afterlife), it’s as if nature’s ‘volume’ is a Bible, waiting for patient exegesis.

‘The Instinct of Hope’ has fourteen lines and so looks like it might be a sonnet, but its rhyme scheme is Clare’s own, and so it dashes our hopes (as it were) of finding a traditional sonnet. The poem is rhyme abab in its first quatrain, but then cbcd in its second: ababcbcdcdefef. This captures the poet’s own erratic searching for answers about ‘another world’ beyond the natural world we inhabit. But there’s nevertheless a sense of advancing, of making progress in his search: if we take out the fifth and sixth lines, we have three quatrains of alternate rhyme. Note that Clare denies us the easy solution of a rhyming couplet at the poem’s conclusion: there is no final gg rhyme.

5 Comments

  1. Mike Butler

    another set of comments to set me thinking. Thank you.

  2. Dave Murray

    Hadn’t read this one — thank you.

  3. isabellacatolica

    “Surely there must be something else?”
    This half-question, with its own suggested answer, must have been asked by all of us. I doubt if anyone can have asked it so elegantly as Clare does here.

  4. Always enjoying your articles and now there is an analysis of the poem from one of my favorite poets. Best day ever!

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