By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘First Love’ is one of the best-known and best-loved poems by John Clare (1793-1864), who is often forgotten when people are recalling the great English Romantic poets. But as this poem demonstrates, Clare’s poetry is a curious blend of the simple or direct and the complex, and a few words of analysis of ‘First Love’ may help to elucidate the poem.
First love is powerful and stays with us, but it can be painful as well as joyous or liberating. This poem, one of John Clare’s most widely anthologised, captures this dual nature of first love and the way in which it is a loss of something – namely, innocence – as well as a gaining of something new and special.
But in ‘First Love’, John Clare emphasises that moment we first fall in love with someone also represents a loss of innocence, and, in one sense, a loss of part of ourselves.
Let’s go through ‘First Love’ stanza by stanza and summarise the poem to see how this works.
I ne’er was struck before that hour
With love so sudden and so sweet,
Her face it bloomed like a sweet flower
And stole my heart away complete.
My face turned pale as deadly pale,
My legs refused to walk away,
And when she looked, what could I ail?
My life and all seemed turned to clay.
In the poem’s first stanza, Clare’s speaker tells us how he was first ‘struck’ with love, which was ‘sweet’ but also ‘sudden’. The woman (or girl?) he fell in love with was as beautiful as a sweet spring flower, and stole all of his heart away. Note how Clare contrasts the ‘bloom’ of his beloved’s (presumably reddish, blushing) cheek with his own ‘deadly pale’ looks: love has left him pale and lovesick.
He forgot how to walk: his legs seem rooted to the ground, as if made of clay. When she noticed him, he couldn’t very well explain to her what effect she had had on him, but what other explanation is there for being unable to walk away? He’s been reduced, rapidly, to a wreck.
And then my blood rushed to my face
And took my eyesight quite away,
The trees and bushes round the place
Seemed midnight at noonday.
I could not see a single thing,
Words from my eyes did start—
They spoke as chords do from the string,
And blood burnt round my heart.
In the second stanza, the speaker of the poem has recovered from his deathly pallor, but only because he is now blushing with embarrassment whenever he is around the girl he loves. Indeed, his blood rushing to his face makes him blind, because he is so overcome by embarrassment, so discombobulated, if you will, by the presence of his beloved.
Those familiar features of a John Clare poem, the trees and bushes, are dark to him even during broad daylight, because he cannot see clearly. Well, they say love is blind…
Clare concludes this second stanza with a curious image. Until this point, the poem has been remarkably straightforward in its description of a man (or boy) in love for the first time. Now, though, the speaker tells us that ‘Words from my eyes did start’. He’s so confused, he’s speechless: he cannot open his mouth and speak to his beloved, but his eyes tell the full story.
The final line brings one of Clare’s most memorable images of the human body: ‘And blood burnt round my heart.’ Six words, all of them monosyllables, yet the image they suggest is visceral (almost literally) and complex. This final line conveys the hot passions of first love, but also the destructive nature of it: his blood is not simply up, but threatening to burn his heart away.
Are flowers the winter’s choice?
Is love’s bed always snow?
She seemed to hear my silent voice,
Not love’s appeals to know.
I never saw so sweet a face
As that I stood before.
My heart has left its dwelling-place
And can return no more.
In the final stanza, Clare brings in wintry images to suggest that first love, far from being a springtime of hope and beginnings, is a thing of desolation and coldness. Although the object of his love seems to hear his voice, even his ‘silent voice’ (when we love someone, we like to believe they are in tune with our thoughts and can read them), even if she didn’t heed the ‘appeals’ or requests of love, that she should know him.
Clare concludes ‘First Love’ by saying that his heart has left its home and will never return: this love has changed everything.
Analysis of form
‘First Love’ is written in iambic tetrameter: that is, there are four iambs per line, with an iamb being a metrical foot comprising one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed one. So in the fourth line, we get ‘And STOLE my HEART a-WAY com-PLETE’. See how it works? This light, natural rhythm is held to throughout the poem, with only the occasional variation.
However, note how several lines – namely lines – are actually shorter than the rest, and are iambic trimeter (so three iambs, not four). This brings us up short, and arguably mirrors the confusion the speaker is feeling as he plunges headlong into first love. However, the metre is, on the whole, straightforward. The same goes for the rhyme scheme of the poem, which is ababcdcd in each of the three stanzas.