The Poetry of Clare

by John Clare

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How can John Clare's "Love Lives Beyond the Tomb" be paraphrased and what is a critical analysis of it?  The confusing phrases for me are these: I love the lives in sleep.....healthy dreams....Eve's dews...On earth green the heaven's eternal blue...'Tis heard in spring...On angels' wing...Where Spring and lovers meet?

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John Clare's poetry can be difficult for three reasons. "Love Lives Beyond the Tomb" was written after 1860 therefore falls within what Edmund Blunden and Alan Porter, editors of John Clare: Poems Chiefly from Manuscript, call the "Asylum Poems" (4-6). This leads to the first difficulty with understanding Clare's poems. After a difficult peasant's laboring life and some small financial assistance from his London patrons, Clare's family agreed to have him hospitalized for delusions of having once been Shakespeare and Byron. Poems written during the asylum years may have more challenging structural elements than his earlier poems.

This leads to a second difficulty. Clare was the son of illiterate peasant farmers from a village of similarly illiterate farmers. He had some limited early education that he made the most of. Yet his style featured some unorthodox irregularities in regard to punctuation. His publishers changed much of it yet only under the pressure of protests from Clare who viewed the irregularities as the best way to express his ideas; he called these editors the "awkward squad" (Blunden and Porter). This leads to the third difficulty. While Clare spoke and wrote in the standard contemporary English of the educated, he intentionally maintained elements of his village dialect directly incorporated in his poems or indirectly incorporated through influence on syntax and expressions.

If we analyze the parts that are causing you trouble and give a small sample paraphrase, you should be able to form your own paraphrase with little trouble.

I love the fond ... Eve's dews ...: The only way to understand this is to get past the punctuation irregularities. The whole should be read as though written like this:

  • I love the fond, the faithful, and the true. Love lives in sleep, 'tis happiness of healthy dreams. Eve's dews may weep, but love delightful seems.

First: "the fond" etc refers to people who are fond of him, faithful to him and true to him (or fond, faithful, true of and to each other). Second: "love lives ... dreams" means that, during his asylum years, he may not be in the arms of love yet love lives in his sleeping dreams and that gives him happiness. Third: "eve's dews ..." refers to the dews that fall at evening (eve). He is metaphorically comparing the evening dew to weeping eyes but he contradicts the sorrow envisioned with the weeping by contrasting it to the delightful love he dreams of.

On earth's green ... angels' wing ...: This must be understood in terms of all that comes before it. The whole section is this:

'Tis seen in flowers,
And in the even's pearly dew
               On earth's green hours,
And in the heaven's eternal blue.

               ‘Tis heard in spring
When light and sunbeams, warm and kind,
               On angels’ wing
Bring love and music to the wind.

The first questions to ask are, "What does "'Tis seen" refer to? What is it that is seen?" The answer comes from the stanzas above: "Love lives ... love delightful seems." Thus what "'Tis seen" is love. Next ask, "Where is love seen?" It is ('Tis) seen in flowers, in pearly dew on grass, in twilight hours when grass looks freshly green from dew, in heaven's eternal blue of darkened night. It is also heard in the spring (birds' songs), seen in light's sunbeams. It is also seen on the wings of the many angels ("angels' wings") that give love and music to the wind.

The last part is the puzzling "Where ...?" question. In paraphrase form, the question is: Where is the voice of love that is so young, fair and sweet, that is nature's choice of loveliest sounds, and that must be found where nature joins in harmony with love? The answer is: Love is everywhere, even in death, even in the tomb, even in flowers and dew.

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I would suggest that one particular paraphrase of the work would strike at Clare's view of nature.  Clare believed that the best aspects of the human experience are mirrored in the most beautiful elements of the natural world.  For Clare, nature and human nature parallel one another.  The beauty of the former is what envelops the better aspects of the latter.  It is here in which his poem speaks.  

The idea of love being eternal and living "beyond the tomb" is one in which the natural world's beauty cradles the purest of love.  Just as the natural world will live on, so will the purest of love.   The first stanza shows this in its statement that pure love is both "faithful" and representative of "the true."  This link is what enables Clare to speak about how the natural world and love end up mirroring one another.  Clare sees this "in flowers" and "pearly dew."  The "earth's green hours" and what is "heard in spring" seen on "angels' wing" are natural images that represent how true love is eternal, living beyond the tomb.   The collision of "where Spring and lovers meet" is the apex of this union.  It is here where it becomes completely clear that love in its truest form is a natural expression of the good and something that lives "beyond the tomb" for its reality is embedded in the best of the natural setting.

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