Summarize “Sheep in Winter” by John Clare.

John Clare's “Sheep in Winter” may be summarized as a vivid description of some sheep and their boy shepherd trying to keep warm and fed in the winter. The poem is written in iambic pentameter with an unusual rhyme scheme. The poem employs alliteration, imagery, and simile. It also invites readers to see a deeper meaning and ask themselves if they are ever like these silly sheep who ignore warmth and protection to remain in the storm.

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Let's take a close look at John Clare's poem “Sheep in Winter.” We'll start with the poem's structure, meter, and rhyme scheme. The poem consists of one long stanza of fourteen lines. It is written in iambic pentameter, with five poetic “feet” per line in a unstressed-stressed pattern. The meter is consistent throughout, and we can see how it works in the first line (with the stressed syllables in bold): “The sheep get up and make their many tracks.”

The poem's rhyme follows the pattern aabbccddeebbdd. This is rather unusual, actually, as we notice how the b and d rhymes are repeated at the end of the poem, using the same words as the first appearance but in reverse order.

The poem also includes many examples of alliteration (the repetition of words' initial sounds). Notice line 2 with the alliteration of “bear” and “backs,” for instance, as well as line 7 with “laps” and “legs” and line 8 with “hides” and “hedges.” This adds further poetic interest.

The poem is also heavy on imagery. We can easily picture these snow-covered sheep and the boy who cares for them, because the poet presents a vivid description of them. Notice, too, the simile the poet uses in line 9 as he says that the sheep are “as tame as dogs.”

These sheep may be tame, but they are not too bright. They stand out in the snow all day, trying to eat frozen turnips. They “go noising round” the boy who cares for them. Notice the odd word choice of “noising” here. We can almost hear the sheep bleating as they surround the boy, who is clapping his hands to warm them up and wrapping his legs in straw. Again, the poet uses the odd word “laps” instead of “wraps” to describe what the boy does to his legs. The sheep follow the boy around but then lie outside all night in “the drizzling storm” instead of going into the hovel to get warm. These are silly sheep indeed.

On one level, the poem seems to be no more than an interesting piece describing a common scene of a shepherd and his sheep, but there may well be a deeper message here. These sheep stupidly ignore the shelter provided for them and choose to remain out in the storm. As such, they may be a symbol of people who do the same thing, who choose to make things worse for themselves by their own deliberate decisions. They remain out in their metaphorical storms instead of coming into a shelter where they can receive warmth and protection. We can all likely think of people who have done this in one way or another, and this poem makes us ask ourselves if we, too, are like these silly sheep.

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