The Poetry of Clare

by John Clare
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Please explain about the question line at the end of "Love Lives Beyond the Tomb" by John Clare. What does the question mean, "Where Spring and lovers meet?" My brain is just overheated of thinking about it a lot.... ‘Tis heard in springWhen light and sunbeams, warm and kind,               On angels’ wingBring love and music to the wind.And where is voice,So young, so beautiful and sweet               As nature’s choice,Where Spring and lovers meet?

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The trick to understanding "Where Spring and lovers meet?" is to know exactly what syntax (sentence structure) it is part of. Is it a question that stands alone as an individual question all on its own? Or is it the last part of a larger question? If it is part of a larger question, what is the overall context? And, furthermore, is there an answer in the text to whatever the question actually is?

One difficulty in sorting this out is that this poem was written after 1860, as part of what Blunden and Porter call Clare's "Asylum Poems." Clare was permanently admitted to a hospital after 1841 for treatment of delusions following years of peasant labor, inadequate earnings and feelings of dislocation because he no longer thought, spoke or acted like a peasant though he continued to work and live the peasant life he was born into. The Asylum Poems are rarely dated and were not kept in chronological order. "Love Lives Beyond the Tomb" is one that is undated, yet, based on handwriting, subject and paper, Blunden and Porter place it after 1860; thus Clare had been hospitalized at least twenty years when he wrote it.

The punctuation and orthography (spelling of words) had always been irregular in Clare's poems because he clung to his peasant dialect. The Asylum Poems continue this pattern and add a further complication by variations in structure. This all is relevant to "Love Lives Beyond the Tomb" because of its chronological position in Clare's corpus of work. What this means is that it takes a little effort to see how the lines go together to convey his meaning. Let's look at the things to ask and work out the meaning of "Where Spring and lovers meet?"

1. Is it a question that stands alone as an individual question? No, it is not. It looks that way because of the orthographically odd capitalization of "What".

2. Is it the last part of a larger question? Yes, the punctuation that precedes "What" is a comma, not an end-stop. Thus it is part of the larger sentence that comes before it:

And where is voice,
So young, so beautiful and sweet
               As nature’s choice,
Where Spring and lovers meet?

3. What is the overall context of the larger question? In the preceding stanza, Clare has just explained where love is heard using the beautiful compound metaphor of warm sunbeams and soft angels' wings bringing love and music to the listener's heart on the wind. Now Clare is asking, by using a metonymy and an analogy, where to find the one he loves in the symbolic place where spring and lovers are met in harmonious accord. The syntax is creative, but the punctuation is helpful. Re-read the poetic sentence like this paraphrase:

  • And where is voice (being so young, so beautiful and as sweet as nature's perfect choice) in the place of harmony between spring and lovers?

 The metonymy is "voice." In this type of metonymy, "voice" stands in for, substitutes for, the voice of the one he loves: it is the one he loves that he looks for, not the voice [metonymy: a substitute of one representative characteristic for the whole thing]. Perhaps his beloved sings angelically, so he thinks of her as his "voice."

The analogy is "[as] sweet as nature's choice". He is making a comparison between the choicest nectars of nature and and his beloved, who he says is as sweet as nature's choicest nectars ("choice": metonymy).

4. Is there an answer in the text to the question? Yes, there is. He says that wherever "voice" is, their love lives beyond the tomb, the flowers, the dew--their love lives beyond the confinement of the asylum.

Love lives beyond
The tomb, the earth, the flowers, and dew.

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