What are the literary devices and themes in John Clare's 'First Love'?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Clare's poem is deeply ambivalent (i.e. it has two distinct and different meanings) in its attitude to first love and recounts both the pleasurable and terrifying aspects of this most powerful of emotions. The soft alliteration of the 's' sounds in the second line describe the emotion as 'so sudden and so sweet', creating a hushed, almost reverential tone while the description of love as 'sweet' expresses the pleasant nature of the experience. However, the other, more negative attitude to love is also subtly introduced here with the metaphor that the speaker of the poem (who we can assume to be Clare himself) was 'struck' by love, an image of violence that, at one level, the reader might imagine as referring to the classical god of love, Cupid, who fired arrows of love that 'struck' a lover, inspiring him or her with love. However, there is also an underlying image of violence here that is at one with the imagery to come, such as the effect that love has upon the speaker who becomes 'deadly pale' - for all that the female lover's beauty is compared to beautiful and natural imagery such as being 'like a sweet flower', a simile, the result of this beauty is that the speaker is paralysed such that his life seems 'turned to clay'. The nature of the clay image is a multi-faceted one. At one level it could be an image of clay as a malleable substance, one that can be shaped and made into new forms; this would imply that the speaker's life has been transformed. However, one might link it to the image of becoming 'deadly pale' and see the clay as an image of the grave. In this sense, to think of the poem in highly negative terms, one could read Clare's attitude as being one where he sees love as like a form of death but this may be too definitively negative a reading. To reconcile the two readings, one could instead imagine the speaker's old life as 'dead' and the image of clay as being akin to the substance that God is described as making man from in the book of Genesis. This would perhaps show the 'death' of the poet's old life but the creation of a new life from it, the life he gains by his association with this 'first love'.

The second verse begins with an image of new life when 'the blood rushed to' the 'face' of the poet. At one level, of course, this is a simple expression of a blush, a sign of self-consciousness but also of blood as a vital and passionate force acting upon the poet in juxtaposition to the 'deadly pale' initial reaction. The image of blindness that follows when the poet describes how his lover 'took my sight away' might initially seem to be another negative association of love as physically damaging. However, it is again possible to interpret this image metaphorically at a number of different levels. It might be a case of his vision being limited only to her, i.e. equivalent to the metaphor of 'only having eyes for you'. Equally, it might be that he now sees the world in an entirely different light which would seem to be affirmed in the later image in this verse that all within his world seems to be changes and inverted such that things seems 'midnight at noonday'. However, the image of all seeming 'midnight' when it is 'noonday' would also imply negative associations - love is normally associated with light and happiness (such as in Shakespeare's Sonnet XVIII where he asks his lover 'Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?') and thus to say that all has become 'midnight' when it is in fact 'noonday' continues the underlying negative associations with love. The poet also appears to be struck dumb in this section of the poem when he again employs metaphor when he writes that 'words from my eyes did start'. This perhaps means that he is rendered inarticulate by love and can only 'speak' with his adoring glances but is unable to express himself with 'words' other than the meaningful looks that come from his 'eyes' which 'start' (i.e. burst forth) in a manner that he cannot entirely control. This idea of powerful and uncontrollable emotion is also expressed at the end of this stanza with the hard 'b' sounds of the alliteration that 'blood burnt' around his heart. The burning of the blood is of course metaphorical and functions at two levels - it can signify the metaphorical heat of his passion for his lover, a positive connotation of love, but, equally, can be understood as expressing the discomfort that love causes the lover, the burning. 

The third stanza seems to portray love in a less than positive manner with flowers becoming 'the winter's choice' and the poet asking if 'love's bed' is 'snow'. Winter imagery, in the poetic convention of the symbolism of the seasons, traditionally associates new love with spring and the heat of love with summer whereas winter is associated with coldness of passions and death. Thus, in asking rhetorical questions about the association of love with winter and snow, the poet is asking whether his love is authentic, traditional or anything other than painful. This is echoed in the use of rhetorical questions which interrogate without providing answers, perhaps used as a reflection about the poet's uncertainty about the power of his emotions and whether they are healthy or not. However, this uncertainty is then answered when the lover figure 'seemed to hear' the imploring but mute looks of the poet's 'silent voice' - a paradox deliberately created to express the need for intuition when powerful emotions render people incapable of expressing themselves fully - and seems to 'know' the 'appeal' for love that the poet feels when he sees her. The poem ends hopefully with an image of the 'heart' personified as a person who must 'leave' his 'dwelling place' and can 'return no more'. The conclusion of the poem seems to suggest that when our heart is inspired by 'first love' it must embark on a journey from which it cannot return, a journey of experience that, once it occurs means one cannot revert to the earlier experience of innocence or naivety.  

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Clare begins with a simile to describe his first impression of his love's appearance-"Her face it bloomed like a sweet flower." He continues to use similes to compare his attempts to speak -"words...spoke as chords do from the string." Of course, chords played on a stringed instrument usually require more than one string in order to sound all the different notes in the chord; since these words were trying to come from eyes that "could not see a single thing," we have to assume that he was too tongue-tied to actually be able to say anything.

This assumption seems to be supported by the conclusion of the poem. His first love hears a "silent voice," that is, she hears nothing. Since she doesn't know of his feelings, she doesn't respond. To the speaker whose heart has been stolen, this lack of response is felt as if it were the cold of winter killing the flowers or snow freezing a lover's bed. His "heart has left its dwelling-place" in silent adoration and unfulfilled love from afar.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial