Discussion Topic

Literary techniques, devices, and themes in John Clare's "First Love."

Summary:

John Clare's "First Love" employs various literary techniques, including vivid imagery and similes, to convey the intensity of first love. The poem uses romantic and pastoral themes, highlighting the innocence and overwhelming nature of young love. Clare's use of natural imagery and heartfelt emotion captures the universal experience of a first romantic encounter.

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What techniques does John Clare use in "First Love" to portray his emotions?

In the first two lines, the speaker claims how "struck" he was with his first love. Clare uses alliteration in the second line to give his emotion upon being struck a singing quality. The repetition of the "s" in this line also emphasizes the significant words "sudden" and "sweet." He uses two similes to illustrate the experience of being so overwhelmed that he loses all feeling and can't seem to move his body. His face "turned pale as deadly pale" and his "life and all seemed turned to clay." Similes often use "like" or "as" to make comparisons but other words such as "seem" also are used in making similes. 

In the second stanza, still overcome with emotion, he feels like he's lost his sight. Using another simile, he says that, with the loss of sight, the trees and bushes "seemed midnight at noonday." Clare then uses what is called synesthesia. This is when a writer blends or confuses senses. In this case, Clare uses sight and sound to make an evocative point that his eyes are trying to communicate the beauty of what he is seeing: 

Words from my eyes did start—
They spoke as chords do from the string, 
In the last stanza, the speaker expresses doubt with the symbolism of "winter" and "snow." If love's bed is cold, there is no warmth, no love-making, no sense of warm feelings. In the first two stanzas, he has been overwhelmed with his first love. But at this point, uncertainty arises. She "seemed" to hear his "silent voice." A silent voice is a paradox. He continues to be confused.
He doesn't get a substantial answer. One could interpret that this is a relationship that has lost its luster. But considering the other stanzas, it seems more likely that this was a brief moment of infatuation. The speaker looks upon her face, he is overwhelmed with love, he ends in confusion, and is never the same. In the last two lines, Clare personifies "heart" as it leaves its "dwelling-place" and can never return. That is to say, he has given his heart to someone and the notion that it (heart) can never return simply means that he will never be the same. 
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What techniques does John Clare use in "First Love" to portray his emotions?

In the poem “First Love” by John Clare, the speaker describes his first love and the emotions she evokes in him. Clare uses imagery effectively to express the speaker’s emotions. We learn in the first two lines that the speaker experiences love at first sight when he says that the love is “so sudden and so sweet.”

The subject of the poem, this beloved person, steals his heart away completely. The poet compares her to a sweet flower. Seeing her, he goes weak in the knees. He says,

My face turned pale as deadly pale,
My legs refused to walk away...

Then, “The trees and bushes round the place seemed midnight at noonday.” He creates the imagery of nature and plants being out of their proper time sequence. In other words, it seems like midnight, even though it is the middle of the day. Everything is topsy-turvy for the speaker. His love for the object of his affection blocks out all his other thoughts, thereby making his life chaotic, in an exhilarating way.

The aspect of exhilaration is furthered when he says that his blood rushes to his face and takes his eyesight away. This is analogous to being breathless with love—many people may tell their love, "you take my breath away." Then he again reiterates that he "could not see a single thing.”

He cannot see anything but his love, and he uses his eyes to communicate with her. Words come from his eyes, as he silently speaks to her and tells her of his love. In other words, he looks at her so lovingly that his eyes essentially tell her how he feels. The words from his eyes “spoke as chords do from the string.” This is very lyrical way to say that the look he gives her conveys his love and therefore is almost like music. The “blood burnt round [his] heart,” which implies that his pulse quickens.

In the second stanza, he mixes up time sequences—specifically midnight and midday, as noted. In the third stanza, he mixes seasons when he asks if “flowers [are] the winter’s choice." The reader knows that flowers generally do not blossom during the winter, but this continues the theme of the poet's life being topsy-turvy because of his deep feelings for his first love.

When he says, “She seemed to hear my silent voice,” he is again communicating with her silently with his eyes. His “heart has left its dwelling-place and can return no more.” He has given her his heart, and it will never be free for him to give to another.

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

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.  

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

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.

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