“First Love” was written by John Clare, 1793-1864, about his true first love, Mary Joyce, whom he met when he was only 10 years old. She was the daughter of a wealthy farmer who forbade his daughter from meeting with Clare, a mere poor laborer, and his separation from her created an overwhelming sense of loss that set the tone for much of Clare’s love poems.
Clare was mired in poverty all of his life. He was malnourished during his youth, which contributed to his poor health later in life. At times he made his own paper by scraping birch bark, and he made his own ink with some dyes and rain water. Charity from his church kept him going until he published his first book of poetry.
John Clare married Martha Turner in 1820, the same year that he published his first book of poems. His “rural poetry” was relatively popular through the early 1820’s and Clare enjoyed some success throughout London. By the 1830’s the popularity of his poetry had diminished. Clare published 5 books of poetry during this period, each better than the previous, but each sold fewer copies than the previous.
Though Clare lived during the Industrial Revolution his early poems show his strong knowledge of the yearly cycles of the rural countryside. Clare gained a reputation for being able to write delightful descriptions of the natural beauties of the world and the details of raising animals and harvesting crops.
Friends and supporters helped Clare and his family move to a larger cottage, but with a wife and seven children Clare was unable to provide for his family adequately. He felt alienated in the new location and became more depressed. Stress and depression overtook Clare and he was admitted to a mental asylum in 1837. He had become delusional, imagining himself to be Lord Byron at times, Shakespeare at others, and sometimes a prizefighter or a son of George III.
He walked home from the asylum in 1841, about 100 miles, hoping that he would reunite with his first love, Mary Joyce. He had convinced himself that he was married to both his wife and Mary Joyce at the same time. He imagined that he had children with Mary Joyce as well. Disappointed and depressed at not finding her, Clare entered another asylum where he remained for the rest of his life.
He continued to write poetry as his health permitted while confined in the asylum. In fact some of his best love poems were written during the early years of this confinement. In all, Clare wrote over 3500 poems, about 400 of which were published during his lifetime. He composed his first poem, “The Morning Walk,” at age 13 after being inspired by reading a copy of James Thomson’s “The Seasons.”
“First Love” is a memorable, romantic poem, written by a notable Romantic poet. The poem has inspired many readers who often strongly remember and easily quote the final stanza of the poem.
The poem is well constructed with a typical romantic rhythm and rhyme scheme. The rhyme is a consistent abab when the poem is read as six quatrains. The rhythm is generally composed of lines of iambic tetrameter, eight syllables with the even syllables being stressed. However, the rhythm is not consistent, especially as seen in the poem’s two final stanzas. To end his poem Clare utilizes a typical ballad meter with a tetrameter line followed by a trimeter line. This choice gives the end of the poem a musical quality.
Several similes and metaphors are evident in the poem. The metaphor in the final two lines has led to several different interpretations. Some feel that the lines mean that the poet has realized that his love is lost and will never be requited; the lines express rejection and loneliness. Others feel that the lines show that the poet is mentally unstable. Still others feel that the lines represent the romantic notion that one can lose oneself in love and be “head over heels” or “lost” in love.
Here’s how the poem starts:
I ne’er was struck before that hour
With love so sudden and so sweet.
Her face it bloomed like a sweet flower
And stole my heart away complete.