‘First Love’ by John Clare is a three-stanza poem that is separated into sets of eight lines, or octaves. These octaves follow a consistent and structured rhyme scheme. The pattern, which varies its end sounds from stanza to stanza, is ababcdcd. Clare has also chosen to imbue this piece with a couple of different metrical patterns. Most of the lines are written in either iambic tetrameter or iambic trimeter. This means they almost all contain either four sets of two beats per line or three sets of two beats. The first of these is unstressed and the second stressed.
Clare uses this pattern to his advantage, especially in the sixth line of the second stanza. This is one of the shorter phrases, written in iambic trimeter. With the addition of the dash and the “missing” syllables, the poet emphasizes the words that are about to emerge from his eyes.
Additionally, a reader should take note of the use of indention. Clare has made sure that the indention varies but remains connected to the rhyme scheme. The ‘b’ lines are indented while the ‘a’ lines are not, and so on.
Summary of First Love
The poem begins with the speaker stating that he is experiencing an emotion so strong it is like nothing he’s felt before. He is seeing a woman whose face is like a “sweet flower.” He feels his heart being stolen away from him. His body freezes over and he’s unable to move.
The speaker’s body is overwhelmed by what he is feeling and his vision blurs and darkens. It seems as if he is going to pass out. As the poem concludes he sends with his eyes a message to the woman his voice cannot speak. He thinks she receives it. His heart is now totally in her possession.
Analysis of First Love
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.
My face turned pale as deadly pale,
My legs refused to walk away,
And when she looked, what could I ail?
My life and all seemed turned to clay.
In the first stanza of ‘First Love’, the speaker begins by outlining what the rest of the poem is going to be about. He has fallen in love and is using these stanzas to outline how that happened and how he has changed because of it. The speaker explains that there was one particular moment, an “hour,” that he was “struck…With love so sudden and so sweet.” This was the first time anything like this had happened to him before.
The next lines describe the woman he fell in love with and how she appeared to him the first time he saw her. Her face was so lovely, complex, and lively that it seemed to “bloom…like a sweet flower.” It immediately drew him in and took his heart. Every part of the love he had to give went to her immediately.
After this moment of dedication the speaker’s face “turned pale…deadly pale.” He grew faint, unable to control his own emotions. The next line states that he was unable to move. His body was not under his control. To make his situation more complex the woman turns and looks at him. All prior control he had over his body and entire life dissolves. He is frozen like clay that will soon be made to her liking.
And then my blood rushed to my face
And took my eyesight quite away,
The trees and bushes round the place
Seemed midnight at noonday.
I could not see a single thing,
Words from my eyes did start—
They spoke as chords do from the string,
And blood burnt round my heart.
In the second stanza, the speaker goes into greater detail concerning the way his body reacted to seeing this woman. It is important to keep in mind, for the sake of perspective, that this all occurs before he speaks to her. The next thing that happened to him, after the woman looked at him, is all the “blood rushed to [his] face.” This caused his “eyesight” to fade. From this emotional description, it is clear that he is on the verge of fainting.
The speaker, while trying not to pass out, is able to see that the “trees and bushes round the place” are getting darker. This is another result of his narrowing vision. The brightness of the day fades as a dark shade is pulled down over his eyes. This gets worse and worse until he could not “see a thing.”
In the last three lines of this stanza, the speaker makes an effort, although internally, to speak to the woman. He tries, with his darkening eyes alone, to make “Words.” These, at least to his mind, come out as “chords do from the string.” They were presumably well thought out, romantic, and much better than they would’ve been if he’d spoken aloud.
All this goes on inside his head while within his body his heart is burning. The blood is pumping through his body furiously in reaction to this mix of intense emotions.
Are flowers the winter’s choice?
Is love’s bed always snow?
She seemed to hear my silent voice,
Not love’s appeals to know.
I never saw so sweet a face
As that I stood before.
My heart has left its dwelling-place
And can return no more.
In the last stanza of ‘First Love’, the words the speaker makes with his eyes are described. The first two lines are the questions. These are likely originating from his love addled mind and posed at the woman. He is asking, rhetorically, if the “flowers” are “winter’s choice?” And it “love’s bed” is “always snow?” With these words, he is probing the possibility of real love. Perhaps, he thinks, it does not always have to be cold and doomed to fail.
Whether she does or not, the speaker says that “She seemed to hear” his “silent voice.” His clearly uncontrollable love is conveyed to her through his eyes. She does not hear, or does not pay attention to, “love’s appeals to know.”
In the final four lines, he returns to describing the woman. It is clear that he feels for her in a way he has never experienced before. Her face is “so sweet,” like none he has ever seen. Due to this, and the general wave of emotions he is feeling, his heart seems to leave his body. It has found a new dwelling place within the body of his new love and will never come back.