This poem was written in the late 1840s, sometime during Clare’s second stay in an insane asylum. His career had been suffering, and he began experiencing delusions and depression. He was plagued by anxiety and visions. Clare was voluntarily committed in 1837 and escaped four years later. He famously walked 80 miles back to his family. He was committed again in 1842, around the time this poem was written, and lived in the asylum until his death in 1864. Clare wrote a great deal of poetry during this period of time, including ‘I Am!’, which is generally considered to be Clare’s most famous and best poem.
Explore I Am!
Summary of I Am!
In the first stanzas of the poem, Clare’s speaker, who is often considered to be Clare himself, speaks about the darkest parts of his life. He’s alive and present in his life, but he feels as though no one knows him or understands him. He’s spoken about with scorn and “noise,” and his woes come and go frantically through his mind. He’s haunted by them and by the fact that those who were once the closest to him in his life are “strange.”
The final stanza provides what the speaker sees as the only possible solution to his woes, to enter into the next life, where he’ll live alongside God in Heaven. There, he’ll finally get to sleep as he did as a child.
Throughout ‘I Am!’ Clare engages with themes that include sadness and loneliness. These major unifying themes are seen through Clare’s depiction of his speaker’s (or perhaps his own) depression and struggles with woes at a very dark time in his life. The speaker openly admits to his own darker thoughts and his feelings of loss in regard to those who were once close to him. All that he once cared about is “strange,” and he’s haunted day in and day out by troubling thoughts.
Structure and Form
‘I Am!’ by John Clare is a three-stanza poem that is separated into sets of six lines, known as sestets. The first stanza follows a rhyme scheme of ABABAB while the second and third rhyme ABABCC. The poem is also a great example of how poets can use iambic pentameter, the most popular metrical pattern in English poetry. Iambic pentameter refers to the number of beats per line and where the stressed syllables are. In this case, each line contains five sets of two beats. The first of these beats is unstressed and the second is stressed. It sounds like da-DUM da-DUM. While most of the poem is quite consistent, there are a few moments, such as in the first line in which “I am” starts the poem with a spondee.
John Clare makes use of several literary devices in ‘I Am!’ These include but are not limited to:
- Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “friends forsake” in line two of the first stanza and “sweetly slept” in line four of the third stanza.
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point—for example, the transition between lines five and six of stanza two.
- Anaphora: the repetition of a word or words at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, “I am” starts the poem and then appears again at the beginning of line three of that same stanza.
- Metaphor: a figure of speech in which two things are compared without the use of “like” or “as.” For example, “Into the living sea of waking dreams” can be found in line two of the second stanza.
Analysis of I Am!
I am—yet what I am none cares or knows;
My friends forsake me like a memory lost:
I am the self-consumer of my woes—
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shadows in love’s frenzied stifled throes
And yet I am, and live—like vapours tossed
In the first stanza of ‘I Am!,’ the speaker begins with an independent statement about himself. He uses the phrase “I am” to define his existence as being completely real. He then follows that up with a darker statement that doesn’t reflect his concept of himself. He is alive and present in his life, but no one cares “what” he is or “knows” him in any personal way. He is the “self-consumer of [his] woes” he adds in the next line. He lives in and suffers through his own woes, a suggestion of the speaker’s self-pity.
He describes his woes in the next lines as things that “rise and vanish,” they appear and then disappear into oblivion, along with everything else that belongs there. He then makes another comparison, suggesting his woes are “Like shadows in love’s frenzied stifled throes.” They’re insubstantial, like shadows, although still real and suffering frenzied emotions as one might in love. Despite this suffering, he is still alive and present. The stanza ends with the speaker comparing himself to “vapours,” another allusion to how insubstantial he feels he is. This relates back to the first line.
Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life or joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;
Even the dearest that I loved the best
Are strange—nay, rather, stranger than the rest.
The line the speaker began at the end of the first stanza of ‘I Am!’ starts up again at the beginning of stanza two, an example of enjambment. Here, the speaker says that he’s begin treated with “scorn” and “noise.” They speak about him poorly, in a way that again emphasizes the insubstantial nature of his life. Noise has no physical presence. The metaphor, “the living sea of waking dreams,” is a noteworthy one. It suggests the speaker’s isolation and how despite being alive, he is living a less than ideal life. Reality appears to be losing its meaning for the poet who was at this time in his life suffering from mental health problems.
He goes on to say that the “living sea” is filled with death everywhere. There is no “sense of life or joys.” This is where the themes of depression and sadness start to come into play. All that’s left of the speaker’s life is the “vast shipwreck” of what he wanted out of his life. Everything he valued or “esteem[ed]” is gone. This is emphasized by the next lines. He says that everything he loved the best “Are strange,” or separate from him.
I long for scenes where man hath never trod
A place where woman never smiled or wept
There to abide with my Creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept,
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie
The grass below—above the vaulted sky.
The final stanza of ‘I Am!,’ begins with the speaker informing the reader that he “long[s]” for scenes where his troubles don’t haunt him. He’s seeking out somewhere, perhaps Heaven, where he can’t be touched by that which bothers him in his waking life. He says that there, he’ll “abide with [his] Creator, God,” making it clear that he’s thinking about death. Once there, he’s going to find the peace he knew as a child. Its since escaped him but, once with God he’ll sleep sweetly “Untroubling and untroubled.” In these lines, readers can find an example of a simile with “And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept.”
The final line alludes to the speaker’s eventual grave, the “grass below” and the “sky” above. His body will go there and everything that’s important will go to rest with God.
Readers who enjoyed ‘I Am!’ should also consider reading other John Donne’s poems. For example:
- ‘First Love’— describes the sudden love a speaker feels for a woman he’s seeing for the first time.
- ‘The Dying Child’ —describes a sick child who lives through his favorite season, springtime, and dies in winter.
- ‘The Yellowhammer’s Nest’— describes the beautiful natural world in which the yellowhammer lives.