‘Young Lambs’ is a typical John Clare poem in which the speaker uses natural images, such as that of a lamb, the sky, the sun, and spring, to depict a certain state of mind or, in this case, a change in season. Spring is one of the most inspirational periods for many poets, allowing them to speak on the positive changes that result from warmer weather and the end of winter.
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Throughout this piece, Clare’s speaker uses images that help the reader envisions what his idea of spring is. He knows that it’s time for the season to arrive, depending on what’s going on in the fields, how the flowers are growing, and which ones are growing, as well as the activities of the lambs. The lambs are one of the most traditional symbols of spring within the English language. The lamb also represents peace, innocence, and in some contexts, the Christian religion.
The themes in ‘Young Lambs’ include spring, innocence, and nature. These three are intertwined together in Clare’s depiction of the new spring season. While it might not be in full bloom yet, when his speaker looks around, he sees numerous signs that it’s on its way. These are all due to changes in nature—the growth of flowers and the strength of the sun. In the end, when he introduces the image of the lambs, readers are asked to consider the place of these creatures and themselves in the natural world. The allusions to death in the last lines also complicate the poem, reminding everyone that these animals are innocents and, therefore, perfect symbols of nature’s balance.
Structure and Form
‘Young Lambs’ by John Clare is a fourteen-line traditional Shakespearean sonnet. This means that the lines follow a rhyme scheme of ABABCDCDEFEFGG. They also make use of iambic pentameter, the most common metrical pattern in English poetry. It refers to the number of beats, and the location of stresses, in each line. With iambic pentameter, there are five sets of two beats in each line. The first of these is unstressed, and the second is stressed. As is the case with all Shakespearean sonnets, this piece can be divided into one octet or set of eight lines, and one sestet, or set of six lines. The octet is further divided into two quatrains.
Clare makes use of several literary devices in ‘Young Lambs.’ These include but are not limited to anaphora, caesura, and alliteration. The first of these is one kind of repetition. It is concerned with the use and reuse of the same word or words at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, “The,” which starts lines one, two, eight, and ten. “And” is another good example in ‘Young Lambs.’ Alliteration is another kind of repetition. It is concentrated on the starting sound of words. For example, “spring” and “signs” in line one and “to—till” and “trace” in line seven.
Caesurae are pauses in the middle of lines of verse. For example, line seven which reads: “A glittering star or two–till many trace” or line twelve: “Lies all his length as dead–and lets me go.” These pauses can appear at the beginning, middle, or end of lines.
The spring is coming by a many signs;
The trays are up, the hedges broken down,
That fenced the haystack, and the remnant shines
Like some old antique fragment weathered brown.
In the first lines of ‘Young Lambs,’ the speaker begins by bringing to the reader’s attention some of the many signs he sees as symbolizing the coming spring. The “hedges are broken down,” and when he looks around the landscape, he sees the fundamental signs that life is on the verge of breaking forth from its winter sleep. He uses a simile to compare “the remnants” the “fenced the haystack” to “some old antique fragment weathered brown.” These are only the initial images setting the scene before the speaker turns to even more nature-based imagery, something common in John Clare’s poetry.
And where suns peep, in every sheltered place,
The little early buttercups unfold
A glittering star or two–till many trace
The edges of the blackthorn clumps in gold.
In the next quatrain of ‘Young Lambs,’ the speaker turns to the flowers and the sun. The latter is rising and peeping into “every sheltered place.” This is a good example of personification. The poet allows the sun agency, as though it’s a human being or animal seeking out each place it hasn’t been. At the same time, more warm imagery is playing out with the buttercups and glittering stars. The light shines from the new flowers, tracing the “blackthorn clumps in gold.” It’s clear the speaker sees the whole world is illuminated.
And then a little lamb bolts up behind
The hill and wags his tail to meet the yoe,
And then another, sheltered from the wind,
Lies all his length as dead–and lets me go
Close bye and never stirs but baking lies,
With legs stretched out as though he could not rise.
In the next lines, the speaker finally turns to the young lambs in the title. They run across the hills, one meeting up with another that’s sheltered from the wind. There, the lamb lies as though it’s dead. When the speaker passes, he notes how peaceful the lamb appears. Its legs are outstretched as if it “could not rise.” These lines suggest that the lamb is simply enjoying the change in weather and is not, in fact, dead.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Young Lambs’ should also consider reading some of John Clare’s other poems. For example, ‘Winter Rainbow,’ ‘First Love,’ and ‘Sunday Dip.’ The latter reflects on the joys of childhood as an idyllic period. Clare also uses nature-related imagery in this piece. ‘Winter Rainbow’ speaks on themes of lightness and darkness, as well as hope and nature. It is a reverential poem about the charming aspects of the winter season, as well as its “insults.” ‘First Love’ describes the overwhelming love a speaker feels for a woman he sees for the first time.