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Audience And Expectation In John Clare’s An Invite To Eternity

1859 words - 7 pages

Audience and Expectation in John Clare’s An Invite to Eternity

Although John Clare’s “An Invite to Eternity” appears to be a direct address to an unknown and anonymous “maiden,” in reality the poem is a much more complex appeal to the reader, which takes on the guise of traditional love poetry only to subvert it. In many ways, Clare’s poem seems to emulate and echo more classical poems such as Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” in its direct entreaty to a young lover. However, unlike that earlier poem, Clare’s offers his “sweet maid” a less than appealing prospect for future life, presenting her with an “eternity” filled with apocalyptic landscapes and almost monumental human disconnection. Indeed, the very vision of eternity offered up to the maid departs quite drastically from the pastoral ideal of Marlowe’s poem as well as from the typical notion of Christian heaven. This subversion of expectations, as well as the use of antique word forms, seems to suggest a conscious appropriation of traditional and old-fashioned love poetry and the placement of the “maid” in the realm of poetic convention, as opposed to reality. Further, Clare’s hellish version of eternity bears striking resemblance to the world he presents in “I am,” a poem written several months earlier reflecting his isolated life in a mental institution, “forsaken” by his friends and loved ones. In this context, the strange and ominous world that Clare presents as “eternity” takes on a whole new meaning as a representation of his social death within the walls of the asylum. It also places his entreaties to the maiden in a new light – he is not necessarily addressing a real person, so much as the prospective reader who might restore to him his identity through reading his poetry, or the notion of love itself, which has abandoned him. Supporting this idea, the use of shifting tenses within the poem also indicates that Clare is not just talking about a future state of being, but one that he experiences in the present. Seen in this context, then, “An Invite to Eternity” takes on added poignancy, as an ill and lonely man’s desire for companionship through the darkness of insanity and beyond. In his appropriation of traditional poetic forms and structure, Clare invites and then rejects the reader’s expectations about the content of the poem, complicating the mode of its transmission from poet to reader through the veil of metaphor and convention.

The poem begins with Clare’s direct questioning of the maid, something that recurs in every stanza of the poem. Even in this very opening there are clues that what follows may not completely be what it seems because of the use of antiquated word forms, seemingly out of place in a poem by a self-taught, peasant poet: “Wilt thou go with me sweet maid / Say maiden wilt thou go with me” (1-2). Words like “wilt” and “thou” connect the poem more firmly back to classical tradition and poems such as Marlowe’s “Passionate Shepherd to...

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