Repetition, Tone and Images in "First Love"
John Clare's "First Love" is about Mary Joyce, the first person he ever loved ("John
Clare"). He had met her at school around 1803 (when he was ten) and developed a school boy
crush on her. Clare was poor and Mary was not, her father would not allow anything to happen
between them. He eventually married another woman, Martha Turner, in 1820. His poetry wasn't
selling as well and he found that he couldn't feed his children. He became very depressed and his
mental health began to deteriorate. He had become a burden to his wife and seven children and
was recommended by a friend to go to the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum, where he went
willingly in 1837. There, he was under the delusion that he was married to his first love, Mary
Joyce. The poem, presumably written in his early years in the asylum (around 1841), reflects on
the tragedy of this unrequited love; a love that had no future. Through repetition of words,
changes of tone and dark images, Clare gives us a beautiful poem about pain and lost love.
Repetition is used quite often in this poem. Words such as love, sweet and heart are
contrasted with the darkness of blood. Love is mentioned three times, less than expected as it is
the title of the poem. It's the main subject of the poem but why is it said only three times? The
love that seemed so strong at the beginning appears to be gone by the end of the poem. It starts
out so optimistic; it's "so sudden and so sweet" (line 2). He experienced love at first sight when
he met her and all he saw was the good in love. However, when love is used twice in the third
stanza, it has taken on a sadder tone; accompanied by a word like "snow" (line 18). Normally
this word isn't sad; but here, "snow" doesn't mean innocent as you may think, it means cold and
harsh. Love turned from sweet and joyous to bitter and grim. Sweet is used several times in the
poem (lines 2, 3 and 21) and throughout the poem, its meaning remains true. It refers to a fresh
love, a new love. It's accompanied by the word "flower" (line 3). The sweet flower, referring to
the speaker's love, bloomed and blossomed into something beautiful.
Heart is used four times. The speaker's heart was stolen by this first love and it is never
given back. "And blood burnt round my heart" shows that his heart was suddenly inflated with
love that the blood around it became inflamed and burned around it. It's a painful love that
figuratively burns the blood inside of his body. The word "blood" is used twice (lines 9 and 16).
It symbolizes the agony and suffering he experiences. His blood "rushed" to his face when he
laid eyes upon her, showing that he is embarrassed initially by the intensity of his sudden love
for her. However, it may also show that he is angered by the feelings he has for her, possibly
because he wasn't allowed to love Mary Joyce. It sets up the change of tone between the second
and third stanzas; from...