133. First Love: John Clare

Now that your class has calmed down, the fundraising carnations have been passed out, the Valentine’s Day dance is a memory, and all of the post-holiday drama and texting has turned towards…. whatever–now we can focus on love.

I present this unimpressive poem to make students groan. Ugh. I’ve included other love poems, but this poem is both a) good, and b) will induce groans. Its style is much copied and butchered and stamped onto a card.


It is time to save love. When “Twilight” hit big–the first movie was coming out and everyone read the book–one of my colleagues talked about, for her, the thrill of the story was the tension Bella and Edward feel between them. She spoke about how she misses (being married) the thrill from middle school that came from each brush or sight or proximity as negotiations happened by the lockers or in math class in the week before you were even asked out, not to mention the entire first date. Correcting Math Mates with a potential dance date is electric! While students talk about more lewd acts and seem knowing, it is that innocent intimacy and expectation that “Twilight” offers that helps make it so popular. Innocence and love, not lewd and rude.

First, can your students find what is real in this poem? When we do analysis, I have my students find one, two, three lines that are either the most striking to them, seemingly important, or ring true. What rings true with regard to love, for them? Highlight what they offer (I underline lines on the overhead), and strip the poem down to those lines. There’s your analysis and criticism.

Second, have students take those stripped down lines, choose one, and write about how it captures their own experience. Define experience as either a) lived, or b) imagined. Many middle school students long and fantasize before they date. If art gives voice, how does Clare give them a voice? Stress innocence and love.

Third, they should write their own love poem. I know, groan. They will moon-spoon-June you at first, or lewd-crude you (be prepared to nip that in the bud), but with volume a line of truth will appear. As with Clare, find that one true line and isolate it. If students can say one true thing, that’s something. One true thing about love is a gift.

Finally, you could have each student contribute a line or stanza and put it all on a wiki or Google Doc or send it as a massive email. Students then take the mass, choose their favorite lines and stanzas, and create their own mash-up love poems. Have a competition. Do a formal reading. Slam them. Judge them with a love panel.

From this, a few lines might find themselves being repeated. Ask why? What do those lines say that is truth? Ah, suddenly Clare is the most important poet in their lives because, in the end, poetry is about them.

A Warning: anytime love is put in the hands of middle school students there is the potential to get immature, crude, lapse into teasing, or find the class in highly personal territory very fast. While talking about Clare might be fine, only you know if your students are ready to express their own love in a mature and respectful way. Someone might be getting unwanted attention, for example, or the snickering might take over. Love and oppression and verbal assault are three different things. That, in itself, might be the lesson worth teaching.

First Love
John Clare

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, a deadly pale.
My legs refused to walk away,
And when she looked what could I ail
My life and all seemed turned to clay.

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.

Are flowers the winter’s choice
Is love’s bed always snow
She seemed to hear my silent voice
Not love 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.

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