2 wool sack clouds: cumulus clouds (the big clouds with curved edges that we get in summer-time). A “wool sack” is a large bale of wool. Clare is saying that the clouds look like huge bales of wool passing across the sky.
4 Mare blobs: kingcups (or marsh marigolds) – small golden-yellow flowers with five petals.
5 flood: the anthology prints an error here. Clare meant just “flood”, not in our modern sense, but in the sense “a body of water”.
8 flag nest: i.e. her nest made of rushes or reeds.
11 hay grass: long grass, left long, to be harvested as fodder for animals.
This is a wonderful, joyous evocation of the beauty of early summer by the working-class poet John Clare (1793-1864). Clare had a difficult life. He was a so-called “peasant poet”, an ordinary working-class man, whose work enjoyed a brief vogue. But troubles with relationships, and troubles with getting his work published, eventually led to mental problems. This sonnet, for all its joyousness, was probably written while he was in the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum, where he resided from 1841 until his death in 1864.
Yet, we should be careful how, if at all, we let this biographical information affect our reading of the poem. “Sonnet” is, primarily, a celebration of the early months of summer, probably May and June. Clare loved to write sonnets, and this is one of many sonnets that he wrote. But here he uses the sonnet form in a very loose way. It is not a proper Italian sonnet (with the complex abbaabba rhyme scheme), neither is it a proper English or Shakespearean sonnet (with the quatrain pattern ababcdcd etc.). Clare is using straightforward couplets (rhymed aabbccdd), without the complexity of effect that we get in a sonnet where the octave and the sestet present slightly different viewpoints. Similarly, the poem’s rhetoric is also straightforward: consider the simple repetition or anaphora of “I love … I love … I like … I love …” (ll. 1, 3, 9, 11). This emphasizes the fact that in one sense “Sonnet” is no more than a beautiful list of the particular things that Clare loves at this time of year. We can notice also that the poem has very little enjambment: each couplet is a unit. Only the last two couplets are really connected by enjambment, allowing the poem to come to a climax.
In this sense “Sonnet” has a very simple or effusive air. It appears far more spontaneous and more impromptu than the carefully crafted joyousness of Hopkins’s “Inversnaid”. Clare did not publish this poem in his lifetime. In fact we don’t even have his own handwritten copy, but only the version of a man called W.F. Wright, who copied it down from Clare’s original (which was subsequently lost or destroyed). Nonetheless, one suspects that the fact that the poem has no punctuation reflects the way Clare conceived and wrote it. “Sonnet” is an effusion of joy in the particular sights of the early summer-time. Clare seems to want his poetic art to be as direct as possible.
In line 2 “wool sack clouds” is wonderfully vivid. These great white cumulus clouds rising up in the sky, and moving slowly along in the light summer winds, appear like huge bales of wool. “Mare blobs” (4) is a colloquial and homely expression, clearly part of the ordinary vocabulary of the countryside that Clare loved so well. We now call them kingcups (or more formally marsh marigolds). Their golden-yellow colour really stands out in the shaded “meadow drain” (4). The hay grass (without any chemicals on it, of course) is full of wild flowers. “Sonnet” ends with a tiny detail: the pond-skating beetles skimming across the surface of the “clear lake” (14).
Everything is vibrant and alive, with both sound and movement (“sailing”, “beaming”, “rustle”, “sport”). Even alliteration is used with relatively simple effect in phrases like “wind shook wood” (6) and “Mare blobs … meadow drain” (4).
Suggestions for teaching and appreciation
Think about how simply Clare uses the couplet form. Could you write some couplets like that?
The poem has no punctuation. Do you think this is an accident, i.e. Clare hadn’t finished the poem properly? Or do you think it was a deliberate if quick decision in the writing process?
Try filling in and agreeing a more conventional punctuation. What effect does this have on the look and feel of the poem?