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

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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...

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...wn social isolation. The descriptions of the world he occupies are hardly appealing and Clare is well aware of this, knowing that such an offer would be made in vain if truly made at all. The straightforwardly presented horror of Clare’s world lies in direct contrast to the world of love he continually invokes, and the improbable triumph of love over isolation is nearly laughable in its impossibility. By complicating his poem’s mode of transmission through the filter of the maid and the frame of traditional love poetry, Clare’s portrait of isolation and social death becomes even more moving and poignant, for it is just as obvious to the reader as it is to Clare that such an offer of “eternity” would be unlikely to be accepted. And if it were, would it matter in an eternity where all faces look the same and parents pass by their children, unrecognized, like shadows?
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