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Featured Poem: The Instinct of Hope by John Clare

Written by Lisa Spurgin, 4th March 2019

The Reader's Learning and Quality Coordinator, Lisa Spurgin, reflects on this week's Featured Poem, The Instinct of Hope by John Clare.

This time of year seems to be an inherently hopeful time – the nights are lightening and days drawing out, and here at Reader HQ in Calderstones Park the crocuses and daffodils are surging up, bringing colour and optimism after the dark and dreary winter months. Reading this poem I sense that the speaker can see and feel the ‘hope’ of the title quite easily in nature and the world around them, even in the ‘small violet’ with its ‘renewing blooms’, but is finding it difficult to foster that same hopeful feeling within themselves, or in a wider sense, mankind generally. Can we tell whether ‘this frail dust’ is speaking about one individual or many different people? Perhaps ‘be itself’ gives us some clue – would we feel differently if the speaker said ‘be myself’ instead?

We do get a sense of the personal in the next lines:

Something about me daily speaks there must,
And why should instinct nourish hopes in vain?

There is a degree of optimism for something better here, I think, although the questioning both here and in the closing lines ‘And surely man is no inferior flower / To die unworthy of a second spring?’ makes me wonder whether this person’s own hope, or perhaps patience, is growing short, as though they have been waiting a long while for the resurgence that seems to come easier to the natural world. I find that second line particularly intriguing: is instinct something that is always encouraging and nourishing? I feel, perhaps as the speaker also does, that nature is instinctively positive in that it will do what is best for the life within it, but do our own instincts always work in the same way?

We can feel that there is something bigger going on; there’s a real feeling of scale and even spirituality in the words that are used; ‘prophesy’, ‘mystery’, ‘eternity’. These are tough concepts for any of us to get to grips with, and I do feel comforted that it is not just people – either as individuals or a group – who are ‘struggling to explain the close sealed volume of its mystery’ but ‘everything’; even nature itself cannot give a rhyme or reason to its cycles.

I’m especially drawn to the lines that almost seem to be standing alone in the middle of the poem:

Time wandering onward keeps its usual pace
As seeming anxious of eternity,
To meet that calm and find a resting place.

Being ‘anxious of eternity’ seems something of a paradox, but at the same time is also relatable if you’re stuck in a difficult situation and can see no way out or hope. Or, perhaps it an anxiousness for something better that will be waiting for us as part of eternity? Do we think of ‘time’ as an unending entity? Should we think of it instead as something that will come to a conclusion, or at least find things harder to achieve – will it slow its ‘usual pace’ at a certain point?

I find myself wanting to put an additional comma after that first line because it certainly feels like having ‘calm’ and finding a ‘resting place’ is a significant life goal, at least personally. What is ‘that calm’, though? The idea of ‘a second spring’ seems to be at odds with finding rest and repose; does resting have to equate to listlessness? Surely we can be both ‘warm with life’ and long for peace too? Perhaps such questions will always go unanswered, as part of the ‘close sealed volume’ of nature and its mystery.

The Instinct of Hope

Is there another world for this frail dust
To warm with life and be itself again?
Something about me daily speaks there must,
And why should instinct nourish hopes in vain?
'Tis nature's prophesy that such will be,
And everything seems struggling to explain
The close sealed volume of its mystery.
Time wandering onward keeps its usual pace
As seeming anxious of eternity,
To meet that calm and find a resting place.
E'en the small violet feels a future power
And waits each year renewing blooms to bring,
And surely man is no inferior flower
To die unworthy of a second spring?

by John Clare

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