As a whole, "I Am" sounds a lot like the musings of a sad and lonely old man, but an old man who knows how make a point without whining. Take the first lines of the first stanza for example: "what I am none cares or knows ; / My friends forsake me like a memory lost" (1-2). The short sentences get down to brass tacks right away, while the alliteration in "friends forsake" emphasizes what the real problem is without wasting any time. That phrase, "friends forsake," really sticks in your ear after you've read the poem.
As we finish the first stanza and get into the second, the poem starts to sound more like rambling, but rambling with a point. Notice, for example, that the last line of the first stanza begins a sentence that doesn't actually end until the last line of the second stanza. The continual addition of clauses to this sentence makes the poem sound like the ravings of a man whose mind is either starting to go, or who has a lot to complain about.
In the first two stanzas, the speaker really wants to drive home the fact that he's still alive. If you glance at these stanzas you'll notice a preponderance of long vowels: O ("woes," "host," "throes"), E ("me," "esteems," "sea," "dreams," "neither,"), I ("I," "like," "rise," "stifled," "life"), and A ("strange," "stranger"). Long vowels take longer to pronounce than short vowels; they seem alive, while short vowels seem "dead," cut off, lifeless.
So, the first stanzas are similar, got it. In the third stanza, however, things change a little bit. Here, one can't help feeling that we're listening to a prayer. All that stuff about living with God and sleeping peacefully sounds like something you might hear in church: "There to abide with my Creator, God ; / And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept."
The other thing to note about the final stanza is how much "quieter" and more peaceful it is. The sibilance, repetition of the S ("smiled," "sleep," "sweetly slept," "grass"), in particular contributes to this effect. It is a quiet consonant, and gives the final six lines a soothing, almost dreamy quality that perfectly mimics the death the speaker desires.
When we say "I Am," we're pretty much saying we're alive or we exist. That's the point of this title, although it is a little weird (we'll get to that in a sec). The speaker's friends no longer care about him; it's almost like he's dead. He feels like a ghostly vapor, and is surrounded by the shipwreck of everything he once loved. But—dude isn't dead! He's still very much alive, and still has feelings. That's the point of saying "I Am." The speaker doesn't want people to abandon him or treat him like he's dead yet because he's not.
The other thing about the title is that we feel there should be something after the "am." If somebody says "I am," our next question is usually "Okay, you are what, bro?" Well, the speaker is a lot of things. He is the "self-consumer" of his "woes" (3), he is sad, he is "like a memory lost" (2), he's like "vapours" (6). The point is the speaker is a lot of things, so the title is sort of like a placeholder. Clare couldn't have called it "I am x, I am y, I am z," after all. By just naming it "I Am," he invites us to question his identity further and learn more about him. He piques our curiosity.
It's probably no surprise for a poem with a title like "I Am," but the setting here is pretty self-centered. The speaker says it best, in fact: "I am the self-consumer of my woes" (3). Clearly, this guy is taking a long, leisurely swim in Lake Me.
More specifically, if we had to put our finger on it (or enter it into our Google Maps app), we'd locate this setting inside the speaker's mind. His troubles, his anxieties, his fears—all of these are internal goings-on that he relates to us. While we can guess from John Clare's biography that this might have taken place in an English asylum, it's important to note that there's nothing in the poem itself that gives us any clue—other than the speaker's reflection on his own mindset.
By the end of the poem, in the third stanza, we get a conflict of settings, though. Feeling trapped in the cell of his disturbed thoughts, our speaker "long[s] for scenes, where man has never trod" (13). Essentially, he's hoping to go to a little place we like to call "Anywhere But Here." Still, he wants to hang with someone when he arrives: God. So, we might say that the hoped-for setting is Heaven, while the speaker's current—and detested—place of residence is far from there, in his own troubled mind.
Our speaker is a very lonely man (we're assuming he's a man), there's no doubt about it. In the first two lines the speaker tells us that nobody cares about him, or even knows who is anymore, and that his friends have pretty much abandoned him. He might as well be non-existent, like "vapours." Throw in the fact that there are no "joys" (9) and that everything he once loved is one "vast shipwreck" and you have a picture of almost total misery.
Now some of this misery might just be because the speaker's friends are being total jerks, and some of it might be because he's getting older. After all, life starts to look a bit different as we get older: people move away, people die, people change. Either way, this misery gives our speaker a death wish. But he's not suicidal or anything like (he doesn't say anything about killing himself), even though his mind may be going (things seems "strange").
Last and certainly not least, he's kind of a religious or spiritual dude. He's not really afraid of death because he's confident that he will meet God, his creator. You certainly wouldn't hear that from an atheist now, would you? Like a lot of people who believe in God, our speaker sees death as a peaceful sleep, an escape from the troubles of life. Well at least he's not super-scared or anything like that.
A few last words before we let you go. Technically speaking, the speaker and John Clare aren't the same person. Poets write poems, but it's not always them talking. "I Am" is a strange little exception to this general rule. Okay, yes it's not Clare, but in a way it kind of is. Clare was a very lonely man later in life, and his family never visited him in the asylum. Plus he went crazy, which is why he was in the asylum to begin with, and he was a pretty pious dude (see the religious part above). So, in this poem the speaker is and isn't Clare. Try that one on your friends and watch them admire your literary sophistication!
Okay, we'll admit it, there are parts of this poem that really don't make any sense. Shadows in love's frenzied stifled throes? Or was it stifled frenzied throes? It doesn't matter because it was bizarre. Other than this little puzzle, however, "I Am" is a pretty easy poem. There aren't any funky words, and the sentences are pretty simple, if sometimes long. We're so close to sea level, but just a bit up the shore.
Okay, okay. We know this is the poem's title, but we swear Clare says "I Am" more than everybody else. Take a peek at the first stanza and count 'em up; yep, four times. That's quite a bit. If you were taking an exam and a teacher gave you the poem's first stanza, you would know it was Clare based on how many times that little two-word phrase occurs.
But, but—there's more. Clare actually wrote another poem with almost the exact same title (it's usually called "Lines: I Am" to distinguish it from its more famous cousin). If you guessed that this poem probably says "I Am," you guessed right (sorry, there's nor prize for guessing it correctly). Anyway, just like the regular "I Am," this one also contains that little phrase four times, in configurations like "I feel I am. I only know I am" (1). Give it a whirl right here and see if you like it better!
"I Am" is a great example of iambic pentameter, the most common meter in English poetry. Even the poem's title sounds like iamb. Anyway, you can read all about it here, but we'll give you the basics really quick. There are five beats (penta-) or feet; each foot is an iamb, which contains an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. So, an iamb sounds like da-DUM. (Say word "allow" out loud and you'll hear an iamb.) That's it. Piece of cake, right?
As an example, take line 4:
They rise and vanish in oblivion's host.
Really quick here, you should pronounce "oblivions" like "ob-liv-yuns" (it rhymes with "Funyuns," those super-delicious, onion-looking chips). As you can see, this is a very neat line of iambic pentameter: da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM.
Occasionally, however, Clare will change things up. Here's line 1:
I am yet what I am none cares or knows.
Notice that there are two feet ("beats") that contain two stressed syllables ("I am"). This is called a spondee, and it's a very emphatic beat. It's almost like the speaker is screaming out "I AM!!!" The double stress is very noticeable, especially at the beginning of a line, and it's the speaker's way of really hammering home the fact that he exists. See, and you thought meter was just for decoration!
Okay well that pretty much sums up the meter, but what about the poem's organization? Well, it's composed of three rhyming stanzas of six lines each (a six-line stanza is called a sestet, btw). The rhyme scheme in the first stanza is ABABAB, but the two other stanzas rhyme ABABCC. They both end up with two successive lines that rhyme, which is called a couplet.
So, why the change? For one thing, it's cool to change things up. It's a way of saying "Hey, look I can do this too!" More importantly, though, the inclusion of a final couplet in the poem's last two stanzas is a sign of harmony. It's the speaker's ways of suggesting that, despite his despair, he is starting to find some balance in his life. In the final stanza, for example, he's definitely a little more hopeful as he yearns for a peaceful and quiet death. In that way, the way the poem is put together goes hand in hand with the content of the words themselves. Nifty, huh?
Four. That's how many times this phrase occurs in the first stanza. It is a simple yet forceful way of saying "I am alive. I exist. I'm still here." Nobody cares about the speaker, and nobody knows what he's about. It's almost like he's dead, except—he's not. This is why he keeps saying "I Am." He is letting everybody know that he's still alive and well.
There's a lot of stuff in this poem that you just can't grasp (we mean physically, not mentally). Specifically, we mean immaterial things are things like shadows (5), vapours (6), nothingness (7), and dreams (8) that don't have any real, physical existence. They are everywhere in "I Am," and they function as symbols both of how the speaker is being treated (like vapor, like he's nothing) and of death. Shadows, nothingness? Sounds like death to us.
We sure love sleep, but not the kind of sleep in this poem. That's because the "sleep" in this poem isn't your typical nightly snooze, but the permanent sleep of death. The speaker is tired of his life: he's been abandoned, and everything he once loved is gone. He wants to die, but he sees death as a peaceful sleep, an escape or release from what is a very unhappy life.
Unfortunately, there is no sex in this poem. The speaker is busy reflecting on his life and sadness to even think about something like that, let alone describe it in this poem. Better luck next time.