Study Guide

I Am

I Am Summary

In the first part of the poem speaker tells us that nobody cares about him anymore and that his friends have abandoned him. He suffers his woes alone; he is like "vapours" tossed into some noisy, place full of waking dreams that looks like some gnarly "shipwreck" (10). Crazy! This is all too much for the speaker, and he decides he wants to go somewhere where no man has ever gone (no, this isn't a reference to Star Trek). He says he wants to hang with God, so this is probably Heaven. Clearly he wants to die. Sad.

  • Stanza 1

    Lines 1-2

    I am—yet what I am none cares or knows;
    My friends forsake me like a memory lost;—

    • The speaker starts out by saying "I am." Okay, great! Awesome! He is! Sounds like he's just telling us he exists or is alive. Good to know. It'd be weird if he were dead and writing this poem.
    • The speaker is, and nobody ("none") cares or knows what he is. He uses a simile to tell us his friends have pretty much abandoned ("forsake") him like some lost memory. 
    • It's almost like his friends are treating him like he's already dead, even though he still "is"! Well those don't sound like very good friends, now do they?
    • Why do you think they've abandoned him? Has he become annoying to the point that nobody wants to be around him anymore? Has he changed so much that he is no longer the same person?
    • Clearly he knows in poetry, anyway. One thing we can tell you for sure is that the repetition of the beginning F and the M sounds in line 2 is a poetic device called alliteration.
    • Let's keep reading and hope this little mystery gets cleared up for us.

    Line 3

    I am the self-consumer of my woes;—

    • The speaker tells us more about who he is. He is the "self-consumer" of his woes. 
    • Wait, woes? Where did they come from? We're going to go ahead and guess that these "woes" are the feelings of sadness and depression the speaker feels at being ignored by his pals.
    • "Self-consumer" is a strange little phrase that probably means something like "I am the only consumer of my woes."
    • In other words, the speaker is suffering "woes" alone because his friends have gone AWOL. In case you've never heard that term before, bam! Here it is.
    • Gee, given the poem's firs three lines it's a safe bet that loneliness is going to be one of this poem's major themes. We can all relate to that in some way, can't we? Right?

    Line 4

    They rise and vanish in oblivion's host,

    • The speaker tells us more about those pesky "woes" in some very poetic, but, alas, confusing language. Grrrrrr!
    • They "rise and vanish in oblivion's host." Okay, so they (the woes, or troubles) seem to come up out of nowhere (rise) and then, poof, they disappear. 
    • Okay, but what's with that business about oblivion's host? Well, the woes "rise" and then they vanish into oblivion. That's more or less what's going on here.
    • The word "host" here does not mean the person who's having you over for dinner (although it does mean that sometimes), but a large group.
    • After the woes appear, they disappear along with everything else that belongs to "oblivion."
    • Okay okay, we know this is a really, really bizarre way to say that something has disappeared, but cut old John Clare some slack. He was literally insane by the time he wrote this poem. (Check our "In a Nutshell" for more on that.)
    • Hey, this whole bit about vanishing and oblivion kind of reminds us of how the speaker's friends are acting too, right? They're treating him as if he were lost in "oblivion's host," right?

    Line 5

    Like shadows in love's frenzied stifled throes:—

    • The speaker uses a simile to tell us more about those woes and how they vanish; they're like ("like": the simile signal!) "shadows in love's frenzied stifled throes." 
    • Geez, this is super-duper-weird, too!
    • Let's take it piece by piece. First, they're like shadows. That makes sense. Shadows don't really have a physical existence; they're kind of airy or insubstantial. Check it.
    • Okay, so they're like shadows "in love's frenzied stifled throes." Well, "throes" are severe pangs or pains. And "frenzied" means something like wild, frantic, or crazy, and "stifled" means stopped, prevented, or restrained.
    • So, imagine somebody experiencing some really frantic, but restrained, pains as a result of love. Now imagine that someone is a shadow.
    • So, we get a shadow in agony, suffering the pangs of love. That is how the speaker wants us to imagine these woes that show up and disappear.
    • It's a pretty tricky comparison, that's for sure. It sounds really cool, though, and it makes the speaker's suffering seem like both real and fleeting—shadows suffering pangs.
    • Whew! We need a break after that one.

    Line 6

    And yet I am, and live—like vapours tost

    • And despite all these rising and vanishing woes that are like shadows, the speaker is, and he lives, except he's like "vapours tost" (again, another simile). 
    • So, the speaker keeps reminding us that he has existence ("I am, and live") but why? Is he dying? Does he feel like dead because his friends are abandoning him? Do the mysterious shadowy qualities of his woes remind him of death?
    • All. Of. The. Above.
    • Meanwhile, what about "vapours"? That's just "vapors," but spelled the British way.
    • What about "tost"? "Tost" here is not the grilled bread you eat for breakfast. That, friends, is an old poetic way of writing "tossed." It's a more phonetic way of spelling the word. Just don't use it in an essay or you'll get dinged. 
    • Anyway, the speaker compares himself to vapors because he feels almost like he's nothing. Vapors, after all, are like shadows (apparently we're all in a simile mood today). They're thin, wispy, and lack substance. 
    • What about "tost"? Tossed where? Into what? We don't know yet, so we'll have to read on…
    • But for now, let's review some of the nuts and bolts of this killer stanza.
    • First up, we have the rhyme scheme. It is ABABAB, meaning that every other line rhymes.
    • Maybe this scheme will stay the same, but then again maybe it won't…
    • Let's stay tuned.
    • In the meantime, we'll whet your appetite with a little hint about the meter: iambic pentameter. A very classy choice by our speaker! Head over to "Form and Meter" for more on that stuff.
  • Stanza 2

    Lines 7-8

    Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,—
    Into the living sea of waking dreams,

    • Aha! Here the speaker uses anaphora (repeating the same beginning phrases of both lines) to tell us he's like vapours tost "into the nothingness of scorn and noise" and "into the living sea of waking dreams."
    • That makes perfect, perfect sense, doesn't it? NOT!
    • On the one hand, it sure sounds like people are treating the speaker with a lot of "scorn." But they're also treating him with "noise," which is probably the speaker's way of saying that everything people are saying about him is just a bunch of hot air. 
    • As for that bit about living sea of waking dreams, we sure love it, but sheesh it's a tricky little bugger!
    • The "waking dreams" part clearly describes the way the speaker experience his isolation, loneliness, etc. Maybe it's so strange to him that it seems like a waking dream.
    • On the other hand, perhaps life is starting to look like a "living sea of waking dreams" because the speaker is starting to lose it mentally. Reality doesn't seem "real" anymore.
    • We know that Clare had some very serious psychological problems—like…insanity—and so it wouldn't be too absurd to think this bit about waking dreams is an attempt to describe it.
    • This would also give us another way to read that bit about "noise." Somebody whose brain is going might not be able to understand language. They might hear words and think it's just "noise."
    • The reason he calls it a "living sea" is, again, to emphasize that he is very much a part of an organic or "living" world. It's a roundabout way of saying "Hey guys I'm alive!"
    • In fact, he would probably scream out the words just like the guy does in this rocking tune from the German metal band Helloween.
    • Did you see how a sentence that started in line 6 wasn't completed until line 7? Oh, yeah. Well that's called enjambment. It brings us running into this stanza to see how line 6 winds up—kind of like a poetic cliffhanger.
    • Now that we've been satisfied…onward!

    Lines 9-10

    Where there is neither sense of life or joys,
    But the vast shipwreck of my life's esteems;

    • Just when we thought things couldn't get any worse, they get worse! The speaker tells us more about this "living sea of waking dreams."
    • Even though it's a "living sea," death and decay are everywhere. There is no "sense of life or joys," and all that remains is the "vast shipwreck" of his "life's esteems." It sounds terrible.
    • "Life's esteems" means something like "things I've esteemed throughout my life." In other words, everything that he once valued or enjoyed is now a big huge mess. A shipwreck, like this.
    • The speaker is clearly a very unhappy man. It seems like his whole life has been destroyed; everything he's loved and esteemed is gone. There is no more joy.
    • We hate it to say it, but all this stuff about sadness and death is phrased really beautifully. Well that's kind of ironic, isn't it? Don't ya think?
    • Yes indeed it is! It's ironic, because this is a sad poem, and we don't usually associate death and beauty. Well, most of us don't. Apparently, though, sadness and death have inspired the speaker to write some really good stuff, so we guess that's a good thing. 
    • Hmm. We wonder if this comes up again a little later on… (Hint: it just might!)

    Lines 11-12

    Even the dearest, that I love the best
    Are strange—nay, rather stranger than the rest.

    • We're not out of the woods yet folks. There's more depressing news to report. The speaker's dearest companions, those that he loves the best—well, they're strange too! In fact, they're stranger than the rest.
    • The speaker begins to change his focus here. Whereas in the preceding lines he couldn't resist talking about shipwrecks and death, here he simply says that those he loves the best now seem "strange."
    • Then again, when a person starts to become really different, their old self sort of dies away, so in a way all this business about "stranger than the rest" still reflects an obsession with death.
    • The real confusion here is the question of who's at fault. Are the speaker's closest companions really acting differently towards him?
    • Or is it all in his head? It is possible, given what we've already read, that the speaker is describing a mental breakdown, though he might not be totally aware of it.
    • This is all painfully, painfully sad. 
    • Let's take our mind off of all this for a minute and think about something happy, like this stanza's rhyme scheme!
    • It is slightly different than the first stanza and is: ABABCC. And look! How neat, there's a couplet here! Yay! For more on that stuff, check out "Form and Meter."
  • Stanza 3

    Lines 13-15

    I long for scenes, where man has never trod
    A place where woman never smiled or wept
    There to abide with my Creator, God;

    • The poem's final stanza begins with the speaker longing for "scenes" where man has never been, and where women have never smiled or wept. 
    • Well, where in the world is this place? On the moon? At the North Pole? That'd be pretty cool, but unfortunately that's not where it is.
    • This "place" might be Heaven. The speaker says he wants to go live ("abide") in a place with God. Last time we checked, God lives in Heaven.
    • Now, hold on a second. Aren't a whole lot of dead people up there in heaven walking around and smiling? Maybe, but the point the speaker is making is that only living people walk and smile.
    • Angels, or spirits, or whatever people become when they go Heaven, don't walk or smile the way "regular," living people do. 
    • We've seen a whole lot of death by this point, but this time it's a little different. Almost as if he's tired of all the "death" around him, the speaker starts actually yearning for death, too.
    • That sounds sad and all, but the Heaven he imagines is a place where there is no weeping! That seems kind of neat, actually.
    • Maybe it looks like this.

    Lines 16-18

    And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept,
    Untroubling, and untroubled where I lie,
    The grass below—above the vaulted sky.

    • The speaker continues, using a simile (comparing with "as") to tell us that while he lives with his creator he wants to sleep, just like he did in childhood. If he sleeps like that, he won't bother anybody ("untroubling"), and nobody will bother him ("untroubled").
    • The grass will be below, and the "vaulted sky" will be above. Well that's a very charming image now isn't it? 
    • By the way, "vaulted" just means arched. If you look up at the sky a certain way, it sort of looks like a vaulted ceiling. Supposedly.
    • All this business about sleeping and lying makes us think of the speaker's actual grave, rather than Heaven. For example, a lot of headstones say things like "Here lies Bill Shmoop" and "Rest in Peace" (rest=sleep).
    • This doesn't necessarily mean the speaker is actually talking about going to the grave, instead of Heaven. His body will go to the grave and rest, while his spirit or soul will go to Heaven to "abide" with his creator. Maybe.
    • The rhyme scheme in this final stanza is the same as in the second stanza, by the way: ABABCC
    • Even in this state, though, the speaker still has his writing chops. We also get some more terrific examples of alliteration, what with all the S sounds and the "Un-" words. (Alliteration of the S sound is specifically known as sibilance, just in case you wanted to know.)