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.
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?
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?
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.
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.