I have chosen the following soft and gentle poem as a prime example of the shy and restrained form of love found in Clare’s poetry.
It appeared in The Village Minstrel, the second collection of poetry by John Clare, published in 1821, in the part titled “Poems” in Volume 1. It is generally titled as Ballad, or by its first line “I love thee, sweet Mary, but love thee in fear,” or by both together.
I present the version given in the biographical introduction (called “Life, letters, etc.”) of Life and Remains of John Clare, The “Northamptonshire Peasant Poet” by John Clare, whose unformatted text has been published online as a Project Gutenberg ebook; for the indentation, I followed the digitization of the original printed version on Internet Archive (see page 46), but used red indentation symbols instead of the usual blanks. The text probably follows Clare’s manuscript. Another version, following the 1821 publication, has been given in 2009 by Simon Sanada in John Clare Poems: The Lifetime Published Poetry. That version can also be found on Public Domain Poetry and on Poetry Cat.
I love thee, sweet Mary, but love thee in fear;
❦ Were I but the morning breeze, healthful and airy,
As thou goest a-walking I’d breathe in thine ear,
❦ And whisper and sigh, how I love thee, my Mary!
I wish but to touch thee, but wish it in vain;
❦ Wert thou but a streamlet, a-winding so clearly,
And I little globules of soft dropping rain,
❦ How fond would I press thy white bosom, my Mary!
I would steal a kiss, but I dare not presume;
❦ Wert thou but a rose in thy garden, sweet fairy,
And I a bold bee for to rifle its bloom,
❦ A whole Summer’s day would I kiss thee, my Mary!
I long to be with thee, but cannot tell how;
❦ Wert thou but the elder that grows by thy dairy,
And I the blest woodbine to twine on the bough,
❦ I’d embrace thee and cling to thee ever, my Mary!
This Mary could be Mary Joyce, the girl with whom he fell in love at age sixteen, and who would haunt his later life. Her father broke their relationship, and later Clare married Martha Turner, “Patty”, while Mary remained unwedded and died in an accident some thirty years after their affair. Now Clare, having lost his reason, declared that Mary had passed his window, then that Mary was his true wife and Patty his second wife. This hypothesis is corroborated by the following statement made by Professor Eric Robinson in an interview with the John Clare Weblog:
In Clare’s manuscripts there is a dimension not made clear until recently by Margaret Grainger’s The Natural History Prose Writings of John Clare (Oxford, 1983) and Timothy Brownlow’s John Clare and the Picturesque Landscape (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1983) and that is the numerous small pencil and pen sketches added by Clare in the margin. The lovely ballad, ‘I love thee sweet mary but love thee in fear’ (B 247a-248), for example, is accompanied by a landscape sketch of fields, presumably the very fields near Clinton through which Mary Joyce and he wandered together.
One often finds different versions of Clare’s poems, some having linguistic peculiarites. For instance, English poetry often replaces consonants by apostrophes, so “ever” and “over” become “e’er” and “o’er,” but in some versions they are simply “eer” and “oer.” In the Introduction of John Clare’s Poems: The Lifetime Published Poetry (the 2009 online edition of all four of Clare’s collections of poetry published in his lifetime), Simon Sanada explains:
The new OET edition of Clare’s poetry, while comprehensive, has been derived entirely from original manuscripts, and reproduces the idiosyncratic spelling, grammar and punctuation. The poems are therefore quite different in appearance from how they were first printed in the volumes published during Clare’s lifetime. Apart from […] the lifetime volumes have not been reprinted since their original publication in the 1820s and 1830s. The versions of Clare’s poems that appear in them have been entirely superseded by the revised versions from manuscript. So while it is easier than it has ever been for scholars and students of Clare to read his poems as he originally composed them, it remains difficult to obtain access to the poems as they were initially presented to Clare’s readers in the early nineteenth century.
On the other hand, in Poems Chiefly from Manuscript by John Clare, Project Gutenberg ebook, the introductory note by Edmund Blunden and Alan Porter states:
Punctuation and orthography have been attempted; Clare left such matters to his editor in his lifetime, conceiving them to be an “awkward squad.” […] So regularly does Clare use such forms as “oer,” “eer,” and the like that he seems to have regarded them not as abbreviations but as originals, and they are given without apostrophe.
There are other poems by John Clare that seem to speak of Mary Joyce, for instance First Love’s Recollections in The Rural Muse; indeed, it tells about his first love, it calls “Mary!” and tells of “Joy’s first dreams,” which could be a hint at her name.