What is Life Poem by John Clare Summary, Notes and Line by Line Explanation in English for Students


The poem “What is Life” was written by John Clare. The poem was written in the early 19th century. It was first published in the poetry collection “Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery” in 1820. The poem “What is Life” talks about the different and various aspects of life. The poem talks about the emotions that a person feels in different stages of life. The poem focuses on the times in one’s life of happiness, sadness, disappointment, obstacles and much more. The poet in this poem talks about the tantalizing and unreachable concept of true happiness.

About the poet

John Clare was born in 1793 in the United Kingdom. He was an English poet. He was also called “The Northamptonshire Peasant Poet”. His poems contained a celebration of the countryside and also the sorrows of life. He was the son of a laborer on a farm. He wrote a plethora of poems in his life. He published numerous poetry collections like “The Shepherd’s Calendar”, “The Lament of Swordy Well” and “Love Poems”.


The poem is made up of 5 stanzas in total. Each stanza is of varying length. The first stanza is a sexain, the second stanza consists of 5 lines. The third stanza is made up of 9 lines. The fourth and fifth stanza consist of 5 and 8 lines each.

Stanza 1

And what is Life?—An hour-glass on the run,

A Mist retreating from the morning sun,

    A busy, bustling, still repeated dream;

Its length?—A minute's pause, a moment's thought;

    And happiness?—A bubble on the stream,

That in the act of seizing shrinks to nought.


In the first stanza the speaker talks about and tries to describe life. He says that life is nothing but the time running out like the sand falling in an hourglass. The speaker describes life like the mist of the night retreating after the sun starts to rise in the morning. Life, according to the speaker, is a repetitive dream. Even though it is busy and bustling, it is still only a dream. The temporary nature of life is again talked about where the speaker talks about its length.

According to the speaker, the length of a lifetime is equal to a minute or a moment. The speaker then shifts the focus from life to happiness. He says that happiness is like a bubble on the surface of a stream, temporary. The speaker says that just the act of thinking about happiness makes it cease to exist.


The poet begins the poem by trying to describe the essence of life. The poet uses multiple metaphors in the first stanza to showcase the temporary nature of life. First the poet compares life to the sand in the “hour-glass”. He says that life runs as fast as the sand slipping in the hourglass. Just like the sands, life does not stop slipping out.

He then extends the metaphor of time to describe the length of life. Life is as long as a “minutes’s pause” or a “moment’s thought”. This shows the transience of life. At the end of the stanza, the poet shifts the focus of the reader from life to happiness and talks about how happiness too is temporary. He uses the metaphor of a bubble of water on “the stream” to highlight how impossible it would be to touch and acquire happiness.

Stanza 2

What are vain Hopes?—The puffing gale of morn,

    That of its charms divests the dewy lawn,

And robs each flow'ret of its gem,—and dies;

    A cobweb hiding disappointment's thorn,

Which stings more keenly through the thin disguise.


In this stanza, the speaker shifts his focus from life and happiness to Hopes and dreams. He says that vain hopes bring nothing but sadness. The speaker says that unachievable hopes bring winds that blow away the dew from the flowers in a lawn. This wind of sadness takes away the gems of these flowers and kills them. Just like the wind, vain hope also act like thin cobwebs that hide the thorns of the flowers.


In this stanza, the poet again makes use of multiple metaphors to describe hopes and dreams that one has in life. These unrealistic hopes and dreams are compared to a “puffing gale of morn”. A gale is a strong gust of wind.

The poet compares life to a flower in a lawn and meaningless hopes to the gale of morn. He says that these winds blow away the dew of the flowers in the lawn. These dew are the gems of life. The unattainable hopes are also compared to cobwebs which hide the thorns on the flower. But this only makes the sting from the thorn much worse.

Stanza 3

And thou, O Trouble?—nothing can suppose,

(And sure the power of wisdom only knows,)

    What need requireth thee:

So free and liberal as thy bounty flows,

    Some necessary cause must surely be:

But disappointments, pains, and every woe

    Devoted wretches feel,

The universal plagues of life below,

    Are mysteries still 'neath Fate's unbroken seal.


In this stanza, the speaker is reflecting on the concept of troubles and hardships in life. He believes that these difficulties don’t just happen by chance; there must be a deeper reason or purpose behind them. The speaker acknowledges that troubles seem to be quite common.

However, he asserts that there must be a reason behind every trouble that comes our way. This implies that even though we might not always understand why we face challenges, there is a larger design at play. Furthermore, the stanza conveys a sense of mystery surrounding these hardships. It suggests that the pains and disappointments experienced by people are like universal puzzles, their true significance kept secret by fate.


In this stanza, the poet describes “Trouble” in life. In this stanza he personifies Trouble and talks about how it is present in everyone’s life. It can only be understood with the power of wisdom and knowledge. Trouble, according to the poet, is present in everyone’s life. He questions the reason behind this but does not find an answer.

In the next few lines he talks about how only the “devoted wretches” feel the disappointments, pains and sadness of life. This is because they are very attached to everything. In the last line, the poet says that these woes and troubles are the great mysteries of life that only “fates” understand.

Stanza 4

And what is Death? is still the cause unfound?

That dark, mysterious name of horrid sound?—

    A long and lingering sleep, the weary crave.

And Peace? where can its happiness abound?—

    No where at all, save heaven, and the grave.


In this stanza, the speaker focuses on two significant concepts: death and peace. He begins by questioning whether we have truly grasped the essence of death, often perceived with fear and mystery. The speaker refers to death as a “dark, mysterious name of horrid sound,” suggesting that it carries a weight of fear and apprehension. Next, he offers his own perspective on death. Then, he turns his attention to the idea of peace. He expresses skepticism about where true happiness and tranquility can be found. According to him, such a state of contentment is only attainable in two places: heaven and the grave. This implies that peace is either an afterlife reward or a state achieved after passing away.


In this stanza, the poet talks about death and peace. He believes that the cause of death is still a mystery and unfounded still. He compares death to a “horrid sound” and a “long and lingering sleep”. He says that death might be a prolonged and deep slumber, something that weary individuals might actually desire or long for. This interpretation provides a somewhat comforting view of death, implying that it could be a restful state after a life of toil and exhaustion.

In the end of the stanza the poet talks about peace and says that he believes that peace can only be found in a place where happiness is present in abundance.

Overall, the stanza delves into profound philosophical questions about the nature of death and the quest for peace and contentment.

Stanza 5

Then what is Life?—When stripp'd of its disguise,

    A thing to be desir'd it cannot be;

Since every thing that meets our foolish eyes

    Gives proof sufficient of its vanity.

'Tis but a trial all must undergo;

    To teach unthankful mortals how to prize

That happiness vain man's denied to know,

    Until he's call'd to claim it in the skies.


The speaker in this stanza is contemplating the true nature of life. He suggests that when we remove all the illusions and masks, life doesn’t appear to be as appealing as it might seem on the surface.

The speaker says that life is a trial or a test that every person must face. This trial has a purpose: to teach people the true value of happiness. The speaker goes on to suggest that the genuine happiness that eludes vain humanity in life is something that can only be fully realized in the afterlife, in the heavenly realm.


In the final stanza of the poem, Clare argues that every aspect of life that we encounter serves as evidence of its transitory and ultimately unsatisfying nature. This implies that the things we desire and pursue in life may not bring lasting fulfillment. Clare says that life’s challenges and difficulties are meant to lead individuals towards a deeper understanding of what really matters. 

In essence, the poet is conveying a philosophical perspective on the nature of life, emphasizing its impermanence and the deeper lessons it holds for humanity. He urges people to recognize the fleeting nature of worldly pursuits and to seek a higher, more enduring form of happiness in the spiritual realm.