Sheep in Winter

The sheep get up and make their many tracks
And bear a load of snow upon their backs,
And gnaw the frozen turnip to the ground
With sharp quick bite, and then go noising round
The boy that pecks the turnips all the day
And knocks his hands to keep the cold away
And laps his legs in straw to keep them warm
And hides behind the hedges from the storm.
The sheep, as tame as dogs, go where he goes
And try to shake their fleeces from the snows,
Then leave their frozen meal and wander round
The stubble stack that stands beside the ground,
And lie all night and face the drizzling storm
And shun the hovel where they might be warm.


This poem is in the public domain. Published in Poem-a-Day on December 17, 2023, by the Academy of American Poets.

About this Poem

“Sheep in Winter” appears in The Poems of John Clare, vol. 2 (J. M. Dent & Sons Limited, 1935). Unpublished at the time of Clare’s death, the poem was written between 1835–37, during his years in the village of Northborough, Cambridgeshire, England. In “Keeping Nature at Bay: John Clare’s Poetry of Wonder,” published in Studies in Romanticism, vol. 50, no. 1 (Spring 2011), Erica McAlpine, associate professor of English at the University of Oxford, writes, “In his attentiveness to the actions, the hunger, and the cold of the sheep, Clare shifts the perspective of his poem away from the speaker and towards the animals themselves. Many of the verbs he uses to describe the flock’s movements are strong and memorable [. . .] and these words focus the poem on the sheep rather than on the speaker, who is notably absent unless we read ‘the boy’ as a version of him. [. . .] They ‘go noising round / The boy,’ he writes, developing an undercurrent of sheep-song (‘noising’) from what was presumably a visual cue (the image of sheep ‘nosing’ through a field)—and the sheep’s song muffles his own. The human element is even further removed by the sheep’s strange and unexplained resistance to shelter in the sonnet’s closing lines. Do the animals simply prefer a natural landscape to the man-made hovel? Or do they have a masochistic longing to suffer with the cold earth? Or, rather, is Clare suggesting by the conditionality of the phrase ‘where they might be warm’ an irony inherent to sensibility to nature itself—that is, that the projection of human reasoning onto natural objects can lead to a misrepresentation of those objects? After all, maybe the sheep are already warm.”