The Life of a Clojure Expression: A Quick Tour of Clojure Internals

This is a written version of my Clojure/West 2015 presentation, for those who’d rather read than watch a video. It goes into more detail and has some updates for Clojure 1.8.

This is basically a code walkthrough of a thin slice of Clojure’s reader and compiler. These aren’t things a Clojure developer necessarily thinks about day in and day out, but it often helps to understand what’s going on behind the scenes. It may demystify Clojure’s internals enough to get some people who are already comfortable with the JVM to warm up to Clojure.


At a high level, we’ll be looking at the “R” and “E” in “REPL.”


What Expression?

Let’s follow the life of a single Clojure expression. Here it is:

(defn m [v]
  {:foo "bar" :baz v})
;;^---- this one ---^

It’s the map literal {:foo "bar" :baz v}, appearing in the context of a fn-definition where v is an argument to the function. That context in a function is important, but at certain points I’ll hand-wave past the details of what gets the function compiled, because it’s just too much. But my goal is not to hand-wave past any details of taking that map-literal from a series of characters, through Java bytecode, to pumping out fresh maps at runtime.

We’ll also discuss some variations that can lead down different paths.

;; a constant
{:foo "bar" :baz 23}

;; a map w/ a runtime-calculated key
{v "bar" :baz 23}

;; a map w/ more than 8 kv pairs
{:a 1 :b 2 :c 3 :d 4 :e 5 :f 6 :g 7 :h 8 :i v}


The reading process is about consuming characters from a (i.e., a Reader that lets you unread characters) and producing forms. The key takeaway is that Clojure is homoiconic, so the forms it returns are instances of the same types of data structures we use all the time in idiomatic Clojure: lists, vectors, symbols, strings, etc.

Why a PushbackReader?

There are several cases where the reader needs to back up. One example is when it finds a + or - at the beginning of a form. That could indicate the start (or entirety) of a referred symbol (as in + to refer to clojure.core/+) or a number literal (like -2). After reading a + or - at the start of a form, it reads the next character. If it’s a digit, it pushes the digit character back into the PushbackReader and goes down the readNumber path. (That’s the same path it would have gone down if it had encountered a digit at the beginning of a form.) Otherwise, it pushes the character back and continues down the readToken path. “Token” in this context can be a symbol, keyword, true, false, nil, or something I haven’t figured out yet.

Awkwardly, clojure.core/read is just a passthrough to the clojure.lang.LispReader java class, so those data structures we use all the time in idiomatic Clojure are created and manipulated in non-idiomatic Java.

(defn read
   (read *in*))
   (read stream true nil))
  ([stream eof-error? eof-value]
   (read stream eof-error? eof-value false))
  ([stream eof-error? eof-value recursive?]
   (clojure.lang.LispReader/read stream (boolean eof-error?) eof-value recursive?))
  ([opts stream] ; Arity-2 is for Reader Conditionals, new in 1.8.
   (clojure.lang.LispReader/read stream opts)))

Let’s jump straight to the LispReader/read overload that does the real work.

static private Object read(PushbackReader r, ,,,) {
  ,,, // Check *read-eval* to ensure reading allowed.
  ,,, // Merge {:features #{:clj}} into opts for Reader Conditionals.
  try {
    for(; ;) {
      ,,, // Some pendingForms stuff for spliced Reader Conditionals.

      int ch = read1(r); // Read the next character,
      while(isWhitespace(ch)) ch = read1(r); // skipping whitespace.

      if(ch == -1) ,,,; // Fail when nothing to read.

      if(returnOn != null && (returnOn.charValue() == ch)) {
        // Stop on closing brace for some internal callers.
        return returnOnValue;

        return readNumber(r, (char) ch);

      IFn macroFn = getMacro(ch); // <-- Important thing.
      if(macroFn != null) {
        Object ret = macroFn.invoke(r, (char) ch, opts, ,,,);
        if(ret == r) //a macro can return the reader to signal "ignore me."
        return ret;

      if(ch == '+' || ch == '-') { // See earlier note on PushbackReader.
        int ch2 = read1(r);
        if(Character.isDigit(ch2)) {
          unread(r, ch2);
          Object n = readNumber(r, (char) ch);
          return n;
        unread(r, ch2);

      String token = readToken(r, (char) ch);
      return interpretToken(token);
  } catch(Exception e) {
    ,,, // Propagate exceptions.

An important part in the middle there starts with getting an instance of IFn, Clojure’s function interface, from a call to getMacro(ch). If there’s a macroFn for the given char, that function handles reading the form opened by the character. The characters that have macro functions are all syntactically special: ", ;, ', @, ^, `, ~, (, [, {, \, %, and # (plus ), ], and }, to fail cleanly on unmatched delimiters).

Don’t get these reader “macros” confused with Clojure macros (as in defmacro). We’ll get to “true” macros later, when we talk about the compiler’s analyze phase.

The reader “macro” IFns are implemented with Java classes, not Clojure functions. The ( that opens our defn maps to an IFn implemented by a ListReader class. The { that opens our map-literal expression maps to an IFn implemented by a MapReader class. These ___Reader classes are all nested inside LispReader.

Who needs a Map<Character,IFn>? Not Rich Hickey.

LispReader wants to look up macro functions by their signifying characters. An idiomatic Java implementation might use a Map<Character,IFn> for that. But since the set of interesting characters is limited, and chars are 16-bit, unsigned integers, instead of a Map, LispReader uses an array of IFn, using the signifying characters as indices. This makes the setup very readable.

macros['"'] = new StringReader();
macros[';'] = new CommentReader();
macros['\''] = new WrappingReader(QUOTE);
macros['@'] = new WrappingReader(DEREF);
macros['^'] = new MetaReader();
macros['`'] = new SyntaxQuoteReader();
macros['~'] = new UnquoteReader();
macros['('] = new ListReader();
,,, // and so on.

I thought that was pretty clever.

The ListReader recursively calls up into that same static read method above to read each form until the closing ). We won’t look at that code in detail. The first thing it reads is the symbol defn, which is a just symbol like any other as far as the reader is concerned. That’s followed by the symbol m, then a vector, read with a VectorReader, containing the symbol v, then we get to our map-literal expression.

Given the { that opens the expression, getMacro returns a MapReader and passes the PushbackReader along to it (along with some other stuff I’ve elided below).

static class MapReader extends AFn {
  public Object invoke(Object reader, ,,,) {
    PushbackReader r = (PushbackReader) reader;
    Object[] a = readDelimitedList('}', r, ,,,).toArray();
    if((a.length & 1) == 1)
      throw Util.runtimeException("Odd # of forms!");

MapReader uses readDelimitedList to read everything up to the matching brace into an Object array, ensures it found an even number of forms (alternating keys and values), and creates a map using

static public IPersistentMap map(Object... init){
  if(init == null)
    return PersistentArrayMap.EMPTY;
  else if(init.length <= PersistentArrayMap.HASHTABLE_THRESHOLD) // 16
    return PersistentArrayMap.createWithCheck(init);
  return PersistentHashMap.createWithCheck(init);

Since the Object array is small, it uses PersistentArrayMap.createWithCheck.

static PersistentArrayMap createWithCheck(Object[] init){
 for(int i=0; i < init.length; i += 2) {
  for(int j=i+2; j < init.length; j += 2) {
   if(equalKey(init[i], init[j]))
    throw new IllegalArgumentException("Duplicate key:" + init[i]);
 return new PersistentArrayMap(init);

That ensures keys are unique and creates a PersistentArrayMap around the array.

public PersistentArrayMap(Object[] init){
  this.array = init;
  this._meta = null;

We now have the equivalent of this quoted form.

'(defn m [v] {:foo "bar" :baz v})

It’s a list that starts with two symbols, followed by a one-element vector, followed by a map. The map has two keyword keys, one string value, and one symbol value. The reader hasn’t done anything to correlate the symbol v in the vector with the symbol v in the map.

The fact that Clojure data structures are used to represent Clojure source at this stage is what makes macros both powerful and easy to write. This is the payoff of LISP’s homoiconicity.

So much for read. Next we get into the good stuff!


Again we have a handy function in clojure.core that just passes through to Java code.

(defn eval [form]
  (clojure.lang.Compiler/eval form))

Now, clojure.lang.Compiler/eval is a lot to take in, even with a lot of detail stripped out. So before we look at the real thing, here’s an idealized version of eval.

Object eval(Object form) {
  Object expandedForm = macroexpand(form);
  Expr expr = analyze(expandedForm);
  return expr.eval();

It takes in a code form, like the reader just gave us, and returns an Object result. It gets from form to object by

So what’s an Expr? It’s an interface that’s implemented for each type of expression in the language. (There are about forty types.)

interface Expr {
  Object eval();
  void emit(C ctx, ObjExpr objx, GeneratorAdapter gen);
  boolean hasJavaClass();
  Class getJavaClass();
  // And often there's this static factory fn:
  //   static Expr parse(C ctx, CORRECT_TYPE form);
  // For most special forms, there's an IParser:
  //   interface IParser{
  //     Expr parse(C ctx, Object form) ;
  //   }

With a lot of detail elided, here’s the “real” eval method. Some lines have intentionally been left super-long, because you can just read the comments I’ve inserted at the beginning. But if you’re curious, you can scroll right (or read the real thing).

public static Object eval(Object form, boolean _) {
  form = macroexpand(form);
  if(/* form is a (do ...) */ form instanceof ISeq && Util.equals(RT.first(form), DO))
  { /* eval each form, returning the last. */
    ISeq s =;
    for(; != null; s =
      eval(RT.first(s), false); // recursive call
    return eval(RT.first(s), false);
  else if(/* form is not a "def" */ (form instanceof IType) || (form instanceof IPersistentCollection && !(RT.first(form) instanceof Symbol && ((Symbol) RT.first(form)).name.startsWith("def"))))
   /* wrap it in a 0-arity fn and invoke that */
   ObjExpr fexpr = (ObjExpr) analyze(C.EXPRESSION,
     RT.list(FN, PersistentVector.EMPTY, form), "eval" + RT.nextID());
   IFn fn = (IFn) fexpr.eval();
   return fn.invoke();
  } else {
   Expr expr = analyze(C.EVAL, form);
   return expr.eval();

First, forms will be macroexpanded. If they’re not macro invocations, the macroexpand call will just return the input form.

Next, if the form is a (do...) it’s “unrolled”: each form of its body is eval‘d as if it were a top-level form, and the result of evaling the last form is returned. That’s important for macros to be able to return do forms where some forms create global state (e.g., defing a var) and later forms depend on that state in order to compile (e.g., referring to the var just defed).

If the form being eval‘d is not a “def” of some kind, it’s wrapped in a zero-arity fn and that fn is invoked. I don’t know why that’s necessary. (If you do, please let me know.)

Regardless of why, I find it interesting to see how the compiler wraps a form in a zero-arity fn. It could use some internal API for doing that, but it just does what you’d do in Clojure code, albeit awkwardly from Java code. Instead of analyzing the input form, it analyzes this:

RT.list(FN, PersistentVector.EMPTY, form)

That’s just a list with the symbol fn at the beginning, then an empty args vector, then the input form as the fn’s body. It’s the java version of this Clojure syntax.

(fn [] form)

Finally, if the form we’re analyzing is some type of “def,” as most top-level forms are, we analyze it into an Expr and return the result of its eval method.

Let’s get back to our form. The macroexpand at the beginning will turn our

(defn m [v] {:foo "bar" :baz v})

into (more or less)

(def m (fn [v] {:foo "bar" :baz v}))

So that’s the form that will go through the eval we looked at above. Since it’s a def, it will follow the straightforward analyze-and-expr.eval path.


Here’s a taste of analyze.

static Expr analyze(C ctx, Object form, String name) {
  Class fclass = form.getClass();
  if(fclass == Symbol.class)
    return analyzeSymbol((Symbol) form);
  else if(fclass == Keyword.class)
    return registerKeyword((Keyword) form);
  ,,, /* etc, etc */
  else if(form instanceof ISeq)
    return analyzeSeq(ctx, (ISeq) form, name);
  else if(form instanceof IPersistentMap)
    return MapExpr.parse(ctx, (IPersistentMap) form);
  ,,, /* etc, etc */

Depending on the type of our form, we dispatch to some type-specific analysis. All the branches I’ve included above are branches needed to fully analyze our expression.

Our outermost def is wrapped in a list, so off to analyzeSeq!

static Expr analyzeSeq(C ctx, ISeq form, String name) {
  ,,, /* elided line/column stuff */
  Object op = RT.first(form);
  ,,, /* elided nil-check, inline stuff */
  IParser p;
    return FnExpr.parse(ctx, form, name); // our fn
  else if((p = (IParser) specials.valAt(op)) != null)
    return p.parse(ctx, form); // our def
    return InvokeExpr.parse(ctx, form);

It looks at the op at the beginning of the form. If it’s fn, that’s handled specially due to fns having names that often come from outside their fn form. If it’s in the specials map (special forms), we hand off to the corresponding IParser. Otherwise, it must be a plain old fn-invoke.

Now for some hand-waving.

Our def is in the specials map. It gets analyzed into a DefExpr, whose eval evals its init expression (our fn). Trust me.

Our fn is analyzed into a FnExpr, whose eval compiles the fn-body, each Expr of which gets analyzed and emitted. Trust me.


Our function body is a map. You can see in analyze above that will mean a call to MapExpr.parse. Here we are.

public static class MapExpr implements Expr{
 // Each MapExpr has a vector of keyvals.
 public final IPersistentVector keyvals;
 ,,, // elided everything but parse.
 static public Expr parse(C ctx, IPersistentMap form) {
  IPersistentVector keyvals = PersistentVector.EMPTY;
  // Iterate through the entries in the unevaluated map.
  for(ISeq s = RT.seq(form); s != null; s = {
   IMapEntry e = (IMapEntry) s.first();
   // Analyze each key and value, adding the result to keyvals.
   Expr k = analyze(ctx, e.key());
   Expr v = analyze(ctx, e.val());
   keyvals = (IPersistentVector) keyvals.cons(k);
   keyvals = (IPersistentVector) keyvals.cons(v);
   // elided constantness, k uniqueness checks
  Expr ret = new MapExpr(keyvals);
  // elided special cases:
  // map with metadata, non-unique keys, entirely constant maps
  return ret;

MapExpr has a vector of keys and values, populated with Exprs representing each form. One of the “special cases” I elided above checks to see if the map is entirely constant (i.e., every key and val is a literal), in which case parse returns a ConstantExpr, and a fn with such a map as its body would just return a static constant value rather than creating a fresh map each time it’s invoked.

In our case, we end up with keyvals containing a KeywordExpr, a StringExpr, another KeywordExpr, and a LocalBindingExpr. The first three are our literals. The LocalBindingExpr is the internal representation of the symbol v from the unevaluated map the reader produced. When the symbol was analyzed, the compiler looked at the in-scope locals and found the v from our fn’s arglist, so the v in the map was analyzed into a use of that local.

As I mentioned earlier, FnExpr’s eval calls emit on each Expr of its body to emit bytecode for a Java class.


JVM bytecode is emitted using a repackaged copy of the ASM bytecode library.

A map literal compiles to a static call to either RT.mapUniqueKeys(Object[]), if the compiler can guarantee the keys are unique, or[]) if key uniqueness needs to be checked at runtime. MapExpr.emit does a bit more analysis of its keys to determine which.

public static class MapExpr implements Expr{
 public final IPersistentVector keyvals;
 static Method mapMethod = Method.getMethod(
   "clojure.lang.IPersistentMap map(Object[])");
 static Method mapUniqueKeysMethod = Method.getMethod(
   "clojure.lang.IPersistentMap mapUniqueKeys(Object[])");

 public void emit(C ctx, ObjExpr objx, GeneratorAdapter gen){
  // elided: iterate through keyvals to determine:
  boolean allKeysConstant = /* is every k instanceof LiteralExpr? */,,,;
  boolean allConstantKeysUnique = /* no two literal k.eval() results equal */,,,;
  MethodExpr.emitArgsAsArray(keyvals, objx, gen);
  if((allKeysConstant && allConstantKeysUnique)
     || (keyvals.count() <= 2))
   gen.invokeStatic(RT_TYPE, mapUniqueKeysMethod);
   gen.invokeStatic(RT_TYPE, mapMethod);
  if(ctx == C.STATEMENT) gen.pop();

The Method and GeneratorAdapter classes referred to above are ASM stuff. The particulars above show a tiny example of how JVM bytecode (and ASM) work. You emit your arguments, then your static invocation. Then, if this expression occurs in a “STATEMENT” context (i.e., it’s not the last expression in a function body or do block), you emit a bytecode to discard the return value of that static invocation.

If you put that bytecode emission together with my earlier hand-waving, our fn has now been compiled into the equivalent of this Java class and loaded into an in-memory classloader.

import clojure.lang.AFunction;
import clojure.lang.Keyword;
import clojure.lang.RT;

public final class a_map$m extends AFunction {

  public static final Keyword FOO = RT.keyword(null, "foo");
  public static final Keyword BAZ = RT.keyword(null, "baz");

  public static Object invokeStatic(Object arg) {
    return RT.mapUniqueKeys(new Object[] {FOO, "bar", BAZ, arg});

  public Object invoke(Object arg) {
    return invokeStatic(arg);


Note that invokeStatic is new since support for direct linking was added in Clojure 1.8. In previous releases, only the invoke instance method would have been generated.


Somewhere else, we hope, will be a call to our function. It might look like this.

(m "Thanks")

That piece of code will run through read and eval and, assuming direct linking is disabled or you’re on a version of Clojure earlier than 1.8, compile to bytecode equivalent to this Java expression.

M_VAR               // a static constant in the calling fn's class
  .getRawRoot()     // reads a volatile field in the clojure.lang.Var
  .invoke("Thanks") // invokeinterface

If direct linking is enabled, it will instead compile to the equivalent of this Java.


Either way, it ends up in m.invokeStatic, which, as shown above, creates an Object array and calls RT.mapUniqueKeys, which is the last piece of code we have to look at!

static public IPersistentMap mapUniqueKeys(Object... init){
  if(init == null)
    return PersistentArrayMap.EMPTY;
  else if(init.length <= PersistentArrayMap.HASHTABLE_THRESHOLD) // 16 again
    return new PersistentArrayMap(init);
  return PersistentHashMap.create(init);

As we’ve already seen, the PersistentArrayMap constructor just uses the init array to back the array-map.

{:foo "bar" :baz "Thanks"}

Notice that our fn’s call to mapUniqueKeys is an excellent candidate for inlining by the JVM. Since the Object array is created right there with a length of 4, it can skip the null-check and length-check and go straight to creating the PersistentArrayMap.

What Else?

I’m just about out of material here. I promise!

Literals are Faster

I found it interesting to discover that map-literals with keys known to be unique at compile time create maps with a mechanism more efficient than any other supported means. There is no other call to RT.mapUniqueKeys in the Clojure codebase and no supported way for you get at it other than via a MapExpr.

Do note though that your macros can return maps, which can hit the same fast code path as a literal, so you can have fast map creation without actually using a map-literal. For example, see this optimization to jry/kvify that takes advantage of this fact.

Wrap it up already!

Ok, ok!

Maybe next time some Clojure code doesn’t behave as you’d expect, you’ll roll up your sleeves and dig into the internals. At the very least, hopefully you now understand a little more about how Clojure works than you did before.

Thanks for reading. If you have questions, feel free to hit me up on Twitter or elsewhere. If the answer doesn’t fit in 140 characters, maybe I’ll write another ridiculously long blog post.

Thanks to Steve Kim, Oliver Gugenheim, Kurt Stephens, David Alternburg, and Peter Royal for providing thoughtful feedback on an earlier version of this monster. Sorry for not fixing all the valid issues you raised.