|Gillian Clarke - study guide|
This guide is written for students and teachers who are preparing for GCSE exams in English literature. It contains detailed studies of the poems by Gillian Clarke in the AQA Anthology, which is a set text for the AQA's GCSE syllabuses for English and English Literature Specification A, from the 2004 exam onwards.
The guide gives detailed readings of poems by Gillian Clarke, with ideas for study. For a general introduction to poetry in the Anthology with extensive guidance for students and teachers, then please see the Introduction to the Anthology by clicking on the link below.
On this page I use red type for emphasis. Brown type is used where italics would appear in print (in this screen font, italic looks like this, and is unkind on most readers). Headings have their own hierarchical logic, too:
About the poet
Gillian Clarke was born in Cardiff in 1937. Her parents were Welsh speakers (and "100% Welsh"). She was brought up to speak English, but is a Welsh speaker, too. As well as writing poetry she is a playwright and translator. In 1990 she co-founded Ty Newydd, the writers' centre in North Wales. She teaches creative writing to children and adults, and gives readings and lectures. Gillian Clarke's work has been translated into ten languages. Her books include: Snow on the Mountain (1971), The Sundial (1978), Letter from a Far Country (1982), Selected Poems (1985), Letting in the Rumour (1989), The King of Britain's Daughter (1993), Collected Poems (1997), Five Fields (1998), Nine Green Gardens (2000) and Owain Glyn Dwr (2000). She published The Animal Wall, a children's book, in 1999.
Gillian Clarke has a daughter (about whom she writes in Catrin) and two sons. She lives with her architect husband on a smallholding in Talgarreg, in West Wales. Here they raise a small flock of sheep, and look after the land on organic principles.
Gillian Clarke maintains a Web site at
You can find copies of the Anthology poems here, as well as a selection of other pieces. She welcomes comments on her poems and answers questions that visitors send in. She says, of those who make suggestions about the poems:
"I'm grateful to you for reading them and for revealing to me what you find. Poets write instinctively, and don't always see every possible meaning in the words they choose. If you find something, and prove it with quotations, then it's there, and you're right, and don't believe anyone who tells you otherwise."
I would like to thank Ms. Clarke for giving me help with many points of information about, and interpretation of, the poems in this guide. But she does not always agree with some parts of my reading (which is by turns over-attentive to some details and may miss the intended point of others). This is most marked in the poems about motherhood. And least so in the case of October. In answering questions in a GCSE exam, this may be useful to think about - your examiners will not give you good marks for absolutely anything you write: it must relate to the text of the poems. But there is no one single right answer. Many of my comments are expressed here as statements, for the sake of convenience - but they are all offered tentatively. Very practically, the poet suggested that some bits of background information about the subjects had no place here, and they have gone. Gillian Clarke's advice is always to trust the poems - they mean what they say.
In the Anthology poems, Gillian Clarke writes always from her own viewpoint - she does not (in these poems) invent imaginary characters as mouthpieces in monologues. In this respect, her poems are quite straightforward. She makes the generous statement that once the poem is published, it is no longer hers - and that readers may discover meanings or implications in the text, of which she was not aware in the writing, or that are accidental.
Gillian Clarke says that this poem answers the question: "Why did my beautiful baby have to become a teenager?" The poem contrasts the baby's dependency on her mother with the independence and defiance of the teenager. In a sense, therefore, this poem is for all mothers and all daughters. Gillian Clarke writes that "It is an absolutely normal relationship of love, anxiety and exasperation."
The general meaning of the poem is clear though some details may be ambiguous. At the start of the poem, the mother in the labour ward in a city hospital, before (when she looks out of the window) and during labour (the room is "hot" and "white" and "disinfected"). Perhaps it is hot because of the plate glass, since later it is a "glass tank" - almost like a fishtank, or the vivarium where one keeps a pet that needs to stay warm. From the first mother and child seem to have been in a tug of war or a tug of of love, fighting over the "red rope". Did the poet literally write all over the white hospital walls - or does she mean that she found herself thinking up (and maybe writing somewhere) words, like those in the poem? Or maybe she is trying to explain her reaction to the "disinfected" and "clean" or "blank" environment - without "paintings and toys" and colouring in the white spaces. She sees this now as two individuals struggling to become "separate" and shouting "to be two, to be ourselves".
The second section tells what happened. Neither has "won nor lost the struggle" but it "has changed us both". The poet is still fighting off her daughter who can tug at her feelings by pulling "that old rope". The mother seems very much to want to be able to agree to the request to play out, and it hurts her to say no - not only because she foresees an argument with a strong-willed teenager, but also because she very much likes the idea of her daughter's skating in the dark. But she cannot give in - both because it would be irresponsible to allow the skating, and because it would be even more unwise to allow her daughter to think that she was winning the struggle. This last image, of skating in the dark, may come from a real request but also suggests an episode that William Wordsworth records in The Prelude, when he did just this - skating, as a boy, in the dark on a frozen lake, at a time when children were allowed to take far more risks than is common in the UK today, but enjoying as a result a freedom to explore and learn from the natural world. (In Catrin's case, it was roller-skating. Gillian Clarke says that "the request is half true, half symbolic".)
The poem has some striking images. The "red rope of love" is the umbilical cord. The image is repeated, as "that old rope". Gillian Clarke explains this as:
"The invisible umbilical cord that ties parents and children even when children grow up. I was also thinking of the image of a boat tied to a harbour wall. The rope is hidden. The boat looks as if it's free, but it isn't."
The "glass tank" is the hospital, according to Ms. Clarke. She explains that skating in the dark is meant literally - as an example of the kind of thing children ask to do but which mothers refuse because it is too dangerous.
Here Gillian Clarke contrasts the natural and instinctive love of a mother for her own child with the anxiety she feels for another's child, whom she does not know. Rather ironically this absence of emotion causes her to express an intelligent sympathy for the other child. Because the baby is too young to understand such things, being faced with a strange babysitter may seem worse, the poem suggests, than the more serious losses that adult women may suffer.
The opening of the poem gives a simple statement of the situation - except that the reader at first wonders how a baby can be "wrong" - not really a fault in this baby, merely its not being the babysitter's own - which is the "right" baby, by implication. The child is depicted very much as the ideal pretty infant - "roseate" and "bubbling" in her sleep, and "fair". But this is contradicted by the cold understatement of "a perfectly acceptable child". Worse, the babysitter is afraid of the child - of her waking and hating her, and of the angry crying that will follow. She thinks of how the baby's running nose will disgust her. The statement about the "perfume" of breath is really a comment on her own children, whose breath does "enchant" the mother in an instinctive way. Ms. Clarke explains:
"In her cot at home is the baby-sitter's baby. In the cot in this strange house is someone else's baby. The baby and the baby-sitter have never met. They are strangers. The baby-sitter is nervous, looks at the baby, sees a lovely child, but fears the child will wake. There'll be no chemistry or familiarity between them if the baby wakes."
The second stanza dwells on the idea of abandonment. Of course, the child is not abandoned, and we can suppose that her mother trusts the poet as a responsible carer. But Ms. Clarke suggests that this "abandonment" is worse than that of the lover "cold in lonely/sheets" or the woman leaving a beloved partner, dead or dying, in the "terminal ward". It will be worse for the baby, because she has not yet learned how to cope - and there is a hint that, in time, she will perhaps face these same kinds of suffering, too. The child will expect "milk-familiar comforting". She will find that, between her and the carer, "it will not come. This ending is ambiguous - it suggests literally milk that will not come to the breast, but is a metaphor for the comfort this brings, which also cannot come from her to the child.
The poem moves from the immediate situation to a more general look at life - seeing the parents' absence as anticipating other hardships that the future will bring.
The poem has short lines - there is no set metrical form, but most lines have four stresses, and many naturally fall into two halves. There are few metaphors but some interesting effects, like the transferred epithets of "snuffly/Roseate, bubbling sleep" (the adjectives should really describe the child, not sleep). The poem also appeals to the reader's senses of hearing (shouting and sobbing) and of smell ("perfume" of breath).
While the poem comes from a specific event, the child is not named and could be anyone - she is identified throughout by the pronouns and possessives "she" and "her". The poem explores the difference between a thoughtful concern for others and feeling this in some powerful and instinctive way.
This poem is very like Catrin - except that this time the poet writes of her grandchild. Why Mali? It has nothing to do with the West African country of this name. It is a common feminine personal name in Wales. Mali is the fifth poem in a sequence of seven under the general title, Blood. The sequence is published in The King of Britain's Daughter (1993).
The poem celebrates the child's third birthday, and looks back to the day she was born. The details are not completely clear, but it seems that mother and daughter, staying at her parental home, had been blackberry picking on a summer's day, when the premature labour began. Mali is born in the nearest hospital, twenty miles away, instead of in the city where she usually lives, which explains "too soon, in the wrong place". The poet jumps to a memory from the following day of "my daughter's daughter/a day old under an umbrella on the beach". As with her own child, the poet is overwhelmed by her instinctive love for the new baby - "I'm hooked again, life-sentenced". The poem ends with the birthday party - the grandmother bakes a cake "like our house". It is past the time for real blossom, but she decorates trees with "balloons and streamers". The poem concludes with a simple celebration - with seawater, candles and what seems to be blood - but we are not told whose. For an explanation we can read Ms. Clarke's comment:
"The birth of a baby involves great commitment. It's a 'life sentence'. The 'blood' in the poem is the blood of belonging, tribal, genetic, as well as the blood of fertility, birth, menstruation. Last blood is the very last drop of menstrual blood in a woman's life. No woman ever knows at the time when last blood has been shed. One generation's fertility ends in blood, and the next generation arrives in blood."
The poem is organized in four stanzas, each of seven lines. The lines have no regular metre but all have two or four stressed syllables. The dominant image is that of the tides - moving the sea, literally, and also as a metaphor for motherhood. When the child is born the grandmother feels again a tide she had "thought was over". Later we find that "even the sea cannot draw" her from the day-old child.
One has a sense of the birth as a wholly natural event, outside of the mother's and grandmother's control or planning. It is both "seasonal and out of season". And "something in the event...towed home a harvest moon".
This idea of things being out of season recurs in the way the trees blossom - admittedly only in a metaphorical way, with balloons and streamers.
A Difficult Birth, Easter 1998
This poem comes from Five Fields. The author says:
"The five fields of that book are the five continents of the planet and the oceans. They are a symbol of those other things and of the way of life lived everywhere."
After three poems in the Anthology about babies - two of them depicting childbirth - the title here might suggest something similar. But the "difficult birth" is of a lamb, at Easter. Gillian Clarke gives the reader the date (1998), as a clue to the symbolism of the title - which refers to the historic Good Friday agreement, which has gradually brought some kind of peace to Northern Ireland. The talks that led to this were also having a "difficult birth" over that Easter time. Gillian Clarke says (on her Web site) that the Easter setting of this poem also hints at the old story of Jesus's crucifixion and rising from the dead.
This double meaning appears in the first stanza - where the poet (and presumably her husband) look forward to good news. That is that something that has gone on for years seems about to change - "eight decades since Easter 1916". They have planned to celebrate the good news from the peace process, but have to put this off to look after the "restless" ewe.
The ewe's waters break, releasing the fluid in the amniotic sac that protects the unborn lambs, and she has licked this up. But her lamb is stuck. Someone (we do not know who, but this person is identified as "you") phones for the vet. The writer seems to rebel against this - men thinking they know best, even about birth. So she eases her hands in, grips the lamb's head and front hooves. She pulls hard, and at last the lamb comes out in "a syrupy flood", which the ewe licks up. The "you" character returns to this scene - "peaceful, at a cradling that might have been a death". Then the second lamb comes.
The poem presents the poet and the ewe as working with a common purpose - "we strain together". The poem is set out in stanzas of regular length and a loosely iambic metre. The last line, which shows that the miracle has occurred, is shorter than the rest.
Gillian Clarke mixes up details of the peace talks and the narrative of the lambing - "While they slog it out...exhausted, tamed by pain,/she licks my fingers". We realize that "exhausted, tamed by pain" refers to the sheep, but could almost equally well apply to the peace negotiators. And there may be a contrast between the violent history of men working against each other and the peaceful cooperation of females that can overcome the difference in species. We might easily miss the point as a "second lamb slips through" the "opened door" - that the first step towards peace is the hardest.
The poem is resonant with echoes. The ending suggests the miracle of the first Easter - the stone rolled away from Christ's empty tomb. "Easter 1916" marks the uprising that would lead to Irish independence and later, indirectly, to the troubles in Northern Ireland - but it is also memorable as the title of a poem by W.B. Yeats that records the event as the first part of a heroic struggle. Yeats writes, in the chorus, that "a terrible beauty is born". And "peaceful, at a cradling" suggests images of human mothers and children, perhaps even the nativity at Bethlehem.
In this poem, Gillian Clarke relates two of her greatest concerns - a love of the natural world around her and the political processes that bring war or peace to the world.
This poem could be compared to Seamus Heaney's At a Potato Digging. Both writers depict natural events, familiar to country people or farm workers, and relate them to history and wider political perspectives - specific to Ireland in both cases. Seamus Heaney looks at arable farming on a large scale (at one point discussing the whole Irish potato crop), while Gillian Clarke looks at pastoral farming on a small scale - one ewe among the little flock she raises with her husband.
Seamus Heaney admires farmers, and recognizes their abilities - which he admits he cannot match. But he also sees much of country life as cruel, arduous and alarming - something he may exaggerate in his poems, to explain why he is a writer and observer but not a farmer. Gillian Clarke, on the other hand, evidently enjoys both writing and animal husbandry. Where Seamus Heaney (admittedly as a boy) runs from the sight and sound of menacing frogs, Gillian Clarke is quite ready to slip her hands inside a ewe as it gives birth and help pull the lamb out by the head.
This piece recalls Robert Burns's famous poem To a Mouse, on turning up her nest with the plough. In both poems the mouse is powerless against man's interference. In each poem the mouse is a symbol of weak or vulnerable people, threatened by forces beyond their control. This is a long and quite sophisticated poem but the structure is fairly clear. The poet writes of cutting hay while thinking of events elsewhere in Europe. Her account of the hay-cutting has three strands or elements - to the straightforward description of the mowing she adds her observation of aeroplanes with which "the air hums" ("low flying fighter jets, an every day sound in hill country in Britain") and a short narrative about a mouse, injured by the machinery, which she is unable to save.
The poet sees how the hay-cutting has results which were not intended. Animals which have survived the destruction now appear as refugees in "the dusk garden". Children, who witness the destruction, seem upset by the brutality of the action.
In the final section of the poem, Ms. Clarke connects what she has witnessed to the war in Europe - an idea she suggests at the start of the poem in "the radio's terrible news". She sees children as fragile and vulnerable ("their bones brittle as mouse-ribs"). The noises of agriculture suggest the sound of "gunfire". The very last image in the poem refers more explicitly to the civil conflict of the 1990s in the former Yugoslavia, where the "neighbour" has become a "stranger".
In the poem's first stanza, Gillian Clarke suggests that the neighbour, without any particular feeling of good will, nevertheless sends her family "a chance gift of sweetness" in the lime that reduces the acidity of the soil - an image that suggests the stones that later wound the land. She now sees how easily the neighbour could become hostile and damage her land. "Land" is to be read to mean both the ground and any nation. The final lines suggest the territorial nature of the Bosnian war. Making land unfit for farming by spreading stones around (described in the Old Testament) is similarly a throwback to ancient times. Ms. Clarke comments:
"The poem is asking, 'what if?' What if we, Europeans too, had to suffer civil war? How would it begin? With stones? Could we quarrel over race or religion as people have done in Yugoslavia?"
In thinking about the poem, you might like to consider these questions:
Gillian Clarke's poetry often makes - or finds - connections between things. These may be real connections in the world outside herself, or the connection may be only in her experience or belief. In her poetry there is a sense of the world, or life, as a kind of joined-up reality. This poem is very simple in outline - two things cause the poet to reflect on the shortness and fragility of life:
The conclusion of the poem gives her remedy - not a solution, but the only thing she knows how to do, which is to write. She likens this to the running of an animal in the fields - trying to win ground from a predator.
The first stanza shows the effects of autumn - a broken branch in one of five poplar trees whose leaves are changing colour, ready to fall, or long and straggly lobelias trailing over a stone ornament, "brown" where they were once "blue-eyed". (Poplars are deciduous trees - they are long-lived, but lose their foliage in the winter; lobelias are annuals - the plants germinate from seed, grow, flower, set seed and die each year.)
The second stanza is a tender and understated account of a friend's death. She is buried in Orcop (an English village near the Welsh border, between Hereford and Monmouth) - this detail is a delicate way of letting the reader know that this is something that has really happened. For the bearers, she is "lighter than hare-bones" - she may really have weighed very little, but the image suggests rather that they do not feel her to be a burden, for the "short ride to the hawthorn hedge".
In the last stanza, Gillian Clarke sees her pen as running "faster than the wind's white steps over grass" - she writes, that is, almost automatically. Her own health "feels like pain", as if she is at fault for being well while her friend is dead. Then the writing becomes like "panic" and she is "running the fields". We recall the hare, whose bones are referred to in the previous stanza - she does not think of what is behind, but keeps running, "winning ground" merely by staying alive and writing. Each year she passes what will be her "death-day" - so every year gained is more ground won.
The poem has a loosely iambic metre, while the stanza divisions are uneven in length. There are reminders of mortality in the poet's vocabulary: "dead" (twice), "darkens", "graveyard", "bones", "grave", "fall", "pain", "faded" and "death-day". There are some striking and memorable images - the amusing "dreadlocks" on the stone lion, the familiar simile of the well for the friend's grave and the sharply-observed "white steps" made as the wind blows over grass, and makes it reflect sunlight.
Two similes stand out: "lighter/than hare-bones" suggests poignantly the tenderness we feel to those we have loved as we carry them for the last time; and the extended simile of the pen's writing faster than the wind, like an animal "running the fields", shows the poet's love of life and horror of the inactivity that comes with death.
This poem is worth comparing with Digging. In both cases, the writers consider events or experiences which have profound or lasting effects - and which explain why they write.
On the Train
This poem appears for the first time in print in the Anthology, though it was not written directly for it. Several things are happening here. On the surface, we have the poet's thoughts of another person ("you") as she sits on a train, far from home. Behind this we glimpse another story, of a disaster, a news report to which the poet is listening on a radio. There is no specific reference in the poem to the particular event which the poet recalls, but she has said (on her Web site) that it was the Paddington Rail crash, which happened in October of 1999. At the time she was travelling home from Manchester to Wales, not (as she would often do) from Paddington - she wants to share with the "you" the feeling one has on hearing bad news in the media (the poem may be autobiographical, and the second person pronoun appears to refer to her husband - but because this is not specified it has a wider relevance to the reader). She imagines that this person will wake alone and think of her, perhaps with alarm at the news of the rail crash - but it is "too soon to phone".
Commenting on the poem's being more than merely topical, the poet adds:
"I've thought about adding Paddington, but there's Hatfield, and so on, and all that matters is that it's a train crash. It is my 11th of September poem - disasters which unite us emotionally because of the difference the media has made to our consciousness of what's happening in the world."
The poet imagines the activity of a new day: radios playing, children being dropped off "at school gates", doors closing "as locks click", footprints on the frost (the first steps on it since it has formed), and trains "in the dawn" taking people "dreaming" to work - perhaps unaware that they are heading towards the blazing coach. The poet makes a call but the (mobile) phone she is ringing is turned off. She is advised to call later. She imagines how, later, other people will make calls to phones that will ring but not be answered - suggesting the disaster that has struck their owners. She phones again and again there is no answer. The poem ends with a plea "pick up the phone" and an admission that today the poet is "tolerant of mobiles". She knows it is a cliché, but today it is the best thing to say, as it will bring reassurance: "Darling, I'm on the train."
The poem is in six-line stanzas. The lines vary in length but are in the iambic metre - we have lines of five (pentameter), four or three feet (like the final line). The poet drops the metre at one point, as she quotes the message from the mobile phone company.
The account of the disaster is suggested by a series of images:
Here the "black box" refers literally to the Walkman but hints indirectly at the device that records the activity of an airliner, and which investigators use, after a crash, to discover what happened. A rail crash may literally destroy houses but always breaks up homes in a metaphorical sense, so that the kitchen (often the heart of the modern home) is like "rubble". The howling of wolves may be a metaphor for some other noise, or hyperbole (an overstatement) - suggesting a breakdown in normal civilized life. Readers may not at first realize that the Walkman in the poem is a radio (often on a train we notice that someone has a Walkman playing CDs, mini-discs or cassettes), but this appears later, as it "speaks in the suburbs", and we understand that the poet is listening to the news. Gillian Clarke writes on her Web site that she was listening to BBC Radio 4's Today programme.
The central image in the poem, potentially the most puzzling, but the one that reveals the poet's own imagining of the disaster, is "the blazing boneship" - the burning rail coach in which an unknown number of passengers died. Gillian Clarke says that she was thinking of the funeral ships which the Celts once would push out to sea, bearing the bodies of their heroes. Her wish was, she says, to suggest something "noble, heroic, tragic" because the real people grieving deserved "the dignity of the noblest image" she could conjure.
Of the mobile phone she notes that it is
"the modern messenger of love and tragedy as well as chat"
At the time of the events in the poem, she adds, the cliché, "I'm on the train", became "the most important message in the world". This could of course be not only the poet's message but that of other passengers - and there will be other unanswered phones in the rubble.
In reading the poem, you might think about these things?
Cold Knap Lake
This poem is about an incident from the poet's childhood. Cold Knap Lake is an artificial lake in a town park in Glamorgan, South Wales. A little girl is drowned in the lake, or so it seems, but the poet's mother gives her the kiss of life, and her (the poet's) father takes the child home. The girl's parents are poor and beat her as a punishment. At this point, the poet wonders whether she, too, "was...there" and saw this (the beating, rather than the rescue) or not. The poem is inconclusive - the writer sees the incident as one of many things that are lost "under closing water".
What begins as a reflection on a vivid memory ends by recognizing some of the diversity and richness of the way we recall the past. Ms. Clarke expands this:
"It is about the limitless way the mind takes in events and stories, laying down all that the mind encounters, enriching memory and imagination. It shows the importance of stories, nursery rhymes, poetry, pictures, alongside real events, in making us richly human. It is the picture of a human mind as made by the child in each of us. The lake, and the 'closing water', is memory."
In the opening lines, the poet seizes the reader's attention with the seeming seriousness of death. This makes the mother's action seem yet more miraculous. If we assume that the "wartime frock" is being worn during (not after) the Second World War, then the poet (born in 1937) would have been at most eight years old - she recalls that she was far younger. The mother is a "heroine" but her action has nothing to do with the war. The rest of the crowd either do not know about artificial respiration, or fear to take the initiative. And they are "silent" perhaps because they do not expect the child to recover. The poet notes how her mother's concern is selfless - she gives "her breath" to "a stranger's child". The image also suggests the miracle of creation as related in Genesis (the first book of the Bible), where God gives Adam life, by breathing into his nostrils.
The poet does not condemn the child's beating explicitly. But she seems shocked by the child's being "thrashed for almost drowning". She now recalls this as a terrifying part of the memory.
In the penultimate stanza, the lake of the title supplies an apt image of memory. Under the shadow of willow trees, cloudy with "satiny mud", stirred as the swans fly from the lake - the "troubled surface" hides any exact information. What really happened lies with many other "lost things" under the water that closes over them - in the lake, where "the poor man's daughter" lay drowning.
The poem has a very clear structure - stanzas of four and six lines, a pattern that repeats itself. There are loose or half rhymes all the way through to the final double rhyme couplet (almost in the manner of a Shakespearean sonnet). Cold Knap Lake is where these things really happened, but its association with lost history and things being buried and rediscovered later may echo the ideas in the poem. And there is an allusion to other literary accounts of drowning - perhaps that of Ophelia. Apart from the extended analogy of the "troubled surface" (which was literally present but also works metaphorically) there are very few metaphors in the poem ("long green silk" and "closing water" - can you find any others?).
This piece is one of several by Gillian Clarke about personal memories (which also figure in many of Seamus Heaney's poems). It also presents a happy outcome from a dangerous situation, like Blake's William Blake: The Little Boy Found and in contrast to Heaney's Mid-Term Break.
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