Thursday, 17 December 2009

Cold Knap Lake - Gillian Clarke

Gillian Clarke's poem 'Cold Knap Lake' centres around a childhood memory of a girl almost drowning in a lake in Glamorgan (South Wales). The poet, with her parents, 'watched a crowd' of people pull the girl out of the water. It seemed at first that they were too late: the girl's lips were blue and she 'lay for dead'. The metaphor 'dressed in water's long green silk' tells us that she was covered in weeds from the lake.

In the second stanza, Clarke describes her mother as a 'heroine' as she knelt down to resuscitate the girl. The act of kneeling, 'her red head bowed', perhaps suggests a religious act. The mother seems to have been part of the whole rescue operation, 'her wartime cotton frock soaked'. The mention of her red hair is in sharp contrast to the girl's blue lips and gives a feeling of life. Clarke was obviously struck by the idea of her mother reviving 'a stranger's child' with 'her breath'. The crowd of onlookers dare not speak but are compelled to watch, as Clarke tells us in the alliterative phrase 'drawn by the dread of it'.

The third stanza tells us that the girl began breathing; 'bleating' suggests the idea of a baby animal calling for its mother. She is now 'rosy in my mother's hands', the color assuring that she is alive. The poet's father took the girl back to her home; we are told that she came from a poor family. Rather than expressing gratitude for the fact that she survived, her parents 'thrashed' her for having got herself into such danger.

The question 'Was I there?' that opens the fourth stanza signals a change in the poem. It stands out, as it is the shortest line in the entire poem and comes at the beginning of a stanza. It suggests that the poet, now of course an adult, is unsure as to whether she actually saw the girl being beaten or whether this is something her father told her about. The following five lines of the stanza form one long question that centres around an extended metaphor where the waters of the lake represent the memory. This second question refers to the 'troubled surface' of both the mind and the water. The imagery here is rich, from the alliteration of 'surface something else/shadowy' continuing with the personification of the 'dipped fingers of willows', which links back to the fingers of the child in the water. The 'satiny mud blooms' of line 18 are reminiscent of 'water's long green silk' in the first stanza. The 'cloudiness' of the muddy water is a symbol of the haziness of our memories. The assonance in the phrase 'treading heavy webs' in the following line creates a vivid image where it is the webbed feet of swans that are disturbing the water, just as certain events provoke unclear thoughts about the past in our minds. The stanza and the extended question close with the evocative sounds of the swans' wings that 'beat and whistle'.

The poem ends with a pair of rhyming couplets:

'All lost things lie under closing water

in that lake with the poor man's daughter.'

'Lost things' suggests memories that we can no longer recall, buried deep in our minds. The final line connects back to the initial focus of the poem, the girl who almost drowned. Alliteration of 'All lost things lie ... in that lake' serves to tie together the ideas of the memory and the drowning incident. 'Water' and 'daughter' are in fact the only rhyming words that appear in successive lines in the entire poem. In the first stanza, we could consider 'lake' and 'silk' (lines 3 and 4) as a half rhyme. Stanza two has 'earth' at the end of the opening line and 'breath' at the end of the fourth line, another half rhyme. The third stanza's first line ends with 'bleating' and its last line with 'drowning'. The fourth stanza does have two rhyming words, 'there' and 'air', one at the end of its first line and the other at the end of its last line, and each is the final word in a question.

The pattern of the stanzas is an interesting one, as the first and third stanzas have four lines each and the second and fourth six lines each, with the rhyming couplets standing out at the end of the poem. The lines vary in length, with the shortest one, 'Was I there?', drawing attention at the start of the fourth stanza.

In 'Cold Knap Lake', Gillian Clarke has created a fascinating poem that seems to focus on one particular dramatic event she witnessed in her childhood but develops into an expression of how our memories of the past are a part of us that may fade or play tricks on us with the passage of time.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, you've been sooo much help! Thanks! Hugs!