Thursday, 24 December 2009

October - Gillian Clarke

The first stanza of Gillian Clarke's poem 'October' sets an autumnal atmosphere for the poem. The metaphor of 'a dead arm' in line 2 for a branch of a tree that has broken forewarns us of the theme of the poem. Yet there is contrast here too, as the decay is seen against the 'bright' poplar trees whose leaves 'tremble gradually to gold'. Alliteration is skilfully used here as well as in the 'broken branch' and then again in line 4 as a 'sharp shower' turns the face of a stone lion a darker shade. This gloom is underlined at the end of the stanza where the lobelia, seen as the lion's 'dreadlocks', is changing from blue to brown as it dies. The imagery here is rich and describes both the beauty and decay of the season.

At the start of the second stanza, Clarke confronts us with the blunt phrase 'My friend dead', leaving us in no doubt as to the central focus of 'October'. The setting is the graveyard, where alliteration appears again as the coffin is carried to the 'hawthorn hedge'. Clarke portrays her lost friend as being but a slight burden in her coffin: 'lighter / than hare-bones on men's shoulders'. The mourners have 'stony' faces, echoing the statue of the lion from the first stanza. Rain mingles with tears, as there is 'weeping in the air'; there is a softer feel here than the 'sharp shower' stanza 1. Clarke describes the grave with the simile 'deep as a well', perhaps feeling that her friend will be separated from her by a considerable gulf. 'Thud' describes the heavy fall of the earth into the grave, while in contrast the alliterative 'fall of flowers' is a slow one, emphasising their lightness.

The final line of the second stanza consists merely of the phrase 'fall of flowers', and the opening line of the third and final stanza is indented to appear as a continuation of the preceding line, thus forming a stronger link between the second and third stanzas. This final stanza has a tremendous feeling of speed and urgency that is in sharp contrast to the initial part of the poem. Clarke's reaction to her friend's death is that of feeling a need to accomplish as much as possible before the time of her own death. In lines 12 to 13 of the poem she describes how 'the pen / runs faster than wind's white steps over grass'. Her pen is personified, and again alliteration creates a vivid image in 'wind's white steps'. The statement in line 14 'For a while health feels like pain' gives the impression that her grief for her friend was hard to bear at first. This feeling, however, was followed by 'panic', and the pace of the stanza increases again with phrases such as 'running the fields' and 'the racing leaves'. Clarke is desperate to capture the fleeting images of nature: 'holding that robin's eye / in the laurel'. Comparison with the speed of the wind is made once again in the simile of line 18: 'I must write like the wind'. Clarke ends her poem with a sense that she can win the struggle against time and the moment of her death as she continues writing, 'winning ground'.

'October' is a compact poem that gathers pace as it moves forward, beginning with leaves 'gradually' turning gold and ending with the need to 'write like the wind'. Out of the decay of the season of autumn and the sadness at the death of a friend comes motivation and the urgency to write faster and put the transient images of the changing seasons into words before time runs out. Language is used here to create powerful imagery with alliteration, metaphor, simile and contrast all playing a part. 'October' is a skilfully constructed poem that imparts a sense of using every available moment of life to the full.

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