English Literature

Cold Knap Lake

For some background on Gillian Clarke, look at the Context section of Catrin

Subject matter


Listen to the poem and watch the slideshow

Cold Knap Lake

We once watched a crowdpull a drowned child from the lake.Blue-lipped and dressed in water's long green silkshe lay for dead.

Then kneeling on the earth,a heroine, her red head bowed,her wartime cotton frock soaked,my mother gave a stranger's child her breath.The crowd stood silent,drawn by the dread of it.

The child breathed, bleatingand rosy in my mother's hands.My father took her home to a poor houseand watched her thrashed for almost drowning.

Was I there?Or is that troubled surface something elseshadowy under the dipped fingers of willowswhere satiny mud blooms in cloudinessafter the treading, heavy webs of swansas their wings beat and whistle on the air?

All lost things lie under closing waterin that lake with the poor man's daughter.

A misty lake

Picture courtesy of Martin Third

The poem is a true story, or "as true as I and my memory can make it". (Clarke was a young girl when the main event happened, perhaps the same age as the child in the poem.) It is about a girl who nearly drowned in a lake and was given the kiss of life by Clarke's mother. When the child was taken back to her "poor house", she was "thrashed for almost drowning".

This frightening memory leads the poet to question the ability of our memories to retell the truth - she wonders about other influences that could cloud the precision of our memories.

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