English Literature

The Field Mouse

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

Subject matter


Listen to the poem and watch the slideshow

The Field Mouse

Summer, and the long grass is a snare drum.The air hums with jets.Down at the end of the meadow,far from the radio's terrible news,we cut the hay. All afternoonits wave breaks before the tractor blade.Over the hedge our neighbour travels his fieldin a cloud of lime, drifting our landwith a chance gift of sweetness.

The child comes running through the killed flowers,his hands a nest of quivering mouse,its black eyes two sparks burning.We know it will die and ought to finish it off.It curls in agony big as itselfand the star goes out in its eye.Summer in Europe, the field's hurt,and the children kneel in long grassstaring at what we have crushed.

Before day's done the field lies bleeding,the dusk garden inhabited by the saved, voles,frogs, and nest of mice. The wrong that wokefrom a rumour of pain won't heal,and we can't face the newspapers.All night I dream the children dance in grasstheir bones brittle as mouse-ribs, the airstammering with gunfire, my neighbour turnedstranger, wounding my land with stones.

A field mouse

Picture courtesy of Meagan Jenigen

The poem describes hay making in Wales, one summer in the early 1990s. The war in Bosnia was going on at the time. When a field mouse gets injured and dies as a result of the hay making, Clarke is reminded of the war and how the weak and vulnerable become victims of violence.

Gillian Clarke tells us on her website that the fighting referred to in the poem is the Bosnian conflict [conflict: Tension caused by a disagreement between people with different opinions, facts or beliefs. ], but the poem itself does not specify which war inspired it. Why do you think this is?

Structure and Language


The poem consists of three stanzas [stanza: A group of lines of poetry that make up a unit - like a paragraph in a piece of prose; a verse. ] of 9 lines each. The lines are of varying lengths, perhaps to reflect the freedom of the natural world - or the lack of order in the war-torn world.

Each stanza tells a different part of the story - the first gives the background about the hay making and the war, the second is about the death of the mouse, the third about Clarke's nightmare vision.

Conflict in Bosnia

Conflict in Bosnia


Think about how the language the poet uses helps to convey her ideas. Here are some points to consider:

  • The title is deceptively simple. We think that we are going to read a poem about the countryside: only when we get into the poem do we realise that it is also about war and conflict. The field mouse is obviously important, though. What does it symbolise?
  • The poem is in the present tense [tense: The verb formation that describes the time at which the action occurred, eg past, present or future. ]. This helps to make the events seem more vivid to us. Perhaps it also suggests the poem could be true of any war, anywhere in the world.
  • There are contrasts throughout between the idealised rural scene and the horrors of war. It is "Summer in Europe" (line 16), the time of hay making for all farmers; yet in Wales they are hay making while in Bosnia they are fighting.
  • However, the poem also reminds us that even a peaceful activity like hay making contains violence. Clarke acknowledges her guilt as she looks at the mouse "we have crushed" (line 18). Is she emphasising that violence can be unintentional? Or does this mean that we are all guilty for war, too?
  • Implied parallels between hay making and war run throughout the poem. For instance, in Wales the dusk garden is "inhabited by the saved" (line 20) - the animals that escaped the tractor. This makes us think of the human refugees who fled over the border to escape the Bosnian conflict. Think too about the word "land" (lines 8 and 27): it refers both to the farmer's land where the hay is grown, and to land in the sense of a person's country, their 'fatherland' - the territory they fight over in a war.
  • The poem ends with a nightmare vision - Clarke dreams of the children dancing in the hay field, yet she sees them as vulnerable as the mouse, "their bones brittle as mouse-ribs" (line 25), as if they were in a war situation with gunfire (line 26) all around. The neighbour who gave their land sweetness in the first stanza has become their enemy, ruining and wounding the land with stones (line 27) . In the Bosnian conflict, neighbours of different religions who had lived in peacefully together for generations turned against and murdered each other.
A child in a field

Picture courtesy of Debra Dell

Imagery and Sound



A hay field

The first stanza [stanza: A group of lines of poetry that make up a unit - like a paragraph in a piece of prose; a verse. ] is full of sound. At first it appears innocent - Clarke's opening metaphor [metaphor: An expression used to describe and/or compare a subject/action/person by the way it feels or what it resembles - eg 'sea of troubles', and 'drowning in debt' are metaphors. ] describes the snare drum sound made by insects in the grass. Yet the next line is more threatening: "The air hums with jets" - jets which are preparing to take part in the war. It is ironic that although the family are enjoying the hay making at the end of the meadow (line 3) and thought they had escaped 'the radio's terrible news' (line 4), the planes practising low flying above them remind them of it.

Tractor blades

Clarke uses a metaphor of the sea to describe the hay being cut: "its wave breaks before the tractor blade" (line 6). This image suggests both the sea-green colour of the grass and the whooshing sound it makes as if falls.

Spraying the ground with lime

Clarke's neighbour is putting lime onto his field. She explains, "This lime comes from limestone, and is naturally present in alkaline soil. In acid soil lime is deficient, and farmers add it to help the crops to grow. It sweetens the soil, so I describe the cloud drifting onto our land as 'a chance gift of sweetness'."

A field mouse

The child brings the injured mouse, "his hands a nest" (line 11). This metaphor shows both the nest-like shape of his cupped hands and the concern he has for the mouse: he wants to protect it, as if it was in its nest. The tractor has destroyed its real nest.

A field mouse

The agony of the mouse is "big as itself" (line 14). Perhaps Clarke wanted to show the scale of suffering: some people would dismiss the death of a mouse as trivial, but of course it is not to the mouse ..

A field mouse

Its eyes were 'two sparks burning' (line 12); "the star goes out in its eye" (line 15) when it dies. Think about why Clarke used these images of fire and light.

War-torn town

By the end of the day, "the field lies bleeding" (line 19). This ties in with other images which personify the field - "the killed flowers" (line 10), "the field's hurt" (line 16) and "wounding my land" (line 27). It makes us think of the blood of all the other small animals that must have been killed by the tractor, but also suggests the field itself is injured. "We call hay making cutting the hay", says Clarke, "but the Welsh equivalent translates as 'killing the hay'." It reminds us of the blood on the fields in Bosnia.

Bosnian conflict

"The wrong that woke / from a rumour of pain" (line 21) refers to the way the war flared up as a result of long nursed, sometimes imaginary, injuries inflicted on one community by another . Attempting to get away from thoughts of war, Clarke "can't face the newspapers" (line 23) - but the death of the field mouse has brought her face to face with it again.


  • The poem has no set rhythm [rhythm: The pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in a line of poetry. ], but flows along the patterns of natural speech, as if Clarke were talking to us.
  • Sounds are suggested through onomatopoeia [onomatopoeia: Words that express the sound they stand for - eg 'crunch', 'pop'. ] - as in "hums" (line 2) and "stammering" (line 26).

Attitude, Tone and Ideas

Tractor blades

Picture courtesy of Heidi K.C. Bertman

Much of the meaning of a poem is conveyed by the attitude it expresses toward its subject matter. 'Attitude' can be thought of as a combination of the poet's tone of voice, and the ideas he or she is trying to get across to the reader.

A good way to decide on the tone [tone: The mood or manner of a text or part of a text. The author's 'tone of voice' or way in which they expect to be understood. The emotional load carried by a text. ] of a poem is to work out how you would read it aloud. How would you read this poem?

  • in a sombre, muted tone, to express sadness for all the violence in the world?
  • in a bitter, foreboding tone, protesting against the violence?
  • in a gentle tone, expressing the peaceful nature of hay making?

Certainly, either of the first two tones would work. The third one, emphasising the peacefulness of hay making and the children's caring attitude toward the mouse, is there too, especially at the beginning; but the discordant background notes to do with violence and war come more and more to the fore as the poem progresses.


The ideas in this poem concern land and love of land, violence, and the roots of war. Have a look at these quotes from the poem, and our suggestions about how these ideas are expressed in each of them.

Quotations from The Field Mouse

"...far from the radio's terrible news, we cut the hay."She is horrified by the war - she has taken her family to watch the hay making to try to forget about it. Hay making would seem to be a very peaceful pursuit, but on this occasion it brings thoughts violence and war closer than ever.
"We know it will die and ought to finish it off."Clarke uses the euphemism 'finish it off' to avoid using the words 'kill' or 'murder': she cannot kill the mouse, even though she knows it may be the kindest thing. She feels sorry for the mouse and guilty for causing its death. Like those caught up in war, it is an innocent victim.
"the children kneel in long grass ..."The children in the poem run, or dance, or kneel in the grass. The idea of the fruitful land is linked in this poem with the idea of children: both represent life and growth, in contrast [contrast: A description of all the differences between two things (in this case, two texts). ] to the death and destruction of war.
"Before day's done the field lies bleeding ..."The field is personified: it feels hurt and bleeds, like a wounded soldier. This shows Clarke's love of the land - and also makes us think of battlefields in Bosnia, where people are getting killed.


In the exam, you will be required to write about several poems, some pre-1914 and some post-1914. To which poems would you compare The Field Mouse? There will be a number of ways in which the poems can be compared, and you may well be able to think of ones which we have not!

Comparisons with other poems

Poet and poemWhat to look for in your comparison [comparison: A description of the similarities and differences between two things (in this case, two texts). ]
Heaney: Blackberry Picking
  • Both poems are about a harvest, and in both something happens to sour the happy atmosphere.
  • Both poems employ symbolism [symbolism: The use of symbols - ie, of images or things that represent something else, usually something abstract. ]: in Clarke's poem, the crushed field mouse symbolises violence; in Heaney's, the rotten blackberries symbolise disappointment.
Whitman: Patrolling Barnegat
  • Both poems are from personal experience; both have nightmarish qualities.
  • Out in the storm, Whitman reflects on the violence of the natural world; Clarke is awakened to violence committed by man.
Clare: Sonnet
  • Clare's poem is very celebratory and innocent. There is no violence in the natural world he describes - and no humans to cause it - unlike in Clarke's poem.
  • The Field Mouse is more loosely structured than Sonnet, and its language much more varied.

The Field Mouse: Test

In the exam you'll be asked to write about four poems, two pre-1914 and two post-1914 (Heaney and Clarke or Duffy and Armitage), comparing and contrasting them with each other.

The poems will usually have something in common - such as their subject matter, or an aspect of their language, or the ideas expressed - but also important differences. In comparing them, you may be able to notice things about the way the poems convey their meanings which you might not have noticed before.

When you are asked to compare poems, it's a good idea to run through in your mind each of the headings under which we have looked at the poems in the revision bite: subject matter, structure, language and imagery, sound, ideas and attitudes and tone.

Now look at this question:


Compare The Field Mouse with one other post-1914 poem and two pre-1914 poems of your choice that deal with the nature and the countryside.

Three poems suitable for this comparison would be Seamus Heaney's Blackberry Picking, Walt Whitman's Patrolling Barnegat, and John Clare's Sonnet.

What would you want to include in your comparison? On a piece of paper, note down some points to make in comparing The Field Mouse with each of these three poems.

Then hit Next to compare your points with ours...

The Field Mouse: Test (answer hints)

Compare your answer with the hints below:


Heaney: Blackberry-Picking

  • Both poems are about a harvest - yet in both, something happens to sour the happy atmosphere.
  • Both are written from personal experience.
  • IClarke uses the mouse as a symbol of the weak and vulnerable in the world who are the innocent victims of warfare, while Heaney's poem shows the contrast between hope and disappointment. (His disappointment with the wasted blackberries reflects other disappointments in life.)
  • In both poems, the narrative is reflected in the structure - stanza 1 of Heaney's poem is about hope, stanza 2 is about disappointment.

Whitman: Patrolling Barnegat

  • Out in the storm, Whitman reflects on the violence of the natural world; Clarke is awakened to violence committed by man. However, both have nightmarish qualities.
  • Both are from personal experience.
  • Both are in the present tense, to add to the tension. Whitman's poem is a sonnet. The last syllable of each line rhymes, creating a dramatic effect. Clarke's is freer in form and sounds more like natural speech.

Clare: Sonnet

  • Clare's poem is very celebratory and innocent. There is no violence in the natural world he describes
  • ...because there are no humans to cause it, unlike in Clarke's poem.
  • Again, both poems are from personal experience.
  • Both are about high summer: Clare refers to the hay grass, but it is for him something beautiful to look at rather than something with a purpose.
  • Like Whitman's, Clare's poem is a sonnet. We often associate sonnets with love, so perhaps his poem is simple an expression of his love of nature.

Of course, these suggestions do not contain everything there is to say! You may have thought of other relevant points, and there may be other poems you have read which you could use in your comparison. The important thing is to be able to write two or three sentences pointing out similarities and differences between the poems.

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