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English Literature

Gillian Clarke: Cold Knap Lake

Attitudes, themes and ideas

This poem seems to be about the nature of memory, especially of childhood memories. The speaker's recollection of the event is apparently quite clear at the start of the poem - yet it gradually becomes clear that she is not really sure whether all of it really happened, and the description gradually comes to seem more and more suggestive of a fairytale or dream.

Look at these quotations, and our suggestions about how to 'read' them.

Quotations from Cold Knap Lake

.. a heroine, her red head bowed .. my mother ..Clarke's mother is a heroine in both senses. She saves a child's life through her prompt action; but she is also - working her miracle of resuscitation - like fairy story heroine of saintly goodness and magical powers.
My father took her home to a poor house ..Clarke seems to sympathise with the girl and her family for their poverty. Poor is used twice (lines 13 and 22); it reminds us of fairytales where the heroine is poor, like Rumplestilkskin. Being poor of course does not excuse the thrashing inflicted on the child for almost drowning!
Was I there?Although Clarke has narrated the events in some detail, she then checks herself - 'Was I there?' The events seem very real to her but she is aware that her memory could have been influenced by other things she'd seen and heard of.
.. satiny mud blooms in cloudiness / after the treading, heavy webs of swans ..By the fourth stanza, the memory has become as murky and misty as the cloudy blooms of mud in the lake. Then there are the swans - another magical ingredient, since young maidens often turn into swans in fairy stories!

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