English Literature

Gillian Clarke: Cold Knap Lake

Context

Gillian Clarke was born in Cardiff in 1937. She has spent most of her life in Wales - her parents were both Welsh speakers and she speaks both English and Welsh: she uses many Welsh stories and myths in her work. She often writes about nature and her observations of people. Her first poems were published in 1970; she has since written three collections of poetry.

She edited the Anglo-Welsh Review from 1975 to 1984 and has taught creative writing in schools. She now works as a poet, freelance writer and broadcaster and is a lecturer at the University of Glamorgan. She has a daughter and two sons and lives on a smallholding in Wales.

Subject matter

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.

Form and structure

The poem has a mainly regular pattern: the stanzas [stanza: A group of lines of poetry that make up a unit - like a paragraph in a piece of prose; a verse. ] consist alternately of 4 lines and 6 lines, although the lines are of varying lengths. It ends with a rhyming couplet [rhyming couplet: a pair of lines of poetry that rhyme and have the same length and metric pattern. ].

Perhaps Clarke chose this structure because, in a way, it reflects what the poem suggests about memory - the main points are fixed but the details are looser.

The fourth stanza contains one very long, sprawling sentence, broken over several line-ends: it's hard to grasp exactly what is being said, beyond the impressions of shadowy willows, murky water, and low-flying swans. This lends an obscure, dream-like feeling to the description.

Language and Imagery

Language

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

  • The title is the scene of the near-tragedy, Cold Knap Lake, an artificial lake in a park in Glamorgan. It is haunting that the name of the lake includes the word Cold - it is a word we associate with fear and death, ideas that are explored in the poem.
  • The poem is written in the past tense [tense: The verb formation that describes the time at which the action occurred, eg past, present or future. ] because it is a narrative [narrative: The sequence of events in a plot; a story. ], dealing with events in Clarke's memory. Certain details, those that made a big impression on her, such as the appearance of the girl when she was pulled from the water "dressed in water's long green silk" (line 3) are described in detail, while other aspects are left vague. What effect does this give? What does it suggest about memory?
  • Apart from the poet's family, the characters are anonymous [anonymous: A text written by a person of unknown name or identity. ]. We hear about the "crowd" (lines 1 and 9) and the "child" (line 2) but we know little more about them - they are strangers to us, as they were to Clarke.
  • The first stanza initially makes us believe that the child is already dead, "a drowned child" (line 2), then tentatively suggests that there is some hope: "she lay for dead" (line 4). This is a dramatic [dramatic: To do with a drama or play. A description or portrayal that is vivid and immediate - as if it is being acted out in front of you. Something that is tense or exciting. ] way of showing what the people at the scene must have felt: they thought that the girl was dead, then realised that she was just alive. (For here means 'as if she was'.)
  • The person given the most vivid description is of Clarke's mother, since this is the scene that Clarke remembers most clearly. She was the "heroine" (line 6) - not just for Clarke, but in the eyes of the crowd. We can picture "her wartime cotton frock" (line 7): clothes were rationed, so the dress was home made. (Frock is an old-fashioned word for dress.)
  • The final couplet is puzzling: "All lost things lie under closing water" (line 21) - we wonder what type of things Clarke means. She is presumably not talking about objects. Is she referring to lost memories? Missed chances? Regrets? What do you think? Of course, the "poor man's daughter" is not lost at all, but saved. Does this alter your reading of the ending? Clarke writes, "The rhyme at the end connects the real event with a fairy story, I think."

Sound

Alliteration [alliteration: Words strung together with repeated (often initial) consonants, eg 'Max made many men mad'. ] and assonance [assonance: Words that sound the same through the use of similar vowels or consonants, eg 'hot' and 'slop' or 'fold' and 'filled'. ] are used to make the description more vivid. Look at: "after the treading, heavy webs of swans as their wings beat and whistle on the air" where the repeated e, i, b and s sounds imitate the sound and 'feel' of swans in flight.

The stanzas [stanza: A group of lines of poetry that make up a unit - like a paragraph in a piece of prose; a verse. ] include half rhyme [half rhymes: When the final consonants (not vowels) of the final words of lines are the same, but the overall sound is not quite the same. ] (for example, earth/breath and bowed/soaked), which creates the effect of a distant echo.

Imagery

  • The half-drowned child is "dressed in water's long green silk" (line 3). Clarke explains that this is "water weed, and streams of water falling from the child's clothes". It is a poignant image because the clothes sound beautiful, but are really deadly.
  • It is significant that her mother's hair was "red" (line 6): red is a colour that we associate with blood and life, in contrast to the deathly "Blue-lipped" (line 3) girl pulled from the water. The child becomes "rosy" (line 12) after receiving the kiss of life, as oxygen flows round her body again in her blood. Look at all the references to colour in the poem.
  • The line "my mother gave a stranger's child her breath" (line 8) sounds miraculous: we are reminded of the first breath a new-born baby breathes, or a puppeteer in a fairytale who makes his puppets come to life.
  • "Satiny mud blooms in cloudiness" (line 18) is a beautiful way to describe how the mud is stirred up by the swans' feet. "Satiny" suggests a silky fabric and "blooms" suggests flowers - both at odds with the muddy water. Why did Clarke use these images?
  • The swans are more threatening with their "treading, heavy webs" (line 19) and wings that "beat and whistle on the air" (line 20). Clarke explains, Swans can be fierce, and pretty scary to a child who thinks they are beautiful beings out of legend. The little girl nearly drowned. Did the swans try to take her to their kingdom under the water? That's the kind of story that haunted me when I was a child.
  • The silent crowd is drawn by the dread of it (line 10): they can't stop watching. The alliteration [alliteration: Words strung together with repeated (often initial) consonants, eg 'Max made many men mad'. ] sounds heavy and creates a sense of doom.
  • "The dipped fingers of willows" (line 17) personifies the weeping willow trees that are drooping over the water. Their lowest leaves are like fingers dabbling in the lake. Perhaps this is another idea from a fairytale, where trees sometimes have magical powers.
  • There are a number of overtones of a fairy story in the poem - a miraculous rescue, a heroine, a poor family. Clarke explores this idea even further in stanza [stanza: A group of lines of poetry that make up a unit - like a paragraph in a piece of prose; a verse. ] 4, where she wonders about memory and what affects it. She says, When you recapture a memory from early childhood, you're sometimes not sure if you were really there, if someone told you about it, or if you read it in a story. I'd read fairy stories and legends about people drowning in mysterious lakes. I'd seen a famous painting of a drowned girl floating in a brook.

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

QuotationCommentary
.. 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!

Comparison

Crossing the Loch – Kathleen Jamie's poem has an obvious connection to Cold Knap Lake, in that it is also a memory connected with water. As in Clarke's poem, there is a sense of threat about the water, although this time it is not because it is dark but because of the "phosphorescence". The loch is glowing because it is radioactive. Both poems are written in the first person, as a personal memory, and both have some imagery that suggests fairytales. But Jamie's poem suggests a clear memory, and a concern for physical consequences, rather than a questioning of what she remembers.

Neighbours – It would be natural to pair this poem with Cold Knap Lake because it is also by Gillian Clarke. This poem has a sense of threat among the natural beauty too. Nature is a common setting for Clarke's poetry. Both poems have a similar colour range in their imagery. However, there is a contrast of the emotion in the two poems. While Cold Knap Lake moves from a miraculous rescue to a slightly sinister end, Neighbours moves from disaster to a sense of hope at the end of the poem.

Sample question

In your exam you will be asked to compare a certain aspect of one poem with another. To do this, you need to get to know this poem better by considering one of its main aspects.

What follows is a sample question, which concentrates on one feature of the poem, and an answer to the question.

Question

How does the poet present memory in Cold Knap Lake?

Answer

Here are some suggestions for points that you could make:

  • The poem tells the story of an incident from Clarke's childhood about the rescue of a drowning girl. Although it initially seems to be about a miraculous rescue, actually Clarke is exploring the nature of memory, and ends up challenging her own memory of being present.
  • There is a dreamlike quality to the poem. For example, the long flowing sentence that makes up stanza 4 is not entirely clear in meaning, and could suggest the difficulty of grasping what happens in a memory.
  • The rhyming couplet which finishes the poem has a sense of finality about it which contrasts with the idea of 'lost things' within it. This could suggest that memory could seem definite but be wrong.
  • The structure of the poem moves the reader from an apparently clear memory to uncertainty at the end.
  • The images of 'mud' and 'cloudiness' suggest uncertainty and tension. This lack of clarity in the water is a metaphor for Clarke's own memory.
  • The half-rhyme throughout the poem creates the impression of an echo. This reinforces the idea of a lack of clarity in memory.
  • In conclusion: memory appears to be uncertain in the poem. Imagery and sound suggests a lack of clarity within it, and the reader is lead from an apparently certain scene to the idea that there are 'lost things'.

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