Cold Knap Lake
by Gillian Clarke
Cold Knap lake is in a park in Barry, a seaside town in South Wales. It was opposite the house where we lived until I was six. My mother - a nurse - took me there most days in my pram. Later, it became a favourite place to play. Children gathered in gangs to sail boats, picnic, climb trees and make dens. Once, in a famous cold winter, it froze so hard that hundreds of people came to slide, sledge and skate on the ice. (I wrote a poem called ‘Legend’ about it.)
The lake was part of my childhood and my imagination from earliest memory. It seemed a secret world of reflections and shadows, plops and splashes, and drowned things you couldn’t quite see. Many of the nursery rhymes, fairy stories and legends of my childhood were about lakes. When you’re a small child, the physical world, and the world of books, dreams and stories, are both real. The wild swans of stories and poems, and the real swans in the park, seemed equally legendary. On land the real ones stretched out their necks and hissed alarmingly when I held out the bread, though on the water they floated like water lilies. In stories they stole children and carried them away. It was all one to me, the real and the imagined, facts and stories. If a hand had risen from the depths of Cold Knap lake flashing Excalibur, I would not have been surprised.
The incident haunted me. The poem had been queuing up to be written for years. I wanted to write about memory, the way we remember, how the real is tangled with the story-world when we’re very lines ending with ‘water’ and ‘daughter’.
How to read the poem for its content:
As usual with my poems, please read it first as a story. Trust the words. See the event as it unfolds: the crowd staring as a child is pulled from the lake, my mother kneeling beside her, giving her what we now call ‘the kiss of life’, the silent people, the child suddenly breathing.
Can you tell from the language that the witness of all these events is a child?
- When did it happen? ( one phrase is a clue).
- What did she hear a grown-up say?
- What happened after the child was saved from drowning?
- Why do I say ‘was I there?’?
- What do you make of the final two verses?
If you read the introduction first, you should be able to work out the poem. There’s never just one meaning for everyone. A poem is not ‘about’ just one thing. The last two lines are important - even I’m not sure what they mean. All poems are kind of spells, this one especially so.
How to read the poem for its form:
The five verses are of unequal length. The lines are unequal too. The rhythm* of the first two lines together make the 5-stressed beats of iambic pentameter*. The third line has the 5-beats of iambic pentameter on its own. The fourth is shorter, like a dramatic statement.
We once watched a crowd
pull a drowned child from the lake.
Blue-lipped and dressed in water’s long green silk
she lay for dead.
You might put the stresses in different places, but you should still hear the same number of beats. This rhythm comes and goes throughout the poem until the final two lines, when it changes to a pair of lines with only 4 stressed beats. At the end it sounds as if it has become a nursery rhyme. I think the poem is influenced by nursery rhymes because it’s a memory from early childhood.
I enjoy rhyme*, those at the ends of the lines as well as the internal rhyme. Internal rhymes include ‘drowned’ and ‘crowd’, though they also count as assonance*. The poem uses half-rhyme. You’re unlikely to hear it, but the discipline of using any kind of rhyme is helpful to a poet. In verse 1, ‘crowd’ end-rhymes with ‘dead’, and ‘lake’ end-rhymes with ‘silk’. You can pair ‘earth’ with ‘breath’, ‘bowed’ with ‘soaked’, ‘silent’ with ‘it’. Half-rhyming words are found at the ends of every line, leading at last to the full rhyme of the final couplet.
Half-rhymes are subtle. You hardly hear the rhyme, and the words don’t draw attention to each other. Only the final two lines rhyme fully. Therefore, ‘water’ and ‘daughter’ are the most important words in the poem. To me, the half-rhymes also count. But I enjoy the final lines most of all.
How to read the poem for its language:
Note the words and phrases. You can tell this is a child who loves stories from phrases like, ‘a heroine’, ‘a stranger’s child’, ‘a poor house’, ‘the poor man’s daughter’. The last three sound as if they come straight out of fairy stories. Language like ‘my mother gave a stranger’s child her breath’ show the event from a young child’s puzzled point of view. The witness doesn’t understand the kiss of life. What is her mother doing? She seems to be giving her breath to a child. Metaphor* is at work too. The drowned child is ‘dressed in water’s long green silk’. Later she ‘breathed, bleating’. Which new-born animal bleats? (I have 15 of them gambolling in the field outside my window right now as I write this.) The willows have ‘dipped fingers’. Note the chosen words, words like ‘troubled’, ‘closing’. Ask yourself why the water is ‘closing’, and not closed?
Compare the description of water with Seamus Heaney’s in ‘Perch’. Look at Heaney’s version of an accident in ‘Mid-Term Break’. Find which of his poems show the cruelty of nature.
This poem is about memory, and how our memory of childhood events is part of who we are as we grow up. Look at what Seamus Heaney has to say about the role of memory in his notes on his own anthology poems.
Teachers, seek out the passage from Shakespeare’s Hamlet describing the drowned Ophelia, beginning:
‘there is a willow grows aslant a brook’