by Gillian Clarke
Marged - Welsh for Margaret - killed herself in 1930, in the house where I now live. She died as a result of poverty. In ‘Letter from a Far Country' I imagine that tragic day,
'Middle-aged, poor, isolated,
she could not recover
from mourning an old parent's death.
Influenza brought an hour
too black, too narrow to escape.'
In the same long poem I describe the little house as I found it, and bought it, 40 years after her death, a neglected ruin.
'In that innocent smallholding
where the swallows live and field mice
winter and the sheep barge in
under the browbone, the windows
are blind, are doors for owls,
bolt—holes for dreams. The thoughts have flown.
The last death was a suicide.'
'Marged' is a sonnet. It has 14 lines, each with 5 strong beats, and a rhyme scheme that goes like this:
The form came naturally, following the tune of the first two lines. I used the pattern of the sonnet to tell a simple story, enjoying the contrast between form and content. The rhyme too seemed to fall into place.
'Parlwr' is Welsh - Marged's language - the word for one of two main rooms in her simple, traditional longhouse. A longhouse is a two roomed croft, with sleeping space in the roof, a barn, cowshed and dairy all under one roof.
In 1984, I moved from Cardiff to the countryside, to live alone, by choice, for one winter in Blaen Cwrt. The cottage was romantically primitive, with oil lamps, a wood-burning stove and spring water. It was far from romantic for Marged half a century earlier. The poem is prompted by my guilt about Marged's life and death, my gratitude for our life today in her house, my sympathy for her, as a woman, the things we had in common, the differences between us, between women's lives then and now. These differences lie in the poem's language: contrast the pleasures of
'Lighting the lamps, November afternoons,
a reading book, whisky gold in my glass.'
with Marged's isolation and poverty,
'the old dark parlwr where she died
alone in winter, ill and penniless'