by Gillian Clarke
The poem is about a child who makes a sundial out of 12 stones and a broken bean stick. It is also about time, about light and shade, about a child’s nightmare, stone circles, lions in the night and the lion-sun burning down on a garden next day.
Owain is a six year old boy who wakes at night from a bad dream, shouting to his mother that there is a lion in his bedroom. The poem is written next day, a hot summer day which mother and child spend in the garden. After a sleepless night the child is quiet, ‘dry and pale’, ‘intelligently adult’. The fever has made him still, able to concentrate on his task. The mother is tired, sleepily watching as the child works out where to place the stones. He checks the time on his watch, and places a stone where the shadow cast by the stick falls on the circle of paper. This is ‘the mathematics of sunshine’. Primitive people used the ‘mathematics of sunshine’ when they raised stone circles such as Stonehenge, calculating from sunlight and shadows the hours of the day and the seasons of the year.
The sun is the lion of the child’s frightening dream. In children’s books, illustrations of a lion’s face or the face of the sun look similar. Time is a circle. The clock face is a circle. At the end of the poem the lion-sun becomes the lion trainer, takes up the whip and points it at mother and child. We are ‘caged’. We can’t escape time.
Why does the mother think about time as she watches her child, recovering from a fever? Does the language and imagery of the poem suggest anxiety? If, in the early hours of the morning, a child wakes screaming, hot and frightened, would any parent fear the worst?