by Gillian Clarke
Q Is the poem true?
A If you read a prose story that begins:
‘Outside the green velvet sitting room white roses bloom after rain’,
you assume it is fiction, that the writer knows such a room and is using it to set the scene for an imagined story. If you read a poem that begins:
‘Outside the green velvet sitting room
white roses bloom after rain’
you know it’s a poem and assume it is a real place. You’d be right. Both poet and novelist use real places, one to serve invention, the other to serve truth.
Q What is the meaning of the poem?
A Do not trouble yourself with ‘meaning’. The poet doesn’t. Just read the poem and figure it out first as a narrative. I am telling you about something that happened.
First, picture the scene, meet the characters, take in the facts, follow the events. Once that is clear, you might notice the tricks language is playing on your imagination, the effects it is having on your own response. Then you’ll bring your mind, heart, experience to the language of the poem, and you will respond. You may find in your mind ideas that were not consciously recognised by the poet. That’s fine. That’s why poetry has such a power to work on us long after the poet has disappeared.
First the scene: a room, green velvet, white roses outside the window, sunlit but wet with recent rain. Roses: it must be summer. Velvet and roses: a suburb, maybe. You assume the poet is a neighbour or friend of the boy’s family.
Next, meet two people in the room: a sleeping boy, a person (the poet) watching over the boy. Note ‘cold bloom’, (the white rose of a tumour), ‘terrible speed’, ( a deadly missile), the ‘splinter of ice’ in his blood, (like the boy in the fairy story with the Ice Queen’s splinter moving towards his heart). The boy is very ill, so ill that he will die before the rose outside his window. He wakes and smiles bravely at his minder. He moves and the pain wakes and makes him grit his teeth. In the last line of verse 3, pain is a ‘red blaze’, a fire, and it burns him. He feels for a moment like Guy Fawkes on a bonfire, his bones are spars and bed-springs, like burning furniture. Even his beloved cat hurts him. The poet watches, terrified to see him suffer, hoping he will sleep again until his mother returns.
In the last verse he has died. Life is careless of the dead - the cat still tracks the thrush, the thrush hunts for a worm, the sun shines, and the rose lives a few more days before its petals fall. This shows the indifference of nature and the triumph of life over death. In the end these natural things live, and can console us, help us to grieve and be healed. So life wins, always.