Poetry Analysis: ‘Miracle on St David’s Day’
Gillian Clarke, born in 1937 in Cardiff, is known for writing poems about nature – and this one is no exception. Also, if we consider Clarke’s Welsh roots, it’s also no surprise that ‘Miracle on St. David’s Day’ features numerous references to the Welsh celebration. Furthermore, this poem is “Ars Poetica”: it is about poetry. Specifically, it displays the awesome healing powers of poetry – the ‘miracle’ referenced to in the poem’s title. Let’s start off by investigating the basics of this poem; Clarke is narrating a recounted experience (reading poetry to those admitted to a mental health institution) directly to the reader.
The poem takes on a tone of compassion, generated by the slow reading caused by several instances of caesura (pauses in a line, often caused by commas) such as “… hands on his knees, he rocks… “. Furthermore, it is also calm and collected, caused by the slow reading but also by Clarke’s use of lexis – long, ‘soft’ words, such as “… he rocks gently to their rhythms… “. Trying to convey her feelings accordingly, the slow pace of the poem also makes it seem as though she was in shock to see people in such a state – such as the “absent” woman or the other woman, who offered her “as many buckets of coal” as she could ever need.
The tone does take a sharp U-turn when Clarke shocks the reader by saying that she is “… reading poetry to the insane. “. She is referring to how the mental hospital is secluded and hidden, then snaps us back to the reality of the situation: she is literally reading poetry to the insane. This poem’s themes include nature, mental illness, poetry and St. David’s Day and poetry itself, with references accordingly: for example, Clarke refers to daffodils on many occasions and she is recounting herself reciting poetry to mentally ill patients at a hospital that “… ight be a country house… “.
Finally, poetry is a predominant theme of this poetry, specifically the healing powers of poetry, as the labouring man, thought to be dumb, recited a word perfect ‘The Daffodils’, which he had learnt by rote at school. Clarke states that poetry is a “… music /of speech… ” and that by simply writing words on paper can change lives in such great ways, as exemplified by the man’s ability to overcome his illness. Clarke utilises a lot of examples of imagery in this poem, often of objects associated with St.
David’s Day. For example, “An afternoon yellow and open-mouthed with daffodils… ” causes the reader to picture a bright, sunny and yellow scene – daffodils are often worn by people on St. David’s Day as it is a national emblem of Wales and is in season during March (St. David’s Day occurs on March 1st) and the line could be referring to the fact that many people choose to don daffodils on their lapel, causing massive exposure to the colour yellow, thus causing the afternoon to become yellow.
Roughly halfway through the poem, when the “big, dumb labouring man” stands ready to recite William Wordsworth’s famous poem ‘The Daffodils’, Clarke uses the line “Like slow movement of spring water or the first bird of the year in the breaking darkness… “. With regards to the description of spring water, which is when water flows up to the earth’s surface (from beneath), the images spawned are calm, natural and refreshing. However, the water, like the man, has had to overcome much difficulty: be it flowing through layers of tightly packed rocks, or in the man’s case, overcoming his ‘incurable’ illness.
Regarding the second part of the line, of the bird, it makes me imagine a bird primed to chirp at the new dawn of a new year. Like how the man has been waiting in “breaking darkness”, his dumbness, for an opportunity to turn overcome his illness and start life anew, much in the same way as people ‘turn a new leaf’ at a new year and create resolutions that are often life changing (such as giving up smoking). Another use of imagery is the line “The nurses are frozen, alert;”.
Although the nurses are not literally frozen, they are simply so enthralled by the labouring man reciting, word perfect, Wordsworth’s poem. Of course, they are edgy – this man hasn’t spoken for forty years, but they are equally as shocked as the patients, who even “… seem to listen… “; even the woman who sat, “not listening” earlier. Or at least, we can assume so. The lexical choices employed by Clarke are interesting – she uses simple words, such as “daffodils” (her use of “daffodils” also references to St.
David’s Day) as well as simple descriptions, such as “A big mild man… “. Anybody can read this poem, even people admitted to a mental hospital – although she isn’t reciting this poem to the patients, thanks to the use of simplistic words, but some of the concepts can be confusing. The metaphor “And the daffodils are flame” is extremely unusual – for starters, daffodils are yellow and she isn’t pointing out that the daffodils are literally on fire.
Moreover, she is referring to the man’s cured dumbness: his spark for life has been reignited and from the ashes of his former life, like a phoenix, he will rise and lead a new life. Possibly trying to satirise the situation, or just attempting to shock us with the reality of the situation, the line “A schizophrenic /on a good day, they tell me later. ” refers to how the “… chesnut-haired boy listens entirely absorbed… ” and, if he is a schizophrenic on a good day, then we are forced to wonder what he is like on an average, or bad, day.
Furthermore, “In a cage of first March sun… upon closer inspection reveals that the absent-minded woman is sitting, watching the outside world through the window – sitting in the cage-like light from the sun. Or alternatively, or simultaneously, she is trapped in a cage from which she cannot escape – as a reader, we ask questions such as “is she deaf? “, “is she paralysed? ” and so on, since she “… is absent… “. Alas, Clarke reveals little details of this woman – who, conversely, seems to reveal little information about herself anyway (the old woman, that is). ‘Miracle… ”s syntax is fairly interesting.
The stanzas are of equal length (bar the last one) at 5 lines (which, coincidentally is the number of letters in “March”) and the final stanza only features 3 lines (coincidentally the month number of March – with January being 1 and February being 2). The whole poem features little to no rhyme or pattern and as such is written in free verse – but this is understandable, since the poem is essentially a recount of Clarke’s experience; unplanned and unpredictable (as was proven by the man’s ability to recite a Wordsworth poem flawlessly, despite being seemingly dumbstruck).
Due to this poem’s free verse, each line is over varying length – however, when the poem is viewed on its side the stanzas appear to resemble leeks, which is a common sight on St. David’s Day; it accompanies daffodils as one of the Welsh emblems as well as being Saint David’s personal symbol and of great importance to Welsh people. In conclusion, I’d say that Gillian Clarke has written an exceptional piece of poetry – commenting on poetry itself, referring to nature, St. David’s Day and mental illness while utilising many poetic techniques (such as caesura) to create tone and mood.
I’d even go so far to say that she is subtly commenting on Psychiatric practices and that labelling people with a diagnosis isn’t the best way to deal with the situation at hand – the labouring man was able to “cure” his incurable illness. This poem is well written, though provoking and powerful, though subtle.
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