Gillian Clarke

Catrin by Gillian Clarke

This poem, ‘Catrin’, displays the love and turmoil in the parent-child relationship. This particular poem centers around a conflict that seems to have escalated into fury rather quickly. Through her use of imagery, the speaker is able to convey feelings of love and affection along with the frustration of dealing with the conflict that inevitably arises between the parent and the child. At the beginning of the poem, the speaker reveals that the person to whom she speaks is a child, but she does not reveal her position immediately. Because the author is female, it is easy to assume that the speaker is the mother. For simplicity’s sake, this analysis will assume as such, and thereby refer to the speaker in the feminine form. However, it is entirely possible that the speaker was the father, in this case. The gender of the child in the poem is not implied until near the end of the poem. Based on the voice of the speaker and the short description of the child, it is most probable that ‘Catrin’ describes a conflict between a mother and daughter. The conflict itself remains unresolved by the end of the poem, but both the mother and the daughter are apparently changed. The intensity of the argument has moved them both, though the speaker does not reveal the specific changes that have taken place.

By the end of the poem, the reader can clearly understand the rationale behind the mother’s side of the argument. Allowing the reader to see this rationale also allows him to enter into the feelings of the mother. Just like the mother, the reader is also unable to open the eyes of the child to the practical nature of the mother’s decision. Thus, the reader can enter into the mother’s feelings. The speaker uses concrete imagery to describe her love for the child. This also allows the reader to further understand the complexity of the relationship and the intensity of the conflict. Though the mother is clearly “right” by the end of the poem, she does not feel that she “won”. Rather, she feels as though she has lost something. The daughter, also, clearly feels that she has lost. Somehow, the intensity of this argument has changed both the mother and the daughter. It was clearly a marked turning point in their lives and relationship. Through the vivid description of this conflict, the speaker is able to portray the deep love and affection that a mother has for her child, a love that will drive her to protect and love her children even when the children do not want or understand the need for the protection. The mother continues to love and fight for the protection of her daughter even when the daughter fights against it, giving her a “defiant glare” that leaves the mother feeling that something between them has changed forever. The name of the poem reveals that this poem is, indeed, about her daughter, Catrin.

Catrin by Gillian Clarke


Catrin Analysis

Stanza One

I can remember you, child,
As I stood in a hot, white
Room at the window watching
The people and cars taking
With the wild, tender circles
Of our struggle to become
Separate. We want, we shouted,
To be two, to be ourselves.

The opening of ‘Catrin’, where the poem can be read in full here, creates the setting and imagery for the rest of it. The reader can picture a child, looking longingly out the window, watching the traffic lights change and the cars drive. The speaker describes the room as “hot” and “white” which allows the reader to feel the intensity that the speaker feels as she stands there watching the child look out the window. The speaker then describes that this incident was the “first fierce confrontation”. The use of the word “fierce” reveals the impact this conflict had on the speaker, and probably on the child as well.

The speaker uses the game of tug of war to provide an analogy for the conflict between herself and the child. The rope is described as “red” to represent the love that there was between the two of them. Though they both pulled on each end of the rope as tightly as they could, they were still inevitably connected by this rope of love which could not be severed. The love and devotion between a mother and her child is one as strong as a rope. The rope represents the mother’s heart and blood, as she loves the child with all that she has.

The speaker then moves into a different description of the relationship between the two. She describes a room like a blank canvas that was empty and white before the child was born, but was now full of memories ranging from colored walls to paintings, toys, and other things. The speaker used the word “disinfected” to reveal the reality of this confrontation. She remembers all the things she has disinfected over the years in order to keep the child healthy.

She then describes the way she colored all over the walls with her words. This parallels the way in which a child can color on the walls when he is young. Now, the mother has colored the walls with her words. Just as a child’s coloring on the wall would frustrate a parent, the mother’s words seem to be equally frustrating to the child. Through describing the pictures she draws with her words, she describes the struggle between herself and the child, explaining that they are each fighting “to become separate”. She says, “We want, we shouted, to be two, to be ourselves.” This reveals that the speaker understands that her child is a separate being with different feelings and ideas. However, it is still clear that whatever the mother and child are fighting over, it is worth the fight to the mother. Even though she is able to recognize her child’s desire to be his own person, she still continues to hold on to her end of the rope, fighting this fight that has led to such frustration and anger between the two of them.


Stanza Two

Neither won nor lost the struggle
In the glass tank clouded with feelings
Which changed us both. Still I am fighting
Trailing love and conflict,
As you ask may you skate
In the dark, for one more hour.

In the second part of ‘Catrin’, the speaker reveals that she does not feel as though either of them won the argument. Yet, they were both changed from it. The dynamic of the mother-child relationship had shifted when the two encountered this first, fierce conflict. The speaker feels that the two of them were stuck in a fish tank that was so clouded with feelings, that neither one could see clearly. It is unclear whether the analogy of the fish tank suggests the presence of another person, or whether the speaker simply feels emotionally exposed. The speaker feels they have both been changed, and yet she says, “I am still fighting you off”. For the first time in the poem, it would seem that this conflict is specifically between a mother and her daughter. The “long brown hair” and “rosy defiant glare”  suggest feminine features. The “defiant glare” is what the speaker describes as “bringing up from the heart’s pool that old rope, tightening about my life”. This is the perfect way to describe the ties between a mother and her daughter. There is a rope that comes directly from the mother’s heart, and her daughter’s glare seems to pull that rope, and the speaker can feel it as it tightens around her life. Behind this rope, trails “love and conflict”. When it comes to a mother-daughter relationship, there are always both. The speaker has eloquently described the way this conflict has pulled at the rope of her heart, and how she is unable to let go of the rope, no matter how much it hurts.

Now, at the end of the poem, the speaker reveals the reason for this conflict. The daughter has asked to skate “in the dark, for one more hour”. The last few lines of this poem reveal the intensity of parenting. Although it seems like a little conflict, there has quite clearly been an incredible amount of pain and frustration that have all occurred over whether or not the daughter could skate for another hour. This line also reveals the reason the mother could not let go of the rope this time. At the beginning of the poem, the mother describes the traffic outside. Although the daughter was unable to acknowledge the danger of skating in the dark, the mother could see it clearly. The mother loved her daughter far too much to let go of the rope this time, and so she faced the pain of the daughter’s defiant glare and angry words. She stood her ground because as her mother, it was her job to protect her from the imminent danger of skating in the dark near heavy traffic. It is interesting that this stanza begins with the speaker claiming that neither of them won the argument. It would appear that the daughter was not allowed to skate in the dark. Thus, it seems the speaker won the argument. However, she does not feel like a victor. Rather, she feels that both of them have changed, and she has lost something in the process. For this reason, it seems as though they both lost.

By the end of ‘Catrin’, the reader can see the importance of the mother-daughter relationship and the necessity of the conflict. The mother would not relent because she would not allow her daughter to place herself in harm’s way. Her love for her daughter would not allow her to relent. The daughter would not relent because she was unable to see the danger she would be in and because she badly wanted to skate for another hour. This poem allows readers to understand the intense dynamics in parent-child relationships. Some readers have experienced both sides, while others will have only experienced the child’s side of the argument. However, the poem reveals the importance of the mother’s wisdom and the significance of her role in the child’s life not only a friend but as an authority figure. The parent, usually, is an authority figure that has a genuine love for the child. This is the case in this incident. It was the position of authority along with the love in the mother’s heart that required this incident that forever changed both mother and daughter. Earlier in the poem, the speaker revealed her own acknowledgment that her daughter was attempting to be a separate person. She clearly had her own will, her own ideas, and her own desires. Those ideas and desires did not always comply with those of her mother. The speaker, her mother, understands this fully, and yet chooses in this instance not to let go of her end of the argument. The readers can feel the intensity of the love that the mother has. Though she is frustrated, and perhaps even angry, she will not let go of the rope because the rope comes from her very heart and is red with the blood of her heart. Her concern for her daughter’s safety combined with her daughter’s separate will has led to this conflict which forever changed them both.


Gillian Clarke Background

Gillian Clarke is one of the central figures in Welsh poetry. This particular poem contains many of the tactics and imagery that characterizes most of Clarke’s poems. She is known for using intense words and describing feelings using imagery, such as she does here with her “red rope” analogy. Her works are often described as musical and yet “concrete. Such is the case in this poem. While the words seemed to flow in an easy, musical way, the words are concrete, describing something as down to earth as an argument between a mother and daughter. She is able to convey abstract ideas through concrete occurrences. This is what makes her works stand out and leave a memorable mark on the souls of those who read them. Little is published concerning Clarke’s family life, but she does have two sons and a daughter. Thus, it is probably that this poem was inspired by a real-life conflict with her only daughter.

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Allisa Corfman Poetry Expert
Allisa graduated with a degree in Secondary Education and English and taught World Literature and Composition at the high school level. She has always enjoyed writing, reading, and analysing literature.
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