Climbing Cader Idris

Gillian Clarke

‘Climbing Cader Idris’ by Gillian Clarke celebrates the resiliency and the symbiotic relationship between individuals– representing beauty that can be found amid life’s challenges – as long as one is open to appreciate it during trying times.


Gillian Clarke

Nationality: Welsh

Gillian Clarke is a Welsh poet.

She served as the National Poet of Wales from 2008 to 2016.

Key Poem Information

Central Message: Celebrate the symbiotic connection between individuals of disparate experiences and the resiliency with which one can overcome life's obstacles

Speaker: A novice climber

Emotions Evoked: Optimism, Resilience, Sadness

Poetic Form: Free Verse, Narrative, Quatrain

Time Period: 21st Century

Set against the backdrop of a walk up Cader Idris Mountain in Wales, the poem is a short narrative work about a hiker who parallels her hiking experience to that of her companion, appreciating nature and its elements along the way.

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Gillian Clarke’s Welsh origin as a national writer shines through in her depiction of ‘Climbing Cader Idris.’ At first glance, the poem pays tribute to Welsh mountain life and its demanding course. But as the poem progresses, Clarke weaves rustic imagery with the personal narrative of a climber, creating an allegory about life’s challenges.

The mountain’s stunning scenery is paralleled by the endurance required to summit it. Clarke masterfully captures the essence of life through the experiences of two climbers on Cadre Idris. Her poetry celebrates the strength of the human spirit in the face of adversity.


The poem 'Climbing Cader Idris' emphasizes the often unavoidable voyage of life along difficult paths.

Two climbers set out on a difficult trek along Cader Idris’ rugged route. One is a novice, and the other is an adept.  The amateur climber conveys in a first-person narrative that the climbing experience may not be the same for them. Despite their discrepancy in experience, they both present valuable insights into life. As they begin their ascent, the beauty of nature’s vivid and picturesque interactions and elements bridges the difference. Even when facing a “fingertip between hold and fall,” the hard yet fearless ascent fosters camaraderie, and the climbers persist continuously.

The poem shows life’s inevitable journey along harsh routes.  Life is a fascinating yet demanding journey, with each person’s circumstantial experience being different. It is a path where beauty reveals itself to those who are ready to move forward and collect it along the way.

Structure and Form

Climbing Cader Idris‘ is a narrative poem that deals with the journey of two individuals climbing a mountain together. The poem consists of seven stanzas, each with four lines in free verse. There’s no focus on rhyme or rhythm, giving the poem a free-flowing structure that reflects the narrator’s thoughts and observations. Enjambment is used to create a sense of urgency and movement. This refers to the narrator’s abrupt transitions between thoughts, resulting in a faster pace and a stream-of-consciousness effect.


The structure of ‘Climbing Cader Idris’ perfectly matches its mood. The frequent use of commas to separate thoughts conveys the narrator’s contemplative mood. She is not rushing and is taking space to express herself. Meanwhile, the enjambment in stanzas 3-4 and 6-7 showcases the narrator’s erratic emotions, ranging from pensiveness and optimism to excitement and dread about the hike with their companion. The poem also expresses awe at the vivid scenery, creating a mix of emotions that perfectly capture the narrator’s mood.

Literary Devices

  • Alliteration: The “s” sound in “stare at shirred water” produces a calming, tranquil impact that contrasts with the more energetic language used earlier in the poem. There is the repetition of the “r” and “u” sound in” … rough-riding the scree up, up.” The alliteration in the poem emphasizes certain phrases and enhances the sounds of the natural elements.
  • Metaphor: The poem displays the narrator’s challenges in coping with the physical exhaustion she encounters on the hike. The overcoming of this physical fatigue becomes a metaphor for overcoming life’s challenges. 
  • Enjambment: Several lines in the poem continue into the next line without punctuation, producing a sense of flow and movement. 
  • Contrast: The poem contrasts two distinct methods of experiencing the mountain – one physical, the other mental – before bringing the two together in the shared climbing experience. 
  • Imagery: The poem is full of sensory imagery, with the descriptive language used to paint vivid mental images. Examples include “rock steepening,” “rough-riding the scree,” and “stream crossing.”

Detailed Analysis

Stanza 1

You know the mountain with your body,

I with my mind, I suppose.

Each, in our way, describes

the steepening angle of rock.

In the first stanza, the amateur narrator implies that she will share different experiences with her experienced companion climber. Her companion knows the mountain intimately “with [their] body,” having climbed its steep slopes and gained a physical, sensory understanding of it through direct experience.

In contrast, the narrator is facing her first climb ever in Cadre Idris. She admits that she has always known the mountain “with my mind.” Thus, her understanding of the mountain has been mental until now. She may have had a virtual experience with it, having seen it in videos or read about it in articles.

These lines suggest that the narrator has a deep appreciation for nature. While both companions use their bodies to ascend the mountain, the narrator’s “mind” also accompanies her, finding beauty in the challenging terrain.

Stanzas 2-3

What difference now as we,
thigh muscles and our breath,

turning together to the open view,
rough-riding the scree up, up.…

In the next stanza, the narrator wakes up to the reality before them. Despite their differing experiences, they both continue to grind their way forward to “test our muscles and breath.” This allegorically references humanity’s journey through life, where, despite our differing circumstances with others, we must employ determination along the uneven path.

In stanza 3, as they journey on, the two take note of their surroundings. A “plough” symbolizes the connection between humans and the land, as well as the labor involved. “Lorenzo,” a shape with four sloping sides, is seen as a symbol of bounty in some cultures. These symbols signal the hard work and resulting abundance in humanity despite the challenges faced along the way. The narrator emphasizes the alternating aspects of human life, from the “slopes” we climb to the “boots” we wear to conquer them.

Stanza 4

….past the last ruined hafod, the last flower,


Llyn Cau like a secret cupped in hands.

The previous stanza trails off, and the narrator takes a moment to catch her breath and observe her surroundings. With “hafod” and last flower,” there is an allusion to the seasonal cycle in Wales, where people and livestock move to summer pastures as winter approaches and flowers die. These references hint at the Welsh backdrop of the poem by a Welsh poetess.

The imagery “stream falling among boulders” focuses on a mountain stream that falls vividly. This follows a picturesque mention of a mother ewe and her lamb climbing the ascent. The last line of the stanza alludes to a Welsh myth. The narrator sees Lynn Cau, a lake in Cadre Idris named after a giant who is believed to live there. The imagery “cupped in a secret” beautifully portrays the lake’s water protected in a perfectly shaped cupped hand within Cadre Idris.

Stanzas 5-7

You climb on to the summit
and the vast face of stone.

I search for words.
While I’m still catching my breath

just fingertip
between the hold and the fall’.

The narrator addresses her companion explicitly in the fifth stanza. The companion desires to continue their climb, but the narrator prefers to take in the beauty of the “shirred water” and “face of stone” for a while longer. “To test the body” suggests that, while the companion wishes to continue the walk, which requires bodily exertion, the narrator wishes to continue his study of the surroundings.

The dissimilarity between the two individuals underlines their symbiotic relationship. Despite having opposing experiences and preferences, the two manage to connect and find pleasure in each other’s company.

The narrator’s “search for words” is captivated more by the breathtaking scenery than by the exhaustion of hiking. The companion, on the other hand, speaks up with “dizzy joy,” a tautology as “dizy” is a Hebrew name that means “one who brings joy.” He finds the ascent difficult but exhilarating, knowing that a slip is only a “fingertip away.” He enjoys the feeling of accomplishment that comes from completing such a difficult task.

The poem’s message is that even a difficult journey can present moments of beauty and a sense of achievement. ‘Climbing Cadre Idris’ can symbolize the beauty found amidst life’s challenges, provided one remains open to appreciate it during the difficult ascent.


What do the poem’s long thigh muscles and breath represent?

The long thigh muscles and breath represent the physical and mental strength needed to face and overcome challenges.

What is the central theme of ‘Climbing Cader Idris?’

The poem’s message is that existence is like a mountain climb with ups and downs. However, it is important to continue forward and find beauty in the path.

What does the “steepening angle of rock” represent in ‘Climbing Cader Idris?’

The rock’s steepening slope represents the challenges and difficulties in life that must be overcome to achieve one’s goals.

What does “knowing the mountain with mind” suggest in the poem?

The phrase implies that the narrator’s mountain experience is marked by intellectual curiosity and respect for nature’s beauty.

Similar Poems

  • The Summer Day‘ by Mary Oliver – The poem invites the reader to pay thought to the natural environment and to consider their place in it.
  • To Hope‘ by John Keats – Although not specifically about nature, the poem deals with the power of hope and resilience in overcoming adversity.
  • Up-hill’ by Christina Rossetti – The poem offers hope and comfort, arguing that there is a place of rest and comfort for those who bravely and perseveringly travel the challenging path of life.

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Tripti Kandari Poetry Expert
Tripti Kandari is an accomplished poetry expert with a Master's degree in English Literature. She has analyzed and evaluated hundreds of pieces of literature to aid post-graduates. Looking ahead, Tripti aims to pursue a Ph.D. in English Literature.

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