Human memory is a strange, difficult, and wonderful thing, if rather unreliable at times. Even life-defining moments tend to become muddled, distorted, confused, and even lost over long periods of time. A memory that should be perfectly entrenched within the mind forever will not be immune to the simple influence of time that fades it over the course of five years, ten years, twenty years, the remaining years of life. For Gillian Clarke, memory is a fickle thing, one that is difficult to properly gauge and define. Her work, Cold Knap Lake, captures the essence of a memory, and nothing more — just its essence, its form with the edges blurred, its finer details hidden. It is a powerful poem that beautifully captures the atmospheric tones of a memory from long ago, and examines the nature of that memory.
Historical Context to Cold Knap Lake
Although Gillian Clarke published Cold Knap Lake during her post-1970s poetry career, the events described therein, based on a true story, occurred when she was a young girl. The poem describes an event that took place during Clarke’s childhood, described years later, to the best of her recollection. It seems likely, then, that Clarke, is the narrator of Cold Knap Lake, reflecting on the nature of her own memory by placing herself in the narrative. The accuracy of the story can only be based on Clarke’s own memories, and by admission of the poem itself, are only so reliable. Cold Knap is a pebble beach in South Wales, and is the most likely real-life setting for the story.
Cold Knap Lake Analysis
Cold Knap Lake, which can be read in full here, begins by immediately bringing on intense atmosphere. There is no rhyme and barely any structure in this first verse — just the simply stated facts. Once, the speaker, along with several others, likely family or friends, or neighbours, watched as a drowned child was brought out of the lake. She is described as blue-lipped (a symptom of hypothermia) and dressed in “water’s long green silk,” suggesting she is covered by seaweed, or perhaps is drenched so thoroughly that it is impossible to tell — or to remember, as this poem is written in the past tense — what the girl was wearing.
The atmospheric value of this first-verse structure cannot be understated — the of pulling a dead child out from the surface of a lake is a truly dark image, and is only augmented by the simplicity of the telling. “We once watched,” the poem begins, almost casually, though there is nothing casual about the topic. “She lay for dead,” it finishes, and without any further description, it is easy to imagine a dark, cloudy, and bad day, the panic of the crowd, the tension in the air.
Even in this next verse, wherein a heroine appears to attempt to save the life of the drowned girl, the atmosphere remains grim. By describing the woman — the speaker’s mother — as having her head bowed, or by wearing a “wartime” cotton frock, reminds the reader that this story is the telling of what is not a good memory. Even the crowd is remembered as being silent, noting the utter horror of the moment. Once again, the details given are vague — the narrator appears to recall the emotions present far more than the actual details — that the girl was dressed by the sea in the first verse, now followed by the war-torn appearance of the speaker’s mother in this one, and the sense of dread that hung over the crowd.
The mother’s attempt as resuscitation is successful, and the child wakes gasping. And even this can hardly be considered a lift in the atmosphere, because the speaker remembers that her father took the girl home, and once she got there, she was beaten for the event. We do not know why the girl was beaten — perhaps she was being punished for doing something dangerous, perhaps she was considered an asset to the family, or perhaps they couldn’t bear the thought of losing her and were desperate to instil a fear of disobedience in her. Whatever the case, the impression left on the narrator is clearly significant. This verse is recited in the same grim, factual tone as the rest of the poem — a child is rescued from drowning and is subsequently beaten by her own relatives, and it seems the rescue has only been a different path for a different pain.
“Was I there?” the narrator asks. The story is over, but there has been very little in the way of story — there have been three events: a drowned girl, a resuscitation, and a beating, and there has been very little to the recollection beyond this. Returning to the imagery of Cold Knap Lake, the narrator wonders about the nature of memory. The “troubled surface” of the lake is used as a metaphor for memory; beneath the surface lies what cannot be seen, or remembered. Ripples caused by passing swans and budding plants, shadows caused by nearby willow trees, all obscure the image of what lies beneath the lake, where a young girl nearly died by drowning. And yet the speaker feels removed from the events, as though they know the story but cannot properly recall being there. The story is an impression, an image in a darkened lake, blurred by shadow and ripple and all manner of obstruction, the same way the young girl must have been covered by the silky green of the lake she was found in.
This is a haunting metaphor for memory, and it is an interesting choice to relate the memory metaphor to the events being remembered. For the narrator, the story is as dark in its literal recollection as it is dark in atmosphere, so it makes sense that the atmosphere is the most prominent aspect of the poem — because this is what has stood out in her memory for so long: that impression of a dark day, a dark lake, and a dark event, the kind that stays with a person long after they’ve forgotten the actual minute details of the day. This is perfectly reflected upon in the final verse of the poem (stanza 5), two simple lines to summarize the entire impression that forms Cold Knap Lake:
All lost things lie under closing water
in that lake with the poor man’s daughter.