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 are 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.
The speaker spends the poem looking back on this very poignant memory from her childhood. She remembers being on the beach and seeing the events of the poem play out. To her eyes, her mother was a “heroine,” breathing her breath into the child’s lungs. When the girl was revived, she cried out like a wounded or lost animal. Later, they found out that the girl was beaten by her father for endangering her life. The speaker wonders if this is something she observed or something she heard about later. She isn’t sure. The poem ends with an allusion to deeply buried memories, ones that are lost, just like the “poor man’s daughter.”
You can read the full poem here.
In ‘Cold Knap Lake,’ the poet engages with themes of memory and childhood. The speaker spends the poem delving into this very powerful memory from her past, something she observed but did not directly take part in. There are contrasting parts of her ability to recall it, from the vividness of her mother’s heroism to her uncertainty as to whether or not she saw the poor, almost drowned girl beaten by her father. The poet suggests through these differences that memory is changeable and deep, somewhere that things can get lost and transform.
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 the 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.
Structure and Form
‘Cold Knap Lake’ is a five-stanza poem that is separated into uneven sets of lines. The first stanza has four lines, the second: six, the third: four, the fourth: six, and the fifth stanza is made up of only two lines, known as a couplet. The lines are written in free verse, meaning that they do not conform to a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. But, that doesn’t mean they lack both entirely. There are several examples of half-rhyme scattered throughout the piece. For example, “bowed” and “soaked” in lines two and three of the second stanza and the full-rhyme of “there” and “air” in the first and last lines of stanza four.
Clarke makes use of several literary devices in ‘Cold Knap Lake.’ These include but are not limited to imagery, enjambment, and examples of metaphors. The latter can be seen throughout. For example, the description of seaweed and water as “long green silk” in the third line of stanza one. Enjambment is a formal device, one that appears when the poet cuts off a sentence or phrase before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines one and two of the third stanza as well as lines two and three of the fourth stanza.
Imagery is one of the most important techniques a poet can use in their verse. Without it, readers will likely leave the poem unmoved by what they’ve read. Some of the best examples in ‘Cold Knap Lake’ are these lines from stanza four: shadowy under the dipped fingers of willows / where satiny mud blooms in cloudiness / after the treading, heavy webs of swans.”
Analysis of Cold Knap Lake
We once watched a crowd
she lay for dead.
Cold Knap Lake begins by immediately bringing on an 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.
Then kneeling on the earth,
a heroine, her red head bowed,
The crowd stood silent,
drawn by the dread of it.
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 child breathed, bleating
and watched her thrashed for almost drowning.
The mother’s attempt at resuscitation is successful, and the child wakes to gasp. 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 instill 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?
as their wings beat and whistle on the air?
“Was I there?” the narrator asks. The story is over, but there has been very little in the way of the 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 the 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.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Cold Knap Lake’ should also consider reading some of Gillian Clarke’s other best-known poems. For example, ‘Clocks,‘ ‘Still Life,‘ and ‘Heron at Port Talbot.’ The latter seeks to relay a message about humankind’s relationship with the natural world. ‘Still, Life’ addresses friendship and temporary joy. She reflects on the fact that her friend that she’s so concerned with at this moment will one day fade into the past. In ‘Clocks,’ Clarke reflects on the passage of time and how it feels to grow old.