Gillian Clarke

Death of a Young Woman by Gillian Clarke

Explore ‘Death of a Young Woman,’ where Clarke depicts how a loved one’s death lets a person free from their inward, endless suffering.

‘Death of a Young Woman,’ as the title highlights, is about the death of a woman who died young, way before reaching her prime. The cause of her death is not specified anywhere in the text. However, the poet Gillian Clarke gives hints about the cause in the line “The stretched white/ Sheet of her skin tightened no further,” pointing at some kind of paleness of skin caused by some chronic illness. What is most interesting about the narrative is the ironic dichotomy of emotions evoked by the subject’s untimely death, which was certain given her condition.


Summary

‘Death of a Young Woman’ by Gillian Clarke is a serious and thought-provoking poem about a young woman’s death caused by some illness.

The poem sets off with a statement regarding the subject’s death on a hot day and how the incident was not an unexpected phenomenon for her loved ones. The speaker is related to the deceased woman. From her tone and description, it could be assumed that she watched her closely on the days before her death. Her skin grew pale and one day, she died. In her last days, she was so weak that she could not turn to listen or react to those who were at her side. Her death, indeed, broke her loved ones, especially the person who was always there at her side. After her death, there was a hollow peace in his heart. He felt free but isolated as she was no longer alive.

You can read the full poem here.

Structure and Form

Clarke’s narrative poem ‘Death of a Young Woman’ is written entirely in free verse without any set rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. The text comprises 23 lines that are grouped into a single stanza. Clarke uses the third-person point of view in order to narrate the event from an unemotional and objective standpoint. Stylistically, Clarke uses end-stopped lines in order to mark the graveness of the event. This frequent use of full stops creates pauses longer than commas resonating with the stillness that comes after one’s death.

Literary Devices

In ‘Death of a Young Woman,’ Clarke makes use of the following literary devices:

  • Enjambment: This device is used throughout the poem. For instance, in the first line, the second sentence is cut short and is continued in the next line creating a sense of suspense and pause during the transition.
  • Alliteration: It occurs in a number of instances that include “stretched white/ Sheet of her skin,” “so still,” “breath/ Blew,” “her house,” “broken by,” etc.
  • Simile: In the fourth line, the speaker compares the woman to a “yacht” using “as.” This comparison is made in order to hint at the woman’s fragile health.
  • Metaphor: The simile used in the fourth line is expanded further and another implicit comparison is made between the woman and the sail. A sail slackens in absence of wind. Similarly, a person dies when their breath is blown out.
  • Anaphora: This device occurs in lines 11 and 12; lines 14 and 15. The first set of lines begins with the word “The” and the next set begins with the pronoun “He.”


Detailed Analysis

Lines 1-7

She died on a hot day. In a way

Nothing was different. The stretched white

Sheet of her skin tightened no further.

She was fragile as a yacht before,

Floating so still on the blue day’s length,

That one would not know when the breath

Blew out and the sail finally slackened.

Gillian Clarke’s poem ‘Death of a Young Woman’ begins with a direct reference to the subject’s death on a hot day. It could be an oblique reference to the woman’s illness. She might have been suffering from some chronic illness and had frequent fevers that weakened her body gradually. Her death was not shocking after all. The speaker notes how it was nothing different for her or the woman’s family members. They were aware that it was inevitable given the condition of her health.

In the following lines, the speaker describes how her skin turned pale and she grew thin. Her skin is compared to a thin and white “sheet” that, during her last days, tightened further. One could feel her bones beneath her skin. The speaker continues to describe her further using the image of a yacht. The stillness of the boat on a fine day hints at her weakened body. Nobody could know when she was going to breathe her last as she was already bedridden. Her sudden death is compared to the slackening of the sail in absence of the wind.

Lines 8-17

Her eyes had looked opaquely in the

(…)

For the burden he had put down for good.

In the following lines, Clarke goes on to describe the woman in the days preceding her death. The woman grew so weak that she could not even move her eyes to see her loved ones. She looked blankly towards the ceiling or at the wrong place to find those who were there at her side. This is why when the speaker went to see her; she remained silent. Their conversations were not silent but were silenced by the circumstances.

After reading the next line, it seems there was a dichotomy of reactions in those who cared for the woman. For instance, the speaker did not feel sad, which is hinted at in this line: “The difference was that in her house/ The people were broken by her loss.” Her family members felt sad and were broken by the loss.

The speaker talks specifically about a person who did all he could in order to save her. He wept when she died. According to the speaker, all that he did for the woman seemed like nothing other than “tasks” done out of love. Besides, he was relieved as he no longer had any obligations to bear the “burden.”

Lines 18-23

As we sat huddled in pubs supporting

(…)

Isolated. Free. No point in going home.

Clarke creates a situational contrast by producing a warm image of friends huddling and drinking together with the visage of a person who has lost his loved one recently. The speaker was with the person. His friends tried to comfort him and console him with “words’ warmth” that he missed for a long time from the person he loved the most. In return, they all felt the “hollowness” or the futility of his “release” or peace. It was peace without happiness like a song without melody.

They all were somehow feeling happy about the young woman’s death as she had been suffering for quite a long time. The speaker describes how their “ungrateful health prowled” like an animal. In a way, they were unsophisticated in their response to the grave incident. But, the person related to the woman was silent. He seemed polite and isolated from everything. After a tumultuous episode of emotional ups and downs, he was finally free.

Did her death bring peace to his mind and comfort to his heart? The answer is no, as he had no point in going home and no one to look after and care for. Emotionally, he died long ago when he realized the woman was going to die.

FAQs

What is the poem ‘Death of a Young Woman’ by Gillian Clarke about?

Clarke’s ‘Death of a Young Woman’ is about the untimely death of a woman who had been suffering from a chronic illness. This poem describes how the woman’s death evoked a sense of hollow release in her loved ones’ hearts.

What is the theme of ‘Death of a Young Woman’?

This piece includes a number of themes that include death, affection, duty, and missing someone. The main idea of the poem revolves around the death of a woman that was certain as she had been suffering for a long time.

What type of poem is ‘Death of a Young Woman’?

The text of the poem consists of a total of 23 lines that are packed together in a single stanza. It is a free-verse narrative poem without a fixed rhyming pattern or meter. The poem is composed from the third person point of view, creating a sense of detachment from the subject.

When was ‘Death of a Young Woman’ published?

The poem was published in the second collection of poetry by Gillian Clarke, The Sundial (1978). The poems of this collection, including ‘Death of a Young Woman’, explore the theme of family love and death.


Similar Poetry

Here is a list of a few poems that tap into the themes present in Clarke’s poem ‘Death of a Young Woman.Read more poems by Gillian Clarke.

You can also explore these sentimental sad poems.

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Sudip Das Gupta Poetry Expert
About
A complete expert on poetry, Sudip graduated with a first-class B.A. Honors Degree in English Literature. He has a passion for analyzing poetic works with a particular emphasis on literary devices and scansion.
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