‘Family House’ by Gillian Clarke is a free verse poem written in the first person that consists of five stanzas. These stanzas explore the cherished memories of the narrator as she allows the reader to feel the nostalgia with her. The hardest part of the poem is realizing that the memories are of a childhood home that no longer exists in the same form that it is remembered. The physical house is essentially lost as it has changed so much over the course of time, and lost along with it is the home of such dear, tender memories. You can listen to the poem here.
Family House Analysis
The first stanza of ‘Family House’ introduces a narrator that is describing a house; more specifically a room and its environment. The reader is met with the actuality of the nostalgia that the narrator is facing. The detailed description of the house and room emphasizes the longing that the poem is packed with. The interesting thing in this stanza is the fact that the narrator is describing her attic bedroom yet it is a scene of brightness and not darkness as one would assume. This attic room has a “white” ceiling that is “freckled with light from the sea”, or at night “from the street-lamp in the lane”. This description also allows for the reader to feel the warmth of the space and start the connection with the house in this story on a positive note. The narrator is easily able to achieve this by turning the darkest part of a house (the attic) into a warm space with beautiful memories. The importance given to describing the room in a bright manner displays that the narrator is subtly expressing to the reader that the experience of living in that house is parallel to the brightness and calm described. The stanza also begins with the concept of sleeping; this is important as it sets the mood for the stanza and communicates to the reader that the topic of the poem is of complete comfort and homeliness, inviting the reader into the narrator’s personal space.
In the second stanza, the narrator is either looking out of her attic window or continuing to share pieces of her memory, inviting the readers into her nostalgia. The sixth line mentions “flame of her hair” which is a description of the narrator’s mother. This line indicates two things, first that she had red hair and secondly, that her hair was a big part of who she was, it brought the viewer’s attention directly to her, such as in the case of the narrator. The rest of this stanza focuses on the background of her mother, exposing her nature. The “gleam of a colander” in line seven reveals that her mother was effortlessly able-bodied in the field of cooking. The vivid illustration within lines eight and nine of her bending over her crops as she picked them for her endeavors in the kitchen exposes that she was a hard worker, and took the benefit of harvesting her own crops to feed her family. Line ten provides a more personal characteristic as the narrator mentions that her mother also wore “silly shoes to make her taller”; telling the reader that she also cared very much about the way she presented herself. This stanza pulls the reader into a part of the narrator’s memory that is quite tender. It is easy to feel the love she has for her mother as she watches her and/or thinks of her, because of the minute details she picks out and recalls.
Here in the third stanza of ‘Family House’, the narrator bounces back to remembering things that are a little less intimate. The first two lines take the reader into summer, with winds carrying the sea air and her ears picking up the “faltered heartbeat /of the Breaksea lightship”. Not only is this a breath of fresh air, so to speak, but it also clues the reader into the fact that the narrator may be troubled. The strong memory of the Breaksea lightship could easily signify that perhaps the narrator is looking for direction, or help with whatever is troubling her. The “faltered heartbeat” is an obvious connection to the sound the Breaksea lightship makes; which is followed by a silence in which the narrator recalls holding her breath and counting to ten. The simple image of a foggy night and a girl lying there listening for the ship shows the comfortable routine she once owned. These memories showcase how much the narrator enjoyed her time in this house. Her recollections are so detailed and display the moments of her past in which she was genuinely and authentically herself; adding to the importance of this house. The forced silence in line fourteen portrays that although the nostalgia is comforting because of the memories it brings back, it is also difficult because it is harder to face reality after allowing the fond recollections to consume your sense of reality.
Stanza four of ‘Family House’ throws the narration into the future or the present, pulling out of the reminiscing. Line sixteen opens with heartbreak; “Now the vegetable garden is a lawn”, stressing the devastation by the abruptness of how the news is communicated to the reader. After all of the intimate memories, the reader has become attached to the comfort that was projected by this house if not the house itself. Now to have it come to an end so suddenly helps the reader understand how sudden the changes might have seemed to the narrator as she stood and witnessed the loss of her childhood home. The garden she so fondly remembered her mother in has disappeared also implying the disappearance of her mother. The narrator is still very much invested in the house as she can’t seem to shake off the nostalgia that keeps reminding her and trapping her in what it used to be. By listing all the things that are no longer the same the reader is able to feel the heartbreak the narrator is struggling with as she realizes that her memories have no other home but her own mind and heart. Everything is different and this causes the nostalgia of her childhood games and experiences to grip her more firmly, creating a pain that can only come from losing a part of yourself and of what was once your reality.
The final stanza of ‘Family House’ is the shortest, the only one with four lines, stressing the incompleteness that the narrator feels. Line twenty-four exposes that it has been “thirty years” since she has left this home and moved “a hundred miles” away. This line reveals how deep the longing for the time spent in that house is for the narrator, that she could not forget such intimate details of her childhood even after three entire decades had come between the house and her. Line twenty-two goes on to express that she doesn’t simply miss the house but vividly can “smell” her past knowing it isn’t there anymore. Lines twenty-two to twenty-four takes the reader back to the garden that her mother was in and turn it into “rotten gourds of juice”, that smell bad displaying the narrator’s personal rotten feelings towards the change that has taken place. The hardest thing for the narrator has been realizing her memories are just that, memories and she can no longer give them validation and authenticity because the physical connection to the memories has morphed into an unknown space for her. Forevermore, the intimacy of the scenes described in the poem can only be relived in mind and heart with no physical home.