Gillian Clarke’s ‘February‘ depicts the fleeting beauty of a snowy February day, using numerous metaphors to showcase the manner in which the snow has changed her perception of the landscape. Whilst the poem does not attempt to ignore the difficulties caused by the snow, it does focus its attention on the value the weather conditions have added to her surroundings.
‘February‘ is a beautifully realized vision of a late winter’s day, which captures the majesty of our everyday surroundings.
The poem appears to follow the narrator’s gaze as they journey from their house to a nearby field full of sheep, carefully describing how their surroundings have been altered by a layer of snow. Whilst the poetic gaze lingers on seemingly mundane details such as a doormat and a stationary car, Clarke’s use of metaphor elevates these objects and imbues them with a surprisingly picturesque quality. As the poem continues, it becomes increasingly concerned with various animals and their reaction to the dramatic weather developments. The poem can therefore be read as a mediation of the relationship between humankind, animal life, and the natural world.
You can read the full poem here.
Gillian Clarke was born in Cardiff in 1937 and served as the National Poet of Wales from 2008-2016. Her work is widely studied in the UK and often explores issues concerning her native Wales, as well as the evolving natural world. ‘February‘ was published in Clarke’s 2019 collection, Zoology, which features some of Clarke’s most nostalgic work. February is typically the coldest month of the year in the UK, as well as the final month of winter before the onset of spring. Many of the poetic images are drawn from the Welsh landscape of Clarke’s youth, often layered by her retrospective gaze.
My car has grown
a woolly cover, yours a crown.
The doormat’s disappeared.
The hedge has grown a beard.
The poem immediately elevates the simplistic winter scene through the use of metaphor which ultimately defines the poem. By describing her car as having grown a “woolly cover,” Clarke suggests that she believes snow improves life by, ironically, providing warmth and comfort. Similarly, the reference to a car having grown a crown shows her respect for the natural world, as crowns suggest a degree of deference. The use of the personal pronoun “my” and the direct address, “your,” create a sense of intimacy to remind the reader of their own personal attachment to the beauty of the natural world.
The third line is a hyperbolic way of describing the manner in which the doormat is covered with snow and, therefore, no longer visible. The use of alliteration emphasizes the doormat’s absence to the reader. The significance of the submerged doormat is that it would ordinarily represent the boundary between the human world and the natural one. The fact the poet cannot see this border indicates that the poem occupies a liminal space between these two worlds.
Finally, the hedge is personified in the fourth line, perhaps suggesting that the natural world is growing less distinguishable from the human one.
The bin’s a cornet. Laurel leaves
Starlings on the wires strumming chords.
These lines evoke a sense of plenty and celebration that arguably juxtaposes the harsh realities of winter. The metaphorical claim that the bin is a “cornet” is important as a cornet could refer to a musical instrument and also an ice cream cone. Both the allusion to music and food ensure the lines present the weather conditions favorably, in spite of the fact that Christmas has long since passed and living conditions are generally harder at this time of the year.
The reference to “Laurel leaves” and “glassy swords” further elevate the poem’s subject as they clearly invoke the memory of the Roman Empire, as Roman emperors wore Laurel wreaths as a symbol of their power and the Roman army was legendary throughout the ancient world. When read alongside another reference to music in line eight, these classical references almost suggest that the poet’s seemingly ordinary surroundings are in fact the sight of myth and legend, further elevating them to sit alongside epic locations such as Rome and Troy.
Crocus strikes a match. Birds
Sheep aren’t white. Grubby as a clwt
These lines continue the poem’s pattern of metaphorically conflating the natural world with that of humankind, gradually eroding the barriers between them. The crocus flower is personified when it is described as striking a match, reminding the reader that the beauty of nature can be a source of warmth and comfort even in the cold and dark months of the year. Similarly, the trees and wire appear to have been anthropomorphized in order to show how comfortable the narrator feels in nature, as they find it very familiar. The poet’s decision to use the simile when comparing sheep to a dirty dishcloth serves to undermine our tendency to idealize the natural world and somehow other it. When compared to the white of the snow, the sheep no longer appear white at all, which reminds the reader how easily our perception of a place or creature can change.
in need of bleach, they’re at the gate,
been making angels in the snow.
The final lines reveal the reason the narrator has ventured out in the cold was that they needed to feed the sheep that they no longer regard as white. Once again, the sheep are personified to emphasize their grumpiness at the narrator’s tardiness. This could symbolize the manner in which people are often too preoccupied with their daily lives to notice the beauty of the world around them.
Finally, the narrator notices the indent a crow has left in the snow and remarks how the shape resembles an angel. This metaphorical image is perhaps a microcosm of the entire poem, as it captures the natural world both as it is in reality, as represented by the crow, and at its most magical, represented by the shape the animal has left behind.
Clwt is a welsh word for a dishcloth. Even before she became the National Poet of Wales, Clarke worked in both Welsh and English throughout her career. The significance of the word in this poem is that it adds a personal detail to remind the reader that, while many of the poem’s details are broad, there is a specific connection to Wales throughout. Furthermore, it might subvert the expectations of non-welsh speakers as they might assume that the word rhymes with “knit” on the preceding line, but it does not. Clarke could be playfully implying that, when it comes to both language and nature, the more a person knows, the better their understanding will be.
The poem features a series of rhyming couplets, as well as some half-rhymes such as “grown” and “crown” in order to create a sense of familiarity and uniformity, possibly reflecting the even layers of snow that cover everything the narrator observes. The half-rhymes could represent the fleeting beauty of winter, as the snow begins to melt and change almost as soon as it lands.
Clarke also uses caesura consistently throughout the poem in order to disrupt the readers’ flow. This could be intended to mirror the narrator’s difficulty in moving through the environment when it is covered in snow.
Despite the fact both her parents were Welsh speakers, Clarke grew up in an English-speaking household and did not commit to learning Welsh until she was a teenager. She has since become a fluent speaker who writes in both languages and has translated works from Welsh into English.
Clarke’s poetry often depicts encounters with the natural world around her, especially that of her native Wales. She is also a poet concerned with current events, having written work that directly responded to events such as the Gulf War and the Good Friday Agreement.
Established in 2005, the National Poet of Wales is a cultural ambassador for the nation of Wales, whose work celebrates the country’s rich literary history. Gillian Clarke held the position for eight years which remains the longest tenure to date. Works written by the National Poet of Wales are typically read at ceremonial events, and the holder of the position is expected to promote poetry and art across the nation.
Readers who enjoyed ‘February‘ might like to explore other Gillian Clarke poems. For example:
- ‘Blaen Cwrt‘ – A brilliant depiction of Clarke’s home in rural Wales which captures her love of the country.
- ‘Advent‘ – Another poem concerning winter landscapes, but this time they inspire nothing in the poet but despair.
Some other poems that may be of interest include:
- ‘A Welsh Landscape‘ by R.S. Thomas – Thomas’ poem similarly moves through a Welsh scene but instead offers a pessimistic view of the nation.
- ‘The Old Tongue‘ by Herbert Williams – This poem laments the gradual decline of the Welsh Language and cultural identity.