On the poet’s website, she includes a description of the narrative poem and reveals some of the facts behind the stanzas. She indicates that she is the speaker and that she was caring for a neighbor’s child who was deathly ill. He had a tumor, she says, something that she was hoping to describe through the image of the white roses.
Explore White Roses
‘White Roses’ by Gillian Clarke is a powerful poem about a dying boy who is suffering in the last days of his life.
The poet begins this piece by describing the setting. There are white roses outside the window, and inside is a dying boy who is in a great deal of pain. So much pain that even his beloved cat hurts him, without meaning to, by kneading his extremely sensitive skin. The child dies in the final stanza and is outlived by the white roses outside the room.
You can read the full poem here.
The main themes of this poem are sickness and the fragility of life. Illness does not care for youth or innocence, and it brings suffering to everyone indiscriminately. So too, does the boy in ‘White Roses’ suffer from an undefined illness. He’s dying under the speaker’s care, and there’s nothing that they can do to really help him. He is even more fragile than the roses outside the room.
Structure and Form
‘White Roses’ by Gillian Clarke is a six-stanza poem that is divided into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. Although the poet does not use a specific rhyme scheme, she does include some elements of rhyme. For example, “springs” and “springs” in stanza four are a perfect rhyme. There are also some samples of internal rhyme with “sunlight / like cups of fine white china” in lines three and four of the first stanza.
In this poem, Clarke makes use of a few literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Simile: a comparison between two things using “like” or “as.” There is a simile in the first stanza seen through the poet’s line, “They hold water and sunlight / like cups of fine white china.”
- Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “spars and springs” in line two of stanza four.
- Anaphora: the use of the same word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, “with” starts the first two lines of stanza five.
- Allusion: a reference to something outside the direct scope of the poem. In this case, Clarke is alluding to real-life events that she experienced while caring for a friend’s dying child.
Outside the green velvet sitting room
white roses bloom after rain.
They hold water and sunlight
like cups of fine white china.
In the first stanza of this contemporary poem, the poet begins by setting the scene. She describes a “velvet green sitting room,” or living room, and how outside it, there are “white roses” that are now blooming after a rainstorm. The roses are holding “water and sunlight.” They are incredibly fragile, temporary in their beauty, and compared, through a simile, to “cups of fine white china.”
China is only used for special occasions, and in the same way, these roses only bloom for a brief period of time. The rain and sun only highlight how beautiful and fragile they seem.
Within the boy who sleeps in my care
and the splinter of ice moves
The narrative moves into the building and utilizes a first-person possessive pronoun, “my,” to describe the “boy.” The speaker has someone in their care, a young boy. He’s sleeping and suffering in some undetermined way. The repetitive “t” sound in these lines, as well as other elements of consonance, emphasizes the brutality of whatever it is the young man is suffering from.
The pain is like a “cold bloom” that runs through his body at “terrible speed.” It’s like a “splinter of ice,” the speaker adds. These very evocative images are interesting but don’t make it clear what it is the child is suffering from. It’s up to readers to figure out what the cold could represent (beyond pain, as is described in stanza three).
in his blood as he stirs in the chair.
in silence on pain’s red blaze.
The cold splinter of ice is in “his blood.” This suggests that it’s something far more serious than a passing illness or injured body part. The child has something deep within him that’s damaged. There is something in his blood that is harming him.
The pain makes him stir in the chair where he had been sleeping, and readers might find themselves drawing a connection between the fragile roses outside and the very fragile, sickly child inside.
The child “smiles / politely” from the chair where he had been sleeping, trying to mask the pain he’s feeling behind “gritt[ed] teeth.” He’s suffering in silence, but the speaker knows very well that he’s enduring “pain’s red blaze.”
The poet is intentionally creating an example of juxtaposition in these lines, comparing the pain the child is feeling to both ice and fire. It’s both ends of the spectrum, perhaps suggesting that it’s overwhelming in different ways.
A stick man in the ashes, his fires
his cat to his bones. She springs
In the fourth stanza, Clarke’s speaker describes the boy not as a child but as a “stick man.” The illness has perhaps affected his appearance some, withering him and forcing him into positions of pain that one would usually associate with the elderly. The pain fades out, or the fires “die back,” and the child can “talk again.”
The pain comes and goes in waves allowing the child to act mostly normal and then have to recede into silence in an effort to mask what he’s feeling.
There is a cat on the child’s lap as well, the fourth line adds. He gathers the creature to his chest, likely seeking comfort from the animal. She moves suddenly, and the poet uses an example of enjambment to transition the reader down into the fifth stanza.
with a small cry in her throat, kneading
of pain will burn him like straw.
The second to last stanza describes the cat’s movements, kneading paws, and the pain that the contact is undoubtedly causing the child. The cat doesn’t know it, but its movements and touch draw pain from the child. Even the smallest spark will start a fire of pain. It doesn’t take very much to force the child into a miserable state.
The sun carelessly shines after rain.
the rose outlives the child.
The poet moves away from the description of the child and his suffering in the sixth stanza. She uses anaphora, repeating “the” at the beginning of lines one and two, and uses these lines to describe the surroundings again.
She uses the word “carelessly” in the first line, reminding the readers of how, in a word beyond the child’s pain, life goes on without regard for his suffering. Whereas in the home, everything is done with care and concern for the boy.
The cat is outside in this final stanza, acting as cats do, tracking prey through the “dark soil” that the speaker suggests is fertile and lively (this again creates a contrast with the child’s life).
The final sentence brings the poem back to the white roses that are featured in the first stanza. They are fragile and temporary, but even in their short lives, they “outlive… the child.”
This sorrowful ending confirms what readers were likely expecting, that the child was dying and that his painful, short life was drawing to a close in the poem’s lines.
The mood is pained and sorrowful. The speaker is at times more emotional than at others, but throughout, the reader is meant to feel sympathy for the young child and sorrow at the pain he’s had to endure.
The theme is the fragility of life. The young child is dying and is so ill that even the white roses, which are notoriously fragile, are outliving him. There is something unknown wrong with the child, something in his blood.
The speaker is someone who is caring for a dying boy. It’s unclear who they are, their gender, age, relationship to the child, etc., based on the poem alone. On her website, Clarke includes a description of the poem and indicates that she is the speaker and that the child was a neighbor or friend’s child in her care temporarily.
Clarke wrote this poem in order to explore the suffering that can be contained within a short, young life and how cruel illness can be to the young.
If you enjoyed this poem, you should also consider reading some other Gillian Clarke poems. For example:
- ‘Babysitting’ – describes a babysitter’s fears when taking care of a child who isn’t her own.
- ‘Catrin’ – depicts the love within a parent/child relationship as well as the issues it brings.
- ‘Buzzard’ – explores lost hopes and uses a buzzard as a metaphor.