“Lunchtime Lecture” by Gillian Clarke depicts the story of Clarke as she gazes at an exhibit of a “woman” from ancient history whose remains have been uncovered. While the details given of the situation are fairly blunt, there are a number of subtle layers happening within the stanzas that provide a deeper meaning to the words. This is not simply a tale of looking at “a female” “from the second or third millennium B.C.,” but rather a statement of the sameness of mortality that is shared by humans, past and present.
In addition to the reach the “female” provides to history, this exhibit also grants Clarke a glimpse into a common theme of life to give insight into her own being. You can listen to the poem here.
Lunchtime Lecture Analysis
One of the key elements to Clarke’s poems seems to be that she concentrates on telling a story, and for a number of her works, readers can take the stories at face-value. Miracle on St. David’s Day, for instance, was written about an actual poetry reading where the incident happened, and Musician is about her son playing music. For this reason, there is little shock that so much of this poem’s setting is provided in clear fashion in this first stanza. The reader does not have to guess what is happening in the poem since it is painted in such a vivid way. Clearly, the remains of an ancient “woman” have been discovered by “a tractor.”
Despite this bluntness, however, there are subtle details that add meaning to the basic setting. For instance, the beginning of the poem is “And this,” as if the reader would have already known what the subject being discussed is. Since Clarke has yet to come to the details about the “woman” and the poem’s name does not mention this “female,” there is no previous indication about what “this” represents. This disconnect shows the disconnect of the centuries since the “female” passed away, whether from “plague or violence,” and it does so in a way that provides stability to the “female[‘s]” remains.
To clarify, the pronoun, “this,” would only make sense if there were the stability of understanding for what it meant. By acting as though that stability is present, Clarke is giving an understood level of stability and clarity to the “female,” which could be a statement of the time that the “female” spent as a part of the earth before the “tractor” discovered her—or even the strength of her connection to history that would provide a long reach of relevancy to provide stability. That stability is also reflected in the idea that the “female” is being treated almost as a victim in comparison to the “tractor” since its “[b]iting” is what brought her from her “safe” position within the earth.
Interesting as well is the presentation of “dark” that will return later in the poem. She is “full up with darkness [a]s a shell with sea.” There is a word twist in that phrasing since Clarke has addressed the smaller detail, the “shell,” as something that has the “sea,” rather than the more reasonable concept of the “sea” having “a shell.” In this approach, the smaller detail becomes the primary factor.
Once this happens, the meaning increases. Like “a shell with sea” would mean the small “shell” comes with the vastness of a “sea,” this “female” comes bearing the history of the time in which she lived. This comparison grows with the idea that the “female” was “drowned in the centuries.” Like a “shell” at the bottom of a “sea” that somehow represents the entirety of that “sea,” this “woman” has been overcome with the earth and the passage of time, but somehow showcases all of that time’s passage. In this, her “dark” would not be a terrible thing because the reach she provides into older years is incomparable.
The mystique and wonder—the stability and steadfastness—that Clarke has brought into her description of the events is given explanation in this second stanza when she notes that she “feel[s] none of the shock [t]he farmer felt as, unprepared, he found her.” This declaration gives validity to the reaction of the “man” who “found” her while explaining that Clarke had enough time and information to process the situation enough to circumnavigate “shock.” She has “[r]easons, labels, causes, [and] catalogues” to expound on the situation that allow her the clarity and understanding to dive into appreciation rather than “shock.” In her words, “[t]he smell of death is done,” and that “smell” could represent every negative reaction that could have spawned from an introduction to this “woman” without those “[r]easons” and methods of understanding.
With this stability of understanding—once more linking the reader back to that stable concept—Clarke can view the “female[‘s]” remains as things of not only “beauty,” but “[p]urity.” She notes the “female” now has “the light and shade beauty that her man [w]as denied sight of,” which indicates two separate things. One, Clarke is stating that this form of the “female” is “beauty,” even though that “beauty” is tinged with the “darkness” of death. Structurally, she is perfect for an ancient figure with “the pieces join[ed], with no mistakes,” and she is also a representation of history itself to boost that idea of “beauty.” Still, she is only what remains of a human being, so the “beauty” is in “shade.”
Furthermore, though, Clarke brings up a “man” that is not represented at any other part of the poem, unless this “man” is the one who had driven the “tractor.” This could be a random statement of the presumed life the “woman” lived, as in her husband was not able to have this moment of “beauty” in modern times since he was not unveiled by the “tractor.” He never saw her like this, so he would not have understood the significance of what she would become.
Beyond this idea, Clarke’s statement regarding the “man” could also mean he never saw “beauty” within her beyond typical human physicality. This is a possible explanation given that Clarke goes into talking about “pieces” that “join” in the “female,” but likely if this is the case, Clarke is using this look at the physical concept of the internal to represent something less literal. Otherwise, she would seem to lament that the “man” had never seen her “bone[s,]” which feels awkward. She could be stating, rather, that he did not understand her significance to be as reaching as it would prove since she came to provide a tangible link to history for modern times.
If, however, Clarke does mean the “man” with the “tractor,” his “shock” would have blinded him as well to the “beauty” of the “female[‘s]” “[p]urity.” Overall, the reader is free to infer their own interpretation of who this “man” is, but any of the explanations given would logically deprive him of seeing the “beauty.”
To Clarke, it seems, this representation of history itself is magnificent since she chooses to compare the “woman” to “a tree in winter, stripped white on a black sky.” This connects the “woman” to natural things that can bring their own wonder, but not without a bit of despair. The “tree,” for instance, would be lovely in the snows of “winter,” but without those snows, the changing of “season[s]” would have removed the greenery from the “tree” until it was “[l]eafless.” Likewise, the “sky” is depicted as “black,” which would place the “tree” in the dead of a “winter” night. There are natural connections at play then, but only ones that represent some kind of passing, whether the passing of the “tree[‘s]” greenery or the ending of a day.
Despite those concepts of passing though, Clarke treats this “female” as something worth examination when she notes that she “illustrate[s] the tree” “with woman’s hair and colours and the rustling of [b]lood.” This indicates that, regardless of the lack of life within the “female,” Clarke is envisioning her as she was while alive, even down to “the troubled mind that she has overthrown.” That death has allowed this “woman” to “overthrow” her “troubled mind” could be another way in which Clarke has detected “beauty” in what she sees as she “stare[s]” at this “skull.”
The final three lines of the poem are powerful since Clarke admits that both sides of the “star[ing]” are “dark.” Specifically, she says the circumstance is “dark into sightless [d]ark.” This could represent a disconnect between the centuries past again as neither member of the “star[ing]” can truly understand the other, but the interesting thing is that the only indication of a deeper lack of understanding from the “skull” is that her “[d]ark” is listed as “sightless.” It seems then that Clarke is claiming she is as unsure about the “skull” and its past as the “female” is about Clarke, and the only benefit that Clarke has is that she can physically see the “skull.” In this, “dark” is not necessarily a terrible thing, but an understood one that has yet to be overcome—and perhaps will never be overcome as neither being can embrace the other’s side of the unknown.
That “dark” being treated as something other than terrible is furthered when Clarke insists they are “seeing only [them]selves in the black pools,” as if this lack of understanding somehow links people in its own way. Each of us can expect to become like the “female,” and the “female” was once like us. This creates a sameness “that booms in the shell” in regard to a continuing tendency of humans to worry over mortality.
This “female[‘s]” remains reveal a wonderous look into the past, but also manage to speak to the modern viewer in a way that is deeply impacting. Overall, this can be taken as a statement that while things change, people, at their core, have maintained a sameness in regard to mortality, something that Clarke sees within the exhibit.
About Gillian Clarke
Born in 1937, Gillian Clarke has written both verse and prose works that have gained attention, and the honors that she has earned due to her writing have been impressive. For instance, she was the National Poet of Wales. Her works can be grounded in a no-nonsense approach, such as “Miracle on St. David’s Day,” but they are often coated with enough meaning and possibility to garner attention.