Miracle on St David’s Day by Gillian Clarke Essay
Miracle on St David’s Day is an enchanting, and ultimately optimistic poem relating to the theme of identity by Gillian Clarke. The poem tells the story of a man in a mental institution, who exceeds the expectation of both the nurses and his fellow patients when he regains the ability to talk. In the first stanza of the poem, Gillian Clarke describes the country house in what seems to be an idyllic setting, “The sun treads the path among cedars and enormous oaks, it might be a country house, guests strolling”.
However despite the seemingly pleasant tone, implied by the use of her making it seem informal, through the relaxed wondering of what the House may have been,” might be a country house, guests strolling”, suggesting normality her use of the word might alerts the reader that this idyllic setting may be an illusion and not what it first seems. The illusion of normality is swiftly extracted by the opening line of the second stanza, “I am reading poetry to the insane”.
This line ends with a certain finality, that is so abrupt that it disturbs the so far, flowing effect to the poem, also implying informality and normality, to the effects that it shocks the reader, not only in the disrupted rhythm of the poem but also in the disturbingly blunt reality of what she is saying. Furthermore this is shocking because it is not commonplace for people to be reading poetry to the insane. Gillian Clarke does this numerous times during the poem in order to stop the reader, so that the poem does not ramble, and make it more interesting, “A beautiful chestnut-haired boy listens entirely absorbed. A schizophrenic”.
This use of contrast between the descriptive lines of the opening stanza and the flat, and remarkably blunt, tones of this line introduce the reader to the contrast between the setting and the guests. As we can observe from the line following, “I am reading poetry to the insane”, which instantly restores the mood of the poem to informal with the humor, of the old woman who is constantly offering the narrator coal, when it is March and she would have no means of getting coal. By the use of having the woman saying humorous things, Gillian Clarke is also contrasting her with the other patients at the home, as she is the only one who is talking.
The poem also uses poetic devises such as personification, “An afternoon yellow and open mouthed”. It uses metaphors, “In a cage of first march sun”, and similes such as, “Outside the daffodils are still as wax”, to make the poem more interesting to read, and also without these techniques the imagery of the poem, that the people in the home are daffodils would not be portrayed and the final message of the poem would not be presented to the reader. Thus the poem would be pointless.
Gillian Clarke also uses enjambment in the poem, which disturbs the flow of the poem, and I think is also relating to the disturbed personalities of the patients in the home. Enjambment is effectively used in the third to fourth stanzas, as this is a rambling scene of the immense man struggling to get to his chair, and so Clarke reflects this in the appropriate use of enjambment between the stanzas. The first March sun is described as a cage in the third verse as it is saying that for these people who have no freedom, even their enjoyment of the sun is trapping them, and they have no choice but to be out absorbed in it.
These poetic devices are also used to build up the character of the man in the poem. In the third stanza where the man is introduced, he is described as a big, mild man, and a laborer, who is being tenderly led. This use of contrasting language informs the reader that even though the man is large in size he has to be tenderly led like a child, continuing to imply to the reader that there is something wrong with him. This is confirmed in the forth verse where he is described as rocking, a common action by insane people as it comforts them. His description is also emphasized by the repetition of the words big, mild and dumb.
These words make him seem even more immense, which is odd when they are combined with mild. When the huge laboring man speaks he is in beautiful surroundings reciting a poem about daffodils, which is not only being ironic but is breaking the stereotype of laborers being very masculine and rather insensitive, whereas here he is being portrayed as almost feminine and extremely sensitive. What strikes me most prominently when reading the poem is the amount of imagery used to bring emphasis to the overall meaning of Clarke’s poem and to make it more interesting.
She has chosen the “Daffodils”, by W. Wordsworth, as the music that the mute man chooses to speak after forty years of silence. I believe that she has also chosen to describe the man who cannot speak as mute as it is also a musical term, and so therefore is not just emphasizing that there is no speech in his life, but also that there is no music, relating with happiness and merriment, and therefore is saying that without speech there is no joy in the laborer’s life.
However when the rhythm of the poetry he is read awakens him, it appears to turn apparent life into reality. The poem is a possible way to show his waking from a world of misery to a reality of nature’s beauty and rhythm, “Since the dumbness of misery fell he has remembered there was a music of speech and that once he had something to say. ” This is also playing on the word dumbness, as dumbness aside from meaning stupidity also is relating to the man who cannot speak as a person who is mute can also be described as, “dumb”.
Informing us that the poem is saying that music is good, as when he cannot speak, and there is no music, it is described as, “misery” and when this, “falls”, and he has remembered that there is something to say a thrush sings, representing happiness, and the once, “wax” still daffodils are flame, representing excitement, life and activity. Therefore Gillian Clarke is saying that the man was not properly alive until the music in his life was restored. He is reciting poetry because what he has heard from the nurses in the institution has restored his memory and he has remembered a poem that he had learnt as a child at school.
We know this because Clarke informs us in verse thirty-one, “Forty years ago, in a Valleys school, the class recited poetry by rote”. I believe that Gillian Clarke’s poem is also relating to music through this imagery. “Since the dumbness of misery fell he has remembered there was a music of speech and that once he had something to say. ” When he speaks there is an immediate exchange of characteristics, the once lifeless patients are alert and the nurses are frozen as the patients once were. I also notice that in Clarke’s poem the daffodils seem to represent the people at the home.
At the start of the poem the daffodils are “open mouthed” showing the way that the patients don’t react to the poetry, as this is the face that people use when they are bored and not listening. Their open mouths show how unreceptive the patients are, once again removing any sense of normality as Gillian Clarke alienates them from ordinary sane people. When the miracle of the man speaking occurs the flowers are silent and still, showing that far from the boredom and lack of interest displayed before, everyone is amazed.
We can deduct that the daffodils are not merely flowers, by the use of lines such as, “their syllables unspoken”, as obviously, flowers can speak no syllables. I think that the use of the candle related words throughout the poem are deliberate, when the flowers are as still as, “wax”, the man is not speaking and when he does they are a flame, which is representing that the man’s hope, which has always been there, the wax, but when he speaks it is “a flame”. It is alive.
I think that the, “first bird of the year in the breaking darkness” is symbolic as the first bird of the year, is representing the first speech in the mans life for many years, and the darkness which is now breaking is the bad times of when he could not speak. His first words in many years are described as a bird, as this also relates to the theme of music. Gillian Clarke effectively alienates the patients in the home and portrays the fact that although they are physically there, they mentally are not by the constant use of word absent, “I read to their presences, their absences”.
St David’s Day by Gillian Clarke illustrates the theme of identity through the use of including people in a mental institution, as they have no identity. Yet after forty years a man’s identity breaks through. I believe that this poem is trying to communicate the fact that everyone has an identity; no matter how masked it is from the rest of the world, and by the use of describing them with flowers that cannot speak (which have inner beauty, she is saying that everyone has some kind of identity and beauty.
Emotion plays an important part in the poem humor, misery and shock are shown to us and this makes the poems more realistic. Ultimately I feel the reason this is a very effective poem is that the use of daffodils and Wordsworth is subtle but carries a significant meaning that is backed up by the tone of the rest of the poem. I find that the poem is truly touching and although the main message of the poem is quite discrete, the way that it is portrayed makes it seem that you, the reader are really experiencing the miracle.