Thoughts on "Still Life" by Gillian Clarke?

Badges: 13
Report Thread starter 5 years ago
Hi all,

I was given a poem by Gillian Clarke called "Still Life", a poem which seems very vague to me. So far, I've found a few literary devices and perhaps a decent level of analysis up to line 14. However, I cannot fathom the meaning or what Clarke is trying to present from line 15 and onwards.

This doesn't seem like one of Clarke's popular poem, and I haven't found any information on this poem.
It would be wonderful if anyone could share their thoughts on this poem so I can have a better understanding of "Still Life".

Badges: 3
Report 4 years ago
Share what you know
Badges: 12
Report 2 years ago
Although this is 3 years late to your inquiry, I figured it would be useful for other people who search the key phrase, "Still Life by Gillian Clarke," and would like to know more about it.

In my personal perspective, I believe Still Life to be a poem portraying the dynamics in a relationship, perhaps between Clarke and another woman. Of course, you can use this point to link to other poems she has composed to get those extra marks, such as, "Journey," which describes the stages throughout her relationship with her loved one, or many other poems like, "Catrin," "My Box," "Babysitter," and "Musician."

Anyways, back to Still Life the subject here is friendship and describes Clarke's encounter with a close friend, in which they both try to restore their friendship through a symbolic household task, which includes, "polishing brass" etc. Therefore, if you were to write an essay about this, it would be good to mention that this whole poem is an extended metaphor for working on their relationship by comparing to an uncomfortable and exerting task, and particularly highlights this as the overarching metaphor as the nature of friendship and how it requires constant work. I feel that waffling on about the overall theme will do you no good, so let's do a line-by-line analysis.

It was good tonight
Straightaway here, the use of the adjective, "good" creates this barely satisfactory tone to mention the adequate fix that their visit allowed them, perhaps trying to make the best out of a bad situation and starts off with a fairly positive tone.
To polish brass with you
Here the first introduction to one of the household tasks is established and it is to, "Polish brass." Perhaps it can be considered that their friendship can be compared to this brass. What I find particularly interesting here is the use of the noun, "brass," rather than something more precious like gold or silver, which can mirror the speaker's view on their relationship at the time. Here the household task can reflect the time and effort it takes to restore and rebuild a friendship, highlighting the burden it was.
Our hands slightly gritty
Use of the collaborative and plural pronoun of "our" further highlights this importance of the bond between the speaker and the friend, whilst the use of the adjective "gritty" help demonstrate and highlight the imperfect nature of the relationship and how it needed buffing and polishing.
With Brasso, as they would feel
If we'd been in the sea, salty.
The enjambment of the "feel" across the lines helps create an undulating motion of the act of rubbing the brass as well as linking to the motion of the waves that is later highlighted through nautical imagery. This helps also emphasise the structure of the poem as being a "stream of consciousness"
It was if we burnished
Use of verb, "burnished," as in leaving a mark helps to heighten the activity to a greater extent and make it grand and royal. However, this imagery of permanent is later shattered and is shown to be simply temporary. Perhaps this discernment from the beginning of the poem helps reflect the speaker and her friend's expectations of how the encounter would go.
Also, notice the frequent use of the plural pronouns, to further help illustrate this bond between them.
Our friendship polished it
Here, the key phrase of the poem is, "Our friendship," and highlights the whole subject of it. It helps identify this overarching theme as in the renewal of friendship. Perhaps, it is mentioned late to mirror the time it takes to do the task (however, I feel this is a quite far-fetched point)
Until all the light-drowning
Tarnish of deceit
The use of the verb, "light-drowning," and link to the nautical imagery helps further accentuate the negative elements within their friendship, in this case this, "tarnish of deceit." Clarke does this in quite an intriguing way as she uses this imagery of the sea and being consumed by it, to the point where the, "light," is drowned and darkened which can help show the immense power that the negative aspects had taken a toll on their relationship.

Here the tarnish of deceit can be compared to brass or the mark left by the lack of trust and loyalty within their relationship. However, this pause through enjambment allows the reader to pause and anticipate the effect of it.
Were stroked away. Patterns
Here, it reverts back to this positive tone as here it claims that this, "tarnish of deceit," was stroked away -- stroked here is a gentle slow movement and helps show repairing the friendship with a subtle approach.
Of incredible honesty
Here this "incredible honesty," is juxtaposed with the, "tarnish of deceit," and helps create a positive and loving tone and environment, portraying two friends being honest about what they have done wrong, with no stressful or violent mentions. Here, this rebonding is shown in a lovely way, sugar-coating perhaps, the reality of it all.
Delicately grew, revealed
Quite openly to the pressure
Once more, "delicately," helps heighten the fragile nature of the process and further emphasises this positive tone.
The verb "revealed," "quite openly" helps quite literally reveal this open nature of the poem and creates this sense of collaboration and connection with no acrimony (bitterness)
Of the soft, torn rag,
The rag is used to clean brass and reflect the soft nature of the talk. In my opinion, "torn," here can reflect and refer to their friendship in the past.
We made a yellow-gold
Here the brass is turned into something special and precious -- here the friendship is similarly enhanced.
Still-life out of clocks,
The title's meaning is redirected here. Perhaps, the title can reflect the structure as it is all one stanza, and a still life is one image.
Candlesticks and kettles.
These three items of the, "clocks, candlesticks and kettles," can be compared to memories that they have created along the way. Personally here, it is all up to your imagination what each symbolises. Of course, the most obvious for clocks is the time they spent together, rebonding, renewing and rebuilding.
The "candlesticks" in my opinion illuminate light, which is revealing and further emphasises the power of it after it was consumed in the previous lines, whilst "kettles," help reflect this idea of the warmth that the intimacy created, bottled up into an object. It can also help foreshadow the heat that was created (and lost) in the following lines.

My sadness puzzled you.
Now this is when it starts to get interesting. Here, suddenly there is an abrupt shift in tone. Now instead of a plural pronoun, Clarke uses, "my" instead to help reflect this abrupt disconnect. The lack of enjambement here creates an abrupt tone of mood.
Sadness here, a negative connotation, is connected to the speaker, while the verb puzzled is connected to the friend. There is a lack of understanding here and clearly we see a shift and turning point in their relationship. All of this hard-work was just something the two used to help give them "hope under false pretences" -- a phrase I love to use in my essays, partially inspired by the quote in My Ántonia.
I rubbed the full curve
"I rubbed," once again highlights how the speaker is only puting the effort into trying to bring back their relationship back after all of their hard work.

"Full curve" helps demonstrate how she was looking everywhere to find this, "intimate heat," they had once created in their still life. However, this was only captured in the "still life," and a "still life," can be a paiting or an image that simply captures the moment, and it does not need to last, just how they had created this intimate moment of friendship to build up a still life, however afterwards, it began to fade.

Of an Indian goblet,
Feelings its illusory
Heat. It cooled beneath
"Illusory heat" here links to this idea I mentioned before which was the temporary intimacy heat they had created. From the moment the polishing stops, the heat begins to fade -- enjambment allows reader to reflect on how it wasn't real.
This caesura also interests me after using a stream of consciousness in the previous lines to reflect the long process. Here, we can tell this abrupt and sudden halt in their relationship and the heat that it was producing.

The juxtaposition of, "heat" and "cooled" shows the significant change and emphasises the work that has become undone, and outlines the breaking point in their friendship.
My fingers and I read
Personal pronouns - further emphasises this disconnect once more.
In the braille formality
Of pattern, in the leaf
"Braille formality" helps demonstrate how distinct this uniformity was present to the point where even blind people could recognise it through the use of the, "braille." (my personal opinion here, might be far-fetched)

The formality of this permanent pattern helps show how the speaker believes that some things are unchangeable and simply stay that way, and some people may choose to trick themselves into believing they have done something effective, although now she has reached a point where she is conscious and aware that it will be temporary and will not last long, as it is a pattern, engraved in this still life (relationship)
And tendril and stylised tree,
Tree -- a symbol of life (heat perhaps) can be used to symbolise their relationship.
"Tendril" seems out of place like a change in tone in their friendship that grew in different directions -- the imagery is complicated just as their relationship is.
"Stylised," shows something unrealistic -- something that the speaker thought could happen (personal opinion; far-fetched?)
That essentially each
Object remains cold,
Here, each object or each element in their relationship stays and remains cold, despite the work that may have been put into it.

Two interpretations:
- A friendship requires constant work and the heat fades away and become cold.
- The heat was not real and there is no perfect situation where each object remains and stays warm. This whole process was just an illusory thing to get their hopes up with, and this is the speaker's realisation of it all.

Separate, only reflecting
-- "separate" shows this final lack of disconnect -- adding a bleak end to the poem and demonstrates how although a still life may be just one image- it is important to realise how each object is separate and lacks intimacy afterwards it has been captured (very far-fetched here, but my personal interpretation)
The other's warmth
"only" shows how mere the action was also they made it seem grand and royal at the beginning. Now instead of it actually being intimacy, it was simply a deception of reality. Warmth is artificial or temporary and is a copy of an image.

Phew! That was a lot to write but I really hope this helped in any way. Of course, English Literature is about your own interpretation and you may disagree with some (or a lot) of the things I said here. Just keep digging into it, find ways to make it your own, and write it down, usually examiners like suggestions that are out of the box, but make sure not to include too many far-fetched ideas like I have

Once again, hope this helped x
(Original post by FuryBall)
Hi all,

I was given a poem by Gillian Clarke called "Still Life", a poem which seems very vague to me. So far, I've found a few literary devices and perhaps a decent level of analysis up to line 14. However, I cannot fathom the meaning or what Clarke is trying to present from line 15 and onwards.

This doesn't seem like one of Clarke's popular poem, and I haven't found any information on this poem.
It would be wonderful if anyone could share their thoughts on this poem so I can have a better understanding of "Still Life".

Last edited by NadineAhmedHelmy; 2 years ago
Badges: 13
Report Thread starter 2 years ago
Haha thanks for the comment. It's been a long time since I studied that poem...

Quick Reply

Attached files
Write a reply...
new posts
to top
My Feed

See more of what you like on
The Student Room

You can personalise what you see on TSR. Tell us a little about yourself to get started.


How would you feel if uni students needed to be double vaccinated to start in Autumn?

I'd feel reassured about my own health (20)
I'd feel reassured my learning may be less disrupted by isolations/lockdowns (37)
I'd feel less anxious about being around large groups (12)
I don't mind if others are vaccinated or not (13)
I'm concerned it may disadvantage some students (5)
I think it's an unfair expectation (28)
Something else (tell us in the thread) (2)

Watched Threads

View All