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Miracle on St. David's Day
Transcript of Miracle on St. David's Day
This poem by Gillian Clarke demonstrates how there are ways other than professional encounters to communicate with patients, even or especially the 'insane'.
Here she makes a personal recollection, a true story after she was invited to read poetry to patients in the Occupational Therapy Department of a mental hospital in South Wales, organised to celebrate St. Davids Day.
The patients seem to be trapped inside their minds, despite being physically present.
For example, Clarke describes that one woman "in her neat clothes,... is absent." This suggests that there might as well only be clothes as the woman's mind is trapped elsewhere, meaning she is unable to connect with other people, so she is not only confined, but also isolated.
This idea of mental isolation is further shown through the oxymoron where Clarke describes reading "to their presences" and "absences". This illustrates how they are present physically but mentally absent, cutting them off from the rest of the world.
The theme of hope is also clearly evident in this poem.
The labourer's sudden recital is compared to "the first bird of the year in the breaking darkness." This suggests that the period of captivity, just like winter, is capable of ending. This provides a source of hope.
Clarke also likens the daffodils to candles through her descriptions of them as "wax" and "flame". Candles are a universal symbol of hope. Clarke has, however, implied that this comparison was unintentional.
The hope expressed in this poem contrasts ideas expressed in "Friesian Bull", another of Clarke's poems. In this, the bull's confinement seems permament. The simile describing how the bull's eyes "surface like fish bellies" hints at this permanence since fish only rise to the surface when dead.
In the poem, human events are tied to the natural event of spring, showing that spring holds new beginnings. For example, the "first bird of the year" starting to sing shows the beginning of spring. This reflects how the new beginning is also starting for the man who regains his voice. This makes the poem very serendipitous; as the earth is being reborn, so is the labourer.
Nature is also depicted as being very powerful in the poem, as it is the memory of the daffodils that sparks the man to speak again, demonstrating Clarke's beliefs about the power and strength of nature, that it can create miracles.
The man's difficulty in speaking is reflected through daffodils in the poem. The daffodils are described as being ‘open-mouthed’ at the beginning of the poem and yet they cannot talk. This foreshadows the condition of the man, who becomes the focus of the poem.
The colour of the daffodils also intensifies from "creams and yellows" to bright orange as the man recites his poem. This colour change reflects how the labourer has come to life again.
The labourer recited Wordsworth's 'Daffodils', word for word, just as he had learned "in a Valley school".
The sight of the daffodils never left Wordsworth's mind, and came to him when he was in a pensive mood. Similarly, the poem never left the mind of the labourer even throughout his mental illness. In both cases, the sight of the daffodils set memory going, and inspired the person.
The "thousand, ten thousand" daffodils in "Miracle on St. David's Day" also echo the "host of golden daffodils" in Wordsworth's original poem. This further links the two poems, as well as the labourer's recital.
Miracle on St. David's Day
The patients are also confined physically, as they are trapped in the hospital, disguised as a "country house." This further causes the patients' loneliness, as even beyond the isolation of their own minds, they are also isolated from the rest of the world.
The physical confinement is reflected in the description of the woman who is "trapped in a cage of first March sun." The cage is being created by the shadows on the window.
He is suddenly standing, silently,
huge and mild, but I feel afraid. Like slow
movement of spring water or the first bird
of the year in the breaking darkness,
the labourer's voice recites The Daffodils'.
An afternoon yellow and open-mouthed
with daffodils. The sun treads the path
among cedars and enormous oaks.
It might be a country house, guests strolling,
the rumps of gardeners between nursery shrubs.
"The flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude"
The Daffodils, William Wordsworth
I am reading poetry to the insane.
An old woman, interrupting, offers
as many buckets of coals as I need.
A beautiful chestnut-haired boy listens
entirely absorbed. A schizophrenic
on a good day, they tell me later.
In a cage of first March sun a woman
sits not listening, not seeing, not feeling.
In her neat clothes the woman is absent.
A big mild man is tenderly led
When he's done, before the applause, we observe
the flowers' silence. A thrush sings
and the daffodils are aflame.
Forty years ago, in a Valleys school,
the class recited poetry by rote.
Since the dumbness of misery fell
he has remembered there was a music
of speech and that once he had something to say.
to his chair. He has never spoken.
His labourer's hands on his knees, he rocks
gently to the rhythms of the poems.
I read to their presences, absences,
to the big, dumb labouring man as he rocks.
The nurses are frozen, alert; the patients
seem to listen. He is hoarse but word-perfect.
Outside the daffodils are still as wax,
a thousand, ten thousand, their syllables
unspoken, their creams and yellows still.
Clarke uses the poem to challenge the reader's preconceptions about people in mental hospitals, often by using language and descriptions that the reader would not expect.
Clarke refers to the people in the mental hospital as "insane". Her use of this negative stereotype disconcerts and shocks the reader.
Clarke also challenges the reader's preconceptions about schizophrenia by describing the boy as "a beautiful chestnut-haired boy" before saying he is "a schizophenic on a good day." The caesura placed just before this increases the reader's shock as it contrasts the image of the beautiful boy.
This is ironic because the hospital is as far from a country house as possible.
Foreshadows what will happen later in the poem, as the man will open his mouth and speak.
Coal linked to miners in poor areas of Wales, mines closed down but this woman is not connected to the present, is still living in times of mining.
Rule of 3, emphasising how she is cut off from the world around her, and from her own emotions, leaving her completely isolated.
The contradiction in this oxymoron emphasises how the patients may be physically present, but they are mentally absent.
The sibilance here shows Clarke's shock.
This is the first time in the poem that Clarke talks about her feelings and we really connect to her. She tells the reader that she is frightened of the unknown and uncertainty, showing how, even though she knows this man is not dangerous, having repeatedly described him as "mild", she is still afraid of him, even if it is irrational.
This is mild irony, that it is the patients who have the normal reaction, whilst the nurses are frozen.
The colour of the daffodils has gradually strengthened and intensified throughout the poem, as before they were pale yellow, and now they are "flame".
Finally, Clarke also expresses a lot through the structure of the poem. She regularly uses enjambment and caesuras to give the sense of everything being a little different at the hospital; it's a litte uncontrolled.
It is for the same reason that there is no rhyme, and the meter is deliberately irregular, although Clarke is slightly more poetic in the later stanzas, reminding the reader of Wordsworth's poem, which is very poetic.
Clarke also uses incremental repetition to emphasise certain points, particularly in the fourth stanza, when she wants to remind the reader of how "mild" the man is.
This is telling the reader that the labourer once had an identity. The power of memory has been reawakened by the poetry just as the spring reawakens the earth.