Analysis of The Habit of Light by Gillian Clarke

This article is an analysis of The Habit of Light by Gillian Clarke.

About the Poem:

This poem is a celebration of the poet's mother. She builds up a sense of the type of person that her mother was through this very very strong sense of place. She runs through all of these memories that she has of her mother in her domestic life.

We could describe the poem as an elegy which is a type of poem concerned with someone who's passed away. Energies are generally quite serious meditative poems like I said concerned with the theme of death. But here we have a much more positive lively poem so it doesn't quite fit into what we would normally expect. It's not so at all it's very much full of light and positive memories.

And through that, we see that the domestic routine of the mother is celebrated as a kind of sacrament.

It's also a sonnet so it has three quatrains in a couplet just as a traditional Shakespearean sonnet does. But it doesn't quite fit into the traditional sonnet form. So if you look at the rhyme scheme the use of half-rhymes and the line lengths they don't quite fit into what we would normally expect.

And that unique structure reflects the unique and special memories that Gillian Clarke has of her mother.

So let's have a quick look at that rhyme scheme:

Normally in a Shakespearean sonnet, we would have the four quatrains with those alternating rhymes. So we would normally ABAB whereas here we've got ABBA. Then it does fit into that CD CD EF EF and then the final rhyming couplet.

But all the way through we have quite a lot of half rhyme so if you look here we've got lamps and glimpse, flickered and purred, and light and melt. So these words rhyme but they don't quite rhyme perfectly and that creates a sense of uniqueness building up again this idea that the mother was a very unique person. But it could also suggest the difficulty that the poet has had in dealing with the loss of her mother. Then at the end of the poem, we do have that final rhyming couplet which is a perfect rhyme and that means that the poem ends on a positive note.

Analysis of The Habit of Light:

In the early evening, she liked to switch on the lamps
in corners, on low tables, to show off her brass,
her polished furniture, her silver and glass.
At dawn she'd draw all the curtains back for a glimpse
of the cloud-lit sea. Her oak floors flickered
in an opulence of beeswax and light.
So let's have a look at the poem itself. We've got these time references early evening and dawn. Giving a sense that the mother worked hard all day to maintain a pristine house and that idea of hard work and the domestic routine is carried on throughout the entire poem.

This phrase 'she liked to switch on the lamps' gives up that sense of routine so it's clearly someone that the speaker was very very close to she knows what she used to do every single day. And the past tense there indicates a memory so we know that she's looking back on something. The highly descriptive language throughout this entire passage indicates a cherished house.

Many words throughout the poem suggest light and the objects that are mentioned are also ones which either cast lights like the lumps or they glow or shine like the brass and the silver and glass. So again that suggests the fact that the mother looked after her possessions and also that she was very proud of them.

"At dawn, she draw back all the curtains for a glimpse of the cloudlet sea" So that phrase cloud lit creates a kind of mysterious beautiful image. Clouds are something that normally cast darkness but here they're creating light. So when the mother is around even clouds have the ability to create light.

"Her oak floors flickered" that personal pronoun her gives a sense of possessions as she has pride in her home. And the alliteration there on floors flickered creates a magical atmosphere again suggesting the pride that she takes in looking after her house.

As we move on into this next section.
In the kitchen, saucepans danced their lids, the kettle purred
on the Aga, supper on its breath and the buttery melt
of a pie, and beyond the swimming glass of old windows,
in the deep perspective of the garden, a blackbird singing,
We can see and that the poet has very very clear memories of her mother. So sight sound and smells are still extremely vivid. There's also very strong sense of place throughout the poem so here we've got the kitchen the windows the garden. In that previous section that we looked at we also had in corners on low tables giving a very strong sense of place.

We've also got personification here the saucepans danced their lids the kettle purred. Again very positive images and that brings those memories to life."Supper its breath and the buttery melt" the alliteration here of breath and buttery reinforces the enjoyment of preparing food.

And here again the vivid memory of the "garden" so she can still hear that sound of the Blackbird singing which could be a metaphor for the mother herself singing in the garden.

In this last section
she'd come through the bean rows in tottering shoes,
her pinny full of strawberries, a lettuce, bringing
the palest potatoes in a colander, her red hair bright
with her habit of colour, her habit of light. 
"She'd come through the beam rose in tottering shoes" so that phrase tottering she seems to be the poet remembering with fondness were almost with humor. Her mother's inappropriate Footwear tottering shoes aren't really the type of thing you would generally wear for gardening. And she wore a penny so that's a type of apron showing that she was self-sufficient. And that idea is reinforced by the huge range of different fruits and vegetables in her garden the strawberries, the lattice, the potatoes.

The superlative on the palest potatoes also the alliteration that reinforced that pleasure taking and preparing food. This superlative itself suggests that the mother would only choose the very best so she took pride in her cooking.

Analysis of The Habit of Light by Gillian Clarke


The fact that the daughter picks out her red hair here again it's another aspect of the mother's uniqueness. And that phrase there her red hair bright is monosyllabic which places emphasis on each of those words emphasizing the fact that it's a very positive again very vivid and vibrant memory.

Then we have this final line of the poem "her habit of color her habit of light" so we've got that repetition of the word habit. It's a word which is associated with routine but also closes its religious imagery. So it gives us this sense that she creates light and happiness wherever she goes and perhaps has a kind of religious dedication to looking after her house. And also that repetition adds emphasis to that word and reflects that that double meaning that it has.

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