Critic Michael Hulse writes of Gillian Clarke, “Her poetry is arrestingly filled with quiet beauty and clear insight, with visionary celebration and elegiac power, and reveals a writer wedded to the world and the word in equal measure.” The poem “Scything” reveals all these qualities in Clarke’s writing, being ostensibly about clearing the garden in spring, but slowly revealing deeper connotations of loss, motherhood and life’s cycle. In this essay, we will be looking more closely at use of language, imagery, themes and motifs in the poem, so that we can consider Clarke’s view of the relationship between the human and natural world.
The title of the poem, “Scything”, encapsulates its meaning. In its literal sense, scything suggests the cutting back of grass and undergrowth, a menial chore for any gardener. However, it also holds nuances of death and destruction, recalling images of the grim reaper and the cruelty of nature’s cycle. We immediately notice that Clarke has employed free verse as her poetic mode. Free verse seems to eliminate much of the artificiality and some of the aesthetic distance of poetic expression, and could also be a reflection of the disorder and chaos of the modern world.
The first stanza of the poem begins with two short and abrupt sentences. These two sentences set the scene, telling the reader that it is late spring, and that the poet has decided to clear her garden. The caesura in the first line, the short sentence structure and the emphatic tone, give the reader the impression that the poet is determined to perform this chore. The stanza continues with a description of what the garden looks like: the “spring’s eye blind with algae”, and the garden filled with “nettle and briar”.
It is clear from just these lines that Clarke’s view of nature is not romanticised, it is not a benign pastoral idyll. Nature is seen as the force that creates disorder in the garden, and the poet, with her son Dylan, are the human element that have come to bring order to the chaos of riotous growth. The ordered form of the first stanza reflects the mundanity of what mother and son are doing, and perhaps also the neatness that the humans want to bring to the garden. The internal rhyme of “eye” and “algae,” and the measured description of mother and son’s activity help to link the stanza together. Echoes of sound between “eye”, “algae” and “blind”, also help to achieve this.
The themes of order and disorder, and man’s uneasy relationship with an indifferent natural force are thus introduced. Clarke alludes to nature’s indifference by telling us that the spring’s eye is “blind”, just as nature is blind to human interaction. The plants she names that are growing in the garden are “nettles and briars”, stinging, prickly weeds that humans find unpleasant, but nature is indifferent to this, and “fills” the garden with them nonetheless. In the last line of the first stanza, Clarke further emphasises how man is removed from nature by describing herself as she “wades forward” to cut the weeds. The use of the word “wade” portrays the poet struggling clumsily through the undergrowth, as if through water, ill at ease with being surrounded by nature’s force. The image of her moving forward, scythe in hand, also brings the reader back to the figure of the grim reaper, and prefigures the horror of the second stanza.