What is a “Lament”? A lament is an elegy or a mourning of the passing of someone or something It can be a sad military tune played on a bugle 02
Gillian Clarke “Lament” was written to express her grief and distress at the scale of the damage, both environmental and human, caused by the Gulf War of 1991 when Iraq invaded Kuwait. As a result of this the United States and its allies came to the aid of Kuwait overthrowing the Iraqi regime and Saddam Hussein. All details of the poem came from daily reports in the media. “War can’t be waged without grave damage to every aspect of life. All the details in the poem came from reports in the media. There were newspaper photographs of cormorants covered with oil - ‘in his funeral silk’. ‘The veil of iridescence on the sand’ and ‘the shadow on the sea’ show the spreading stain of oil from bombed oil wells. The burning oil seemed to put the sun out, and poisoned the land and the sea. The ‘boy fusilier who joined for the company,’ and ‘the farmer’s sons, in it for the music’, came from hearing radio interviews with their mothers. The creatures were listed by Friends of the Earth as being at risk of destruction by oil pollution, and ‘the soldier in his uniform of fire’ was a horrific photograph of a soldier burnt when his tank was bombed. The ashes of language are the death of truth during war” (Gillian Clarke)
The Title – “Lament” 03 The poem uses the title as the start of a list of lamented people, events, creatures and other things hurt in the war. After the word “Lament” every verse and 11 lines begin with “for”.
Stanza 1 04 For the green turtle with her pulsing burden, In search of the breeding-ground, For her eggs laid in their nest of sickness. The first casualty of war is something that cannot start or stop the war- a turtle, representing nature. She does not deserve the horror because of man’s stupidity. They are defenseless creatures. “Pulsing” suggests something alive, urgent – the babies that are about to be born. “Her eggs” make this personal, motherly and maternal. “Laid in sickness” – something no mother wants/ premonition of human illness due to war? Polluted and contaminated by war.
Stanza 2 05 For the cormorant in his funeral silk, the veil of iridescence on the sand, the shadow on the sea. This describes a bird covered in oil from an oil slick caused by war. The use of “his” makes it more personal? Similarly American soldiers who lost their lives during the war were taken home and buried in the silks of their flag. “Silk” here represents death. “the veil of iridescence” sounds pretty like a jewel of many colours but in reality this multi-coloured layer is of oil which is killing nature. “the shadow on the sea” – Use of sibilance. Creates a sinister feeling. Discoloured by blood.
Stanza 3 For the ocean’s lap with its mortal stain, For Ahmed at the closed border, For the soldier in his uniform of fire. War has brought death to the oceans. Loss of human and animal life. Ahmed is a common Arab name and represents the many soldiers who took part in this war. Pictures in the news showed soldiers bring burnt alive by the raging fires caused by bombs.
Stanza 4 For the gunsmith and the armourer, the boy fusilier who joined the company, the farmer’s sons, in it for the music. We feel deep sympathy for boy soldiers who are lured into fighting with no idea of the horror of war and ‘joined for the company’. The word “boy” what does it suggest? The reader is filled with pity for their ignorance and for the farmer’s son ‘in it for the music’. We bemoan along with Clarke their lack of knowledge which makes them think war is a game and she suggests they may have been tricked into becoming soldiers.
Stanza 5 For the hook-beaked turtles, the dugong and the dolphin, the whale struck dumb by the missile’s thunder. Clarke lists animals which are endangered and whose extinction is hastened by the bombing – the hook-beaked turtles, the dugong, the dolphin and the whale “struck dumb by the missile’s thunder”.
Stanza 6 For the tern, the gull and the restless water, the long migrations and the slow dying, the veiled sun and the stink of anger. The migratory birds are part of her lament. Two evocative images are ‘veiled sun’; and ‘stink of anger’. One can imagine the fallout smoke from the bombing casting a shadow over the sun. Reference to the Arabian veil which women wear? It is unusual to describe the emotion of anger through smell. The effect is twofold: it stirs up rage at the destruction and also recalls the stench of gunpowder and explosives.
Stanza 7 For the burnt earth and the sun put out, the scalded ocean and the blazing well, For vengeance, and the ashes of language. The final stanza hammers home the destruction which goes beyond living things to the environment. It is a terrifying scene of devastation caused by burning oil wells in the ‘burnt earth’, ‘scalded ocean’ and ‘blazing well’. Kuwait’s oil wells were put on fire by retreating Iraqis. The last line clinches the message that man in his quest for vengeance by waging war has brought about the ‘ashes of language’ which Clarke explains to mean the death of truth. This powerful metaphor leaves us feeling appalled that people are deceived by why wars are fought. Her final message is shocking - the truth is cloaked in a web of deceit and lies and as long as that happens, there will be wars. The metaphor can also mean language often starts wars and after the fire of war, all that is left are the ashes.
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