In her poem “Pipistrelle,” Gillian Clarke creates a vivid impression of the bat with several literary devices.
Before we explore those devices, let’s consider that, its brief and compact form, this poem’s four tiny stanzas themselves suggest on the page a small creature, like the bat. See this for yourself as you hold the poem in front of you, then back up, letting your eyes glaze over so that you perceive the lines of the poem as a single shape. I’m reminded of a bat in flight, tilting gracefully in the air.
Not every reader will agree with that point, and that’s all right! But we should all agree on how the following well-defined literary devices appear in “Pipistrelle:” simile, metaphor, imagery, and biblical diction.
Let’s explore them in the order in which they appear in the poem.
Notice that the first two stanzas in this four-stanza poem simply set the scene, as the speaker and her companion sit outdoors at dusk, having shared a smoke and a drink; we don’t “see” the bat enter until the third stanza:
This one in a box, mouse
the size of my thumb in its furs
and sepia webs of silk
a small foreboding,
the psalms of its veins
on bible paper,
Above, the speaker remembers looking at a dead bat in a box. (How did I know it was a bat and not a “mouse,” as indicated in that first line of the stanza? I read between the lines, considering how the poem’s title is a type of bat, and how the poem opens at dusk, when bats are most visible. I inferred that the speaker of the poem saw some bats and is now recalling a memory of seeing one in a box.)
Right away, in the second stanza above, we see a metaphor: the speaker is saying that the bat is a mouse, not literally, but metaphorically: that its size and shape and texture are like those of a mouse. This metaphor helps us envision the bat clearly: we’ve all seen mice, haven’t we? But how many of us have seen a bat up close? Not many. The metaphor aids our imagination, giving us an easily accessible object to envision: a tiny mouse.
Next, we see imagery. The bat is “the size of my thumb,” an image that becomes real in our minds immediately, helping us see the bat’s delicate size and shape. Further, the speaker says the bat displays “furs and sepia webs of silk,” an image of the two textures of the bat’s body (probably of its body like “furs” and its wings like “webs of silk”), and with the words “sepia” and “webs,” the imagery is heightened, showing us the color and shape of the creature as well.
The third stanza closes with more imagery, this time expressed in diction that evokes a religious tone: “the psalms of its veins on bible paper.” Here, we can imagine the bat’s veins, understanding that they are as delicate as the thinned sheets of paper we see in bibles, the kind with pages so thin that they’re hard to turn. At the same time, we imagine the bat’s veins as “psalms,” or sacred songs, as we imagine them having once pulsed with life in the impossibly thin “paper” of the bat’s wings.
Finally, in the fourth stanza, the speaker compares the bat to a pressed flower: “Like a rose I spread once in a book . . .”
Notice the simile that invites us to imagine the bat as a pressed, dried rose in a book: something fine, delicate, beautiful, compact, treasured, saved, admired, and, of course, dead.
I hope you’ll agree that Clarke has used the tools above to paint the dead bat in words not just poetic but loving.
In closing, let's notice one more thing: something that Clarke doesn't do as she creates her vivid impression of the bat. The title, remember, is "Pipistrelle," the common way to name a particular bat from the Pipistrellus genus of bats. Those words are scientific. No scientific words appear, however, in the body of the poem. Despite writing about a dead specimen in a box, Clarke has rendered the bat in terms that are lively, respectful, earnest, and tender: not coldly scientific.