‘My box is made of golden oak, my lover’s gift to me’
Clarke introduces two characters here, the lover and the narrator.
‘He fitted hinges and a lock of brass and a bright key.
When I read this, it seems as if a word is missing between ‘bright’ and ‘key’. This may be deliberate to emphasize the youthfulness of the writer at this point in the poem.
‘He made it out of winter nights, sanded and oiled and planed, engraved inside a heavy lid in brass, a golden tree.’
This means that the man spent a lot of time on the box because ‘and’ was emphasized three times.
In the second stanza, the poet describes what the woman has done with the box.
‘In my box are twelve black books where I have written down how we have sanded, oiled and planed, planted a garden, built a wall, seen jays and gold crests, rare red kites, found the wild heartsease, drilled a well, harvested apples and words and days and planted a golden tree.’
This whole stanza is written as a list to tell us what they did as a couple.
‘In my box are twelve black books’
These are presumably her whole memories written down in books, like a diary. It also shows how short life is, because her whole life with as a couple is written in twelve books, which probably meaning the twelve months of a year. Each of the things in the list was metaphor to what normally happens in a relationship. For instance ‘built a wall’ would be; perhaps, they had bought their own secure home. ‘Planted a golden tree’ would be to signify life; perhaps they had children and prospered.
In the third stanza, it is obvious that the writer is writing as an older person, because it mentions death.
‘On an open shelf I keep my box. Its key is in the lock’
This means that the box is accessible to those who want to read it. So the black books aren’t necessarily diaries because they are to be read and for people to read so they’ll know how much the couple was in love.
‘I leave it there for you to read, or them, when we are dead’ The ‘you’ mentioned in the line is probably directed to her husband, which is quite unconventional because it is believed that husbands die before the wives, and she is saying the opposite. ‘Them’ is directed to the children, who perhaps haven’t grown up yet. ‘How everything is slowly made.’ she is probably referring to the relationship and how it took a long time to make it ‘real’.
‘How slowly things made me, a tree, a lover, words, a box, books and a golden tree.’
She is saying how all these things have made her a person. ‘A tree’ stands for a possible family tree, having continuity in her life. ‘A lover’ means the good and bad experiences that couples generally have. ‘Words’ means what you say to people and how they affect you and them. It also says that ‘words’ were harvested, in the last stanza. ‘A box’ means her whole life with her partner and her experiences. ‘Books’ are the twelve books that she has written in which shows her memories. The ‘Golden tree’ is the core of the poem, it is a metaphor for love and how was nurtured from a seed, faces the good and bad experiences and how it flourishes into something beautiful.
Throughout the poem, it seems that the poet consciously wants the woman to age. At the beginning of the poem, Clarke writes as if the woman is young in the relationship. In the second stanza, Clarke writes as though the woman has got married and has had children. The last stanza is like the end of the woman’s life, certainly not the end of the relationship because she believes that her experiences will live on through the books. I think the poet is trying to show that life is short but memories will always outlive them.