Owen Sheers Poetry
Masculinity in the Poetry of Owen Sheers
In Skirrid Hill, Owen Sheers explores many themes, one of which is undoubtedly manhood. Throughout the collection, he often focuses in on adolescence and discovering his power as an individual. In this way, it seems clear that Sheers is a poet who explores exactly what it feels like to be a man. Despite this, many of Sheers’ poems do not exclusively focus on what it feels like to be a man, as he explores many traditionally unmasculine themes, including nature, for example, in the poem ‘Swallows’.
The poem ‘Hedge School’ investigates Sheers’ realisation as a child of his own power as a man, specifically the potential for violence that he felt as he moved into adulthood. The title of the poem refers to Sheers’ roots in Ireland, as ‘hedge schools’ were institutions of informal education. By having the content of the poem about actual blackberry bushes, Sheers seems to be suggesting that his own education was really gained from the natural world and his experiences outside of school. The epigraph of the poem refers to a tale of wickedness and violence, which presents this as a predominant theme for the poem. This narrative tactic reflects back on the theme of manhood, as the boy in the poem moves through adolescence and realises that he is capable of such violence.
The first stanza explores the boy’s growing freedom as he moved from childhood into adulthood. He describes, ‘The walk home from school got longer / those first weeks of September,’ in which the use of enjambement emphasises his message of his journey home being drawn-out, as the child explores his freedom. This stanza also establishes the main theme of the poem, ‘picking of blackberries,’ which is initially presented as an innocent image of boyhood. Then, the second stanza really reflects Sheers’ feelings on being a man and the power that comes with it. Sheers uses vivid imagery to describe how the boy tastes the blackberries, referring to them as ‘a nervous heart’ and ‘cobwebbed and dusty as a Claret’, in which the use of simile presents how refined tastes become in adulthood. In this poem, it seems that the boy is reluctant to make the transition into adulthood and sees it as unappealing through these descriptions.
Sheers presents his take on what it feels like to be a man predominantly in the last stanza, which is significantly longer than the first three and which reflects the boy’s development and growth in this poem. This stanza uses more violent and sinister language, such as ‘close my palm into a fist’, which suggests that violence is central to being male. His use of similes (’knuckles scratched and my hand blue-black red, as bloodied as a butcher’s or a farmer’s at lambing’) creates dark imagery and introduces a realisation of life and death, perhaps as a boy would realise as he grew into adolescence. The final line of the poem reinforces Sheers’ true message of identity and manhood in the poem, ‘a boy who’s discovered for the very first time, just how dark he runs inside.’ This presents the idea of the boy discovering his power and desires as a man, and how these lessons he’s learnt through nature itself. This idea is introduced early in the poem, when Sheers suggests, ‘Another lesson perhaps, this choice of how to take them,’ emphasising the options a young boy has when growing into a man, and how he might discover this set of options.
‘Hedge School’ has little evidence of rhyme and is written in irregular stanzas; this form of free verse lets the reader have more detail and gain a deeper insight into what Sheers is truly saying. In this way, it is clear that Sheers is trying to create a poem that is structured almost like a string of thoughts, as a young boy explores his own choices in his transition into manhood. In the collection, the poem is positioned among other poems about growing up, family, and nature. It acts as a momentary reflection on a darker turning point of childhood, amongst more sentimental poems such as ‘Farther’ and ‘Trees’.
‘Joseph Jones’ is another poem that clearly explores exactly what it feels like to be a man. The poem is titled purposely with names known to be common, which suggests that Sheers is trying to present a stereotype of what a man should be. The use of alliteration within the name almost brings a comical sense to the poem, which supports the stereotype as the poem begins quite clearly portraying a typical ‘lad’, an image often viewed with humour. The poem opens with a sense of nostalgia (‘Of course I remember Joseph’) and goes on to describe what the man was like (‘Fifty press-ups before a night out, hair shined with gel…’) which presents the character as macho and over-confident. This description also sets the tone of the poem as conversational, perhaps to represent how casually Joseph liked to present himself, despite how much effort he really put into his appearance. These descriptions suggest that Sheers is presenting his view of what it feels like to be a younger man, one more concerned with how others view him. The speaker remembers Joseph bragging about his sexual exploits, a traditionally very boisterous thing to do: ‘Told us all how he got his red wings.’ This vulgarity suggests that Sheers is presenting how society often conditions men into being derogatory towards women. This idea is continued within the stanza with descriptions of the girl being purely about her clothing rather than articulating or embodying anything of substance: ‘Her skirt,’ ‘white tights shed to high heels.’
Sheers goes on to show the reader that despite the illusion of Joseph Jones, in reality he had made little of himself. He describes him as a ‘small town myth’ which seems to downplay everything that has been said about Joseph so far, illustrating the idea that his confidence is just an illusion. In the final stanza, Sheers uses a listing technique to show all that Joseph had achieved: ‘XR2, late nights fights, a trial once’. The layout of this stanza makes the lines look particularly short compared to the previous stanzas, portraying the empty space in Joseph’s life. It ends the poem on a melancholy note, suggesting that there is a lack of substance to the character. This shows that Sheers is presenting exactly what it feels like to be a man, as this idea of a typical, macho man cannot be lived up to and will likely not end up with a very fulfilling life. ‘Joseph Jones’ is, in fact, positioned in the collection directly after ‘Hedge School’, which suggests that Sheers is presenting to the reader a transition from boyhood, to the realisation of his power as a man, to manhood being presented as essentially disappointing; despite how it may look on the surface. This poem clearly shows Sheers’ as exploring exactly what it feels like to be a man.
In contrast, in the poem ‘Swallows’, rather than exploring what it feel like to be a man Sheers focuses on the nature and its regenerative power, which are seen as generally unmasculine themes. The title of the poem is significant as swallows themselves are traditionally symbolic of the cycle of life, reflecting the predominant theme of the poem, nature. Sheers describes the swallows as ‘italic’ which shows them to be elegant. This image is further explored by Sheers as he uses the word choice ‘jive’ to create imagery of the swallows being like dancers in the sky. He goes on to say how they fly ‘between the telephone wires’ which as well as presenting them as agile, suggests that Sheers recognises the contrasts between nature and the man made world. The way Sheers presents nature here is shown to very pure and beautiful.
Sheers’ main message in ‘Swallows’ is that the lives and deaths of the birds are overlooked. This idea is explored in the second stanza (‘there is no seam / between parent and child’) before being continued in the final stanza, where the line ‘Just always the swallows’ shows that Sheers recognises the inclination of humans to take things for granted, and see the swallows as something that will always be there for us to notice. He goes on to describe the swallows as having a sense of permanency, ‘script of descenders, / dipping their ink to sign their signatures / across the page of the sky.’ By comparing the swallows’ flight to writing, Sheers recognises their significance in nature, and seems to compare their permanence to the permanence of his writing. The structure of this poem is regular quatrains, which are perhaps used to reflect the perfection of nature through Sheers’ eyes, as he romanticises the swallows. His view of nature in this poem is centered on death and the cyclical nature of life, in great contrast to previous poems which explored what it feels like to be a man.
Although Sheers’ writing sometimes reflects traditionally unmasculine themes such as nature, he is a poet who explores exactly what it feels like to be a man. This emphasis evident through his exploration of boyhood and adolescence in ‘Hedge School’ and stereotypes of men in ‘Joseph Jones’.
Nature as a Possible Catalyst for Human Connection in “Mametz Wood” and “Father”
Throughout the collection Skirrid Hill (2005) by Owen Sheers, nature is presented as a significant factor to both the development of personal and cultural identity and to human relationships. In “Mametz Wood” and “Father”, the speaker’s attachment to the earth is apparent. However, moving beyond description of the natural world alone, Sheers calls attention to the way in which nature has played a part in these speakers’ lives by exploring the impact of nature on human beings at large.
In “Mametz Wood”, nature is presented as a powerful force, although affected by humans and their creation, both are inextricably linked. Through describing the unearthed fragments of the soldiers as: “A chit of bone, the china plate of a shoulder blade,” and the “broken bird’s egg of a skull,” Sheers contrasts the birth of new life and the fragility of the human body with the impact of their violent history. The harsh, plosive monosyllabic sounds bite like bullets, evoking a strong visual image within the reader’s mind of the battle that took place. The alliteration of the ‘ch’ sound could also allude to the farmer’s plough, digging up the remains of the “wasted youth […] as they tended the land back into itself.” This cyclical notion highlights the futility of war, perhaps alluding to the speaker’s criticism of the military, and although the soldiers may be dead, the land will always remember them. The use of the verb “tended” here suggests that the farmers are caring for the land, juxtaposing the treatment of the army towards nature, as though they are seeking to comfort and rehabilitate it. This notion is carried forward to the fourth stanza, where “the earth stands sentinel, / reaching back into itself for a reminder of what happened”. Through personifying the earth, Sheers implies that nature will guard these fallen soldiers and their memories. Whilst the second line draws strong links with the first stanza, again a reference to the cyclical theme throughout, the speaker creates a sense of reflection and retrospect: the earth is keeping the soldiers connected to the present by reliving their past, unearthing it so they are not forgotten. Although each tercet in “Mametz Wood” is formed from a single sentence, they are unified by the message they convey, and by the fact that nature will protect what is repressed, returning it to the surface.
Throughout “Father”, the speaker draws strong links between the hill that both father and son are climbing and their personal relationship, highlighting the impact nature can have on a human connection. It is significant that Sheers chooses the Skirrid: “It was then that we climbed the Skirrid again”, as it acts as an extended metaphor for the physical and emotional distance that has grown between the two, and this yearly shared tradition is a way to overcome this challenge. By describing physical features of the hill, with “that soft cleft of earth / split they say by a father’s grief / at the loss of his son to man” Sheers alludes to the myth surrounding Skirrid Hill, that it was formed at the moment of crucifixion by God’s grief. In this instance, however, it could also reference a father’s sadness at losing his son to adulthood, the inevitability of his son no longer being a boy. The earth’s connection to the pair is drawn again halfway through the poem, when the speaker describes his father, with his “bent head the colour of rocks, / your breath reaching me, short and sharp and solitary”. Through linking his aging father to the ancient rocks, the speaker strikes a balance between the first half of the poem where the reader is exposed to the father’s sadness at losing his son, and now the second half where the son is pained by his father growing older. The semantic field of aging is further explored through the description of his breath; the sibilance imitates the father’s breathing; although it is rhythmic, it is labored. Sheers uses nature to connect father and son on this journey of developing their relationship, through the turmoils of regular life.
Sheers uses structure in both “Mametz Wood” and “Father” to reflect the changing focuses of the poems. in “Mametz Wood”, the regular three-line stanzas broken by longer lines suggest the unevenness of the earth, of nature’s course impacted by human invention. The first stanza is a single sentence, followed by a pair of stanzas joined by one sentence. This structure is followed throughout the poem, ending ultimately with a tercet formed from a single sentence. The cyclical nature of the poem reflects how the earth and humans will continue to encroach on one another. Through the description of the “notes they had sung / have only now with this unearthing, / slipped from their absent tongues”, the speaker is able to form a resolution, the assonance in the final phrase symbolizing the soldiers’ unity. the verb “slipped” connotes an easy image, as though the earth has allowed them to easily communicate with the living. In “Father”, however, the structure is strikingly different, not employing the use of tercets which are atypical of Sheers’ style. The use of enjambed lines and no clear stanza structure could represent the speaker’s stream of consciousness, as he attempts to elongate the time he has left with his father. The irregular line lengths create an image on the page of multiple hills, as though the earth physically represents the hardships and ease of the journey both father and son face together.
With these selections, Sheers uses nature as a powerful tool to both metaphorically and literally link humans, as is evident through both poems. Whilst humans and the earth have a significant effect on one another, humans use nature as an organic way to connect with others.
Sadness, Pain, and Sorrow in ‘Skirrid Hill’
In the poetry collection ‘Skirrid Hill’, Owen Sheers explores the theme of sorrow in a variety of different situations and contexts, showing the reader the dire circumstances of many people in Wales, be it in the past or present. Almost all of the poems in the collection have an elegiac element to them that creates an undertone of sadness even when not directly linking to this theme. However, a handful of Sheer’s poems raises these themes in a more direct fashion, calling attention to the implications of sorrow and loss even when sights and landscapes of apparent beauty are present.
One example of Sheers elegising and depicting sadness is shown in the poem ‘The Steelworks’ where he mourns the loss of an industry and shows the detrimental effect it has on the people who once worked in it. With regards to context, this poem links to a part of Wales called Ebbw Vale where one of the major steelworks was founded. In the 1930s it had the largest in all of Europe however after many decades it closed in 2002, leaving many in that community at a loss when it came to work and possibly by extension, identity. This kind of thing happened all across Wales with other industries such as coal mining and many of these communities have never fully recovered. Therefore this poem encapsulates that sadness and feeling of being lost right from the start by using a pun that runs off the title as it says ‘The Steelworks, except it doesn’t anymore.’ so the reader is immediately aware of this loss and the finality of it as emphasised by the end-stopped line. Interestingly Sheers refers to it as ‘a deserted mothership’ which you could say is a surreal use of diction, more commonly found in a science-fiction context but it highlights the idea of the steelworks closure being unexpected or inexplicable in the minds of many as this phrase also shows that it was like an integral hub or base that is somehow no longer present in the community.
While in many other poems of ‘Skirrid Hill’ Sheers depicts nature and its reclamation of territory as a positive thing, here, when the sheep and birds take over, it seems to cause suffering, as shown by the ‘breathless vents’ highlighting how the industry is neither living nor thriving. However this difference when it comes to the depiction of nature only further demonstrates how special this place must have been to many. One group of people who were heavily affected by its closure is the men who worked there as the poem illustrates their masculine strength and skill through their ‘pressing and dipping in the lifting bays, locking out elbows’ and yet it is completely wasted as they have to use their strength ‘elsewhere’, likely at a gym because they no longer feel the purpose that their work once gave them. In fact this part of their masculinity is very important to them as Sheers uses the phrase ‘the benediction of a lateral pull’, which has connotations of an almost religious sacredness to masculine strength and by extension the manual labour industries. Furthermore the use lexical choice of ‘iron’, ‘screwed’, ‘pneumatic’ and ‘brushed-metal’ to describe these men and the world they live in highlights the idea of the men feeling mechanically engaged in a pointless routine with a bleak and grey outlook on life, which is only further emphasised by the pathetic fallacy of the rain in the final stanza and the regular tercets of the poem, showing how there is no spontaneity and joy; only a meaningless,disappointing existence as their talents are wasted. Therefore we fully see not only the sadness of the community but also the pain of the men who have lost what have them purpose and was part of their worth as men.
The idea of the Welsh people suffering tragedy is something that is also seen in ‘Mametz Wood’. The location in the title was the scene of fierce fighting during the Battle of the Somme where a welsh division were sent. The fighting lasted 5 days with around 4000 casualties and 600 deaths. Despite the Welsh victory, bravery and sacrifice, their efforts were never really acknowledged. This poem undoubtedly has the tone of an elegy as it melancholically describes the loss of the young Welshmen, whilst the free verse allows all focus to to be placed on the content and sadness of the poem. Sheers illustrates the tragic nature of the situation by calling them ‘the wasted young’ as their lives were cut short by the horrors of war and also could possibly be an allusion to the phrase ‘doomed youth’ by Wilfred Owen, where both highlight the sorrowful circumstances of men that had to go to war. Their fragility and vulnerability is also shown when it describes their shoulder blade as ‘a china plate’, as something that is easily broken. It then talks of bone fragments or ‘the relic of a finger’ rather than of the people themselves which feels dehumanising but in the context it could be a reference to how many of these men were never identified, adding a new layer of elegiac elements to it. This is further highlighted by the phrase ‘blown and broken bird’s egg of a skull’ whose plosive alliteration emphasises the destruction and even mimics the sound of explosion whilst the bird’s egg connotes the idea of youth showing that these men were often still just children.
This idea of lost youth continues when the narrator states that ‘they were told to walk, not run’ which has a patronising tone as if you were talking to a child however this highlights how inept the tactics of World War one were and the tragedy of how these ill-equipped men were sent on what felt like a suicide mission at such a young age. One of very few rhymes in the poems is with ‘run’ and ‘gun’ which only further emphases the accusatory tone towards their commanders who led them to their unnatural deaths as ‘foreign bodies’ in France or in other words Welshmen away from their home country and families. The poem then shifts to the present tense and there is a dramatic moment when the speaker sees ‘twenty men buried in one long grave’ however the sorrow is shown by the absence of respect shown for these young lives by not even dignifying them with an individual grave; instead they are all ‘paused mid-dance macabre’ or in a ‘dance of death’ which was the expression of the all-consuming power of death through art. This connotes the theme of performance, possibly inferring that for many they were just part of a far-away performance of history that is easy to detach yourself from in the present day, nevertheless the poem plants memento moris of the ‘boots that outlasted them’ for example, in order to highlight that this was really the reality. In fact these men would have been put through extreme fear as ‘their jaws… dropped open’. Through the use of irony with the idea of a jaw-dropping moment, it shows that their death would have been unexpected and shocking for them too. Finally, the last stanza introduces aural imagery with the ‘notes they had sung’ being ‘slipped from their absent tongues’ after all this time, which perhaps indicates that they never got to say goodbye but now with the ‘unearthing’ they are able to have their voice again and be given some sort of recognition. Nevertheless, this final stanza has the cathartic tone commonly found in an elegy as the inevitability of excavation and giving honor to these men is expressed after the descriptions of their tragic and sorrowful deaths are given through a lens of reality.
Arguably, the most painful and saddening poem in the collection is that of ‘Border Country’ which depicts the pain of having to deal with trauma and having your childhood taken away from you because of suicide. It is a poem that depicts urban Wales as abandoned, bleak and derelict surrounding a story that has its roots in the tragedy that the agricultural industry suffered many years ago. Thousands of cows had to be slaughtered due to BSE. A similar thing happened with foot and mouth disease which desolated the farming community, causing three suicides of welsh farmers in the space of one month in 2001. This was part of the economic struggles that cast a bleak shadow across the country but also had personal effects as shown in ‘Border Country’. The poem almost immediately introduces the reader to the idea of death because of the use of prolepsis with phrases like ‘hummock of a grave’ and ‘headstone of trees’ while for the speaker this area is permeated with sorrow because the ‘wind-written epitaphs’ are ‘running in their leaves’ as if he can hear and see the death surrounding him as he projects his friend’s father’s suicide onto the landscape. The speaker takes an empathetic view of the situation as he still can’t fully let go of what happened, describing it as a ‘motorway pile-up’ which feels as though he is dignifying the other men who were affected by the economic crisis. The poem then shifts to the past tense as he remembers the happier times he and his friend had, however the descriptions are laced with foreshadowing such as when his friend was ‘shouldering the kick of your father’s shotgun’. This phrase emphasises the power of the weapon especially through the onomatopoeic word ‘kick’ as it sounds like a shot or the clicking of a gun which is a reference to this man’s death. It also could be an allusion to Chekov’s Gun, planting the idea of death in the reader’s mind long before any tragedy occurs. Furthermore there is a semantic field of war and brokenness with phrases like ‘playing war’, ‘dying again and again’ and ‘broken beams’ that make up bittersweet memories of an innocent childhood cut short. The next stanza has a very pessimistic feel to it as it too is laced with foreboding imagery as seen by the ‘buzzards above us’, but it also has a contextual sadness as there is a ‘flint sky’ while they are sitting in the car ‘going nowhere’, both of which are reminders of the bleak economic future for these children in Wales which keeps them stagnant. Furthermore in this section there is a small line about ‘dock-leaves and nettles’ running in the pistons of the car engines, emphasising the fact that everything bad in their lives at this point can be fixed like how a dock-leaf heals a nettle sting but this is not the case later one in their lives.
Prolepsis is seen yet again with the enjambed line ‘reading aloud from the names of the dead: Volvo, Ford, Vauxhall, their primary colour rusting to red’. The enjambment highlights the disruptive nature of their experiences with loss while the ‘red and ‘dead’ rhyme emphasises the memento mori of blood-red colours and the shift from happy to painful memories. The children may have thought their happiness would last ‘year on year’ but the speaker indicates that ‘life put on the brakes and pitched you, without notice through the windscreen of your youth’ showing how quickly things can change. The fragile protection of the metaphorical windscreen is completely shattered while the brakes illustrate the immediacy of this jarring event when his childhood is taken from him. The poem then emphasises the sorrowful nature of the death through the euphemism ‘a poppy sown in the unripe corn’ as if he still can’t come to terms with the harsh reality but describe the father as a ‘poppy’ which is reminiscent of fallen soldiers in the World Wars while ‘the unripe corn’ could be referring to the boy not being ready to handle the trauma of the premature death of his father. The poem then shifts in time again to the present day when the speaker returns to find the quarry ‘diminished to steel and stone’ as he finds the memories of his childhood all the more distant and devoid of emotion due to the detached, cold imagery.
While the poem is undoubtedly elegiac, the final stanza has elements of pastoral poetry in the way that is describes the peaceful regression back to nature with the ‘shuffling trees and wildlife on the fields. Furthermore the speaker describes the farm animals as ‘spittle’ and ‘ink-dot’, with a tractor ‘writing with it’s wheels’. This imagery of writing language could be making a point on how trauma and our stories are marked in nature and the landscape in a peaceful, reconciling way. Nevertheless the one person who the speaker imagines being unable to regress back to peace is his friend who thinks of as ‘a boy’ who meandered between the hedges’ as if he is still an isolated child moving slowly and purposeless as the pessimism of the future in Wales and the death of his father has affected him to the point where it stunts his growth as a person. To the speaker the boy is ‘trying once more to find his way home.’ showing that his childhood friend is trying to make his way in life as someone who is still feeling lost, however the end-stopped line seems to bring some small element of consolation as the narrative feel of the poem ends and a new story can begin.
In these three examples, Sheers aptly discussed themes of loss when it comes to losing purpose, the lives ofyoung soldiers, and childhood all while amalgamating them with the tragedy that Wales has suffered regarding agriculture, industries and war. Whilst in many other poems in the collection Wales is often seen as a breathtakingly beautiful place with healing landscapes, Sheers does not shy away from presenting the problematic and distressing elements of Wales and the bleak future it was confronted with. This context only adds to the personal sadness that the people described in the poems suffer, thus resulting in three multi-faceted and differing takes on sorrow and pain.
Powerful, Not Beautiful: Nature as Presented in “Winter Swans,” “Hill Fort,” and Other Poems
While Sheers presents nature as outlasting man in his poetry, nature does not appear beautiful, as seen in the ‘flint sky’ of ‘Border Country’. Instead, nature is powerful and strong in comparison to the people present in his poetry. The imagery of bad weather is also used to symbolise difficulties in relationships, as can be seen in ‘Winter Swans’, a further example of Sheers’s ability to conjure nature’s brutal strength and its ability to reflect the human condition.
Sheers uses the imagery of water in ‘Winter Swans’ to suggest that bad weather is a reflection of their stormy relationship. In particular, the lines ‘the waterlogged earth gulping for breath’ creates the image of drowning, perhaps suggesting that their relationship is literally drowning, which is reflected by the onomatopoeia of ‘gulping’. The personification of the earth here gives the couple a passivity, again suggesting an unease in the relationship which is mirrored by the drowning earth. This provides support for Sara Crowne’s critique that the ‘ruptured terrain reflects the collection’s fractured emotional landscape’, seen here in ‘Winter Swans’ through the drowning earth. A progression in their relationship can be seen later through the description of the swans, ‘porcelain over the stilling water’. The ‘stilling water’, as opposed to the stormy weather earlier, could suggest a reconciliation, which is reflected by the tranquillity of the image. The imagery of ‘porcelain’ suggests an ideal of love; whilst pure, fragile, and easily broken, there is also a connotation of worth, as the swans have stimulated conversation between the couple again.
In comparison, Sheers uses bad weather in ‘The Wake’ as an extended metaphor for the approach of death. Instead of storms signifying troubles in relationships, Sheers uses the imagery of storms, of ‘squalls and depressions’, to suggest oncoming illness. The inevitability of death seems to give the old man a stubborness, which is revealing of his character, as the narrator’s comforts are ‘spoken into a coastal wind long after the ship has sailed’, effectively blown away by the strength of the ‘coastal wind’, allying the old man nature, with a sense of his strength of opinion. The final stanza indicates the man’s acceptance of his illness, through the alliteration of ‘strangely settled’, which suggests a smoothness in his acceptance of death. The final two lines of the poem suggest an eternal image, of the ‘first sea there ever was or that ever will be’, which is suggestive of nature continuing beyond man – a theme which is continued throughout many of Sheers’ poems.
Sheers presents nature as outlasting man in poems such as ‘Y Gaer’ and ‘The Hill Fort’. The shift in titles from the Welsh to the English translation both signifies a change in the content of the poetry, from poems about Sheers’ Welsh background to poems about other subjects, whilst referencing his Welsh and English heritage. Nature is seen to outlast man in ‘Y Gaer’ through the contrast of the man-made hill fort and the vivid description of the horse. The hill fort’s ‘only defences now, a ring of gorse’ shows how nature has taken over the area now, as the ‘ring of gorse’ is all that is left of the fort, suggesting a power of nature. In comparison to the ‘mossy gums’ of the stone, the horse is described as ‘jittery’, ‘twitching’ and ‘threatens beneath’ the rider – all words to suggest an energy and life in the horse. The use of the word ‘threatens’ in particular highlights the power of the horse, and thus the power of nature.
However, nature is not presented as overly beautiful in ‘Y Gaer’, particularly as the man takes ‘the rains beating’ and ‘the hail’s pepper-shot’ – these short, blunt words of ‘beating’ and ‘pepper-shot’ portrays nature to be harsh, and Sheers uses pathetic fallacy in a reflection of the anger of the man at the loss of his son, which is based on a true story. The reminder of death from the context is another example of how nature outlasts man. This idea is repeated in ‘The Hill Fort’, the second poem of the pair, that Sheers says is “when the man is feeling very positive about his son”, and this is reflected in the structure of the second poem in contrast to the first; ‘The Hill Fort’ is longer, with fewer endstops, which gives it a flowing quality, in comparison to ‘Y Gaer’, where the short, abrupt lines give the poem a sense of the man’s anger at this son’s death. The father’s acceptance of his son’s death can be seen in the act of tipping ‘these ashes onto the tongue of the wind’, making ‘the circle complete’. The personification of nature in ‘the tongue of the wind’ and the lack of personification for the man’s son in ‘these ashes’ is another reminder of the longevity of nature, as it continues to live on, whilst the son is dead. Making ‘the circle complete’, in a sense, ‘the “circle of life”, portrays the man’s acceptance of the son’s death, and of returning him to nature.
Although nature is seen to live on past the deaths of others, Sheers does not present it as particularly beautiful. Rather, nature is powerful, capable of ‘beating’. Sheers does use nature, in particular weather, to explore relationships, and especially difficulties in relationships.
A comparison of the poets present romantic love in ‘Neutral Tones’ by Thomas Hardy and ‘Winter Swans’ by Owen Sheers
In the lyric poem Neutral Tones by Thomas Hardy, the speaker reflects back to a particular moment in their life when they realised that the love had died between them and the person they were in a relationship with. They consider what this moment has meant to them since. Winter Swans describes a couple that are walking through the ‘gulping mud’ alongside a lake in winter. They are ‘silent and apart’. When the swans arrive, the pair stop to watch the birds and their ‘show of tipping unison’. The swans could be seen as reflecting the relationship between the couple. Both poems Neutral Tones and Winter Swans are about the temporal nature of love and the complications and conflicts that arrive in long term relationships. However, whereas in neutral tones, the poet is talking about a couple were not able to regain the love they once had for another, in Winter Swans the poet is exploring the superficial nature of love.
In Neutral tones, the poet uses the motif of draining color to reflect how the love has drained from their relationship. “The sun was white”, “They had fallen from an ash and were grey”, “and a pond edged with greyish leaves”. Here, the repeated use of the colors white and grey are particularly important because they are dull colors which do not have any meaning, pointing to the fact that their relationship was lacking any meaning or color. Interestingly, Winter swans explores the motif of winter weather: The “clouds”, the “days of rain”. Winter is a time when the world is still and dead, when it seems like nothing is growing. Yet it is also a precursor to spring, to renewed life and hope, which we see with the “afternoon light” which marks the change in mood, and the speaker’s perspective of their relationship. In Winter swans, the poet also explores the idea of color. There is a sense in which the end of the relationship is inevitable, until the swan’s arrival “came and stopped us”, and the use of positive images of color following this, imply a rebirth of positive feelings between the pair. “Icebergs of white feather”, the use of the color white suggests purity and positivity, the iceberg suggests a depth of feeling between the couple that we, as onlookers, perhaps cannot see, whilst porcelain is something beautiful, valuable and fragile: to be handles with care, like this relationship. Both poets Hardy and Sheers use form to emphasize their themes.
In Neutral tones, the first and last lines of each stanza rhyme, this rhyme scheme reflects how the memory of a past experience returns to affect the narrator in the present. The indented final line of each stanza slows the pace of the poem by creating a pause, this hints at his sadness that the relationships failed. In Winter Swans the poem is mostly written in tercets, which makes each stanza look unbalanced. The uneven line length and lack of rhyme scheme also contribute to a feeling of disjointedness which reflects the troubled nature of the couple’s relationship. However, frequent enjambment emphasizes its continuity. The final stanza of the poem is a couplet, which shows that they have been reunited as a couple.
Similarly, both poets Hardy and Sheers structure their poems differently to emphasize their respective themes. Whilst in Neutral tones, we see that the poem is structured in a shape that reflects the rhyme scheme, as the last verse repeats the description of the first verse by the pond. This suggests that the speaker’s future ideas about love have been shaped and entrapped by the memory of this failed relationship. In Winter Swans, the narrator and his partner are separated for the first five stanzas, but they reunite in the final two. The swans provide a turning point at the start of stanza three, they’re beautiful and inspirational, in contrast to earlier descriptions of nature as a place of suffering. This reflects how the couple have reached a turning point in their relationship.
To conclude, when taken together, these poems work to emphasize the idea that love is complex, superficial and often involves conflict, but can sometimes last if we are willing to overcome difficult periods. In Neutral Tones the poet presents the ideal of love as something deep and lasting, when in truth it is quickly lost, replaced by boredom and indifference. However, in Winter Swans, the poet sees love as something that can always be reconciled after an argument, in this case the couple are reconciled after seeing a symbol of love: The swans. The swans’ lifelong mating provides the couple with a reminder that love can last and that “rough weather” can be overcome. The difference in perspective may be explained by the poet’s respective contexts. Thomas Hardy was distanced from his society, both geographically and philosophically: as “among the earliest acclaimers of the origin of species”, he had lost his Christian faith. Both forms of distance lent his writings an unparalleled pessimism. Hardy thus depicted the suffering and loneliness of man in an often malevolent and always uncaring universe. However, Owen Sheers is a contemporary poet who grew up in south wales. Much of contemporary poetry draws on postmodern values, and consequently is skeptical about love’s ability to last. Here, Sheers presents relationships as difficult, but through the natural imagery of swans’ lifelong devotion, suggests love between two people can triumph.