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.
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