‘On Going’ by Owen Sheers: analysis

In many poems throughout the anthology, we see a profound theme of the cycle between life and death. In On Going, there is the subtle link between ‘on going’ (‘going on’) and ‘ongoing’, furthermore reflecting the progression of life to death.

On Going consists of four quintet stanzas. It is dedicated to Sheers’ grandmother, and is about her death as she refuses the help of medical machines which may, or may not have, prolonged her life. In the first two stanzas, Sheers writes about the machines in, presumably, a hospital his grandmother lies. He then describes the way she looks and her breathing. The following two stanzas express Sheer’s want of perhaps saying goodbye to his grandmother, her realisation of who he is for half-a-second as he kissed her forehead and the disengagement of her eyes as she slips back into slumber.

Sheers begins the first stanza describing the medical ‘instruments’ in the hospital as ‘windows into the soul’s temperature’, and their role is ‘to measure, record and monitor’. However, he then continues to say ‘you [his grandmother] were disconnected from these’, suggesting his grandmother chose not to be connected to the machines despite being ill. Throughout the collection, Sheers has always used instruments in a positive light: perhaps in using ‘instruments’ to describe the medical machines, he is suggesting he approves of them and wishes his grandmother would accept their help.  He also writes the ‘instruments, as they always are’, maybe implying that whenever he came to see her, there were always machines in the room. This would hint that she has been ill for long period of time.

In the second stanza, Sheers uses the oxymoron ‘ancient child’ to describe his grandmother’s age. The use of ‘ancient’ makes her seem precious and beloved, like an important artefact. This further emphasises the importance of Sheers’ grandmother to him: almost apotheosizing her in a poem dedicated to her. He then uses a simile to compares her breathing to ‘a blustery wind at a blind’. ‘Blustery’ suggests blowing in strong gusts, implying it is heavy and forced.

Linking back to the previous poem Swallows, Sheers writes about the ‘connection of my kiss against your paper temple’ in the third stanza. In Swallows, Sheers wrote about the swallows writing on the ‘page of the sky’: his kiss is him writing his love on her ‘paper temple’. Another link to the previous poem is the idea behind swallows carrying people’s (usually sailors in legends) souls to heaven, and being a symbol of hope, love and loyalty in the family as they always return to their loved ones.

This notion is then carried on in the last stanza, when ‘understanding’ ‘registered in the flicker open’ of Sheers’ grandmother’s eyes. Previously, he wrote there ‘was only one measurement I needed anyway’, perhaps meaning he wanted his grandmother to see and recognise him. Sheers then continues with ‘they [her eyes] disengaged and you slipped back into the sleep of their slow-closing.’ ‘Disengaged’ could be referring to her actual eyes, or perhaps the ‘life’ disengaging from her body.

Sheers’ grandmother’s character stand out from the other characters in the collection: they are happy to let modern and manmade artefacts and ideas improve their quality of life. She however, as implied, refused to be helped by the machines around her and instead chose to die naturally. This could perhaps be a link with the strong farming notions in Sheers’ family. Many framers and traditional families would not approve of modernisation, and so would not seek medical help, instead choosing to die ‘naturally’.


** Although probably unlikely, in the second stanza, the line ‘measure, record and monitor’ makes the acronym MRM. In the medical field, MRM is also an acronym for Modified Radical Mastectomy; this could perhaps be hinting at Sheers’ grandmother’s illness.


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