‘Flag’ by Owen Sheers: analysis

Flag by Owen Sheers, consists of eight tercets, with an epigraph from Christopher Logue. The poem is another in the collection which ties in with the ideas of Welsh heritage and national identity. It describes a train passenger’s view as the train travels from the east to the west coast of Wales. In the collection, Sheers explores and writes about what it’s like to be a man – both a male and a human – in modern society. Flag focuses more on the human aspect of the previous statement, and the importance of belonging and heritage.

Christopher Logue is knows for modernising works of classical Greek poetry. He compares a flag to be as important to a man as his vital organs. ‘Vital organs’ suggests belonging and that everyone needs to belong, therefore making organs and a flag of the same status gives us the impression that a flag gives us a sense of belonging. His ‘vital organs’ are his raison dêtre (reason for being), implying the flag is too.

Sheers uses modern, contemporary language to depict his journey westwards in the first stanza:  ‘rewind’ and ‘fast forward’. The use of these particular descriptions allows the reader to fully visualise the journey. Furthermore including modernism in this poem, Sheers uses words associated with man’s innovation: ‘a rail journey’, ‘seat’ and ‘train’. The farther west you travel in Wales, the more profound the heritage and the traditional Wales: using modern language to describe this almost antiquated Wales creates a satisfactory compromise between the past and the present.

Sheers continues to name and illustrate the places he sees the Welsh flag as ‘the train nears the sea’. He uses the word ‘our’ describe the flag, bringing a sense of unison and family to Wales as a nation. The idea of a family follows into the next line of the stanza when Sheers writes: ‘hung like the wet washing in back yards’.  Here the phrase ‘washing your dirty laundry in public’ comes to mind, perhaps suggesting that there are no secrets in that village because everyone is so close. Sheers describes the street at the ‘terraces’ hall of mirrors’, once again perfectly depicting a traditional street in mid-Wales.

In the third stanza, Sheers writes about the ‘occasional sun’ that touches the ‘Swansea gym’, possibly letting the reader know where he currently is on his train journey and what the weather is like. However, in the following line he mentions a ‘bad photocopy’, perhaps hinting that Wales isn’t good at trying to mimic the modernity of the world.

In the first line of the fourth stanza, Sheers writes about the flag that is ‘throwing fits’ on a ‘SNAX caravan’. The caravan is most likely heading to a caravan park for a seaside holiday, and so having Welsh flags on it further reinforces the Welsh pride. ‘The beast of it struggling to exist’ could be a reference to the Welsh language and the decreased population of people who speak Welsh.

This idea continues to the next stanza where Sheers describes the dragon as ‘the currency of legend’. ‘Currency’ could imply value, and so perhaps Sheers is questioning what our self-value is and the value of legends. On the contrary, it could be a reference to the story of King Arthur and his promise to Wales.

Sheers compare the flag to ‘a strange flower that flourishes best on the barest of places’. This presents the image of barren Welsh fields, and in those places the flag means the most to people. This idea is an important link to Sheers’ childhood: growing up in traditional, farming-orientated mid-Wales, the flag represented his identity and heritage – an important part of his life as is seen in most of this collection. In this stanza, there is also the half-rhyme of ‘hall; and ‘pole’ when describing a town hall. The half-rhyme gives the reader a sense of enclosure and roundness, appropriate when talking about a town hall, as it is traditionally for the community to gather and ‘be one’.

The final stanza carries the metaphor of youth leaking, almost oozing out of Wales as it fails to confine it with its archaic traditions and inability to modernise like other countries: ‘a bandage tight on the wound , staunching the dreams of what might have been’. The dragon on our flag is ‘a tourniquet’, trying its best to keep the youth and their talents within.

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