‘History’ by Owen Sheers: analysis

In his poem History, Sheers tells the reader that in order to learn about the real north Wales, they must visit a ‘disused quarry’ and not a history book. The poem comprises eight stanzas of free verse: the quatrains are interrupted by three couplets to perhaps demonstrate the breakdown and crumble of Welsh industry on paper. The couplets also allow us to focus on certain details, for example the ‘blade of slate’ becoming a ‘book of slate’.

Within the collection, History follows Liable to Floods – a poem about D-Day landings and American arrogance. It is then possibly no accident that Sheers mentions water that is ‘black as oil’ in History. . Already in the first stanza, he is making discreet links to preceding poems. In mentioning bone marrow in the final stanza of the poem, Sheers has perhaps unconsciously hinted at cancer, and in turn the theme of the next poem. We can see that he has mastered subtly connecting poems in the collection.

This poem stands out in the collection, as it addresses the reader directly. Sheers argues that history is something you have to go out and experience, rather than read about in a book. Using North Wales as his focus, he encourages to visit a ‘disused quarry’ to learning Wales’ real history. The water that ‘lies still’ in the quarry is described ‘black as oil’. Conceivably, Sheers is suggesting Wales’ downfall is that a country’s worth no longer depends on its industrial capability, but on its availability of oil. The image of oil continues with a blackbird’s song ‘drilling’ into the hill.

The mention of a quarry takes us back to Border Country and Steelworks, in which there is also the vision of nature reclaiming the land that was once used for man’s purpose: ‘and the only chiselling is  that of the blackbird’s song’. Sheers often uses nature and mankind in comparison, and so the metaphor of the ‘blackbird’s song drilling’, reflects the drilling that once happened here thanks to humans.

Sheers creates the feeling that Wales is something precious and beloved, when he explains how to ‘read’ the book of Wales. In the fourth and fifth stanza, we see that he subtly made Wales take on a physical form – the slate. Sheers then proceeds to write that you have to ‘tap’ the slate with your fingertips. The gentleness of the word ‘tap’ has crafted a sense of delicateness that Wales needs to be handled with. It is almost as if the slate is touched with too much force it will break. This further adds to the crumbling image of Wales through the form of the poem.

The rhyme of ‘stone’ and ‘bone’ in the final two stanza creates a link between the land and the people. Furthermore, the way in which the two stanzas are linked, could be reflective of the way in which Wales is trying to keep from falling apart, and the people are the only thing that is holding onto the land. Sheers then explore a much deeper connection between the land and the people in the final stanza of the poem: ‘[history is] written … down the marrow of every bone’. The emphasis is on who important and how deeply rooted into us, history really is. Bone marrow is at the centre of our being, and you cannot live without it. Through the collection, we see that Sheers is implying the same thing about heritage and history.

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