‘Hedge School’ by Owen Sheers: context and techniques

Owen Sheers was born in Fiji, but brought up in Abergavenny, South Wales. His second collection, ‘Skirrid Hill’, inhibits ideas of the separation of the living and the dead, moving from childhood into adulthood, and as the title suggest – fraying of relationships. The form of the poem is four stanzas of free verse – following and introductory stanza, each stanza represents different things Sheers could do with the blackberries. The structure follows Sheers thought process of choosing what he will do the blackberries he picked.

In ‘Hedge School’, Sheers remembers picking blackberries on the way home from school. He expresses his feeling about growing up and the awareness of the potential for violence that exists in young people. This technique is seen throughout the collection, and is the man aspect of his ‘moving from childhood into adulthood’.

The title of the poem is reflective of the feeling and urges that ‘educate’ Sheers in the poem. A ‘hedge school’ is a place of informal education that began in Ireland when education for Catholics was limited. The title therefore impels that the real education happens outside, where ones knowledge about the self is gained from the natural world and experiences. We can see that picking the blackberries has been educational for Sheers, as he discovers ‘for the very first time, just how dark he runs inside’ He also describes ‘this choice of how take them’ as a ‘lesson’, creating a link to school. As hedge schools originate from Ireland, Sheers creates another subtle link to Seamus Heaney.

The epigraph is a line from ‘The Pardoner’s Tale’, a story about men who go out with the intentions of killing Death, who they blame for their friend’s death. They end up killing each other as a result of their own greed for gold they have found, and so have found ‘Death’. The greed of the men reflects the ‘hoarding’ of the blackberries, and the gluttony of the upper-class that it implies. It also bring light to the potential for evil that is within the boys.

Sheers uses dramatic monologue to explore different options of what to do with the blackberries he picked. This technique allows us to have insight on Sheers’ thinking process and the development of his moral conscience.

One of the poem’s most prominent techniques is Sheers’ use of sensuous imagery. His descriptions of the blackberries focus mainly on their feel and taste: piling in the palm until I cupped a coiled black pearled necklace’ and ‘tracing their variety on my tongue, from the bitterness … to the rain-bloated looseness’.

 

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