Mametz Wood – Owen Sheers

by Senior reader

The Medieval Dance of Death

Robert Graves original poem A Dead Boche was a graphic account of a meeting with a dead soldier in Mametz Wood. He was dribbling black blood from nose and beard, close enough to life. When Sheers returns nearly a hundred years later, the soldiers are long dead. They have become china plate, broken bird’s egg; they are now like flint thrown up by the blade of the plough; they are a broken mosaic. These images emphasise the absence of life, like their absent tongues. Is it shocking to be brought face to face with death in this way?

Sheers may be writing about death in war, but his focus is on death itself, rather than, as in Graves, on the warmongers who believe in blood and fame. He touches on that, on the callous treatment of the soldiers, where they were told to walk, not run, but it is the brevity and fragility of life itself that Sheers is writing about – they had sung but now they are silent. They appear to have been caught in a macabre dance, but now they are merely bones. The harsh angle of their necks suggests the brutality and pain of death, and the comparison with the medieval dance of death, illustrated above, is shocking and brutal. Only the earth stands sentinel wounded.

Sheers returns to this theme in later poems – the landscape, and especially the Welsh landscape, is magnificent and shocking. It outlasts us. It is our inheritance. For the father in Y Gaer it is something huge enough to blame. The people are no more than scattered grains in Hill Fort.

This is a harsh and depressing view of life. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said of the sixty million dead as a result of nazi and communist atrocities in the twentieth century, Men have forgotten God; that is why all this has happened. A world without God can be a world of drama, but it is also a world without forgiveness or hope.