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Category: Owen Sheers – Skirrid Hill

The Farrier – Owen Sheers

In The Farrier Owen Sheers is writing about his inheritance – the Welsh countryside and country life.  If the man is smoking woodbines – he uses a small w – they were discontinued in 1988, and this poem is a memory, though it is written as a still life observation.

Sheers’ use of images of colour, touch, and perhaps taste is evocative and vivid.  We know from the next poem, Inheritance, that his mother brought him an interest in, an inheritance in horses.  Here the horse and the farrier are the focus of the poem; what are we to make of this image?

There seems to be an element of courtship and wooing – he is the romantic lead, later a seamstress, whilst the horse is a bride.  He does not look her in the eye, but seems to court her.  There is an element of romance, tenderness and love in the relationship between the farrier and nature.

The farrier himself appears to be a far more substantial presence than the horse.  His apron the leather black and tan of a rain beaten bay, the smell of woodbine, metal and hoof.  When finished, he slaps her, places his tools in their beds.  When he touches the horse we are not told what it feels like – as he runs his hand / the length of her neck, checking for dust on a lintel.  He folds her leg, leans into her.  The horse seems barely there – the hoof, the fetlock, moon-silver clippings echoing the white of the bride’s dress.

The whole scene is romanticised, and whilst the farrier is of this world – the wind twisting his sideburns, his weight as he leans into the horsethe horse – moon silver, walking on strange ground – seems to take on a magical appearance, an apparition of smoke.

With his steel, biting at her heels, the farrier has tamed nature.  But this is a nature that is beautiful, romantic, vulnerable.  Sheers seems in awe of the beauty of nature, of the man who can control it, and of the fragile, ethereal quality of this horse, the magic of this moment.

Mametz Wood – Owen Sheers

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.