For John Agard, the national flag is an especially vague symbol. His poem, Flag, is an indication of the great many different ways different people can view the same national symbolism. Most people are fairly familiar with their own national flag — for some it is an indication of pride, for some a sign of home, for others, a nostalgic memory. For others, the flag of a foreign country might represent whatever they think of when they consider that country. A number of these interpretations are explored in this poem, and the flag is given a great many dimensions to explore and represent.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of symbolism is that particular images and symbols don’t have set meanings, but are interpreted by the viewer in ways that are dependant on that viewer. Take a musical note, for instance — there’s absolutely nothing about those little drawn sticks that has anything to do with musical notes in a literal sense, but to most who view them, that is what they indicate. Those especially familiar with them can pinpoint exactly which note they refer to as well. For others, musical notes are a representation of a foreign language, one that they’ve never been able to establish familiarity with.
Loosely rhymed and simply stated, much of this poem, which you can read in full here, requires very little literal analysis. Each verse consists of a question in the first line, “It’s just a piece of cloth” in the second line (with a single exception), and then a seven-syllable third line that loosely rhymes with the first. For the first verse, the description is “a piece of cloth / that brings a nation to its knees.” This can be interpreted in two main ways — on the one hand, to describe a nation as “kneeling” for their national flag is not an unrealistic image. While most prefer to hold their hands over their hearts, the symbolic meaning of each gesture is similar. On the other hand, in the case of a conquest, the waving of the victor’s flag can be seen as brining their rivals “to their knees.” And yet, the primary focus of the verse is the wording — it’s “just” a piece of “cloth,” and yet it has this immense power, one way or the other.
The next verse examines the flag as something that brings courage, and this again can be interpreted in two main ways. For those who fight battles for their home country, in any capacity, the sight of their national flag reminds them of what they do battle for, and brings courage to their mindset. Also true, however, is the idea that those who fight against a particular country might be emboldened by the reminder of what they are seeking to overcome. While these situations are specific to war, they can be adapted to any number of situations, and show the unusual effect caused by “a piece of cloth” that brings courage without actually doing anything other than, as the verse points out, “unfurling from a pole.”
The third verse closely follows the idea of the second; daring the coward to relent is a similar thing to say to making men brave; it says that those who might normally be fearful of an action relent their cowardice when faced with the flag that they fight for, in whatever capacity. To see the flag rising over a tent further suggests a battle of some kind (albeit not conclusively), in which cowardice would be seen as a dangerous issue to be dealt with.
Unlike the previous verses, this penultimate one does not suggest a quality that is furthered or strengthened by the presence of the flag, but rather reminds the reader that the flag will exist even after they have died. In the idea of warfare, this is the same as suggesting that the cause being fought for is worth dying for, because it will continue to live on after the death of its soldiers. The flag, and everything it stands for, is a home, an ideology, a way of life — it can be anything — that will outlive the people who give their lives for it (again, in any way, shape, or form).
The final verse of the poem takes the less-than-subtle cynicism of the earlier verses and brings it out into the open. The response to the question of how the speaker can possess such a cloth that makes cowards brave and brings nations to their knees is to take a piece of coloured cloth — but it’s not just about the cloth. It’s blinding your conscience, so that the cloth and what it represents to you is more important than anything else in the world, that it stands at the forefront of your conscious mind. The flag, the narrator is saying, is only as important as it is made out to be by the conscious mind, and so for it to have any power, it must be made out to be powerful.
John Agard first published Flag in his 2005 collection, Half-Caste and Other Poems, at a time in his life when he lived in Britain. When he was born, however, he was born in the British colony of Guiana (present-day Guyana) in the Caribbean. He was there when Guyana gained its independence from the United Kingdom, and later went on the live in Britain, giving him a rather unique perspective into the inner workings of nationalism and patriotism. For Agard, believing in your flag, be it the sigil of the United Kingdom or of Guyana, would have meant a great deal and would have been something that would have heavily influenced day-to-day life for a long period of time. Even in the present day (and in 2005 as well), the influence held by something as simple as a representation on a bolt of cloth. The significance of this poem is in its simple analysis and observation of how something as seemingly simple as coloured cloth can bring nations to anger, to tension, and ultimately, to war. Because ultimately… it is not “just” a piece of cloth. Not at all.