History by John Burnside

Within ‘History’ Burnside explores themes of war, loss, and human nature. The mood is solemn throughout with a few more peaceful and wistful sections woven in. Even when the mood lightens and the speaker depicts a scene that is more peaceful, it is never without the presence of darkness. Juxtaposition places a major role in this work as Burnside strives to depict our divided and endangered world. 

 

Summary of History 

‘History’ by John Burnside is a complex, moving poem written after the events of 9/11 that speaks about what is important in life and history. 

The poem takes the reader through a series of images that depict a small town in Scotland around the time of the bombing of the Twin Towers in New York City in September of 2001. While the poet does not explicitly mention 9/11 in the text, there are a number of allusions to the events on that day and the days that followed. The child shifting through the sand seeking out signs of life speaks to the search for bodies. The flesh on the rocks to the loss of those loved by so many. In these lines, in amongst the beauty of the scene, the speaker alludes to something terrible that’s on its way. This pressure is increased by the Air Force base in the town and the smell of gasoline. 

The second stanza is more complicated and links into the third stanza as the poet delves into what matters in human life and what we should care about. One poignant section of ‘History’ deals with the fleeting nature of human dreams but our inability to let them go. He also speaks on caring for things, large and small, that make the world what it is. There is an emphasis placed on the ocean, as well as human life. He asks the reader to consider how one should live in the world without doing harm. 

 

Structure of History 

‘History’ by John Burnside is a three-stanza poem that’s divided into uneven sets of lines. The first stanza contains fifteen, the second: fourteen, and the third: twenty-four. There is no rhyme scheme nor is there a consistent metrical pattern that runs all the way through the text. 

A reader should also take note of the epigraph at the beginning of the poem. It reads: “St Andrews: West Sands; September 2001”. It refers to the town of St Andrew in eastern Scotland. But, the most important part of the epigraph is the date: “September 2001”. This month is best remembered as the date of the attack on the Twin Towers in New York. Before a reader even starts the poem they are informed that the lines are going to have some bearing on St Andrews specifically, or Scotland more generally, as well as the terror attack on 9/11. 

 

Poetic Techniques in History 

Burnside makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘History’. These include enjambment, alliteration, and caesura. The first, enjambment, occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. It is quite important in this poem as there are very few instances of punctuation. Great examples include the transitions between lines six and seven of the first stanza and lines four and five of the third.

Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “sand spinning” in the second line of the first stanza and “public parks” in line thirteen of the third stanza.

Caesura occurs when a line is split in half, sometimes with punctuation, sometimes not. The use of punctuation in these moments creates a very intentional pause in the text. A reader should consider how the pause influences the rhythm of one’s reading and how it might proceed an important turn or transition in the text. An example can be seen in line twelve of the third stanza. It reads: “of history: the fish lodged in the tide”.

 

Analysis of History 

Stanza One 

Lines 1-11

In the first lines of ‘History’, the poet surprises the reader by speaking about “today” rather than some time in the past. These lines are lyrical, wistful and make use of sibilance in order to create a flowing rhythm. The speaker sets the scene in Leuchars, a small town near to St Andrews. It is known for housing an Air Force base which has a very poignant smell. The smell of the gasoline travels around the town, and as the speaker states, out “across / the golf links”.

Now, the “history” that a reader might’ve expected, one to do with fear and strife, enters more prominently into the poem. Burnside’s speaker describes people walking in the town as they normally would but then stopping to watch the “war planes” as the flew in the “morning light”. Life continues on, but now with the juxtaposition of war and peace, light and dark. 

Burnside makes use of anaphora by repeating the word ‘today” at the beginning of the tenth line of ‘History’. He reiterates that he’s discussing the immediate present. He “knelt down in the sand” with a child who is likely his son, but his mind was “with the news”. The speaker tried to act normally, for his child’s sake as much as his own, but he was having trouble containing the “dread” inside himself. Through the suggestion that there is something coming, but not explaining what it is, Burnside displays a great example of foreshadowing. 

 

Lines 12-14 

Continuing on, the speaker explains how in amongst the dread he couldn’t shake there is a continuous stream of life. There’s “evidence” of it all around him. He digs in the sand along with this boy seeking out and collecting shells and pebbles”. There is “evidence of life in all this / driftwork” he adds. With the theme of war overshadowing this piece, these lines should remind a reader of search and rescue operations in which service people dug for the buried dead after 9/11. 

Using alliteration and consonance, Burnside concludes this stanza by listing out some of the bits they found. The word “flesh” is an obvious connection to the looming possibility of war. 

 

Stanza Two 

Lines 1-6 

The second stanza of ‘History’ introduces a long, philosophical concept that suggests the true nature of human life. The lines are made up of run-on sentences, making the concept harder to understand but also maintaining a pleasing flow to the rhythm. 

He suggests that it is not “kinship” or our origins that make us who we are but “what we dream about”. The speaker is interested in human aspiration, an ideal, a perfect world or a moment that is unachievable. These are things that come into our minds as we lift ourself, mentally untethered from gravity, into books and/or dive down into the sea. The things mentioned in the last lines, “tides the rose or petrol blue” and a “child’s first nakedness,” are ephemeral. They are intangible and have the ability to influence us to a great degree.

There is also an inescapable innocence to be found in these lines. In the imagery, but also in the wistful, thoughtful way the speaker addresses these topics. This innocence is again juxtaposed with the looming threat of war and then the real threat and devastation of 9/11.

 

Stanza Three 

Lines 1-12 

Breaking away from some of the philosophical language in the second stanza, the poet takes the reader back to his own present “today”. He confesses the fear that came into his heart after the events of 9/11. He is “dizzy” with it. It’s disorienting and surprising in its poignancy. 

The poet lists out things that should be valuable to us. These include “the sea, the sky, / all living creatures, forests, estuaries”. They are traded away, destroyed, and brutalized that humans have lost their ability to connect with the world on a more personal level. It is almost impossible for us to recognize, the speaker says, the “drift and tug” of other bodies and needs in the world other than our own.

Events, whether large or small on a global scale, can be hugely impactful to a small town like the one the speaker lives in. The next lines are more obscure and harder to understand. Burnside brings in more natural imagery and returns to that of the tide. He also speaks to the capture and degrading of beautiful creatures.

The real problem the speaker is confronting is “how to be alive”. He states it bluntly in the next lines but it is complicated by the complexities of life itself. It’s hard, he admits, to navigate the world and “do no harm” to the environment, the various non-human life within it, and the “toddler on a beach”.

 

Lines 13-24 

There is a return to images of shifting waters and objects that sway from place to place. It is unstable, but beautiful. Burnside paints a picture at the end to this stanza of the toddler on the beach and his parents looking on. The kite is also brought back into the poem in order to speak about endurance and patience. 

‘History’ concludes with the poet suggesting that we should “be afraid” but through everything be “attentive to the “irredeemable,” or that which can’t be changed. It is important to spend one’s time deciding what is important in life and focusing on that. As the poet showed, through his speaker, there are endless things to care about, worry for, and tend in the world. 

This is especially true as one zooms back and surveys the vast amounts of damage humans are capable of inflicting on the earth. From the big to the small, the poet draws the reader’s attention to the pain of losing lives in tragedy, such as during 9/11 and the devastation of environmental destruction. 

In the end, the speaker asks readers to consider their own place in the list of lost and losing things, and find what they care about.  It is important to remember the middle stanza of ‘History’ as well. There, when the speaker spoke about the intangibility of human dreams and the way that our striving for those dreams means something. We should continue to seek out that which we care for, protect it, but also do what we can to bring everyone and everything under our wing as well. 

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