Flag by Owen Sheers tells the narrative of a train journey, with several sightings of the Welsh flag causing Sheers to reflect on the deterioration of the country. The flag is used as a metaphor to represent the country as a whole, with it being subjected to various states of discontent. The deindustrialization of Wales has resulted in economic instability, manifesting itself into a picture that discredits Sheers’ normal elevation of the country.
Owen Sheers splits Flag into 8 stanzas of three lines each. This elected form is known as tercets, and is an epic form related to Welsh tradition. In using this form, Sheers calls upon his ideas of Welsh identity, which houses the ideas of tradition and national identity which are within the poem. You can read the full poem here.
‘Each man had a liver, a heart, a brain,
and a Flag.
These were his vital organs.
On these his life depended.’
Sheers uses a quotation from Christopher Logue, a poet from England. The quote reflects neatly the ideas that Sheers evokes within the poem. It focuses on a sense of national identity, suggesting that it is at the very core of identity itself.
The asyndetic listing of ‘liver, a heart, a brain, and a flag’ binds the concepts together. This connection levels each of the ideas, suggesting that ‘a flag’ is just as important as ‘a brain’. Due to the syntax of the sentence, with ‘flag’ falling last in the list, Logue suggests that it is actually more important than those other things. It is at the very core of being, a sense of national identity should be treasured. He describes it as on what ‘his life depended’, which is slightly melodramatic but focuses the poem before we move onto Sheers’ own stanzas.
A rail journey westwards is a good place to start,
throws up sightings which get more frequent
The focus on ‘rail journey’ calls into context the industrial landscape of Wales, the tramlines which connected the country the opening idea which Sheers focuses on, ‘a good place to start’. This sense of the industrial nature of the country is furthered through the focus on ‘rewind or fast forward’, with this a possible reflection on moving backward or forward within time. The link between a strong industrial past and a weakened, deindustrialized Wales, further explored in the following poem, The Steelworks, is a key aspect here.
The use of ‘sightings’ is most frequently collocated against rare aspects of nature, most commonly birds. In using this idea of ‘sightings’, Sheers suggests that the beauty of the Welsh landscapes are something so incredible that they can be compared to the rarest forms of nature. Each aspect of the countryside is exciting and beautiful, ‘more frequent’ as you move away from England and further into Wales.
as the train nears the sea – our flag, strung up on bunting,
down the terraces’ hall of mirrors.
The physical movements of the train are represented through the enjambment between the first and second stanzas, the continuous movement reflecting the journey.
The hyphen which enforces a break before Sheers focuses on the image of ‘our flag’ emphasizes its importance. The sense of national pride which he has, calling it ‘our’ flag binds himself, and all the rest of the Welsh people, to the ‘flag’. This strong sense of national identity begins early in the poem, only to dwindle and fade throughout with a further exploration of the country.
By describing the flag as ‘wet washing’, Sheers instantly tarnishes any grandeur associated with the flag. It has been hung out to dry, wet, and seemingly unimportant.
There is a suggestion of a facade to the Welsh people, perhaps seeing themselves through a distorted prism. The ‘hall of mirrors’ suggests trickery, something not quite lining up with reality. Sheers is arguing that Welsh people may have an unrealistic view of themselves or their country.
Or on the flat end wall of a Swansea gym,
has ghosted the paint to a bad photocopy.
The focus on ‘a Swansea gym’ draws upon the connotations of masculinity within Welsh society. After talking briefly about the homes in stanza 2, he now moves to the second structure – a gym. Welsh men were brought up with an expectation of masculinity, one that is typically embodied by working out and being ‘manly’. The instant focus on a gym and the building of muscles reflect this expectation.
Yet, the ‘gym’ and the sign on the wall is ‘faded’, showing the sense of deterioration within the country. Wales, now deindustrialize, has passed its prime, and this can be seen through the slow deterioration of the country’s structures.
Stanzas Four and Five
The flag is now seen ‘tied to the side of a SNAX caravan’. The purpose spelling mistake of ‘Snacks’ suggests that this is a low establishment, with probably not too great quality of food. The link between the flag and this dingy diner furthers the sense that the flag has fallen in standards, and therefore, being a representation of the country, so has the country itself.
The ‘fits’ the flag seems to be ‘throwing’ change the normal idea of a flag normally billowing in the wind. The flag seems to be sick, the country itself poisoned and suffering. Sheers is very critical of Wales, depreciating the country through his consistently slating imagery.
The ‘beast’ he references is the dragon symbol on the Welsh flag. The fact the proud symbol of a ‘dragon’ is now struggling to ‘exist’ is a representation of the economic difficulties Wales is going through. The idea of sickness is furthered through this imagery.
The idea that ‘truer in its fiction’ could relate to the idea generated in the second stanza, of Welsh people believing something that doesn’t necessarily check out as ‘fact’. The difference in their expectation against the reality of the situation of the country is something that doesn’t match up.
This stanza of Flag focuses on the failings of Wales. The process of deindustrialization has caused an economic collapse within the country. Although Sheers argues that many of the Welsh citizens cannot see, or perhaps won’t acknowledge this failing. This is suggested through the ‘blind spot’ that spans something ‘bigger than itself’.
The suggestion of ‘pulsing’ has the connotation of a weakly beating heart. Within this image, Sheers furthers the idea of sickness, pulling from the semantics of illness to represent the deterioration of Wales.
Stanza Seven & Eight
The ‘strange flower’ is a polysemic image that suggests both rarity and danger of extinction. The ‘strange’ idea focuses on the incredible beauty of the country, with it being a spectacle that Sheers admires. Yet, the tumultuous conditions in which it flourishes suggest that it is a ‘flower’ that is hard to care for or maintain. Sheers sees Wales on the point of complete collapse, the economic difficulties being too much to bear.
The final stanza elevates the concept of sickness again. The semantic of pain or injury are heavily used, ‘Chinese burn’, ‘tourniquet’, ‘a bandage tight on the wound’. The idea that Wales is a country that is dying presented through images.
The exiting promise which was alive during the Welsh heyday of industrialism has now been extinguished. The final image is one of strangulation’, the ‘dreams’ being crushed as the country falls into disrepair.
The final rhyme concludes the poem on a solemn note, with Sheers mournfully looking upon a country he loves very dearly. The poem is one of tragedy, with Sheers pointing out the failures of a once-great Wales.