‘Happy Accidents’ by Owen Sheers explores a simultaneous narrative, one of a war photographer taking photos of a battle, the other of a teenaged boy developing them. The poem focuses on the horrors of war, the brutal loss of life, and the corruption of youth. It is one that links well with Sheers’ Mametz Wood, which explores war after the events are long passed. External of the anthology, ‘Happy Accidents’ also resonates closely to the sentiments raised in ‘War Photographer’ by Carol Ann Duffy.
Happy Accidents Analysis
The Title – ‘Happy Accidents’
Owen Sheers‘s ‘Happy Accidents’ is a representation of how although the ‘lad’ developing the photos made a mistake, causing the wide destruction of many of the photographs, this actually turned the photos into a representation of war which is much more pertinent. Ultimately, Sheers argues that something more impactful was born from this accidental destruction, a true depiction of the chaos of war. You can read the full poem here.
And Robert Capa, how was he to know?
and the marines before him dropped into the water,
‘Happy Accidents’ begins En Medias Res, a term meaning in the middle of the action. This chaotic beginning of the poem is a reflection of the turbulent situation the soldiers are in, Sheers infusing a sense of panic directly from the first words.
The reference to Robert Capa grounds ‘Happy Accidents’ in exactly what is happening. Robert Capa is a war photographer, and therefore Sheers is focusing the poem around his work, exploring the horrors of war and Capa’s capturing of this.
The rhetorical ‘how was he to know?’ imbues ‘Happy Accidents’ with a sense of confusion. It’s almost as if Sheers himself is questioning the point of war and the destruction it causes.
The enjambment between the second and third line echoes the sense of chaos. The line flits quickly across topics, as if Sheers was trying to write quickly in order to capture a fleeting moment. Through the structure of these lines, an idea of the rapid nature of war is explored.
The verb ‘dropped’, when focusing on the movements of the ‘Marines’ into the water, suggests a lack of care. Sheers suggests that the governments which have sent the marines do not care greatly about them, the unimportance and disregarding ‘dropped’ suggesting they are just scattered into the water.
that those photographs he took –
would be printed by some lad, barely sixteen in ‘Life’s’ office.
Sheers here focuses back on the subject of the photographs, the background narrative of ‘Happy Accidents’. The photographs taken in these moments are echos of the flashes we are shown of the war front, with Sheers connecting the two explicitly through this sense of memory.
The harsh end stop, in the form of a hyphen, breaks the first line of this stanza off from the rest of the stanza. This can be understood as a representation of the photographer’s shutter snapping a photo. It could also be a symbol of the frozen time a photograph captures – the following images all trapped within one photograph. Even more, the hyphen could be understood as the soldiers frozen in fear, them finally realizing the gravity of their situation.
The lack of time furthers the sense of the chaos of war. Sheers presents the war photographer as having ‘no time’ to focus on anything apart from ‘shoot and shoot’. Of course, the word ’shoot’ stems from duel planes of linguistics, one from the semantics of war, the other from photography. The duality of this image represents both ideas, the photographer endlessly shooting photos, and the soldiers frenziedly shooting bullets.
Yet these photos, capturing the chaos of war, are developed by ‘some lad, barely sixteen’. ‘Happy Accidents’ focuses on the corruption of youth, the teenager subjected to the horrors of war through the photographs taken. It also nods to many people’s lack of respect for war, with the efforts of the soldiers in a chaotic situation being the task of ‘some lad’ to deal with back home. Sheers both points to the brutality of war, and the ignorance in a society which under appreciates the strife the soldiers went through.
That he’d overheat the negative strips, blister the silver,
and smoked from under the dark room door.
This stanza focuses on the boy which develops the photographs of war, spoiling the film. If there is something that can go wrong while developing photos, the boy does it, ‘overheat’, ’blister’, ‘melt’ all culminating to describe his follies. He burns the photographic film as they develop, ruining the images with blurring and blackened spots.
The semantics of the stanza are firmly grounded in that of photography, further relating back to the subject of ‘Happy Accidents’.
That of the two rolls taken only seven would remain,
and their surfaces grazed to describe so perfectly
The events of ‘Happy Accidents’ are reflecting those of real life, and the first line of stanza five details the events exactly. The huge loss of war photographs is attributed to this boy, his errors in development causing almost all of them to burn away to nothing. Yet, ‘seven would remain’, these photographs, in their burnt, chaotic state, representing war better than the originals ever could have.
The fury of war, ‘skies heat-blurred’, is depicted through the accidental edits to the photograph, the burning skies actually being the perfect picture of the chaos of warfare. War is presented as barbaric and destructive, further encapsulated through the photographs.
the confusion of that day, when a generation’s men
to fall headlong through the trapdoor of war.
The ‘confusion of that day’, the unknowing soldiers plunged into a world of brutal warfare is exemplified by the burned photos. Their edits and damaged appearance truly representing the ‘confusion’ Sheers tries to mirror in words.
The huge scope of the warfare’s impact is suggested through ‘generation’s men’. This encompassing of a whole generation of people, all touched through this historic act of war is emblematic of the huge global impact war can have. Sheers is pointing to the destructive elements of war, focusing on the brutality and damage which is brings, rather than any ideas of glory.
The final moment before they land on the ‘shores’ is one of complete disbelief. The ‘trapdoor’ below them is yanked from them, sending them out onto the beaches. They do not move with grace, but are instead subjected to ‘fall headlong’. Sheers again compounds the sense of complete chaos of war, pulsing a sense of confusion through the soldiers. The final rumination, ‘Happy Accidents’ ending on the word ‘war’, sends a tone of fear through the poem, the final understanding of what the men are about to endure a chilling image.
Some other poems relating to the theme of war include: