‘Hedge School’ portrays a young Sheers ambling home after a day at school, picking blackberries on the way. After trying many, he crushes a handful, letting the black juices flow over his skin. This moment acts as a realization for Sheers, ruminating on the evil inside man, with Sheers understanding the temptations towards evil.
Owen Sheers writes ‘Hedge School’ in free verse, consisting of 4 stanzas of differing lengths. In order, the stanzas measure 6, 7, 5, and 10 lines. The straying of form, moving between differing line lengths can be understood as a representation of Sheers meandering as he walks home. The essentially directionless movements of adolescence reflected by the changing structure. You can read the full poem here.
Sheers begins his poem with a quote from ‘The Pardoner’s Prologue’ , one of Gregory Chaucer’s tales. ‘The Pardoner’s Tale’ is one that reflects on the covetous nature of humans, focusing on the evil which plagues all of the characters.
Within the tale, three men set off looking for death, after he claims one of their friends. They expect to kill death and order an old man to direct them to him. They go where he tells them, and when they arrive they find a great deal of gold. Knowing people will think of them thieves if they take the gold straight into town during the daylight, they plan to transport it during the night.
The youngest of the three draws the short straw and must leave them, returning to town to fetch food for the night. The two remaining men scheme together and plan to kill the third, therefore splitting the gold instead of getting a third each. The third man, who went to get supplies, parallels their thinking, wanting the gold all to himself. He poisons 2 of the 3 bottles of wine, then hurries back to the other two.
When he arrives the two men spring upon him, killing him. Yet, as they celebrate their newfound riches, they drink the poisoned wine, leaving all three of the men dead around the gold. The pointless greed of the men drives them to their deaths. Chaucer points to the evil within man’s heart, reflecting on the innate tendancy to do evil. Their ‘blakeberyed’ ‘soules’ are a representation of this evil, lying within man’s very soul.
Analysis of Hedge School
Title – ‘Hedge School’
The title is layered in meaning. As a whole, a Hedge School was a rural school, often run in a barn, in 18th and 19th century Ireland. This was before education was available for all children, and was, therefore, a way of educating the local children of the village. They were incredibly small, often ran by one sole teacher.
Sheers makes reference to this rural schooling but changing the literal meaning into a metaphorical one. Within the poem, Sheers is taught a lesson by the blackberries he destroys. Quite literally, the ‘hedge’ is teaching him a lesson. Whereas the Irish had Hedge Schools, Sheers school lesson stems from nature, the hedge which grows the blackberries doing the teaching.
The walk home from school got longer
those first weeks of September,
then slipping the straps of my bag over each shoulder
to free up both hands for the picking of blackberries.
The focus on the time of year, ‘September’, draws upon ideas of the beginning of a school season, and also the beginning of winter, a period of overwhelming darkness. The hours of daylight are shortest in winter, with this focus on darkness the perfect setting to explore the evil within man’s hearts. The idea of a school season starting also suggests the concept of learning, something which Sheers does within ‘Hedge School’.
The adolescent Sheers waits for the ‘mini bus’ to ‘diminish’, ‘listening’ quietly while it gets further away. This odd moment of silence within ‘Hedge School precedes any of Sheers’ moments. It is almost as if Sheers wants to keep this experience private, ensuring that no one is around to witness him.
Sheers ‘free[s] up both hands’ for his task, diving into his new hobby with passion. He seems singleminded, ready to explore, and understand more about the world. He walks alone, the first glimpse of freedom coming within his adolescent life.
Another lesson perhaps, this choice of how to take them.
One by one, tracing their variety on my tongue,
cobwebbed and dusty as a Claret
laid down for years in a cellar.
The sense of childhood experimentation is represented through his reliance on the semantics of teaching. Beginning this stanza with ‘Another lesson’ suggests that Sheers is learning more about the world each time he walks home.
The delicate nature of him trying the berries ‘one by one’ furthers the sense of childhood intrigue. The slow ‘tracing’ of the berries relating to Sheers’ delicate and methodic trail of different maturities.
The relation of an ‘unripe red’ to a ‘nervous heart’ is both physical and metaphorical. The shape of the berry does to some extent resemble a heart, bunched on the branch. Moreover, the ‘nervous heart’ can be taken as a sign of immaturity, the emotion being one associated with new expriences. Indeed, if someone is doing something for the first time, they are likely to be nervous. A ‘nervous heart’ is one that has not had much experience of the outside world, one with many new experiences to be felt.
The young are then directly contrasted against the old. Sheers conjures an image of ‘Claret’, the wine is kept in a cellar insinuating its age. The freshness of youth, ‘unripe red’ compared to the archaic ‘cobwebbed and dusty’ present an incredible difference between the ages. Sheers points to the great difference he often finds between generations, drawing upon his own familial ideas, particularly the difference between himself and his father – generations that have very different ideas about life. This is represented through the differing contexts each grape is found in.
Or to hoard them? Piling in the palm
each an eye of one great berry, a sudden symphony.
There is a sense of lavishness that Sheers elicits within this stanza of ‘Hedge School’. The reference to ‘caviar’, ‘symphony’, and ‘the bubbles’ suggest a level of wealth. There is an implication of indulgence. Sheers could be talking about modern society, they tend to ‘hoard’ more than one needs. This act of covetous greed links back to the original quote from ‘The Pardoners’ Prologue’.
Or as I did just once, strolling towards the low house
growing at the lane’s end,
or that of a boy who’s discovered for the very first time,
just how dark he runs inside.
This stanza of ‘Hedge School’ details Sheers’ own act of indulgence, his moment of crushing the berries within his hand. The act of destruction remaining within his memory years after its occurrence.
The casual approach Sheers takes to this destruction is shown through his verb choice, ‘strolling’ suggesting a level of normality. This ease in which Sheers indulges in destruction points to the inherent nature of evil within man.
The ‘slowly close’ Sheers depicts furthers this sense of curiosity, the ease and want to destroy being fascinating to the young Sheers. The ‘slowly’ represents this act of destruction, Sheers seemingly taking pleasure in the slow crushing of the berries.
After the act, Sheers emerges from ‘the hedge’, his new ‘lesson’ now learned. His ‘knuckles stratched’ and his hand ‘black-blue red’. This inclusion of colour instantly linked to ‘bloodied’. Sheers likens the concept of him crushing the berries to a ‘butcher[ing]’. The inclusion of juice and blood is shocking to Sheers, yet he takes joy in it. It is in this moment, with the close visual similarities between the act of crushing the berries and butching a lamb which makes Sheers realize ‘just how dark he runs inside’. This is a reference to him discovering the innate evil within man, his ease and joy at destruction opening his eyes.
Sheers uses ‘The Pardoner’s Prologue’ to set the idea within the audience’s head. Carrying out a poem in which he ‘discovers’ the evil inside him. The focus on ‘dark’ is a representation of this evil. The connection between the blood of the lamb, the dark juice of the berries, and Sheers’ insides culminating to present the evil within.