History by Owen Sheers details the impossibility of learning about national identity, it is something inherent, understood but not learnt in the traditional sense. He uses the idea of looking at a piece of slate from the land to learn about the history of a place. A man with a deep connection to the land, stemming from his Welsh identity, Sheers elevates the importance of national identity. He reflects on the state of the deindustrialised Wales, fading away from its prime.
Owen Sheers begins History with a command, ‘Don’t’. Instantly the poem takes on an exclusionary tone, with Sheer suggesting that one cannot ‘learn’ about national identity, you are born into it and that is that. Perhaps a little inflexible, Sheers view is very exclusive, perhaps relating to the affinity he has for the Welsh identity and his pride of it. The idea of ‘learn a place’ relates agian to being brought up in a location, Sheers imposing his view that you must be connected to a place to really understand it. Unlike many things, national identity cannot be learned or gained from ‘the pages’.
Sheers pushes people to use nature and physical locations to learn about identity, rather than books and ideas. He urges the reader to ‘go instead up to the disused quarry’, giving them a physical location to find. The ‘quarry’ detailed could be a reference to the quarry within Border Country, another poem which details ideas about national identity and growing up in Wales.
The adjective to describe the quarry, ‘disused’ relates to the process of deindustrialisation which has swept through Wales. A country which one gained a lucrative income from shipping metals and working within steelworks has since lost its hold on the industry, the work moving elsewhere. For more details of this, it would be useful to take a look at two other poems by Sheers, Flag and The Steelworks.
The stagnation of the country is represented through the lack of movements in water. The water ‘lies still’ among the quarry, unmoving and stained ‘black as oil’. The linking of nature of an ugly oil stain acts as a mechanism to represent the process of deindustrialization plaguing Wales. The country, often explored for its beautiful nature, has been collocated with the mechanical stain of ‘oil’, one that stems from a rundown system. The failing industry of the country perhaps characterises the country as much as its nature. You can read the full poem here.
The third stanza of History sees a change in structure, halving the amount of lines from 4 to 2. This change could be a reflection of the connection between industry and nature, the two lines bringing together the two concepts. Within this stanza, the ‘blackbird’ is ’drilling its notes into the hillside’. The idea of ‘drilling’ stems from the semantics of mining, with the blackbird being presented through this mechanical process. The subtle link between the natural ‘bird’ and the industrial process used to describe it fuse the two concepts. Indeed, there is an idea that nature has reclaimed the space that industry once took up, the ‘song’ bringing life to the now disused place.
Sheers suggests that the best way to understand the history of this place is to ‘pick yourself a blade of slate’. Instead of reading about a place, you must instead go there, touch the soil, read the surroundings and look at the ’slate’. In the physical geography of a place lies its secrets.
The idea that the slate is ‘rusted’ relates to the idea that Wales is no longer in its prime. Although Sheers is proud of his heritage, he understands that Wales is passing through economic difficulties, the idea of ‘rust’ embedding the image of history with a symbol of decline. The ‘rust’ could also be a symbol to represent the faded potential of the country, its possibilities rusting away over time.
The intimacy of ‘your fingertips’, suggest that connection can only stem from subtle acts as these. Sheers argues that you cannot understand a place unless you use methods like this, connecting with the land and unlocking its secrets. Even the method itself is one that is delicate, Sheers using ‘gently’ to characterise the movements. They are soft, precise, and careful – getting to know a place is not a simple task.
If this method is followed, the land opens up for the reader, ‘becomes a book of slate’ to understand. Finally, now that this physical connection with the land has been initiated, the land opens to the reader, ‘you can read’ its details and understands its history.
The elevation of this moment of epiphany is elevated by Sheers, the hyphen implemented in his stanza slowing the pace of the poem. The breaking of meter, ‘of stone-‘, causes the reader to pause, reflecting on what they are reading and the importance of what Sheers is explaining. The history of a place is never documented in literature, but ‘throughout this valley’, within the groves and marks on the ‘slate’, the natural scenery telling of the past of the place. Sheers has a close connection to the land, easily seen through his complete idolisation of the valley landscape and elevation of the importance it holds.
The final stanza again is shortened into a couplet. This furthers the sense of connection between nature and the Welsh identity. These lines ring in echo to Flag, which is headed by a quote from Christopher Logue, ‘Each man had a liver, a heart, a brain, and a flag’. Here, Sheers is echoing this sense of the importance of national identity. It is in ‘every head, across every heart… every bone.’, Sheers presents the importance of national identity as an inherent part of every identity. Where someone is from, where they grew up and their connection with their home country is integral to their identity. Wherever they move, the remnants of their past country will stay with them, etched into their bones like the history of a place into the very slate of its landscapes.
Sheers elevates national identity within this poem, exploring how the physical geography of a place can give people an insight into its history. For Sheers, as a Welsh poet, the connection between humanity and nature is of paramount importance, with land providing an insight into a hidden history.