O Owen Sheers

Liable to Floods by Owen Sheers

‘Liable to Floods’ deals with the ignorance of those in commanding positions in armies, thinking them more competent than those they are in charge of. A major dismisses the warnings of a farmer, setting up camp in a land that is liable to flooding, therefore dooming his soldiers to a watery death.

Liable to Floods by Owen Sheers

 

Liable to Floods Analysis

Stanzas One and Two

‘Liable to floods’ the farmer warned them.
And on the map, the letters arcing down the valley

(…)

‘Don’t you worry Jack,’ he said,
We’ve got this one covered.’

Owen Sheers opens ‘Liable to Floods’ with a reiteration of the title, imposing the simple and clear idea that the land is ‘Liable to floods’. This is the only line from anyone but the ‘major’ within the poem and is incredibly clear to follow. Yet, the ‘major’ decides not to listen, dooming his soldiers. It is perhaps classically Sheers that the person who gives the ‘major’ knowledge of the land’s tendency to flood is a ‘farmer’, with Sheers’ Welsh identity permeating through with the suggestion of the knowledge and understanding of nature that farmers hold. A person who has a deep connection with the land is ignored, and the consequences of this are catastrophic.

The sense of ignorance is compounded through the punctuation that Sheers employs. The use of the hyphen, following the dismissive talk of the major, is representative of this disregard of advice. The major, thinking himself more important or knowledgable than the farmer, does not heed the man’s advice, instead of imposing his own presumed expertise upon the soldiers. ‘Wouldn’t listen-‘, symbolizes this cutting off of the farmer, his advice not taken and the ignorance of the major summarised clearly.

The nonchalant arrogance of the major, ‘tipping back his cap with one finger’ is clear through the effortless gesture. ‘One finger’ acts as a mechanism to show his presumed boredom with the conversation, he doesn’t consider the farmer worth talking to and does things quickly and with little effort, giving the command to set up ‘their camp’. You can read the full poem here.

 

Stanzas Three, Four, and Five

And so they made their camp,
a thousand tents across the valley floor,

(…)

pegged as yet to an unknown date
hung somewhere just over the horizon.

The sheer number of tents, ‘a thousand’ gives the poem a certain weight, the reader knowing that each of these tents are soon to be flooding, killing all the soldiers inside. The positioning of the tents ‘across the valley floor’ shows the inescapability of the water, them locked within the mountains’ geography. Yet, the stupidity of setting up tents on a valley floor, one which is known to be ‘Liable to Floods’ furthers the sense of the major’s stupidity. Sheers is critiquing management in military structures, perhaps reflecting contextually on the 2003 Iraq war in which many American soldiers were marched into conflict and were killed as a result of the false pretenses the government and military leaders gave. The disregard of solid, and knowledgeable advice seems to be a way of Sheers mocking the American major, his self-imposed superiority a stereotypical image of American leaders.

Sheers personifies the mountain they are camped under, the ‘shoulder’ which supports in other poems (Y Gaer), here providing no comfort to the American soldiers. Sheers could be commenting on the different levels of natural connection, with the Welsh people taking pride from their close connection to the natural scenery.

Sheers reflects on the inevitability of death within these stanzas of ‘Liable to Floods’. Due to the ignorance and arrogance of the American major, the soldiers have been confined to certain death. This is explored through the ‘pegged as yet to an unknown date’, the idea of ‘pegged’ echoing this sense of certainty. There is no escaping death, it is ‘somewhere just over the horizon’, an impending doom to which the soldiers are confined.

 

Stanzas Six and Seven

On the third night they slept to the sound
of the rain’s fusillade and the artillary of thunder,
(…)
set afloat and clinking against each other
like ghosts in celebration.

The connection between war and weather imposes the idea of the power of nature within stanza 6 of ‘Liable to Floods’. The ‘artillery of thunder’ fusing both military and natural semantics is a poignant image of the sheer force nature can produce, the booming thunder echoing round the scenery. This sense of noise, the unrelenting thunder could also pose as pathetic fallacy, the incoming death of the soldiers represented through the imposing imagery.

The feminization of nature is throughout this anthology and is no different within Liable to Floods. Sheers presents the ‘river pulled herself up and spread her wings’, the flourishing of nature personified through a deadly female character. The idea of female power being destructive is classically Sheers, the incredible power of nature rising from and crushing the military encampment.

The brutal idea of the water ‘bleeding’ through the camp mixes ideas of life and death, the vitality of the water drowning the men and of course producing no blood, yet Sheers insists the water is like blood, covering the men. This relation between nature and death, water and blood is oddly unsettling, the mixed semantics giving the final moments of the soldiers’ lives a somber tone.

The suggested permanence of ‘ink’, which blots a page out completely, is a symbol that represents the permanence of death. Sheers presents death as final and inescapable, the soldiers doomed to their watery graves. The idea of something ‘broken’ also perhaps relates to the disconnection between life and death, the unbridgeable gap being eerily clear in this moment of mass extinction.

 

Stanzas Eight, Nine, and Ten

They raised the alarm but it was already too late
and the river, arming herself with their rifles,
(…)
this being taken at night without any say,
this being borne, this being swept away.

The destructive feminized nature continues her spree within stanza 8 of ‘Liable to Floods’. The irony of nature taking up arms against the soldiers, again fusing natural and militaristic imagery is sardonic, with Sheers almost smirking at the arrogance of the now-dead military leader. Nature ‘arming herself with their rifles’ pillages through the camp, destroying and sweeping away everything she touches. The idea of ‘their rifles’ suggests that this injury is self-inflicted, and indeed this disaster was avoidable if it was not for the arrogance of the major. Sheers treats this tragedy with macabre humour, knowing that this could have been avoided if they listened to the farmer.

The collective ‘them all’, followed by ‘them off’ shows the large scale loss of life. The soldiers are gathered in a collective ‘them all’, showing that they are all rounded up and covered by the flood. The destructive ‘off’ is a representation of their loss of life, the soldiers killed in a unanimous, and totally avoidable, act of natural disaster.

The relation to nature, stemming from Sheers’ Welsh identity is palpable in this stanza. His total confidence in nature is evident with the chime of ‘deep in the bone’ symbolizing his connection to nature.

The final two lines are oddly poetic in an otherwise fairly colloquial poem. The repetition of ‘this being’ anaphorically chimes through the start of the line, drawing the instant connection. This could again be a reference to the Welsh peoples’ connection with nature. The idea of give and take, ‘taken’ and ‘borne’ compounds the sense of the cyclic nature of life, things coming and going in a certain cycle of life and death. The power of nature, taking life ‘without any say’ is elevated as a deadly force, ignoring the certain arrogance of the American major and taking the lines of the soldiers.

The final words, ’swept away’, linked through rhyme with ‘any say’ is tragically beautiful. The soldiers had no say to their situation, the major spoke for them, now they are all dead – without even realizing it was coming, their lives ‘swept away’ by the flooding.

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About
Jack is undertaking a degree in World Literature and joined the Poem Analysis team in 2019. Poetry is the intersection of his greatest passions, languages and literature, with his focus on translation bridging the gap.
  • Hi, I often use this site to check ideas as I’m teaching Sheers at AS level literature. I didn’t pick up on anything in the poem that indicates the GIs died in Wales, although most did later have a watery death at the Utah and Omaha landings. If anything I find gentle humour poking at authority that doesn’t listen to local knowledge.

    • Lee-James Bovey says:

      Thank you for sharing this. I have been teaching unseen poetry and sometimes use the site the same way! Although I stay away from the articles I have written!

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