‘On Going’ by Owen Sheers focuses on the final moments of his grandmother’s life, documenting her passing. The poem is melancholic, soft, and tragic, with Jean Sheers’ final moments being explored. The poem is incredibly intimate, with the dedication to Jean Sheers before the poem even begins reflecting this intimacy. It ruminates on the transience of life, a link between man and nature, and above all, the beauty of human connection.
Owen Sheers splits ‘On Going’ into four stanzas with four lines each, a quatrain form. This regularity is comforting, reflecting the delicate nature of the topic Sheers is dealing with. The regularity, with lack of any disruptive features and focus on soothing sibilance allows for the tone to take on a quiet kind of mourning.
The gentle and respectful tone used by Sheers reflects his extreme fondness for his grandmother, honouring her in her final moments. The poem is intensely intimate and incredibly beautiful.
You can read the full poem here.
During her final moments, Jean Sheers requested that medical intervention would not be taken. She asked to be disconnected from the machines which were keeping her alive. During her final moments, she was surrounded by family, with Sheers immortalizing the intimate moment through ‘On Going’.
Analysis of On Going
Title – ‘On Going’
This poem is dedicated to Sheers’ grandmother, recounting the final moments before her death. The title reflects that, with ‘On Going’ a representation of her passing.
Yet, the title can also be interpreted as the homophone ‘Ongoing’, which has the implications of a life which continues. This is of course reflecting on the possibility of an afterlife, with Sheers stating that although gone, perhaps his grandmother lives on in another plane.
There were instruments, as there always are,
But you were disconnected from these
Following the dedication to ‘Jean Sheers’, Owen Sheers’ grandmother, the first stanza centers the scene in a hospital room. Sheers is spending a few moments with his grandmother after she has rejected medical intervention. Her death is imminent, and Sheers acknowledges this. The ‘instruments’, ‘to measure, record, and monitor’ create a sterile scene, the tone uncomfortable.
Although ‘On Going’ is about Sheers’ own grandmother, he extends the connotations to encompasses all dying people, ‘as there always are’ suggesting a link to many situations of the same event. It is a reflection on death, having both personal tones reflected against the reality of this scene for many people.
The focus on the ‘soul’ mimics the idea of the homonym title, with the connotation of a ‘soul’ suggesting something which outlives the body. Although her physical body is dying in this scene, Sheers is looking at the ‘soul’ as something that will continue on. The body is represented through the title, ‘On Going’, while the ‘soul’ through the homonym, ongoing.
and lay instead an ancient child
like a blustery wind at a blind.
The representation of Sheers’ grandmother as an ‘ancient child’ furthers the exploration of the failings of the human body. The process of aging has changed the body, leaving the woman frail, evaluating ‘fragile’ at the beginning of the line. The suggestion that she has become a ‘child’ through her aging points to her inability to do things for herself. The failing of the human body is paramount in ‘On Going’, a tragic look into the final moments of life.
Sheers points to another theme within this stanza, focusing on the connection between man and nature. Indeed, the link between the woman’s ‘breath’ and the ‘wind’ symbolizes this connection. Stemming from his Welsh identity, Sheers elevates this faucet of identity, implanting it as much in his family as in himself.
There was only one measurement
against your paper temple
Stanza three pulls focus away from the sterility of the mechanical. Opposed to the measurements from the first stanza, Sheers focuses on human connection as the true focus of ‘On Going’. Although tragic, this poem is actually very touching, focusing on the love between Sheers and his grandmother.
The pairing of Sheers’ ‘I needed’ and the reciprocal ‘you gave’ links the two figures. The intricate use of pronouns reflects their connection, harmonically balancing each other. Sheers elevates the connection between himself and the dying woman, focusing on this intimate moment in which he ‘kiss[es]’ her head. Sheers uses this moment as a form of poetic climax, elevating their physical contact.
The frail nature of the woman is again suggested by the ‘paper temple’. Her skin has become so delicate it is presented as ‘paper’, feeble and thin. Her final moments are incredibly soft, her very being taking a certain degree of fragility.
and registered in the flicker open of your eyes,
into the sleep of their slow-closing.
The structure of the fourth stanza of ‘On Going’ reflects the moment of passing. The enjambment across the final three lines creates a smooth flow, symbolizing Jean Sheers’ final moment. The seamless moving between lines is echoing the title itself, the ongoing movement of the lines reflecting the title homonym.
Sheers focuses on the transience of life, the fragility, ease of slipping away, and briefness of this moment elevated. The choice of ‘flicker’ represents this transience, with the final movements of the woman quick and fleeting. The slightness of the movement furthers the sense of her fragility. Sheers is quietly gazing upon the passing of his grandmother. The final stanza only takes ‘half-second’ to pass, it is fleeting, a further representation of this transience.
The sibilance used by Sheers across the final stanza reflects the peace of the moment. Sheers’ grandmother has chosen to reject medical intervention, she knows she will die and is at peace with this. The ‘Slip’, ‘Sleep’, and ‘slow’ of the final two lines are emblematic of this passing, the calming sibilance reflecting Jean Sheers’ state of mind.
The final hyphen between ‘Slow-closing’ is perhaps a representation of the moment in which the woman passes away, the hyphen symbolizing the gap between life and death. It could also be understood as a mechanism of slowing the pace of ‘On Going’ in this last line, the hyphen focusing the reader to take a moment to reflect on what they are reading. This enforced moment of reflecting is apt for a poem of remembrance, with Sheers softly looking back on an incredibly intimate moment.